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The Priesthood of All Believers

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series

"Fundamentals of Corporate Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

In the year 365 a council of church leadership met in the city of Laodicea to discuss various problems that had arisen in the churches of the region and decide what to do about them. The fourth century was a time of theological controversy and unrest in the church. Church meetings had become disorderly; heretics like Arius were spreading their false doctrine through the use of propaganda hymns that denied the full deity of Christ. And so this council, among others, made some decisions to bring order and prevent heterodoxy. But while some of what the council did was good, what ultimately resulted was that in order to prevent problems worship was taken away from the people. The council decided that in order to prevent disorder and heresy, only ordained priests were permitted to read Scripture in the services, and only the approved guild of professional singers would be allowed to sing. This was only a local council, but it illustrates a trend that developed among most churches over the next thousand years—worship became the work of priests and professional musicians instead of the whole congregation.

Eventually the language of worship was restricted to Latin, a language fewer and fewer laypeople understood, and worship degraded into a performance of a few select individuals such that they would perform the worship acts even if no one was in attendance. A strict distinction between clergy and laity developed wherein the clergy did not trust the illiterate, uneducated masses to worship God appropriately on their own; the clergy offered “perfected” worship on behalf of the people. The quality of worship became measured by the excellence of the music and the aesthetic beauty of the liturgy, and while this facilitated the production of some quite beautiful sacred music during the period, it resulted in “worship” becoming mostly what the priests did in the chancel, which eventually was often distinctly separated from the nave where the people sat by high rails or even a screen. Church architecture deliberated kept the nave dark and the elevated chancel bright.

By the end of the fourteenth century, members of the congregation rarely participated in the Lord’s Supper, and even when they did, the cup was withheld from them lest some of “Christ’s blood” sprinkle on the unclean. Roman worship had moved from the “work of the people” (leitourgia) to the work of the clergy. As even Roman Catholic liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann notes, “the people were devout and came to worship; but even when they were present at worship, it was still clerical worship. . . . The people were not much more than spectators.” Worship had become the work of priests on behalf of the people, a belief called sacerdotalism.

Hopefully from what we have already seen from Scripture in this series you can recognize the inherent biblical problems with what developed. As we saw in Ephesians 2, all believers, not just a select few, are brought near to God through Christ in one Spirit; all believers are being joined together into a holy temple in the Lord. And as we saw from John 4, all believers are able to commune with God, hearing him speak from his Word, and responding with our spirits to him. And all believers can nurture and cultivate that communion with God through what we do in corporate worship, this covenant renewal ceremony where we once again rehearse the realities of the gospel and renew our vows to the Lord.

In the next couple of posts, I would like to draw our attention to two important New Testament principles about the nature of the church that emphasize the fact that the whole congregation must actively participate in corporate worship.

First, in 1 Peter 2, the apostle uses the same metaphor of a temple to describe the church that Paul did in Ephesians 2, but he extends it further to make a point that explicitly contradicts the sacerdotalism that would later develop in the medieval church. He says in verse 4, “As you come to him”—that phrase “come to him” has the same root as what we saw in Ephesians 2 and Hebrews 10, the idea of drawing near to the presence of God through Christ in the Spirit for communion with him. “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious”—like Paul, Peter is using the metaphor of a cornerstone to describe Jesus Christ. The cornerstone of what? Keep reading: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house”—there’s that phrase again that refers to the church as God’s dwelling place, God’s temple. So here Peter is developing the same theological truth about the church as Paul did in Ephesians 2: through Christ in the Spirit we have access to the presence of God for communion with him, in fact, we are being built into a sanctuary of his presence.

But then notice how Peter extends the picture further than Paul did: “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Not only are we a spiritual temple where the worship of God takes place, we are also a holy priesthood. And notice that he is not describing a select group of people, he is not designating church leaders only as a holy priesthood but “you yourselves,” all of you, all who have been brought near by the blood of Christ, who are being built into a temple for the Lord, all of you are a holy priesthood who offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. As Martin Luther said in response to the sacerdotalism of the Roman Catholic Church, “all we who are Christians are priests.”

The worship that takes place in God’s temple is not reserved for ordained clergy who worship on behalf of the congregation as mediators between them and God. All believers are priests who have full access to the presence of God and who offer spiritual sacrifices to him.

All believers are priests, but notice that we offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. We have already looked briefly at Hebrews 10:22, which says, “let us draw near,” that idea of coming into the presence of God for communion with him. But the previous verse identifies the basis for being able to draw near to God as priests: “since we have a great high priest over the house of God.” Jesus Christ is the sacrifice that makes communion with God possible, but he is also the great High Priest who leads us into God’s presence. No merely human priest serves as a mediator between God and man; “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Jesus Christ is the worship leader who brings us into the presence of God, where we all as priests offer spiritual sacrifices to God through him. Therefore all who are in Christ are priests who are able to draw near and offer those sacrifices.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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