The Priesthood of All Believers

From the beginning the assemblies movement was distinguished by having a lay ministry.  The idea was not brand new as the Haldane brothers in Scotland had created a stir a generation before by adopting it.  It was still sufficiently novel to be revolutionary.

The late Prof. Rendle Short describes how it was arrived at by some of those early brethren, a high proportion of whom were themselves clerics.  Anthony Norris Groves decided to become a missionary in 1825.  He entered Trinity College, Dublin, to train for ordination in the Church of England.  In 1827 Groves began to doubt whether it was worth his while to obtain ordination, and on the Sunday night before he went over to Dublin to matriculate burglars broke into his house and carried of £400 which he had put aside for that purpose.  This led him to see the hand of the Lord guiding him not to seek ordination.  When, however, he presented himself to the Church Missionary Society as a candidate, he found that they would not allow him to celebrate the Lord’s Supper when no minister was near.  This was a great blow.  As he pondered it the though flashed through his mind “that ordination of any kind to preach the gospel is no requirement of scripture.  To me it was the removal of a mountain.”  Hr imparted this revelation to J. G. Bellett (himself a churchman) who was equally impressed with it.  One day, walking in Lower Pembroke Street, Dublin, Groves remarked to him, “This, I doubt not, is the mind of God concerning us -- we should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any puppet or ministry, but trusting that the Lord could edify us together by ministering as he pleased and saw good from the midst of ourselves.”  Belle remarks, “It was the birthplace of my mind, may I so speak, as a brother.”

But those men were merely recovering what had been the divine intention from the beginning of Christianity.  Those eleven whom the Lord commissioned immediately prior to His departure for heaven were ordinary men without special natural qualifications.  Movements make more progress from the grass roots level.  Without the active participation of the laity their growth will be stunted.  In the early days Church leaders emerged who eventually usurped the functions of the rest and claimed for themselves the duties of participation which belonged to the rest.  This situation became the rule and caused the Church to settle down to awful uniformity imposed from above.  The centuries passed without the slightest hope of the layman coming back into his own.  It was for preaching the gospel that John Bunyan was imprisoned for a dozen years in Bedford jail.  Such service for God was forbidden to laymen.  At the beginning of the 19th Century it was as unusual as ever and roused opposition in Christendom.  All credit then to those men, who, themselves clergymen, saw no threat to their own positions in recommending that every Christian by scriptural right ought to be performing such functions as their fellow clergyman had traditionally assigned to themselves.

So there appeared on the ecclesiastical scene early in the 19th Century a group of Christians who astonished Christendom by having a lay ministry.  They were simply subscribing to holy scripture which said, “To whom coming as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men but chosen of God and precious, ye also as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

There seems to be around the idea that a trained ministry would be more satisfactory.  Sometimes that might be true from the natural point of view but that ignores the provision the risen Lord has made for His church in spiritual gifts.  It has always astonished the writer that it should require training to carry out services which any parrot could recite.  Equally the end product os quite a good guide and with all our ignorance of the truth and practice of scriptural teaching we are still streets ahead of the normal clergyman-taught congregation.  So why should we envy them?  The scriptures teach and illustrate the practice of the priesthood of all believers that not one of them needs an intermediary between himself and the Lord Jesus.  It could be said that the person who becomes a clergyman usurps the prerogative of the risen Lord, stunts the growth of the saints and exaggerates his own importance.  He assumes duties which the Lord Jesus would allocate to the saints as a body instead of to one individual among them.

By usurping these acts of service he prevents the necessary self-expression of such saints, thereby preventing them developing as they should.  Finally he becomes more I’m;portent in any church than he was ever intended to be, no matter what form of church government is followed.

Sir Robert Anderson, founder of Scotland yard and probably the first assembly writer of apologetics (apart from J. N. Darby’s “The Irrationalism of Infidelity”) never tired of pointing out that clerisy was imported from Old Testament Judaism with its special priestly caste.  Like everything else of a ceremonial nature in that system it was withdrawn when Christ came.  This was proof of its inadequacy.  When then should we wish to revive it in any shape or form?

This does not mean that there are no good clergymen.  But the existence of a good clergyman does not condone an unscriptural system.  The biggest problem posed to assembly Christians by interdenominational activities is their acceptance of clerisy as if it were not wrong.  Let’s recognise that if it’s wrong inside the assembly it is equally wrong outside.

It would be logical to suggest that our presence in an assembly implies our acceptance of assembly truths, including that of the priesthood of every believer. This assumes that we are each going to use our priesthood, rising to the high calling our God has raised us to.


© Douglas Carr 2021