A book I finished reading earlier today  dealt with a subject that inspires a fair bit of controversy, a doctrine known as the priesthood of all believers. The raw materials of this doctrine can be found in 1 Peter 2:9-10 and Exodus 19:5-6, and can also be found in Ephesians 4:12-16 as well. It is obvious, if one attends a church, that the ratio of lay to clergy is generally high. This is because paid clergy need people to pay them through tithes and offerings, and making a living off of spiritual ministry requires a sufficiently large amount of believers to provide that standard of living, or else a minister has to work to support himself as Paul did. It is clear that any doctrine of the priesthood of believers cannot believe that every member has the right to material support as a vocational minister, because it is plainly impossible that every member could draw a salary greater than what every member paid into a given congregation or organization.
Let us therefore understand at the outset that whatever the priesthood of believers may legitimately deal with, it does not mean that everyone is expected to be a vocational minister. Nor does it mean that believers fail to respect vocational ministers because we all have our own ministry of service based on whatever gifts and opportunities that God gives us to serve. Let us understand that those who are paid to do the work of spiritual service in a congregation as spiritual Levites do an honorable work and that all of us who are believers appreciate that effort. Let us understand, though, that we as believers expect from vocational ministers the same degree of professional study and education that we expect of any competent member of any vocation, expectations that include continuing education as well as professional competence. A vocational minister should be able to provide depth and insight about God’s word than someone who can only study that word part time after the daily tasks of our own vocations are done can attain to. Thankfully, I have known quite a few vocational ministers who have provided that level of depth of understanding, while I have also known some vocational ministers who did not show a commitment to depth and instead recycled the same tired themes and messages over and over again. I do not wish to make any accusations, merely to highlight the point that my respect for the profession of the ministry (a respect that was greatly increased by my having had to come up with split-sermon length messages every other week for more than a year) involves certain expectations for those who serve in that honorable profession.
If one begins (as I begin) from the premise that no sphere of human activity that God has placed us to do as part of our job of serving as stewards of His creation (whether that includes business or intellectual matters or art and music or politics or law or farming or animal husbandry any other task that God has set for us to accomplish) is inherently sinful, then there are conclusions that naturally follow. Some of these conclusions are trivial, such as the fact that any sphere of human activity can be and has been corrupted by sin and evil. Some of these conclusions are less trivial, though, and are often not well understood. The tasks that God has set aside for humanity to labor in cannot be evil in themselves or else God would be commanding men to sin. Now certainly there are some labors which God has not commanded us to do which are sinful–prostitution, slave trading, and drug dealing come readily to mind. But those spheres of activity that have been set aside for mankind are not sinful by nature, and therefore can be done in a godly or ungodly fashion. Any vocation that we do, any function that we serve in this world or in an institution (a family or a congregation) is itself a work of service to others. This service to others is a ministry, an opportunity to model God’s ways for others and provide instruction (at least through example, if not formally), encouragement, and outgoing love and concern. And this ministry, no matter how modest the task that is done, is honorable. After all, anyone who even gives a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus Christ will receive a reward for faithful service given to others and those who visit prisoners, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, have done so to Jesus Christ Himself.
As is often the case, the question of the priesthood of believers really depends a lot on one’s view of authority as opposed to service. It is impossible for everyone to be in authority over everyone else. So long as our focus is on our own authority, and we are insecure about our own prestige or honor or glory, we will focus on those aspects which give us honor at the expense of others who are lower or less glorious than we ourselves. Behaving that way will show that we are still of a heathen and Satanic mindset, consumed with ourselves and not behaving as Jesus Christ did and as He commanded for us to do (Matthew 20:25-28). We can all serve everyone else, though, in some fashion. Since there are a wide variety of needs and functions that require attention and no one can do them all, it is easy to find opportunities to engage in loving service for others. If these needs correspond to our own gifts and abilities, we have an opportunity to serve that brings us pleasure and brings enjoyment to others. If I am a good writer, I can serve others (and God) through writing what others think and believe and what God commands but that others may not be able to express in words. If I am a musician, I can serve others (and God) through singing and performing music. If I am an entrepreneur or businessman I can serve others (and God) through running companies that provide a model of honest work, the highest character in our all dealings, and love and concern for others. If someone is unable to serve actively and publicly because of health, at the very least they can provide the wisdom they have gained in their lives, the example of cheer and courage despite trials, and the ability to pray for and encourage others. No matter how old or young we are, how rich or poor, how strong or weak, how healthy or ill we are, we can all do something for others, and whatever it is that we do, that is an honorable vocation in the eyes of God and in the eyes of those who are godly brethren.
Therefore, seeing as all can serve and that any genuine service to God or to others is a vocation (and therefore an aspect of our ‘priesthood’ as believers), there is no need for those who are ministers by vocation to feel insecure about seeing the godly vocations of the brethren as a whole. Certainly, there needs to be respect on the part of everyone for the contributions of others, so that no one feels (or is) neglected and left out in praise and respect and loving concern. This is especially necessary for those populations, like the young or singles or shut-ins, who may feel left out because of their peripheral status in many congregations. When the contributions of all in society and in the congregation are appreciated and respected, no one needs to feel insecure about the honor and dignity of their own role in the eyes of God and other believers. Certainly there is need for instruction in how a given activity (like business or art or music or dancing or writing) can be done in a godly fashion that brings honor to God, to ourselves, and to others. That is a role that vocational ministers ought to be well-equipped to handle given their years of biblical study and depth of understanding of God’s laws and ways. When vocational ministers show the proper honor for the service and contribution of all, all are encouraged themselves to follow the example and to honor and respect others as well, so that we may all edify each other in grace and peace, and so we may all individually and institutionally grow and mature in godliness and maturity.