I think there is some confusion running loose with respect to the concept of the priesthood of the believer. The term was coined by the Reformers to distinguish the direct access believers have to Christ vs. their access to through clergy. This of course was in repudiation to the papists who claimed that they alone provided access contrary to Hebrews 4:14. Through this direct access, we serve as ministers of the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:18) and minister to one another (Colossians 3:15-16).
Increasingly, I am encountering a definition of the concept to mean a rejection of structured leadership in the church. Because we are priests with direct access to God, we minister to each other and do not need special offices that separate clergy from the rest of Christians, aka lay people. In some cases, it has come to mean that I am my own priest and therefore don’t need leadership at all.
I’m going to suggest that this idea finds no support in scripture. First, the idea that we are disconnected from the body life of the local church is foreign to our position in Christ and his command that we operate as his body. I know that many have been hurt by the local church and finding one that is honest to Scripture can take time.
Second, if we think just gathering by itself is sufficient and reject the idea of structured leadership, consider Ephesians 4:4-16. There is one body who is to walk according to its purpose, growing up together in Christ through specific means – “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (vs 11)”
Now there is a diversity of interpretation of the five classifications mentioned.
1) They are offices representing the means through which God has chosen to work through
2) They are gifts representing the means through which God has chosen to work through
3) They refer to specific people that God has chosen to work through
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just provide what I think makes the most sense, which is definition #1 though I can see some validity for #2. I also think its important to consider prophets and apostles in light of what Paul said earlier in Ephesians 2:20. The very foundation of what Christ built is grounded in the prophetic and apostolic witness, which is transmitted through Scripture.
But what is important is why God gives some according to these specific offices or gifts: to prepare God’s people for the work of service and so they can grow up in him and not buy into whatever fancy, self-help and uplifting messages might sound Christian but in reality are not. These selected categories have a function for the sake of the body.
Also consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus. Specifically, in 1 Timothy 3:1 he says “Here is a trustworthy saying: if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task”. He then goes on to describe the qualifications for overseers (pastors/elders) and deacons (vv. 2-13). This is for the purpose of how God’s household should be conducted (vs 15) by describing what kinds of people should be leading her.
When we reject structured leadership, we’re really rejecting the means through which God wants his people to grow up in him. I love what Calvin had to say about this;
By these words he shows that the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body. He also intimates, that the church cannot be kept safe, unless supported by those guards to which, the Lord has been pleased to commit its safety. Christ ‘ascended up far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ (Eph 4:10). The mode of filling is this: By the ministers to whom he has committed this office, and given grace to discharge it, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the church, and thus exhibits himself as in a manner actually present by exerting the energy of his Spirit in this his institution, so as to prevent it from being vain or fruitless. In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather ruin and destruction, of the church. (I.C.R. 4.3.2)
Now reading that probably conjures up images of corruption, which unfortunately have peppered the church throughout its history. But notice also the qualifications: provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine administered to us. Harm comes to the church by those who suppose themselves to be prophets and apostles and inject their own opinions into the congregation under the guise of ‘prophecy’. But Calvin refers to the apostolic and prophetic witnesses through which we get Scripture that testifies to Christ. It is in the preaching and receiving of this word that prophecy flourishes and encourages us to sing songs and hymns to one another. Harm comes when the message of the apostles is distorted by not connecting it to the complete message of Scripture. Harm comes when the ministers disregard the word they proclaim through behavior that contradicts it and self-focused kingdoms.
Your priesthood is not your own. Our priesthood is for the purpose of ministering to each other and build up the body of love. But Calvin’s words should sober us that disconnecting this ministry from the means by which God has ordained for the growth of the body is counterproductive to the health of the church. If we ignore it, disparage or reject it, it is to our detriment.