Fifty million American adults attend faith-based small groups regularly, according to a 2016 survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.1 Yet just over 500 years ago, this common faith practice would have been seen as dangerous and displeasing to God. Although small groups are not a direct outcome of the Reformation, they are part of its legacy: The Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has shaped how the body of Christ functions together today.
While it seems natural today for believers to study the Bible and pray together, it would have seemed extraordinary in the Middle Ages. Laity were second class Christians, dependent on clergy. Clergy mediated between the people and God through sacraments and the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. Luther and Calvin argued that the Roman Church’s entrenched clericalism was antithetical to the church of Scripture (See, for example, Luther’s “Appeal to the German Nobility” and Calvin’s Institutes IV.5.1-19).
Both Luther and Calvin connected Hebrews 7 with 1 Peter 2:9 to argue that Christ is the Great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. Through him, the former priesthood ended and all believers have become “a royal priesthood.” Since Christ is our High Priest and sole Mediator, we have no need for further priestly mediation. Since Christ is the sacrifice and every believer is to offer spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise, no priest is needed to offer a sacrificial mass. Every believer is obliged to participate in the task of interpreting Scripture and may not simply leave it to others. Every believer is to pray for others, confess their sins to one another, and proclaim the Word to one another. Every believer is a priest as they live out their ordinary vocations; all represent Christ to the world.
The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers did not eliminate the need for clergy. Luther and Calvin saw the need for educated preachers to teach and administer the sacraments. But they are called by the congregation and have a different office, not a higher spiritual status.
Luther may have tempered his vision for how this doctrine might have been realized due in part to the Radical Reformation. But studying the Bible in the original languages and other academic preparation also inhibited implementation. In practice, “the scholarly authority of the Reformation clergy replaced the priestly authority of the medieval clergy,” and a significant divide between clergy and laity remains.2
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation we stand in a different place. Over the last 50 years there has been significant effort to recover a more biblical understanding of the laity’s role. A place where this shift is most evident is in small groups. When I started training small group leaders in 1980, there were few published training materials or discussion guides. The 1990s saw an explosion of such resources. Books shared strategies to structure the local church around small groups for spiritual formation and mission.3 Sociologists and anthropologists such as Robert Wuthnow and James Bielo have shown how these groups function and what roles they play in our broader culture. Small groups are an integral part of the faith and life of millions of Christians today.
While each church and group is unique, my church is illustrative: We currently have 40 small groups and support groups meeting in living rooms and on our church campus. Some form around a particular demographic, like young couples, women, or retirees, while others span generations. Groups study different topics using sermon discussion guides, DVD studies, or other materials. While diverse, our small groups have key commonalities: all are led by laity; all expect to encounter God and grow spiritually together; and all––to some degree––forge bonds of care.
When our small groups meet, members perform many “priestly” roles using their spiritual gifts: they teach one another and interpret Scripture; they pray for one another; they speak God’s love and forgiveness to one another; and they minister through acts of compassion and care. They also serve as priests to the world–– praying for family members, friends, and strangers; serving together in Jesus’ name; and in other ways representing the living God to his world. Whether or not they realize it, as they do all these things, our small group members are living out the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
We still have work ahead: many members still have a general sense that pastors are different than other Christians, and only about 45% are in small groups. But we are laying a strong foundation. As the associate pastor for small group ministries, my call is to equip small group leaders and their groups––a different task than most pastors even a generation ago. I also oversee our care ministries, which we have realigned to undergird the support that happens naturally in small groups. Meanwhile, I have been a member––not the leader––of a small group in my congregation for over a decade, another sign of our commitment to mutuality between clergy and laity in practice.
Recently, a woman in our church shared her testimony. She described growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, where her parish priest mediated between herself and God. When she joined our Mothers Of Preschoolers program, she was surprised to see ordinary women talking about their faith and praying for one another. She had tears in her eyes as she described how that group changed her life. Those young moms embody the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This is the legacy of the Reformation.
The Reverend Nancy A. Duff is Associate Pastor of Centerpoint Community Church (EPC), Roseville, CA
1 U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. 2016. https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/pro ductview.xhtml?pid=PEP_2016_PEPANNRES&src=pt.
2 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 167.
3 Warren Bird & Carl George, The Coming Church Revolution: Empowering Leaders for the Future (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1994; Bill Donahue & Russ Robinson. Building a Church of Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001); Darrell Guder & George Hunsberger, Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), et al.