This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
The priesthood of all believers has become as ingrained in Lutheranism as any other teaching. Yet it has also created great confusion. The Scriptures do not speak much about it, with the exception of 1 Peter 2, which refers to the church built upon faith in Christ as “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV) that has spiritually succeeded Israel. Likewise, the Lutheran Confessions only once use the terms, with Philip Melanchthon simply affirming that the church has the “right of choosing and ordaining ministers” because “it alone possesses the priesthood” (Treatise, 341.69, Kolb/Wengert). Luther frequently used it in the early years of his reforms, then it scarcely appears in his subsequent writings. Despite these limited references in Scripture and the Confessions, the priesthood of all believers has taken on a life of its own. It has come to define the relationship between clergy and laity and led to tensions over just who has the proper authority in the church—the pastor or the congregation? Yet that is not what Luther had in mind. Luther never sought to set the pastor against the people or oppose clergy and congregation, nor did he use the priesthood of believers to diminish the qualifications, preparations, or responsibilities of the pastoral office. Rather, he appealed to the Scriptural definition of the priesthood to argue that an unbiblical definition of the priesthood had obscured the pastoral office and detracted from what pastors were sent to do: care for their people through preaching the Word and administering the sacraments.
Before we can understand why Luther had to redefine the priesthood and, by extension, the pastoral office in biblical terms, it is important to remember that the Christian church has never had a monolithic structure of the church or the pastoral office. The New Testament uses a host of different words to refer to the pastoral office, and we translate it in various places as bishop, presbyter, shepherd, elder, or deacon—pastor simply being the Latin word for “shepherd.” The early church largely adopted a threefold order of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. With the development of monasticism in the medieval church, it became necessary to distinguish between regular clergy, or those in a monastic order, who were governed by a monastic rule (“regular” coming from the Latin word for rule), and secular clergy, or those who served in the more conventional hierarchy of the church. Eventually, seven ranks or grades of clergy evolved: porter (opened the doors of sacristy and baptistry in liturgy), lector (reader of biblical texts other than the Gospel), exorcist (participated in baptism), acolyte (assisted with candles, processions, and other liturgical duties), sub-deacon (assisted deacon in liturgy), deacon (assisted the priest in celebrating the sacrament), and priest (celebrated the sacrament). By the time Luther came onto the scene, you had a miscellany of pastoral offices, ranging from the hierarchy of pope, bishop, and priest to various monastic orders with their own ranks and responsibilities. All this to say that Luther did not set out to reject the traditional forms of ministry, but rather to clarify them in accordance with Scripture.
The way Luther sought to clarify the office of the ministry, however, caused much controversy. First, in his Address to the Christian Nobility, Luther opposed the notion that the clergy, or “sacred estate,” had more importance than any other Christian. He argued that ordained priests were no different in God’s sight: because of baptism, we are all priests. Dismissing the idea that ordination by a bishop is necessary to enter the pastoral office, he uses his “desert island” analogy: if a group of laymen were on a desert island without a priest, or without a bishop to ordain a priest, they could simply select one from their midst to do the job on their behalf (LW 44:128). Later, in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he rejected ordination as a sacrament that conferred a special grace upon the priest. Instead, “all of us that have been baptized are equally priests,” (LW 36:112) and therefore “we have the same power in respect to the Word and the sacrament” (LW 36:116) as the ordained priest. Finally, Luther closes the loop in his Freedom of a Christian. If we are all priests because of baptism and if we all have the same power with respect to Word and Sacrament, then any one of us could serve as pastor, though not everyone should. “Although we are all equally priests, we cannot all publicly minister and teach. We ought not even if we could” (LW 31:356).
What can be—and was—misleading about these statements is that Luther appears to reject the long-established tradition of an ordained priesthood. At least, that’s what his critics alleged. One in particular, the German Catholic theologian Jerome Emser, engaged Luther in a series of heated written debates in early 1521—around the time of Luther’s excommunication itself and preceding his appearance at the Diet of Worms. Emser tried to distinguish between two priesthoods—one spiritual and one ecclesiastical. The spiritual priesthood belonged to all Christians, but the ecclesiastical priesthood only to the ordained clergy. For Luther, this misunderstood what the New Testament actually said about the priesthood. There is only one priesthood, and, according to 1 Peter 2, that priesthood belongs to all believers. What the opponents mean by priest is the office of the ministry, yet the New Testament never refers to the pastoral office as the priesthood. It uses many other terms for it (“ministry,” “servitude,” “dispensation,” “episcopate,” and “presbytery”), but not priest. Luther adds, “But no one should be surprised that bishop, pastor, priest, chaplain, cathedral dean, monk, and many similar names have different meanings now, since no word of Scripture has retained its true meaning. That is why God and his Scripture do not know the present bishops. The spiritual estate has been established and ordered by men’s laws and regulations in such a way, and has become so deeply entrenched in the course of time, that one thinks it is founded on Scripture” (LW 39:155).
Luther later clarified his point further in another response to Emser, who had contended that 1 Peter 2:6-10 refers to both a spiritual priesthood of all Christians and a physical priesthood of the clergy. Luther, surprisingly, agreed with this—in a sense. He had always held that there was one priesthood, but in that priesthood “not all should be consecrated by bishops, not all should preach, celebrate mass, and exercise the priestly office unless they have been appointed and called to do so” (LW 39:233). There is only one priesthood, but—as he had argued earlier in his writings—this entire priesthood of believers cannot all occupy the pastoral office. “To exercise such power and to put it to work is not every man’s business. Only he who is called by the common assembly, or the man representing the assembly’s order and will, does this work in the stead of and as the representative of the common assembly and power” (LW 39:237). To his opponents, Luther had used this definition of the priesthood to replace ordained priests with the laity. To Luther’s mind, he had not replaced ordained clergy with laity, but an unbiblical notion of the priesthood with a biblical notion of the priesthood. The pastoral office and the priesthood were not the same thing according to Scripture and should not be confused.
What Luther never intended was to create an opposition between the ordained clergy occupying the pastoral office and the lay priesthood of believers, yet that has somehow become the legacy of his views. It has almost become customary within Lutheranism to pit pastor and laity against one another, to frame the relationship as a power struggle between the congregation and the clergy, between the called pastor and the voters meeting that called him. We make the same mistake as Emser and Luther’s opponents, however, if we think along these lines. The universal priesthood, or priesthood of all believers, really isn’t about the priesthood at all. It is not about which powers belong to the congregation and which belong to the pastors, who has authority in the church, how a pastor is called, or anything of the like. These questions only predominate in an American religious context obsessed with the separation of powers, checks and balances, popular sovereignty—in short, with constitutional democracy.
That is not what drove Luther and that is not what he means by the priesthood. For Luther, redefining the priesthood is not about the priesthood of believers at all, but about what Scripture has given clergy to do so that they can do just that. He sought to clarify a biblical misunderstanding of the priesthood that had led to a concomitant misunderstanding of the pastoral office, what pastors were, what made them pastors, and what pastors were supposed to do. The use of the word pastor itself is instructive. It refers to the image of the shepherd who cares for his sheep, as Christ the Good Shepherd does (John 10; 1 Peter 5:1-4). This image came, however, from the medieval notion of the care of souls (“cura animarum” in Latin, translated as “Seelsorge” in German), which meant an ordained clergyman serving a parish by performing the rites of the church—baptism, confession, communion, marriage, burial. This was the biblical model for the congregational pastor. Luther did not want to reject the pastoral office or make every Christian a pastor; he wanted to return to the New Testament notion of clergy present among their people caring for their spiritual needs through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
That is how we must understand the pastoral office today. It has nothing to do with a power struggle between pastor and people or with who exercises authority over whom in the church. It has nothing to do with elevating one over the other or opposing them to each other. Instead, it has everything to do with pastors present amongst their people preaching them the Word, hearing their confessions, absolving their sins, baptizing sinners in their midst, feeding them with Christ’s body and blood, teaching them the faith, and marrying and burying them in that faith. As Lutherans, that means doing so not only in accordance with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, but in such a way that what we believe as Lutherans unmistakably comes to bear upon our care of the souls entrusted to us. This is what the laity should expect, even demand of their clergy—not that their pastors think just like them or do what they say or make the church big or successful, but that they would provide them faithful pastoral care as Lutheran clergy serving Lutherans in need of that care. We have been trained and called within a tradition built upon precisely this kind of pastoral care for the people. We are pastors serving people—the “royal priesthood”—with the things they most need: a Word that justifies, a baptism that saves, an absolution that restores, a sacrament that forgives. Luther did not seek to change the pastoral office, but to remind it what the Scriptures say it is and what the Scriptures urge it to do. That’s all a congregation can ask of its pastor; that’s all you as pastors can ask of yourselves.