The 16th century Reformation highlighted one of my favorite doctrines of the new covenant—the priesthood of all believers. Yet, like many important things in life, time and complacency obscure and erode our commitments to the truth that should captivate our hearts. My vision is to renew our commitment to this vital doctrine because the priesthood of all believers is easier to articulate than to implement. First, I’ll consider the key ideas of the doctrine. Second, I’ll note Luther’s articulation of the doctrine. Third, I’ll narrate a needle merchant’s attempt to live the doctrine. Fourth, I’ll show how the reformers retreated from the doctrine. Finally, I’ll consider a few implications it has for the church today.
If you’re not familiar with the priesthood of all believers, let’s revisit the key ideas. First, all Christians are priests because of their union with Jesus. This is distinct from the medieval Roman Catholic teaching where the priesthood is reserved for a select few Christians. Second, all Christians have direct access to the Father through the mediation of the Son. The common medieval idea that Christians should approach God through other human mediators—priests, Mary, saints—is false. Third, all Christians should have firsthand knowledge of the Scriptures. The papacy taught that the laity is not capable of interpreting the Scriptures directly. Therefore, the Scriptures were frozen in Latin and kept inaccessible from the common Christian. Fourth, all Christian vocations were imbued with purpose and sanctity. The medieval church maintained a rigid spiritual hierarchy. The pope, priest, and monastic occupied a higher plane of spirituality than the artisan, merchant, or farmer could ever reach. This doctrine asserted the radical idea that a farmer could be as holy as a desert mystic.
Luther Articulates the Doctrine
Martin Luther is the first reformer to clearly articulate the priesthood of all believers. In the early 1500s, he visited Rome and was appalled by the worldliness of the Roman Catholic clergy. After returning to Germany, he devoted himself to intense study of the Scriptures and concluded that there was widespread corruption in the church. His initial complaints received little attention so he continued publicly decrying abuses in the church. In July of 1520, Pope Leo X threatened excommunication. Luther responded to the Pope’s threat by penning an open letter to the German nation. In it he attacked the Roman Catholic hierarchy and called on princes and other secular leaders to assume responsibility for social and spiritual reform in the church. Furthermore, he calls on the laity to take responsibility for reform. In his own words:
“It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate, while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate…All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference between them except that of office alone…We are all consecrated priests by baptism.”1
These stinging words make clear Luther’s intention to break down the high wall between the clergy and common folk that was so common in medieval Christendom (whether Lutheranism accomplished that goal is outside the scope of this article). Interestingly, in 1534, the Anabaptist Leupold Scharnschlager told the reformers in Strasburg that he would rejoice if Luther and his associates would practice what they themselves had taught and preached earlier in their careers.2 This reveals that some reformers believed Luther failed to fully implement key Reformation doctrines.
Nadler Lives the Doctrine
In contrast, Hans Nadler lived the priesthood of all believers. He joined the Anabaptist cause through the influence of Hans Hut in 1527. Furthermore, he was a needle merchant by trade who lived near Nuremberg, Germany. He began to live out this doctrine by leveraging his vocation in order to spread the gospel. His evangelical zeal resulted in his arrest and torture in 1529. After being released, he fled to Moravia with his wife and three children and disappeared from the historical record.3 So how do we know anything about the life of this obscure, Anabaptist merchant? The magistrates, who arrested him, questioned him about his conversion, evangelistic efforts, and beliefs and recorded the answers. Although he lacked the education of the leading reformers (he was illiterate), he clearly defended his biblical faith. For example, when asked about his evangelistic activities he responded, “Wherever I travelled in the land, if I met a good-hearted person in inns or on the street, I gave him instruction from the Word of God.”4 This quote makes clear that Nadler heeded Luther’s call to take personal responsibility for reforming the church and integrated his vocation into that mission. He was breaking down the wall between vocation and the Great Commission.
Furthermore, the trial document revealed a man capable of articulating his beliefs in spite of his obvious handicaps. This was no “sinner’s prayer” evangelism. Here are a few important themes that come out in his defense.
- He boldly defended his choice to be baptized upon a confession of faith.
- He quoted the Scriptures extensively to establish his beliefs.
- He instructed inquirers using the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed as his guide.
- He admirably explained the nature of the virgin birth, the incarnation, and the deity of Jesus.
- He showed humility when he was unable to answer a question.
These themes converge to reveal an illiterate man who learned to defend believers’ baptism, memorized large amounts of Scripture, instructed others using important creedal formulations, explained complex doctrines, and, in the process, displayed far more humility than was common in Reformation dialogue. Nadler embodied the ideas that Luther argued should mark new covenant believers.
Reformers Retreat from the Doctrine
Philip Benedict, a Reformation scholar, argues that as the Reformation unfolded, the original vision for the priesthood of all believers was largely lost among the magisterial reformers. As he writes, “Reformed theologians started to insist that only trained theologians could be authoritative interpreters of the Bible.”5 In other words, leading reformers like Luther and Zwingli softened their claims about the implications of the doctrine. They began insisting that only educated ministers could interpret and teach Scripture. This shift was vividly displayed in a quote from an anonymous French Huguenot:
“To be one of the faithful is to be among God’s people, but it is to stay at the foot of the mountain. To be a minister is to be separated from that people, to go up Mount Sinai, and to converse with God. To be one of the faithful is to listen submissively to the orders of one’s sovereign.”6
This quote is evidence that old barriers between clergy and laity were being erected brick by brick. Now the common Christian was on a lower plane than the educated minister and therefore needed the mediation of the minister for access to God and correct interpretation of Scripture. According to the reformers, an illiterate merchant like Nadler could not have been trusted to faithfully instruct those he encountered. This was a clear departure from Luther’s early ideals.
Implications for Today
How can the church ensure that the priesthood of all believers is not minimized? I believe the story of Hans Nadler teaches us three important lessons for today. First, a deep understanding of the Scriptures and orthodox Christian theology is possible for all believers. Nadler was illiterate and had access to far fewer resources than anyone living in the United States. Yet, he possessed a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian theology. A college or seminary education is not necessary to develop these same skills; there is no excuse for the biblical and theological illiteracy that pervades so many Anabaptist churches. Second, socioeconomic status should never prevent someone from pursuing gospel ministry. Nadler was a living example of the creative way a Christian can use a common occupation for the advancement of God’s kingdom. Let’s use every platform God has given us for the advancement of the gospel. Third, Christians must strive for humility when dialoguing with other Christians over doctrinal differences. In the dialogue with his inquisitor, Nadler repeatedly displayed humility and the ability to admit when he didn’t have an answer. Overstatements and arrogance were common in many Reformation doctrinal discussions; the same is true in the internet age. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes. In his day, Jeremiah envisioned a covenant community where the least to the greatest would know God and have His law written on their hearts.7 Peter beheld the day when all believers could offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the excellencies of their God.8 What does it look like for us to live the priesthood of all believers in our day?
- Martin Luther, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.”
- Leupold Scharnschlager, “Leupold Scharnschlager’s Farewell to the Strasbourg Council,” ed. and trans. William Klassen, Mennonite Quarterly Review 42 (1968 ): 214.
- Hans Nadler, “Declaration of the Needle Merchant Hans at Erlangen and the Refutation of the Articles of the Needle Merchant Hans (1529),” in Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, trans. Frank Friesen, Walter Klaassen, & Werner O. Packull (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2001 ), 136–138.
- Ibid, 149.
- Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002), 437.
- Jeremiah 31:31–34
- 1 Peter 2:5;9