No slogan from the Reformation has been more misunderstood and less implemented in the life of the Lutheran church than the "priesthood of all believers." Whereas Martin Luther sought to activate the baptized as the primary ministers in service to the world in daily life, the retention of the term "priesthood" to describe this ministry has misled the church in its fundamental understanding of the nature of ministry.
The choice of "priesthood" to describe Christian vocation as given to all the baptized perpetuates a clerical distortion about who the "laypeople" are and how they are called to serve God in the world. Instead of affirming the wonderfully varied expressions of Christian vocation in every arena of daily life, members of the church imagine "real" ministry as what pastors do. Unless church members are doing things that pastors are called to do, it's not understood as real ministry.
Furthermore, we have been deceived into thinking that real ministry only takes place in church buildings, instead of claiming as ministry what happens through Christian service in all stations of life every day of the week.
In his treatise on The Freedom of a Christian, Luther makes two claims:
• A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
• A Christian is perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
While these two assertions seem to contradict one another, in reality they are keys to a deeper understanding of the universal priesthood.
According to the first claim, Luther insists on faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ as our only source of forgiveness, life and hope. Christians are right with God solely through the free grace and mercy granted to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no other masters: no laws, no rules and no need for priestly interventions.
While the word and sacraments normally are proclaimed and administered by those called to the pastoral office, the baptized are in no way dependent upon clerics as mediators of God's gifts. By grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, we are set free from everything that holds us in bondage — sin, death and the devil (to cite Luther).
According to the second claim — and this is the crucial point — Luther asserts that through Jesus Christ, every Christian is also set free for something very specific. While Lutheran theology has been at its best in defending justification by grace, we have been extremely susceptible to the disease diagnosed by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as "cheap grace."
Luther already anticipated the sickness of cheap grace by clearly articulating this second aspect of Christian freedom: Christ sets us free for service of the neighbor. Christians are called through baptism to universal neighborliness.
This is the true meaning of the priesthood of all believers. We need not perform good works to satisfy the demands of a holy God. Rather, as response to the gift of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we offer good works in gratitude to God by serving our neighbors.
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© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers