December 10, 2005

Priests and Pastors

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

In the polemics between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, the former often insist that pastors are not priests. Priests, it is said, are mediators between God and man, and we now have only one such mediator, the man Jesus Christ. A pastor is a shepherd, not a mediator, and therefore he is not a priest.

It may be true that a pastor is not a priest in some specifically Roman Catholic sense. I haven’t studied the Roman Catholic teaching concerning the priesthood, and that isn’t my point here. What I’m interested in is whether the description in the first paragraph is accurate biblically.

The Bible does indeed say that we have “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). But does that mean that we no longer have priests? That doesn’t seem to be the case.

First, in 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul is not saying, “In the Old Covenant there were many mediators, many priests, but now we have only one.” Given the references to Moses as the Mediator of the Old Covenant and Jesus as the Mediator of the New (Gal. 3:19, 20 [2x]; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), it may be the case that Paul is contrasting Moses and Jesus: Moses is no longer the mediator we should be looking to; Jesus is the one mediator, and therefore we must not go back to the Torah as if we were still living under the Old Covenant. Maybe. But even if that is the case, priests aren’t the issue here.

Second, we often speak about “the priesthood of all believers.” As Peter Leithart has shown in The Priesthood of the Plebs, in Hebrews 10 baptism is presented as priestly ordination. If a priest is by definition a mediator between God and man and all of us who have been baptized into Christ are priests, then all of us are mediators between God and man and (in that sense) rivals to Jesus Christ the one mediator. But that isn’t the case, and therefore we cannot define “priest” in such a way as to make the presence of priests today conflict with Christ’s sole mediatorship.

Third, what were the duties of priests in the Old Covenant? They don’t exactly appear to be mediators. As Leithart has shown, priests were primarily housekeepers. They cooked God’s food, guarded access to God’s house, made sure the house was lit, smelled nice, had bread on the table, was kept clean, and worked to see that God’s people (who are also God’s house, represented by the tabernacle and temple) were taught, kept clean, and so forth. Priests are God’s chefs, guards, housekeepers: servants in His royal retinue.

But if that’s the case, then, as James Jordan says in From Bread to Wine, “the Biblical office of priest is virtually identical to that of pastor or minister in the New Covenant church: He teaches God’s Word, supervises religious meals, and organizes/disciplines the people for worship” (p. 11). Perhaps that’s why Paul draws parallels between pastors who labour in the gospel and priests in the Old Covenant (1 Cor. 9:13 in context).

Now that doesn’t address all the issues between Protestants and Roman Catholics over the matter of priesthood, but understanding the biblical role of priests may help us not attack straw men. The whole congregation is made up of priests who draw near with boldness to stand before God and serve Him (Heb. 10), but God also appoints men to serve the congregation as special priests, that is, special servants, who teach His Word, supervise His Supper, and organize the people to serve Him.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:36 pm | Discuss (0)

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