You’re probably aware that some churches have priests and others have pastors, and perhaps you’ve wondered what the difference is. In this article, we’ll explore the distinction between the two: what sort of churches they lead, what they wear, if they can get married, what kind of training they need, what the Bible says about the role and more!
Are a priest and a pastor the same?
No. They are both shepherds of the flock, caring for the spiritual needs of people in a church. However, they represent different denominations with different concepts of church leadership and theology.
For instance, a priest hears people’s confessions of sin, saying, “I absolve you from your sins.” Absolve means “to free from a charge of wrongdoing,” so the priest essentially pardons people from their sin.
On the other hand, a person might confess their sins to a pastor, and there’s nothing wrong with that; the Bible tells us to confess our sins to one another so that we will be healed (James 5:16). However, a pastor wouldn’t give that person pardon; only God can pardon sin.
We can and should forgive people if they sin against us, but that doesn’t wipe the slate clean before God. A pastor would encourage the person to confess his sins to God and receive His forgiveness. He might help the person pray for forgiveness and encourage that person to ask forgiveness of any people he has wronged. But a pastor doesn’t absolve people of sin.
What is a pastor?
A pastor is the spiritual leader of a Protestant church. What’s a Protestant church? It’s a church that teaches that every believer has direct access to God through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest. A human priest isn’t necessary to intercede between God and people. Protestants also believe that the Bible is the final authority on matters of doctrine and that we are saved by faith alone. Protestant churches include mainline denominations like Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist, and also most non-denominational churches and Pentecostal churches.
The word “pastor” comes from the root of the word “pasture.” A pastor is essentially a shepherd of people, helping them get on and stay on the right spiritual path, guiding them, and feeding them with God’s Word.
What is a priest?
A priest is a spiritual leader in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox (including Greek Orthodox), Anglican, and Episcopal churches. Although all these faiths have priests, the role of a priest and the core theology of the various churches differ somewhat.
A priest serves as a mediator between God and people. He performs sacred religious rituals.
In the USA, Catholic parish priests are called “pastors,” but they are essentially “priests,” as described in this article.
Origin of priests and pastors
In the Bible, a priest is a man called by God who represents people in things relating to God. He offers gifts and sacrifices for sin (Hebrews 5:1-4).
Almost 3500 years ago, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God set up the Aaronic priesthood. God set apart Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants to offer sacrifices in the Lord’s presence, serve the Lord, and pronounce blessings in His name (1 Chronicles 23:13).
When Jesus died on the cross as the final sacrifice, the priests no longer needed to offer sacrifices for the people, although the Jewish priests didn’t yet understand that. But several decades later, the Jewish priesthood ended in AD 70 when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and the last Jewish high priest, Phannias ben Samuel, was killed.
Meanwhile, the early church was growing and getting established in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In the New Testament, we read about different church leaders. The primary office was a position alternatively called elders (presbyterous), overseers/bishops (episkopon), or pastors (poimenas). Their primary tasks were teaching, praying, leading, shepherding, and equipping the local church.
Peter referred to himself as an elder and encouraged his fellow elders to shepherd God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-2). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church on their missionary journey (Acts 14:23). Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Paul said that an overseer is a steward or manager of God’s household (Titus 1:7) and shepherd of the church (Acts 20:28). The word pastor literally means shepherd.
Another office was deacon (diakonoi) or servant (Romans 16:1, Ephesians 6:21, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:7, 1 Timothy 3:8-13). These individuals took care of the physical needs of the congregation (like making sure the widows had food – Acts 6:1-6 ), freeing up the elders to take care of spiritual needs like teaching and prayer.
However, at least some of the deacons also had a remarkable spiritual ministry. Stephen performed amazing miracles and signs and was an ardent witness for Christ (Acts 6:8-10). Philip went to preach in Samaria, performing miraculous signs, casting out evil spirits, and healing the paralyzed and lame (Acts 8:4-8).
So, when did Christian priests show up? In the mid-2nd century, some church leaders, like Cyprian, the bishop/overseer of Carthage, began speaking of overseers as priests because they presided over the eucharist (communion), which represented Christ’s sacrifice. Gradually, the pastors/elders/overseers morphed into a priesthood role. It was different from Old Testament priests in that it wasn’t a hereditary role, and there weren’t any animal sacrifices.
But by the time Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century, church worship had become lavishly ceremonial. Chrysostom began teaching that the priest called down the Holy Spirit, who turned the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ (doctrine of transubstantiation). The divide between the priests and ordinary people became pronounced as the priests declared absolution of their sins, acting in the person of Christ.
In the 16th century, the Protestant reformers rejected transubstantiation and began teaching the priesthood of all believers: all Christians have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. Thus, priests were not part of the Protestant churches, and the leaders were again called pastors or ministers.
Responsibilities of pastors and priests
Pastors in Protestant churches have multiple responsibilities:
- They prepare and deliver sermons
- They lead the church services
- They visit and pray for the sick and pray for other needs of the church body
- They baptize people and perform weddings and funerals
- They provide counseling to their members: pre-marital and marital counseling, grief counseling, helping people deal with sin, and much more, depending on their training
- They engage in evangelism and community outreach, bringing new people into the church and discipling them in the faith
- They oversee the church administration and finances and usually are a part of the church board and several church committees
Priests in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Episcopal churches also do much of the above, with a few significant differences.
- Catholic priests pray the Liturgy of the Hours (five formalized prayers) each day
- Most priests celebrate Mass at least once a day. Mass is the sacrament of Eucharist, like communion or the Lord’s Supper in Protestant churches, except Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans believe in transubstantiation, while most Protestant churches believe the bread and wine/grape juice represent Jesus’ body and blood
- Catholic and Orthodox priests hear the confession of sin and grant absolution.
Training and education between pastors and priests
Pastors: the requirements vary widely in Protestant churches, depending on the denomination and individual churches. Some denominations require a seminary education, while others will take pastors who have been to Bible college. Some churches have a training program under a mentor, where the students read books and write papers on doctrine and church practice. They might have online, night, or weekend classes. The latter is especially used on the mission field; the need for pastors is tremendous, but funding and availability for formal training may be problematic.
After completing their seminary, Bible College, or training program (or often at the same time), pastoral candidates will usually spend at least a year working in a church as a Youth Pastor, Assistant Pastor, or some other position under the Senior Pastor. This gives them valuable experience, on-the-job training, and mentoring from the Lead Pastor.
Priests: Most Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican priests have a bachelor’s degree and a three to five-year seminary education. While attending seminary, they often shadow a priest as he preaches, administers sacraments, and ministers to the sick. In some dioceses, a committee will evaluate the person wishing to become a priest before attending seminary and recommend to the bishop whether or not the candidate should be ordained. If they agree to ordain him, then he goes to seminary or local night classes with oversight from a mentor. In some churches, the candidate is first ordained as a deacon and then ordained as a priest after about a year.
In many Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the pastors wear a black “Geneva gown” (which looks a bit like an ankle-length graduation gown). Many pastors of mainline denominations wear a stole (a long scarf that is usually brightly colored). Methodist and Lutheran pastors typically wear a long black or white gown. Over that, they wear a white “surplice” (another thin robe that’s a bit shorter with wide sleeves) and a stole.
Other Protestant pastors will wear a suit or a dress shirt and tie for preaching. However, churches are becoming more informal today, and some pastors wear jeans and casual shirts in the pulpit.
On the other hand, priests follow a strict standard of vestments they wear, which carry symbolic meaning. They wear layers, beginning with an amice, a white rectangle of linen covering the back from the neck to the waist, symbolizing a defense against the devil. The alb is a white gown that falls to the ankles and symbolizes purity. The cincture is a cord tied around the waist and also symbolizes purity. They wear a stole that represents the priest’s authority and power. Over this, they wear the chasuble, something like a brightly-colored cape.
The colors are symbolic for both priests and pastors who wear robes, stoles, and chasubles. Green is worn on ordinary days and stands for hope. Worn on Pentecost Sunday, red represents the blood of Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Yellow represents glory, joy, and purity and is worn at various times in the year. Pink is worn on Lent’s third and fourth Sundays, standing for love and joy. Worn at Advent, Lent, and Requiem Masses (for souls of the dead), purple symbolizes repentance and humility.
Marriage and sexual intimacy for pastors and priests
Pastors can be single or married, but many Protestant churches prefer to hire married pastors. This is partly because the Biblical qualifications for an elder/overseer specify the husband of one wife with children who are believers and not insubordinate (Titus 1:6, 1 Timothy 3:2). Also, they feel like a married pastor is less likely to engage in sexual sin. They also like having a pastor’s wife who can help out with various ministries.
However, it is not required to be married. Paul, who wrote the verses above in Titus and Timothy, was single himself and said he wished all were like him. Yet, if someone couldn’t control themselves sexually, it’s better to be married (1 Corinthians 7:7-9). If single, pastors are expected to be celibate; however, in some very “progressive” denominations, pastors live with partners outside of marriage, sometimes same-sex partners.
On the other hand, Catholic priests must be single and not sexually active, and they can’t be part of the LGBTQ community. Since 1980, the Roman Catholic church has ordained married Episcopalian priests who covert to Catholicism.
If an Eastern Orthodox priest wants to be married, he must do it before being ordained. After ordination, a priest cannot marry, even if his wife dies. Anglican and Episcopalian priests can get married, and most do.
What Christianity teaches about priests
The New Testament doesn’t speak about priests as a position in the church. It only references the Aaronic priesthood and a different order of priest that came before Aaron – an even greater priest! His name was Melchizedek, and Abraham met him on the way home from battle.
A great war had ensued between Babylon, Elam, and their allies against Sodom, Gomorrah, and their allies. The Babylonian-Elamite victors had captured Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lived in Sodom. Abraham mobilized his 318 men, chased after the Elamite king, rescued Lot and his family, and recovered all the plunder the Elamites had stolen.
On his way back, Melchizedek, King of Salem and a priest of God Most High, brought bread and wine to Abraham and blessed him. Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the spoils of war (Genesis 14).
That’s all that Genesis tells us about Melchizedek. But Hebrews 5-7 explains more.
It quotes Psalm 110:4, saying Jesus is a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6, 10, 6:20). Well, what does the “order of Melchizedek” mean? Hebrews 7 tells us Melchizedek had no father or mother, no genealogy, no beginning or end, and he remains a perpetual priest (Hebrews 7:3).
The name Melchizedek literally means “King of Righteousness,” and Salem means “peace.” Melchizedek was the King of Righteousness ruling over the City of Peace. Notice he offered Abraham bread and wine, which Jesus also offered to His disciples, His body and blood (Mark 14:22-23). Melchizedek is a pre-incarnate Christ figure.
And Jesus is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14), who has offered the final sacrifice, His own body and blood. We no longer need an earthly priest – we have One in heaven who ever intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).
What other religions teach about priests
Although God instituted the Aaronic priesthood for the Israelites, other religions had priests and still do. King Abijah of Judah criticized King Jeroboam of Israel for chasing away God’s priests (Aaron’s descendants) and appointing his own priests like the pagan nations. He said anyone could be a priest to his so-called gods (2 Chronicles 13:9).
Today, the religions of Buddhism, Shinto, and Hinduism all have priests. Buddhist and Hindu priests have similar functions: they offer masses for the dead, chanting scriptures in hopes that the deceased will be reincarnated to a better life. They also chant suttas for protective power; as they do this, each monk holds a sacred thread. At the end, the threads are tied around the wrists of everyone there to bring safety and power. On special occasions or when a new house or building is completed, priests chant the words of Buddha or Hindu scriptures: they believe they mediate the god’s power. The Shinto Kannushi priest is a “divine master” who is a mediator between people and the Shinto gods. They offer food and drink to the god of their specific temple.
What does the Bible say about pastors?
Paul taught that overseers (pastors) must be beyond reproach as God’s stewards. They must not be self-willed, quick-tempered, overindulging in wine, a bully, or greedy for money. They should be hospitable, loving what is good, self-controlled, righteous, holy, disciplined, encouraging their flocks with sound teaching, and convicting those contradicting it. They must be respectable, skillful in teaching, gentle, not contentious, and free from the love of money. A pastor should be the husband of one wife who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control. He should not be a new convert, and he should have a good reputation with those outside the church. (Titus 1:7-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7).
Peter told his fellow elders (pastors) to care for the flock God had entrusted to them and do it willingly, not grudgingly. Pastors aren’t to lord their authority but instead lead by their good example. When Jesus the Great Shepherd appears, these faithful pastors will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor (1 Peter 5:1-4).
James taught that if anyone were sick, he should call the church’s elders to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14).
Jesus is our Great High Priest! He radiates God’s glory and expresses the very character of God (Hebrews 1:3). He needed to become human, in every respect like us, so that He could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Since He has gone through suffering and testing, He is able to help us when we are being tested (Hebrews 2:17-18).
This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for He faced all of the same temptations we do, yet He did not sin. So, let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive His mercy and find grace to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Jesus lives forever; His priesthood lasts forever. Therefore He is able, once and permanently, to save those who come to God through Him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf. He is the kind of high priest we need because He is holy, blameless, and unstained by sin. (Hebrews 7:24-26)
Jesus is also our pastor, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). He is the Good Shepherd who lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). He is the shepherd and overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).