Priesthood: A Meditation on Pastors and Congregations

A group of us pastors sat around a conference table, eating, talking, and praying. It was an interesting conversation covering a range of everything from Star Wars vs. Star Trek to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Transformers to our attitudes about church and the joys and problems we face and to baptism (we are an interesting bunch).

In a church that has a historical tradition of only the pastor performing a baptism, I have recently introduced my thoughts about others doing them. In particular, I have been approached concerning two people who are ready to be baptized as a declaration of their faith. In both cases, I have not done the work of sharing the gospel with them and helping them see their need for Jesus. Instead, that has been the privilege of a young man who teaches and mentors the middle school kids in Awana and of a father.

I want these men to perform the baptisms of the ones they are leading to Christ. And frankly, I think that is most biblical.

As we discussed the topic around our conference table, another pastor and a dear friend asked what we thought about performing baptisms. He knows my view, but I shared it again. After a little back and forth, he said, “Sometimes I worry that we’re starting to make too little of the role of the pastor.”

I nodded, and thought about it for a moment. Then I replied, “Actually, I think it’s the opposite—I think we make too little of the role of the congregation.”

In some sense, my friend is right. Often it seems that a church expects its pastor to only preach, teach, pray, and visit. If they try to offer direction or provide leadership in an area, it is only accepted if it agrees with what the people already want. Thus, little changes with time except the face and the name of the pastor and his family.

That is as unbiblical as having a pastor who is a dictator and rules over all things.

But, indeed, pastors are to be leaders. Let’s make no mistake about it—regardless of what we think about the use of titles or what title in particular we want to use, there is a reason why the Holy Spirit led those who wrote scripture to single out certain men under the headings of elder, overseer, and shepherd.

When we look at the different metaphors for the church, one that Paul uses contextually most closely to a discussion on leadership is that of household. “I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” ~ 1 Timothy 3:14-15.

Overseers/elders/shepherds are to be men of proven godly character, examples to others, and a good manager of his own household, thus proving to be capable of caring for the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Given this, in the idea of the church as a household, pastors are to be leaders in a church in a similar way that fathers are to be leaders in their families. What ultimately is the role of a father? To help his children grow up and become mature, well-functioning adults. Sound familiar? (Ephesians 4, and the purpose of equipping the saints, anyone? How about the end of Hebrews 5 and start of 6?)

A father’s task is to work to shape his boys to become men and his girls to become women. In doing so, the Bible gives different admonitions to fathers (and mothers) in Deuteronomy 6, Proverbs 1-9, Ephesians 6, Hebrews 12, etc. Fathers should (1) teach their children about God, (2) model a life of godliness and devotion to Christ, (3) give wise counsel, and (4) rebuke and correct (discipline) when needed.

Again, these things sound a lot like the biblical role of the pastors…

It tends to be, as children grow and mature, they come to value and appreciate the advice and influence of their parents more and more; but they need less direct training and instruction. They are free to live their lives as mature adults.

When it comes to the church as a whole, every member of the congregation has various titles to wear. Saints is one, showing the holiness we have through the gift-righteousness of Christ. Disciple is another, showing the devotion we have to follow Jesus wherever he leads and to grow to become more like Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.

And then there is priest.

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…. But 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. ~ 1 Peter 2:4-9

In my short life, I have heard different abuses of the idea of the priesthood of believers. I have heard it used as a justification for business meetings. Peter’s exhortation has nothing to do with business meetings and a person’s voting rights to decide whether or not the carpet in the new auditorium should be blue-gray or gray-blue. I have also heard it used as a justification for all sorts of wacky interpretations of scripture. As if somehow being a priest enables us to have no theological accountability with the body of Christ surrounding us. Just because a voice in your head told you that people can be saved worshiping a cat goddess in the wilderness of Saskatchewan, it doesn’t mean you’re right. You are accountable to your church for both your behavior and your doctrine, and that church is accountable to Jesus for the same.

What Peter does say is that priests offer spiritual sacrifices and declare God’s greatness in salvation. This is all about serving others in their needs, telling others about Jesus, and guiding others to grow in a life of grace.

In Romans 12, Paul calls our “spiritual worship” (or: rational service, or: spiritual service) the presentation of our bodies to God as a living sacrifice and being transformed by God as opposed to conformed to this world. From this flows the reality that we, as one body, have many gifts and many ways to serve each other and build each other up in humility and love.

As priests, then, in serving others and telling them about Jesus, there is nothing the Bible makes unique to the “office” of pastor that the members of a church cannot do. And in my estimation, we hinder the church from being the priesthood God has designed it to be when we perpetuate the myth that there are special duties to the pastoral position that no one else can perform…like baptism.

But didn’t you argue above that pastors are leaders and we shouldn’t downplay that? Yes.

But again, they are leaders like fathers. A father works on his son to help him to grow to be a man like him in character (often, in the hope of being a man better than him). This does not mean that the boy when grown will do everything his father does. A father might work construction, while a son may grow to be a writer. A father might earn a doctorate from a prestigious college, while a son may solidify his interests in a trade school. A father might have married a lady from Georgia, while a son might marry a lady from Minnesota.

The father and son are unique persons with unique personalities and different gifts, talents, and abilities, and varied passions and desires. Yet, a son learns a lot about life by watching and listening to his father.

This is the church as well. “We have many members, and the members do not all have the same function” ~ Romans 12:4. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s grace” ~ 1 Peter 4:10. Each church member is a unique person with unique personalities and different gifts, talents, and abilities, and varied passions and desires. Yet, they learn a lot about honoring Christ, serving others, and being a priest by watching and listening to their shepherd leaders.

This is what is to distinguish the pastors from others: that in the roles they serve, the things they teach, and the character of the life they live, they are mature and proven guides who can help the members grow to embrace all they’re to be and do as a priesthood. In other words, these are men whose lives have been tested, and they are above reproach; their devotion to Jesus has been displayed, and they are faithful; and their character has been seen, and they are trustworthy.

They are leaders set apart by the congregation because they have served well in their own gifts, are able to teach well so others will grow to serve, and are living a life worthy of emulation. Then, they raise up the church around them and set them free to live as the men and women God has gifted and designed them to be.

In most cases of most churches I’ve seen, we think wrongly about pastors and about the congregation. Let’s not hold the pastors too high or diminish them too low. And let’s hold up and build up the church body to be what God has ordained them to be: the priesthood of saints.


  1. Dave Miller says

    It would seem to me that Paul’s assertions in 1 Corinthians 1 make it pretty clear that WHO does the baptism is no big deal.

  2. Dave Miller says

    As to the rest of the post, finding that balance between honoring pastors and elevating them to an unhealthy status is difficult.

    Great post, Mike. Good to know you have not, in fact, fallen off the face of the earth.

    • says

      Not fallen off the face of the earth, Dave… just buried under books and papers… trying to pull my way out of dead trees, but I know more are to die in the near future… :(


  3. says

    I agree a whole bunch, with this. In our church, anyone who is ordained (i.e. pastor, deacon, etc) may baptize if there is a reason for it. Recently, an ordained grandfather, not in the ministry, baptized his granddaughter at FBC.

    This has been the position at FBC for a long, long time. I recall a time in Jamaica, on a mission trip, when one of our members wanted to be baptized again (as a sign of rededication .. which I don’t actually care for, but it was his desire to do so), so I baptized him as the only active deacon on our trip (no staff were with us). It was an unforgettable experience.

  4. Bart Barber says

    I would argue not that we’re making too much nor too little of the office of pastor, but that we’re making too much of the role of baptizer. One thing I like about generic baptizers (e.g., “the pastor”) is that they are necessarily so generic. This is probably to some degree a function of this being the status quo, but whenever there has been a move in our church to have another baptizer, it has always been rooted in something “neat” about the baptizer. Frankly, although baptism should take place under the auspices of a church, the identity of the individual doing the baptism has gained too much importance, in my opinion, if anyone takes notice or gives a rip about who it is.

    • cb scott says

      “Frankly, although baptism should take place under the auspices of a church, the identity of the individual doing the baptism has gained too much importance, in my opinion, if anyone takes notice or gives a rip about who it is.”

      Well stated, Bart Barber.

      • Bart Barber says

        Thanks, CB. I’ll bask in this moment of civility from you, knowing what is coming when Baylor climbs further in the rankings. :-)

  5. Bart Barber says

    And, I see now that the Right Reverend Miller has already beaten me to the punch on making the point that I just made.

    But I think I made it better. :-)

    • Bart Barber says

      I think it’s pretty ironic when Baptists, birthed through a call for Roman Catholics to abandon their long-held unbiblical doctrines, start trying to defend their own doctrines on the basis of their being “long-held.”

        • John Wylie says

          I think that this one place I get off the boat with moderates, namely their abuse of the priesthood of the believer. People in the scriptures were rebuked and disciplined for propagating wrong doctrine, according to moderates today that would have been a violation of the priesthood of the believer.

        • Bart Barber says

          Indeed, that is precisely the key word:

          1. “Soul competency” is a phrase that does not appear in the Bible. I’ve heard the phrase used to signify a number of different ideas. Some of those have some biblical support, but a number of them are patently unbiblical.

          2. “Priesthood of THE believer” is utterly and entirely absent from the Bible. Every biblical reference to the priesthood of all believers is plural, not singular.

          1 Peter 2:5 “you [plural…”y’all”] also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

          1 Peter 2:9 “But you [plural…”y’all”] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

          Revelation 5:10 “You have made them [the believers, in plural, considered collectively] to be a kingdom and priests to our God.”

          Now, looking at these passages, it is clear to see that biblically there is the priesthood of all believers; there is no “the priesthood of THE believer” in the Bible. Also, biblically the implications of the priesthood of all believers is (a) we must serve God by offering spiritual sacrifices, (b) we must proclaim the excellencies of God, and (c) we reign with Christ in the millennium.

          If you missed the part about it meaning that you aren’t accountable to other believers, you have a right of private interpretation of scripture which cannot be challenged, there’s no authority in the church, etc., then the reason why you missed those things is that they aren’t in the Bible.

          Yes, Max, you’re entirely right: “Unbiblical” is the key word after all.

          • Max says

            “Soul competency” is a phrase that does not appear in the Bible.”

            Quite true. There are many phrases we toss around in Christendom which do not appear in the Bible (e.g., “total depravity”, “perseverance of the saints”, etc.). But the principles are there. As I continue to sort through the theological noise in SBC ranks these days on various fronts, I’m trying to hear the Spirit on these things, not the intellect or teachings and traditions of men. When Truth enters my “knower” (a word not in the Bible), I leave tradition behind if it is not in agreement … sometimes reluctantly.

            Thank you Bart for your detailed response on the terms we have coined to describe Biblical principles, some of which are indeed Biblical – others which are not. In regard to “priesthood”, I agree that the Church should affirm together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God.

          • says

            Bart, seems like you’ve done just a little bit of private interpretation of the Bible here in the blogosphere over the years :-)

            The word/phrase “does not appear in the Bible” argument is not the best. After all, “soul liberty” was popularized many many years before “inerrancy” (a term popularized by higher critics…)

  6. Christiane says

    instruction for those who would be a servant of the servants of God:

    Philippians 2:5-11

    5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
    6 who, though He was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
    7 but emptied Himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.

    And being found in human form,
    8 He humbled Himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

    9 Therefore God also highly exalted Him
    and gave Him the name
    that is above every name,
    10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. “

  7. William Thornton says

    Laypeople probably presume that only the pastor or other ordained person may baptize but I’ve never heard an SBC pastor assert that. Whomever the church wishes may…but I can see practical issues with lots of inexperienced baptizers.

    Er, Mike. If the guy who led these folks to the Lord is allowed to baptize them, when a woman leads others to Christ will she do the baptizing? If not, why not?