The Priesthood of ALL the Baptized

The Priesthood of ALL the Baptized1

By Luther Engelbrecht2

            As the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod struggles with proposals with regard to its corporate structure, there is a bigger challenge confronting the church body. This is the need for a deeper understanding and more effective response to God’s will and way regarding “who” we are and “what” we should do as baptized believers. This means that the key element in being followers of our Lord Jesus Christ in this time is to live out the “Priesthood of All the Baptized.”

            The Priesthood of All the Baptized completely encompasses God’s intentions for us as God’s heirs and God’s servant priests. In the context of a personal relationship and access to God, we are to sacrifice, communicate, mediate and expiate as God’s diakonoi (ministers), apostoloi (missionaries) and leitourgoi (ministers in the sanctuary). As such, God’s people are to be in between: serving, proclaiming, forgiving/being forgiven, leading/following at home, in the congregation/Church/church-body and in the world, using the gifts invested in us by the Holy Spirit. This multiplex task is expressed in the New Testament by two word families—diakon—(basically personal service) and leitourg—(basically “community service). These together form the basis for the Reformation’s recovery/rediscovery of the Christian beruf/vocation/calling.

            Understanding and expressing our lives as an act of worship as God’s baptized servant priests could result, under the Word and the Holy Spirit, in the koinonia (fellowship) of believers, in a total revitalization of us as disciples of Jesus both in God’s church (“right hand”) and in God’s world (“left hand”). In both of these God reigns as King, and in both of them we live and serve. This is a kingdom without borders and a ministry without borders. Here all the usual dichotomies are eliminated or blurred—temporal/eternal, material/spiritual, secular/ sacred, body/soul, church/state, special/infinite, earthly/heavenly, laity/clergy, women/men, young/old, poor/rich, whatever!

            For such a revitalization to take place, again under the Word and the Spirit and led by the Spirit-led-and-guided servants of the Church, we would need a major array of theological/catechetical materials for use at all levels of study and all ages: pre-confirmation, Sunday school, parochial elementary and high-school classes; seminary and Lutheran university classes (especially for those students preparing to teach in Lutheran schools) as well as the special programs we now have to prepare pastors largely outside of the seminaries.

            These “academic” materials should be supplemented by materials suitable for family devotions as well as by appropriate liturgical materials; forms for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funeral/memorial services, inductions of new members and congregational officers, pastoral ordinations and installations. These should be accompanied by new hymns to provide poetic reinforcement of the meaning of them all. The following discussion is meant to be a very modest step in that process.

SEDES DOCTRINAE (Scriptural Foundations for Teaching)

            There are two principal sedes doctrinae for this teaching; Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2. Both references are virtually self-defining texts with little explanatory contextual material. One must look elsewhere in both Testaments to understand the often very challenging word/concepts involved. For that I have relied chiefly on the classical evangelical Lutheran hermeneutical process: scriptura scripturam interpretatur (Scripture interprets Scripture).3 The widely different approaches toward “priesthood” in the world’s church bodies bear eloquent witness to the fact that the final interpretation of many significant doctrines and practices depends much on which particular Scripture is considered to be “nominative” and which “accusative” (especially for those who claim to be guided by SOLA SCRIPTURA)!

EXODUS 19:5, 6

            “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession4 out of all the peoples.5 Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom6 and a holy nation.7 These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:5, 6).

            Exodus 19 emerges virtually unannounced out of the wings and onto center stage, only to fade away as the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood takes over that space. It is almost impossible for us to visualize that scene at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the wilderness with all of those people! Food was provided by God. Food was provided by God, but what about water and, above all, sanitation! Famine had driven them from their ancestral nomadic way of life to settlement on some of the choicest most fertile land in Egypt, thanks to brother Joseph. But then a new Egyptian monarch arose “who knew not Joseph,” so suddenly their privileged status was lost, and the Israelites had become a community of slaves, assigned menial duties and subjected to harsh labor conditions (with no access to a strike!) along with stringent population control measures.8

            Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, they were given a promise by someone who they believed had the power to fulfill it: Yahweh, their “King.” God claimed them as his personal possession/private property, chosen without any reason given and indeed “without any merit or worthiness” in them, as they later reminded themselves in the Passover ritual. To be sure, there was a great big “if” attached: conformity to the as yet unspecified covenantal terms of the promise. “Is that ALL? WHATEVER Yahweh requires, we will do!”9 The Israelites probably would have promised the world, ANYTHING, if he had asked for it. Did they realize that the first six of the “Ten Words” Moses would bring down from the mountaintop would carry the death penalty if broken, including the Sabbath Day and insulting one’s parents? WHATEVER! Exultation and dread were present at the foot of the mountain.

            How can we begin to imagine it? Earlier, Moses had encountered Yahweh there on the “mountain of God,” probably all of which was regarded as “holy ground” (cf. Ex 19:12). Yahweh there sent Moses on a mission and said: “When you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship me on this mountain.” So there they were! Moses was doing some divine “shuttle diplomacy,” shifting back and forth between Yahweh on the mountain and the people at the foot. Yahweh’s message, delivered through Moses, having reminded the people of his saving deeds, was: “Now then, IF you WILL OBEY me faithfully and KEEP my covenant, you SHALL BE my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed ALL the earth is mine, but you SHALL BE to me a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”

            “A kingdom of priests”—what did it mean to them? “Back home” they had been surrounded by various “kingdoms” but had never really been a part of one. And priests? The patriarchs had built altars and sacrificed on them,10 but they had never had a “caste” of priests with a title and designated functions (though the reference to “the priests who come near to the Lord” [Ex 19:22] does raise some unanswered questions about that). However, part of their oral history might have included some memories shared by Abraham and his fellow pilgrims about the political and religious practices in their original homeland: Chaldea/Babylonia. More recently, their experience in Egypt would have provided the greatest “context” for Ex 19:5f.: a king, Pharaoh (with divine status as the son as well as the incarnation of Ra/Re), a defined kingdom (fluid to be sure) and a powerful and prestigious priesthood serving in an impressive system of worship facilities, some of which were truly monumental. At the time of the famine Joseph, on behalf of the Pharaoh, engineered one of the greatest “land grabs” in history.11 The Egyptian farmers were compelled to sell their land, probably at a “reduced price”: Sell Pharaoh your land, or starve!12 However, Pharaoh had made a special allotment of food to the priests, hardly without considerable pressure from them and very likely vetted by Joseph, whose father-in-law, Poti-phera, as his name indicates, was a priest of the god Ra/Re, the great god of the sun, at On/Heliopolis. Thus the priests alone did not have to sell their land to Pharaoh. (“Are you going to take care of us, Son?” “Of course, Dad—you’re all ‘family’!” “Good. You wouldn’t want me to tell Asenath not to sleep with you. Would you?” “Oh, no. Ra forbid!”)

            “A kingdom of priests”—again what did it really mean to them? How about a personal relationship with direct access to Yahweh without the boundaries of time and space associated with the usual “kingdoms” and with only One “Monarch”? The chosen male citizens of that kingdom would be the priestly servants/slaves of the King, with their entire life being an act of priestly service (so ‘eved and ‘abodah; cf. Arabic ‘abd and ibada(h) as well as Greek leitourgos and leitourgia) with the whole world being a place of worship and life being a “cultic experience,” “liturgical rubrics” being provided by the Mosaic Torah, word for word from God? Or how about the “chosen people” serving the loved but unchosen people of the world? Really? Well, not quite—or at least not yet. Details of the “practical” dimension of their priestly status were not forthcoming, and in any event whatever expectations they might have had about that world would have been severely mitigated for most of them when, during the following year, the “sons of Aaron” alone were permitted to serve in the Tabernacle sanctuary and subsequently, in the Holy and Most-Holy Places in the temple. Even then, Ex 19:15f. constituted a formative event for the people of God. God had indeed called the “House of Jacob,” the Children of Israel” one and all, his “treasured possession,” his “private property,” and that had to mean SOMETHING! However, that privileged status also bore with it an obligation, a challenge: God reminded his people that all the rest of the world was his, too, which would make them “The People in Between,” his “vicar,” the instrument of his love for his world, the medial role inherent in priestly service.

            Did they ever effectively do that? Did they even understand it? Did they ever actually qualify for the gift that God promised them? Could it be that the “special” Aaronic priesthood was intended by God to serve the whole peoples’ needs and instruct them, so that they might fulfill God’s purpose for them in serving the needs of all others as a “common” (though, oh, so uncommon) priesthood, sharing the Torah, the gift of God’s love for the good of all, with the rest of the world—the “part” serving the whole”? Possibly, but it never worked out that way. Sad to say, the Torah, which was indeed a gift of God’s love, became by human intervention an instrument of Satan, “the accuser,” used to turn people, including God’s chosen people, in on themselves (incurvati in se) and away from the love of God and their neighbors! The history of God’s people is a history of failure to fulfill their part of the Covenant while expecting God to fulfill his part thereof, a history that has persisted among the people of the “Renewed” Covenant, a history also of priestly and then pastoral failure effectively to carry out THEIR part.13

            Developments in the “Priesthood of All the Circumcised” as recorded in the Old Testament are disappointingly few. Those that I could identify follow:

            1) Numbers 8: 9–12 records a significant event: You [Moses] shall bring the (male) Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting. Assemble the whole Israelite community, and bring the Levites forward before the LORD. Let the (male) Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites, and let Aaron designate the Levites before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the LORD. The Levites shall now lay their hands upon the heads of the bulls, one shall be offered to the Lord as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, to make expiation for the Levites (JSB, p. 301). Here we have “multi-vicariousness” with the Levites the “vicars” for the non-Levites and the bulls the “vicars” for the Levites and also (presumably), by extension, for the non-Levites!

            2) When Moses’ prophetic role appears to have been challenged, he seems to have taken it lightly: “Would that ALL the Lord’s people were prophets….” (Num. 11:26–29). However, when a major challenge against him and Aaron arose, he (and the Lord) reacted immediately and vociferously, and the challengers and their families paid dearly for their ambitions! This, of course, was Korah, a Levite, three Reubenites and 250 others (tribal affiliations unspecified but status noted: “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute”), who addressed Moses and Aaron as follows: “You have gone too far! For all the community (ha-ēdah/hē-synagogē) are holy (qadoshīm), all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’S congregation (qehal/ synogogē)?” (Num. 16: 1–3). The specific challenge had to do with the priesthood (16:10f.) Were Korah ET AL. basing their claim on Ex 19:5f.? In any event, Aaron’s exclusive role was being confirmed in dramatic fashion, though the justice of Yahweh might have been questioned at the death of the families of the challengers (though at least some of Korah’s sons survived (Num. 26:10f.).

            3) Almost 1,000 years later we have perhaps the most significant Scriptural citation regarding developments in the priesthood—Is. 61:5f.: “… you shall be called ‘Priests of the LORD,’ and termed ‘Servants of our God.’” The JBS note there is: The nations serve the Judeans (cf, 60:4–16), and the Judeans in turn serve the nations as priests. The priestly role that once belonged to the descendants of Aaron alone (i.e. ‘kohanim’; see Num. ch. 18) is now extended to the whole nation” (JSB, p. 906).14

            Repeated “captivities,” destruction or desecration of the Temple, etc., tended to erode the Aaronic priests’ influence , but they were still very much in power until A.D. 70, when the total destruction of the Temple eliminated their “power base,” their legitimacy and the need for their services once and for all (so far at least!). Meanwhile the Pharisees (Judaic “Taliban”?), based on the synagogue/shul, survived and flourished, putting their indelible imprint on subsequent Judaism (and determining the Old Testament canon for most “Protestants,” including us—though both Luther’s Bible and the authorized version contain the “Apocrypha,” some of which are regarded as worthy of being quoted in our “Confessions”).

            So there seems to have been considerable “theorizing” but relatively little change in “practice” in the priesthood of all the circumcised who were not sons of Aaron (and of Abraham and Sarah). Democratized? Gentilized? So what? But through the inspired prophet Joel (2:28–32; 3:1–5) God set the stage for a greater development, resulting in the removal of all significant barriers to service as God’s priestly servants by virtue of age, gender, ethnicity or social status: a virtual “Universalization” for all the Baptized! However, it took about 400 years or so for God to bring it to pass (and total fulfillment remains unrealized!).


            In the New Testament we enter “a new world” when it comes to priestly service. The basic elements of such service remains: sacrifice, mediation, communication and expiation. But the virtual explosion of the variety and the capacity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit matched with all the varieties of ministry that God gives his people in which they can give him glory by responding to the needs of their neighbors, especially “the least” open up a whole new vision for them. The Scriptural “trail” in this process is instructive: It begins in Exodus 19, leapfrogs over the extended priesthood of the sons of Aaron, finds some expressions in the life of God’s people, is extended in meaning by the inspired prophet Isaiah, is enhanced by a great promise given through the prophet, Joel, is provided with a blueprint for the future of the ministry of the Lord Jesus (especially as recorded by Luke the Evangelist, with major involvement of women), finds the promise of Joel fulfilled in Pentecost, receives it definitive statement in 1 Peter 2 and its definitive expression in the life of the early Church (with the astonishing catalogue of baptized priestly servants of God in Romans 16 providing the best clue as to who was really doing ministry in that era!).15


            Two passages in 1 Peter 2 are crucial in our understanding of the Priesthood of all the Baptized. 1 Peter 2:5 states, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”16 The second is 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”17

            As we wonder about how the Israelites understood and responded to Ex. Chapter 19, so we must wonder in what way and to what extent the believers in what is now Turkey understood and responded to these inspired words. Some scholars believe that the first part of this letter is actually a sort of “baptismal sermon”. Peter is certainly not welcoming the readers aboard “the gravy train of grace,” though he does share an eloquent exposition of the gift of Holy Baptism along with its daunting challenges. Rather like Ex. 19, 1 Peter 2 has little immediate context of follow-up to help us understand in a deeper way what these worlds mean, also very much to us. We must remain grateful that both Ex. 19 and 1 Peter 2 are part of a much larger “context,” where God has provided all we need to know (if not all we would like to know) about its individual parts!

            Regarding the “Priesthood of all the Baptized,” many (but not all) of the matters seem to come in threes:

  • Baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • Sacrifice – Communication – Mediation – Expiation
  • loci (Places) for its expression: Home – Congregation/Church/Church body – World
  • Significant roles: diakonoi (servants), apostoloi (missionaries) and leitourgoi (ministers in the sanctuary)
  • “The Whole Package”: hierateuma (priesthood) + charismata pneumatika (empowering gifts of the Spirit) + diakoniai (receiving a ministry)

            In his essay on “The Universal Priesthood of Believers”18 Dr. Spitz in rather haphazard fashion19 has assembled an impressive number of the Priesthood’s “rights and duties,” “privileges and responsibilities.”20 Out of the multiplicity of types of ministry, I should like to note just three:

            1) Sacrifices: offering various Spirit-enabled and Spirit-directed “sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5), acts of self-sacrifice, of praise to God and of response to people’s needs.21

            2) Mission – Proclamation: proclaiming the Good News of God’s agapē in Christ Jesus to the world (1 Peter 2: 9), with the special example of Paul as an Apostle, serving as a leitourgos (servant) to the nations, the kosmos so loved by God, hierourgounta (in priestly service) presenting the Gospel to the nations, and presenting them as an ”offering/sacrifice” to God made acceptable by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:16). Here is Evangelism as a liturgical, priestly art.

            3) Mission – Mediation: another aspect of mission, in this case uniquely expressed by the inspired Apostle St. John in the prologue to his first Epistle (1:1–14)22 The pervasive priestly mediatorial role here involves the koinonia (fellowship) that the baptized community has with the Father and the Son, which by the power of the Holy Spirit working through their proclamation of “The Word Who is the Life,” they shared with the redeemed and loved but unknowing, unbelieving world, thus bringing them, too, into saving fellowship with the Father and the Son: the process and purpose of mission! Here we have the priestly community as the essential (and, too often, “missing”) link between the Triune God and the world.

            4) However, I believe that what is missing in Dr. Spitz’s presentation is treatment of the fourth and quintessential aspect of the priesthood; expiation/forgiveness.

            A Lutheran emphasis makes the Priesthood of the Baptized God’s agents of forgiveness based on Christ’s expiation for sin. The only explicit reference to the Priesthood of All the Baptized in the Lutheran Confessions is in the “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope” beginning with “Finally this is also confirmed by Peter’s declaration [1 Peter 2:9]: ‘you are … royal priesthood.’ These words apply to the true church, which, since it alone possess the priesthood, certainly has the right of choosing and ordaining ministers.”23 Dr. C. F. W. Walther provides an impressive array of “authorities” in support of his version of this in Thesis VI: A: “The ministry of the Word is conferred by God through the congregation as the possessor of all ecclesiastical power, or the power of the keys, by means of the call, which God himself has prescribed.”24

            It is a challenge to most evangelical Lutherans (and many others, too) to understand fully how RADICALLY FUNDAMENTAL the implications of those words are in the theology and practice of long-established church bodies, both East and West. Does this mean “congregational” rather than “Episcopal”/diocesan? Does this really mean that there is not Apostolic/Episcopal but baptismal “succession”? Are the locally gathered baptized servant priests of God their King “the possessor of ALL ecclesiastical power”? When Jesus addressed Peter, “The Rock” (Matt. 16:17f.), was he really addressing the faith of the local congregation? When he included the other Apostles (Thomas being absent—John 20:22f.) in the gifts of “The Keys,” did they again represent their successors not as bishops but as baptized believers gathered in worshipping, witnessing and serving fellowships: ecclēsiai/congregations? In the West the power of the Papacy had been challenged in various ways: by the “Conciliarists,” scholars like Marsiglio de Padua and William of Ockham25 and various “proto-reformers.” But this undermined the entire hierarchy, the very structure of the established church bodies, and it was truly FOUNDATIONAL, a virtual ecclesiological “Copernican Revolution”!

            The “Teachers of the Law” rightly asked: “Who can forgive sins but the One God alone?” (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21). Jesus replied: “Why, here on earth I can!” And he proved it (Mark 2:10f. ; Luke 5:24f.). To him alone “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given, above all the authority to forgive sins on which human beings’ present and future shalom/wholeness depends.

            However, on whom and how has the Lord Jesus really conferred the exercise of that forgiving/retaining authority in His church? Traditionally, the whole basis for “The Power of the Keys” was tied to the original Apostles and those who “succeeded” them as consecrated episkopoi/overseers/bishops, with the power shared by “lesser clergy” by the rite of ordination (the conferring of holy orders”).26

            Again: “Who can forgive sins but the One God alone?” Again, why those with whom the Lord Jesus has shared that part of the authority on earth that is his alone. Who might that really be? For the answer to that question we do not look to Constantinople or Rome or Canterbury or even, as the case may be, to Wittenberg or Geneva. We, at least, as evangelical Lutherans, would like to take our instructions from the Incarnate Word of God as faithfully recorded in the written word.

            We begin in the Old Testament. Yahweh is the eternally merciful, compassionate, only forgiving One. In the Covenant at Sinai Yahweh’s definitive “vicar” in the forgiving process was a high priest chosen from among the sons of Aaron, and the definitive site for it was the Most Holy Place, the debīr, in the Temple. Continuing to the renewed/extended Covenant on Calvary, God’s Only and Beloved Son became both the Agent and Means of forgiveness being both the High Priest and the Sacrifice, with the Cross being both the determinative place and the determinative process for forgiveness that is available and valid for all people who “repent and believe the Good News” in all places and in all the remaining history of the world. The debīr was no longer a place but a person; Jesus referred to himself and his body/soma as ho naos (his body as the one true temple, John 2:21): the Sanctuary/debīr (not as the generic to hieron/THE Temple—John 2:14f.).

            While forgiveness in the Old Testament is indeed the province of God alone, Jesus, notably in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:12; Luke 11:4), encouraged his disciples to pray for forgiveness and, in turn, forgive others, making forgiveness the “hallmark” of their discipleship and even making RECEIVING forgiveness from God dependent on their FORGIVING OTHERS (Matt. 6:14f.; 18:21, 35; Mark 11:25f.; Luke 6:37; 17:3f.). Jesus had indeed shared the “power of the Keys” with Peter and the other Apostles. However, we believe that he designated the ekklesiai/congregations to be the locus classicus for the forgiving process. Forgiveness , thus, was “personal” (not a place). His Body, consisting of as few as “two or three” of his Father’s baptized servant priests, could do the forgiving. This would be authenticated not by the presence of his Apostles or their supposed “successors” but by HIS gracious and enduring (always!) personal presence, determining the gathering to be the true DEBĪR: where God meets human beings, sinner-saints, to share forgiveness and effect reconciliation and SHALOM (Matt. 18:5–20; 28:20).

            There is the key: EIMI/I AM, personally present “in their midst”/en meso (cf. Is. 12:6 LXX).27 He is present also in a very special way among his disciples gathered for worship: prayer and praise and thanksgiving in the form of bread and wine eaten and drunk “for his remembrance”! What an awesome gift: his very own self as proof of the agapē of the one who IS agapē, which confirms the forgiveness already shared and provides great hope and joy, “for where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation”!

            “The House of God’s People” is also the “House of God’s Incarnate Word,” the “Bread of Life”: beth lehem! And of course, when the baptized servant priests leave that “House,” they bear with themselves the very Body and Blood of the Lord and Savior into “the world,” which then becomes his “House” too, in which they are his very “real presence,” his “Voice,” calling to all the world: “Come to Jesus, and he will give you what he alone can give: shalom!” How sad it is that so often the place of the ultimate shalom on earth, where those present share the “Peace” with each other, so often becomes a place of conflict—sacrilege!—of pride and “power” and the absence of forgiveness, an indication of the absence of agapē/love, which means the absence of GOD and the ultimate hypocrisy: “The World” in disguise as the church”!


            How is the ministry of all the Baptized to be exercised? In Walther’s Thesis VI.A, he says: “The ministry of the Word is conferred by God through the congregation … by means of the call, which God himself has prescribed.” This is done “by electing, calling and commissioning” “certain competent persons.”29 Each and every one of those to whom the power to forgive has been given, the members of the locally gathered community of baptized servant priests, is personally in need of that forgiveness—so they all together, with ALL the baptized [theoretically, at least!] given that right and duty, “call” a teaching shepherd/pastor, a servant priest of servant priests, “publicly” (Latin: publice from populus), in their place and on their behalf, to share forgiveness with penitent, believing sinner-saints. Thus the called teaching shepherd becomes for God’s gathered People the very Voice of Jesus (Luke 10:16), with the “sound” emanating from the very Throne of God!30 It is one of the main duties of the teaching shepherd to train the other servant priests so that faithfully and effectively, as the teaching shepherd is the “Voice” of Jesus in the church, they might be the “Voice” of Jesus in the world, serving Jesus’ “other sheep” who need so crucially to hear his voice (John 10:16).

            While “the call” specifically authorizes the teaching shepherd to announce forgiveness “publicly” among the gathered people of God, pastors also carry out that ministry among the members of the Flock “in private” (where, of course, it is also a “people” ministry). Individual members, as has been noted above, are also authorized and even commanded to carry out that ministry as needed, “in private” within the fellowship of faith and beyond in response to penitent faith. It perhaps should be observed that the “power of the keys” for “public” expression has been entrusted, not relinquished, to the called servant of the Flock, which retains control over its continuance, which Luther notes again and again.31

            This brings to mind the “formula” for the “public” expression of absolution.32 Here I am thinking only of the words the absolver uses to claim the right and power to absolve. In our tradition that usually involves the words “called and ordained.” The meaning of “called” in this context is clear: first of all, it recalls Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession which states: “Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacrament without a proper [public] call.” Secondly, absolution can be validly given in this time and place by virtue of the “call” which the congregation has been moved by the Holy Spirit to extend to its fellow servant priest to be its teaching shepherd. (The congregation’s role in the calling process should not be denigrated, as if the call were directly from God, with the called one responsible only to God.)

            But what about “ordination,” which remains a rather controverted matter among us? Melancthon, an unordained baptized servant, priestly scholar and churchman, allows that ”if ordination is understood with reference to the ministry of the Word, we have no objection to calling ordination a sacrament … because God approves this ministry and is present in it.”33 Later in the TREATISE, 70, he returns to the matter of ordination: “… in times past the people chose pastors and bishops. Then the bishop of either that church or of a neighboring one came and confirmed the candidate by the laying on of hands. Ordination was nothing other than such confirmation.”34 In Thesis VI.B Walther takes up the matter: “B. The ordination of the called [persons] with the laying on of hands is not a divine institution [then not really a “sacrament”?] but merely an ecclesiastical rite [ordnung] established by the apostles; it is no more than a solemn public [not “permanent”?] confirmation of the call.” Walther supports this thesis with his usual impressive array of quotes from various “authorities.”35

            It might be interesting to explore the history of the terminology “called and ordained” in the words of absolution in our hymnals. This may have some significance in the matter between our ordained and unordained servant priests.36 The word “ordination” comes from the Latin ordo/order, from which we also get “holy orders” (with possible a touch of Theologia Gloriae/the theology of glory). Following the world, emphasis on ordination likes to arrange things vertically, while ministry in the New Testament tends to be horizontal—“It shall not be so among you” remains one of the two sets of “The Seven Last Words of Jesus” that, sad to say, cause concern in the church today, the other one being “We never did it THAT way before”! It is a matter of status, and even in our democratic, egalitarian American society all expressions of the military remain rigidly vertical! We would claim that in our “evangelical movement” within the UNA SANCTA, at least, any validity of the “orders of creation” and “the orders of ministry” have been trumped by Holy Baptism.


            St. Peter’s decision to quote Ex. 19:6 from the LXX version rather than following the Hebrew more closely (as St. Jerome did later in the Vulgate), by thus introducing the world “royal” with “priesthood,” might have helped some believers into thinking that they were something that God never intended. The late Greek New Testament text promulgated by Erasmus and used by Luther and the scholars that produced the “Authorized (King James) Version” with the late, variant reading of Rev. 5:10 (basileis/kings vice basileian/kingdom) further complicated matters. We members of the Royal Priesthood find our identity (WHO we ARE) and our worth (“bought with a [most precious] price”) in terms of WHOM we serve (our God, the Triune, the Only) and what that should mean in our daily lives (sacrificial), loving response to the needs of our neighbors, especially “the least” (near and far) as we seek to give glory and praise to the One Who had honored us by making us unworthy ones “His own” and entrusting us with a priestly role “in his kingdom,” with all that should mean.

            In the end, for us baptized servant priests there can be only One reigning Monarch Whom we shall consider and address as “King”: the ‘eved yahweh/’abd allah/servant-slave of God, the King of self-giving agape/sacrificial love, Whose throne was a Cross and Whose Crown was made of thorns (1 Tim. 1:17; 6: 15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16). And for us there is no “Queen,” though there is indeed someone whom we join “all generations” in calling truly “Blessed”: the Handmaid of the Lord! As for us believers as “kings”?—In my opinion, we members of the Royal Priesthood can no more be regarded as such than could the sailors of the “Royal” Navy! There is indeed only One King, and we are privileged to serve in His Kingdom as servant priests: truly “royal” but NEVER “royalty”!

            The gift and the challenge of the baptized servant Priesthood is overwhelming! The inspired passages in Exodus and 1 Peter opened up enormous possibilities in each case. The result among the non-Levite Israelites has not been impressive. What about the UNA SANCTA? The de-genderization that we saw in the earthly ministry of Jesus: Mary as “ a student of theology,” the women who provided for Jesus “out of their own resources,” etc., and the role of women in the earliest Church (cf. the special servants of Jesus [and Paul himself] that Paul, supposed by some to be a misogynist, included in Romans 16, noting who “the hard workers” were!) was soon severely mitigated with the return of the dominant patriarchalism (termed by some church historians as frueh katholicismus) and the hierarchical ways of the world, which rapidly shaped the Church as it became “established,” an institution/organization rather than a movement/organism, the same fate perhaps that befell Judaism when it moved from the Tabernacle (Go!) to the Temple (Come!). The control of the male-dominated clergy in the Church, both East and West, with the elaborate CLERGY-dominated sacramental system (“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church!”), resulted in a body of baptized servant priests of God, their King, who were largely dependent on the clergy from the font to the grave, a situation that has eroded only slightly (at least in the “traditional” established church bodies) over the millennia, including in a great part of the evangelical Lutheran confessional movement within the UNA SANCTA.


            As baptized servant priests, we are truly blessed indeed! We rejoice, as we begin each day with the sign of the cross, in the gift, the promise, the hope of our Baptism—but remember its challenge. We rejoice each day in the gift, the promise, the hope of the Eucharist—but while giving thanks, we also remember its challenge. First we say: “Thank You!” Then we say: “Help us!” We hear the Voice of Jesus saying: “You are My Body,” and with it there is an echo, reverberating in the depths of our heart, our being, again the Voice of Jesus, saying: “Follow ME!”—the priestly, the sacramental, the sacrificial, the liturgical, and above all, the Cross-shaped life.

S. D. G.

1 Terminology: My own preference is indicated in the title above. The Scriptural terms are “ a kingdom of priests/a priestly kingdom” (Ex. 19) and “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2). “The universal priesthood of believers” is quite commonly used. I’d be grateful for help about the provenance of the term “universal” in this context. universitas civium and universitas fidelium were terms used by Marsiglio de Padua, the anti-papal Conciliarist who served the French and Bavarian monarchs, in his defensor pacis (1324); because of his ideas about the latter term, Martin Luther was accused of having been influenced by Marsiglio, though I am not aware of any direct proof of that. The word “believers” is also included in many of the terms used in this connection, though that term and also “universal” have rather broad connotations these days. C. F. W. Walther refers to the “priesthood of all believers” and the “general/spiritual priesthood.” Roman Catholic sources prefer various forms of “the common priesthood of all the faithful/baptized,” though Hans Küng refers to the “priesthood of all believers” and “the royal priesthood of all Christians.” Take your choice!

2 Luther Engelbrecht will be receiving an honorary doctorate from Concordia University Irvine at Spring Graduation (2009) as a missionary, Islamic scholar, pastor, and churchman.

3 Though I regret to say that there is little evidence of that approach to Scripture in Synodical materials on the subject.

4 v. 5: segullah – personal/private property, treasure (especially of a king)

5 ha ‘amīm – the peoples (this noun is often used for “the people of God” [Deut. 7:6; reflecting this passage, 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9).

6 v.6: mamleketh kohanīm – a kingdom of priests (an example of the Hebrew “construct state,” two nouns in succession, with the second, nomen rectum, acting as a “genitive” modifier of the first, nomen regens).

7 gōī qadōsh – a sanctified nation (in the Deut. passages noted above in each case it is ‘am qadōsh); qadōsh is a word of deep significance in the Old Testament, its first use being in this verse. The basic meaning involves separation, being set apart, consecrated and also undefiled, pure, etc.; it is used of people, places and objects.)

Note: Ex 19:6 is repeated verbatim in Ex 23:22, only in the LXX (Septuagint), with the only other use of the word hieratuma/ priesthood in the LXX being there: a unique designation!

8 These were of a type not seen again until late-20th-century China (though the descendants of the oppressed Jews in modern day Israel are faced with a problem similar to that of the Egyptians because of the burgeoning growth of the Arab population!)

9 Pastors are familiar with promises given without hesitation or mitigation “to be faithful until death” as well as rote promises without hesitation by pastors and their new congregations at the time of their installation!

10The role of pater familias as “priest” is not defined, though the first Passover and subsequent observances thereof took place at home (or at a home away from home) with the father presiding at the event; when it became one of the “Pilgrimage Festivals,” the sacrifice of the Passover lambs/kids was carried out by Aaronic priests in the Temple.

11 Comparable was the land grab of Henry VIII, who did not even have to pay for his “nationalization” of the Church’s monastic land and wealth.

12 Not included in the Sunday school stories of Joseph.

13 The Jewish scholars who prepared the notes for the Jewish Study Bible have written this at Ex. 19:5f. “… later Jewish tradition converted this from a promise to a responsibility (noblesse oblige) requiring the entire Jewish people, not just the priests, to live by a code of holiness—God’s commandments—and to serve as priests, bringing knowledge of him to the world (p. 146).

On our terms (Lutheran) that would change “Gospel” into “Law.” I discussed Ex. 19 with the rabbis (at the moment all Reformed) in our local Jewish-Christian dialogue group, and to them it did not seem to have much practical significance. Perhaps others can provide information about expressions of “the priestly kingdom” in Judaism, past and present.

14 In JSB’s note at Is. 60:1–22 this is called “the democratizing of the priesthood” (p. 903); this is a repeat from the note at Is. 55:3f. where the Jewish scholars note the democratizing of the royal Davidic covenant! Other questions arise: Do some rightly see the “gentilization” of the priesthood at Is. 56:6f. and 66:18b–21 (see also Lev. 22:18–25; Num.15:14f.; and 1 Kings 8:41f.)? And does Hos. 4:4–9 have any relevance here when God says that he will reject Israel from being a priest? In any event, there does not seem to have been any significant developments in the practice of Judaic “priesthood” up to the time of Jesus because of any of these passages.

15 Romans 16:1–16: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4 and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. 14Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” (NRS)

16 v. 5—hierateuma hagion: a holy priesthood. “Holy” here is defined in 1 Pet 1:15: “Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (NRS), reflecting Lev. 19:2; 20:7, etc., with further definitions especially in Heb. 7:26; 10:10; and 12: 14.

pneumatikas thusias: “spiritual” sacrifices—For evangelical Lutherans, at least, “spiritual” here is defined in Apology XXIV (XIII) 26 … ‘spiritual’ refers to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.”

17 v. 9—basileion hierateuma: a royal priesthood

Peter uses the Septuagint (LXX) version of Ex. 19:6 rather than providing a literal translation of that text. This can lead to some misunderstanding regarding the significance of the word “royal”! This adjective is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Luke 7:25: royal [palaces].

ethnos hagion: a holy people/nation

laos eis peripoiēsin: “[God’s] own people”/”a people belonging to God”]. This seems to be a reflection of the Hebrew segullah in Ex. 19:5.

18 L. Spitz, “The Universal Priesthood of All Believers” in The Abiding Word  I (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House).

19 defying classification as exegetical, systematic, historical or practical

20 See the appendix for the list.

21 A list of these is found in The Concordia Study Bible at this text: “bodies offered to God (Rom. 12:1), offerings of money or material goods (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16), sacrifices of praise to God (Heb. 13:15), and sacrifices of doing good (Heb. 13:16).”

22 1 John 1:1–4: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (NRS).

23 Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 341.

24 C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987), 219.

25 Ockham did indeed influence Luther.

26 While breaking away from a structured relationship with the Roman Church and sharing many of the teachings and practices of various “Reformers,” the Anglican Church, headed by the English monarch (after all, had not the Pope given Henry VIII the title defensor fidei as a reward for his tract against Luther on the Sacraments, a title still claimed by that monarch, something which probably still gives the present Pope extreme discomfort in his sitting zone!) still strongly asserts that the “historic episcopacy” is part of the esse (being), the very nature, of the ecclesia (which prompted the term “Episcopalian” in connection with the American incarnation, though here its members refer to their pastors as “priests” not, as in England, as “vicars” serving “in the place of” their bishop, the diocesan “shepherd,” who bears the common symbol of the bishop’s office: the crosier/shepherd’s staff). Many “outsiders” wonder about the furor in the Anglican Communion over the consecration of a practicing homosexual as a bishop of the church, causing what some regard as a “defect” in the “being” of the church, something FOUNDATIONAL. Of course, anyone who doesn’t understand the complexities of ecclesiastical legitimacy and “real” power (and who, indeed, can?!) “just doesn’t ‘get it’”!

27 Isaiah 12:6—“ Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

28 [Editorial insertion for clarity]

29 Scriptural support is provided in Acts 1:15–26, where Matthias was elected to succeed Judas as apostle “by the whole multitude of believers gathered together,” and by Acts 6:1–6, where we read that deacons were chosen by the ‘whole multitude’” (Church and Ministry, 219). We might find such ”support” unconvincing, especially since Matthias was finally elected by lot under God’s direct guidance! Even then, we can claim that “the call process,” including “the call”/beruf itself, which has proved useful in the experience of evangelical Lutheran church bodies and may be regarded as an example of the leadership and guidance “into all truth” of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus (John 16:13): an effective and necessary corollary to the “congregationalization” of the church.

30 Should there not be an echo from the assembled forgiven believers, as baptized servant priests with the authority given them by Jesus to forgive sins, assuring the called “expiators,” as penitent believers also in need of forgiveness, that in fact they have received it too, or should they alone remain unshriven?!

31 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 45:222.

32 I’m not thinking here of the total formula, of which there is considerable variety, some of which are quite unconditional (making one wonder whether perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s definition of “Cheap Grace,” one element of which is “forgiveness without repentance,” might apply!).

33 Philip Melanchthon, “The Apology to the Augsburg Confession,” XIII. 11f. in The Lutheran Confessions, 220.

34 “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope” in Ibid., 341.

35 Walther, Church and Ministry, 247.

36 The (LCMS) Evangelical Hymn-Book (CPH, 1919) has only the general absolution as does The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), p. 5. The Liturgy and Agenda (CPH, 1921), while duplicating the liturgy of the 1919 hymnal, has in the confessional service that the absolution is announced by “a called and ordained servant of the Word” (p. 27). The earlier 20th century hymnals of the ALC and LCA omit any reference to “ordained,” though “called and ordained” does occur multiple times in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) as well as in the latest hymnal of the ELCA.

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