Last year’s 500th anniversary of Luther’s publication of his 95 Theses in 1517 naturally saw renewed attention to the key principles of the Protestant Reformation, which, even in the 21st century, often are still best known in Latin, the scholarly language of the 16th century. The most important of these principles are sola gratia, sola fide and sola scriptura: grace only, faith only, and the Bible only; but they also include presbyterii fidelium, a Latin term meaning “priesthood of the faithful.” This doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” was historically a central one in all churches arising out of the Reformation.1
In recent years, the doctrinal gulf between Catholic and Protestant has narrowed as a result of ecumenical initiatives, but Adventists hold fast to traditional Protestant understandings of sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura. Yet is the same true of presbyterii fidelium?
The past 18 months have seen passionate discussions about church authority and the role of pastors, arising from the world-Church’s 2013–2014 ordination study process and the 2015 General Conference Session action on ordination. These events, coinciding as they did with the Reformation’s quincentenary, led some Adventist church members and leaders to wonder whether current Adventist understandings of the priesthood of all believers are consistent with the original teachings of Luther and the Reformers.
This article shows that the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s positions on pastoral ministry and church authority are essentially those of the Protestant Reformers. The priesthood of all believers is often misunderstood as being primarily about ecclesiology, when it had more to do with soteriology; it was never, for 16th-century Protestants, a shorthand for a pastorate of all believers, it was rather a claim of each believer’s ability to be saved without human mediation.
The Old Testament
The concept that all of God’s people were equivalent to priests was a radical innovation by the early Christian Church, one that was contrary to centuries of divinely ordained Jewish practice.
In the Old Testament, anyone—male or female, rich or poor—could pray to God and be answered.2 But only priests and Levites had access to the sacred instruments and rituals. This was plain from the horrible fiery deaths of the 250 supporters of Korah who offered incense and fire in unsanctioned censers (Num. 16:16-18, 35). Only priests could legitimately offer the sin and guilt sacrifices; and only priests and judges or prophets (called by God) could make other sacrifices. If offered by others, sacrifices not only were unacceptable to God: they also resulted in divine condemnation of the one who had presumptuously offered the sacrifice (1 Sam. 13:13-14).
While any Hebrew could approach God through prayer, the priests, supported by the Levites, had sole control over sacred objects and rituals. To use a theologian’s term, in the “sacred economy” of the Israelites, the priest had a monopoly on the mechanics by which salvation was gained. The priest was indispensable, the mediator of salvation.
The New Testament
It is precisely this status that the Apostle Peter undermines with his memorable words about the privileged position of all who believe in Jesus. His ministry on earth, sacrificial death, and high priestly ministry in heaven, all ushered in a new and very different salvific economy.
Fundamental here is 1 Peter chapter 2, but often only verse 9 is quoted, whereas verse 5 is also important, with its assertion that “you also, like living stones, are being built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (NIV).
The key point of course is that the believer is able to offer spiritual sacrifices—previously the prerogative of the Aaronic priesthood. This is the foundation on which Peter then declares: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (2:9, NIV).
No caste or group, then, has a monopoly on access to salvation; no mediator is required other than Jesus. The author of Hebrews makes this plain, writing that, because “we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,” not only do we have good reason to “hold fast our confession;” we can also “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14, 16 NKJV).
The intention of the early Church was, however, to be frustrated by developments in the later Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.
The Medieval Church
The Catholic Church perpetuated the division of God’s people into different categories. In medieval Catholic terminology, these were “spiritual” (or “religious”) and “secular” (not the modern meaning). Bible reading and unsupervised prayer by “secular” (lay) people was discouraged. The “religious” included friars, monks, nuns, and deacons. Those who were ordained, however, the priests, were more than men with a vocation. Ordination makes the priest ontologically distinct from other believers.
In Catholic soteriology, the sacraments are instruments of and vehicles for divine grace (whereas in Adventist theology, baptism and communion are signs). But only a priest may administer the sacraments. If a lay person presides over the eucharist or mass, Catholic theology holds that it is not efficacious (i.e., it does not impart grace), for only the priest can transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. After confession, in the final stage of the sacrament of penance, the priest absolves the sinner—and does so himself, historically with the Latin words “ego te absolvo” (“I absolve you”). And only a priest is able to offer this absolution.
Thus, the Catholic religious economy recreates that of the Old Testament: priests make up a qualitatively different class of person. The priest is the indispensable mediator of God’s grace, without whom salvation is impossible.
It was these claims that Luther was attacking in his assertion of presbyterii fidelium. In the face of a hierarchy whose claims divided the body of Christ, creating second-class citizens, Luther roundly declared in 1520:
“It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate. . . . all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate.”3 In 1523, he posed and answered a rhetorical question: “I ask who are these who are called out of darkness into marvelous light? It is only the shorn and anointed [priests]? Is it not all Christians?”4
Luther is very clear, though, that there is still authority in the Church and still a place for a reformed priesthood, what Luther calls “the ministry.” Writing that the Roman hierarchs must be “forced to grant that all of us that have been baptized are equally priests,” he asserts nevertheless that “the ministry was committed” to the Church.5 For Luther, the true “priesthood is nothing but a ministry.”6
The continued existence of ministers did not imply an exalted status in God’s eyes. Instead, “Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests.” But while all believers have the same theoretical “power in respect to the Word and the sacraments,” crucially, Luther writes, “no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community.”7
Luther concludes “that there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work,” but this, he makes it clear, he regards as having “a proper and useful place in the Christian community.”8
This is exactly the Seventh-day Adventist approach. Ordination does not transfer the pastor into a superior form of being; it is the recognition by the wider body of Christ of spiritual gifts that God has given, and it “confers representative authority upon individuals.”9 This representative authority may only be exercised “by the consent of the community,” as Luther put it. The Adventist understanding of pastoral ministry is, in essence, Luther’s understanding.
Implications for Adventists
In the past 18 months, some Adventists have expressed fears that we may be moving away from the principles of the Protestant Reformation because the General Conference has upheld church authority vested in pastors set apart by ordination.
This was, however, exactly the case in the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches that emerged after 1517. The doctrine of the presbyterii fidelium, as it emerged from the Reformation, does not mean a pastorate of all believers. The priesthood of all believers was crucial in the early Christian Church and in the Protestant Reformation because, in both cases, it asserted, against the orthodoxy of the time, that any believer can come boldly to the throne of grace (a belief given new weight by the Adventist doctrine of the sanctuary, which stresses Christ’s high priestly role). It denies that human mediators have any place in salvation.
These are fundamental Adventist teachings. But Adventists have also always maintained other beliefs shared by Luther and the Swiss Reformers: that only some persons are divinely called to be pastors; that the body of believers has the right to set standards for pastors; and that it is the body that confers authority. In upholding these teachings along with the priesthood of all believers, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, now as in the past, continues the principles of the Protestant Reformation.
1For a useful summary of the most important Reformation principles see Ganoune Diop, “Reformation principles for an end-time ministry”, Ministry, vol. 89, no. 10 (October 2017), also available at https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2017/10/Reformation-principles-for-an-end-time-ministry
2 The story of Hannah illustrates this well: 1 Sam. 1:10-19.
3 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), trans. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works, vol. 44, The Christian in Society, part I, ed. James Atkinson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 127.
4 Concerning the Ministry (1523), trans. Conrad Bergendoff, in Luther’s Works, vol. 40, Church and Ministry, part II, ed. Bergendoff (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958), 21.
5 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), trans. A. T. W. Steinhäuser and Frederick C. Ahrens, in Luther’s Works, vol. 36, Word and Sacrament, part II, ed. Abdel Ross Wentz (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 112.
6 Ibid., 113. Cf. ibid., 116; To the Christian Nobility, 130; Concerning the Ministry, 21–22,
7 Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 116.
8 To the Christian Nobility, 128-29.
9 “Consensus Statement on a Seventh-day Adventist Theology of Ordination”, approved by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, 2013; and by Annual Council, 2013.
Originally published in the GC Executive Committee Newsletter, August, 2017, accessible at executivecommittee.adventist.org/newsletter