One of the most significant errors that confronted the Protestant Reformers was the Roman Catholic tendency to view Christians as belonging to two distinct groups. The first group we might call “ordinary Christians.” These were believers who did not serve as priests, monks, or nuns. The other group can be referred to as the “truly spiritual Christians.” It was understood that the work of this latter group mattered the most, that the truest dedication to God could be found only in the priesthood, the monastery, and the nunnery. Ordinary Christians might do important work, but their vocations and stations in life could never truly measure up to those occupied by the truly spiritual.
In returning to Scripture, the Reformers found that such a distinction is illegitimate. It is not that they rejected a distinction between clergy and laity; rather, the Reformers rejected a distinction that said clergy are closer to God than the laity. The service to God on the part of laypeople is just as acceptable to the Lord as the service to God on the part of Christian ministers. God is not uniquely accessible to the clergy in a way He is not accessible to laypeople. Instead, all have direct access to the Creator through Christ, and everything that is done in His name and according to His law is truly and fully honorable in His sight.
This understanding, commonly known as “the priesthood of all believers,” is rooted in texts such as 1 Peter 2:9, which tells us that the new covenant community is a royal priesthood. What God always intended His people to be (Ex. 19:6), Christ has made them through His work on their behalf. Consequently, we all offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to the Lord (Rom. 12:1–2). All of our lives must be offered in service to God, and that includes our vocations. Whether we are bankers, pastors, computer programmers, doctors, janitors, teachers, stay-at-home moms, retirees, or anything else, we are priests and must serve God and neighbor in our work.
As Martin Luther says in his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation: “All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says (1 Cor. 12), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people.”