- Much of Martin Luther’s 16th century view of the priesthood of all believers is resurfacing within the 21st century reform movements within the Catholic Church. The following article by Mike Streich grabbed my attention and I thought I would share it with you. Please share your insights into this theological area on our shared priesthood and, more especially, how we live it out within the Christian faith community. Love to hear from you. DrNick
- Proclaiming the Word is a Christian Duty – Photographed by Mike Streich, November 2008
The Priesthood of All Believers was a central teaching of Martin Luther in the formation of Christian communities that would ultimately become the Lutheran Church. Rejecting the Roman Catholic sacrament of ordination or Holy Orders, Luther declared that, “we are all priests as long as we are Christians.”
The Universal Priesthood Defines the Christian Community
In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther writes that, “All of us who have been baptized are priests without distinction…the sacrament of ordination, therefore, can be nothing other than…choosing a preacher…” Two important aspects of Luther’s thinking are illustrated here.
Through baptism, Christians identify with Christ. The Priesthood of All Believers flows from this relationship with Christ. Secondly, the congregational leader or minister is “called” or chosen by the Christian community or congregation.
Similarly, Luther rejected celibacy, a chief feature of the Catholic priesthood. Celibacy may have begun in the second century but as late as the pontificate of Leo the Great priests were married. Luther pointed out that the Apostle Peter healed his own mother-in-law.
Characteristics of the Universal Priesthood
Christians, as a part of The Priesthood of All Believers, were instructed to pray for others, intercede with God, proclaim the word, and confess sins to each other. Unlike Catholicism, confession was not a requirement, but a gift.
Luther accepted no mediator between God and man, not a priest, saint, or angel. Christ was the only mediator; according to Luther theologian Paul Althaus, “When Christ bears our burdens and intercedes for us with his righteousness, he does the work of a priest…”
Finally, the The Priesthood of All Believers had, as a responsibility, the evangelical mandate of proclaiming the word. Rejecting Catholic Church “tradition,” Luther accepted only the Bible as truth. Congregations chose men who were “called” to teach the scriptures, but it was the duty of every member of the community to proclaim the word.
Political Implications of the Universal Priesthood
The idea of a universal Christian priesthood was appealing to the German princes who were tired of their inferior status to the bishops and legates. The Church had its own courts, followed Canon rather than civil laws, and imposed hated taxes.
Luther’s Address to the Nobility highlighted the truth that, “all Christians were priests, equal before God.” (Richard Marius) This represented a radical power shift as well as providing Christians with a Biblical perspective strong enough to supplant Catholic tradition.
The Priesthood of All Believers touched on many areas of Catholicism. It eliminated a celibate priestly caste, returned focus to the meaning of baptism, defined Christian responsibility, rejected the sacrament of confession, and involved Christians in evangelization.
- Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966).
- Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther (New American Library/Mentor Book, 1977).
- Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (The Belknap press of Harvard University Press, 1999).