The doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” is one that is easily misunderstood but joyfully affirmed by a number of Christian groups across denominational lines. Uche Anizor and Hank Voss’ book, Representing Christ: A Priesthood of All Believers is an attempt to hash out the particulars of this challenging, freeing doctrine.
The authors note the potential pitfalls of the doctrine while also showing the ways that the notion of the priesthood of all believers can be applied to many different situations. After some excellent introductory remarks–including a look at how priesthood is viewed in different theological traditions–they dive into chapters on the Scriptural basis for the doctrine, Martin Luther’s contribution to recovering the doctrine, the Trinity and our priesthood, the practices of the priesthood of all, and the overall implications and applications of the doctrine.
The doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” has long been credited to Martin Luther, though he did not use the specific phrase and some Luther scholars (cited by Anizor and Voss) dispute that this doctrine can be derived from his writings. Despite these apparent challenges, the authors demonstrate not only the roots of the teaching in Luther’s writings, but also the fruit that such a doctrine bore for him. As a Lutheran myself, it was refreshing to see Luther’s contribution highlighted rather than ignored. Indeed, Luther’s notion of the functions of the believer–preaching and teaching the word, baptizing, administering the Lord’s Supper, binding and loosing sins, prayer, sacrifice, judging doctrine–is used as a basis for the ongoing discussion.
These seven points are developed later in the book and serve as a great, applicable portion of the book. The authors rightly note the importance for the church of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and do so in ways that show how their importance comes in part from the way they create a fellowship of believers. The other aspects of this priesthood of all believers are equally insightful. Something like “binding and loosing sins” may seem quite abstract, but Anizor and Voss manage to make such a notion relevant and practical.
Highlighting the life of the Trinity and Christ’s role as great high priest was another strong point of the book. However, in this section there was a continued emphasis on the notion that it is “especially appropriate” to worship the Father in the name of Jesus by the power of the Spirit (100, cited below). Now I’ll not dispute that this is indeed one way that we ought to direct worship- praise to the Father in the name of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the authors belabored this point so much that I wondered why this was the case. After all, they clear agree that it is appropriate to worship the Son and the Spirit. If that is the case, then what basis is there for the claim of “especial” appropriateness regarding worship of the Father? We need to be careful in Trinitarian doctrine to not establish a hierarchy within the Trinity, and indeed the ancient Athanasian Creed states, “And in the Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another, but all three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.” This creedal statement which has historically been defining for the whole Christian church makes it clear that all three persons are to be worshiped in unity, and although the formula Anizor and Voss put forward is Trinitarian, I wonder why the emphasis is on worship being directed to the Father. No person of the Trinity is more worthy of worship than any either, and our worship ought to be directed towards the Triune God, not “especially” towards one person.
One aspect missing from the discussion in the book is the notion of both men and women in this role as priests. Indeed, the point where this could have most easily been highlighted is in the Garden of Eden, where Voss and Anizor note the way the Garden of Eden is like a type of temple (28) and Adam is a kind of priest-king in the Garden (26ff). Someone is notably absent in this discussion: Eve. Eve was placed alongside Adam in Eden and also given the charge to have dominion over it; why should she be excluded from the discussion of priestly act in the Garden? It seems it would have been quite appropriate to include such a discussion here, and I wonder whether the lack of her inclusion is an attempt to restrict the priesthood of all believers after all. There remain many church bodies who exclude women from the role of representing Christ, and often this teaching is reinforced by keeping some parts of Scripture silent on the topic. In Representing Christ, we see no explicit mention of Eve as serving alongside Adam in these functions, despite reference to sections in which she appears. The priesthood of all believers is an explosive doctrine that frees both men and women, and to ignore this aspect of the doctrine does it disservice.
Representing Christ is an important look at a doctrine that is too often misunderstood or abused. The priesthood of all believers is a freeing doctrine, but not one that throws any kind of order in the church out the window. The authors do a fair job of pointing this out, but I cannot help but wonder why they didn’t go even farther and show how this priesthood of believers can free not only “us” in the general sense, but also, to take from a well-informed author, show that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, for we are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
Highlights importance of Luther’s contributions
Provides Scriptural basis for the doctrine
Gives practical examples for applying content
Avoids some of the apparent implications of the doctrine regarding women
Awkward wording of some Trinitarian discussion