The Priesthood of All Believers in the Face of Racism

Even though I watch from Australia, the other side of the world doesn’t seem so far away. The turmoil and grief of my native country, of my black brothers and sisters, fills my mind and heart as I pour over news articles and podcasts and grasp for some way to act wisely and faithfully in response. 

Muddled though my thoughts and emotions are, one idea has surfaced again and again this week: the priesthood of all believers. Might there be something in this precious doctrine relevant to the church in this moment? 

Of all the doctrines to come out of the Reformation, the priesthood of all believers holds a beloved place in the Protestant heart. This doctrine proclaims an incredible privilege: because Jesus is the perfect high priest, each believer shares in that priesthood and can come to God without needing any other earthly priest. As the writer of Hebrews says, “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (Heb. 10:19-20). No other mediator is necessary. 

Yet, the privilege of each believer as priest does not only have personal implications for our relationship to God. Indeed, the role of priest in the Old Testament, both that of the Levites and of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:5), is a role directed outward for the sake of the non-priests in Israel and to the nations. While we ought to treasure the free and bold access to the Father that we have in Jesus, this access is not to be kept to ourselves or for ourselves. 

When God institutes the priesthood in Leviticus, he does so to make a way for his people to enter into his presence. Thus, the priests do not enter the tabernacle and perform sacrifices for themselves only — their work is on behalf of all the people. Not only do they mediate the sacrifices brought by individual Israelites, they also cleanse God’s house on the Day of Atonement — a cleansing not focused on a specific sin by a specific person, but corporate Israel: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins” (Lev. 16:30). Without this cleansing, the sin of the nation would accumulate, defiling God’s house, and requiring God’s judgment. 

Job gives us an example of this corporate duty, even though he lived before the Levitical priesthood. In Job chapter 1, we find Job’s blamelessness is not simply a matter of personal piety. Instead, after his children had feasted, “Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5). Job sees the actions of his children, and, rather than washing his hands of responsibility for what they have done, he takes the sacrifice with his own hands and presents it to God on their behalf. This is our privilege: not to duck responsibility for the sins of others, but to take those sins to God and plead for their forgiveness. 

Conditioned as we are by our culture, the desire for individualism is strong. We do not want to be responsible for anyone but ourselves, particularly not when it comes to sin. Yet, God clearly deals with people as nations in the Old Testament, as we see from the conquest of Canaan, the judgment of Edom and other neighbors of Israel, along with Israel herself through the exile. For us as believers, we are not dealt with as individuals, but under our corporate head, Jesus, as we receive the benefits of his redemptive work, not our own personal efforts. Similarly, living as we do within society and benefiting from the systems and structures that the government and other institutions have put in place, we are complicit in what those institutions do or fail to do. 

Here, by God’s grace, is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel — and it starts in our own churches. In our broken world in bondage to sin, the failure of the church is inevitable. We should not be surprised, as uncomfortable and anguished as we feel, at the failure of the church to confront and fight racism. The church can only be as righteous as its members, and its members are, as Luther puts it: “Simul justus et peccato” — “at once justified and a sinner.” And yet, confronting brokenness — our own, the church’s, the world’s — is an opportunity for God’s glory to shine more clearly: when we confess our sins, we confess that God is not pleased, that something is wrong, and we also confess that there is one who hears us, and who “is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). When we accept our priestly duties, we accept the possibility of cleansing and reconciliation. 

We need each other to take up this duty of priest, for our suffering brothers and sisters, for our world, for ourselves. Our hearts are prone to wander, prone to ignore, prone to justify. We need the priestly intercession of our brothers and sisters in the household of God to boldly call out our sin and to graciously preach us the gospel.

Originally published at Morning by Morning