One of the great temptations that reporters face, especially as they become famous (or notorious), is the temptation to think that they are part of the story or that they are in charge of the story. In other words, it is tempting, some might say easy, to get bored with merely gathering the facts, getting them right, and then reporting the news so that the public, politicians, and policy makers can act accordingly. This is one reason why it is so difficult to find old-school, “straight news” reporters.
Moving On From Mere Ministry?
A similar thing can happen in pastoral ministry in the confessional Protestant traditions. Their vocation is right there in the name: “Pastoral ministry.” Our English word pastor is really the Latin noun for shepherd. You might see photos or paintings of what are said to be “pastoral” settings. A pasture is where livestock graze and it is the pastor’s calling to guide, guard, and feed the livestock. The noun ministry is from another Latin noun, minister. It means servant. It is the Latin translation for deacon in the Vulgate, the Latin Bible of the Medieval church. In Reformed church polity, the Pastor is the minister of the Word, i.e., the servant of the Word, and the Deacon is the minister of the physical needs of the congregation. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, some pastors appended the letters V.D.M. to their name. “The Rev. Mr. So-and-So, V.D.M.” Those letters stood for “Verbi Dei Minister, servant of the Word of God. That’s a fine title and one that we should probably return to using.
Sometimes, however, pastors become weary of being mere servants of God’s Word and they give into the temptation to give themselves a more elevated sounding title. The Anglicans are very good at this. They have all sorts of titles for unordained and ordained offices in the church. Depending on local circumstances a pastor might also be a vicar, a rector, a canon, or a dean. One of the titles that some in the Protestant traditions sometimes take to themselves is “priest.” This happens in other traditions too but among Protestants it seems to crop up most often. Indeed, in the website linked above, it is given as one of the three basic offices of the church (the others being bishop and deacon).
The Problem With Priests
Why should not a Protestant minister call himself a priest? After all, the Oxford English Dictionary says that our English word priest is derived from the Latin word presbyter, (which itself is borrowed from the Greek noun, πρεσβύτερος). A Presbyter is a biblical office (e.g., Acts 20:17; 1 Peter 5:1; James 5:14). It is usually translated as “elder.” So, what is the problem?
The first problem is that we use the word priest to translate the Hebrew word (e.g., Lev 1:7; Cohen; ἱερεῖς in the LXX) for the official charged with the responsibility of offering sacrifices. That office was essential to the period of types and shadows (i.e., Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets). Along with the Kings and the Prophets, the Priests held a divinely instituted office that was identified with the shedding of the blood of bulls and goats. This is not arbitrary. It is literally the first thing the Book of Leviticus says: “and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar…” (ESV). To be sure, the Levitical priests performed other functions but their central and essential function, the thing they were meant to do, which the other two offices were not meant to do, was to reconcile the people to God and God to the people through the shedding of blood.
This function has been fulfilled by Christ. There is probably no more important theme to the Epistle to the Hebrews than the theme that Jesus is our High Priest. The Jewish Christians, probably in Jerusalem, were very tempted to go back to the types and shadows. This going back, this retrogression, was an apostasy from Christ. He is the High Priest. He is the Melchizedekian priest. He is the priest who was before all the other priests. Indeed, he is the temple. He is the sacrifice. The whole Levitical cultus (worship and religious rituals) was an illustration of Christ. It pointed upward to heavenly realities and forward to Christ. Hebrews 3:1–6 teaches us that Moses worked for Christ. He was looking forward to Christ (Heb 11:26) but he was only a servant in the house. Christ is the owner of the house. In the same way, Aaron worked for Jesus. The whole function of the Levitical ministry was to point to Christ. According to Hebrews, after Christ, the Levitical priesthood is finished. This is the great burden of Hebrews chapters 7–10. After Christ, to go back to the Levitical priesthood is to crucify Christ all over again. It is to trample underfoot the sacred blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29).
Now, it is true that Christ is our Prophet, Priest, and King. We confess:
31. Why is He called CHRIST, that is Anointed?
Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.
It is also true that all Christians, by virtue of their union with Christ are also prophets, priests, and kings. So, in Heidelberg Catechism 32 we confess:
Because by faith I am a member of Christ and thus a partaker of his anointing, in order that I also may confess his name, may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and that with a free conscience I may fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter in eternity reign with Him over all creatures.
These truths are not in question, however. What is before us is whether it is proper for a Protestant minister (or even a Roman minister or a minister in the Eastern churches for that matter) to refer to his office as that of priest? The answer to this question is no. Whatever the Roman ministers and some Anglican ministers may call themselves, there are no more priests. There are no more offerings. Christ died “once for all” (Rom 6:10; Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). Scripture says, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…” (Heb 10:12; ESV).
Because Christ is the last, greatest, and final High Priest, we have assurance. The Jews were still looking at the priest who made the daily offering, who had to make a sacrifice for his own sins. Jesus was sinless! He made the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Thus, “…we have a great priest over the house of God” (Heb 10:21; ESV). We have assurance. It is finished. We have no need of a mere human mediator since we have Jesus, true man, our elder brother (Heb 2:11–17), who understands our infirmities and temptations (Heb 4:15) and yet without sin. He is true man and true God, who has the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7:16).
This is why there is no New Testament office of “priest.” There are is a NT office of “presbyter,” but that refers to (ruling) elders, who fulfill the ruling function of Christ’s threefold office. The NT presbyters do not offer literal sacrifices nor do they offer figurative or memorial sacrifices beyond the sacrifice of praise that all Christians offer. This is why English translations typically do not use the word “priest” to translate “presbyter.” It would be endlessly confusing. The translate it as elder. We also have the office of “pastor,” is derived from Christ’s office as “Chief Shepherd” (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 5:4). Paul was a minister (Eph 3:7). Tychicus (Eph 6:21; Col 4:7) was a minister. Timothy was a pastor, as was Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25). Epaphras was a minister (Col 1:7). Timothy was a minister (1 Tim 4:6). The indications are that Titus was a pastor or minister. Never are these pastors and ministers described as priests.
In his epistles to Timothy and Titus, Paul gives exhortations and instructions about how to find elders and deacons, how to instruct the flock, how conduct worship services, to stand for the faith, to preach the Word when it is fashionable and when it is not, but never, not once did he instruct Timothy or Titus (or any of the several other ministers already mentioned) about how to make a literal or memorial sacrifice. This is one of the great offenses of the Roman communion, that they have resurrected the priesthood from the dead and would have us think that God has endowed them with magical powers to turn bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ where with they think they can make a propitiatory (i.e., wrath-turning), memorial sacrifice. There is reason why the Reformed churches condemn such hubris as a “damnable idolatry” (Heidelberg 80).
In fact, there is a word for the attempt to turn the pastoral ministry into a new priesthood: sacerdotalism. That is yet another Latin word that we have borrowed in English. A sacerdos is a priest. Sacerdotalism describes the attempt to turn ordinary ministry into priestcraft. The OED captures this perfectly: “Now often used as the epithet of doctrines that assert the existence in the Christian church of an order of priests charged with sacrificial functions and invested with supernatural powers transmitted to them in ordination.”
Christ has supernatural powers. No minister has supernatural powers transmitted to them at ordination. Ministers are given certain authority to announce God’s Law and God’s Gospel. They are given authority to administer the sacraments but they have no power to make bread and wine into anything other than bread and wine nor have they power to turn baptism into anything more than what it is: a sacrament. Fundamentally, ministers and pastors announce. They report. They do not create. God creates. God saves. He uses the ministry of the Word to accomplish his purposes and he uses the sacraments to confirm his promises, but he has no need of earthly priests nor of priestcraft. Jesus has done all the priestwork for us and he is doing his priestly work for us know, in the holy of holies as our representative. We only need our pastors to remind us of that glorious fact.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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