The Universal Office
Organizations have officers. The church, too, has its officers. However, at this point, as at so many others, appears the unique glory of the church. Whereas in other organizations a limited number of persons is wont to hold office, in the church every single member is an officer.
Nor is that the whole truth. There are in the church three offices. They represent Christ, the Head of the church, as prophet, as priest and as king. Now each church member holds not merely one or even two of these offices, but all three. Every single church member is at once a prophet, a priest and a king. That surely spells glory.
We shall consider how this truth is taught in Scripture and how it has fared in the history of the church.
In ScriptureThe doctrine of the universal office of believers is revealed progressively in Holy Writ. Consequently it is taught much more clearly and fully in the New Testament than in the Old. Yet, beyond all doubt it has been true from the very founding of the church that every one of the members was a prophet, a priest and a king.
Man was created in the image of God. That image consisted chiefly of knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10). By virtue of his knowledge man was a prophet, for knowledge is a prime requisite in a prophet. By virtue of his righteousness he was a king, for righteousness is a prime requisite in a king. And by virtue of his holiness he was a priest, for holiness is a prime requisite in a priest. When he fell into sin man lost these aspects of the image of God. However, they are restored in the new birth. It follows that every regenerated person is a prophet, a king and a priest. But that is only another way of saying that every true church member holds that threefold office, for the membership of the church is made up of the regenerate.
The universal prophethood of believers is taught repeatedly in Scripture. The eleventh chapter of Numbers tells a most interesting story bearing directly on this matter. Seventy men of the elders of Israel were chosen to assist Moses in governing the people. At an appointed time they were to gather at the tabernacle in order to receive the Spirit. Sixty-eight of them did so; the Spirit came upon them, and they prophesied. The remaining two, whose names were Eldad and Medad, did not put in their appearance at the tabernacle; nevertheless the Spirit came upon them also, and they prophesied in the camp. when this irregularity was reported to Moses, his servant Joshua protested: "My lord Moses, forbid them." But, believe it or not, Moses instead of administering a rebuke to Eldad and Medad, replied: "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them." The fulfillment of that prophetic wish was predicted by the prophet Joel when he said: "And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my Spirit" (Joel 2:28, 29). This prophecy was fulfilled when, at Jerusalem, the believers "were all with one accord in one place," cloven tongues as of fire "sat upon each of them," and "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues" (Acts 2:1-4).
The universal priesthood of believers is taught no less clearly in Holy Scripture. Perhaps the most striking instance of this teaching is the rending of the veil of the temple at the time of the Saviour's death on the cross. The veil separated the holy place from the holiest of all, where God dwelt between the cherubim. In the old dispensation only one man, the high priest, was permitted once a year, on the day of atonement, to pass through the veil, and when he did so he had to sprinkle atoning blood upon the mercy seat. But when the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, entered into the heavenly sanctuary with His own blood, God rent the veil from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). And that meant that henceforth every believer in Christ would be privileged to come into the presence of God without the mediation of a priest after the order of Aaron. In a word, every believer is now a priest.
The universal kingship of believers is taught, for one example, in the opening sections of the book of Revelation. Addressing the seven churches in Asia Minor, John wrote: "Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen" (Revelation 1:5,6).
In one sentence the apostle Peter ascribed to believers all three offices. Said he: "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). Believers are a priesthood of kings and a royalty of priests. And their work is to proclaim the praises of God, their Saviour. That is the task of prophets.
As was just indicated, in the apostolic age the universal office of believers received much emphasis. Sad to say, very soon this doctrine came to be obscured, and after some time it was lost out of sight almost completely.
This office is foreign to the very genius of Roman Catholicism. Rome draws a sharp line of demarcation between the clergy and the laity. The former are said to be spiritual in a sense in which the latter are not. The former are to rule, the latter are to be ruled. The former are to teach, the latter are to be taught. The latter must accept in implicit faith what the former teach and must bow unreservedly before their authority. Of the pope, who is the very personification of the church's authority, someone has aptly said: "The pope plus the church equals the pope minus the church." In that equation the church cancels out, which is a way of saying that the pope is everything. As recently as 1907 pope Pius X in an encyclical against modernism described Presbyterianism as modernism because it gives the laity a voice in the government of the church.
One of the most significant accomplishments of the Protestant Reformation was that it restored the universal office of believers to the place of honor which it deserves. Already in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Waldenses revived this truth of Scripture, and so did certain subsequent forerunners of the Reformation. But in the sixteenth century it became a distinctively Protestant doctrine.
The Reformers stressed particularly the universal priesthood of believers. The reason for their singling out this office for special emphasis is apparent. Rome had an order of priests which lorded it over the membership of the church. Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers taught that every believer is a priest. But they also stressed the universal prophethood of believers and their universal kingship. Every believer, they insisted, has the right, yes the duty, to apply the touchstone of Holy Scripture to the teachings of the church and, in case these teachings cannot stand that test, to raise his voice in protest. And, instead of merely being governed, the members of the church must, said they, have a voice in its government.
The Heidelberg Catechism, which was written in the Reformation age, answers the question, "Why are you called a Christian?" thus: "Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus a partaker of His anointing, that I may confess His name, present myself a living sacrifice of thanksgiving to Him, and with a free and good conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with Him eternally over all creatures" (Lord's Day XII, Question 32). That is a beautiful way of saying that every Christian is a prophet, a priest and a king.
Today there is a crying need for another revival of this doctrine. Protestantism, which once extolled it, now largely neglects it. To name a number of specific instances of such neglect is not at all difficult.
How few church members today are serious students of Holy Scripture! In how few supposedly Christian homes is the family altar held in honor, at which parents pray with and for their children and teach them the Word of God! How few, on returning home from a preaching service, follow the example of the Bereans and search the Scriptures whether these things are so (Acts 17:11)! How few churches find it possible to maintain an active organization of their men! How few organizations of women in the churches, besides sewing and raising money for the church, engage in Bible study! How few church members are capable of leading in prayer in public! How few of the communicant members of the church are qualified to serve as elders or deacons! How few church members realize that it is their solemn duty to admonish their erring fellow members! How few are able to teach the youth of the church! How few, in times of doctrinal or other controversy, refuse to follow the clergy blindly and insist on studying the issues for themselves! How few engage actively in evangelistic effort!
Much might be added, but enough has been said to make it clear that the universal office of believers is not being exercised nearly as it ought to be.
Nevertheless this office remains a reality. In every age every living member of the body of Christ is undeniably a partaker of Christ's anointing and hence a prophet, a priest and a king.
The glory of the Christian church is often veiled but ever present.
Also from The Glorious Body of Christ, Special Offices »»