The General Priesthood Today
“I shall pour out my spirit on every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will certainly prophesy. As for your old men, dreams they will dream. As for your young men, visions they will see. And even on the menservants and on the maidservants in those days I shall pour out my spirit.”—Joel 2:28, 29.
1, 2. Who is taking the lead in Christendom’s present drive for reviving the general priesthood, and what are the motives?
FOR centuries theologians in Christendom have known that the church organizations they upheld by having a special priesthood were unchristian, unbiblical; but not until this twentieth century have they started doing something about it. Now they talk much about the “general priesthood.” Strange as it may seem, considering her hierarchical structure, it was the Roman Catholic Church that took the lead in Christendom’s present campaign to put back to work that same “laity” that it so carefully had kept inactive for centuries.
2 Let it be noted, however, that her motives for doing so are not so much a desire to see a change in church organization back to the general priesthood of the early church as it is a dire necessity due to a fatal shortage of Roman Catholic men who want to become priests.* This shortage threatens to frustrate the Catholic bid for world power, and therefore the Catholic laity must now be made active. That is the reason for talking about the general priesthood in a church that otherwise could not be interested in reminding anybody of that old doctrine.
3. According to Pope Pius XII, is there one general apostolate for all Catholics to share in, and will the laity acquire equality with the priesthood by participating in the apostolate?
3 To the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate held at Rome, Italy, in 1957, Pope Pius XII explained that within the Catholic church there are two apostolates: a ‘hierarchical apostolate’ and an ‘apostolate of the laity.’ The pope raised the question: “Does the layman entrusted with the teaching of religion, by the very fact that he has received a mission canonica (an ecclesiastical mandate) to teach, and whose teaching may perhaps constitute his only professional activity, pass from the lay apostolate to the ‘hierarchical apostolate’?” The answer was No. The actual power to teach is vested in the pope and bishops alone. “All others, whether priests or laymen, collaborate in the measure in which ecclesiastical authority trusts them to teach accurately and to guide the faithful.”*
4. How general is the priesthood in which the Roman Catholic laity is called on to participate?
4 In other words, in spite of all the talking about the general priesthood, we should not expect to see the Catholic church from now on abolish her orders and supply her laity everywhere with Bibles and study aids, so that every Catholic can fulfill his duty as a Christian preaching the Word of God to others. According to Pope Pius XII, “all Christians are not called to the lay apostolate in the strict sense.”* Only a select specially trained minority of the laity will be used for this, and such top-rank lay ministers the church is willing to pay a salary of up to $12,000 a year.* That, it could be argued, does not leave much of the generality.
5. Why do you think the pope is speaking of the laity as sharing in the apostolate in a “less correct sense of the term”? What are they expected to do?
5 What, then, will all the millions of Catholics do who are not ‘trusted to teach accurately’ the Catholic faith, but who are nevertheless called on to share in the “general priesthood”? Whereas they are “not called to lay apostolate in the strict sense,” they are encouraged to participate in an “apostolate of prayer and of personal example as an apostolate in the wider and less correct sense of the term.” Why it is called an apostolate in a “less correct sense of the term” is evident when looked at more closely. For these millions of Catholics there is no offering up of spiritual sacrifices to God in the form of ‘fruits of lips making public declaration to his name’ to identify them with the early church, no privileges of service along the principles of the general priesthood. Their work in the world is, according to Pope Pius XII, to form Catholic cells in workshops, to enter into public, economic, social and political life, to join trade union movements and cooperative associations of producers and consumers as well as international organizations like UNESCO, so as “to impart to it the mark of Christ.”*
6. What does the Catholic program, referred to as practicing a general priesthood, remind one of, and what has it been used to in the past?
6 All this smacks more of infiltration as used by certain political movements than of the work performed by the hard-preaching members of the early Christian general priesthood. The most important branch of the Catholic layman movement is the so-called Catholic Action, a semireligious movement that has often been used by the church the same way the Nazis used their SA-troops in Germany under Hitler, as, for instance, when Catholic Action in the years just before and during World War II in the United States and other countries was used by the church violently to break up religious meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses because she did not like the facts told at such meetings.*
7. (a) How well does the Catholic laity respond to the call to participate in the lay apostolate of the church? (b) Can it truthfully be said that there is no general priesthood within the Catholic church? What is lacking?
7 In spite of all efforts, there are lamentations because of poor results. Said S. E. Mgr. Valerian Gracias, archbishop of Bombay: “How explain the apathy of the vast majority who with their intellectual and moral gifts could have been active and powerful participators in the apostolate of the hierarchy, but unfortunately are not? Each man today, in the language of St. Paul, is seeking his own and not what is Christ’s. There is no fire in their hearts, but only dying embers. Most Catholics entertain the notion that the Church is a kind of society to which one just belongs; the idea of the Church being a living organism is foreign to their minds.”* All this goes to prove that the so-called general priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church is nothing of the kind, and that God has not added his spirit to her efforts.—Acts 1:8.
8. Do the Greek Orthodox churches share in Christendom’s present discussion of the general priesthood?
8 The Greek Orthodox churches are almost as hierarchical in their structure as the Roman Catholic Church, but, contrary to the latter, they have abstained from talking about the general priesthood to any great extent.
PROTESTANTISM AND THE GENERAL PRIESTHOOD
9. (a) How was attention called to the general priesthood after it had disappeared for centuries? (b) How did Luther explain the general priesthood?
9 It was reformer Luther who brought the teaching of the general priesthood back into daylight. He was a keen Bible student and soon saw how far the Catholic church had removed herself from the early church by her special priesthood, and in his fight against the papacy he made diligent use of what he had found. “We were all consecrated to be priests at our baptism,” he emphasized, and he mocked the pope for thinking he could make priests out of already baptized Christians by an ordination ceremony. “That the pope or the bishop anoints, tonsures, ordains, consecrates and dresses a person differently from the laity,” he said, “may well make a hypocrite or a fool out of him, but it will never make him a Christian or a spiritual man.”*
10. (a) What did Luther consider the principal duty of the Christian? (b) What did Luther do after rediscovering the doctrine of the general priesthood? What were the results?
10 Then Luther, with great zeal, set out to practice the general priesthood in his newly formed church, teaching that the most important work of a Christian, a work that incorporates all the other priestly duties, is to “teach the Word of God.”* In this he suffered defeat, however. He had to learn that the common people had been spiritually so neglected by the Catholic church that the general priesthood and its duties were beyond their apprehension. Luther’s work in this respect was never followed up by his successors. It faded out.
11. Who else have tried to practice the general priesthood? With what results?
11 Already such pre-Reformation movements as the Waldenses in Central Europe and the Lollards of Britain had tried to live up to the general priesthood. After the “reformation” a movement in Germany known as “Pietism” and our generation’s Oxford movement have to some extent tried to do the same, but all these efforts were evidently without the support of God’s holy spirit, because they all came to nothing, and even within the Lutheran church today the situation has not changed since Luther’s time: The doctrine of the Christian general priesthood is recognized in theory, but not practiced.
12. (a) How do some Protestant clergymen claim to have a general priesthood in their churches? What are the facts? (b) How is it evident that, for instance, the Lutheran State churches of Denmark and Sweden do not have a general priesthood?
12 Nevertheless, many nonepiscopal Protestant clergymen, including Lutherans, claim they have the general priesthood and that their ministers are just servants taken out of the flock for a special task. In theory, it is said, any member of the congregation could function as such, just as the settlers in America chose the most suitable layman among them to be their minister, wherever they settled, until they could get a “real” minister, or just as sea captains are often considered ministers to their crew and passengers. The fact is, however, that the Protestant churches, including the Lutheran, have a special priesthood. The fact is that ordinarily nobody can preach or perform ceremonies in their churches without a special ordination. Normally, nobody gets ordained without special academic training, and they dress differently from the rest, at least when officiating. Any exceptions are so rare that they only emphasize the rule. In Protestant churches it is not as in the early church, where, according to Norwegian professor Hallesby, “all ceremonies of the church could be performed by any Christian.”* Therefore, honest Protestant ministers, whose churches teach the general priesthood, admit that they actually do have a special priesthood.*
13, 14. How do we know that Protestant Christendom is not content with its present situation relative to the general priesthood?
13 This so pitifully fell short of imitating the early Christians in living up to the doctrine of the general priesthood, that the knowledge of what ought to be done and the inability to do it could, of course, only prey on any church calling itself Christian. Therefore, when the World Council of Churches was founded in Amsterdam in 1948, it was equipped with a “Department on the Laity,” the aim of which is “to keep before the churches their responsibility for helping the laity to be the Church in the world.”*
14 In the reports from the assembly of the Council in Amsterdam we read: “We need to rethink what it means to speak of the Church as ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people’ (1 Peter ii, 9), and as the ‘Body of Christ’ (Ephesians iv, 16) to which every member contributes in his measure.”* And in the reports from its assembly at Evanston, U.S.A., in 1954: “The phrase ‘the ministry of the laity’ expresses the privilege of the whole Church to share in Christ’s ministry to the world. We must understand anew the implication of the fact that we are all baptized; that, as Christ came to minister so must all Christians become ministers of His saving purpose.”* Finally, Protestantism is awakening to what it means to be a Christian, that it should have the general priesthood, that it does not have it, and that something ought to be done about it.
15. (a) How does the Protestant laity in general respond to the call for a general priesthood? (b) What does practicing the general priesthood require?
15 Just like the Catholic church, the Protestant clergymen everywhere complain about lack of progress in their efforts toward realizing the general priesthood. “Laymen who voluntarily and free of charge participate in the Christian preaching work are for example far fewer than some decades ago. Christians that participate by free, spontaneous testimony and in prayer are also on the decrease. It is often difficult to find people who are willing to take responsibility and carry burdens,” complains a Norwegian minister commenting on the situation in his country,* which brings to mind Romans 9:16: “So, then, it depends, not upon the one wishing nor upon the one running, but upon God.” What Christendom needs to be able to practice the general priesthood is nothing less than what it took in the early church—an outpouring of the spirit.
THE GENERAL PRIESTHOOD PRACTICED—A SIGN OF THE SPIRIT
16. What proves that Joel’s prophecy has been fulfilled on Jehovah’s witnesses?
16 When Peter on the day of Pentecost explained about the first outpouring of the holy spirit, he quoted the prophet Joel, saying: “‘And in the last days,’ God says, ‘I shall pour out some of my spirit upon every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams; and even upon my men slaves and upon my women slaves I will pour out some of my spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’” The outpouring of the spirit in Peter’s day was only temporary and a small-scale fulfillment of that prophecy. In these last days of this old system of things, the promised, final, lasting and full-scale outpouring of the spirit has been fulfilled on Jehovah’s witnesses and not on Christendom’s Catholic and Protestant churches. The proof is that Jehovah’s witnesses not only understand and acknowledge the Biblical teaching of the general priesthood, but they are also able to practice it.—Acts 2:17, 18.
17. Since when have Jehovah’s modern witnesses had the right understanding of the general priesthood?
17 From the earliest beginning of their modern history, Jehovah’s witnesses have had the right understanding of that doctrine, as shown by an article published under the heading “The Royal Priesthood” in the very first issue of their official journal Zion’s Watch Tower (now The Watchtower) of July, 1879. After referring to the four key scriptures of the Christian Greek Scriptures about the general priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:5, 6; 5:10; 20:6) the article says: “The above scriptures clearly teach that a part, at least, of our work in the future will be to officiate as the priests of God. As the work of a priest is one of intercession and of instruction in righteousness, they as clearly prove that the glorious work of evangelization will go on . . . through the ‘age of the ages’. . . . We . . . shall go forth a royal priesthood, according to the order of Melchisedec, fully prepared to sympathize with the nations, to lead them to the paths of righteousness, and to encourage them in the way of life.”
18. When did the Witnesses start practicing the general priesthood to the fullest extent? How was this shown?
18 Looking back on their history, however, it is observed that, although the Witnesses understood the importance of every Christian being an active public teacher of God’s Word since 1879, it was not until 1919, and in particular 1922, that they found the courage and strength to organize and practice the general priesthood to the fullest extent according to the methods of the early church. From then on the endeavor was made to get every member of the congregation preaching from house to house, not merely by distributing free Bible tracts, but by direct personal speech to each householder and offering Bible magazines, books and booklets on a nominal contribution. Since then all of Jehovah’s witnesses, young men and old men, young women and old women as well as children, have ‘prophesied.’ To help them accomplish the enormous ministerial work of preaching the good news of God’s kingdom to all the world, they have been given a “great crowd” of people of goodwill who are desirous of assisting the anointed royal priesthood in its temple service, just as the Nethinim and Gibeonites were happy to assist the Levitical priesthood.—Luke 8:1; Acts 17:17; 20:20; Rev. 7:9, 10.
19. How is the general priesthood seen in the congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses?
19 Also in the congregational life of Jehovah’s witnesses, we notice the general priesthood. Although in every congregation a number of its members are appointed to do special services, such as having oversight, taking care of statistics, literature and money, assigning territories for the preaching work and presiding at Bible studies, corresponding to the pattern of the early church, these members are servants of their brothers and not a clergy, and the rest are not a laity. At the congregational meetings all present participate in the oral discussions. Because he is a minister, any competent male member is called on to perform funerals, baptisms and weddings, and to conduct the service in annual commemoration of the Lord’s death. After appropriate training, given to everybody, all qualified males are assigned to teach and preach from the platform, which is possible because the subjects to be taught in a congregation of all ministers are so manifold and varied that there are assignments for all degrees of teaching and preaching ability. Thus, as in the early church, ‘all ceremonies are performed by any Christian.’—Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 2:12; Eph. 4:11-13.
20. Why do Jehovah’s witnesses meet more often than others, and how does their meeting attendance compare with that of other churches in general?
20 It is evident that with every member a public teacher, the demand for instruction and meetings is much larger than where this is not the case. Therefore, Jehovah’s witnesses have five regular, weekly congregational meetings of an hour each, with an average attendance worldwide of about 75 percent of all associated members, as contrasted with the one-time-a-week churchgoers and the generally low meeting attendance complained about in most other churches.
21. Why are the meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses different from those of other churches?
21 Most of the meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses are different from the so-called divine services and meetings held in Christendom’s church buildings, because they must meet the demand of a general priesthood. Besides the Sunday sermon, to which the public is also specially invited, and two weekly Bible studies, the Witnesses conduct two meetings a week with the special purpose of educating and training themselves for their ministerial services to one another and to the public.
22. What meetings are specially designed to assist in practicing the general priesthood?
22 One of them is the Service Meeting. Here Jehovah’s witnesses discuss ways and means by which the congregation can most efficiently shoulder the obligation of preaching regularly to every household in its assigned territory and studying the Bible with interested persons. The other meeting is the Theocratic Ministry School, which provides the individual Witness with his personal training as a public minister of the good news. Men, women and children are enrolled. The school program includes instruction lectures, student assignments of public Bible reading, sermons and house-to-house ministry, followed by instructive counsel by a school servant. All meetings are free, and the public is welcome.
23. What conclusions can be drawn from the fact that Jehovah’s witnesses are able to practice the general priesthood worldwide?
23 Making every member of a religious organization, by count 989,192 in 189 countries, public praisers of God is something to take note of. They were not social workers or literal singers in the streets, but ministers following in the footsteps of Christ Jesus, preaching and teaching from house to house and in the homes in apostolic style, regardless of age, sex, language, race and worldly education; and this is an achievement no man or organization may take credit for. Worldwide Jehovah’s witnesses spent 142,046,679 hours in house-to-house preaching in the year 1962. Christendom’s fruitless attempts to do the same in spite of great desire and effort testify to that. It is the result of the power of God’s spirit and is evidence of the fact, not only that we are living in the “last days” referred to by Joel, but also that the congregation practicing the much-desired general priesthood has received God’s spirit and is the one he uses on earth to represent him among the nations. Why not get better acquainted with Jehovah’s witnesses? You can find them in all parts of the world. You are welcome to attend their Bible study meetings at their Kingdom Halls.
The Lay Apostolate, Address of Pope Pius XII to the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate, 1957, § 15.
The Lay Apostolate, §§ 5-9.
Idem., § 29.
Time, Atlantic Edition, June 9, 1961, p. 56.
The Lay Apostolate, §§ 43, 48, 50, 57, 23, 58, 44.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, pp. 123, 146, 147, 151, 193.
Actes du 1er Congrès Mondial pour l’Apostolat des Laiques, p. 181.
Til det tyske folks kristne adel, by Martin Luther.
Ibidem, 12, 180.
Troslœre II, p. 390, 2d edition.
According to Danish law of 1947 governing the Danish Lutheran State church, it is not permitted a layman to preach in the church during the ordinary divine services. (Lovbekendtgørelse nr. 456 af 23/9 1947, § 2, stk. 3.) A modification of said law considered by the Danish parliament during 1961 will only permit a layman to speak on such occasions provided the minister himself speaks on the day’s text. (Kristeligt Dagblad 15, 16/4 1961)
The Lutheran Swedish State church even has apostolic succession.
Vi er alle prestar, by Arthur Berg, p. 28.
World Council of Churches, by WCC Information.
The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, by Visser’t Hooft, p. 154.
Laity, Bulletin of the Department on the Laity—World Council of Churches, December, 1958, No. 6, p. 45.
Vi er alle prester, men . . . , by Svend Wisløff Nielsen, p. 62. For similar examples from U.S.A., Britain, Germany and Australia, see Awake!, October 8, 1961, pp. 30, 31.