the weblog of Alan Knox

Priesthood of the Few or Priesthood of All?

Posted by on Nov 20, 2008 in books, elders, office | 22 comments

As I’m reading through various modern ecclesiologies, I came across a book by Wallace M. Alston, Jr. called The Church of the Living God: A Reformed Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002). I’ve never read an ecclesiology from the “reformed perspective”, so I was looking forward to reading this book. I don’t know if this book is characteristic of all reformed ecclesiologies, so my comments will be directed solely toward this book.

First, while there are many positive aspects about Alston’s book, I was disappointed that he did not discuss Scripture more. Instead, in most of the book, Alston exegeted and expounded on Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others. I learned alot about what these magisterial reformers thought about the church, but I did not learn how Alston believed their views meshed with Scripture.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I was concerned with the explanation of the priesthood of the believer. Here are a couple of quotes:

In Calvin’s mind, the priesthood of all believers had to do with the access of the individual to God… It was Martin Luther, however, who gave to the universal priesthood its broadest and clearest expression… Luther was of no mind to destroy the priesthood. Luther wanted to expand the priesthood. (45-46)

Luther never really sorted out the precise relationship between the priesthood of the few and the priesthood of all. Later Lutherans spoke of it in terms of representation. The priesthood of the few was representative of the priesthood of all. The church may not be dependent upon the ordained clergy for its existence, but for its well-being it needs the few who are called and set apart by the laying on of hands to the particular vocation of preaching, administering the sacraments, teaching, and pastoral care. But the priesthood of the few must never obscure, threaten, or usurp the priesthood of all. (47)

To be honest, I don’t understand how a priesthood of the few can do anything except “obscure, threaten, or usurp” the priesthood of all. If there are some that are “more priest” than others, then the responsibilities of the others are lessened while the responsibilities of the few are heightened.

I think that my differences with Alston concerning the priesthood of the believer is primarily found in this sentence: “The church may not be dependent upon the ordained clergy for its existence, but for its well-being it needs the few who are called and set apart by the laying on of hands to the particular vocation of preaching, administering the sacraments, teaching, and pastoral care.” As I study Scripture, I cannot find where only a few are given the responsibility of preaching (proclaiming the good news), administering the sacraments (baptizing and breaking bread – the Lord’s Supper), or pastoral care (caring for one another). Instead, I see where all believers are given these responsibilities.

Of course, if we find the need for “ordained clergy” (again, a term or designation that I can’t find in Scripture), then I suppose we must find something for this “ordained clergy” to do. Thus, we end up with a “priesthood of the few”, which – despite Alston’s warning – does tend to “obscure, threaten, or usurp the priesthood of all”. Why? Because by definition now, the responsibilities of the “all” are not as important as the responsibilities of the “few” – the “ordained clergy”.

I am not arguing against leaders. Leaders are very important to the church. But, leaders are not important because they are set apart for special duties, such as preaching, administering the sacraments, or pastoral care. Instead, they are important as an example to all believers as to how they ALL should be preaching, administering the sacraments, and caring for people – as well as other God-given responsibilities.

I do not think it is possible to maintain the priesthood of all while requiring a priesthood of the few at the same time. Since the Reformation, it has been clear that the doctrine of the priesthood of the few has worked to maintain the clergy/laity divide with which the magisterial reformers disagreed. According to Scripture, all believers are priests.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-20-2008

    Absolutely. Although pastors oft times try to explain it with their, “We Are All Full Time Ministers” sermons. I always wondered if those sermons came before or after their pay days for the job we were all supposed to be doing. But then again they somehow managed to explain how pastor, a job in Scripture, turned into The Job in reality.

  2. 11-20-2008

    Alan, maybe you have addressed this before and if you did could you direct me to it, how do you understand the appointment or ordination of elders? It appears to me that elders were selected, appointed or ordained at least in some way recognized at having a specific role to play.

  3. 11-20-2008


    Thus the name “A Step Past Reformed”. I think the Reformers did a good job on some things but I believe the way the Church meets is just as important as the 5 Solas (though many may disagree).


    Scripturally can you tell us what that “role to play” was? Can that role be “equipping the saints” and ensuring the “maturity of the saints” Thus as the Church gathered matures so should the role of the Elders decrease (in a given congregation) right? When my son becomes 18 I shouldn’t make sure he has brushed his teeth, washed his face, taken a bath and is eating right should I? Nor should elders dominate the meeting once the saints reach maturity. Unless of course they aren’t reaching maturity but then that would be not fulfilling their roles correct?

  4. 11-20-2008

    I’ve often wondered about how Luther could identify so many false teachings in a theoretical/theological context, and yet miss the practical things that prop up those false ideas that he fought so hard to pull away from. I am brought back to the simple conclusion that elite posts (however you choose to define or defend them) are dangerous temptations indeed. We all want to be significant, to have an important role. It seems that as Luther stepped out from under the canopy of Rome, and found himself one of the defacto heads of the reformation, he then resorted to this bizarrely rationalized concept of “priesthood of the few” to reconcile his rejection of Rome with his desire to maintain a degree of control over this new movement.

    It is a prime example of why we cannot claim to believe things in word only, in fact it is what we do that truly shows what we believe…

  5. 11-20-2008


    A friend of mine was talking about “job descriptions” for pastors today. I haven’t found anything required of pastors that is not also required of others – at least, I haven’t found it in Scripture.


    As you might guess, I don’t think that ordination is a biblical teaching. I wrote a series about elders that might answer your questions about my understanding of the role of elders.


    It has always been amazing to me that Calvin worked on and modified his Institutes until he died. But, instead of continuing the modifications, his followers froze them.

    Like a Mustard Seed,

    “It is what we do that truly shows what we believe…” Absolutely.

    And for the most part, Christians show that they really don’t believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the giftings of the Spirit to all believers, or the priesthood of all believers.


  6. 11-20-2008


    I encourage you to read the transcript of a speech Frank Viola made for some leaders in Chile that were lording over the bretheren:

    The timeline and circumstances he presents put the epistles and leadership in a new light for me.

  7. 11-20-2008

    Alan, it’s amazing how everything that has a name, like “reformed” ends up dead. Incredibly, Calvin’s institutes begin with a plea for liberty and freedom of faith, but then proceed to hammer out every jot and tittle of the faith to a point of dead law. Anyone seeking the reality of the living God, should break their jars on a regular basis so the light can get out.(Jdgs 7:19, 2Cor. 4:7) Isn’t this the case with every denomination? “We’ve got it figured out, this is how we do it.” Why have the Holy Spirit if “all truth” has been memorialized in the church constitution and on the sign out front? For unity’s sake, let’s have some disunity by agreeing to never figure it all out!

  8. 11-22-2008


    I have not read Frank’s speech either. Thanks for the link.


    “We’ve got it figured out, this is how we do it.” That’s always a troubling statement for me.


  9. 11-22-2008

    Great post. I have fairly recently started questioning this issue, and posts like this and your series on paying pastors have really opened my eyes. For all of the talk of the priesthood of all believers, the practical reality is that we have a de facto priest class in the church and that has a number of negative consequences from authoritarianism to spiritual laziness.

    Thanks for posts like this, it is a discussion that is long overdue in the church. I just hope it is a conversation that is not coming too late.

  10. 11-23-2008


    Thanks for the comment and the link. I’ve add your blog to my reader, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


  11. 11-24-2008

    You have raised some interesting questions. I am excited to talk with Paul about your thoughts later (when the kids are sleeping!).
    Thank you for pointing out when someone clings to a historical person or idea (in their writings) than the Scripture.
    And, even though you are my “real life” friend, I have to thank Arthur Sido for his link to this intriguing post.

  12. 11-24-2008


    I’d love to hear what you and Paul think. You can email me or post them here or on your blog.

    I noticed that Arthur Sido linked to both of us. Is that just a coincidence?


  13. 11-25-2008

    I am completely inept to share my thoughts on most subjects amidst a group of (I am assuming) seminarians. I LOVE to talk theology with Paul, but I have a very hard time writing about it to anyone else. (Unless it is a subject that I have studied a long time).

    So much of what you write is a new idea to me… I need to process a long time before saying anything!

  14. 11-25-2008


    Some of my readers are in seminary, some have been to seminary, some have never been to seminary. I enjoy the variety – in fact, I think its important.

    Also, as a child of God, indwelled by the Spirit, you are totally qualified to share your opinion – especially here.


  15. 11-27-2008

    I have had 3 days to muddle through this post (several times). You wrote very clearly, that was not the problem – my problem is that I have thought very little about this topic. In fact, though I love the study of the Bible and theology, I never before thought about how one’s theology may effect his ecclesiology. (I am NOT saying that the two should be separate entities, I am just saying that I never thought before of how they do work together.)

    So, my first understanding is that – Theology and Ecclesiology are not mtutally exclusive. (Maybe I should have written an e-mail, this may be long).

    Secondly, I had to ask myself “How does one define preisthood?” Because of the priestly duties I see in the OT, and because of what I read in Heb 4:15-16 – I have to assume that priesthood is about having access to God, through our now-permanent mediator, Jesus Christ.

    Now that I established that much in my mind, I have to go one step further… if all believers have Jesus Christ as their mediator, then we are all priests. This is of course confirmed in I Peter 2:9-11, (as Peter refers back to many mentions in Deuteronomy.)
    I also see in I Peter 2:9-11 that being a priesthood of believers is not an end in itself. The end is “that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9 – KJV) So, if we couple that verse with Matthew 28:18-20, it is plain that we are all commissioned to share the Gospel, disciple, and baptize.

    So, if I already agree to all these things, then why do I feel so confused by this post of yours, Alan? I think it is because I feel like you have somehow blurred the line between people of the priesthood, and the people that are to be elders. And, I think that you meant to – you wanted to make me think. But, here is what scares me – this is why the red flags keep popping up. Becuase, someone could easily read what you have written and then take that in this direction: If we are all priests, then a woman has just as much a right as a man to stand up at the pulpit and preach to us a fine exegetical sermon. (So long as she is a true believer).

    Do you see where I am coming from? Maybe I sound really immature, but my mind is still not quite able to encompass all that you have said. Indeed, you did not even mention this idea – I am just saying that this line of thought could so easily lead into something much different than you intended.

    You write, “But, leaders are not important because they are set apart for special duties, such as preaching, administering the sacraments, or pastoral care. Instead, they are important as an example to all believers as to how they ALL should be preaching, administering the sacraments, and caring for people – as well as other God-given responsibilities.” OK, then I have to ask – if we are all priests, and that is all that is necesary to be a leader, then what prevents a woman in ministry? (You probably know that I think that I Tim 3 would deny such a claim.)

    I guess, what I am looking for is some kind of thorough disclaimer. Because, right now, I am understanding (or maybe misunderstanding) that you would say everyone (both male and female)has the same jobs/rolls/duties in the church (so long as it is your gift). So, can you clarify?

    Are you speaking within the universal church context or local church when you say: “As I study Scripture, I cannot find where only a few are given the responsibility of preaching (proclaiming the good news), administering the sacraments (baptizing and breaking bread – the Lord’s Supper), or pastoral care (caring for one another). Instead, I see where all believers are given these responsibilities.”

    Are you saying that you would have no problem with a woman doing these duties universally?, or in a worship setting?

    Maybe I am way off base with my line of thought here – and if I am, feel free to delete this comment and reply via e-mail. As I read the other comments, I am surprised that no one else seems troubled by these things.

    If, I have totally misunderstood, and you are just saying that “all Christians ought to be Christians,” then I completely agree.

    Please let me know if I am way off-base here.

  16. 11-27-2008


    I appreciate your comment, and the thought that went into it. We are in agreement that all are priests and all have the responsibilities of making disciples, baptizing, and teaching.

    Remember that in this post I am responding to a book which claims that there is a piesthood of the few which somehow supercedes the priesthood of all.

    I understand your concerns about women who would “stand up at the pulpit and preach to us a fine exegetical sermon”. To be honest, this was not in my mind at all in this post.

    I think some of the misunderstanding comes from our different uses of the same terms. I try to use biblical terms with their biblical meanings, not the modern church culture meanings. For example, the term “preach” simply means “proclaim the gospel”, which, as you pointed out, all believers should do. The term “minister” means “serve”, and the term “ministry” means “service”.

    Other phrases like “pulpit”, “worship service”, “local church”, “universal church”, etc. are more man-made distinctions that aren’t found in Scripture.

    My purpose in this post is to say that all believers have the responsibility of serving one another and the world through the gifts that the Spirit gives them. This responsibility is not just for a few, but for all.

    To answer one of your questions: No, I would not have a problem with a women preaching (proclaiming the gospel), administering the sacraments, or pastoring (caring for) people. Why? Because I think these distinctions are man-made, not scriptural. Note, doing these things is not the same as being an elder. Again, its man and our church traditions who have decided that only elders do these things.

    I think that when elders stop trying to handle all the service (i.e. “ministry”) for the church (i.e. “local church” and “universal church”) – even during the church meeting (i.e. “worship service”) – then the body of Christ will be strengthened and maturied through the working and gifting of all the members.


  17. 11-27-2008

    Thank you for your reply. This clears up some things. We do indeed use terms differntly. Thank you for your clarification on your definition of these terms and who they apply to.

    I appreciate all you do in this post and in your own ministy (meaning – life service). Your blog is very challenging for me – it always stretches my mind and takes me down new paths.


  18. 11-27-2008


    You’re asking very good questions. I hope you decide to keep reading and keep commenting on my blog.


  19. 11-27-2008

    “As I study Scripture, I cannot find where only a few are given the responsibility of preaching
    (proclaiming the good news), administering the sacraments (baptizing and breaking bread – the Lord’s Supper), or pastoral care (caring for one another). Instead, I see where all believers are given these responsibilities.”

    How about this I Cor 12:4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord….28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?…”

    It seems to me that the answer to the rhetorical questions “Are all apostles, are all teachers…” is No.

  20. 11-27-2008


    Yes, there are different gifts given to believers. But, all believers are given gifts in order to serve one another. However, if you look up “preaching”, “baptistm”, “Lord’s Supper”, or caring for people (pastoral care), I think you’ll find that those responsibilities are not limited to believers with only certain giftings. Instead, we are all responsible for these.

    Perhaps, most importantly, if you read the verses immediately before 1 Cor 12:28, you’ll find that the parts of the body that seem most important (apostles, teachers, prophets, elders, etc. ?) are actually not as important as the parts of the body that seem least important.

    Meanwhile, the church continually gets this backwards – holding as most important those gifted individuals that seem most important, while others are limited by the church and church leaders in the service they are allowed to offer.


  21. 12-2-2008


    I do not believe in the priesthood of a few. I do however believe that there are those who stand out amongst the people of God as outstanding teachers who have a great part in the oversight and shaping of the theological understanding of the people of God.

    “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.
    18 For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.”

    1 Tim 5:17-18 (KJV)

    They are servants just as others, yet happen to be gifted in this area.

    Consider Christ’s teaching,

    “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord.
    25 It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord.”

    Matt 10:24-25 (KJV)

    All that to say, that there is a need for gifted teachers in the Church that do stand out because of their giftedness, yet let them(teachers) not think they are more priestly.

    Also, what is your understanding of Paul here?

    “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?
    10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.
    11 If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?
    12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.
    13 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?
    14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
    Yet he has never availed himself of his rights
    15 But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void.
    16 For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!
    17 For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.
    18 What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
    making himself, rather, the servant of all
    19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.

    1 Cor 9:9-19 (KJV)

    Do gifted gospel teachers have the right of support from the Church?

    Is Paul calling us to lay aside this ancient practice?

  22. 12-2-2008


    I believe that elders and other leaders are very important for the health of the church, just like all believers are very important for the health of the church. Elders primarily provide a living, more mature example for other believers, especially in the area of serving others.

    I do not believe that Scripture ascribes any specific responsibilities to elders on the basis of their being elders. Instead, all believers are responsibility to one another and should function as the Spirit gifts them and gives them opportunity.

    As to the issue of pay for elders, that is too big of an issue for a comment. However, if you’re interested, I’ve written alot about this on this blog. In summary, I do not believe that Scripture supports paying a salary to an elder because they are an elder and in order for them to perform certain functions. I think 1 Corinthians 9 refers to apostles – those travelling away from home and their source of work and support (see the first few verses). I think Acts 20 – especially the last few verses – lays down the pattern for elders – they are to work with their hands so that they can support themselves and others and they should receive their support from others.