He Is A Pastor, Not A Priest

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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  1. The word Priest has 3 meanings:
    1. Offerer of Sacrifices: All believers are that (especially as regards the scrifice of praise), including believing Priests in the Church of England,
    2. Presbyter,
    and 3. President (as at the Lord’s Supper.
    English tranlations of the Scriptures and, following them, theologians, only use the word in the first sense.
    However, English Canon Law uses the word in a sort of hybrid of the 2nd and 3rd meanings. This usage by Canon Law is, unfortunately, older than our English Scriptures, so, unfortunately, if we have fellowship with believing Anglicans, we just have to live with it – it is a pain!
    At least they ARE priests of the first kind, in the sense that all believers are.

  2. Being in the PCA, it’s always bugged me that, within certain pockets in the denomination, there are ministers who wear clerical collars. I don’t profess to know their motivations for doing so, but it certainly comes across (to me anyways) as a desire to be seen as more than a “mere” servant of the Word.

    • Interestingly there is anecdotal evidence that the original clerical collar (the full band around the neck) originated in the Church of Scotland. It appears to have been more prevalent in England and wasn’t until the turn of the 18th Century that the RC adopted it and changed it to the tab. Looking at portraits of Protestant ministers from of old, there were a great many that seemed to wear a collar of some sort as a mark of their station – be it a full dog collar or a white cravat or what were called “preaching tabs” that hung down from the collar. John Owen, Thomas Chalmers, and even Charles Hodge are all pictured wearing some form of what can be called a clerical collar.

    • The history and meaning of the dog collar is quite obscure – I don’t think it has ever had an offical status in any denomination.
      Another church accoutrement with a hazy background is the title Reverend. I once heard a former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, say on the radio that mediaevally, Reverend was the lord of the manor and Sir was the parish priest, with the two terms exchanging places some time during the Reformation. The only reason I have for believing him to be right about some instances is John Bradford’s reference, in his “The Hurt of Hearing Mass”, to the local monstrancity-carrying priest as “Sir John”.
      In the UK, any old Tom Dick or Harry is legally entitled to style himself Reverend. I gather that this is not always the case in some other countries.

    • Steve, the original Scottish collar is referred to as a bow tie – but you have to look at it quite closely to realise it’s not a dog collar, because the bow is white and pretty small, not extending beyond the inner edge of the collar. This is what Free Presbyterian ministers often wear at communions.

  3. Scott,
    I appreciate much of what you are saying here, but you make the common mistake of identifying priesthood with sacrifice (only), which is not what the Bible teaches. In the OT, in addition to sacrifices, priests used the Urim and Thummim and taught the people torah (Deut. 33:9-11). The latter is part of the ministry of the Word that ministers are called to, expounding the sacred history and applying it to people’s lives. In particular, the priests (the sons of Aaron) had the responsibility of benediction (see Num. 6:23-27). Benediction was probably not part of the synagogue service until after the fall of the temple in 70 AD. The Reformed practice is that the first thing a newly ordained minister does is to pronounce the benediction, which only makes sense in terms of seeing the minister as in some sense a priest.

    If you remember Clowney’s pyramid, he argues that there is a general sense in which all believers are prophets, priests and kings; there is also a special office aspect of the roles of prophet, priest and king, and Jesus possesses the fullness of these offices. I’d draw some different lines as to which duties belong to prophets and priests than some, but I think it’s a mistake to eliminate completely the priestly role of the pastor.

    • Hi Iain,

      Did I not quote and address Heidelberg 32?

      Another correspondent wrote privately to say that I should have addressed Romans 15:15b–6, which I should have done:

      …because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (εἰς τὸ εἶναί με λειτουργὸν Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ) of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (ESV).

      The NASB does perhaps a better job of it with “ministering as a priest the gospel of God” but in either case here Paul clearly speaks to the priestly aspect of his ministry. Paul’s figurative invocation of the office of priest language only strengthens my conviction that those Protestant ministers who describe themselves not as ministers or pastors but as priests are wrong. Paul is referring specifically (as the NASB captures) to the figurative priestly aspect of his work handling the Word. He’s not offering lambs or bulls and he’s not performing magic over the sacramental elements.

      The principal part of the pastoral vocation is prophetic but I am not a prophet. There is a diaconal aspect to pastoral ministry (and I am a deacon of the Word and sacraments to be sure) but I am not a deacon proper. I understand that there are polities in which pastors begin as deacons but I’m not addressing that here. I do cooperate with the elders in ruling the church but I am not a ruler/king. Yes, there is a priestly aspect to my work as pastor but when someone asks what I am or what I do, I don’t say “priest.”

      Yes, priests did more than offer sacrifices but it seems like almost like quibbling to point that out in light of the way the NT characterizes the priestly office especially in Hebrews.

      What would the writer of Hebrews say to a minister who, when identifying his office, did not describe or characterize himself as a pastor but as a a priest? How, in light of Hebrews, would that not be a regression to types and shadows?

      That’s the burden of my essay: to call pastors back from the brink of sacerdotalism, to find the significance of their office in something other than in the service of the Word.

  4. I don’t know Greek, but a cursory examination of Strong’s Greek says that the root of “archiereus” is “hiereus.” Does “hiereus” carry the mediatory connotation of the OT office? In other words, would we render an OT priest as “hiereus” in Greek while “presbuteros” would be used only for NT presbyters? What’s the relationship between these two words?

    • Zach,

      As Dr Duguid noted, the mediatorial function is one (and I would say major) function of the priestly office. The word presbyter signals “elder,” not “mediator,” or “one who offers sacrifices.” Obviously, to the degree a presbyter and a priest both have teaching functions there is overlap but the predominant functions of the office are distinct. There’s nothing in the NT to make us think that a presbyter does the word of a priest as sketched in Leviticus. His function is predominantly to supervise the life and ministry of the church.

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