Priesthood of all believers

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The priesthood of all believers or the historically correct priesthood of all baptized is a concept of Christian , especially evangelical, theology .

There it has different levels of meaning. In the Protestant regional churches it primarily means that all believers are directly to God and that the (indispensable) public preaching office (pastor, pastor) does not constitute an ordination . In free churches of the Protestant tradition, the term emphasizes that every believer in the community can take on the tasks that the pastor or priest carries out in other churches . In fact, in most cases there are pastors and preachers, elders, evangelists or missionaries with some form of theological training who have been appointed through acts of blessing ( ordinations ).

In the Roman Catholic Church , since the Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on the Church Lumen Gentium in 1964, a “common priesthood of the faithful” has also been taught, which is expressed in the fact that “in all the works of a Christian person they make spiritual sacrifices and the Proclaim power deeds of him who has called them out of darkness into his wonderful light ”. This priesthood, however, differs from the hierarchical priesthood "in essence and not merely in degree" (Lumen Gentium, 10).


Historically, the term belongs essentially to the self-understanding of the Reformation and the churches that emerged from it and is understood there as a counter-term to the special, sacramental priesthood of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. On the other hand, these churches also know the general priesthood of all baptized in addition to the official priesthood.

The presence of priests in all religions presupposes a gap between man and the divine sphere. With the progress of culture and division of labor everywhere a special priesthood, which deals with the cultic mediation between heaven and earth by developed grace acting victims saw tasked with interpreting the divine will.

Old testament

Ancient Israel also had a special priesthood , although there was also a “general priesthood of all members of God's people”: ( 2 Mos 19,6  LUT ). The self- image of the Levitical priesthood and the cult practice of the Kohanim are reflected in detail in the so-called priestly layer of the Pentateuch .

On the other hand, the prophetic admonition already breaks out in the Old Testament that the divine spirit has been poured out over all Israel ( Joel 3,1  LUT ) and one day the whole people of Israel will make a priesthood for the other peoples ( Isa 61,6  LUT ) . The eschatological vision of the gift of the Spirit to "all flesh" goes even further .

New Testament

The New Testament writers see these promises fulfilled through Jesus Christ and the event of Pentecost . In the Church of Jews and Gentiles , all her members are connected through baptism with Christ , who through his love giving up to the cross and through his resurrection has become the only and final high priest and at the same time himself an offering . What is new in the new covenant is not a new introduction of a “general priesthood of all believers” (which the “old covenant” already knew in part), but the surpassing of the old testament “general priesthood of all believers”, since now also non-Jews in the new Covenant belong to this kingdom of priests and to the holy people ( 1 Petr 2,9f  EU ; Rev 1,6  EU ).

Early Church Developments

In the early Christian community orders ( Didaskalia Apostolorum , Didache , Apostolic Constitutions ) the Greek and Latin names for priests do not appear anywhere. From the beginning, however, community senior show up in the Christian literature authorities , for which there were different names. Eph 4.11  EU for example names the following offices: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. Other offices are bishop, elder and deacon. In the Acts of the Apostles (20.17–28 EU ) the official titles of elders and bishops are apparently used synonymously; The threefold structure of the office that became apparent at the turn of the 2nd century : Episkopos (overseer - bishop ), Presbyteros (elder - priest), Diakonos (servant - deacon ) is also recognizable in the Acts of the Apostles. The office of bishop was traced back in the New Testament to the transfer of power through the laying on of hands by an apostle or successor to the apostle ( Acts 8.18  EU , Acts 14.23  EU , Heb. 6.2  EU , 2 Tim 1.6  EU ).

Old Testament and Greco-Roman ideas about priests were increasingly transferred to these ecclesiastical offices, especially since the church grew in numbers after the change in Constantine and its officials were supposed to take on the role of priests of the old state cult. This also applied to the moral demands made on ancient priests and state officials.

Protestant position


Martin Luther's Reformation was triggered by the rediscovery of the central Christian message of the justification of sinners solely through grace (“ sola gratia ”) , which faith alone receives (“ sola fide ”) . In contrast to the Roman priesthood, Luther formulated the priesthood of all baptized in a main Reformation text from 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation from the Improvement of the Christian Class.

“All Christians are truly spiritual and there is no difference among them for the sake of office alone. ... Accordingly, we are all ordained priests through baptism. ... What emerged from baptism can boast that it has already been consecrated priest, bishop and pope, although it is not right for everyone to exercise this office. "

- Martin Luther : To the Christian nobility ... (1520)

The terminology initially expresses that all Christians have direct access to divine salvation through faith and baptism without having to rely on priestly mediation. From this, however, the faithful perform priestly tasks, above all mutual intercession and consolation, but not the task of public preaching:

"For that we are priests, that is a lot more, than to be keen, because the priesthood makes us ready to pray for God and to pray for others ... So Christ had acquired us, which we must be sacred for one another Step and ask, like a priest typically steps and asks for the people ... For whether we want to be all gleych priests, we don't all serve or create and preach. "

- Martin Luther : On the freedom of a Christian (1520)

Initially, the general priesthood was also an argument for Luther that the believers should call and commission suitable persons among themselves for the field service ( that a Christian assembly or congregation has the right and power to judge all doctrine and to appoint, appoint and remove learners and cause from Scripture , 1523). In his confrontation with radical Reformation groups such as the spiritualists - whom he called "enthusiasts" - and the Anabaptists , who wanted to implement the egalitarian principle directly and radically in church (and state) practice, he soon emphasized the inevitability of the Preaching office and referred to the Bible and church tradition. For this reason, the church ordinances of the newly emerging Lutheran regional churches contained clear office, ordination and visitation regulations from the beginning . In the Lutheran confessional writings (and thus the official doctrinal conception of the Lutheran churches ) the doctrine of the priesthood of all baptized appears only in one place as an argument for the election of pastors by the congregations. At another point, the Lutheran confessions even speak of Lutheran priests (cf. Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 13).

The confessions of the Reformed churches also teach the general priesthood and understand it as participation in the priesthood of Christ ( Johannes Calvin , Geneva Catechism 1542/45, question 43; Heidelberg catechism , question 31f). In some cases, however, they differentiate even more clearly between the general priesthood and the “ministerial office”.

Later development

Luther's doctrine of the general priesthood was revitalized in pietism in the Protestant churches. Philipp Jacob Spener demanded in his reform pamphlet Pia desideria (1675) in a prominent place "the establishment and diligent exercise of the 'spiritual priesthood'" and later defended this in other writings against Lutheran orthodoxy . The idea became popular in the Protestant churches, especially in the form of small groups to read the Bible together and provide mutual spiritual support.

For Johann Hinrich Wichern and his Inner Mission program , free association was “in its most beautiful way the confirmation of the general priesthood of the believing parishioners”.

The teaching of the Catholic Church on the common priesthood

According to the Roman Catholic Church, there is a universal priesthood for the baptized. This does not preclude the existence of a special priesthood. With regard to the Reformation exclusive understanding of the general priesthood, doctrinal statements on the general priesthood up to Vatican II are rare.

In the Second Vatican Council, especially in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, the common priesthood of the faithful is emphasized and at the same time placed in relation to the special priesthood of the ordained priests:

"Christ the Lord, taken from among the people as high priest (cf. Heb 5: 1-5  EU ), made the new people 'a kingdom and priests for God and his Father" (cf. Rev 1, 6  EU ; 5 , 9-10 EU ). Through being born again and being anointed with the Holy Spirit, the baptized are consecrated to a spiritual edifice and a holy priesthood, so that in all the works of a Christian person they may make spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the mighty deeds of him who call them out of darkness into his wonderful light has (cf. 1 Petr 2,4-10  EU ). All disciples of Christ should persevere in prayer and praise God together (cf. Acts 2,42–47  EU ) and offer themselves as a living, holy, God-pleasing offering (cf. Rom 12,1  EU ); everywhere on earth they should bear witness to Christ and give an account to all who demand it of the hope of eternal life that is in them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15  EU ). The common priesthood of the faithful and the priesthood of service, that is, the hierarchical priesthood, differ in essence and not merely in degree. Nevertheless, they are related to one another: one as the other participates in the priesthood of Christ in a particular way (16). The ministerial priest, by virtue of his holy power, which he wields, trains and guides the priestly people; he makes the Eucharistic sacrifice in the person of Christ and offers it to God in the name of the whole people; the faithful, on the other hand, by virtue of their royal priesthood take part in the Eucharistic offering (17) and exercise their priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer, in thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, through self-denial and active love. "

- Second Vatican Council : Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium , No. 10

For (Cardinal / Pope) Joseph Ratzinger , “the general priesthood [...] is not a competition for the liturgical mandate of the presbyter, but the expansion of the Christian cult into the world and humanity, for which the totality of Christians is entitled to priestly service to do is called. Such an understanding of Christian world piety will not only be more biblical, but also more realistic than an overly smooth theology of incarnation. "

Current ecumenical discussion

In the current ecumenical discussion, the question of office is one of the points of difference. It becomes clear that the general priesthood due to baptism and special priesthood due to ordination or consecration can be understood not only contrary but also complementary and that “general priesthood” does not mean the abolition of, but the commission for a priestly way of life.


References and comments

  1. WA 6, p. 407, line 13 ff., Line 22 f .; P. 408, lines 11 f.
  2. WA 7, p. 28f.
  3. Philipp Melanchthon : Tractatus de potestate et primatu Papae , 1537. In: The confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Göttingen 1930 (8th edition 1979), p. 491f.
  4. Confessio Helvetica posterior , Art. XVIII: Diversissima ergo inter se sunt sacerdotium et ministerium ...
  5. Lumen Gentium
  6. Joseph Ratzinger: General Priesthood. From: Ders .: Sentire Ecclesiam. In: Geist und Leben 36 (1963), p. 321 (325), excerpt in: Secretariat of the German Bishops' Conference (ed.): The faith of the church. A theological reader based on texts by Joseph Ratzinger. Bonn 2011 (Arbeitshilfen, Nr. 248; Archived copy ( memento of the original dated December 29, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. ), P. 14. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /