The priesthood of believers

The priesthood of believers: Our proclamation and practice

All agree that pastors and church members should work together. Luther revived the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers—is the doctrine now on life support?

Mxolisi Michael Sokupa, PhD, DTh, serves as an associate director, Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation affords us a marvelous opportunity to revisit the teaching on priesthood of believers, championed by Martin Luther. The theological implications of this teaching are rich and essential for the church today. It is critical that we ask not only what must constitute our proclamation but also what should compose our practice.

First Peter 2:9 reads: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”The text may be divided into two parts: first, it describes who the believers are; secondly, it describes what they do.

What we are called to be

Regarding who the believers are, Luther makes a rhetorical inquiry: “I ask, who are these who are called out of darkness into marvelous light? Is it only the shorn and anointed masks [ordained priests]? Is it not all Christians?”He recognized that the term laity is derived from the Greek ho Laos, which means “the people of God.” The simple conclusion was that the church does not have a ministry; rather, it is a ministry.

Luther’s revelations were not only radical for their day; they are revolutionary even today. The contemporary term lay carries a pejorative connotation, far removed from its ancient context. The Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook states that the “Greek word laos, from which the word laity is derived, had nothing to do with an amateur or secondary status within the church. Rather it included the entire people of God. A false and artificial distinction separated the work of the church from the laity and placed it in the hands of the clergy, as if the work of ministry is the responsibility of a paid professional.”3

Luther held that not only were believers of equal standing with priests, believers did not even need priests to facilitate or mediate their access to God. Russell Burrill expounds: “This is the joy of the new life in Christ. Because of His redemptive ministry, the believer has direct access to God and all rights of the ministry. No longer is direct access and ministry to be the exclusive domain of the clergy. The privilege of living in the New Testament era is that every Christian can be his own priest. The death of Christ on the cross of Calvary put an end to the distinction of the priest, and the people. Christ broke down every wall including the wall that separated clergy from laity. In Christ’s kingdom there is only one class—the priestly class into which all believers are born when they accept Jesus Christ as their Redeemer. In the New Testament the church does not have priesthood—it is priesthood. The priesthood of all believers is the only authorized priesthood in the New Testament. All of God’s children have access to God, and all of God’s children have a right to ministry.”4

We may appropriately ask, if every- one is a preacher, what, then, is the pastor’s task? On the one hand, can a pastor sit in the pew on Sabbath morning and still fulfill his or her role as a pastor? On the other hand, how does a pastor share the proclamation task with his or her congregation, who are equally called to proclaim the gospel? Is the pastor’s task to proclaim week after week to a congregation, or is it also to empower them for a proclamation to which they are called? Ellen White affirmed that the praises of God’s people should be held in the high esteem that attends the pastor’s preached word. “In many of our churches in the cities the minister preaches Sabbath after Sabbath, and Sabbath after Sabbath the church members come to the house of God with no words to tell of blessings received because of blessings imparted. . . .

“There are times when it is fitting for our ministers to give on the Sabbath, in our churches, short dis- courses, full of the life and love of Christ. But the church members are not to expect a sermon every Sabbath. . . . “. . . Let church members, during the week, act their part faithfully, and on the Sabbath relate their experience. . . . When God’s people see the great need of working as Christ worked for the conversion of sinners, the testimonies borne by them in the Sabbath service will be filled with power.”5

Our views of the proclamation may be gradually narrowing since the time of the Reformation. Luther was responding to the situation of his time. The reading and preaching of the Word were specialized: they were for the trained clergy only. By translating the Bible into German, Luther had the goal of ensuring that the common people could read the Bible for themselves: in other words, function in the priestly role. Luther was empowering his congregation not only to read Scripture for themselves but also to have this reservoir from which to “proclaim the praises” of the One who called them.

What we are called to do

In Luther’s time the clergy took a central place in ecclesiastical matters, with little or no room at all for lay involvement. This was corrected by Luther and his companions as they studied God’s plan and purpose for His church. To Luther, “Peter not only gives them the right, but the command, to declare the wonderful deeds of God, which certainly is nothing else than to preach the Word of God. . . . So as there is no other proclamation in the ministry of the word than that which is common to all, that of the wonderful deeds of God, so there is no other priesthood than that which is spiritual and universal, as Peter here defines it.”6

What does it mean to “proclaim,” according to 1 Peter 2:9? The Greek word used, exangellõ, may be translated “proclaim” or “report.” It carries a nuance that emphasizes the unknown or secret nature of what is being proclaimed.7

It may also refer to gossip. A synonym, katangellõ, coming from the same root, has a nuance that emphasizes the ceremonious style of proclamation. This word is used in 1 Corinthians 11:26 to refer to the practice of breaking of bread in Communion as a mode of proclamation.8 These two words are used in two separate contexts, but their meanings are interchangeable. Therefore, by proclaiming the Word, and by the act of breaking bread, the believers are carrying out the purpose for which they are called.

The Greek word hopous translated “that” is a conjunction of purpose, and it connects the two parts of 1 Peter 2:9.9 Juxtaposing Peter and Paul seems, then, to bring a healthy and balanced picture to our proclamation, at least as seen in these two words we have just examined. In other words, our preaching and practice of Christianity should be in harmony with each other. Peter states it is the privilege of every believer to offer a spiritual sacrifice to God (1 Peter 2:5). Paul urges Christians to offer not bulls, goats, and sheep but their bodies in loving ministry for the Master, acts of spiritual worship, what Paul calls their reasonable service (Rom. 12:1).

Thus, according to Peter and Paul, ministry is not only the right and privilege of every New Testament believer; it is a natural result of being a Christian. Consequently, Ellen White could state, “The work of God in this earth can never be finished until the men and women comprising our church membership rally to the work, and unite their efforts with those of ministers and church officers.”10

Discipleship requires all of God’s people to be involved in ministry. “The gospel commission was clearly intended for all Christians, not just the disciples to whom it was first addressed, nor to a select group of professional ministers.”11 Ephesians 4 says that God gave spiritual gifts to His church (v. 8). He gave pastor-teachers “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12, KJV). The pastor’s role, and that of a church leader, is to equip the members for the work of their ministry.

Ellen White pleaded, “I now call upon presidents of conferences and men in responsible positions to set in operation every possible means by which the members of the churches may learn how to work for the perishing. Let those who have had experience teach those who are inexperienced. Let them pray together, and search the Word of God together. . . . Have we lost all sense of our position as the Lord’s chosen people, who are to represent Christ and to proclaim to the world the last message of mercy? ‘Ye are a chosen generation.’ ”12

Many church members would tell the pastor that they are praying for the success of the pastor’s ministry, not realizing that “success in pastoral leadership is tied to the ability to motivate volunteers.”13 Thus, White states, “if pastors would give more attention to getting and keeping their flock actively engaged at work, they would accomplish more good, have more time for study and religious visiting, and also avoid more causes of friction.”14 Currently, some members seem content to let the pastor do the work of ministry, while they sit and watch, and some leaders seem comfortable with them doing so.

God has ordained that the pastoral leadership of the church has a distinct function and role to play in the church, not to rule but to train. White states, “Not upon the ordained minister only rests the responsibility of going forth to fulfill this commission. Everyone who has received Christ is called to work for the salvation of his fellow men.”15 The biblical model for God’s church is laity and clergy working together.

It is an amazing reality to confront that, in spite of Christianity’s glorious launch (Pentecost), Christianity’s dramatic relaunch (Luther), and early Adventism’s reaffirmation (White), the notion still prevails that the work of ministry in the church is only for those who are clergy. Burrill states, “Hiring pastors to do the work of the ministry while the laity pay, attend and observe is not God’s plan for the Adventist church.”16 The consequence of such thinking, as Findley Edge notes, is far from academic: “God has called the laity to be his basic ministers. He has called some to be ‘player-coaches’ . . . to equip the laity for the ministry they are to fulfill. This equipping ministry is of unique importance. One is appointed to this ministry by the Holy Spirit; therefore it must be undertaken with utmost seriousness. This is a radical departure from the traditional understanding of the roles of the laity and the clergy. The laity had the idea that they were already committed to a ‘full-time’ vocation in the secular world, [and] thus they did not have time—at least, much time—to do God’s work. Therefore they contributed money to ‘free’ the clergy to have the time needed to fulfill God’s ministry. This view is rank heresy. If we follow this pattern, we may continue to do God’s work until the Lord comes again and never fulfill God’s purpose as it ought to be done.”17



Luther, therefore, explains both the “who” and the “what” parts of 1 Peter 2:9, identifying both the messengers and the message they bear. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers does not call for the pastor to be displaced; rather, it calls for him or her to be duplicated. The pastor’s role is to train the members for service. The apostle Peter challenges the elders, including himself, to shepherd the flock in such a way that they would be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3). Such pastoral examples would be radically different from those of Peter’s day, or Luther’s. “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you’ ” (Matt. 20:25, 26a). A facilitator, but a follower of Christ; a scholar, but a servant of Christ—the pastor thereby requests of his or her members, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

Scripture records, “Then it happened, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, ‘Is that you, O troubler of Israel?’ ” (1 Kings 18:17). While Luther’s contribution during the Reformation period may be considered deeply “troubling,” it is nonetheless deeply valued as part of the history of the Christian church. Others have since added to his contribution to make 1 Peter 2:9 relevant for our time, and God is still in the business of revelation. “God’s workers today constitute the connecting link between the former workers, the church of history, and the church that is to be called out from the world and prepared to meet their Lord. . . . And God is continuing to impart precious light. . . . All the excellencies that have come through the belief of the truth from past ages to the present time, are to be treated with the utmost respect.”18

While some churches have gone to the extreme of minimizing the pastoral role in the wake of the important ideal set out in 1 Peter 2:9, so-called troublers of Israel are still needed today.


1 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture texts in this article are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible.

2 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Conrad Bergendoff and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 40, Church and Ministry II (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 21, 22.

3 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association, Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, 1997), 107.

4 Russell Burrill, Revolution in the Church: Unleashing the Awesome Power of Lay Ministry (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Research Center, 1993), 23.

5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 18, 19.

6 Luther, Luther’s Works.

7 Colin Brown, “Proclamation,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology,ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 45.

8 Brown, “Proclamation,” 47.

9 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 301.

10 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington, DC: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1925), 68.

11 Minister’s Handbook, 107.

12 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 4 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate), 449.

13 Minister’s Handbook, 108.

14 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 198.

15 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 110.

16 Burrill, Revolution in the Church, 12.

17 Findley B. Edge, The Doctrine of the Laity (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1993).

18 Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies for Ministers and Workers—no. 7, 11.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Mxolisi Michael Sokupa, PhD, DTh, serves as an associate director, Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

October 2017

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Here We Stand: Luther, the Reformation, and Seventh-day Adventism

An impressive volume that thoughtfully reviews Seventh-day Adventist teachings in light of of Luther and the Reformation.

Reformation principles for an end-time ministry

Twelve revolutionary principles of Martin Luther took center stage—then. Examining current pastoral practices, to what extent can we still call ourselves heirs of the Reformation—now?

Another look at the three angels’ messages

Luther received the baton of righteousness by faith, then passed it on. The final runners are carrying it to the finish line. It’s called the three angels’ messages. It’s the everlasting gospel.

Prayer and finishing the mission

A persistent and consistent prayer life propelled the gospel during the Protestant Reformation. A look at our prayer life today begs the question—is the protest over?

95 theses on righteousness by faith (apologies to Martin Luther)

A beloved university pastor once penned his version of the Ninety-Five Theses, based on justification by faith. Should these "95 theses" be fastened to the door of our hearts?

Lest we forget

From our continuing revival and reformation series.

The ancient Waldenses: Did the Reformation predate Luther? 1

Many recognize there were reformers before Luther; few know about the Waldenses. Here is the fascinating history of the sacrificial contribution of the Waldenses—from one who knows.

The pastor’s guide to Martin Luther and the Reformation

How can a pastor begin to appreciate the life and writings of Martin Luther?

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All