In keeping with the theology of the Old Testament, some Christian churches (including many Lutheran ones)[i] have retained the custom of referring to clergy as “priests.” Now it is not my purpose to argue for a return to this terminology or to disparage the use of the designation “pastor.” However, when we react against this terminology as if it were from the devil, we operate with a deficient understanding of pastoral ministry.
In my own mind there has been wall of separation between the word “priest” and anything that our Lord might expect of a pastor. Part of this is because I was raised Roman Catholic, and that fact in itself has sometimes made Lutherans suspicious of me.[ii] Worse, I desire to retain the historic liturgy and customs of the Church.[iii] It’s no wonder I’ve sometimes been accused by Lutherans of being “too catholic”!
Practice shapes the way we think, and I’m no exception to this. I have never belonged to a Lutheran congregation where a pastor was thought of as a priest, much less called one. The oft-given rationale for this is what Old Testament priests did is no longer valid in the New Testament (e.g., we no longer offer animal sacrifices). Occasionally I’ve even heard that any association between pastors and priests is a denial that Christ has offered the once-for-all sacrifice and robs us of the Gospel!
This despite the well-known apostolic designation of New Testament believers as a “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). Granted our sacrifices are spiritual (e.g., intercessory prayer, praise, etc.), but they are sacrifices nevertheless. What’s more, a priest was required to continually appear in the presence of God on behalf of others. Are these things not still essential aspects of the Christian life? If living in the presence of God and intercession are expected of Christians in general, how much more of those whose vocation it is to bring the gifts of God to bear in the lives of Christ’s flock?
The use of the term “pastor” is surely a beneficial custom. Our Lord Himself is the Good Shepherd. What an honor describes the pastoral task in these terms (St. John 21:15–17)! But we lose something important when we focus on the image of tending to the exclusion of other vital functions of pastoral ministry.
When we divorce the idea of priesthood from the pastoral office, pastoral ministry can become a secular job rather than a holy vocation.[iv] In the pastor-as-shepherd model, the burden of the work can easily shift from Christ to the pastor. Sometimes we forget the pastor is the undershepherd, and that the work of feeding actually belongs to Christ. The pastor is there to hand over what has been received (1 Corinthians 11:23). This becomes difficult, if not impossible, when pastors get so busy feeding that they forget to eat!
When the priestly function of pastoral ministry is neglected, the pastor can forget how important it is to appear before God both on behalf of himself and others. Just as there is continuity between the work of the Good Shepherd and pastors, so also there is continuity between the work of the Great High Priest and His priests. When pastors fail to exercise priestly service, neither the pastor nor his congregation receive necessary spiritual care.
Whether or not the term “priest” is used for clergy isn’t the point. What matters is that the pastor is appearing before God on behalf of himself and those whom he serves. A closer identification of the pastoral office with the priesthood can only aid in our recovery of this important practice.
[ii] This despite the fact that my experience of Roman Catholicism was anything but high church. Many of the Roman services I attended in my childhood were led by guitar and could be characterized as folk mass.
[iii] “Worse”, of course, in the minds of those who despise the catholicity of the Church.
[iv] This is Eugene Peterson’s language. See his Under the Unpredictable Plant. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.