A Pastor, a Priest and a Minister walk into a bar . . .
Sounds like the set-up to a joke, right?
But what if the joke is that all three characters are the same person.
One of the simplest but most immediately obvious things that separates church goers from one tradition from those in another is what they call the person standing in front of the congregation on Sunday morning. I’m not talking about their job title – while it may actually be what they call them – I’m talking about what they call them to their face, when they introduce themselves to them, when they introduce them to other people.
Have you met Pastor Smith?
O, hey Father John!
This is Barbara, she’s the Priest at our church.
Good afternoon, I’m Bishop Don.
Pardon me, Reverend.
This is Jay.
How we talk about the person up front says an awful lot about how we think about both our work and theirs in the life of the church. It may say something about how we view the ministry as a whole or specific ministers as they ply their ministry. It may even tip our hand to our own experiences, both positive and negative, of the church in the past. Like everything in the church, these names are sacred, they are usually long-held and the stuff of habit, and they are deeply, deeply traditional, whether we personally place any value on tradition or not.
So, let’s explore the origins of some of these names, shall we?
It is difficult to tell, from a cursory reading of the Bible, whether or not titles were used for religious leaders in the Ancient near east. Neither is it clear how people addressed or referred to people in polite society. Biblical dialogues just don’t work that way. What is clear is that there was some differentiation of roles within the Temple/Synagogue community and that titles seemed to have something to do with function. For example, there were priests in the Temple – headed by one or more high-priests and there were rabbis, or teachers, in the synagogue. Both of these groups seemed to be set apart for their work and, to the extent that the Temple and the Synagogue were different expressions of the same religious tradition (but that’ll be the topic of another post) they did not exist within the same hierarchy.
Interestingly, however, they were both equally part of the Early christian experience and did their own part in shaping what would qualify as leadership within both the nacent and later church.
The earliest expressions of Christianity take their lead, form and shape from the Synagogue tradition in Judaism and have a self understanding that is over and against Temple Judaism. Jesus is the “great high priest” and the communities that gather all share the same priest. Teaching and management of the household of faith is generally entrusted to the “Elders” of the community – that is those with either the most physical age or, at least, the most experience in the faith. The Greek word for “elder” is “presbyter”, from which we get the notion of Presbyterian – a denomination with a self-understanding of being lead by its ordained elders.
If and when there was any larger organization of the church – in cities or regions – guidance for several congregations was usually entrusted to “overseers” who functioned as teachers and guides in the place of the Apostles and missionaries who founded the church. The Greek word for “overseer” is “episcopos”, from which we get both the word Episcopal and, if you say it real fast and imagine the “telephone game” from your youth, bishop.
As the church grew in both influence and scale, the roles and titles of various people in its ranks changed as well. An organization with a more formal way of being together – like a church or even a civil government – requires “ministers” to administer both rites and community.
The origins of ‘pastor’ as a title for a church leader are a little more complex. Though the biblical roots for the symbolism of shepherds and shepherding are clear, how they apply to individuals (other than Jesus) is a little murky. Beginning with David, Old Testament references to shepherds and shepherding of God’s people speak mostly about the kings than they do about religious leaders. Similarly, while Jesus’ statement about his being ‘the good shepherd’ might seem very caring and pastoral, it is loaded with as much emphasis on his kingship as anything else. Moreover, the thrust of Jesus’ shepherding statements is, like the author of Hebrews statement about Jesus’ priesthood, much about his unique role in God’s economy and his LACK of need to share it. Remember, “there will be one flock, under one shepherd.”
Problems of biblical interpretation aside, the use of ‘pastor’ to describe christian leaders seems to increase drastically after the reformation and be used as a substitute for the title ‘priest’ which bore too much of the weight of Roman Catholicism to be of any use in the new traditions. I think it’s a good title, and as I mentioned above, has done as much to shape the contemporary expectations of the church about what their leaders should be doing as it ever described what they historically done.
Which leaves us with “priest.” Though it may seem to even more flagrantly fly in the face of both biblical theology (Jesus as our only mediator) and the deep traditions of the church (over and against Temple Judaism), the origins of the term are far more simple. Here we simply have the case of a single English word being used to translate two different ancient words. On the one hand, priest can translate ‘heireus’, a religious mediator and conductor of sacrifices. On the other hand, it can be a more devolved transcription of ‘presbyter’ (remember, we somehow got ‘bishop’ from ‘episcopos’) and keep much closer to the common tradition.
We have yet to address Reverend, Padre, Vicar, Father, Chaplain, Deacon or Curate. But I think this post has gone on long enough. At the end of the day, remember that what you call your religious leader is a matter of personal theology and personal preference. And, no matter what you call them, call them once in a while. They want to hear from you.