The Priesthood of All Believers and Radical Reformation

by Joel Comiskey, Spring 2021

Early Christianity viewed each house church member as a minister. Ministry through the gifts of the Spirit flowed naturally in the home environment, and leadership development was simple and dynamic. Leadership was based on God-given gifts, rather than a stiff, liturgical hierarchy. The priesthood of all believers was the norm in the early Church, and for this reason the early Church spread rapidly.

As the Church moved beyond the first century, the growing authority of the bishop concentrated more and more power in the hands of centralized authority figures responsible for larger and larger groups of believers. The plurality and equality of leadership gave way to a hierarchical arrangement with bishops becoming the central figure followed by the presbyters (who later became priests) and deacons.

As the years passed, the Church became more and more hierarchical. People couldn’t go directly to God but needed to access God through the priests. Only certain people had access to the Bible.

Luther helped liberate the church doctrinally, but did little in the area of ecclesiology (study of church practices). He, along with Zwingli and the other reformers, could not fully encourage others to practice the priesthood of all believers. They needed the protection of the government and the stability of the entire state to embrace their reforms, and their success required that everyone in the state automatically become Protestants. In other words, there was very little choice about church involvement since the entire nation had to join the church. The priesthood of all believers had little practical application in the state-run church.

Some wanted to take the priesthood of all believers to its logical conclusion. They were called the “radical brethren” and believed that only those truly born again believers should come together to worship and receive adult baptism. These radical believers felt that each believing adult was a true minister, should have the right to form small groups, and exercise spiritual gifts within the small group.

Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin made a huge break with church tradition and doctrine but the radical brethren took the reforms further. They wanted to make true disciples through a believer’s church, rather than acting like everyone born in a particular geographical area were part of Christ’s church, which would later be sorted out via predestination.

The radical reformation is closer to New Testament Christianity because it prioritizes the priesthood of each believer. Whatever a person’s denominational tradition, we all need to be radical reformers! The radical reformation teaches the need to practice biblical doctrines in a way that emphasizes every person a minister and every believer a practicing disciple of Jesus Christ, just like the practice of the early Church.

The house churches of the first century expected each believer to minister in the house church setting. The cell church today, like the early church, is a call for radical reformation. It’s a return to New Testament Christianity and to embrace the apostle’s exhortation in the last book of the Bible, “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” (Revelation 1:5-6).