Does 1 Peter 2:5,9 imply that churches should have priests?

by Luke Wayne

No, neither 1 Peter 2:5 nor 2:9 are referring to an office of "priest" within the New Testament church. Instead, these verses refer to all Christians collectively as a "priesthood" in precisely the same way that Old Testament Israel was collectively called a "kingdom of priests." It has nothing to do with offices within the church, nor is the focus on leaders. This passage is about the church as a whole.

The Argument

The two verses in question read:

"you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ," (1 Peter 2:5).

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light," (1 Peter 2:9).

Roman Catholics and others arguing that New Testament churches should be led by "priests" often point to this passage for support. They claim that these verses not only explicitly mention a "holy priesthood" but also refer to priestly functions like the offering of "spiritual sacrifices." They contend that this indicates the church should have an office of priest leading worship. In context, however, Peter's words are not about a leading priestly class within the church but rather about the entire church as a whole.

Who is the Royal Priesthood?

It is essential to ask precisely who Peter is calling a priesthood here. The astute Roman Catholic is likely to focus on verse 5, where it says, "you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood." Peter clearly tells all his readers that they are living stones which make up a temple, or "spiritual house." God is no longer worshiped in a temple of stone but rather a temple made up of His own people. Yet, if we read this verse alone, Peter's somewhat mixed metaphor can be exploited to imply that the church is the temple and that there is a priesthood within the temple offering "spiritual sacrifices." This might seem to indicate a class of priestly leaders within the church.

However, Peter did not stop there. After further discussing Christ as the cornerstone on which the temple is built in verses 6-8, Peter goes on to clarify what he meant about the "priesthood." Contrasting with those he mentions in verse 8 who stumble over Christ because they are "disobedient to the word," Peter says to all who believe:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light," (1 Peter 2:9).

That this is, indeed, the whole church is made even clearer if we keep reading on in the next verse:

"for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy," (1 Peter 2:10).

Those of every nation, tribe, and tongue who once were not one people are now joined together as the people of God. Those who once were lost in their sin and have now received mercy, all of them are the "royal priesthood" and "holy nation." Peter is not saying that Christians have priests or that they need a priesthood over them. It is saying that Christians are a priesthood, all of them together. The language is directly borrowed from God's words to Old Covenant Israel in the Torah:

"and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel," (Exodus 19:6).

This was not talking about the Levitical priesthood. These words were not to the sons of Aaron, but rather jointly to all the people of Israel. When Peter calls Christians a "royal priesthood, a holy nation," he is directly quoting Exodus 19:6 from the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. The LXX reads "royal priesthood" rather than "kingdom of priests." Thus, Peter is not saying that Christian leaders are priests but rather that Christians, as a people united in Christ, are together a "royal priesthood" in the same way that Israel was a "royal priesthood." It is not about the special function of any particular Christian; It is about our collective identity as a people.

But What About Spiritual Sacrifices?

But what, then, does Peter mean by saying that this "priesthood" offers up "spiritual sacrifices"? This is actually fairly common New Testament language, and again has nothing to do with a special priestly office. Paul, for example, writes to the entire church body in Rome:

"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship," (Romans 12:1).

Paul describes Christian worship as every member of the church offering our bodies up together as one living sacrifice. The sacrifice is not some esoteric or mystical act of an individual "priest." The unified life and worship of the church together is itself a spiritual sacrifice! Similarly, we read in Hebrews:

"Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased," (Hebrews 13:15-16).

When we praise God with our lips and serve one another with our belongings, we are offering our spiritual sacrifices to God. Relatedly, of our financial support for missions we read:

"But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God," (Philippians 4:18).

Paul considered even his own life of ministry to be just one component of the "sacrifice" of worship offered up by the church as a whole in the form of our ongoing faith and service:

"But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all," (Philippians 2:7).

Thus, the spiritual sacrifices offered up in the temple of God's people by the priesthood of God's people are the collective praise, gifts, and service of God's people. No office of priest is required or even implied. Indeed, such an office in the Church is entirely unknown in the New Testament.