The royal priesthood and the ministry of the word



Author: J W Kleinig

1. The Theses on the Office of the Ministry rightly assert that the office of the ministry exists only in the church (TA VI, 3,4).  Pastors do not stand over the church, or operate apart from the church, but are always part of the church.  They do not therefore cease to belong to the royal priesthood of Christ when they are ordained.  The Theses go on to claim that “the office of the ministry is not identical with the spiritual priesthood of all believers in Christ” (TA VI, 4).  But they do not explain how they are related to each other.  Our confessions, which mention the royal priesthood only once and identify it with the church (Tr 69), do not deal with this issue at all. It is discussed, rather broadly, in the LCA statement on The Ministry of the People of God and the Public Ministry (DSTO II D 1 [c]).

2. The teaching of the New Testament and the church about the priesthood of the saints presupposes familiarity with the role of the priests in the Old Testament. They were consecrated with the anointing oil mixed with the blood from the ram of ordination. They served God as a holy fraternity at his temple, his earthly residence, and ate the most holy bread and meat from his table. Since they had access to his holy presence they could “approach” him in the divine service. Led by the high priest, they mediated between God and his people in two ways. On the one hand, they stood in for the congregation before God as they atoned for sins of the people with the blood of the sacrifices, interceded for them by burning incense in the Holy Place, and presented the various offerings on their behalf. On the other hand, they stood in for God with the congregation by announcing God’s acceptance of his people, by proclaiming his gracious presence to them in the song of praise, and by blessing them in the Lord’s name.

3. God the Father has appointed the exalted Lord Jesus as our high priest in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 2:17; 3:1; 4:14; 5:5; 6:20; 7:24; 8:1; 9:11; 10:21). All those who are baptised are consecrated with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:11; cf. Eph 5:26) to serve as a priestly confraternity together with him (Heb 3:1); he shares his own holiness with them and makes them holy with his body and blood (Heb 2:11; 10:10,29; 13:12). They all alike have “access” to God the Father and his grace in the divine service (Rom 5:2; Eph 2:18; 3:12); they can “approach” the throne of grace through Jesus and together with him (Heb 4:16; 7:19; 10:1,22; 12:22). Since they are called to serve as God’s royal priesthood in his heavenly temple (1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6; 5:10) they perform two priestly functions. On the one hand, they represent others before God the Father and offer Spirit-produced sacrifices to him through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:5). They offer themselves (Rom 15:16) with their bodies (Rom 12:2) and all their members (Rom 6:19) to him; they offer “the fruit of their lips” as a sacrifice to him by confessing Jesus as their Lord (Heb 13:15), praising him for his great deeds (Heb 13:15; 1 Pet 2:9), and interceding for the world (Rev 5:9; 8:3-4; cf. 1 Tim 2:1-6); they offer the works of their hands to him by giving offerings for the needy and the work of the church (Heb 13:16). On the other hand, as priests they also bring God and his gifts to the people of the world, corporately in the divine service, and personally in their vocation and station. As those who stand in his light they proclaim the gracious presence and acts of the triune God to the world by their confession of faith and in their songs of praise (1 Pet 2:9; cf. Heb 2:10-11; Rev 5:8-10); they offer themselves in love to others (Rom 12:1-21) and perform good works for their benefit (Heb 13:16); they share what they have with the poor and needy (Heb 13:16); they bring God’s blessings to those who, unlike them, do not yet have assess by faith to God’s gracious presence (1 Pet 3:8-12; cf. Rom 12:14). Like Christ their high priest, they therefore bridge heaven and earth.

4. There are three complementary ways of distinguishing the ministry of the word from the priesthood of the faithful. 

a. The first, which is implied in our Theses of Agreement (TA VI, 4), holds that, even though the keys are given corporately to the whole church and each congregation, Christ exercises the keys publicly in the divine service through those who are ordained ministers of his word.  According to the Augsburg Confession (AC XXVIII, 5, 21), this involves the preaching of law and gospel, absolving and retaining sin, baptising and withholding baptism, granting and withholding Christ’s body and blood, judging right doctrine and condemning false doctrine, excluding people from the congregation and readmitting them into communicant fellowship in it.  The members of the priesthood may perform these tasks by themselves in the church without proper authorisation.  Likewise, a pastor may not perform these tasks apart from the priesthood and the church.

b. The second way of distinguishing the ministry of the word from the role of priestly ministry of the saints is also implied in the Theses of Agreement. They assert: “the spiritual functions of the Apostolate are continued only in the ministry of the Word and Sacraments” (TA VI, 6).  This tantalising reference is all too brief and unqualified.  It is, after all, quite obvious that the role of the apostles as eyewitnesses to the risen Lord Jesus is not continued in this ministry.  We may, however, infer what is meant from scriptural and confessional passages that are cited in support of it.  According to the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (Tr 10, German text), “the office of the ministry derives from the general call of the apostles.”  Here Melanchthon refers to John 20:20 which he had quoted in the previous paragraph.  The authority of both apostles and pastors depends on those foundational words of  Christ.  Like the apostles, all bishops (and pastors!) are responsible to Christ and called to act corporately and collegially under his direction (SA II, III, 9). Like the apostles, pastors receive their ministry from the Lord (Col4:17), even if it is conferred on them by other pastors (Acts 14:23).  Like the apostles, pastors are ‘leaders’ (Heb 13:17) whom Christ has appointed to ‘preside’ and ‘rule’ in his church (1 Tim 5:17; FCSD, X, 10).  Together with the apostles they are ‘elders’ who exercise oversight over God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1).  Like the apostles, they are to preach God’s word (Acts 6:2,4), teach sound doctrine (1 Tim 3:2; 5:17; Tit 1:9; FC SD, 10), and shepherd God’s flock (Acts 20:28).

5. The office of ministry may also be distinguished from the general priesthood in a third way by virtue of its location.  The Augsburg Confession maintains that pastors have been called to teach God’s word and administer the sacraments publicly in “the assembly of the saints” (AC XIV).  They perform that public role in the divine service.  So, while pastors are responsible for the “sacramental” aspects of the divine service, by which the Triune God comes to the faithful and graciously enacts the gospel for them, the priesthood is responsible for the “sacrificial” aspects of the divine service.  Sacrificially, pastors stand together with the congregation before God, even when they lead it in confession, prayer, praise, and offering; sacramentally, they offer and convey the gifts of God from God to the congregation.  More correctly, God does this through them as his mouthpiece and his hands.  However, outside the church, at home and in the world, the role of pastors does not differ theologically from the role of the priesthood.