The Individual Priesthood of the Believer | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 4: The Individual Priesthood of the Believer

This is the third lesson in the series on the Baptist distinctives, those specific positions which distinguish Baptists from everyone else in the religious realm. We are following the acrostic – B A P T I S T S – each letter of which stands for a distinctive. The first lesson covered the B and dealt with what Baptists believe about the Bible. The second lesson covered the A – the autonomy of the local church. Today we’ll deal with the P – the priesthood of the believer.

Definition: Each believer is his own priest. The Old Testament priest was a mediator between God and men. With the ending of the Old Testament dispensation, both the need for a priest and the formal priesthood itself ceased to exist. Jesus is our only mediator, and each individual believer has the right and responsibility to appeal directly to God without the aid of any other human. Pastors, though spiritual leaders, are not priests.


Texts

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (1Ti 2.5)

… you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; (1Pe 2.5,9)

How does the individual priesthood of the believer operate?

Each believer has equal standing before God.

Although Scripture calls upon believers to show respect to their spiritual authorities and to honor them, there is no substantial difference between clergy and laity. All believers, those who occupy the pulpit and those who inhabit the pew, stand before God on equal footing. All respect, obedience and honor shown to a spiritual authority is conditioned by this truth. There is certainly a place for respect and honor to be shown to those who have earned it. But one of the great blessings that one’s individual priesthood brings is that he is not an underling when it comes to understanding and applying Scripture.

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Ac 17.11)

“But the Helper , the Holy Spirit , whom the Father will send in My name , He will teach you all things , and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (Jn 14.26)

Each believer must stand before God in relationship to his own life and conduct.

It is true that believers have the responsibility to offer guidance, rebuke, and bear the burdens of others. However, no one will be held responsible for the decisions and choices of others. The servant of the Lord who serves in pastoral ministry will surely answer for the conduct of that ministry and the influences and effects it had on the people to whom he ministered, but the final responsibility for choices and conduct rests with the individual’s themselves. No one will ever be able to blame anyone else for his own choices or conduct.

It seems quite clear that our usual tendency to blame-shift will not be allowed in the day when God’s people are judged. Many of us have had unfortunate experiences in life, especially in the realm of local church involvement. To hear some tell it, the fact that they were “abused” by the church now gives them the indisputable right to turn away from the Lord or to do as they please in regard to their walk with the Lord. This is simply not so on the basis of the individual priesthood of the believer.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1.9)

Each believer has the right of direct access to God.

Under the New Testament dispensation, there is no need of anyone to stand between man and God. This is really a wonderful truth because common experience teaches us that direct access is always the best and most accurate way to conduct communication. Believers have direct access into the presence of the Lord God himself without the need for any mediator or go-between other than Jesus. In fact, praying to anything or person other than Christ is wrong.

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4.16)

“But you, when you pray , go into your inner room , close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret , and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Mt 6.6)

Each believer has the obligation of and the opportunity for performing priestly tasks.

Thankfully, we are not called upon to kill animals, divide them up, and place them on altars. There is, however, a level of priestly function that the New Testament calls upon us to perform, and that function involves “spiritual sacrifices.” These special spiritual services involve at least our praise, our prayer and our service.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Heb 13.15–16)

… you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Pe 2.5)

Each believer has the right to interpret the Scriptures for himself.

This is an area fraught with potential problems, but it was one of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation and probably contributed as much to that spiritual revolution as any other single belief. The individual believer has the right to study and to interpret the Bible on his own. Our personal interpretations are limited, however. No individual passage of Scripture may be correctly interpreted in a way that would contradict the teaching of the general tone of Scripture. Further, individuals tread on thin ice when they depart from the body of truth as Christians have historically understood it.[1] Within the confines of these stringent guidelines, believers may read, study, interpret and apply Scripture as they see fit.

Although the Roman Catholic Church made concessions somewhat on personal Bible study and interpretation, the official position of the Church has not changed. The only authorized interpreter of Scripture is the Roman Catholic Church, in their view. The RC Church encourages its people to read the Bible, but their interpretations must yield to the official interpretations of the Church as proclaimed by the Magisterium, the arm of the church responsible for interpretation.

No believer has the right to impose beliefs, practices, views, or restrictions on any other Christian unless those matters are specifically mentioned in Scripture or derived from Scripture in such a way as to be obvious to all.

Every believer must adopt his own set of standards under the guidance of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and his own conscience. Although this is not a popular teaching today in many segments of independent Baptist fundamentalism, it is a significant and essential part of the overall teaching on the individual priesthood of the believer.

Standards or guidelines are most successful when they are either directly drawn from Scripture or when their origin is clearly supportable. The insistence by an institution that beliefs and practices, which are not specifically stated in Scripture, be required for all believers is clearly a violation of the principle of individual priesthood. In the same way, a local church has the right to establish any guidelines it wishes, but those rules should not violate the individual priesthood principle.

For example, a local church has an absolute right and obligation to condemn sins such as lying, adultery, or theft because the Bible makes clear statements about such sins. However, the church does not have the right to force its members to conform in areas not mentioned in the Bible (either directly or in principle) on such matters as fashion style, choice of food, recreational activities, or even personal musical tastes. The church can give general guidance on such topics, but it cannot (or should not try to) enforce conformity.

The priesthood of the believer addresses issues of personal spirituality, that is, one’s own walk with God, lifestyle, standards, and convictions. Sometimes one’s own personal convictions conflict with his church’s standards. When this is the case, the individual must discern if he should yield to the will of the congregation, try to change the church’s standards, or seek membership elsewhere. Often one can practice his own “brand” of Christianity on a personal level and still retain his commitment to his church even if he does not agree with all the church’s rules

Conclusion

The individual priesthood of the believer affirms the common dignity, common calling, common privilege, and common obligation of all Christians before God. We need no priests, we are not priests in the Old Testament sense, we are responsible to no priests, but we are responsible to function as priests in a sense. God holds each individual responsible for his own standards, behavior, belief, and service.

Discussion

1. What’s the difference between a priest and a pastor? A priest is a mediator between God and man. The existence of a priest suggests that one cannot approach God personally; he must go through the priest. A pastor is a shepherd. He does not stand between God and man.

2. Why do some churches still have priests? Mostly because of church tradition and the misinterpretation of Scripture.

3. Does the individual priesthood of the believer mean that a church member can disregard the advice he receives from the leaders of the church? No, one should never ignore such advice unless it is clearly unbiblical. It does mean that no one can compel you in an area not directly or indirectly addressed in the Bible.

4. When is it permissible to disregard the standards or guidelines your church requires? Whenever they are not biblically based. However, if you find that you are constantly at odds with your church, you either need to reevaluate your own standards or find a church more in line with your values.

5. Is there a difference between what is acceptable at church and what is acceptable at home? Yes. Some things are not appropriate at church but are fine at home. E.g., dress, music.


[1] This does not rule out the occasional reformation movement, when an individual needs to point out the church’s drift away from sound doctrine.