Priesthood of All Believers

Some of my deepest rooted religious ideas come from my childhood. I bet this is true of most of us. It’s why I’ve had experienced ministry mentors tell me that if a church has a strong children program, those kids will likely come back to church later in life because of those warm feelings brought on by cotton ball sheep, fuzzy shepherds, and tender safety. I think my mentors have partly been right – the lessons about faith that we receive from our family, neighbors, mentors, and tradition help set the stage for how many of us come to understand and realize the importance of the spiritual journey, for better and for worse.

In my case, my parents were intentional about the gifts they had to offer to others. They opened their home to kids who were in trouble and needed a temporary shelter through the local juvenile protection system. They spent their lives caring for babies, mothers, parents, and children in hospitals and schools. They lived their faith beyond Sunday mornings.

On the other hand, their understandings of religious traditions also shaped me. I can remember conversations with both of my parents about other denominations. Why are we different? Why do we do communion every week? Why don’t we go to the Baptist or Methodist church? I got plenty of answers, one to two sentences in length, which seemed to indicate, at least to my young inquisitive mind, that we went to church where we did because we had it right.

For example, the Baptists voted on new members. If the congregation didn’t like you, you didn’t get in. We believe everyone is welcome, so we don’t do that.

Or you can’t take communion at the Catholic church, because they don’t believe you really are a Christian. Our communion table is open, like Jesus would have wanted it.

The Mormons think it is okay for one husband to have many wives, and they believe in things that are not in the Bible. We believe only in the Bible and only in normal relationships.

The Methodists don’t own their building. Scandalous! And yes, if you were wondering, we do own our own building, not some overbearing denominational institution.

Our Stone-Campbell tradition had it mostly right, according to my family, though the fact that we Disciples had a general office and trappings of a denomination was borderline heresy (as my parents came out of an independent Christian background).

One of the values espoused over and over again in our tradition was the democratic process behind everything we did. It’s the priesthood of all believers! We all have a responsibility to lead our church! We all have a say in the process! We all can shape the direction that we feel God is calling us to go! We all get a vote!

When asked by a friend or stranger about my denomination, in quick bullet points, I usually include our “democratic flatness” near the top of the list as what defines us and what makes us so relevant today.

But despite how ingrained that idea is in my Stone-Campbell marinated experience, I have discovered plenty of holes in its fuzzy ideals over time.

In their book, Missional Spirituality, Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson suggest that the priesthood of all believers may in fact have nothing to do with a democratic/flat church. Did Jesus hold a vote when he sent out his disciples, two by two, across Galilee or commission them to go to the ends of the earth? Since when does a democratic vote decide the will of God? Aren’t there times when a missional community must do what is unpopular in order to be faithful to the gospel they proclaim and the God that sends them?

The flatness and democratic process of a congregation can be a gift, but it puts us no clearer to better hearing or following the call of God than any other tradition.

The democratic process is also not the grand idea it once was. Like other systems, democracy can get stuck. Democracy can exclude voices. Democracy does not make a government or institution immune to bad leadership or poor decisions.

Likewise, our churches may claim to honor the priesthood of all believers and still live out a deep divide between clergy and laity. And as much as I like being treated like an expert in all things theological, it can become an idol that prevents me from learning, growing, and responding to God. Imagine instead a community where every member takes their call as minister and missionary seriously, in their workplace, home, neighborhood, and church.

As we seek then to be faithful Christians and communities in our world, it can no longer be about perfecting our system or tradition. Sure, the tools and resources we have at our disposal make a difference. The way we as communities make decisions, include and empower voices, and come to common direction is important.  Just as the early church did (looking at you, Jerusalem Council), we will have to deliberate and choose a course into an uncertain future.

I am grateful for what I inherited. I am thankful for my tradition’s rich resources, strengths, and challenges. I am honored to have received such treasures that help guide me in my faith. I plan to pass many of them on to my children and those I have the privilege to mentor.

But I recognize that those gifts are not always relevant in the ways I think. Like every generation that has come before, I honor them but also seek to discover richer meaning, to cast my net into the deep, to discover the precious jewels hidden in a field of weeds. It is not easy.

Helland and Hjalmarson insist that a priesthood of all believers, when practiced, ”suggests a missional adventure for entire congregations who have direct access to God and who mediate God to their local communities.”

Not quite the cotton ball sheep and fuzzy shepherds some people may be expecting – but something worth living into and passing on to future generations all the same.


9 thoughts on “Priesthood of All Believers

  1. Thanks, Nathan. One of my favorite books is by Jan Linn, “What Ministers Wish Church Members Knew,” Chalice Press, 1993. One chapter is called, “Opinions are not the final word in the church.” In that chapter Lin states, “Somewhere along the line we got it in our heads that the church is a democracy. Well it isn’t. The church is a theocracy. Human opinion and will are subservient to divine will.”

  2. Thanks, Nathan,

    What a terrific post! I love to see democracy and egalitarianism discussed through a theological (and obviously ecclesiological) lens.

    If I could be so bold as to add a thought or two, I would like to suggest that democracy as a practice is not something that we as Americans probably know anything about. We think (because we are told) that we live in a democracy, but actually, we live in a rigidly classist, captialist/consumerist society that allows economic markets to shape the distribution of power and wealth, not democratic rule. I say that to say this: we have a unique opportunity as Church to actually BE an oasis of democracy in a desert of inequity. We can help point the way to a re-imagined commonwealth of God. But it will require ruffling a few feathers. 🙂

    Secondly, I think that while you correctly and appropriately identify the virtues of our denomination, I think that there is no danger in admitting that the DOC has participated in its share of exclusion based upon gender, race and class. Not that we should feel ashamed or guilty. I don’t believe we should. But we must take responsibility for the legacy of White American Protestantism today, we must, because that’s the way to justice.

    Again, terrific post. Thank you so much!

    • Great stuff.

      There are some pieces that I chose not to go into in this article, just because I wanted it to be tighter focused.

      I’m not sure that many of us DoC congregations actually follow the Democratic process either. We may give lip service to it, but power ends up be vested, informally and formally, in other ways. Finances play a big part. That’s normal, I suppose. I know there have been many churches who have made big decisions only to have that get vetoed down the line via some power play by influential members (or even a pastor).

      And totally, I admit that my idea of “everyone gets a vote” is very optimistic and naive. I know that is not the case. Many have been and continue to be excluded. The youth and women and “the poor” and the queer are often the first left without a voice, though we make decisions about their welfare and needs all the time. It is difficult to imagine at times a community with true open tables where every voice does get an opportunity to shape our lived witness. But shouldn’t we try to imagine that? What a vision – what an oasis that would be!

      Another piece I left out – does church structure even relate to non-churched folk at all? Will it make a difference if I tell a prospective churchgoer that we have a bishop who makes all the decisions or we vote on everything? Such stuff, at least to me, can matter as one gets to know and gets involved in a community, but initially, the sense of community and mission seem to far outweigh those things. I am beginning to drop mentioning our flatness when talking to others… or maybe discover some other ways to talk about it.

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  4. I have Presbyterian and Disciples roots (as well as Episcopal ones). I treasure an educated clergy. I grew up with some highly undereducated clergy from the independent churches though some of those folks were learned).

    I find many Disciples pastors snots. They separate themselves at regional and meetings with other clergy by having private golf games and other such activities.

    Many of the best educated people I have known have been clergy but many clergy are not really well educated and often are not particularly intelligent. We expect clergy to be company men (and women) and they probably need some time with each other to be themselves.

    Pastors endure a high level of role conflict which is well know and documented.
    Pastors often mediate between community decision makers and others but rarely are themselves primary decision makers. As ritual coordinators, pastors appear to play more important roles in our lives because their work touches birth, marriage, and death—us at intimate levels. Preachers often do not know biblical languages but the do learn how to administer institutions.

    I like the notion of churches that stress individual responsibility but institutional decision often seem to have little to do with doctrine, dogma, tradition, scripture, or anything else distinctly Christian. My local congregation is big on consensus but without regard for diversity. I don’t want People’s Temple and I don’t want triteness. .

    Just random notes. We have the marshmallow system that allows us to avoid any criticism.

    • One thing I like about the DoC is that our congregational system does mean each church can develop its own mini-polity. I know there is such danger there for strong personalities to hold lots of power, but there is also opportunity for churches to reflect theologically in their own situation and shape their practices. A recent congregation that I spoke with stopped voting or nominating people for committee/leadership positions – now, they “affirm” one candidate for said ministry focus. A slight shift… but kind of beautiful.

      An ethnic church, say a black congregation, may look to the pastor as a big decision maker, a vision setter. I am sure there are anglo congregations that may do this as well. This mix in and of itself may make it difficult for many pastors to adjust. What works in one place may not work in another.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m glad that DoC pastors can be pretty diverse, theologically and all, because not every congregation needs are the same. However, some of us may need to go back to the priesthood of all believers from time to time. Though we are set apart by ordination, I didn’t get a pedestal with my stole.

  5. We need to learn better how to respect clergy—much more than we do. My father bullied pastors; he did not always do this but he did often enough to appall me. I love the DOC and the UCC.

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