It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God. Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy. Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders. As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says. There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.
After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches. I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals. But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching. Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him? Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism. I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great. Is there any legitimacy to this objection?
The short answer is “no.”
The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names. Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12). (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.) Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:
“So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)
All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before. I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.). We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)