Monday, June 12, 2006

Baptists and the Priesthood of All Believers

(Luke 23:44-45; I Peter 2: 9-10)


Chuck Swindoll, in his book, Improving Y our Serve, tells a story called the “Keeper of the Spring.” It seems that an old gentleman was hired by the city council of a small Austrian village in the Alps to keep the pools clean that fed the spring which flowed through their town. The old man regularly kept watch over the pools, removing debris such as leaves, tree limbs, silt, or any other impurity which would inhibit fresh water from flowing into the town. Because of this man’s devotion to his task, the small town became a tourist attraction with people. The clear water flowing through the town presented a very picturesque view for the town’s businesses, restaurants, etc.
Years went by. Eventually, one evening at a town council meeting, questions about the budget were raised. One man asked about the money paid to this obscure “keeper of the spring.” He wanted to know why the town kept the old gentleman on the payroll. He complained that no one ever saw the old man much. “How do we know that he is really doing the work?” Then, by a unanimous vote, the city council decided to terminate the old man’s services.
Several weeks later, nothing had changed. But after a few months, the trees began to drop their leaves as Autumn was arriving. Twigs also began to fall into the pools and one afternoon, someone in town noticed that the normally clear water had a colored tint to it. Several more days went by and the water began to turn browner. Finally a slim began to cover the water and it began to smell bad. The vacationers left and the businesses began to suffer.
The town council called a special meeting and hired back the old man. Sure enough, within a few weeks the water began to clear up and things returned to normal.[1]
I am of the opinion that the traditional Baptist concept of the “priesthood of all believers” is akin to the “keeper of the spring.” It is a concept that has served us well during our 400 year history. Perhaps many of you have heard the phrase before. But, perhaps you don’t know exactly what it means. This morning I’d like to make four suggestions as to the meaning of this phrase, “priesthood of all believers,” and what it means for our understanding of who we are as Baptists.
I. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Believers Have Direct Access to God
In the passage of scripture I read to you from Luke, the context of course is the crucifixion of Jesus. And, Luke doesn’t miss the significance of this event. The veil in the temple separated the people from God. It surrounded the holy of holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The only human allowed in the holy of holies was the high priest and he was only allowed in once per year on the Day of Atonement to offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people. In the temple environment of ancient Israel, the average Jew did not have direct access to God.
But, with Jesus’ death on the cross, the veil’s tearing symbolically indicated that the barrier between God and human beings was torn in half. We now have direct access to God. We no longer need an intermediary. We can approach God directly.
Dr. Jann Aldredge Clanton, a hospital chaplain, tells the story of receiving a phone call one night while she was on duty from a nurse in the Coronary Intensive Care Unit. The nurse indicated that a patient was in critical condition and the nurse wanted the chaplain to come and pray. She said that when she arrived at the room, the patient was asleep. The nurse said that the patient had been in distress and had asked him to pray for her. “Well, what did you do?” Chaplain Clanton asked the nurse. “Well, I prayed with her. But then I called you as soon as I could. I felt I needed to get a chaplain to pray with her also. Was it all right for me to pray with her?”[2]
Now, of course, the obvious answer is “of course. All of us can pray.” And, I’ve got a secret for you today. Don’t tell anyone. I might get in trouble with my other friends in pastoral ministry. Your prayers are as good as mine. Perhaps even better! The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers gives all of us direct access to God.
II. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Believers Have Responsibility to Minister to Each Other
Related to the first point, is the concept that all believers are ministers. In I Peter 2, on two different occasions, Peter alludes to this concept. In verse 5 he says, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And, then in verse 9 he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Of course, he is talking about believers in Christ here. He calls us“priesthood.”
It is important to note that Priesthood of all believers does not mean that we are “lone ranger” Christians. In fact, it means the very opposite. We are community and dependent on each other. Luther, probably the first to coin the term said it this way:
[Paul] shows that all Christians are priests, and that the sacrifices they offer are not money or cattle, as prescribed by law, but their own selves . . . . He then describes the outward conduct of Christians under the discipline of the spirit; how they must teach, preach, rule, serve, give, suffer, love, live and act towards friend, foe, and fellow-man. These are the works which a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not an inert thing.[3]

There is a responsibility inherent, therefore, with this doctrine. Every believer is in the “ministry.” Every believer has the responsibility for ministering to those around us who need ministry.
III. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Opinions Should Be Valued
Baptist churches should be run democratically. Of course that means that the majority rules. But, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should also mean that all opinions are valued. Because we have direct access to God, that means that no one of us has a corner on Truth. It means also that the majority opinion can be wrong at times. That has been the case from time to time in history. There was a time when the majority in the South believed that slavery was divinely ordained by God. But, we don’t believe that anymore and wonder how anyone could have believed it 150 years ago.
No one has a corner on Truth. Liberals don’t have it. Fundamentalists don’t have it. Democrats don’t have it. Republicans don’t have it. We can, and should learn from one another and value each other’s opinions.
We live in a day and time when there is not much civility in our public debate. We see this in Washington. We see it on talk radio. We see it on point-counterpoint debates on TV. We see it on blogs. Our mindset today is to win your argument at all costs. But, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should allow for the unpopular opinion to be valued because, it may just be the case that the unpopular opinion on an issue, whether it be what color carpet to order for the nursery, or what form of worship we should observe, can teach us all something and inform us in our communal understanding of Truth.
Carlyle Marney, a Progressive Baptist of a generation ago, used to tell a joke about Jewish rabbi, a Catholic Priest and a Protestant minister. The rabbi says, in good monotheistic understanding, “Thus saith the Lord.” The Priest, in good institutional fashion says, “As the church has always said.” The Protestant minister says, in good individualistic fashion, “Now brothers and sisters, it seems to me.” Buddy Shurden says that this represents a serious distinction for Protestants. And, it is even more so for Baptists. In a Baptist church, all opinions should matter.[4]
I have mused from time-to-time on Sunday mornings about the fact that Carl Grantham’s Sunday School class is right beside the pastor’s study in your office complex. And, I have listened to the opinions and discussion from that class on Sunday mornings. You guys sometimes disagree. But, you seem to value all opinions. And, I think it is a good reminder to the pastors of this church, that all opinions matter.
IV. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Believers Have the Freedom To Read the Bible for Themselves
Related to the previous point, the priesthood of all believers allows the Bible into the hands of the laity. The Bible is not controlled by the pastor of the church. All can read and interpret the scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It was a Sunday evening sermon. Admittedly, I did not usually spend as much time preparing Sunday evening sermons as I did for the Sunday morning sermons. But, a sermon on baptism would be no problem and certainly would not create any controversy in the church. So, I preached the message about the Baptist concept of baptism. In the sermon, I elaborated on why we don’t baptize infants, why we baptize believers only, why we baptize by immersion. I tried to explain the biblical and theological meaning of the baptismal experience. I thought it would be a “refresher” course for the members present that evening.
At some point during the sermon, I made an off-hand comment like, “our congregation will received members from any other Christian group without re-baptizing them as long as they receive believers’ baptism by immersion from that group.” That was the traditional understanding of our church and our by-laws even stated such.
Unknown to me, one of my deacons named “Jack,” who was present that evening was a Landmarkist. Among certain distinctive ideas he held was double-closed communion and an opposition to “alien immersion.” My sermon had just stated that our church was open to “alien immersion.” And so, at the conclusion of the service, Jack made a beeline toward me to let me know how wrong my theology was about the practice of baptism.
You probably ought to know that Jack was a retired drill instructor from the army. So, when he talked, people listened, especially the person he was talking too! I listened, and then calmly reasserted my ideas which I believed to be in accord with the rest of the church. At the meeting of the diaconate that month, Jack brought up the same issue and confronted me once again on it. This time, after a discussion among the deacons, the deacons voted to affirm that what I had preached in that sermon was indeed in accordance with our church’s long-standing practice. In other words, FBC Crawford was not a Landmarkist church!
This was not the only time that Jack and I had discussions on theology or some of the finer points of scripture interpretation. But, in that experience, what was it that Jack was doing? I would contend (and I used to tell him so!) that he was exercising his freedom as a Baptist and member of my church. Even though I think Jack had it wrong about Landmarkism, I do believe he was right on target with his understanding about one of our most cherished doctrines as Baptists, the Priesthood of Believers. Jack understood that he had every bit as much authority as a child of God to interpret the Bible and speak his mind in the church as I did as pastor. In fact, being pastor did not give me authority over Jack’s conscience. I could disagree with Jack but ultimately, could never control his conscience. He understood and exercised his Priesthood in the best of the Baptist tradition.
I don’t know if any of you have followed the press coverage preceeding the SBC meeting in Greensboro this week. It seems that younger, conservative pastors in the SBC are blogging away in opposition to the entrenched leadership in the SBC. One of these pastors, comparing the current SBC and its leadership to the Warren G. Harding administration said, “The Southern Baptist Convention is rank with nepotism, cronyism, favoritism and a network of political spoils distribution that would make Old Warren blush with shame.”[5]
Could it be that Baptist blogging is a new way of exercising this cherished doctrine of Priesthood of all Believers? Perhaps so. But, it is incumbent upon us to protect, promote, and preserve this doctrine if the Baptist witness is going to continue to be an important voice in the coming century.

[1] Chuck Swindoll, Improving Your Serve, as told by Gary Parker in Principles Worth Protecting, p. 14-15.
[2] Jann Aldredge-Clanton, “Make Plain the Vision,” in Walter B. Shurden, Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Priesthood of All Believers (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 22.
[3] John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1961), p. 33, as cited by Thomas H. Graves, “A Priest for Others,” in Walter B. Shurden, Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Priesthood of All Believers, (Macon, Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 116.
[4] Walter B. Shurden, “Addicted to Applause, in Walter B. Shurden, Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Priesthood of All Believers, p. 125.
[5] A quote from Benjamin Cole, cited by, (site visited 6-10-06).

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