I have repeatedly heard people appeal to Luther's "Priesthood of All Believers" as a justification for do-it-yourself spirituality. "I am my own priest; I don't need organized religion to have access to God." In the wake of such appeals, many have come to blame the Reformation for the insidious individualism of American religion.
But what did Luther really mean when he declared the "Priesthood of All Believers"? Can "churchless Christianity" be the outworking of the Reformation? Are Luther and Barna just peas in a pod?
This confused protestant legacy can be traced to (among other things) a fundamental misunderstanding in the meaning of the Priesthood of All Believers. In order to expose the counterfeit, let's make sure we have grasped the original:
The Priesthood of All Believers begins with an attack on a roped-off priestly class who alone can procure access to Christ and his saving benefits. The crucial appeal is to the Priesthood of Christ. Christ alone is our priest who offers access to God's grace. Only on the basis of his sole priesthood is our priesthood established. We too are priests, because everything Christ has is ours through the blessed exchange of justifying faith. Thus we are priests as Christ was priest.
So far so good. But here is where the mistake emerges. It is so easy to slip into thinking that we have access to God as Christ had access to God. The priesthood of Christ ends with our priesthood for ourselves. Hence you have the erroneous notion of the Priesthood of Each Believer: every Christian his or her own priest.
But the principle is not that we procure access to God for ourselves through Christ, but rather that we are priests for one another as Christ is for us. This is the logic of the "as": as Christ was a priest for others, so I am a priest for others. On the basis of the priesthood of Christ, all those who believe in him become priests for their family, friends, neighbors, and enemies. As Christ suffers for others, so we suffer for others. As Christ offers forgiveness, so we offer forgiveness to others. As Christ is our access point to God, so we become others' access point to Christ.
So the Priesthood of All Believers does not imply do-it-yourself Christianity. Rather, we are empowered by Christ's priesthood to be priests for one another. Thus the Church is the community of priests, continually offering Christ to one another. And the Priesthood of All Believers is an unmistakably communal activity.
Does this rendering of the Priesthood of All Believers ring true to you?
Are there ways of avoiding the mistaken version, or is it inevitable?
How else might one think about the Priesthood of All Believers?
Is there some other way to defend Churchless Christianity other than on the basis of the Priesthood of All Believers?