Saturday, December 29, 2007

ASK THE PASTOR: Should church leaders be called 'Priest' or 'Pastor'?

ASK THE PASTOR: Should a church leader be called Priest or Pastor?

Neither of these terms are used in the New Testament (NT) of church leaders. While the imagery of a shepherd (i.e pastor) is frequently used in the NT, the title of Pastor is not found [1]. More importantly, the term “priest” is never used and is contrary to biblical teaching.

In Scripture, the designation elder is by far the most common. Second to this, the term Bishop (or, overseer) is used, though most scholars believe these two terms were used interchangeably. When the title of ‘overseer/bishop’ is used today it denotes someone who presides over several churches and pastors, though this usage is not supported in Scripture [2]. In Bible times, a bishop was simply an elder in the church [3].

In Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran churches, the title of priest is used. This term is inappropriate because it creates a special ‘class’ of people, similar to the Levites in the Old Testament who were “set apart” by God to be models of holiness and mediators between God and his people. In the apostolic church preaching and teaching were not confined to a particular class, but every convert could proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, and every Christian who had the gift could pray and teach and exhort in the congregation. The NT knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers saints (e.g. those set apart by God for service). Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. It knows only one high-priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly teaches the universal priesthood of believers.

Most common today in Protestant churches is the title pastor, which was popularized by the Puritans (along with minister). They chose the title of minister to demonstrate what they did: they ministered to and helped people with their spiritual needs [4]. The term pastor (or, shepherd) denoted their duty of feeding and overseeing a flock.

What should you call your pastor? In scripture, there is no evidence that church leaders went by formal titles [5]. They were simply called by their personal names. Some believe it shows respect when calling your pastor by his title. However, according to the book of Hebrews [see note 3] respect is shown by listening and submitting to leadership, not by calling them something. The concept of titles comes from the hierarchal social structure of medieval Europe, not scripture. However, if you must succumb to the cultural mandate to call church leaders by a title, you have several options to choose from: elder, overseer, teacher, minister, or pastor.


[1] Some see Ephesians 4:11 as Biblical support for the title ‘Pastor’. I disagree. The context in this passage is on spiritual gifts, not a church office or position. Thus, this passage is only teaching that some have the gift of pasturing/shepherding, regardless if they hold a particular office in the church or not.

[2] In the time period after the New Testament era, generally called the Early Church Period, the term Bishop/Overseer quickly formed into a position above that of elder. This was done in part because of the perceived need to maintain order in the growing church and protect against the multiple heresies that continually infiltrated the church. Despite one’s view on the appropriateness of this development, it is important to understand that this was an expansion of the NT’s use of the term.

[3] The concept of a “church office”, at least as we think of it in terms of professional vocation today, is not supported by Scripture. The KJV insertion of the word ‘office’ in 1 Timothy 3:1 is faulty since in the Greek it simply isn’t there (“If anyone desires the office of bishop). Since the KJV was a product of High-church Anglicanism, this insertion reflects the bias of the time. The two passages cited to support the concept of church office are Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. However, as hinted to in the Note 1, both of these passages are dealing with spiritual gifts, not positions in the church. This does not deny the concept of positional authority (Hebrews 3:7, 17, and 24 speak of leaders within the church). Rather, it affirms the centrality of Christ. Congregrants are not to obey church leaders because of the position they hold, but rather because they recognize the giftedness bestowed upon them by Christ.

[4] Though the term minister is not a biblical term, it accurately describes the basic function of a church leader. While I personally prefer to use scriptural terms, there certainly is no reason to prohibit the use of this conventional title.

[5] There is much evidence that church leaders described themselves or others by these titles. For example, “Paul, and apostle of Jesus Christ”. While it is probably harmless to refer to myself as Pastor Josh, it is more Biblical to say “Josh, pastor of Indian River Baptist Church”. Conversely, it should be noted that “Rabbi” (e.g “teacher”) was a common title of respect in the synagogue. Again, however, the emphasis here was on giftedness, not position, as a first-century Rabbi generally was not paid by the synagogue, and many times had no connection to any particular synagogue.

Questions for Pastor Josh can be submitted via Email. "Ask the Pastor" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.


  1. In your church (also, coincidentally mine), there is a long standing tradition that the pastor's first name is replaced by the title "Pastor." As a new believer, that was fine by me, because I knew no different, nor did I have any spiritual maturity to gauge the appropriateness of the practice.

    Now, I'm fine with it -- for those that have the "need" to call you Pastor. I even see some advantage to following the leadership of a position (ie, Pastor) as opposed to following "Josh."

    Like so many facets of the Christian walk, however, I don't think there is a single answer that can be written down and followed. The appropriateness in this case I think largely depends on the congregate, the pastor, and to a lesser degree the tradition of the church.

    For me, you're a much better leader, teacher, and friend if I just call you Josh. It's not a buck against your authority, nor a show of disrespect. In fact, the fact that I choose to follow the leadership of someone simply known as "Josh" is a testament that you've earned my loyalty rather than assumed it by taking the pastorate. Oh, and if I call you a priest, it's most likely that I'm harassing you. :)

    You may, however, refer to me as Highly Exalted Sir Shawn the Deacon.

  2. Wow Shawn! Don't you think that the name you requested is a bit much?

    But in my opinion of calling one "pastor" (since I do), I do it out of respect; but I would call any other pastor "Pastor". That's what I'm 'born & bred' with and I want to regard them as a pastor.

  3. Happy new year to Priest Josh.

    Your Florida Flock

  4. thank you so much for this lesson, I was mocked just recently for having this discussion with a believer, I realized I needed to make my comments short because the person is not bibical about many things. thank you again for your comments and teaching on this matter. I realize now more than ever how my time in bible college is paying off. They just crowned a fallen overseer king in his church for the whole world to see. Pray i stay bibical , sound and sober

  5. Brother, I am working on a study that suggests that any "Titling" in the body of Christ in an Honorific manner is a violation of Jesus's express command of Matthew 23:8. I am of the opinion that it has done immense harm to the church, and blocked the giftings of many from coming into maturity.

    Brother my concern is that with titles we are simply disobedient to the command presented in MATT 23:8. Secondly persons who have these titles do not necessarily understand the import of Ephesians 4:11-16, and 1 Cor 14:26-31 and that God sent leaders to train persons to lead just like themselves. i.e. "for the work of the ministry" till every joing supplies. The Unifty of Faith is not realized until every joint is ministering. Truly the work of leaders according to Ephesians 4:11-16 is to hand leadership to the JESUS our commander and Chief (Eph. 4:16). I don't believe elders are meant to hold entrenched offices in their local church. The callings and giftings are entrenched but must decrease in the local church as the church matures and expresses these very same giftings. Persons with titles do not understand clearly why they are called. I believe they are called to lead the sheep into maturity and ministry. However they all too often stand in the way of congregants realizing their giftings. It may be a need to always be in the limelight, else a lack of understanding of the Eph 4:11-16 mandate.

  6. I have always found this topic interesting. Ephesians 4:11 pretty much clears it up; And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers...

    What's interesting and clear as day to me, is not one of these words; prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastors or teachers is used as a noun. They are functions, words of action, gifts. Much like the gift of mercy, or the gift of giving. Do we call our highest giver Giving John?nOr our beloved sister Mindy that has the gift of mercy, Mercy Mindy?

    The Bible is clear. Pride comes before the fall, men that need honorific titles because they were called, need to rethink who was actually calling them. Lets try this fellow leaders, humble yourself and serve the kingdom using the gifts of a pastor not your position as a Pastor. I was born John and I will die John, in no way will I ever put the gifts God gave me in front of my name again.