In my last post, I cautioned against using the biblical titles of Prophet, Priest, and King to describe the role of a pastor. My goal is not to quibble over terminology; I know most pastors who use those terms intend them to express the genuine pastoral tasks of teaching, caring, and leading. But I am convinced that such a use is confusing, both because it departs from the biblical meaning of those titles in some significant ways, and because it can reinforce some common misconceptions of what a pastor is.
I have already explained how it’s inappropriate to confuse pastoral ministry with the biblical office of Prophet. This post continues with an exploration of the differences between pastors and the offices of Priest and King.
A pastor is not a priest. A pastor certainly is called to attend to and care for the spiritual needs of his flock. But calling this “priestly” ministry is confusing on two counts. First, this work of caring for others was not the role of priests in the Old Testament. In biblical categories, a priest “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1). A priest was an official mediator, representing and interceding for the people in the worship of the temple. The entire book of Hebrews is an explanation of how Jesus fulfills and surpasses the priesthood of the old covenant in this sense. This priestly role is then extended to all believers, as we offer ourselves to God (Romans 12:1) in lives of praise to God and service to others (Hebrew 13:15-16). This means that we all may approach God directly, both on our own behalf and on behalf of other believers. We have “confident access” to God in Christ (Ephesians 3:12).
So, calling a pastor a “priest” because he cares for people misses the biblical picture of what a priest is. This confusion may stem from the fact that Roman Catholic priests perform pastoral care, which brings us to the second kind of confusion that arises when an evangelical pastor calls himself a “priest.” Catholic pastors are called “priests” because of the traditional teaching that the Lord’s Supper is an atoning sacrifice which can only be performed through the miraculous grace bestowed on ordained clergy. This is taught nowhere in Scripture, which is why the reformers rejected “priest” as a special clerical title. Calling the caring work of a pastor “priestly” thus not only departs from biblical categories of priesthood, but it risks blurring the difference between the biblical model of pastoral elders and traditional conceptions of a special clerical caste distinct from ordinary, “lay” Christians.
Being a pastor does not make me a priest. Caring for the flock certainly is part of pastoral work, but that is not the biblical conception of priesthood. Ordination does not confer some special access to God which other believers do not have. Every believer is a priest before God through Christ.
Finally, a pastor is not a king. Too many pastors have failed to recognize this, and their arrogant abuse of authority has led to the wounding or even dissolution of too many churches. The elders of the church do indeed have real authority within the church, and believers are called to respect, submit to, and even obey those God has placed in those positions of leadership (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:16; Hebrews 13:17). But this authority – like all authority – must yield to the authority of God himself (Acts 4:19-20). In any case, the relationship between a pastor and other Christians is not that of king to subject, nor of father to child, nor even of teacher to student, but of brother to brother (Matthew 23:8-12). Pastors are to lead not by domination, but by example (1 Peter 5:3). My role as pastor does not place me above other believers, but below them as their servant.
I am not a prophet, nor a priest, nor a king. Those are Jesus’ job titles. He is the one through whom God has spoken his ultimate revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). He is the one whose sacrifice gives us access to God (Ephesians 2:18). He is the one who rules over the church, enthroned at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20-23).
But, as a pastor, I do share one title with Jesus. “Pastor” is just the Latin word for “shepherd.” Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King, does care for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep. He feeds us on his word, supports us in our struggles, and leads and directs us in obedience to him. As I serve as an elder and overseer of a local congregation, I also am called to feed, tend, and lead the flock of God in obedience to Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). In doing this I advance not my own kingdom, but his, as long as I preach not my own word, but the word of God’s grace, which alone is able to build up the church (Acts 20:32).
That’s what it means to be a pastor.
Image Credit: Furniture of the Tabernacle, By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons