Priest or minister?

In the Church of England the standard term for ‘minister’ is ‘priest’. Yet the New Testament never uses the term ‘priest’ (hiereus) of any of its leaders. As Michael Green, a former Anglican college principal, pointed out many years ago, this is “simply amazing”, for the New Testament writers were steeped in the Old Testament sacrificial system, and the cities in which they and the first Christians lived were surrounded by a plethora of temples and priests, and yet never once did they call a minister ‘priest’. In the words of David Bennet:

 “We must conclude that this was not a matter of oversight, but of conscious avoidance”.

The fact is that in the New Testament the metaphor of priesthood is applied in only two ways. In the first instance, Jesus is described as our High Priest, for he is the mediator of the New Covenant: see Hebrews 7,24-27; 8.1-20; also 1 Timothy 2.5. In the second instance, the church in the sense of the whole people of God is described as a priesthood: 1 Peter 2,5,9; Revelation 5.9; and perhaps Romans 12.1. To quote from the commentary on ‘Ordained Ministry and Priesthood’ in the standard ecumenical text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry: “The New Testament never uses the term ‘priesthood’ or ‘priest’ (hiereus) to designate the ordained ministry or the ordained minister’.

To be fair, there is no one word in the New Testament for the role of a minister in today’s church – rather there is a cluster of words, one of which is presbuteros, best translated into English as ‘elder’, the Latinised form of which is ‘presbyter’ (from which we get our English word ‘Presbyterian’). I find it interesting that in the latest form of the Anglican ordination service as found in Common Worship there is the statement that priest is “also called presbyter”. Indeed, I am told that the English word ‘priest’ is etymologically derived from the Latin ‘presbyter’ – you can see that if you drop the ‘b’, ‘y’, and ‘er’ from presbyter you have something like ‘priest’. But that is highly misleading:  for the meaning of today’s English word priest is very different – as is seen in the fact that no English translation of the Bible ever translates the Greek word hiereus by the word elder or presbyter.

Furthermore, contrary to what some have sought to assert, there are not even any ‘hints’ of this word (hiereus) being used with reference to Christian ministers. It is true that Paul towards the end of Romans wrote ”of the grace given to me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15.16). Paul here likens his preaching role to that of a priest presiding over offerings presented to God, the offering consisting of Gentile lives being surrendered to God. The Good News Bible therefore translates: “I serve like a priest preaching the Good News from God, in order that the Gentiles may be an offering acceptable to God, dedicated to him by Jesus Christ”. But this has nothing to do with presiding in a worship service let alone celebrating the Eucharist at the ‘altar’.

The fact is that ‘the priesthood of ministers’ is not a concept found in Scripture: rather it is a later development. A priest, by definition, is a ‘mediator’-between God and his world: the Latin word for ‘priest’ is pontifex which literally means ‘bridge-builder’. But as Paul writes to Timothy: “there is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2.5).

So what term should we use today of the ordained? There is much to be said for the word ‘pastor’ or for the world ‘leader’. However, provided we recognise that all people are called to serve God, my preference is the more generic word ‘minister’, which comes from a Latin root and means ‘servant’, and which is at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of leadership.

2 comments

  1. How does your understanding of the idea of a Priest square with many retired Baptist ministers worshipping at Anglican churches? Does that mean that the difference in understanding does not matter?

  2. Paul
    I am very glad you have raised this. It has worried me for a long time.
    When I belonged to Evangelical Churches (Anglican), nobody called the Minister a Priest.
    Now that I have become more Liberal, one problem is that I keep hearing the word Priest and each time I notice it is a word which used to mean something quite different.
    Luther would never have got this wrong. (I have not checked this).
    I look forward to some reasoned responses to this important matter you have raised.

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