We Protestants believe in the priesthood of believers. Since, by virtue of our relationship with God through Jesus, all Christ-followers are priests, then (a) all followers of Jesus have the responsibility and right to interpret Scripture prayerfully and personally, in community and under the guidance of God’s Spirit; (b) each of us has direct access to God; and (c) every believer is a minister.
I read somewhere pastors like invoking the priesthood of believers when church members are getting lazy, and church members like invoking the priesthood of believers when pastors are getting uppity. But how is this supposed to work? How does the idea we all are priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 5:10) inform our understanding of ministerial oversight?
“Balance of power”
In the New Testament, there is a “balance of power” between the pastor and the congregation. On the one hand, the Bible speaks of the spiritual authority of the pastor (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). On the other hand, the Bible speaks of the personal responsibility and freedom of the believer (Acts 17:11).
So, there is this dance we do. There is no rule applicable in every circumstance, and as long as we hold in tension these rather paradoxical truths—the pastor has spiritual authority, and the believer has freedom and responsibility—we are being true to the biblical prescription for our relationship.
We turn to the late Bill Self’s Surviving the Stained Glass Jungle for help: “The priesthood of believers was never intended to cause the church to be led from the middle, nor was it meant to unpriest the priest or the one qualified to preach, lead and cast the vision. … This is not a plea for pastoral tyranny, but rather a plea for vocational decisiveness and assertiveness.
“More churches are hurt by pastoral default than have ever been hurt by pastoral domination. … Too many pastors believe that they should lead, if they lead at all, not from the balls of their feet but from the back of their heels. … Of course, there are times when the pastor must compromise; we are not masters of the universe. Nevertheless, the leader’s first task is to sound the trumpet clear and loud. He should not give an uncertain sound.”
So, pastors certainly should blow the trumpet clear and loud! But they should not forget this is not a solo performance; they are part of an orchestra of fellow priests.
Travis Collins is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches.