Think back to the Easter gathering of your church. What term would most Christians there use to identify themselves? Some may hold unbiblical self-identities. Seeing myself as “laity” can silence me in a church meeting. As one Christian put it, “I'm just a layperson. I don't think they'd listen to me.” Perceiving ourselves this way works against shared church.
Many might say, “I’m a child of God.” This offspring image calls attention to the vertical relationship with God. Others may see themselves as “saints.” Still others might say, “I’m a disciple,” an apprentice to Jesus. All three are biblical identities, but none points us toward one-anothering.
Thankfully, the New Testament also provides identities that remind us of our horizontal calling to serve each other. For example, we are “members of one body” (Eph. 4:25); body parts work for each other. We also need to dust off that long-neglected New Testament word, priest. Martin Luther said, “This word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian.” Luther based this on Scripture. Peter calls the Christian community both a “holy priesthood” and a “royal priesthood” (I Pet. 2:5, 9). John says Jesus has made us “priests” (Rev. 1:6).
Seeing ourselves as priests would help blaze the trail to shared-church meetings. Not only does the word priest express our relationship with God, it also speaks of our relationship with people. Melchizedek, the first priest mentioned in the Bible, served vertically as “priest of God Most High.” But he also served horizontally by bringing Abraham bread, wine, and a blessing (Gen. 14:18-20).
I recently asked those in my Bible study group if they ever thought of themselves as priests. Most said no. Why do so few Christians see ourselves in the priestly role? At least two reasons come to mind. First, the word priest carries centuries of heavy baggage. The term is packed with Old Testament images—slaughtering animals, wearing scented clothing, burning sacrifices, and so on. In our time, we associate “priest” with clerical collars, cassocks, and silk skullcaps. Because we connect priest with images like that, most of us can’t identify.
Second, we associate priests with church officials. For nearly all in my Bible study group, the word priest brought to mind religious leaders. The thesaurus in the Word program offers pastor and minister as synonyms for priest. By whatever name, a clergypersons' work looks like priest-work. As Greg Ogden puts it in The New Reformation, “Even in the Protestant tradition the minister has a priestly aura. . . . All pastors; have experienced a sense of being treated differently because of their priestly position.”
Coaching a congregation to self-identify as priests will help prepare them to practice shared church. But, in the New Testament sense, how are we to live out being members of the royal or holy priesthood? How do such priests spend their time? Most will not serve on a paid church staff. The great majority will work in non-ecclesiastical roles—as electricians, homemakers, software engineers, secretaries, or what have you. Few will wear unusual clothing or answer to religious titles.
In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I write: “Although Martin Luther and other reformers recovered this truth of the priesthood of believers, in the centuries since then—even in Protestant churches—it has gotten far more lip-service than legwork. The doctrine shapes our church meetings about as much as an exhibit of horse-drawn buggies in a museum affects our daily drive to work. In When You Come Together, Amy S. Anderson writes, ‘Many pastors who teach about the priesthood of all believers fail to train their people to do priestly ministry.’”
But what does that “priestly ministry” look like? In Part Two, we will explore the roles of New Covenant priests.