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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Priesthood of the Believer in Extreme

It is important to remember our Baptist roots and heritage, especially in a season with so much discussion of such things in light of the increasing frequency of Ash Wednesday and Lenten observations among Baptists.[1] What is essential for us to understand, though, is that neither the Lenten observance nor the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful are essential, or even related to the fundamental Baptist principle of the Priesthood of the Believer.
            Alan Rudnick has argued, “each Baptist church has the freedom to worship however the church sees fit.  Since we Baptists do not have a book of worship or order, like other denominations, Baptists are free to worship as they feel led.  This of course does not happen in a vacuum.  I have always believed that Baptists must be led by scripture, reason, tradition, and experience …with scripture being the final authority.”[2] I understand the corrective that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral provides against the license and liberty implied in his statement about Baptists and worship, but worship is not the issue when it comes to the Priesthood of the Believer (or local autonomy and soul liberty, as he says earlier). This is a corruption of the meaning of the term and a misunderstanding of the theological construct behind it: the Priesthood of the Believer has to do with the individual’s access to God through Jesus Christ as mediator rather than through another individual or agency.
            I get that Ash Wednesday and the entire Lenten tradition usually wear the most flesh during corporate worship experiences, but we must not confuse the ability of a local congregation to participate in a Christian holiday with a Baptist distinctive that served to birth the theological tradition that we have inherited.
            Martin Luther tried to restore the Priesthood of the Believer by attacking the institutional clerical positions of the Catholic Church. Luther wanted to break down those things he saw as man-made barriers between man and God. While Luther maintained a distinction between clergy and laity, he rejected the idea that such a distinction affected a person’s access to God through Jesus Christ.[3] Rogers points out that Luther’s understanding of the Priesthood of the Believer is “derived from their union with Christ, the Great High Priest.”[4] He continues: “Luther's understanding of the priestly functions of all Christians was also based in part on their union with Christ in his work. Like Christ, Christians were to intercede for one another, teach the word to one another, and bear one another's burdens. For Luther, the priesthood of all believers was much more than a teaching that all Christians could approach God without a human mediator. Instead, Christians were supposed to minister and act as priests for one another.”[5]
            This is a critical distinction that is lost in the conversation about the Priesthood of the Believer. Sadly, this distinction is lost on many of our own Baptist leaders, as well. Dr. J. Terry Young locates the Baptist distinctive of the Priesthood of the Believer within our commitment to religious liberty.[6] The fight for religious freedom is a crucial and formative element of Baptist heritage, however the state of American Baptists is hardly that of the dissenting martyrs in years gone by.
            Here is the distinction: when we locate the Baptist principle of the Priesthood of the Believer in the category of religious liberty, or if we couch the ultimate meaning of that Priesthood in terms of worship, we miss the point that the Priesthood of the Believer concerns the access of the individual to God. Luther, and later Mullins, argued that the individual’s access to God as a believer is the foundational principle on which all of the faith rests.[7] Soul Competency, the Priesthood of the Believer, and the Autonomy of the Local Church, are easily interchanged and confused. However, we must not allow the distinct idea of the Priesthood of the Believer to be taken over by the framework of worship or even of political independence.
            The Priesthood of the Believer is a theological foundation for the manner in which Baptists see themselves in relationship to God. Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season, and all of the other celebrations of the Christian Year are expressions of that identity, freely chosen by a congregation, and uniquely meaningful for each participant. Expressions of devotion, of worship, of service, or of tradition cannot infringe upon the Priesthood of the Believer. Let us be on guard that we do not allow this sweet, precious, principle of Baptist identity to be reduced to individual expression – it’s much more powerful and profound than that.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Mark Rogers, “A Dangerous Idea? Martin Luther, EY Mullins, and the Priesthood of All Believers,” Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010), pp 119-34.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] J. Terry Young, “Baptists and the Priesthood of the Believer,” The Theological Educator 53 (Spring 1996), pp. 19-29.
[7] See Rogers, 317. “Mullins argued that all Baptist distinctives flow logically from the idea that each Christian is competent, under God, to carry out all matters of religious life. Soul competency led logically to democratic church government, the priesthood of all believers, the right of private judgment, and the separation of church and state. In each case, Mullins was jealous to maintain the integrity of religion as a personal experience between the individual and God, uninterrupted by bishops, priests, creedal enforcement, or government power.”

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