IN THE old Hebrew system, the high priest was the only person who could enter the Most Holy Place. In his white garments, protected by the curtain of incense smoke, and trembling, he approached the divine throne and returned from that en counter with God to announce to the people that the atonement work had been accomplished. When Jesus died on the cross, "behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom" (Matt. 27:51). In that historic, prophetic moment the ministerial monopoly ceased. The curtain that prevented the free en trance of the ordinary believer to the Most Holy Place was torn in a supernatural way. The establishment of the "universal priesthood" was inaugurated. Now, thanks to the conciliatory work of Christ, the most humble believer can confidently appear in the presence of God and return from that magnificent encounter with the Most High bringing the world the benefits of redemption.
The priesthood of all believers is not a Protestant invention. It originates in the New Testament. Peter wrote to "the strangers scattered throughout" the following: "Ye . . . are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices. ... Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people" (1 Peter 1:1; 2:5-9).
This text leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the holy and real priesthood mentioned by the apostle is a corporative priesthood. In the whole New Testament there is no reference to a priesthood of individuals, except in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Consequently, the difference between ministers and laymen should be considered as a difference of function and not of dignity. Emphasis on the role of the ministry can be made only with full consciousness of the equal status of all Christians before God. Ministers and laymen form a "holy nation, a peculiar people." Any tendency to convert the minister into a priest according to the model of the ancient Hebrew dispensation and to make of the layman a passive individual falsifies and contradicts the teaching of the New Testament.
The New Testament Church
The early Christian church under stood in all fullness the doctrine of "universal priesthood." Because of this, in just three centuries of life it became a well-known religious institution in the great Roman Empire. Indeed, the church experienced a remarkable success. In spite of in tolerance on the part of the Jews, who were deeply attached to the discipline of their empty traditions, and in spite of the hate of the Gentiles, narcotized with the polytheist philosophy, the church grew, thanks to the zeal and dedication of its members--legitimate members of the "royal priesthood."
Gibbon, the famous historian of the Roman Empire, explained the rapid expansion of Christianity of those days as the result of "the zeal and enthusiasm of the people for a cause. They were earnest messengers and unwearied workers." Quoted in F. P. Corson, Your Church and You, p. 15.
Among those early Christians there was amazing evangelistic zeal. As they were reached by persecution they scattered throughout the Mediterranean world taking the good news of the gospel everywhere. Who were these scattered ones that so earnestly announced the inscrutable riches of Christ? They were lay members, who, taking part in the missionary program of the church, proclaimed to the world the redeeming power of the gospel. This is the model that the church needs to imitate.
Clergymen and Laymen
With remarkable finesse and recognized ability, Satan made his plan to obstruct the triumphs of the gospel. He divided the church into two groups: clergymen and laymen. Later on, he persuaded the leaders that the laymen should be kept in silence because they are "second class citizens, passive hearers of the Word." The missionary dialog with the world came to be the exclusive responsibility of the ministry. This was the triumph of clericalism.
With the apostasy of the Middle Ages, the ministry and the lay members were separated still more, not only because of the distinction of their spiritual responsibilities but also because of personal hierarchical position. Belarmino, "compared the Pope with the sun, the emperor with the moon, the bishops with the stars, the clergy with the day, and the lay men with the night." David S. Schaff, Our Fathers Faith and Ours, p. 287. The catechism of the Trent Council confirms this classification of values establishing that the "priests of the New Testament considerably exceed all other persons as far as honor is concerned, thus making it impossible to compare priesthood or make it similar to any other class on earth." --Ibid.
Restoration and Decline
The Reformation in its rebellion against castes and ecclesiastical hierarchies restored the New Testament principle of universal priesthood of all believers, offering again to lay members the opportunity to work in various activities of the church, and it urged them to labor with a sense of responsibility.
Luther's successors slowly lost sight of the importance of the lay ministry. Once again the responsibilities of a valuable and fruitful testimony before the world came to be an exclusive obligation of pastors and evangelists. As a result, the evangelical churches were transformed into traditionalistic, ecclesiastical institutions, destitute of missionary zeal and evangelistic passion.
Some years ago the Watchman-Examiner published the following data regarding Protestant churches of the twentieth century: "5% of our church members do not exist; 10% cannot be found; 25% never attend church; 50% do not make contributions; 75% never attend prayer meetings; 90% do not have family worship and 95% never won a soul for Christ." A. E. Prince, Cristo e Tudo, p. 50. This is the unfortunate result of abandoning the doctrine of universal priesthood.
Laymen and the Message of the Three Angels
The Advent Movement was born by divine inspiration and grew because of the zeal and enthusiasm of out standing volunteer preachers. The proclamation of the Adventist hope, wrote Mrs. White, "was largely committed to humble laymen. Farmers left their fields, mechanics their tools, traders their merchandise, professional men their positions; and yet the number of workers was small in comparison with the work to be accomplished. The condition of an ungodly church and a world lying in wickedness, burdened the souls of the true watchmen, and they willingly endured toil, privation, and suffering, that they might call men to repentance unto salvation. Though opposed by Satan, the work went steadily for ward, and the advent truth was accepted by many thousands.
"Everywhere the searching testimony was heard, warning sinners, both worldlings and church members, to flee from the wrath to come. Like John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, the preachers laid the ax at the root of the tree and urged all to bring forth fruit meet for repentance. Their stirring appeals were in marked contrast to the assurances of peace and safety that were heard from popular pulpits; and wherever the mes sage was given, it moved the people. The simple, direct testimony of the Scriptures, set home by the power of the Holy Spirit, brought a weight of conviction which few were able wholly to resist." --The Great Controversy, pp. 368, 369.
Once again the evangelical principle of the priesthood of all believers was restored. In almost every country of the world the history of the Adventist Church is filled with inspiring incidents describing the dedication of its members to evangelistic work.
Now, when we are nearing the end of the world, this zeal must be intensified. We must, as ministers, work closely with the laymen. They are to be a vital force in the church and also a positive and fruitful influence in a world affected by uncertainty, con fusion, and terror.