As we remember Martin Luther this year for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there is probably no more widely reaching topic than the one that stands as today’s title: the Priesthood of all believers.
Up until Good Friday, there was a pretty established pecking order of leadership in what was soon to become the Church. Jesus was the leader, Rabbi, Pastor (in the original sense meaning Shepherd) and all the disciples (from the word that means “students” in Latin) and soon-to-be disciples were the followers. But what happened after Jesus was resurrected and then left — ascended to heaven? What was the pecking order then?
What do you think? Human ego got in the way and there are disputes as to who is in charge right there in the Bible!
As most know, historically, Peter (whom I always point out was the most bumbling of the disciples) won out as “the rock on which I will build my Church.” And he was seen as the first Pope, who then passed down the mantle to each successor right to the Roman Catholic Pope we have today.
Five hundred years ago, the Church was structured like a pyramid with the Pope at the top as most powerful and then dropping in power at each level down: cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and, last in line, the people.
At the heart of the reformation was Luther’s “revelation” that this structure was artificial. In fact, nowhere in scripture could he find any indication that any human being was any more holy than any other. In fact, quite the opposite, that we were all exactly equal under the category of being sinners!
And Luther thought if he could just point this out to the people up the line from him, they would realize they were no better than anyone else. However, Luther underestimated the desire for power over others against the proclamation of the truth.
Now, before I jump too quickly to the end result, it is important to note that the pyramid order held some water in the same way that any class system might. It all boils down to the tautology that the privileged are better off simply because they are the privileged. The priests were the ones who were educated, so they were the ones who could read the Bible. They were the ones who were ordained to distribute the sacraments. And ultimately, they had the keys to the kingdom, quite literally, by being the dispenser of forgiveness, almost like the middleman between God and creation.
If they said you were in, you were in. If they said you were out, you were out. And they might say you were out for petty reasons like you just questioned their authority. And don’t you know, they could justify everything they did with their reading of the Bible (which you could not dispute because you couldn’t read it in the original Greek or Hebrew or even in that newfangled Latin that only the priests were taught!).
The circularity of this argument became clear to Luther especially because he was one of the privileged himself, and he knew in his own heart he was no better than anyone else.
So Luther did a few things. He questioned the power of the papacy, which stirred the hornets’ nest. He preached about what he had discovered, and the word started to spread. He wrote in the vernacular of the people, which was replicated by that wonderful Guttenberg printing press so even more people could read his thoughts. And then he uncorked the genie in the bottle by translating the very Bible itself into the language of the people so that everyone could read for themselves without the middleman!
And the end result of all of that is what he called the Priesthood of all Believers. Each and every Christian is a priest within themselves. They are capable of reading the Word of God. They are capable of praying to God themselves. And they are capable of confessing directly to God and seeking absolution. The hierarchy was broken and the pyramid scheme gave way to the circle of the family — everyone equal with no child of God above another!
Now, if you are shrewd enough, you may already anticipate what happened next, once people realized that no one person was more privileged than another. The modern form of organization called democracy began to sprout in other aspects of life as well. And it’s not a far stretch to tie that movement from the 16th century to the ideal that “all humans are created equal” and to realize that the Reformation begun by Luther didn’t just reform the Church. It reformed the world!
But with all that having been said, you may be asking: “So, Pastor, if Luther unraveled all that 500 years ago, exactly how do you and all those other pastors, priests and spiritual advisers have a job today?”
I’ll tackle that in next week’s column bookending today’s topic of the Priesthood of Believers being “All for One” by talking about the role of the pastor in terms of “One for All.” Until next time...
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns can be found at WilsonTimes.com.