The human hunger for freedom cannot be suppressed forever. This insistence on liberty has been at the heart of the Baptist movement from its inception. … It is to the Lord Jesus Christ and to Him alone that the soul is accountable.–The late Dr. G. Earl Guinn, former college president and Baptist seminary professor
I have been enamored with this quotation since I stumbled across it last week. It drew me to a fresh consideration of the concept, since in the last 10 years priesthood of believer has been hijacked and abused by ultra-conservative religiosos who claim the truth of the concept with their words but then deny it by their actions of religious intolerance and power politics. (religioso = a religious bozo)
Priesthood of the Believer in History
The last sentence in Dr. Guinn’s quotation expresses the core belief of priesthood of the believer, a bedrock doctrine of most Protestants (and descendant groups that splintered off the original Protestants). That doctrine has resonated across centuries and through countless doctrinal declarations that began with the revolution of the Reformation.
But as Dr. Guinn expressed the concept, framing it with words such as freedom, liberty, and heart, the thinker understands how that doctrine took stronger root in the backwoods of the American frontier in the early days when those self-sufficient pioneers got hold of it. They were the early Baptists and Methodists, industrious and independent settlers who fell in love with priesthood of the believer because that doctrine underscored their secular values in this wide-open land of opportunity. Yes, priesthood of the believer came across as a perfect spiritual running mate with democracy: spiritual self-determination in church, political self-determination in government.
Corruption of the Doctrine
Unfortunately, the doctrine at some point got encumbered with dogma, for dogma is what men do with doctrine when men want to have their way. They taint the purity and decency of the doctrine as they saddle it with ritual or narrow it with creedal confessions to protect it from the challenge or scrutiny of differing minds.
A case in point is my own Southern Baptists’ love for voting. Ironically, the denomination that harkens the loudest to biblical conduct in ecclesiastical matters insists on this most unbiblical method of decision-making. From the local church to the regional association to the state convention to the national convention, Baptist bodies can’t make a decision without calling a vote. But where does their authority, the bible, suggest or lend support for the idea of voting as a means of determining God’s will? Then the worst danger of this disturbing priesthood of the majority is that leaders confuse carnal lust for control with spiritual perception of God’s will. Thus convinced of their rightness and your wrongness, if you vote against them, you’re obviously a tool of the Devil. (Even though you may have prayed sincerely for guidance and direction in the vote you made.) This practice is crazy!
Purification of the Doctrine
So how about a call for purifying the doctrine of priesthood of the believer? If my claim is that my soul is accountable to God for its ultimate salvation and eternal destiny, not depending on or needing the intervention or assistance of any other agent than God, I have to be equally yielding to my neighbors’ claims that their souls are accountable to God for the same salvation and destiny. The New Testament church we read about in Acts and the epistles is proof enough that well-intentioned truth-seekers will squabble and disagree to the point of nastiness (because, alas, we are frail dust!), but if we really espouse priesthood of the believer, we make room to have those disagreements without acrimony.
Of course, the basic condition for conflict to soften and fade away is a mutual respect. The basis for respect for one whose belief differs from mine should be the other’s sincere pursuit of divine truth. This respect is a simple and unifying trait, one that should tear down barriers that for centuries have caused antagonism between Protestants and Catholics, evangelical conservatives and mainstream moderates, denominational churches and non-denominational assemblies. Let’s get over it, recognizing that sincere and well-intentioned men for centuries have read the same bible and come away with very different views on belief and practice. In most cases, none can empirically prove that they’re right and others are wrong! So l argue that we allow fellowship to supplant the old antagonisms as we celebrate what we do agree on: Christ’s love, grace, and power to save. At the end of the day, worship, trust in the Savior, and an eternal destiny in glory stand as common denominators for fellowship and agreement among those who trust Christ for salvation.
We may still surround ourselves with like-minded friends; that’s our social instinct. But fellowship, peace, and unity with other Christians should result from our practice of priesthood of the believer as each side humbly recognizes the other’s God-given entitlement to pursue the infinite, mysterious, glorious, undefinable, uncontainable, and inexpressible fullness of divine truth. For at the end of the conversation, let’s be honest: If we agree on anything, it’s that, “Hey, ain’t nobody figured it all out yet.”
So through our unifying faith in Christ, let my faith + your faith = our faith, and may fellowship and worship abound as we exercise our priestly birthrights. Meanwhile, one day in the sweet by and by, we will understand it all.