Written by: Rev. Nathan Hill
“So you’re a priest.” I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard that phrase, mostly from family and friends I knew in High School and were shocked by my seemingly abrupt change of career choice. My response usually goes something like this: “No, I’m not a priest—but I work at a church and take care of programs for youth, music, and Sunday gatherings…things like that.”
I am a pastor—but if you think I am a priest you probably do not know what a pastor is either and so correcting your language will not help you understand what I do. After all, Catholics have priests, Anglicans have priests, the Eastern Orthodox Church has priests—so why do the rest of us Protestants have to be different and have pastors?
The answer is actually quite simple. A priest does spiritual things on behalf of another person—they function as intermediaries between an individual and God. A pastor, on the other hand, guides people on their own spiritual pursuits—they stand on the side and encourage an individual in their direct connection with God. Given the New Testament theological context, it seems most proper that priests ought to begin to function more as pastors. The veil was torn in the temple when Christ died, facilitating a direct connection with God for every believer. No longer must we rely completely and solely on the prayers of someone else on our behalf, on the reading and teaching of Scripture by someone else, and on the discernment of another person concerning what God would have us do. Rather, we can access those very things ourselves, with the assistance/guidance/leadership of pastors and other Christian brothers and sisters alongside of us.
Now, before we wrap this up and pat ourselves on the back for being a good church with a good pastor, let me suggest that while many Protestant churches call their leadership pastors, many times we have a functional priesthood going by a different name. What do I mean by that? Many times we rely on the pastoral leadership at our church to carry the spiritual weight of our lives…which means we are treating them like priests.
Lets do a quick test. Have you opened your bible since church on Sunday? Have you spent any period of time in prayer since church on Sunday (aside from mealtime prayers). Have you exercised compassion, kindness, love, joy, or another Christian virtue since Sunday? Have you listened to worship music and spent a moment praising God since Sunday? If you answered no to any of these questions you might be relying too much on your pastoral team to function as your priest—the one who does all of the spiritual work on your behalf and provides all the spiritual opportunities in your life.
The transition from priesthood in the Old Testament to pastoral leadership (and indeed apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers as Ephesians 4 describes) is one of the great blessings that we are heir to in the church today. The saints we read of in the Old Testament would have been envious of our ability to commune with God and to have the Holy Spirit indwelling us on a continual basis each and every day. So, lets not revert to a system of the old ways. Rather, live every day connected with God in your own right. Live every day with an ear to what the Spirit would have you do. Practice your spirituality regularly, and then celebrate with the overflow of what God has done when you gather on Sunday.
A faith that operates only on Sunday cannot sustain us in this New Testament era. Cast aside the functional priesthood that we have allowed to creep into our churches and empower your pastors to be just that—pastors, not priests.