The Social Priesthood 

Harrie Salman

In all traditional societies we find a special group of people who perform rituals to mediate between the human world and the world of supernatural beings. Some of them were dealing with the nature spirits, like shamans, and others with the divine beings, such as druids and priests. In the Germanic languages the word ‘priest' derives from the Greek word presbuteros which means an ‘elder'. In Russian the word for priest is svyashtchennik, which is connected with the word svyatoy, which means ‘holy' or ‘sacred'. This corresponded with the ancient Greek word for priest hiereus.

Three Levels of Priesthood

Ancient Israel had its priests, the kohanim, who were descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, from the tribe of Levi. Among them was a line of ‘high priests'. But also the whole nation of Israel was called “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). This meant that every Jew was part of the universal priesthood of the common people who prayed to God and offered praises, donations and good deeds. The kohanim, the official priests, offered drink, grain and animal offerings to God. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem at Yom Kippur to make atonement for the whole nation.

Also Christianity developed a priesthood with these three levels. Jesus Christ was considered as the high priest. Every congregation had its own presbuteros, whose task it was to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments. This was the sacramental priesthood, which within a few centuries became part of a hierarchically structured church. As in the Old Testament, priests were ordained in a ritual in which they received the Holy Spirit by the laying of hands on them. In his first Epistle, the apostle Peter wrote about the third level of priesthood, repeating the words from Exodus: “(…), for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God's very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.”

On the basis of these words the Catholic Church speaks of the ‘universal priesthood' and the protestant churches of the ‘priesthood of all believers'. In the understanding of the Orthodox Church, the Holy Liturgy is an act of the whole people of God, not a performance of the priest alone on behalf of the others. For most Protestants, Christ is the only mediator between the believers and God. They are convinced that through Christ they have been given direct access to God, just like a priest. God is equally accessible to all the faithful, and every Christian has an equal potential to minister for God. In Protestantism priests are therefore not seen as a group that is distinct from laypeople. They are servants of the congregation. In the Calvinist Church the pastors are elected by the congregation. In some protestant groups, like the British Quakers there are no priests at all. The Methodist Church also has local preachers who are laypersons playing an active social role in the congregations.

A Socially-Oriented Christianity

These new views on the role of laypeople were part of a broader movement arising at the end of the Middle Ages in which the special status of the priests was disputed. Behind this criticism stands above all the stream of the Bogomils, who were considered heretics by the official churches. This socially oriented movement began in the 10th century in Bulgaria and Macedonia and represents a transformation of Manicheism, founded by the Christian prophet Mani. It spread to Russia (where it planted the seeds for a future culture of love and brotherhood), to Bosnia and above all to Western Europe, where the Bogomils became known as Patarenes (in Italy) and Cathars (in France). Their initiates performed sacramental acts. This movement was one of the sources of a new mood of freedom in spiritual life, in which laypeople wanted to realise an authentic Christianity by leading an apostolic life of devotion and poverty and by following Christ in their daily lives. This was called the Imitatio Christi, the imitation of Jesus Christ.

A typical expression of these social-religious impulses can be found among men and women who did not enter monasteries, but lived together in private houses in the towns. They devoted their lives to good works, caring for ill and old people, orphans, to copying books and teaching in their schools, and to weaving textiles that they could sell. We find such communities not only in the Cathar countries, but also in Holland and Belgium, where they were called beguines and beghards (and later in the eastern parts of the Netherlands Brethren and Sisters of Common Life), and in Germany and England. In this social priesthood, the social aspects of Christianity were practised. This was a life dedicated to the purification of the soul and the sanctification of daily life in the service of others.

Offshoots of these late-medieval movements brought these spiritual impulses into the modern world. The Czech-Moravian brotherhood inspired the movement of Count Zinsendorf in Herrnhut (near Dresden in East Germany) that spread worldwide, the Methodist Church and other groups. In Russia these impulses lived in sects that spread into Siberia and the Caucasus area. Within the anthroposophical movement they led to the foundation of the Camphill communities for children and adults with developmental disabilities, mental health problems and other special needs. Originating in Jewish mystical sources these impulses lived in the Chassidic communities in Easter Europe, founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. His doctrines include the teaching of the individual's duty to serve God in every aspect of his or her daily life. In the early 20th century the Bulgarian spiritual teacher Peter Deunov founded the school of the White Brotherhood that also has roots in the Bogomil movement and whose brothers and sisters practice the social priesthood.

The Social Impulse

In these movements the consciousness lives that social life requires sacrifices that we make for others. We hold back our egotistic drives to serve somebody else, to create space within ourselves for others so that they can be heard and express their needs. Essentially, social life in a Christian sense becomes possible when we take the needs of the others as the motive of our actions. From an anthroposophical point of view this social impulse has its origin in the sphere of the Greater Guardian of the Threshold, described by Rudolf Steiner in his book How to reach knowledge of the higher worlds? This means that when we consciously act upon the real needs of others, we meet Christ in them. This social orientation of the human being has its parallel in the philosophy of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), who described that our moral consciousness awakens when we look into the countenance of others during an encounter.

The social impulse to act upon the needs of others is not about giving therapy to them. It is not a therapeutic impulse. We have no intention to change them, we accept them as they are. We may want to help others to carry their karma. We may forgive them. In an encounter we may open ourselves to the spirit of others, take it into us when we listen with attention, and return to others what we understood when we speak again. This happens in the rhythmic flow of listening and speaking, in the conscious practise of the social primordial phenomenon of the encounter, as Rudolf Steiner called it. We may then help them to connect to parts of their higher being, with which we are karmically connected, as Steiner remarked on December 27, 1918 (How can Mankind Find Christ again? CW 187). We may ask them questions that awaken them in their higher consciousness. In this sense we can assist in the birth of their spirit.

New Forms of Sacramentalism

In a lecture given on November 27, 1916 (The Karma of Vocation, CW 172) Steiner spoke of a new way of life in which Christ can work through us. Service to others can become holy, when it is “permeated with the Christ consciousness”. “This means that we must change to a sacramentalism in which man's deeds are imbued by the consciousness that the Christ stands behind him everywhere. Thus, he ought to do nothing in the world except that in which the Christ can help him. If he does something else, the Christ must also help him but He is thus crucified again and again in human deeds.”

This is a vision of a future social sacramentalism, that according to Steiner can be realised when we make educating and teaching children a ‘divine service'. “What was symbolically practiced in the ancient cults of Christianity and was once performed only on the altar must take hold of the entire world”, Steiner remarked. Also in dealing with nature and in constructing machines, humanity should fulfil a divine service. More generally, “when we endeavour to bring what we call our knowledge into our consciousness in such a way that, as our souls are filled with ideas of the spiritual world, we are aware that the Spiritual world is entering into us and that we are being united with the spiritual; when we look upon that as a “communion;” when we can realize true knowledge in a sentence you find expressed before 1887: “Thinking is the true communion of humanity,” when the symbolic sacrament of the altar will become the universal sacramental experience of knowledge,” as Steiner said on November 27, 1916.

As early as 27 December 1907, Steiner described sacramentalism as meaning that human acts are "permeated with moral perfection and holiness". In this context he spoke of a person for whom the laboratory table at which he works has become an altar. Only when he has learned the secret of sacramentalism does he gain access to "the secret of bringing forth life" (Mythen und Sagen, CW 101). This reminds us that the natural scientists who worked in the tradition of the Rosicrucian brotherhood in the 15th and 16th centuries turned their laboratories into oratories (places of prayer), according to Steiner. Thus the study of nature becomes a sacramental activity.

Steiner gave a sacramental dimension to our meetings with others as well, when he said on October 9, 1918 in his lecture “The work of the angels in man's astral body” (CW 182) that they form in our astral body images with the goal that we may see in everybody something divine that is hidden in them. This recognition of each other's likeliness with God will lead to a free religiosity in which churches are no longer necessary. Meeting another person will then be “a religious act, a sacrament”, Steiner told.

In his pastoral-medical course for doctors and priests (published as Pastoral Medicine) from September 1924, Rudolf Steiner pointed out possibilities for priestly action in the medical-therapeutic field (CW 318).

The Research of Dieter Brüll

The Dutch anthroposophist Dieter Brüll (1922-1996) presented the social vision of Rudolf Steiner in his fundamental book The Social Impulse of Anthroposophy (1984). In his later years he developed his ideas on the social priesthood and social sacramentalism in his book Creating Social Sacraments (1995). In his younger years he had been inspired by Karl König's work in the Camphill community, which lead him and his wife to participate in a group that wanted to create a curative pedagogical community in the east of the Netherlands.

For Dieter Brüll the social impulse leads to a ‘feminine' path of caring for others, that he found exemplified in the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This path was for him connected with inspiration of the archangel Uriel, who is in Anthroposophy the angel of the summer. For the German journal Lazarus he wrote five articles on themes related to Uriel that have been collected in his book on the social sacraments.

Brüll also wanted to investigate how new sacraments of social life can be derived from the religious sacraments. But it became clear to him that this approach was not productive and that he rather had to discover which social gestures stand behind the religious sacraments. This change of perspective became possible when he realised that the four phases of the altar sacrament (the Gospel reading, the offering, the transsubstantiation, the communion) mirror in its four parts the four essential phases of a conversation:

  1. A purification in which egoistic drives are silenced.
  2. The sacrifice of self-consciousness can fill me with the other person.
  3. Taking into ourselves what lives in the other person is transformation.
  4. What I give back in word or deed is communion.

His understanding of the basic social gestures led him to identify these gestures in the following church sacraments:

  • Baptism: starting to work for unknown others
  • Confirmation: sending forth people from a community for specific tasks
  • Act of Consecration of Man: meeting someone in the interaction of listening and speaking
  • Sacramental Consultation: taking on a part of the karma of another person
  • The Last Anointing: going through an inner transformation with Christ
  • Ordination of the priest: acting in social life out of a temporary ordination from Christ
  • Marriage: admitting people into a community in which male and female aspects can be harmonized

Dieter Brüll recognised that the social sacramentalism belongs to the future. According to him a social priesthood needs social sacraments that do not yet exist. These sacraments should be given by an initiate. For him, the ordination of a social priest is always temporary. It is the experience of empowerment from the spiritual world that is granted by Christ in a situation where the impulse of love is at work. In this moment, Christ ordains the person to be a social priest. In this temporary state the spiritual world acts through him or her.

The social priesthood includes much more than the social gestures behind the church sacraments, because these gestures relate to very special situations. Brüll identified these gestures with seven social sacraments, but this is a limitation. There are many more situations. The social priesthood embraces all areas of life.

An Altruistic Way of Living

The social priesthood does not need the institution of a church for this. It is about the work of laypeople. The pastoral care for the psychological and social needs in church congregations exercised by priests can also be done by laypeople, and sometimes better. When, in the encounter between people, we act from the impulse of love, Christ is present between us (the social equivalent of the sacrament of the altar, the eucharist) and our actions then take on a sacred character. Through the presence of Christ all social acts become sacramental. Steiner mentioned the education and teaching of children, but he meant the sanctification of the entire social life.

The school for the social priesthood is life itself. It is there that we can become aware of our actions. Are we acting out of self-interest or out of social impulse? Often we only realise this afterwards. We can also decide in advance to act out of the needs of others and then reflect on how that worked out. In this way we can work on our inner transformation. Ultimately, it is about an interaction between our own needs and the needs of the other. In time, this will no longer be a contradiction as we realise that we are dependent on each other and that we owe everything to others. This realisation can lead us to organise our communities in such a way that a social life of mutual help becomes possible. Rudolf Steiner wanted to make this possible with the social impulse and its concrete implementation in Social Threefolding.

New professions

In modern social life there are many new professions in which a social priesthood develops itself. New social qualities are developing in the areas of accompanying others in difficult life situations, supporting them individually or as groups, giving them counsel and consultation, creating socially healthy structures in communities and organizations, working for a new social life, in which all human activities will turn into a divine service. In these spheres of life new practices and rituals are being created, which may develop into the social sacraments of the future. Inspirations from the spiritual world may allow everybody to give them, in concrete situations, a proper form. Within new social mysteries (conscious forms of communication with spiritual beings) we can practice the social priesthood.


Dieter Brüll, Dieter Brüll: The Mysteries of Social Encounters - The Anthroposophical Social Impulse, Fair Oaks (USA) 2002.

Dieter Brüll, Creating Social Sacraments, original edition in German, 1995. This book can be downloaded at

Harrie Salman, The Social World as Mystery Center – The social Vision of Anthroposophy, Threefold Publishing, Mount Lake Terrace (USA) 2020.


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