More radicalism from Luther in The Babylonian Captivity, this time on ordination, as he attacks the way in which the medieval church’s concept of ordination had set up a “detestable tyranny of the clergy over the laity”. Luther responds with his famous teaching usually summarised as “the priesthood of all believers”:
If they were forced to grant that all of us that have been baptized are equally priests, as indeed we are, and that only the ministry was committed to them, yet with our common consent, they would know that they have no right to rule over us except insofar as we freely concede it. For thus it is written in 1 Peter 2:9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a priestly royalty.” Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.
So what then is the role of those usually referred to at that time as “priests” (what we would call pastors or ministers)? It is as “ministers”, chosen from among the people of God to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments:
[T]he priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us. All that they do is done in our name; the priesthood is nothing but a ministry. This we learn from 1 Corinthians 4:1: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (pp.243f.)
At the time Luther was writing, most priests were ordained “only to read the canonical hours and to offer masses”, with little or no preaching required from them. Luther dismissed such priests as “papal priests, but not Christian priests”, and insisted that:
The duty of a priest is to preach, and if he does not preach he is as much a priest as a picture of a man is a man. … It is the ministry of the Word that makes the priest and the bishop. (p.247)
So Luther reiterates that all Christians are priests, and specifically have the power to preach the gospel, baptize, absolve and administer the Lord’s Supper:
Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests, that is to say, we have the same power in respect to the Word and the sacraments. (p.248)
However, this doesn’t mean that we should all take it upon ourselves to preach or administer the sacraments at our own initiative. As Luther writes:
However, no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior. (For what is the common property of all, no individual may arrogate to himself, unless he is called.) (p.248)
In other words, reserving these tasks to the ministry is not a denial of the priesthood of all believers, but an expression of it. It is precisely because the Christian priesthood belongs to all of us that none of us should try to grab it for ourselves alone.
That said, I wonder if we have become too nervous of what Luther is saying here, and have turned the pastorate into a new priesthood. The congregation’s call is not seen as what makes a man a minister of word and sacrament. Rather, the call is (in practice) simply the means by which someone who has already been given that ministry by other means – a seminary education, synodical approval, the laying on of hands by other pastors – is appointed to exercise that ministry in a particular place.
I’m not saying that that education, approval and ordination are bad things. However, they should be seen as means by which the priesthood of all believers in the congregation is assisted in its task of calling men to the ministry; and as a voluntary ceding, for the purposes of good order, of the congregation’s fundamental right to call whomever it will to exercise that ministry.
And there may be times when it is appropriate for congregations to take back that right and exercise it in other ways. For example, it may be appropriate for a congregation faced with a long vacancy, whether due to lack of funds or lack of suitable candidates, to call a suitable member of the congregation to exercise the ministry of word and sacrament on a temporary, unpaid basis. The extreme unlikelihood of this happening in practice probably tells us all we need to know about how well Luther’s arguments on ordination in The Babylonian Captivity have fared within the Lutheran church.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should set aside the way in which we currently train and call our pastors. Just that we should do so in the spirit of “joyous liberty” that Luther describes, never forgetting that:
…he who is a Christian has Christ; and that he who has Christ has all things that are Christ’s, and can do all things (Philippians 4:13).