I graduated from a Lutheran college (now a university) where I learned a lot about the Reformation. As a Baptist, I especially enjoyed learning about how the reformers railed against the inappropriate practices of the Catholic Church, including problems related to priesthood. As one who holds firmly to the tenet of “priesthood of all believers” it might sound odd that I would promote the notion of pastors as priests. But I do believe all pastors have a priestly function (alongside a prophetic and a kingly).
I was re-reading Thomas Oden’s book Pastoral Theology last week and ran across this,
“The Christian ministry of word and sacrament unites and transmutes two venerable offices of the older Hebraic tradition: prophet and priest. This is the crucial difference between them: The prophet spoke for God to the people. The priest spoke for the people to God.”
That’s not a bad nutshell description of what an Old Testament priest did. My only contention is that the priests did more than speak; they acted on behalf of the people. The priests offered sacrifices to God on behalf of sinful people. Similarly, Christ, the great and truest High Priest, serves as a mediator between the people and God, lobbying on our behalf through this perfection. He does more than speak; he acts in order to restore the relationship between wayward and broken people and a perfect God.
In my tradition, we are very keen on the idea that all Christ-followers are priests. While that may be true, it does not negate the fact that pastors are also called to a priestly duty. And every church needs the priestly office fulfilled in order to be a healthy and vibrant body of Christ.
What then does it mean to say that a pastor fulfills a priestly role? Here are three priestly functions:
- Pastors should be present for congregants during the significant life moments, bringing God’s counsel and blessing to birth, baptism, marriage and death. I fear that too many of today’s pastors outsource these meaningful moments to others in the body. I’m not one to suggest that the lead or senior pastor must officiate every wedding, perform every baptism, or conduct every funeral that occurs in the life of the congregation, but I would suggest that a good pastor is present for at least some, if not most, of these occasions.
- Pastors should preside over the Lord’s Supper. This is a priestly function, if ever there was one, and pastors should not outsource Communion to others. Practically speaking, no matter the size of a church, the pastor cannot serve every person who is present. Nor should he try to do so. But the pastor should preside over the ordinance in a way that brings significance to the moment and brings God’s blessing to those who share the occasion. I know of too many churches that play fast and loose with Communion (no, you should not use Dr. Pepper and Goldfish crackers for Communion even if you are at youth camp.). Such efforts to humanize the practice miss the mark, and we need somber pastors who will ensure that Communion is holy.
- Pastors should provide counsel to those who are in need. Pastors provide counsel in two ways. First, every pastor should be able to provide some level of healing to those he shepherds. This goes beyond providing words of comfort; pastors should bring the healing presence of Christ through practices such as prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. Wise pastors also know when a church member needs professional therapy and develop a strong referral system for such occasions. Second, pastors provide words of wisdom, comfort, Biblical advice and discipline to those in need. Healing and wisdom must not be confined to the church building or special services – these are duties that are also fulfilled in homes and hospitals.
I’ve noticed that as a church grows it becomes more and more difficult for a pastor to serve the priestly role since this role requires a lot of one-on-one time. No matter how large the church, the pastor is responsible for these priestly duties – either by fulfilling the duties himself or by equipping others to do them well. It’s tempting to hand off these responsibilities to small group leaders, Sunday school teachers or untrained deacons. But doing so is not wise, nor is warranted. A pastor must not abdicate these duties; he is still ultimately the one who is responsible, even if he has equipped others to participate and to lead.
If the pastor gets too far removed from meeting the priestly needs of church members, he risks losing sight of the hurts, hopes and highlights that make up the congregation’s life. Pastors who engage the full life of their congregation will see strong connections between the lives they live and the truth of scripture, helping them find Christ in the midst of suffering and success. When a pastor does this, he promotes gospel-centered living – for church members and for himself.