The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer lay like a seed growing secretly in the garden of God’s Holy Word. On this Reformation Sunday we acknowledge that it took a genius – disguised as a priest — to recognize that God intended all believers to be priests. Martin Luther, commenting upon these words in I Peter, realized that God intended all believers to be a part of a royal priesthood. Indeed, asserted Luther, to be crowned a priest by Christ is far greater than being crowned a king by Christ, for Christ has so operated in our lives that we can stand before God in a unmediated way to intercede on behalf of each other.
But not even a genius like Luther could accept the full implications of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Luther could not believe that God would risk the spiritual anarchy that might ensue if the full implications of the priesthood of the believer were applied to the church’s thought and practice. It took the Baptists, (who were not afraid of anarchy), to take this theological notion and apply it with rigorous consistency. That is why E. Y. Mullins, the greatest Baptist theologian, could say of us, “The Biblical significance of the Baptists is the right of private interpretation of and obedience to the Scriptures. The significance of the Baptists in relation to the individual is soul freedom. The ecclesiastical significance of the Baptists is the separation of Church and State. But as comprehending all the above particulars, as a great and aggressive force in Christian history, as distinguished from all others and standing entirely alone, the doctrine of the soul’s competency in religion under God is the distinctive significance of the Baptists.”
This doctrine of the priesthood of the believer is sufficiently profound and far-reaching to frustrate even great Baptist preachers who have tried to explain it. Carlyle Marney, that famed Baptist preacher of yore, even wrote a book about the priesthood of the believer. But sensing from the outset that he would be stymied in his efforts to describe the doctrine’s full significance, he began his work by telling a story of his first church job. Marney said he was recruited by a leading church contributor to assist in the rehabilitation of an alcoholic whom the church member very much wanted cured. Sober, he was worth hundreds of thousands a year to the church member’s company as a salesman. The problem was, he was seldom sober. Marney said that he attended to this man faithfully, drunk or sober, but failed utterly to change him, though he wore out the carpets of the old hotel where the guy lived. Years later, Marney came back to that church to preach. He found the drunk was now sober, sane, and taking up the collection as a deacon. No paid preacher had changed him. The man who had changed him was his boss, who had learned to love him and live with him and transform him and save him. It took his boss to be a proper priest to this man when no paid priest could do it. And that, said Marney, simply put, is all I’m trying to say about the priesthood of the believer.
You should know that this Baptist concept of the priesthood of the believer scares even some Baptists. Melissa and I were in San Antonio in 1989 when the Southern Baptist Convention made the unfathomable declaration that the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer was a relatively recent, inconsequential, tangential doctrine in Baptist life. Furthermore, the Convention said, be it resolved that this belief has been misinterpreted to give Baptists the latitude to believe for themselves what their hearts deemed right and proper before God. Furthermore, they resolved, this doctrine of the priesthood of the believer has been misapplied to give Baptist laity the false impression that they are equal in spiritual authority to the pastor. Melissa and I were among the 150 Baptists who stood in front of the Alamo and in unison tore that resolution asunder. I remember the words of Randall Lolley, the great former president of Southeastern Seminary: “No Baptist group has ever said anything so unBaptist.”
What do we mean when we speak of the priesthood of the believer? It is the assertion that you and I have been empowered by God with the responsibility and privilege of making decisions for ourselves with regard to matters relating to issues of conscience. The priesthood of the believer entails the notion that you and I have the responsibility and freedom to delve into the Scriptures and make determinations for ourselves as to what is right and true. The priesthood of the believer maintains that each of us is of equal spiritual authority and worth before God. Each of us is a priest.
Indeed, the very notion of the autonomy of the local church is founded on the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. There is no ecclesiastical authority or political entity that can tell us what we must believe, how we must conduct ourselves or invest our resources. No denominational executive can ordain what decisions we can make. We conduct our business as a democratic body. Long time national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship coordinator Cecil Sherman used to tell of when a buddy of his, a Texas Baptist pastor, called up the Southern Baptist offices in Nashville and was surprised to hear an officious young secretary say, “Baptist headquarters.” The old Texan thundered back, “Baptist headquarters? Honey, I’m at Baptist headquarters. Baptist headquarters is the local church!” He was right! The doctrine of the priesthood of believers maintains that we are called by God individually and collectively to work out our faith with fear and trembling, endowed by God’s Spirit with the capacity and energy and responsibility of wrestling with God’s purpose. This means it is quite possible that three or four lay people may interpret a Biblical passage more clearly than their pastor – though it is also possible none of these laypeople may agree with each other. But each has the right and the responsibility to search the Word and find the truth for themselves! And each of us must submit our interpretation to the experience of the larger community of faith and to God’s judgment.
I am acutely aware that I speak to you of your responsibility as priests of God against the backdrop of my imminent departure as your pastor. But I hope that over my eight years as your shepherd I have empowered you to be better spiritual sheep, and have helped you realize how smart you are, how talented and how committed you must be, how courageous and gracious you can be. My role has been to challenge you to work out your own salvation – your own salvation! – with fear and trembling. My role has been and will remain to help you claim your vocation as priests, as a kingdom of priests, as a building comprised of living stones.
I Peter puts before us the two great commands of the Christian’s spiritual life. First, “Come to him, to that living stone.” This is the first command. We are to recognize, first and foremost, our dependence upon the living stone of Christ, the cornerstone of our faith. Christ is the foundational rock of the entire edifice of redemption. Our Christian journey starts with our coming to Christ. But that is not where it ends. I Peter commands, “Come to him, to that living stone, and be like living stones yourselves.” Yourselves! It is not enough to confess Christ as Savior. We must live as instruments of salvation ourselves. The edifice of the Kingdom of God will be only so high, so wide, and strong as the number of living stones willing to take their place in helping form the structure. We are called upon to be priests to each other. The youngest believer in this congregation has the responsibility to minister to the eldest. And the eldest has the responsibility and privilege of guiding the youngest. Such is church.
In my office you will find no diplomas, no plaques, no honors, but you will find a picture of the first church I pastored, a small church in a bucolic setting near a little body of water called Stewart’s Creek. Stewart’s Creek Baptist Church, practicing the priesthood of the believers, together built the sanctuary you would see in that picture. As such building projects sometimes go, this one didn’t quite turn out as planned: the walls threatened to fall outward. So an engineer suggested that the they install iron rods that stretched across the sanctuary and held the walls together. One of our more aesthetically-minded members thought we needed to encase those iron rods in wooden beams to make them look more pleasing. But I suggested that we leave them as they are, to remind the congregation how hard it is to hold together the body of the people of God. We could look upon those bars and be reminded how much investment is required to hold the church in unity. What holds the church of God together is her people’s communal will, their collective activity, and the complexity and depth of their relationships.
My longest pastorate was in downtown Charlotte, which worshipped in a magnificent sanctuary dedicated in 1929, an inauspicious time to incur building debt. This church almost went bankrupt. What saved her was people acting as a royal priesthood. The people of the church vowed to park their cars and walk everywhere, saving gas money, which they then gave to the church. People banded together to make crucial financial sacrifices on the church’s behalf until better financial times rolled around. They succeeded in saving the fellowship and maintaining their function as a vibrant body of Christ in the center of a great city because they were willing to act collectively as a royal priesthood when the church was imperiled.
I recently noted the observation from a biologist who maintained, “One chimpanzee is no chimpanzee. A chimpanzee is only truly a chimpanzee when living in community with other chimpanzees.” So, too, one Lone Ranger Christian is not a Christian. To be fully a Christian, we must be priested by others. We cannot solely priest ourselves. Each of us must be priested by others in community. Is living and believing and priesting in a community of living stones frustrating? Often, yes. Is such a community often inefficient? No doubt! Is such a community sometimes inconsistent? Absolutely! Does it often fail in its initiatives? Yes! But as a long-time shepherd of sundry families of God, I hold to the conviction that even though it often progresses with glacier-like speed, the family of God is ultimately moved by Christ’s Spirit in the direction of the gracious and eternal Kingdom of God. The family of God may only inch forward – but it moves! Built by living stones, the church of Christ moves in the direction of realizing the will of the gracious, all-encompassing Kingdom of God.
On this day when we celebrate the legacy of those saints who have departed our fellowship for heavenly communion with God, I remind you that the body of Christ is a collection of living stones, built upon the foundation laid by the living stones of faith who strengthened the church before us. The whole body of Christ is a collection of living stones. We are priestly rocks slowly in the making. Like some of you, Melissa works tirelessly as Sunday School teacher, toiling week after week, preparing lessons, wondering if anyone will truly pay attention. I’m sure she feels like sometimes, no one really does. Yet, slowly, imperceptibly, she, like others of you, are in the process of creating living stones. The truth is, the Biblical image of living stones is a frankly contradictory metaphor, conveying stability and vibrancy simultaneously. It is a contradictory Biblical image, but a real one. For no matter where we take our faith in the world– to live it in school, in business, in sports, in life — the shadow of this building of living stones always influences how we work and live and love and believe.
Some years ago, not long after the 9/11 debacle, a teenager pulled me aside and asked for my counsel. She said, “Dr. Kremer, I told several of my classmates at school that as a Christian my responsibility was to love all people, including Muslims. They told me that not only was I not a real Christian, I was a bad American. Am I a real Christian?” I replied, “Young lady, not only are you a real Christian – you are a priest! You are a living stone. And you are doing what a living stone does, embodying the love of Christ. Living stones throw their love out into the pond of the world and cause ripples.”
I leave you with a final image, one that has stuck with me for many years. One afternoon I was out for a run and noticed two handicapped men in wheelchairs at the bottom of a steep hill, wondering how they could scale it. One man’s wheelchair was motorized; the other man’s chair was not. So the one invited the other to latch on to the back of his chair. I watched, as by the power of the first, one man pulled the other man up the hill. They were disguised as just regular people. In reality, they were priests to each other. And that is what we are meant to be to each other in the family of God.