Frequently Misused Verses: “You are a royal priesthood”

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 2:9

Frequent Misuse: This verse has been appealed to by many Christians (generally just by Protestants) to argue that every Christian is a priest, and that there is no such thing as a special ordained priestly office anymore.

But this seems pretty clear.  What’s wrong with this interpretation?  First and foremost, this is not just a New Testament statement; St. Peter is actually quoting from the Old Testament:

you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. – Exodus 19:6

Israel was a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and the Church is “a royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  Minor wording difference aside, we’re finding that Israel and the Church are exactly the same thing: the Body of God’s People in the world.  Similar expressions are also found in Revelation 1:6 and 5:10.  The point is, though, that despite this “royal priesthood” description for all of Israel, they still had a particular ordained priesthood from among them.  Thus, these words from 1 Peter 2 cannot be used to argue that there can be no specific priesthood within the Church.  Such a theological argument would have to be drawn from other parts of Scripture (and in my view, such an argument cannot be rightly drawn from Scripture, because there is an ordained priesthood in the Church).

Furthermore, there’s a lot more in this verse that deserves our attention.  Not only is the whole Church a “royal priesthood” in that we share in the identity of Christ our Great High Priest, but we’re also a “chosen race” and a “holy nation.”  The priesthood idea is all very interesting, but being a particular race and nation are even more radical assertions.  Imagine if more Christians actually said “I don’t identify as white or black, but as a Christian.”  Or “the USA is just my home away from home; my real homeland is the Kingdom of God.”  Sure, these are realities that Christians do talk about from time to time, but we don’t make as big a deal of them as we probably should.  Especially when we’re too distracted over what a “royal priesthood” is or is not.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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4 Responses to Frequently Misused Verses: “You are a royal priesthood”

  1. isaacdemme says:

    IMHO a bigger problem is that these verses speak to hieroushood not presbyterhood.

  2. Kent says:

    I am guilty of using this verse to argue that all Christians are priests. I had never noticed the Ex. 19:6 passage. You have educated me.

    I also appreciate the comments about Christians responding as citizens of God’s kingdom target than as a White or a Black or an American. It’ll be interesting to see if that seed sprouts in my life and take root over the next few days, weeks, years, as I am kind of hoping it will (as opposed to simply sprouting and then withering as I unintentionally forget the impact your words had, as seems to so often be the case with many epiphanies).

    Thank you for this post!

    • Fr. Brench says:

      I appreciate your comments; thanks for stopping by! Also, as Isaac Demme commented above, there is a further distinction between two Greek words that can be translated as priest (hierous and presbyter), which greatly enriches the conversation about Christian priests and priesthood.

  3. Kent says:

    “rather, not target
    *takes, not take

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