Many modern Protestants reject the idea of priesthood authority as necessary for the performance of ordinances such as baptism. Instead, they hold to the concept that all true believers in Christ are automatically authorized to baptize and perform other ordinances and that no exceptional authority from God is necessary beyond acceptance of Christ as Savior.
This idea was unknown until the time of the Reformation. Having broken away from the Roman Catholic Church, Reformers were naturally cut off from the priesthood authority claimed by that and other Christian churches. The Protestant claim to authority came from the Bible alone, not from a chain of authorized ordinations. Still, most Protestant churches continued the practice of ordaining ministers, and the Lutheran Church and the Church of England still have both ordained bishops and priests.1 This is ironic, since Martin Luther (an ordained Roman Catholic priest) himself introduced the concept in his 1520 address “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” Two months later, in his “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he wrote, “we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized.” John Calvin, who broke away from the Roman Catholic church to become one of the early Reformers, also taught the concept of a priesthood of all believers.
On 1 September 1784, John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist Church, laid hands on Thomas Coke and James Creighton, ordaining them deacons. The following day, he ordained them priests, evidently considering Coke’s prior ordination as priest in the Church of England to be invalid. He then ordained Coke as bishop for America. Wesley’s brother Charles, shocked by these events, published a rather famous poem that reads,
So easily are bishops made
By men’s or women’s whim?
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid
But who laid hands on him?
Here, we examine some of the scriptural passages cited in defense of the concept of a priesthood of all believers.
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
This was the principal passage cited by Martin Luther in defense of his idea in both of the treatises mentioned above. What he failed to note is that Peter was actually referring to an Old Testament passage, in which the Lord told the Israelites through Moses, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Yet of the Israelites present at the mount of revelation, only the Levites were chosen for priesthood service,2 while throughout Old Testament history the offices of priest and king were separate.3 One must also note that, from the point-of-view of most modern Christians, none of the Israelites in Moses’ day had acknowledged Christ as Savior, so they did not meet Luther’s criteria.4
Regarding Peter’s words, Luther wrote, “in fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2 says.” Peter, as we have seen, said nothing about baptism as a means of becoming priests and didn’t even mention baptism in the passage in question.
“And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5-6; see also 5:10).
Luther also cited this passage, though he rendered it differently, “Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.” Again, the passage clearly refers to the Lord’s words in Exodus 19:5-6, which, as we have seen, did not make all Israelites priests and kings.5
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Many Protestants take this as a commission for all Christians to preach the gospel and baptize people. But verse 16 makes it clear that Christ was speaking only to “the eleven disciples,” Judas having committed suicide. The same commission is reported by Mark, who also made it clear that the Savior was speaking only to the eleven apostles: “Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen. And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:14-16).
Based on the belief in the “priesthood of all believers,” a Protestant minister often feels that the Bible (or God) has called him to work. But Christ made it clear that this is not the way it works. He said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:21-24).
Only a believer would prophecy in the name of Christ or, in his name, cast out devils. Yet the Savior said that he would cast out those he never knew. It is wrong to profess to do something in the name of Christ when one does not have the authority to do so. Note that Christ said that there would be “many” who would claim to have performed good works in his name who would be rejected, so this is not just an occasional person.
That specific authority was required to perform ordinances in the early Church is made clear by the story found in chapter 8 of Acts: “Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money” (Acts 8:14-20). Simon was not trying to buy the Spirit, but the “power” to “lay hands” on people so they could receive the Holy Ghost. This power is what we call “priesthood.” Simon had already been baptized in the name of Christ, but this did not authorize him to lay on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
At the last supper, Christ told his apostles, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you” (John 15:16). This ordination did not take place because they were baptized, but came after they had chosen to follow Christ. In Luke 6:13, we read that “when it was day, he [Jesus] called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles.” So only twelve of Christ’s followers were chosen to be apostles. Mark gives more details concerning this event: “And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him. And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils” (Mark 3:13-15). From this, it is clear that the apostles received, at that time, “power” that other followers of Christ did not have. He later gave that same power or priesthood to seventy others (Luke 10).
The account in Acts 19:1-6 is also instructive on the concept of authority to baptize and confer the gift of the Holy Ghost: “And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”
These men (twelve in number according to verse 7), said they had been baptized “unto John’s baptism,” probably meaning by someone claiming authority from the John the Baptist, who had been killed by Herod Antipas long before the time of Paul. But Paul doubted the truth of this statement, knowing that John had told people of Christ who, coming after him, would baptize them with the Holy Ghost (Matthew 3:11; John 1:29-34). So Paul taught them about Jesus, after which “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” and Paul “laid his hands upon them” for the gift of the Holy Ghost. All of this agrees with Articles of Faith 3 through 6, penned by Joseph Smith in 1842:
3 We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
4 We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
5 We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.
6 We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.
Writing to members of the Church in Corinth, Paul wrote, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers?” (1 Corinthians 12:27-29). Clearly, not all were authorized to serve in the various functions within the Church. Later, Paul told the Ephesians, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). In view of the fact that those who believe in Christ are neither perfect nor united in the faith, these various offices must continue to exist in the Church.
Paul also mentioned Church offices such as bishop, elder, and deacon, giving qualifications for those who would be called to fill such offices (1 Timothy 3:1-13). He wrote to Titus: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:5-9). Similarly, in Acts 14:23, we read that “when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” Paul also noted, “I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle” (1 Timothy 2:7).
From such passages, it is clear that there was a hierarchy in the early Church, with men called and ordained to various priesthood offices and authorized to perform ordinances, teach, and direct the affairs of the Church. Speaking of the calling of high priests, Hebrews 5:4 declares, “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” In the Old Testament, we read that the Lord told Moses “And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office” (Exodus 30:30; see also Exodus 28:41; 40:13; Numbers 3:3). Other Levites, too, served with the priests of Aaron’s line. The Lord told Moses, “And thou shalt bring the Levites before the Lord: and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites: And Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord” (Numbers 8:10-11).
During his mortal ministry, Jesus promised the apostle Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19; note the singular forms thee and thou). A few days later, Jesus took his three leading apostles, Peter, James, and John, with him to a mountaintop, where Moses and Elijah (New Testament Greek form Elias) appeared to them (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). Of this event, Joseph Smith declared, “The Savior, Moses, and Elias, gave the keys to Peter, James, and John, on the mount when they were transfigured before him” (History of the Church 3:387). The rest of the apostles subsequently received these keys, for Jesus, addressing all of them (note the plural ye), said, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). Joseph Smith and subsequent leaders of the restored Church have taught that all of the apostles hold keys, but that the senior apostle is the one who presides and thus exercises all the keys.6
That the office of apostle was intended to remain in the Church through all ages is suggested in Acts 1:22-26, where the eleven remaining apostles, asked for divine assistance in choosing a replacement for Judas, who had fallen. Early Christian texts indicate that the two men being considered were of the number of the Seventy and that both the Seventy and the Twelve were replenished as members of each body died or fell away.7
From these facts, it is clear that the Reformers misunderstood the Savior’s intent regarding priesthood and the performing of ordinances such as baptism. They correctly ascertained that there had been an apostasy from original Christianity, but did not realize that, in order for a return to that earlier Church, it was necessary that the priesthood be restored to the earth. This occurred in May-June of 1829, when the resurrected John the Baptist ordained Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith to the priesthood of Aaron and then commanded them to baptize each other, followed by their ordination as apostles under the hands of Peter, James, and John.
1 In the United States, the Church of England is called the Episcopal Church, from the Greek episcopos, “overseer,” whence our English word “bishop,” being based on the authority claimed by Christian bishops for many centuries.
2 Joseph Smith explained the reason for this, but space does not permit a discussion here. For a detailed study of the subject, see John A. Tvedtnes, “The Higher and Lesser Laws,” in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, eds.,Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen (Provo: FARMS, 2002).
3 It was, of course, possible for the king to also be a priest, as was Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), and we find King Solomon dedicating the temple for priestly service (1 Kings 8). But when King Uzziah went to offer incense in the temple, the high priest reminded him that this was the prerogative of the priests alone, and the king was cursed with leprosy from then until the day of his death (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
4 Latter-day Saints acknowledge that Moses and the other ancient prophets, along with their followers, believed in Christ and acknowledged the salvation that would come through his future atonement. I have been writing a book on this very topic that I hope to see published. Meanwhile, for a brief discussion, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Knowledge of Christ to Come,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (Spring 1996).
5 In Revelation 5:10, it is the twenty-four priests surrounding the heavenly throne who declare that they have been made kings and priests. These are not mortals living on the earth and there is no reason to believe from their declaration that all baptized Christians are priests.
6 For a more detailed discussion, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Keys of the Kingdom,” posted on the Meridian Magazine web site at http://www.ldsmag.com/gospeldoctrine/nt/070321nt13sf.html. The concept of keys was important in early Christian literature; see John A. Tvedtnes, “John the Baptist and the Keys of Baptism,” Insights: An Ancient Window 19/6 (June 1999).
7 I anticipate the publication of my article “The Twelve and the Seventy Apostles” in a book scheduled to appear during 2009. Meanwhile, see my “Jesus’ Apostles and Early Church Organization,” posted on the Meridian Magazine web site at http://www.ldsmag.com/gospeldoctrine/070202nt6sf.html.