When people think of the Reformation and its heritage, the most common thing is the recovery of justification by faith alone. But one of the other things that Martin Luther proclaimed was the priesthood of all believers. Luther didn’t practice this to the degree that the Reformation step-children (the Anabaptists) did, but still, this was a truth he did revive. With all of the talk about Protestants and Rome being not that far apart, we should recall that when it comes to the priesthood of all believers, the gap may be even wider than it is with justification.
Rome (and other sacramental/liturgical churches) still maintain a hierarchical structure, very much like the corporate world. You have a CEO (the Pope) and a board of directors (the College of Cardinals.) You have district managers (bishops) and regional managers (archbishops.) As some have noted, (see Stuart K. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p. 90) this structure was imported wholly from the governmental organization of the empire that early church fathers were familiar with.
But when we come to the New Testament, no such things exist. No pope, no archbishop, no cardinal. Bishops we have, but they are not regional officers, overseeing all the churches of a certain area. They are elders (always plural) over one local congregation. They are synonymous with Presbyters (from which Rome and Orthodoxy have drawn priests), and their work is to shepherd a local flock. They are not rulers, but guides.
Deacons we find as well. Their qualifications are very much the same as those of elders – always focusing on the character of the man primarily, and secondarily on the work they do. The only priests known in the New Testament are every single believer in Jesus Christ. This is where the priesthood of all believers comes from. Not only is there no hierarchy found in the New Testament, but every believer is fit to worship, and to be part of building up of the body, in love.
No hint of clericalism is found in the New Testament, nor a separate class of clergy/laity. We are all the called of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:6.) When it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, nothing prevents a group of believers from partaking in this. No bishop or church leader is needed to officially preside or bless the elements. Similarly, when it comes to baptism, any Christian could perform a baptism. This is some of what it means to exercise the priesthood of all believers. In pointing these things out, I do not imply that those who have devoted themselves to the work of the gospel full time are not to be honored. Indeed, as Paul says, we should esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. (1 Thess. 5:13.) We need their shepherding and care. But I’m likewise sure that no one engaged in the work of the gospel would turn down the help of other believers.
Exercising our priesthood may show itself most clearly in our study of and handling the Word of God. Every Christian has the duty, the privilege, of reading the Scriptures for himself or herself and to apply it to their lives. We do so without requiring the intervention of any “clergyman.” We do so dependant on the Holy Spirit, whom, it was promised by the Lord Jesus, would guide us into the truth. We do so relying on the power of the Word of God as living and active. We wield the sword of the Spirit because God Himself has put it into our hands, equipped us for battle, and said that we have a heavenly captain.
Rome still wants to maintain control of the Scriptures, and reserve for itself the “true meaning.” But at this 500th Reformation anniversary, recall (and rejoice) that the Scriptures in the hands of God’s people is a heritage to celebrate. We do so by exercising our priesthood – all of us – as equipped for our ministry by God alone.