While Martin Luther did not use the exact phrase “priesthood of all believers,” he adduces a general priesthood in Christendom in his 1520 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in order to dismiss the medieval view that Christians in the present life were to be divided into two classes: “spiritual” and “temporal.” He put forward the doctrine that all baptized Christians are “priests” and “spiritual” in the sight of God:
That the pope or bishop anoints, makes tonsures, ordains, consecrates, or dresses differently from the laity, may make a hypocrite or an idolatrous oil-painted icon, but it in no way makes a Christian or spiritual human being. In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:9] says, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,” and Revelation [5:10], “Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.”
Two months later Luther would write in his On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520):
How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium Predigtamt) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom.” In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: “No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.”
The Bible passage considered to be the basis of this belief is the First Epistle of Peter, 2:9:
But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
(This New Living Translation version reflects the Protestant view, as the universal “royal priesthood” from the Bible Luther cites above has been changed to individual “royal priests”.)
Other relevant Scripture passages include Exodus 19:5–6, First Peter 2:4–8, Revelation 1:4–6, 5:6–10, and many passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
“Scripture…sets before us Christ alone as mediator, atoning sacrifice, high priest, and intercessor.”—Augsburg Confession Art. XXI.In ancient Israel, priests acted as mediators between God and people. They ministered according to God’s instruction and they offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. Once a year, the high priest would enter the holiest part of the temple and offer a sacrifice for the sins of all the people, including all the priests.
Although many religions use priests, most Protestant faiths reject the idea of a priesthood as a group that is spiritually distinct from lay people. They typically employ professional clergy who perform many of the same functions as priests such as clarifying doctrine, administering communion, performing baptisms, marriages, etc. In many instances, Protestants see professional clergy as servants acting on behalf of the local believers. This is in contrast to the priest, whom some Protestants see as having a distinct authority and spiritual role different from that of ordinary believers.
Most Protestants today recognize only one mediator between them and God the Father, and that is God the Son, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). The Epistle to the Hebrews calls Jesus the supreme “high priest,” who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7:23–28). Protestants believe that through Christ they have been given direct access to God, just like a priest; thus the doctrine is called the priesthood of all believers. God is equally accessible to all the faithful, and every Christian has equal potential to minister for God. This doctrine stands in opposition to the concept of a spiritual aristocracy or hierarchy within Christianity.
The belief in the priesthood of all believers does not preclude order, authority or discipline within congregations or denominational organizations. For example, Lutheranism maintains the biblical doctrine of “the preaching office” or the “office of the holy ministry” established by God in the Christian Church. The Augsburg Confession states:
[From Article 4:] Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us … [From Article 5:] To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel … [Article 14:] Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.
The origins of the doctrine within Protestantism are somewhat obscure. The idea was found in a radical form in Lollard thought. Martin Luther adduced it in his writings for the purpose of reforming the Christian Church, and it became a central tenet of Protestantism.
The doctrine is strongly asserted within Methodism and the Plymouth Brethren movement. Within Methodism it can plausibly be linked to the strong emphasis on social action and political involvement within that denomination. Within the Plymouth Brethren, the concept is most usually evidenced in the lack of distinction between “clergy” and “laity,” the refusal to adopt formal titles such as Reverend or Bishop, the denial of formal ordination, and in some cases the refusal to hire any “professional staff” or paid Christian workers at all. Baptist movements, which generally operate on a form of congregational polity, also lean heavily on this concept…