But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
1 Timothy 2:5
The Protestant Reformation’s theology is sometimes summarized with reference to the “five solas” or “five solae” which are five Latin phrases that each represent some part of the Protestant disagreement with medieval Catholicism: sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. In English, these mean the following: by faith alone, by grace alone, scripture alone, in Christ alone, and glory to God alone. The one most commonly emphasized is by faith alone, which means that we are justified by faith alone apart from good works. This one was most emphasized by Martin Luther and, following his example, many Protestants make it paramount. This doctrine is important, but my belief is that another one in the list is just as important and may be somewhat neglected: in Christ alone. This affirmed that Jesus alone is the only human being who is legitimate mediator between God and man ( as affirmed by 1 Timothy 2:5). Any human being, therefore, who sets themselves up as a mediator between Christians and God is doing something wrong. This doctrine was a reaction against the Catholic notion that the Church and its priests, the Pope or saints, can mediate the relationship between ordinary Christians and God. The priests forgive sins on God’s behalf or grant absolution. They also determine correct doctrine. According to this view, there is no legitimate way to know God and partake in sacraments except through the Church or the authority of the ordained clerics. Christian faith that becomes distorted often hearkens back to a time before Christ, or minimizes or downplays the significance of the Incarnation and Atonement. Before Jesus, God interacted with people through a temple, and a priestly class ( the Levites) made atonement for the sins of the people through animal sacrifices. However, since Jesus came, the need for the priesthood was abolished. Jesus himself served as the final and fully sufficient sacrifice for sin and God no longer interacted with people through the temple (e.g. John 4:21), but would be with them. Jesus was called “Immanuel” which means “God with us”( Matthew 1:23) based on a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. At the crucifixion, there was an earthquake, and Matthew tells us that the veil of the temple was torn in two:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.Matthew 27:51
This is a reminder that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross did away with the old priestly system. God would now dwell with the people. Peter explained that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a fulfillment of a prophecy in Joel.
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.Acts 2:17-18
God interacts with people directly, which is why we are told, in the New Testament, that our bodies, or the bodies of those who believe in Jesus, are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). We are told that all Christians are priests:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.1 Peter 2:9
As Christians, we serve as priests under the High Priest, Jesus himself:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:14-16
Here we see that we come to God directly through the High Priest (Jesus) for grace and mercy. One practical implication of the “priesthood of all believers” is that any Christian can administer sacraments and does not first need to be connected in some way to apostolic succession, or be ordained. Some people may say that the fact that Jesus is called a “high priest” must indicate that there must be other (human) priests who serve under him. The Protestant position is that these human priests are all Christians, because all Christians are instruments of God to lead others to repentance and they minister to one another. If there were a special office for priests, one would expect the author of Hebrews, or some other New Testament author, to give instruction specifically about what the authority and office of the priests were. But they never do so. The church leaders in the New Testament are never called priests, but “overseers” or “elders”. There is a very clear break from the old Jewish system and the reference to the old priestly system in the book of Hebrews is meant to indicate Jesus’s fulfillment of that system. There is also no indication that the New Testament churches had people who had special authority to grant absolution. Some may use John 20:23 as basis for the authority of priests to forgive sins:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”John 20:21-23
The meaning of this passage has been debated. Whatever it is thought to mean, one cannot reasonably delimit this authority to forgive sins to only a few people that churches have chosen to ordain. Either it applies only to the actual apostles who heard these words ( which would mean that it died with them) or all Christians who have the Holy Spirit has this authority. In fact, the passage seems to suggest that receiving the Holy Spirit is what gives one this authority and every genuine Christian has the Holy Spirit in them ( 1 Corinthians 6:19). In fact, there is no place in the New Testament, as far as I know, that connects the Christian’s level of spiritual authority to their relation to apostolic succession. It is everywhere connected to their relation to the Holy Spirit. None of the New Testament authors including the would-be Pope of the first century ( Peter) made any mention of apostolic succession as the linchpin of Christians’ spiritual or ecclesiastical authority on earth.
Similarly, Solus Christus also undermines the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice of praying to certain Christians ( saints), which makes those Christians into types of mediators between us and God. When you look at modern Protestantism, it is not too difficult to see why the Catholic system developed. There is a tendency for pastors to overemphasize their authority and to make themselves into types of mediators ( even if they never explicitly say as much). There is a tendency among ordinary Christians to erect mediators, to fixate on particular human beings as having some special mandate from God, a special dispensation of God’s Spirit, or greater authority than the ordinary Christian. Perhaps we seek the celebrity pastor with just the right balance of spectacle, glamour and sound teaching. Perhaps we seek “prophetic voices” too much especially during troubled times ( like now). It is not wrong of course, to accept counsel from people who appear to be saying the right things, but we must be sure they are not inhabiting a place in our hearts that only Jesus should. The New Testament also teaches that there are gifts of prophecy and teaching, so that some Christians can be better at this than others (see 1 Corinthians 12). However, that does not mean that they have greater spiritual authority than the ordinary Christian and what they say should still be tested, no matter how gifted they are thought to be.
Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.1 Thessalonians 5:21-22
So, not only do pastors have a tendency to make themselves into mediators, from pride or misguided theology, there is a tendency among ordinary Christians to make pastors into mediators. But where does this tendency come from? What could be behind it? Something like this tendency can perhaps be found in 1 Samuel 8:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”1 Samuel 8:4-9
The people of Israel demand a king and God, speaking to Samuel, sees this as a rejection of his own rule. Perhaps we want a mediator because he is a “known element”, easier to deal with than an invisible, unpredictable and holy God. It is easier to ask him what to do instead of trying to discern the will of God for ourselves. You know that you’re forgiven, because the priest has told you. There is less of a need to have faith that you’ve been forgiven based solely on Jesus’s work on the cross. The nice thing about an idol or a human mediator is that you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Again, there’s nothing wrong with seeking Godly counsel when you have to make important decisions, but it is important not to give these advisors too much authority in our hearts. This is not only because the image you see of them is definitely not the same as the naked reality that God sees, but also because they are not meant to carry your trust in God. Only Jesus must carry your trust in God. You must ask yourself what would happen to your faith if you found out that some Christian leader you go to often for counsel suddenly died, or you suddenly stop watching their content, or they are found guilty of some very severe moral failure ( something that’s “not even practiced among the pagans”). It might not be pleasant to think of your favourite Christian “thought leader” ( including dead ones like C.S. Lewis or Augustine) or the local pastor, as wolves among the sheep, but it’s a good thing to do in order to test your own heart. It may perhaps give you insight into the extent to which you have made a human being into a vessel of your trust in God, a vessel of your faith. (This includes your parents if you are still younger, because some people’s faith is attached to or rooted in their parent’s faith). It should not shake your faith in God at all if you learn that some Christian leader you follow has been engaged in a severe moral failure. You will be shocked and upset, but it should not cause you to doubt God, because your trust in God should not be attached to human beings, not even in the slightest. The reality is that spiritual leaders are no different from you and me. They are trying to figure things out, they stumble every now and again, and they don’t always know the best way forward. Even spiritually mature Christians can fall into this trap. When an angel revealed some great truths to John, he worshiped the angel, only to be rebuked:
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”Revelation 22:8-9
It makes sense to regard a human mediator as an idol, because Jesus is the Son of God and we are told that he alone is mediator. If you are making a human being into a mediator, you are then placing a human being into the place of the Son of God, which is idolatry. And we know that our God is jealous and he will avenge all idolatry. Whatever is not exalted by him, will be cast down by him.
Solus Christus is not a repudiation of some form of pastoral authority. A pastor has authority over the administration of the church and its community.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.Hebrews 13:17
But we should allow scripture that talks about pastoral authority to be limited by the responsibility of ordinary Christians to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and to follow the example of the Bereans, who checked Paul’s words against the scriptures (Acts 17:11). Or, as Jesus says in the passage quoted at the beginning of this article, we should call no one teacher, because we have only one Teacher, and we are all brothers. This should not be done with a reckless defiance or with an “attitude”, but in humility and with careful and prayerful consideration. We realize that our pastors are there for our good and therefore we must respect them and submit to their leadership of the church and their teaching, insofar as it is biblical and does not either contradict or go beyond the Bible. It is important always that we remember that we will have to answer for ourselves (Romans 14:12, Galatians 6:5). “My pastor said it was right” I suspect will not be accepted by God as an excuse.
If you think about it, the pastor’s relationship with the congregation is very unique. A pastor is a type of “local celebrity”, but unlike other celebrities, this one has to have regular interaction with his “fans”. This relationship has a great deal of potential for toxicity if not managed well. If you think of someone as a mediator you will have much greater expectations of them than you would otherwise. Therefore, any slight from them will wound you more deeply than it should, and any imperfection in them will appear more glaring than it would otherwise. This is why a congregation that has made the pastor into a mediator will be quick to turn on him and see him as a fraud. It does not help that modern churches are very “pastor-focused”, maybe more than the original New Testament churches. These people are never infallible oracles of wisdom and goodness and if you do make them into something like a mediator in your heart, the disappointment is inevitable and may well be crushing. New Christians especially need to be given a “primer” on what they should expect and not expect from pastors and churches. It may be that Christians sometimes walk into churches believing that they will experience some slice of heaven, but the New Testament never leads us to expect this. The reality of wolves among the sheep seem constantly on the apostles’ minds. It is important to realize that as you walk into a church, especially if you become actively involved in the community of that church, you will be offended. Somebody there, perhaps more than one, perhaps the pastor himself, will wrong you. Realizing this early on and preparing yourself for it, will spare you some pain and may salvage your faith. And when the time of testing or the “day of evil” finally arrives, you will be a force for good and forgiveness, rather than contributing to the “root of bitterness” in the congregation. In that day, you can be God’s tool for the preservation of that community or you can be Satan’s tool for its destruction. This does not mean that one should necessarily stay in an immoral or heretical church with a pastor who has clearly disqualified himself, but a little loyalty when the church’s imperfections are clearer than usual, is a very precious thing. It’s a good idea to guard yourself and not to trust other people in the congregation because they are Christians ( or because they are part of the “staff”). Trust them to the extent that you know them in the same way that you would anyone else.
We recognize that Jesus is our priest, prophet and king and no human being can stand in his place. As Christians, we are priests because we lead people to the High Priest and help them to follow him more devotedly. Pastors have authority over the church and its community, but every Christian has the Holy Spirit and the responsibility to test the teaching of another Christian against the Bible.