As Nikki and I have mentioned a number of times in our posts, we come from the “free-church” strain of Protestant evangelicalism. For those not familiar with this term, think “Baptist,” “community church,” “Church of Christ,” “non-denominational Christian,” etc.–groups where there is no authoritative “leadership” beyond the local level. One of the hallmarks of this kind of Protestantism is that it emphasizes a particular understanding of the doctrine of the “priesthood of the believer,” which goes something like this: each and every single Christian is a priest with direct access to God and with the authority to interpret Scripture for him or herself and, because of this, there is no need for a “ministerial priesthood.” Perhaps more than any other doctrine, as a free-church Protestant, I considered this one to be the greatest gift of the Protestant Reformation and what separated us liberated Protestants from all those poor Catholics who shuffled off to priests to get their sins forgiven, be told what to think on everything, and probably even get instructed on how to tie their shoes.
On its face, the Protestant spin on the “priesthood of the believer” sounds great, doesn’t it? How freeing–getting direct access to God’s grace without ever having to deal with other people. The problem, however, is that the New Testament talked about this thing called “the church,” which was made up of a collection of people, and seemed kinda important. And these collections of people had “leaders” (whether they were called bishops, presbyters, elders, deacons, or something else). As a consequence, every Protestant church I was ever in had “leaders,” too, identified as “pastors,” “ministers,” “elders,” and/or “deacons.”
You may already sense the logical tension between the free-church understanding of the “priesthood of the believer” and the very concept of any kind of leadership. If you do, you’re recognizing something it took me twenty years to see. During those twenty years, I struggled (and watched others struggle) with exactly what the role of our “leaders” was. This was because our doctrinal position on the “priesthood of the believer” meant that our leaders weren’t uniquely set aside to administer any kind of rituals that were efficacious for the church or to resolve doctrinal disputes. This wiped out a lot of what you’d otherwise think would be in a religious leader’s job description, leaving the “senior pastors” I’ve known with two main responsibilities: (1) preaching on Sundays (which, under our understanding of the “priesthood of the believer,” any Christian in good standing was qualified to do); and (2) performing the tasks necessary to keep the church functioning as a going concern (such as managing the other church staff, keeping track of the church’s finances, overseeing the physical plant, etc.).
As is perhaps apparent, a religious system that, as a matter of doctrine, denies that its leaders have any unique religious function is destined to have never-ending power struggles because there inevitably will be conflicts over doctrine and church governance. In one corner, there are the lay people who will use the “priesthood of the believer” doctrine as a club to beat up their leaders when it suits them. Believe me: I’ve done it. And, in the other corner, there are the leaders who, despite their occasional protestations to the contrary, appear to find it hard to believe that their status doesn’t entitle them to deference on issues of doctrine and church governance.
The fact of the matter, of course, is that, in any religious system, there has to be a way of resolving disputes, and one of the problems with Protestantism (especially free-church Protestantism) is that the dispute resolution process is completely ad hoc. In each fight between a layman (or group of laymen) and a “leader” in a free-church Protestant congregation, someone is going to win, but there are no rules governing how the fight will be conducted or who, in the end, must yield in the event of non-agreement. And, as in any fight without rules, that greatly increases the chance that the layman, the leader, and perhaps even the entire congregation will get hurt.
As a practical matter, in most Protestant congregations I’ve known or been part of, the “senior pastor” tended to win most significant doctrinal and church governance battles. When he didn’t, that normally signaled that he would soon be on his way out as senior pastor. The fact that the pastor normally prevailed in these disputes, I now believe, simply reflects that, in order for there to be any kind of coherence in a religious system, there needs to be a recognition that the leaders play a certain role, which includes the authority to determine what the teaching of the religion is and how the religious community is administered. That only makes sense, doesn’t it?
Here, again, Catholicism brought clarity to the confusion I encountered in my Protestant congregations. As I’ve suggested, in the Protestant churches I was part of, it seemed that, despite the official line on the “priesthood of the believer,” the senior pastor was for the most part treated as the final authority on matters of faith, doctrine, and church governance–simply because he was the senior pastor. We all, however, still had to pay lip service to the “priesthood of the believer” notion. This, in my experience, just bred cynicism and resentment. Everyone knew the senior pastor really ran everything, but we all had to pretend like he didn’t. That wasn’t healthy, either for the pastor or for the members of the congregation.
In contrast to all this, Catholicism established as a doctrine what Protestants actually did in practice but denied in theory: that the leaders of the Church, in certain clearly defined and delineated instances, spoke with infallible authority on issues of faith and morals. For example, the Church teaches that the Pope (note that this is not every priest) speaks infallibly in his ex cathedra pronouncements. These are rare occasions–they don’t occur every time the Pope says something, and they don’t involve, at any time, instances in which the Pope is making a purely administrative decision, such as who to place in a particular role in the Church. It is only with respect to doctrinal issues that the Pope is ever considered infallible. The doctrine of papal infallibility also does not mean that the Pope (or any other member of the clergy) is sinless or doesn’t need salvation. Rather, the Pope is expected to live his life in accordance with the same teachings that all Catholics are expected to adhere to. (For more on the papacy and papal infallibility, see here.)
The Catholic Church also teaches that every priest has a unique role to play in the life of the Church because only priests and/or bishops have the authority to administer certain of the Church’s sacraments, a task for which they are set apart through the sacrament of Holy Orders. This isn’t exalting these men, however. Rather, it is recognizing that their primary task is to serve their congregations by celebrating the sacraments. It is through these sacraments that God’s grace–His divine life–is imparted to each and every individual Catholic. And that is what priests are primarily set aside to do—not to figure out what the next great church program is or who to hire as the church administrator.
I find all of this liberating because I’m not guessing any longer at what leaders in the Church are supposed to do. They uniquely serve the body by celebrating the sacraments and by defining the doctrines that help me to live my life the way Christ wants me to. That’s not “lording” it over me. Moreover, I was blown away to learn that the Catholic Church also teaches the “priesthood of the believer.” Maybe some of my readers will be, too. Here’s what the Church teaches on the subject, and also what it says on the relationship between the “priesthood of all believers” and the “ministerial priesthood:”
Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.” The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are “consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood.”
The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, “each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ.” While being “ordered one to another,” they differ essentially. In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace –a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit–, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. For this reason it is transmitted by its own sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders.
With this teaching, as with all of the other teachings of the Church, I’m told clearly what is expected of me: to exercise my priesthood through a “life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit.” And, to help me along the way, it is a great comfort to know that the Church’s earthly leadership, the “ministerial priesthood,” is there to do for me what God in His great mercy doesn’t expect me to do for myself.
 The “free church” tradition is dominant in contemporary evangelicalism in the United States, as the “mainline” denominations with their more formal hierarchies (such as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists) have declined.
 There also are lay people, even in the free-church tradition, who believe that lay persons should defer to church leaders. How such laymen square this with their purported acceptance of the free-church understanding of the “priesthood of the believer” is a mystery to me.