Of Priests, Pastors, and Prophets
With the five hundred and third anniversary of the inception of the Protestant Reformation upon us, it will do us good to remember that the Reformation was not simply a defense of sola Scriptura and the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone–it was a reformation in worship and ecclesiology. Since Rome had rooted its sacerdotalism (i.e., priesthood) in its faulty doctrine of transubstantiation, the Reformers emphasized the fact that all believers were priests and that there is no special office of Priesthood, other than that filled by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In short, there are no mediators between God and man except for the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Accordingly, believers are not to view pastors as priestly mediators between God and man. Every believer has the same direct access to God. To fail to emphasize this point, is to rob believers of the saving benefits and mediation of Christ.
About a decade ago, a number of influential church leaders rifely promoted the munex triplex as a leadership typology. According to the proposal, leadership roles should be distinguished by applying a "prophet, priest, and king typology" to pastors. According to this scheme, churches should recognize that some ministers were more kingly in their giftedness; some are more priestly; and, some are more prophetic. While there is value in acknowledging that some pastors are stronger in one gift set than another, there are also significant dangers in imposing such a construct onto the office of elder in a way that Scripture does not. In fact, the only thing that the New Testament knows by way of the prophet, priest, and king distinction is that Christ alone fills the office of Prophet, Priest, and King of His Church; and, that in union with Him, every new covenant believer now carries out the functions of a prophet, priest, and king. Timothy Paul Jones explains what a proper approach to the munus triplex paradigm looks like, when he writes,
"No individual within the body of Christ can become more kingly or more priestly than anyone else, because every aspect of Christ’s royal priesthood is already ours in him. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that different church leaders don’t have distinct gifts that are best deployed by focusing their energies on particular areas of ministry. But the identities of priest and king in particular aren’t individual capacities that some individuals possess more strongly than others; they’re identities shared by the whole community in union with Christ . . . The munus triplex should indeed shape our leadership, but it shapes our leadership best when these offices are treated not as a leadership typology but as functions that have been fulfilled in Christ and conveyed to the whole people of God through union with him."1
This, of course, raises the question about the relationship of church leaders and the Old Covenant offices of prophet, priest, and king. The Roman Catholic Church--with its emphasis on the papacy and the priesthood--advanced a heirarchical view of church officers. Martin Luther confronted the essence of Rome's error when he wrote,
"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. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office . . . It is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people."2
As Protestants, we believe that we have freed ourselves from the error of Rome; however, there is is an ever present danger of separating confessional adherence from functional practice. When we functionally elevate pastors to the place of priestly mediators, we run the risk of creating an essential dychotomy between pastors and the people. An application of the "prophet, priest, and king typology" to pastoral ministry can lend itself to this danger.
By underemphasizing the biblical teaching about the priesthood of all believers––and, by imposing a functional munex triplex onto the office of pastor (i.e, elder or bishop)––we can treat pastors as priestly mediators between God and man--when in fact, every pastor is himself in need of the priestly mediation of the High Priest of the Church, Jesus Christ. Both pastors and people can now carry out the intercessory function of their priesthood in Christ in their relationship with other believers.
There is, however, an opposite error when highlighting the priesthood of all believers. We can allow ourselves to slide into a functional Brethrenism--a position that confuses the "priesthood of all believers" with the "right of private judgment."
The Reformers rightly defended the truth of the "right of private judgment" as over against Rome's claim to the infallibility of the church. In his excellent book, The Infallibility of the Church, George Salmon explained the necessity believers have to reject Rome's insistance on ecclesiastical infallibility and to embrace the "right of private judgment." He wrote,
"It is common with Roman Catholics to speak as if the use of private judgment and the infallibility of the Church were things opposed to each other . . . it must be remembered that our belief must, in the end, rest on an act of our own judgment, and can never attain any higher certainty than whatever that may be able to give us. We may talk about the right of private judgment, or the duty of private judgment, but a more important thing to insist on is the necessity of private judgment. We have the choice whether we shall exercise our private judgment in one act or in a great many; but exercise it in one way or another we must. We may either apply our private judgment separately to the different questions in controversy-–Purgatory, Transubstantiation, Invocation of Saints, and so forth––and come to our own conclusion on each . . ."3
The "right of private judgment," however, is not equivalent to the function of the "priesthood of all believers." As Cyril Eastwood explained,
"The common error that the phrase ‘priesthood of believers’ is synonymous with ‘private judgment’ is most unfortunate and is certainly a misrepresentation . . . Of course, the reformers emphasized ‘private judgment,’ but it was always ‘informed’ judgment, and it was always controlled, checked, and corroborated by the testimony of the congregation. Indeed, Calvin himself fully realized that uncontrolled private judgment means subjectivism, eccentricity, anarchy, and chaos.”4
Sometimes well-meaning believers will appeal to the teaching of 1 John 2:27 in order to refute the idea that believers need of the indirect mediation of the preaching of God's word by God-appointed pastors and teachers. The argumentation often goes something like this: "The apostle John says that believers don't need anyone to teach them, because they know all things. To insist otherwise, is to deny clear apostolic teaching." This is to misunderstand the meaning of John's statement. Calvin clarified this, when he wrote,
"He only meant that they were by no means so ignorant as to need unknown things, as it were, taught to them, and that he did not set before them anything that the Spirit of God might not himself suggest to them. It is absurd, then, for fanatics to seize on this passage to exclude outward ministry from the church. The apostle says that the faithful, taught by the Spirit, already understood what he was bringing to them, so that they had no need to learn things unknown to them. He said this so that he might add more authority to his doctrine, as everyone assented to it in his heart—engraved there, as it were, by God’s finger. But as everyone had knowledge in proportion to their faith, and as faith in some of them was small and in others stronger, and in none of them was it perfect, so it follows that no one knew so much that there was no room for progress."5
God has called and gifted certain men to to serve in the office of elder, in order to carry out the prophetic ministry of the word among God's people. Ministers are called to "follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard" (2 Tim. 1:13), "guard the good deposit entrusted to you" (2 Tim. 1:14), "rightly handle the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15), and "charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:3). The "right of private judgment" does not mean that God has not appointed teachers and preachers of His word to carry out a unique function among His people.
While the special office of a prophet ceased with the apostolic age, the pastor continues to carry out the prophetic ministry through the preaching of Scripture. In his Art of Prophecying, the Puritan, William Perkins, explained,
"Prophecy (or prophesying) is a solemn public utterance by the prophet, related to the worship of God and the salvation of our neighbours, as the following passages indicate: 'But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men' (1 Cor. 14:3). 'But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all' (1 Cor. 14:24). 'For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son' (Rom. 1:9) . . . Preaching the Word is prophesying in the name and on behalf of Christ. Through preaching those who hear are called into the state of grace, and preserved in it. God has 'given us the ministry of reconciliation ... Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us; we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God' (2 Cor. 5:18, 20); 'God from the beginning chose you for salvation, through sanctification by the Spirit, and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel' (2 Thess. 2:13, 14); 'The gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes' (Rom. 1:16); 'Where there is no revelation the people cast off restraint' (Prov. 29:18); 'How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?' (Rom. 10:14)" (Perkins, Art of Prophesying)
Taken in this sense, is not improper to speak of pastors as those who are called by God to meditate the word of God to the people of God. To be clear, they are in no way whatsoever priestly mediators--neither are they prophets predicting future events not revealed in Scripture. But, insomuch as they rightly mediate the teaching of Scripture, they are indirectly functioning as forthtelling prophets. Touching on the teaching of Ephesians 4:11, Geerhardus Vos explained,
"Christ has also permitted the prophetic office to be exercised by His representatives, the office-bearers, in an indirect way. It remains true that the source is always in Him and that all prophecy or proclamation of the counsel of God has flowed from Him. But still a mediation for others truly takes place. The same thing cannot be said about the priesthood of the Mediator. There are no true priests besides Him. The Old Testament priests were so in a typological sense and not actually (see Heb 7:23–24). This shows how unbiblical the Romanist conception is, as if the office bearers of the New Testament were priests. This conception rests on the error of transubstantiation. Christ indeed gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph 4:11–12), but He did not give anyone to be a priest, since He himself remains a priest forever."6
This does not mean that God's people are called to blindly accept as the authoritative word of God whatever they are taught by their pastors or teachers. In fact, the opposite is taught in Scripture. When the great apostle Paul preached in Berea, the Holy Spirit commended them for being "more noble than those in Thessalonica; [in that] they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:10).
Nevertheless, God has called certain men to proclaim (forthtell) His word. Calvin judiciously adopted the following view of prophesying--from Paul's teaching in 1 Corithians--when he wrote,
"In a word my view is that the prophets referred to here are those who are skilful and experienced in making known the will of God, by applying prophecies, threats, promises and all the teaching of Scripture to the current needs of the Church. Should anyone be of a different opinion, I am willing to acknowledge that there is room for it, and will not pick a quarrel with him because of it. For it is difficult to make up one’s mind about gifts and offices, of which the Church has been deprived for so long. . ."
We would be wise to exercise caution when approaching this topic––lest we undermine the fact that all of God's people are called to carry out the prophetic function by understanding, applying, and speaking God's word in their respective spheres and calling.
While some may quibble with the distinctions made above, of this much we must be sure: Jesus Christ is the Prophet, Priest, and King of the Church. In union with Him, every believer is called to carry out the functions of a prophet, priest, and king. In order to equip believers to do so, God has appointed pastors and teachers to faithfully proclaim His written word to the members of the church.
1. Timothy Paul Jones, "Don't Use Prophet, Priest, and King as a Modern Leadership Typology," The Gospel Coalition (August 30, 2018),
2. Martin Luther, "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" (Luther’s Works, 44:129)
3. George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (London: John Murray, 1888) pp. 46–47.
4. Cyril Eastwood The Priesthood of All Believers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009) p. 80
5. John Calvin and Matthew Henry, 1, 2, & 3 John, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 48–49.
6. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 94–95.