In celebrating the 506th anniversary of the Reformation today, many of us will remember important battleground doctrines like justification by faith alone or Sola Scriptura. These distinctives are important, but we often forget that the Protestant Reformation was also a missions movement.
The 16th-century Roman Catholic Church emphasized the ordained priesthood and its role in bringing people to God. But the reformers viewed priesthood as an office belonging to all Christians. This conviction empowered missions both in the 16th century and today. So, what is priesthood?
Priesthood of All Believers
In the Old Testament, the priest is a mediator who bridged the gap between man and God. The priest went before God on behalf of the people, offering sacrifices that enabled the people to come to God. It was an imperfect system, though. The priests needed to sacrifice for their own sins, and they weren’t always good representatives of the people.
This is why Jesus abolished the Old Testament priesthood. He created a perfect priesthood that once and for all brought people to God in himself, the perfect sacrifice. And what’s truly remarkable is that Jesus shares this priesthood with his people. Belonging to Christ means belonging to his priesthood—and this privilege belongs to every believer (1 Peter 2:9).
Belonging to Christ means belonging to his priesthood—and this privilege belongs to every believer.
Connecting Priesthood with Missions
This idea appears frequently in the reformers’ writings. Martin Luther argued that the word “priest” should be as common as “Christian” since every Christian belongs in Christ’s priesthood. John Calvin agreed, teaching in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that all those who belong to Christ are priests. Heinrich Bullinger, too, taught that all Christians, both men and women, are true priests in Christ’s kingdom.
The reformers were clearly univocal in their charge to Christians–each of us is a priest belonging to Christ’s own priesthood. And the privilege of belonging to Christ’s priesthood comes with the same duty which belonged to priests in ages past: we must bring our neighbors to God.
The reformers understood this duty well, evidenced by the spread of Reformed Christianity. Calvin was the spiritual leader of Geneva, Switzerland, which became a refuge for Protestants facing persecution by the Roman church. Thousands of Protestant Christians fled to Geneva in the 1550’s, doubling the city’s population in just a decade. The refugees were restored, educated, and sent back out to strengthen churches in their homelands, eventually reaching millions in Europe and beyond.
The privilege of belonging to Christ’s priesthood comes with the same duty that belonged to priests in ages past: we must bring our neighbors to God.
The Presbyterians are one of many denominations that can trace their roots back to Geneva. John Knox, the church’s founder, sought asylum under Calvin in 1556. In 1559, Knox returned home to Scotland to further establish the Protestant church. Calvin similarly sent hundreds of other missionaries to plant and support churches throughout Europe, including Christopher Goodman (England) and Guido de Bres (Netherlands). Calvin even sent missionaries to Brazil, who drafted the first Reformed confession in the Americas. It’s often been said that the reformers had an underdeveloped missiology, but history tells another story. Geneva’s missionary priests planted thousands of churches around the world.
How the Reformation Fuels Missions Today
Now, centuries later, churches rooted in the Reformation have formed into denominations responsible for mission-sending organizations like Mission to the World (PCA), The Global Mission Initiative (ACNA), and the International Mission Board (SBC). These mission-sending groups are responsible for countless thousands of missionaries around the world.
The ordained ministry is still important today. Ordained priests––pastors, ministers, etc.––are needed to preach the word, administer the sacraments, and perform other pastoral duties. But the priests in the pews are necessary too. Those following Christ’s call to priesthood are often the ones who make the biggest impact in God’s kingdom.
The reformers cared deeply about bringing others to God, stopping at nothing to see Christ’s kingdom span the earth. We can continue in this mission knowing that Christ has adopted us into his own priesthood and has promised to build his church through us.