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The Royal Priesthood

Scripture teaches that the people of God are a royal and priestly people. Even the common and ordinary can have a noble status, a high calling, and an extraordinary purpose. Because of God’s election and calling, every believer is declared to be part of a royal and holy nation.

  • Roger Schultz,
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Children dream of being princes and princesses. Genealogists scrutinize the past looking for evidence of the noble or noteworthy in their family trees. People desire a unique lineage, I suspect, because it points to a nobility of status and purpose. Even those who discover a horse thief or rogue among their ancestors are usually pleased because it is testimony of something unusual. We want to be special—and descended from something special.

Scripture teaches that the people of God are a royal and priestly people. Even the common and ordinary can have a noble status, a high calling, and an extraordinary purpose. Because of God’s election and calling, every believer is declared to be part of a royal and holy nation.

The Old Testament Royal Priesthood

Old Testament Israel had a royal, priestly calling. This calling was separate from that of the Levitical priesthood, where one tribe was set apart for ceremonial and ritual functions. The entire nation was to be a royal priesthood.

God’s calling of Israel was dramatic. Having just been delivered from bondage in Egypt, the people were endowed with a unique station as priests and kings. As God declares, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Exod. 19:5–6 NKJV).

Israel was God’s unique possession. The whole nation had a priestly function: they were to be a consecrated and holy people (Deut. 4:20, 14:2). Moses was explicitly commanded to inform the children of Israel of their calling (Exod. 19:3, 6). In other words, they had to know about their new status.

Israel’s priestly call was tied to God’s sovereign election. He did not choose Israel as His people because they were numerous, impressive, or significant in themselves. His election was in fulfillment of His covenant promises (Deut. 7:6–8, 10:15).

Consecrated Israel was called to obedience to God’s law and commandments. The nation’s status was dependent upon its faithfulness to God’s covenant (Exod. 19:5). The requirement of obedience is made emphatic elsewhere, for instance in Deuteronomy 26:16–19, where God promises praise, fame, and honor for an obedient and consecrated people.

Israel enjoyed its priestly status, furthermore, because of God’s redemptive mercy. Israel was called to “keep” God’s covenant (Exod. 19:5). The covenant was initiated by a sovereign God and confirmed through the shedding of blood (Gen. 15:8–10). Exodus 24:6–8 records a fascinating event of covenant making, as Moses read the book of the covenant and sprinkled the people with sacrificial blood. His language (“the blood of the covenant”) is appropriated by Christ at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20).

Finally, the Bible records the promise of the complete consecration of God’s people. At the close of Zechariah’s prophecy, Scripture says that even the most common and mundane things (the bells of the horses) will be inscribed with “HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD.” Even the cooking pots in Jerusalem would be considered as “holiness unto the LORD of hosts”—thus being as holy as the sacred garments of the Aaronic priests (Zech. 14:20–21; Exod. 28:36–38).

New Testament Royal Priesthood

New Testament Christians also have a holy calling as priests and kings. The New Testament deliberately employs the language of Exodus 19 to describe the royal priesthood of the church (1 Pet. 2:5, 2:9–10; Rev. 1:6, 5:10). The passages are excellent examples of the continuity between the Old Testament people of God and New Testament believers.

Peter writes to a persecuted and scattered church (1 Pet.1:1), to those unlikely to consider themselves privileged and fortunate. Yet these scattered “aliens” had been “chosen” by God and sprinkled with the blood of Christ (1:1–2). They were being built up for a spiritual house and a “holy priesthood” (2:5).

Peter’s exhilarating description of the church’s status must have been an encouragement to beleaguered believers: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9–10 NKJV).

The church’s royal and priestly character is clearly stated, as well as the reason for its exalted position (God’s sovereign election). The status of believers (now a people, having received mercy) is clearly contrasted with their previous condition (not a people, not receiving mercy). The church is also given an unmistakably evangelical task—to proclaim the excellencies of the One who called them out of darkness into light.

The terminology of a royal priesthood is also used in the book of Revelation. The book begins with a reference to Jesus Christ, who is the ruler of the kings of the earth and is the One who loves us and saved us from our sins “and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father” (Rev. 1:6 NKJV). The church’s new song of praise to the Lamb of God includes the language of the royal priesthood, “For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9–10 NKJV).

Scripture, then, from Exodus to Revelation, testifies to the position of believers as royal priests. They have this status because of Christ’s redemptive work and God’s choosing. They faithfully discharge their duties as they are obedient to God’s law and covenant. Their commission is evangelical: testifying to the nations of the mercy and greatness of the Triune God.

It is worth noting that the word for priest “is never used in the New Testament of Christian ministers, though it is applied to the Christian body as a whole.”1 There is a tendency in Christian history for the church to become hierarchical (literally, ruled by priests). But when a commitment to the priesthood of all believers is lost, the church invariably loses its vitality and mission.

Reformation Priesthood of Believers

A hallmark of the Reformation was the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The Roman Church was hierarchical, priest-ridden and ecclesiastically dominated. Protestant Reformers were intent on developing a more Biblical view of the Christian priesthood.

At the beginning of the Reformation, for instance, Martin Luther stressed the priesthood of all believers. He especially disliked the authoritarian papacy and the corrupt priesthood. In An Appeal to the Ruling Class (1520), Luther argues that “our baptism consecrated us all without exception, and makes us all priests.” In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he explains that “[i]t follows [1 Peter 2:9] that all of us who are Christians are also priests.”2 For Luther, Christian ministers were “functionally, not ontologically distinct. The higher and lower callings, as in the prior distinctions between monks and laity, are abolished.”3

The doctrine of the priesthood of believers influenced Reformed polity. The most recent issue of Church History includes an excellent comparative article on the ruling eldership. Presbyterians emphasized the office of elder because it was found in Scripture and it helped prevent a minister from becoming a “Sole Ruler, and as it were a Pope.” Especially in New England and Scotland “the Calvinist stress upon the spiritual equality of layman and cleric strengthened a willingness to let the ruling elder assume much of the function and attendant honor of the minister.”4

Presbyterian eldership illustrates the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. In a lengthy discussion of “The Church,” R. J. Rushdoony notes the continuity between Jewish practices and the New Testament eldership, arguing that it is part of the church’s “claim to be the new and true Israel of God.” A healthy eldership is essential for a strong church.

Rushdoony also notes that “few offices have deteriorated more radically than that of the elder.”5 Many Presbyterian bodies, even conservative ones, have themselves become hierarchical, bureaucratic, and priest-ridden. In this new kind of authoritarian, quasi-Presbyterian polity, the minister functions as the official priest-bishop, and elders and deacons are considered but lay helpers. “He treated me like a ruling elder!” an associate pastor I knew complained of the senior pastor. (I gathered that the two men didn’t get along. And I also gathered that neither had a high view of the eldership.)

Hierarchical churches will vigorously oppose Biblical Presbyterianism and despise the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. As Rushdoony puts it, “[T]he church has by and large paid lip service to the priesthood of all believers, because its hierarchy has distrusted the implications of the doctrine, and because it has seen the church as an end in itself, not as an instrument.”6

Rushdoony on the Royal Priesthood

In The Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony shows the importance and relevance of the doctrine of the royal priesthood. “The purpose of man’s calling as priest is thus to realize himself as God’s vice-regent and to dedicate himself, his areas of dominion, and his calling to God and to the service of God’s kingdom. Man’s self-realization is possible only when man fulfils his priestly calling.”7 In the Garden of Eden, for instance, man was given a priestly task by God. In his task of dominion, man acted as a king or a vice-regent subduing and protecting the earth.

The church has the responsibility of equipping the saints to do the work of ministry and service. The church trains priestly princes and princesses. As Rushdoony comments, “The purpose of the church should not be to bring men into subjection to the church, but rather to train them into a royal priesthood capable of bringing the world into subjection to Christ the King. The church is the recruiting station, the training field, and the armory for Christ’s army of royal priests. It is a functional, not a terminal, institution.”8

Rushdoony further argues that Christian leaders are necessary in every sphere of action: in the church, the state, education, and various vocations. In the Old Testament, the leaders of these spheres were called elders, those with age, wisdom, and the ability to rule in their various spheres of calling. (Rushdoony does not want an ecclesiastical apparatus to control all aspects of life. Those who present him this way—and many have—clearly misunderstand him.) “It is the duty of the Christian home, school, and the church to train elders who will apply the law of God to all the world. The elder [elder is used generically for leader] is not governed by the church as a subordinate officer who is sent out as an imperial agent into the world. Rather, the elder governs in his sphere, even as the church in her area, each as imperial agents of Christ the King.”9

Hierarchical institutions, and particularly the state, bitterly resent the Christian royal priesthood. “The tendency of institutions—church, state, and school—and of callings,” Rushdoony notes, “is to absolutize themselves and to play god in the lives of men.” But whenever a genuine Christian priesthood is strong and viable, “the centralization of institutional power cannot flourish.” Rushdoony’s conclusion is that “the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, where adhered to, is a program for not only survival but victory as well.”10

Spheres of Royal Priestly Action

How, then, can Christians be successful in their spheres of influence? How can they serve as priests and vice-regents under Christ the King? How can they retard the centralization of institutional and statist power? Most importantly, how can they, as royal priests, best serve Jesus, their Savior and King?

Christians must have a sense of calling. They are called as priests and kings, and that is an honorable status. They are called to service, and they perform labor of eternal value. I do a good deal of hiring in my job, and I look for Christians who have a sense of calling and mission. I know that when committed Christians work, they will labor as unto the Lord (Eph. 6:5–8).

A few years ago, I hired a secretary who had a special vocational goal. She wanted to be a servant of Christ at a Christian university. I liked that; it is exactly the sense of calling I want in employees. Later, to my wife, the secretary gave a corollary goal—to make her boss look good. (My wife liked that!) I was impressed by the new employee’s wisdom. She had a clear macro-goal: to serve Jesus. She also had a clear micro-goal: to be a servant to her immediate supervisor. This is precisely what royal priests should do.

Christians must be willing to serve. Those who view themselves as servants will be willing to work, and to work hard. They will be less inclined to whine and complain. Years ago, in some otherwise-forgotten essay, Gary North gave an invaluable piece of advice: “[M]ake yourself indispensable to your employer.” I read the essay shortly before taking my first full-time position in academia, and the advice was excellent. Royal priests must be willing to work faithfully, as unto the Lord.11

Sometimes Christian service involves dull and uninspiring tasks. I know of one church where elders, at their ordinations, are issued brooms. It is a reminder that, first of all, they are servants.12

Most churches, however, have a problem. Too many members want to wear crowns; too few want to wield brooms.13 Those who wish to rule for Jesus must be willing to be servants. The model of royal behavior that Jesus taught and set was of humble and faithful service (Luke 22:25–30).14

Christian education is an example of the royal priesthood at work. In the last generation, there has been a revolution in the Christian commitment to training of covenant children. Christian parents have sacrificed to educate the next generation in homeschools and Christian schools. Forty years ago, this level of commitment would have been inconceivable. In the early years, Rushdoony was a lonely voice in the movement for Christian education. Now, almost every community in the country has churches committed to supporting covenant education.

Churches often offer courses to supplement what homeschooling parents can do. The courses deal with upper-level philosophy, math, and science—
areas where homeschooling parents feel limited. Over the years I have taught courses in history for homeschoolers. Are you interested in being a faithful royal priest? Then volunteer to teach such a course for local homeschooled students. Help train a future generation of priestly kings.

Liberty University is an example of the vision for Christian education. Jerry Falwell endeavored to start an institution where Christians could get an education—from kindergarten through Ph.D.—without ever having to take a class from an atheist or humanist. Started in 1971, Liberty University is the largest Christian university in the world.

In Liberty’s College of Arts and Sciences, where I work, one can earn degrees in everything from aviation to psychology, from health to home economics, from math to music. Students can earn a master’s degree in nursing or a Ph.D. in counseling. The college’s biology department is vigorously committed to young earth, six-day creationism. The college’s history department has held worldview workshops based on “Christian Philosophy of History” materials originally published in the Chalcedon Report.15 The university is committed to a Biblical worldview and a conservative evangelical perspective.

Christians can make an impact for Christ in their various vocations. We should ask ourselves: “How can my calling be self-consciously and consistently Christian?” In other words, how does one who is committed to Christ and His Word operate within a specific vocation? A farmer at the Chalcedon conference in Atlanta a year ago told me that he was intrigued by questions of the stewardship of the land. In short, he was taking Biblical principles and applying them to his labor. He was seeking to work as a royal priest.

Spurgeon on the Kingly Priesthood

In 1855, Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached from Revelation 5:10 on “The Kingly Priesthood of the Saints.” (As a Baptist, Spurgeon is proof that the royal priesthood is not just a Presbyterian issue.) This excellent sermon is available online in both text and audio formats.16

Spurgeon begins by discussing “The Redeemer’s Doings.” The language—“Thou has made them kings and priests”—is deliberate and significant. Our royal priesthood was initiated in eternity, he notes, when the Triune God established the eternal covenant of grace, the Magna Charta of the Saints. Christ’s redeeming work was sealed at the cross, and it was finished at the ascension of Christ.

Spurgeon continues with “The Saint’s Honors.” “The saint has two offices conferred upon him at once,” he argues. “[H]e is made a priestly monarch, and a regal priest.” (Believers are made kings on earth, not just in heaven, Spurgeon insists. Believers are made kings now, not just in the future.)17

Spurgeon closes with a section on “The World’s Future.” Though he eschews eschatological speculation, Spurgeon has a glorious view of the future. He is convinced that believers shall reign on earth, and he looks forward to a worldwide revival of Christianity:

The hour is coming when the saint, instead of being dishonored, shall be honored; and monarchs, once the foes of truth, shall become its friends. The saints shall reign. They shall have the majority; the kingdom of Christ shall have the upper hand; it shall not be cast down—this shall not be Satan’s world any longer—it shall again sing with all its sister stars, the never ceasing song of praise. Oh! I believe there is a day coming when Sabbath bells shall sprinkle music over the plains of Africa—when the deep thick jungle of India shall see the saints of God going up to the sanctuary; and, I am assured that the teeming multitudes of China shall gather together in temples built for prayer, and, as you and I have done, shall sing, to the ever glorious Jehovah ... Happy day! happy day! May it speedily come!

God has made believers priests and kings. We should find great encouragement in our royal station and calling. We must be faithful to the Word and covenant of the Lord. And we must be willing to work faithfully and diligently for our King and His Kingdom.

1. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, revised edition (Oxford University Press, 1974), 1123.

2. John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Anchor, 1961), 347, 349, 408. Luther did believe that there is a special calling for ministers of the gospel, as real priests were always preachers. But Luther adds that many Roman priests never preached, and their only labor was in the sacramentalism of Roman Catholicism.

3. Ibid., xxxiii.

4. William Abbott, “Ruling Eldership in Civil War England, the Scottish Kirk and Early New England: A Comparative Study of Secular and Spiritual Aspects,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Civilization 75:1, March 2006, 38–68. It is interesting to note that church sessions, which included ruling elders, were given considerable authority in Scotland. They could excommunicate, banish, impose large fines, and order the cropping of hair. Corporal punishments they could inflict included “Jougs” – iron neck collars; “branks” – iron masks that painfully depressed the tongue; the ducking stool; and wrist manacles, which allowed the contumacious to be chained to the exterior church wall. Now, I don’t doubt that the incorrigible deserved these punishments. But I would prefer that the church be presented as a ministry of grace.

5. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg, N.J.: Craig Press, 1973), 739–740.

6. Ibid., 764.

7. Ibid., 765.

8. Ibid., 764.

9. Ibid., 742.

10. Ibid., 765.

11. In a performance review, a boss once observed that being Reformed had helped me with my job. I was surprised, but pleased, by the assessment of a non-Reformed employer. For him, Reformed people worked hard for the things that they could do—and left to God the things that they couldn’t change.

12. The pastor of the church emphasizes service. Whenever people complain about a problem in the church, he suggests that they do something to fix it. Is there a cobweb in the bathroom? “Here is a broom,” he will say. “You go and take care of it; it’s your cobweb!” One of two things will happen, and both are good: either (1) the cobweb will be swept away, or (2) the person will stop complaining.

13. I’ve actually had a conversation with a zealously Reformed man about the propriety of elders wearing crowns, based upon Revelation 4:4. I think we should first perfect the “broom thing” before we start to worry about the crowns we should be wearing.

14. I am disappointed with the “Front Porch Reconstructionists.” They sit on the front porch, drink beer, smoke cigars, commend themselves for being Reformed, and make fun of Baptists. I’d much rather have a Baptist with a broom and a willingness to work for Jesus. This is my new directive for lazy kings: “Give that man a broom!”

15. My series of articles on “Christian Philosophy of History” appeared in Chalcedon Report November 2002 through February 2003.

16. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Kingly Priesthood of the Saints” (accessed 18 May 2006).

17. Spurgeon closes with a memorable fund-raising appeal for new construction at the church: “Now, to close up, one very practical inference. Ye are kings and priests unto your God. Then how much ought kings to give to the collection this morning? Thus speak ye to yourselves. ‘I am a king; I will give as a king giveth unto a king.’ Now, mark you, no paltry subscriptions! We don’t expect kings to put down their names for trifles. Then, again: you are a priest. Well, priest, do you mean to sacrifice? ‘Yes.’ But you would not sacrifice a broken-legged lamb, or a blemished bullock, would you? Would you not select the best of the flock? Very right, then select the very best of the Queen’s coins, and offer, if you can, sheep with golden fleece.”

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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