Russell Burrill is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute.

Imagine a church on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit. What would such a church look like? Would it look like your Seventh-day Adventist church? How would it be different?

In my mind's eye, I can picture such a church─a church fully partaking of pentecostal power. The Holy Spirit is being poured out super abundantly, and people are flocking to the church from all directions. The members are alive with the gospel of Christ. Their services are not dead formalism, but are alive with Holy Spirit's power as members share week by week what Jesus has been doing in their lives. Each Sabbath the church is rejoicing over new people who have come to know Christ though the ministry of the laity. In this imaginary church, every member has a ministry. There are no idlers, for to be a Christian in this church means to be involved in meaningful ministry for the Master. Love, joy, and peace are seen in the members of this church as they reflect the character of Christ to their community. And the community responds to the demonstration of real love. As a result, the church is known as the one place in the community where one can find love and acceptance.

Don't you wish your church were like this? Who wouldn't want to be a part of such a church! The world would break the doors down trying to get in. If you had lived in the first century, this would have been a normal church. Yet here at the end of the twentieth century we would view such a church as abnormal and unusual. This need not be, for it is God's desire that His church at the end of the age be as dynamic and alive, as loving and caring, and as involved in ministry, as was the first-century church. What, then, is God's role for the laity in His church?

The priesthood of all believer

God's ideal for His people is found in the garden of Eden. Here, unencumbered by sin, God's initial creation held face-to-face communion with their Maker. Nothing separated Adam and Eve from intimate communion with God. In the cool of the evening, Adam and Eve entered into direct discussion with the infinite God of the universe. That's our God─the God of relationships.

Then that relationship was broken. Adam and Eve distrusted their Maker and sinned. One of the consequences was the loss of that intimate communion with God the had enjoyed. No longer did they enjoy their original Edenic relationship with God; no longer could their descendants approach God directly. Instead, a system of intermediaries was introduced. Chosen ones interceded on behalf of the people, since they no longer had face-to-face communion with God.

Initially the first-born became the intermediary; later, the patriarchs; and finally, at the Exodus event, the priests.

Old Testament priests performed two tasks that the people were unable to perform for themselves; First, they served as intermediaries as go-betweens. When ancient Israel sinned, they did not directly approach God for forgiveness. Instead, they brought a lamb to the priest, who took their sacrifice into the sanctuary. Second, the priests performed ministry for the people. The common people were not allowed to enter the sanctuary, but the priests were admitted. The high priest alone could venture into the Most Holy Place, and he could do that only once each year.

Thus, the functions of intercession and ministry were reserved exclusively for the priests doing Old Testament times. Yet this was not God's ideal. It was only a stop-gap measure provided for a time until Christ could come and restore what Adam had lost. Remember, in Eden each person had the privilege of direct communion with God and direct ministry for God. No one needed the services of a mediatorial priest; they were "priests" themselves.

When Adam sinned, this privilege was lost to the human race. In God's plan, the redemptive ministry of Christ was to restore the Edenic relationship to those redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Calvary ended the Old Testament priestly system and restored the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

This is the joy of new life in Christ. Because of His redemptive ministry, the believer has direct access to God and all the rights of the ministry. No longer is direct access and ministry to be the exclusive domain of the clergy. The privilege of living in the New Testament era is that every Christian can be his own priest. Note how John the Revelator glories in this new status for the believer: "And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen" (Rev. 1:5, 6, NIV).

"And they sang a new song: 'You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:9, 10, NIV).

Note particularly the connection between the redemptive ministry of Christ on the cross and the restoration of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The New Testament announces in unmistakable terms the restoration of that which Adam lost─the privilege of every believer to be a priest before God. The death of Christ on Golgotha's hill has ended forever the priestly class. Christ has broken down every wall, including the wall that separated the clergy from the laity. In Christ's kingdom there is only one class─the priestly class into which all believers are born when they accept Jesus Christ as their Redeemer.

The apostle Peter, writing to Gentile Christians scattered throughout the Roman empire, declares all believers to be the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5; 9, NIV).

According to Peter, all Christians belong to the priesthood. In the New Testament, the church does not have a priesthood it is a priesthood. The priesthood of all believers is the only authorized priesthood in the New Testament. Here we have the full restoration of that which Adam lost. All God's children now have direct access to God, and all God's children have right to ministry. That right has been fully established by Christ's redemptive ministry.

Since every believer is a priest, Peter declares that each believer must now offer a spiritual sacrifice to God. This sacrifice he claims is their rightful service as believers. What is this sacrifice that the believer must offer? The apostle Paul answers that question clearly in Romans 12:1 (NIV): "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God─this is your spiritual act of worship."

The sacrifice that Christians are called to offer is not bulls, goats, and sheep, but their bodies, which they give in loving ministry for the Master. Paul maintains that this is their reasonable service.

According to Paul and Peter, ministry is not only the right and privilege of every New Testament believer, it is a natural result of being a Christian. The New Testament church could not even imagine a Christian who was not involved in ministry. It was inherent in the theology of the first Christians. It was their right and privilege because of Christ's death for them.

Somehow in this modern age, we have largely divorced ministry from basic Christianity. The idea has gained acceptance that it is possible to be a Christian and not be involved in ministry. Ministry, some have even dared to claim, is the responsibility of the clergy, and even some clergy have cautioned lay people to avoid entering their domain. Performing ministry, however, is not the prerogative of the clergy alone; it is, instead, the rightful domain of all believers. That right was the legacy of Christ's death on Golgotha's hill. Limiting ministry to clergy is totally foreign to the New Testament church.

It was impossible for New Testament believers not to be involved in meaningful ministry in harmony with their spiritual gifts. In fact, the whole context of Romans 12 is discussion of spiritual gifts. The involvement of every member in ministry in harmony with their spiritual gifts was the norm for the first-century church, and this likewise must become the norm of God's lastday church.

Implications of "Every Member a Priest"

Adventists have always believed in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Like all Protestants, we have accepted this teaching as part of our Reformation heritage. Yet even the Reformers failed to see the full significance of accepting this doctrine. Some saw it in theory but failed to put it into practice.

The most basic implication of accepting this doctrine is the understanding that every believer has direct access to the Father through Jesus Christ. There is only one Mediator between us and God─Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). No Adventist would think of going to his or her pastor and asking for forgiveness of sin. Any pastor who attempted to grant such forgiveness would no doubt lose his credentials. It is anathema for us even to think of going through any mediator except Christ to receive forgiveness of sins because of our strong belief in the doctrine of the priest hood of all believers.

Yet the mediatorial service between God and the people was only one of the duties of the Old Testament priest. As we have seen, the Hebrew priest also performed ministry for the people because they were unable to perform it for themselves. This is the part of the doctrine the Reformers saw but failed to fully implement in the church. Yet early Adventism actually implemented part of the doctrine. Tragically, modern Adventists have failed to recognize its significance. And it is this second aspect of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers that we desperately need to restore of we are serious about finishing the work of God.

If every member is a priest, then every Christian really is a minister and therefore has a ministry to perform. Once people accept the New Testament teaching of the priesthood of all believers, they must accept the fact that priests, all believer have a ministry, and all must discover their ministry or be regarded as unfaithful Christians.

This understanding of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers helps eliminate artificial distinctions that have arisen between laity and clergy. Since every Christian is a minister, clergy do not have a higher standing with God than laity. Clergy prayers rise no higher than laity prayers.

Sadly, many lay people have viewed their pastors as being on a higher spiritual level than they, simply because of their function as clergy. If we correctly understand the priesthood of all believers, we will realize that there is no difference in status between clergy and laity. We are all on the same level. However, there is a functional difference between laity and clergy. However, at this point, let it be clearly stated that the function of the laity, biblically, is the performance of ministry. Whenever people are performing ministry, they are acting in the capacity of laity─even if they belong to the clergy!

The New Testament church functioned with the equality of clergy and laity, since it recognized every believer as a priest. Thus, this doctrine─with all its ramifications─means that we as a church must once again recognize the Christian life as a ministry. And this ministry is the sole right of all believers.

Bible Credits: Scriptures credited to EB are quoted from The Everyday Bible, New Century Version, copyright © 1987, 1988 by Word Publishing, Dallas, Texas. Used by permission. Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Texts credited to NKJV are from The New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers. Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.


Russell Burrill is the director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He has served as both a pastor and evangelist. This article is from chapter 2 of his book Revolution in the Church, (Fallbrook, CA, Hart Research Center, 1993)