Martin Luther’s Priesthood of Believers

Posted: July 27, 2012 in Martin Luther
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            Significant social, geo-political, ecclesial, and theological shifts and upheavals marked the nearly two hundred years preceding Martin Luther’s penning of the Ninety-Five Theses.  The use and abuse of papal authority and power was a subject of intense debate well before Luther.  In fact, reformation within the Church had been called for by those such as John Wyclif and John Hus, to name only a couple of the dissenting voices.  Thus, the Reformation did not start with Luther, although it certainly may have culminated and climaxed in Luther’s thought and action, which now characterize the time period.

            Early reform was embodied and enacted in various ways.  The mendicant movement within the Catholic Church, for instance, was designed to correct some of the imbalances of power and the accompanying abuse that was perceived to be occurring.  The Observant Movement made “conceivable an ecclesiastical organization that, though not independent of the pope, could gain a measure of independence from Rome.”[1]  This was preferable to those who perceived the papacy acting in opposition to Christ’s manner of life, namely the call to a life of poverty!  Luther was vastly influenced by such mendicant orders being a member of the “Observant Augustinians.”[2]

            Still others tried to formulate theological positions that warranted the deconstruction of the Church’s hierarchal power and the reconstruction of its doctrine.  Joachim of Fiore, for instance, posited that time was actually Trinitarian in nature.  The time of the Father was in the Old Testament; the time of the Son in the New Testament until the 1300’s; and the time of the Spirit began in the 1300’s and initiated the millennium.[3]  This age of the Spirit would usher in the “time of the friars” while exterminating papal rule.  The “millennium” of God’s reign continued to be an important subject of thought for Luther.

However, Luther’s attack on papal authority is not a form of chiliasm, neither does it devolve into a Zionistic activism.  Luther was not interested in provoking the underclass and the underprivileged to establish an autonomous nation-state or to found the city of God through violent means, as so many others were attempting.  In actuality, Luther deplored and denounced such futile action, claiming, as had Augustine, that God alone would establish God’s kingdom in God’s time and in God’s way.  Thus, the priesthood of believers was not to be conceived as a geo-political entity striving for power among the nations and kingdoms of this world.

In contrast, Rome had fashioned itself as God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Thus, conquering lands and bringing them under their authority was a way to establish the City of God among men.  Yet, Luther, and many others, could not abide by such debased notions of God’s Kingdom.  Oberman concludes:

It is of lasting significance that Luther’s rejection of all historical utopias did not entail abandoning the Church and the world to chaos: Christians are threatened but not helpless, under attack but not defenseless.  Where the Gospel is preached, Satan’s destructive assaults can be survived.  Where Christian teachings tear the authorities from the clutches of the Antichrist, the world can once again come into its own… Reformation is the work of God, betterment the task of Adam and Eve.[4]

Thus, the priesthood of believers, as we will see, has a significant role to play in what God is doing in the world.  Although God is the primary Actor, the true Church is by no means a silent observer.  Rather, God covenants with us, calling us to obedience by which God will restore and redeem creation.  Thus, “reform” is God’s work.  Humanity can only respond to, not initiate, that work.

According to Oberman, initially the outcry against the Church’s doctrine and practice revolved around the issue of ecclesial authority and Christ’s call to poverty.  He describes a significant turning point early in the call for reformation and renewal of the Church:

Pope John XXII initially questioned, then rejected and condemned a strict interpretation of the rule of poverty laid down in both documents [St. Francis of Assisi’s first rule and last will].  From that point on, not only was the Church’s proper Christian way of life at issue, but also the much further-reaching question of papal authority and the foundations of a hierarchically structured Church.  Thus the storm of indignation caused by the pope’s condemnation in 1323 did not solely concern his repudiation of the strict ideal of poverty.[5]

This offense indicated a conflict of interest between a life of faith and papal use of power.  Indulgences were sold to raise money to support war, procure power, and propagate privilege for the few.  Church offices were sold to secure favors from rulers or elicit political alliances.  And, during this period, the Church was actually the largest landowner.  Politics, rather than genuine piety, appeared to dictate the direction of the Church.  It was apparent that the “Church” not only largely shunned such extreme self-denial, but practiced quite the opposite.  How could those holding positions within the Church live in ways not commensurate with Christ’s life?  And, what should be done about this situation?

The foundering of hierarchal, ecclesial authority inevitably created fissures of many shapes and sizes within the Church.  Hus, who would later be condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake, attacked the authority of the Church where it was seen to be in direct opposition to the life of Christ.  Oberman notes:

Amid the conflicts and rival claims of his time, Hus draws the following sharp conclusion: It is not obedience to Rome, but rather obedience to God which is the decisive mark of the true Church.  To her belong those whom God through His eternal predestination has chosen as the obedient.  With its hunger for power and property, the papal hierarchy has forfeited any right to be regarded as part of the true Church, which can be recognized by the imitation of Christ and the apostles.[6]

Thus, the door for questioning, destabilizing, and de-legitimating hierarchal, ecclesial authority is opened for Luther and others to walk through.  More importantly, this gives opportunity for a radical revamping of the community of saints.

Along with the erosion of the papacy’s spiritual empire, a decentralized geo-political hegemony made it difficult to bring these prophetic voices to a halt.  Several nations were simultaneously vying for autonomy from papal rule.  King Henry VIII and the German princes were some of those beginning to establish their own rule outside and over against Rome.  Although John Hus was executed for heresy, John Wyclif, on the other hand, was protected by powerful allies.  Luther, too, found safety in his friend and protector, Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony.  Freedom to challenge the doctrinal stances of the Church provided the grounds for re-discovering the Gospel message.

In essence, the search for the true Church had begun in earnest.  In this quest, Luther challenges many of the presuppositions upon which ecclesial authority rests in the hope of returning to a way of life in line with the Word, which is through faith alone.  Luther’s understanding of the priesthood of believers is forged out of this struggle.  In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther rails against his opponents, stating:

The truth is turned against Christ, the office of the pope as the servant of servants is changed into the power of a ruler over rulers.  However, the victorious Christ at God’s right hand needs no vicar, for the ruler of the world in Heaven ‘sees, does, knows and is capable of all thing’ – without the pope.[7]

Luther seeks to unmask this “anti-Christ” and empower the true Church to live out of the freedom which only Christ gives.  This has radical implications for what the true Church looks like as it embodies the life of Christ in the world!  We are left to ask: “What then is the role of both the laity and the clergy?”

Amazingly, Luther states, “A Christian is a free master over all things and subject to no one.”[8]  This is not an autonomous freedom for each individual believer.  Rather, it is freedom to serve others with compassion.  As such, it can be ascertained that each believer plays a vital and important role in making known the Gospel, in accordance with the freedom that each believer receives through Christ.  That is why Luther can also state, “A Christian is a servant of all and subject to everyone.”[9]

In comparison to the use of ecclesial and political power in Luther’s day, Luther reminds the believers that those who want to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will not lord it over others “as the Gentiles do.”  Instead, Christians employ power in light of the cross and the suffering of Christ.  Power is to be utilized for the betterment of others, not simply for our own benefit.  The shape of life for the priesthood of believers must always be Christocentric and cruciform.

God chooses to empower believers and to make God’s self known through Christians!  Luther contends, “Yes, He can probably do it alone, but He does not want to; He wants us to act with Him and honors us by carrying out His will with and through us.  If we do not desire this honor, He will help the poor by Himself.”[10]  This gifted responsibility is given to every Christian, not merely a select few.  Moreover, there is no hierarchal claim to authority among believers.  God is sovereign and we are each called to obedience.

However, Luther did not always question the authority of the pope.  In fact, upon his later reflection Luther termed himself as a “fierce papist” in his early career.  It is conceivable that his business trip to Rome to appeal to the pope concerning the Augustinian order had an indelible impact.  Luther found the moral decay of Christianity’s geo-political center to be absolutely horrific.  And, although Oberman posits that this did not lead Luther to “start to doubt whether the pope was indeed the vicar of Christ,”[11] that does not mean that it didn’t have lasting influence on his attitude toward the papacy.

The so-called “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the selling of indulgences.  Luther had increasingly come under the conviction that salvation was through Christ alone and by faith alone, not as a means of personal merit.  Indulgences undermined the biblical foundations of the Christian faith by placing humans in the place of God.  Only God could make salvation a reality, not the pope.

The doctrine of salvation and ecclesiology cannot be separated out in Luther’s understanding.  In fact, one, in some sense, constitutes the other.  Salvation is given to those who hear God’s Word and believe.  In this way, people are made part of the Body of Christ.  They are gathered together, participating in this shared life with God and one another.  This is the power of the Gospel, which makes Christ known to us through the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel is entirely necessary for salvation and the forming of the Church Body.  Luther writes, “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”[12]  Thus, those that are members of the communio sanctorum are also those that have received the Gospel and responded in belief and faith in Christ Jesus.  And, furthermore, where the true Church is there God’s Word will be found also!

God’s word is the Gospel that testifies to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  That is the very foundation of the Church and, by extension, the community of believers.  Without the Gospel, the Church does not exist.  Connecting Christ with the true Church, Luther proclaims:

Whoever seeks Christ must first find the church.  Now the church is not wood and stone but the group of people who believe in Christ.  Whoever seeks the church should join himself to them and observe what they teach, pray, and believe.  For they certainly have Christ among them.[13]

Thus, participation in the priesthood of believers entails connection with Christ and the Church, not autonomous individuality on a personal, spiritual quest.  Rather, the community of God is where the Word is found and the Word is where the community of God is found.

This distinction between salvation that comes from God through the Gospel and a cheap imitation offered by man establishes a dichotomy between the true and the false Church.  The priesthood of believers was only those that participated in the life of the true Church.  Scripture became the cornerstone upon which to judge what truly constituted the living Church.  Moreover, the validity of “tradition” (i.e., the councils, the papacy, etc.) was contingent upon its coherence with the Scriptural witness.

The papacy did not remain quietly idle
but in response constructed “three walls” to combat Luther’s barrage.  He contends that the papists have constructed a fortress unwilling to yield to any reform.  These three walls perpetually affirm the authority of the pope and thus have muted their own ears to the Gospel’s calling.

The “three walls” can be outlined.  First, spiritual matters trump temporal matters.  As such, the Church is not subject to the authority of “temporal rulers.”  Second, Scripture can only be interpreted correctly by the pope.  And, lastly, only the pope can convene a council.[14]  As a result, Luther’s attempt to restore the Church’s proper doctrine is undermined by the arguments offered by the papacy.

This debate intricately shapes and forms Luther’s conception of the priesthood of believers.  Deposing the papacy’s self-proclaimed infallibility led to a stronger emphasis on the communio sanctorum.  No longer could the pope, or any other ecclesial official, be allowed to operate beyond or outside of the community of believers.  After all, Christ alone was the Head of the Church.

In fact, Luther went so far as to deny ordination as a sacrament.  Of course, this was a radical equalization between clergy and laity.  This did not so much deny the important role of clergy, as much as, it promoted God’s call to all believers.  Sharing in that equilateral call suggested that everyone, including clergy, stood as equals before God.  If all believers have received this gift of priesthood, then what significance, if any, remains for clergy?

Luther posits both a general and specific call for all believers.  The general call consists of individual believers being initiated into the Body by faith through Christ.  Thus, everyone that comes to faith in Christ is a priest.  This is the general call to which all are invited to partake.  Luther asserts, “Faith alone is the true priestly office.  It permits no one else to take its place.  Therefore all Christian men are priests, all women priestesses, be they young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, learned or unlearned  Here there is no difference, unless faith be unequal.”[15]

Among those that respond to this general call there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”  As such, the priesthood of believers can be seen to have equal responsibilities, though those responsibilities may differ from one to another.  “Faith” becomes the marker by which one is initiated and maintained as part of the priesthood of believers.  It is not dependent upon human will, but upon faithful obedience to the Gospel.

Early in Luther’s theological development, Luther strongly asserted this position of equanimity among believers.  Toward the end of his career, however, he promoted it less.  Although he was strongly opposed to the papacy, he could not entertain the chaos that no polity would inevitably create.  In fact, Luther continued to maintain a biblical notion of the bishop as necessary for the care of the Church.

As such, Luther does not negate the necessity of clergy.  To utilize the Body metaphor, each member of the Body has a unique role to fulfill.  Pastors and ministers represent a specific calling within the Body of Christ, but not as over and above the priesthood of believers.  Luther comments, “It is true that all Christians are priests, but not all are pastors.  To be a pastor one must be not only a Christian and a priest but must have an office and a field of work committed to him.  This call and command make pastors and preachers.”[16]  Due to the diversity within the Body not everyone can be expected to serve the same function within the Body.

Pastor and minister are roles entrusted to some within the community as representatives of the whole.  At the same time, it remains a specific call by which God draws out men and women to faithfully preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments.  Clergy do not possess a higher status but perform different functions within and from the Body.  It is a matter of vocation.  Thus, according to Bernhard Lohse, “…ordination was the effective transmission of the ministerial office” from the priesthood of believers to the ordinand.[17]

One of the arenas of conflict Rome’s and Luther’s picture of the priesthood centers upon the notion of sainthood.  The Church in Rome had developed an intricate system of sainthood.  It is reported that Luther became a monk because of a vow that he made to Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother, during a thunderstorm.  This notion portrays the elevated status that was often given to those individuals that demonstrated an elevated life of faith.  Saintliness, as such, was not readily available to everyone but was a special status of a few.  Although Luther initially held to similar views of sainthood, he eventually came to see saintliness encompassing a larger group, namely the priesthood of all believers.  Oberman writes, “It was only after his reformation breakthrough that he discovered all believers to be saints.”[18]

As noted earlier, there is no division among the believers in so far as degrees of faith.  Yet, even Luther would claim that this too is not a means for division because faith is a gift from God, not derivative of human effort!  Although Luther might not go so far in his thinking, it logically leads to this point and is not in opposition to it.  Thus, sainthood is available to all, not as a works-righteousness accomplishment, as the work of God to which those who believe respond in faithful obedience to God’s call!

In conclusion, the priesthood of believers, thanks to the reformers, is radically altered from its Medieval perspective.  The priesthood is not a select few individuals that enjoy the privileges of ordination.  The pope, or any leader other than Christ, does not constitute the Church.  Instead, it is a free gift of God’s grace to those who respond to the Gospel through the Holy Spirit.  The communio sanctorum is constituted by the Word as a people gathered together, living in faithful obedience to God’s commands.  In the midst of that, some are called by God to preach, teach, and serve in and from the community of believers, whose Head is Christ.


[1] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006,, 53.

[2] Ibid, 53.

[3] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale

University Press, 2006, 58.

[4] Ibid, 74.

[5] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 57.

[6] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 55.

[7] Ibid, 43.

[8] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 78.

[9] Ibid, 78.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 149.

[12] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 281.

[13] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 287.

[14] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 289.

[15] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 290.

[16] Ibid, 290.

[17] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 295.

[18] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 93.

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