“For every high priest taken from among men is appointed in matters pertaining to God for the people, to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he is also clothed with weakness. Because of this, he must make an offering for his own sins as well as for the people. No one takes this honor on himself; instead, a person is called by God, just as Aaron was.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Being a pastor can be confusing. It’s not necessarily confusing for me. I know who I am and what I’m doing (well, at least the first one most of the time). It’s confusing for everyone else. For instance, what should I be called? In my particular faith tradition, there are several options. Which one gets used depends on the circumstances and who’s talking to me. I have at various times been called “pastor,” “preacher,” “reverend,” and even “father” or “priest” by someone who was raised Catholic and really didn’t have a frame of reference beyond that (although, admittedly, my favorite has been a man who unfailingly calls me “Rabbi”). Which is right and what do they mean? What got me thinking about all of this is a description of the high priest here at the opening of Hebrews 5. Let’s talk about it.
This bit of text really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you go all the way back to the beginning of chapter 3. There, the author began making a comparison between Jesus and Moses, arguing that the former is indisputably greater than the latter. Almost as soon as he sets up this comparison, though, he shifts gears and offers a warning against falling away from the faith in light of Jesus’ position as our great high priest. This turns into an excursus on Psalm 95 and an exploration of the rest of God we don’t want to miss out on. At long last, that’s what we finished talking about yesterday morning. Finally getting back to his main argument here, the author begins to explain how and why Jesus is a high priest. In order to do that, he starts by explaining the nature and idea of a priest in general.
The priestly language throughout the New Testament actually poses a challenge for many modern believers. Whether or not we are aware of that challenge is another matter, but it’s there all the same if we are willing to give it much in the way of thought. Here’s why: What the various authors of the New Testament had in mind when they spoke about a priest was typically a Jewish priest. The danger in their talking about priests, though, is that we too often hear them through the lens of a modern, Protestant pastor. It’s not wrong to talk about either individual but conflating them can lead to confusion that doesn’t serve anyone well.
A modern pastor and a Jewish priest are two very different roles. A priest represented the people to God. More specifically, he was rigorously trained in performing various religious rituals and by those representing the people before God so they didn’t all have to learn and do it on their own. In order for the people to engage with the holy God of the universe, they could not do it in their normal, sinful state. Sin cannot enter into God’s presence. In His grace and mercy, though, God gave the people of Israel a variety of rituals to perform to fix the problem. But the rituals were intensive and complex. And the people weren’t exactly all that good about staying on the straight and narrow. So, they needed help. They needed someone who had mastered the rituals, who kept himself pure and clean before God by them, and who could represent them to God when they weren’t able to do it for themselves. Thus the priest.
A pastor, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word for shepherd. A pastor does not represent his people to God. That’s their job. A pastor’s job is to lead the people – to shepherd them – in the direction of becoming more and more adept at representing themselves before God. Just like a shepherd with a flock, a pastor works to provide his people the spiritual nourishment they need to grow strong and healthy. He leads them to new pastures when the season is right. He stands in the gap when attacks come against them and will even lay down his life if necessary to defend them.
A confusion on the part of modern followers of Jesus here has led to no small number of them thinking about their pastors in terms that rightly apply to ancient Jewish priests, not modern pastors. This has resulted in two different outcomes, neither of them particularly positive. On the one hand, some pastors try to meet with these expectations. They try to represent the people before God. They focus their efforts and energies into performing various rituals they were never intended to perform for others. They take on more burdens than God planned for them to bear. And the result of this has generally been churches who are fiercely loyal to their pastors, but which are filled with people who are entitled and spiritually immature as the pastor’s maturity doesn’t migrate to them magically. On the other hand, some pastors have recognized their God-given roles as outlined in the New Testament and lovingly (or sometimes not so lovingly) refused to meet them. This has resulted in a great deal of frustration on the part of church members who are thinking wrongly. It has gotten not a few pastors fired, left trying to find a congregation who is spiritually mature enough to hire them.
So, the difference between the ancient Jewish priest and the modern Protestant pastor is something about which we need to generally be a great deal clearer than we often are. But what about all the different titles we give to church leaders today? There are pastors, yes, but there are also priests in some traditions along with reverends, bishops, deacons, and presbyters. How do we know who is what and why? And does it even matter?
Honestly, a significant part of why certain guys or gals get certain titles is preference. Whether someone calls me “preacher” or “pastor” or just “Jonathan” depends on their personal preference. Some folks were raised by parents who drove into their heads the importance and necessity of titles for various professions, ministers being one of them. While I am perfectly okay with “Jonathan,” and even prefer it over the various other options, some people can’t imagine not referring to me as “Pastor Jonathan” or “Pastor Waits” or simply “Pastor.” I used to try to fight against this because I really do prefer “Jonathan,” but after a while it dawned on me that this was more a matter of my stubbornness and pride than anything else, so I let it go. And for my member who calls me “Rabbi,” it really is for him a term of endearment and, honestly, I love it. He’s thumbing his nose at history and tradition while acknowledging the role I am privileged to play in his life. I’ll take it.
The two other major contributing factors here are tradition and theology. As each different tradition within the broader stream of Christianity has developed, they’ve each developed their own Scripturally-rooted theology about the roles of their various faith leaders and what to call them. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hierarchies were obviously the first to develop and they kept the language of “priest,” mostly as a holdover from church leaders having been given that title in the earliest days of the church when Jewish background believers kept that language in place thanks to their being already accustomed to it. Additionally, when mass numbers of Gentiles began entering the church, they were used to calling their religious leaders priests as well. Priests were the ordained leaders who served individual congregations. Above them were bishops or overseers who were responsible for groups of congregations, providing guidance to several congregations at the same time. My own Baptist tradition does not have anything like a bishop position in its hierarchy thanks to our rather radical insistence on the autonomy of each local church. Denominational leaders sort of function in that role, but they don’t have anything like the powers of a bishop over a local pastor or congregation.
A presbyter or elder is not technically a pastor (or priest) at all, but rather a member of the laity who has been ordained to the role of providing oversight as part of a steering team or committee to a church or a group of churches, again depending on the tradition. The role of a presbyter and a deacon can sometimes become confused both in definition and in practice. The presbytery, though, is primarily about providing oversight and spiritual direction. A group of deacons, according to the Scriptures, is primarily about service.
But again, which is right, and does it matter? As far as which is right, I’m partial to my own tradition, but I’ll save thoughts on sorting out the bigger question for another time. But on the question of whether it matters, let’s think for just a second longer. This whole conversation matters because it reveals how we think about our own relationship with God. More specifically, who is responsible for your spiritual growth and ability to connect in a relationship with your heavenly Father? It’s easy to say, “Well, I am,” but taking on that burden can grow heavy over time. It’s always been tempting for us to want to lay that burden at someone else’s feet such that when there is a lack in the matter it’s not our fault. Yet the fairly clear position of guys like Paul and Peter is that our spiritual growth is our own responsibility. If there’s a lack, while that could certainly have been exacerbated by poor spiritual leadership from a church leader (or, more horribly, abuse by a church leader), but we have personal access to the Scriptures and there is no tool for spiritual growth better than that one.
More than even that, though, we have direct access to God by way of Jesus. The reason we don’t have priests any longer is that He is our priest. He is the one who permanently stands in the gap between us and God. He is like us and so can deal gently with us, but He is also God and can also by virtue of that offer us grace and mercy. He was called to this position by the Father, but because He is without sin, He isn’t burdened by the weight of His own spiritual struggles and can give our representation before the Father His complete and undivided attention.
So, whatever you happen to call the person who is leading your church (and you should call him something because you are an active part of the group he is leading), your access to God doesn’t depend on him. It isn’t conditioned on anything he does or doesn’t do. If he’s little more than mediocre at the task he is performing, you can still become fully the unique individual God created you to be because Jesus is standing in the gap for you. Trust in Him and follow the leaders He’s given you. By that, if you’ll do it faithfully, the kingdom will grow.