11 - The Priesthood of All Believers
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
This often comes as a surprise to many Christians, but through baptism we all become priests, and the whole church is a “people of priests”
“For you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2.9)
In theology this is referred to as the priesthood of all believers. In this quotation from 1 Peter, this notion is linked to the idea that all those who are baptized constitute one people, the People of God.
To help us understanding what the Church is, Scripture uses various images – three of them are particularly important: the Church as the Body of Christ, as the Temple of the Holy Spirit and as the People of God. It is a bit like when we want to know a mountain: we will never perceive it all at once, so we need to explore one side at a time.
1. The church as the Body of Christ is useful for understanding the role of the ministries that we have explored in the previous weeks: the diaconate, the presbyterate and the episcopate.
2. The Church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit sees the Church from below, starting from the gifts or charisms of all Christians.
3. The Church as the People of God shows more clearly that
a. Christian salvation takes the form of belonging to a community;
b. The Church appears when we listen to the Word of God and adhere to it through faith;
c. that we all belong to the Church thanks to our baptism and therefore that all the members of the church are equal
d. and in the people of God, all the baptised are priests, prophets and kings.
1. Christian salvation consists in becoming part of a community
When we read the instructions of a blender we know that someone has written it, but we have no clues concerning the personality, taste, and concerns of its author: they leave no trace in the text.
On the other hand, when we read a poem or a novel, even if the author is anonymous, we can reconstruct many aspects of his character and even his subconscious because this literary genre not only expresses the author's technical competence but also reveals his identity. This example allows us to illustrate a fundamental theological fact regarding salvation.
The Lord does not save us mechanically, impersonally. Being saved is not simply being freed from an obstacle or receiving a new strength to do good, but being "trans-formed", that is, receiving a new form, becoming, as Paul says, "new creatures". It is a creative work which receives the imprint of its creator, takes on the form, expresses the identity of its author, that is, of God. Now, since God is Trinity, that is communion, exchange of life and love, the form that salvation takes is precisely this: a communion, a circulation of life and love. God saves us not individually and without any link between us, but by making us a people.
Every time God intervenes in history, a community, a people, a covenant appears according to the plan of the Father who in the beginning created human nature as one family and wants to gather together all his scattered children (cf. Jn 11, 52).
This is why the whole Old Testament is the story of a people, Israel, and of the infinite patience with which the Lord tirelessly calls it, gathers it despite the disintegrating forces of sin and idolatry. This is why the form that salvation takes in the Old Testament and in the New Testament is that of the covenant, of reconciliation, of peace. The election of a particular people in a small and relatively obscure corner of the earth was only the first step in the plan to elect and convene all of humanity, of making the whole of humanity one single people, the People of God.
Christ did not leave behind him any book, nor written word, nor creed or doctrinal system, but only a visible community, that his disciples constituted around a core of 12 persons, like the 12 tribes of the people of Israel. This was a symbolic way to show in both cases God saves through gathering a people. The only difference is that in the Old Testament the people was a particular ethnic group and the sign of this belonging was circumcision. In the New Testament we join a community of faith by means of baptism, that is, by being united to Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and thus becoming children of God.
2. The relation of the People to the Word of God and to faith
The theme of the People of God puts faith in God through listening to his Word at the foundation of the identity and life of the Church. Israel became a people only after it listened to the Word of God given by Moses on Mount Sinai, believed in it, accepted its requirements, and sanctioned the covenant founded on this word with a sacrifice.
The very name of ‘Church’ (ekklesia) expresses this truth: it comes from the Greek egkaleo, "to be called together". It is the community of those who are called "with", that is to say "together"; the Church is what appears when people hear God's call and by adhering to it through faith become one with each other.
3. Membership founded on baptism and equality of members
Especially in reaction to the downplaying of ordained ministry by the Reformed tradition, the Catholic tradition often ended up giving the impression that ordained ministers (especially priests and bishops) are above if not superior to the other baptized Christians. It forgot the biblical and theological truth brilliantly expressed by St. Augustine:
“If being at your service as bishops fills me with fear, I am reassuresd by the fact that I am one and the same with you [as a baptized Christian]. For your sake I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian. “Bishop” is the name of my office, “Christian’ is the name of the grace; ‘bishop’ is the name of a danger, ‘Christian; is the name of salvation”.
Ordained ministeries (diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate) are according to Augustine "the name of an office", they have a purely functional role, that is, they are at the service of the priesthood of all believers. The ordained ministry is a means, an instrument; the goal is to help each one of us to make the whole of our life a sacrifice acceptable to God, which is what our priesthood is about:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. (Rom 12.1)
If the purpose of the Christian life is to have access to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit then the most important thing is not being an ordained priest or bishop, but to be a Christian, to be children of God. The equality of all Christians is more fundamental than all the distinctions, all the diversities of the ministries and functions that are deployed in the economy of salvation. Considering the Church as the people of God allows us to emphasize this point with particular clarity: as members of the people of God, we all have the dignity and freedom of the children of God, in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in a temple.
The law of this people is the new precept to love as Christ himself loved us (cf. Jn 13:34).
The end of this people is the kingdom of God, begun on earth by God himself, and which must be expanded, until at the end of times it will be brought to completion by God when Christ will appear and all "creatures will be freed from the slavery of corruption to participate to the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21).
All baptized are adopted as children and equally called to holiness. There are no inequality in Christ and in the Church with regard to race or nation, social condition or sex, since
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither man nor woman : you are all one in Christ Jesus "(Gal 3, 28 gr .; cf. Col 3, 11).
4. The priestly dignity of the baptized
The use of the priestly vocabulary to speak of the baptismal vocation is widely attested in the New Testament. Christ made the new people "a kingdom and priests to his God and his Father" (Rev 1.6 and 5.9f). All those who are baptized form a spiritual temple and a holy priesthood, to offer, through all the activities of their lives, spiritual sacrifices:
“Like living stones you are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. […] You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy”. (1 Peter 2.4-10)
Therefore, all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God together offer themselves as a living, holy, pleasing victim to God, bear witness to God through their lives, give an account of the hope that is in them
“Be always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt 3.15).
All the baptized are called to offer this spiritual worship. All their activities, their daily work, even their times of rest, even the difficulties of life, especially when endured patiently, become spiritual offerings pleasing to God through Jesus Christ and in the celebration of the Eucharist they are presented to the Father together with the oblation of the Lord's Body.
This idea is so important that in the New Testament only Christ and the baptized are called priests, but never the ordained ministers. There is on the one hand the priesthood of all believers (or "baptismal") and on the other hand there are ordained ministers or servants. These ministers are at the service of the baptismal priesthood, while baptismal priesthood is ordered to the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity.
There is nothing superior to baptismal priesthood: the dignity of Christians consists in it, it is the most important title of glory with God, it is that which allows us to fulfil the purpose of Christian life, that is, to make the whole of our lives a gift acceptable to the Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. The ordained ministry, on the other hand, is functional (“office” in Augustine's quotation), provisional since it will no longer be necessary in the future life, and for the ministers themselves it does not replace their baptismal priesthood, in which lies their fundamental dignity.
Now, the people of the Israel in the Old Testament was based not only on priests, but also on kings and on prophets. These roles usually were fulfilled by different people. The novelty introduced by the New Testament, is that each baptized person becomes not only a priest, but also a prophet and a king - or another way of saying it, each believer becomes a priest by being a prophet and a king. Let us try to understand what this means.
5. The prophetic dignity of the baptized
When we say that all baptized people are prophets we are referring to the abilitation conferred by baptism to "speak for" God, to "speak in the name of" God, to proclaim his Word, to console, edify and thus contribute to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In the proper sense, the only prophet is of course Christ, the great prophet, who with the testimony of his life and with the power of his word proclaimed the kingdom of the Father, and fulfills his prophetic office until to the full manifestation of his glory.
Christ, in his Spirit, continues to speak in the Church not only through ordained ministers who teach in his name and with his power, but also through the all the baptized people.
This participation in the prophetic office of Christ is manifested in what most profoundly "speaks of" God, gives eloquence to everything that can be said in the name of God, that is, the witness of a life consistent with the Gospel.
Thus Christians are priests, that is make their lives a sacrifice acceptable to God, by being prophets, speaking of God and for God, becoming his witnesses especially by letting the power of the Gospel shine in their daily life.
6. The royal dignity of the baptized
When we say that through baptism we all become kings, we are referring to the vocation of the Church to extend to all places and to all times, that is to the fact that it is Catholic.
Speaking of "royalty" seems anachronistic in a time in which this form of political exercise has been largely superseded almost all over the world in favor of participatory or democratic forms, but it has the advantage of grasping a constant aspect of the divine salvific plan that unites the Old and the New Testaments. There is only one king, Christ, and there is one people of priests, prophets and kings. The exclusivity and sometimes arbitrary character of the royal power in its secular form is overcome by the divine intention to extend it to every person, to create a people of kings - not a people under a king, but a people where everyone is a king.
Therefore, that Christ has received dominion over all things means that the Church, his body, is called to include all humanity, that is, it has a universal, ‘Catholic’ destiny. The kingship, the "dominion" of Christ is thus manifested in the unification of all humanity into one people through the Holy Spirit.
The universality and catholicity of the Church is linked to Christ’s missionary mandate addressed to all Christians: as the Son was sent by the Father, so he himself sent us saying:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age "(Mt 28.19f)
The royal dignity of Christians does not take the form of dominion, but of the yearning for the unification of the whole human race in Christ.
Moreover, Christians are kings insofar as they participate in the freedom of the children of God, as Paul says in Galatians:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5.1)
So if Christians want to be good priests, they have to be “kings” too, in the sense of enjoying the freedom to call God Father and behave like children in God’s Kingdom – and desire that as many other people as possible have a share in this same freedom.