I doubt many people missed the election of the pope recently. It was a worldwide event. The papacy is one of the most enduring institutions in the world. Most Protestants have some vague idea concerning the function of the pope. Essentially, the pope has supreme spiritual authority over the Roman Catholic Church. He controls doctrine, and his decisions often impact societies and governments all over the world. Diversion from this doctrine and practice is one of the reasons for the Protestant reformation. And while Protestants may not affirm such powerful positions like the papacy by profession, many affirm such positions of power in practice – especially on the level of the local church.

pope-john-paul-ii-1920-2005In the Middle-Ages priesthood was limited to, and regulated by, the clergy. One of the marks of the reformation was Martin Luther’s call for “the priesthood of all believers”. Timothy George has called this doctrine one of Luther’s greatest contributions to the Protestant Church. Luther argued that “all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is among them no difference except that of office (Open Letter to the Christian Nobility).” Luther was not arguing for leaderless anarchy in local churches (offices imply order), but was stressing the equal access and spiritual importance that each believer has with God through their grace given relationship in Jesus Christ.

The priesthood of all believers has been especially important to Baptist church life since it forms the basis for Congregationalism. I am a Baptist. As a Baptist I am partial to Congregationalism. In God’s Word, the people of God are referred to as “a holy priesthood”, “a royal priesthood”, and “a kingdom of priests” (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6, 5:10). As a Baptist I believe that all true believers are priests and have equal access to God the Father through our high priest Jesus Christ (Read the book of Hebrews). Moreover, no one person or group should have supreme and unchecked spiritual authority within a local church as if they and they alone can hear from God.

There is not one person in the church, or group of persons in the church, that have a closer connection to God over and above their brothers and sisters in Christ. All believers have priestly access to the heavenly sanctuary and need no other mediator but Jesus Christ. Yet some Protestant churches, while professing to priesthood of all believers, ignore this precious doctrine in practice. And some Protestant leaders even parade their “unique” relationship with God, lording it over others in their church family.

Holding to the priesthood of all believers also implies that all “believer-priest church members are able and responsible to help the church find God’s direction for its life”[1]. While pastors may be set apart to lead through the teaching of the Word, and certain leaders may be set apart to make decisions, the entire congregation should humbly shoulder the responsibility of acting as the final court to recognize, respond, affirm, and even challenge the direction of its leaders if necessary. The church is the body of Christ, and Jesus Christ is the only head. The church should function as a body.

So why do some leaders take it upon themselves to wield supreme (and some times negligent) spiritual authority within local congregations? Why do some leaders over-spiritualize decisions in order to trump everyone else in their congregation? Why do some leaders talk as if they, and they alone, receive and impart special divine revelation to their people? I am not sure. There could be many reasons. I admit, I have implied this “power” before as a pastor, and repent. Implying papal-like authority is the easy way out when it comes to leadership. Its a way to avoid the often messy life of church community.

Most Protestant leaders would never bluntly admit any of these things. But, many leaders within Protestant churches communicate these ideas by implication. The saddest thing is that such papal attitudes within Protestant leadership ranks pronounces lower spiritual status of everyone else in the congregation. How did we arrive at Evangelical Catholicism within local church leadership? May we repent and seek to uphold the priesthood of all believers!

[1] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 46.

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