Pastors or Priests?

There are a great many names for a ‘Man of the Cloth’ (like that one – with apologies to all the ‘Women of the Cloth’!)  Among them are: Pastor, Reverend, Minister, Preacher, Cleric, Clergyman, Parson, Shepherd, Father, and Padre.  If you call a Lutheran Pastor by any of them, he/she will probably nod indulgently, recognizing that your intent is to respect the office of public ministry, even if the choice of terms might not be their preferred one.  But it may be different if you call a Lutheran Pastor a ‘Priest.’  Then, you might get a mini-lecture on Lutheran theology!

The concept of a Priest (though the name may be different) is embedded in virtually every ancient and modern religion as a man/woman who has a special connection to the deity(s) and can thus intercede on the behalf of others.  Priests are essential to perform the special rituals which honor and appease the god(s) and bring blessings to the worshippers.  Priests serve as the ‘modems’ for connecting to the divine!

Judaism was both superficially the same, yet very different.  In the Old Testament, the priests were the male descendants of Aaron (the brother of Moses) whom God had designated to offer sacrifices on behalf of worshippers.  Once a year, the ‘High Priest’ would enter the Holy of Holies of the Temple – the ‘inner sanctum’ where God resided, but no one else was allowed.  But unlike pagan religions, the Jewish faith was not about appeasement of an indifferent and/or vengeful deity through secret priestly rites, but about a God who had lovingly sought out and created a special people for His purposes, and whose prescribed rituals were designed to draw them into a close relationship and foster obedience and trust.  (By the way: Jews haven’t had priests since the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in AD 70,)

The priestly function is also at the heart of the Christian faith – but in a VERY DIFFERENT way than is the case for any other religion.  For Christians, Jesus Christ is the one and only High Priest who stands between a righteous God and sinful mankind (the theme of the book of Hebrews).  In this capacity, He offered up the true atoning sacrifice of Himself (the Lamb of God), for which the Old Testament animal sacrifices were but a foreshadowing.  And in His ongoing role as our High Priest, He stands in the presence of the Father to plead our case.  When the Temple curtain was ripped open on Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51), it signaled the new order where temples, sacrifices, and the priestly functions were eliminated.  But it goes even further than this: since we have direct access to God in the person of Jesus Christ, we are now each priests in our own right!  (1 Peter 2:9)

In the New Testament writings, priests are mentioned in only those three ways: (1) The Jewish Temple priesthood; (2) Jesus as our High Priest; and (3) the priesthood of all believers – never as a title for leaders in the Christian church.   However, the churches did have appointed leaders who exercised spiritual oversight and presided over worship, and as time went on, the term ‘priest’ came back into use to refer to those who were specially consecrated to administer the Sacraments of the Church.  The Catholic Mass, in particular, came to be regarded as the on-going sacrifice of Christ, and the priest as one who participates with Christ in this sacrifice.   Thus, though Catholics do share our belief that all believers have direct access to God, priests are thought to share in Christ’s priestly work of atonement, and thus are elevated to a higher spiritual level as ones who can dispense God’s grace.

Abuses of the authority of the Catholic clergy hierarchy were at the root of the Reformation, and the term ‘priest’ seemed for many to be symptomatic of what had gone wrong.  Though there are Protestant denominations that do use the title (notably Anglican and Episcopal) most opt for another term; Pastor is probably the most accepted, and probably the most helpful thing that can be said to summarize our understanding of the Pastor’s role is that the word literally means ‘shepherd’ – one who is entrusted with the care of Christ’s flock.  For more discussion of the title and its associated expectations see

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