by Jared Musgrove
If you ask Martin Luther what it would take to be a true community of faith in a local church, he would tell you that it takes the priesthood of all believers. That is, that all believers can read and understand Scripture’s plain meaning, that all believers have equal access to communion with God, and all believers are actively involved in the work of ministry. Said differently, there’s no special class of mediators for knowledge of God, presence of Christ, or ministry to others.
This is a doctrine he fought for years to reclaim in the Reformation, so he was certainly invested.
Then, if you asked Martin Luther (so kind of him to entertain all our questions) how the priesthood can be activated in a local church, he’d tell you through his tracts and letters that small groups meeting in homes are necessary to see the priesthood activated. He’d go on about how meeting in homes leads to deeper expression of some spiritual realities surrounding the priesthood of all believers; and these groups are best positioned to “do other Christian works” that are not possible in the institutional church meeting once a week.
But then Martin would admit to you (because he is an honest man) in later tracts and letters that he couldn’t go through with establishing such groups. It would be too costly in his estimation. He instead wanted (needed) everyone in Germany to come under one church organization and feared that small groups might create a lack of control.
Martin Luther thought small groups in homes were the way to truly activate the priesthood of all believers but he never started them. Yet, before we pile on Martin (and forget the debt we owe him), we should recognize that he was facing the exact same opposition that we often do: a lack of trust in God to make other brothers and sisters who Scripture calls them to be.
“Sounds Good In Theory…”
One church leader recently shared with a group, “Yeah, priesthood of all believers sounds good in theory…” then pantomimed a verbal ellipsis with a shoulder shrug meant to imply that it doesn’t really work in practice. It doesn’t pan out. Hire staff to do the work. If you can pay them, you can fire them. Volunteers are messy—like farming. So mechanize the ministry. Yes, all of this can be said with a shrug.
I empathize with this line of thinking. I get it. But it’s also what keeps so many of our churches from seeing an empowered priesthood. Our first mistake may be that we too often talk about the “priesthood of the believer” (singular) instead of the biblical “priesthood of all believers” (plural). But it’s not about individuals. The community of saints is the consideration when it comes to church.
The biggest opposition that I see to the activation of the priesthood of all believers in my church and yours is that favorite idol of church leaders: control and comfort. Yes, these two form a singular idol. The two are so intertwined that it is nearly impossible in most cases to unravel them. The inner critic of the church leader who’s lived too many disappointments throws his soul’s hand in the air and gives in to the voice that says that “what you can control can’t hurt you.” And we listen far too often to that voice instead of God’s.
We are so committed to arranging a happy little church that suits our needs and comforts and caters to our gifts but God often thwarts those efforts by allowing for continued frustration. You feel it, right? That’s the loss of wonder. It happens because we want a climate-controlled church but also want to make an impact for God’s kingdom. That dichotomy can’t hold. It has devastating consequences when we try to carry it out.
For Luther, there was deep depression in realizing that he just couldn’t bring himself to release this kingdom of priests fully as he wanted. For some it may be a lack of joy in equipping saints. You may be unable to stand the saints altogether. You grow short with them. You find ways to avoid them. You figure it’d just be easier to run a company, a capital campaign, or a Christian non-profit. It probably would be.
Equipping the saints for the work of the ministry in a local church is agriculture. If you’re truly called to pastor and lead in the church, you’re running a farm, not a manufacturing plant. Live human beings and their souls are your sheep and soil. And there’s no chance of seeing lasting growth without an activated priesthood in your church. People are our true capital campaign. Flesh and blood human beings are our building program. The priesthood of all believers (plural) is both our occupation as well as our product.
Relationships of Trust Are Stronger Than Theory
The good news is that this priesthood already exists. It only has to be discovered, developed, and deployed throughout your church. It all comes down to trust.
Relationships of significant trust in the local church… who would’ve thought it possible? Apparently not many pastors and church leaders, from the Reformation up to today. This is understandable. There’s no pain like vocational ministry. But to give up trusting is far too cynical. And certainly not biblical.
1 Peter 2:9 speaks to the sleeping giant of frontline ministers that exists right now in church small groups: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Since this is true, how do we lead like it? There’s a simple answer as old as the church herself.
Small groups are the best way to activate the priesthood of all believers in a local church. There has been over 2,000 years of practice, trust, and equipping saints for the work of ministry in such spaces. Luther saw it and defined it as such in his letters.
Entrusting the priesthood through groups discipleship might seem overwhelming. It did to Martin Luther. It feels unpredictable. Unknown. But isn’t that right where our faith is most tested and refined?
People in our church don’t exist so that paid staff can parade their gifts. They aren’t spectators. They’re priests ready to be set loose to reap a spiritual harvest. Oftentimes they do so just as well or better than the paid priests. That’s God’s design, not this year’s conference strategy.
Every time a small group meets, there exists that potential for harvest. People want to be changed and see change. Church leaders often simply don’t want the interpersonal rub required to see this through in their church. It’s risky, but I’m convinced that the less relational a church is the less transformational it will be. Small groups can still surprise unlike any other environment and be used by God’s Holy Spirit to transform lives for Christ.
Equipping and entrusting saints with one another has always been the best means of true growth and transformation in a local church. That’s the power in the local priesthood of believers meeting in small groups throughout the week. Martin Luther envisioned it. He didn’t activate it, but we can. This is a vision older even than the Reformation itself. And it’s far more effective in the history of God’s people.
**History courtesy of Joel Comiskey’s 2000 Years of Small Groups: A History of Cell Ministry in the Church and some of Martin Luther’s collected letters and tracts.
Dr. Jared Musgrove is Pastor for Leader Development and Groups at The Village Church in Flower Mound, TX.