The Priesthood of All Believers Doesn’t Mean We Are Each Our Own Pope…

We evangelical free church types, not being Roman Catholic, do not subscribe to papal infallibility.  Of course Roman Catholics also do not think that everything the Pope says or does is infallible, but only when the Pope speaks ex cathdera (as the mouthpiece of God in his position as head of the Roman Catholic Church(**and please see Fr. John Montag’s additional explantion in a comment below)).  Protestants, if we protest anything, protest the authority of the Roman Catholic church as an institution, and the Reformers orginally were protesting specific practices of the church which the Reformers felt were man-made doctrines or practices, without Biblical authority (things like the sale of indulgences, purgatory, etc).  Instead of church authority, the Protestants emphasize the priesthood of all believers– that we each have access to God through Christ, who is our mediator.  We don’t need a priest or the church to mediate for us, because Christ gives us free access without need of human mediation. 

What this often leads to for evangelical free church types is an anti-ecclessial attitude which is suspicious of any authority.  In some sense then, evangelical free churchers are kind of like the hippies of the 60’s who didn’t trust authority, and who won’t be fooled again by ‘the man’.   We are often radically individualistic, not particularly prone towards community, and we trust our reading of the Bible more than most peoples (including our pastors’ in most cases).   Ironically, in not being willing to trust in the traditions of the History of the Church because they are ‘man-made-creations’ we instead rely on our own viewpoint of Scripture with little to no historical guidance. 

The positive side of this is that protestants tend to have an empowered lay community, since each layperson feels that they are in some sense their own priest.  Vatican II, it has been argued, was in some sense a move towards the empowerment of the laity (non-priests) in the Roman Catholic church.  When the mass was no longer said in latin, and the ministry of the lay people was emphasized, the central importance of the priest, some have argued, was slightly undermined.  (The number of priests dropped by over 8,000 in the US from 1962-1974– around a 30% decrease)

But the downside to the protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers is the radical individualism and lack of submission to authority.  Really, this is perhaps a misunderstanding of what the priesthood of believers really means.  The priesthood of all believers doesn’t mean that I only have one priest– me– rather, all Christians are responsible to proclaim the gospel, and live out the gospel to the world.  We don’t have a small class of ministers to do this work (although of course ordained pastors and priests have a special role in the church) but rather all of us are called to be ministers of Christ to the world and to each other. 

So the priesthood of all believers is not a doctrine which should lead to more individualistic Christianity, rather, it should draw me into communion with other believers.  If I am called to be ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of all the church and all other believers, than I should have a very others-centered stance and life.  If God really does call all Christians to be priests, then I should have an attitude of reverence and even submission to other brothers and sisters in Christ, expecting God to speak to me through them.  This attitude of faith and hope towards other believers, and the ability of the Holy Spirit to use them in my life and me in theirs, is indicative of a real understanding and belief in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, I think.  At any rate, you shouldn’t try to be your own infallible pope.  Being out of fellowship and without any submission to any other believers is a great way to practice your own personal papacy, but its not Biblical, and its indicative more of an autonomous stubborn American individualism than a sanctified Christian life

May God have mercy on us all.


4 responses to “The Priesthood of All Believers Doesn’t Mean We Are Each Our Own Pope…

  1. John Montag SJ

    Andy, thanks for your reflections. I’m concerned to add a slight but significant clause to your description of papal infallibility. in the decree from Vatican I, after describing the ex cathedra conditions of an infallible statement, the decree continues by describing exactly the quality of this infallibility: “that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” Hence, it’s not that the statement is made ‘ex cathedra’ (whatever that really means–as if sitting on a chair when speaking could make any difference), but that it is guaranteed by whatever infallibility “the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy” when it made claims of faith or morals. I’ve no problem with that claim, because I take it to be nothing more than a reiteration of Christ’s own gospel promise, to send the Holy Spirit to us. I believe that the faith given us by the Holy Spirit is, indeed, infallible–that it will, despite our own sinfulness and blindness, provide us the way to salvation in Christ. Hence it’s no quality of the office of the pope, or of the sanctity of the Church itself, much less the quality of any individual, that guarantees infallibility to papal statements. it’s nothing more (or less) than Jesus’s own promise to us.

    also–you may not know it, but after Vatican II, the idea of the priesthood of the people became quite prominent among us Catholics as well. it’s almost as if the emphasis that John Calvin placed on Christ as priest, prophet and king were suddenly lifted into Catholic teaching, with very little comment on the matter…

  2. simplefreechurch

    Fr. John, Thank you for that clarification. I know that the Roman Catholic church has definitely (since Vatican II) made great strides to empower laypeople and emphasize the priesthood of all believers, so I should have emphasized that more. It is interesting how that move was made with so little comment, as you say. I’m reading a lot of Nevin and some Schaff from the 1800s German Reformed Church and the Mercersberg theology that they worked on. They had a Hegelian reading of Church history in that the Roman Catholic Church was the thesis, the reformation the antithesis, and whatever would result after the synthesis– an evangelical catholic tradition. They were of course accused by a lot of reformed antagonists as being Romanish heretics, but those charges were cleared. But it does seem that evangelicals have become less antagonistic towards Roman Catholics and a number of the serious differences and lines have been made less sharp, so that more commonalities can be seen. (not that there aren’t differences still to respect) But some of what Nevin hoped for 150 years ago is happening at some level. Its interesting, and exciting. I don’t see an institutional unity ever happening. But what I hope for is a more open handed approach to others serving the cause of Christ, seeing each other as real Brothers and Sisters in the Family (the Roman Catholic Church will always be the older big brother to us low church protestants 🙂

  3. Stellar work there evoenrye. I’ll keep on reading.

  4. Pingback: Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 2) | CHEF

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