Wondering if Lutheran Churches Have Priests? Get the Facts


The Lutheran tradition is a prominent branch of the Christian faith. Born out of the life and ministry of German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), and the abuses he protested in the Catholic church, Lutheranism has similarities and differences with Catholicism.

Lutherans don’t refer to their clergy as “priests.” Lutheranism teaches that there are better titles that reflect the New Testament’s teaching on the topic, such as “pastor” or “minister,” which are more common. The tradition is also intent on making a distinction between Catholic beliefs and practices regarding clergy.

What’s wrong with calling clergy “priests” according to the New Testament in the Lutheran perspective? What exactly is the meaning of the names “pastor” and priest” and how are the term used in the New Testament? What did martin Luther teach about the priesthood of all believers? Keep reading to learn more.

“There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests.” Martin Luther

What’s the difference between a pastor and a priest?

The difference between the terms “pastor” and “priest” is partly based on the New Testament meaning of each word and partly on how they have been used in Christian history. Many Protestants, including some Lutherans, avoid using the name “priest” because of it’s widespread use in Roman Catholicism. [1] Others believe that the title “priest” isn’t the best description, according to the teachings of the Apostles Paul and Peter.

NAMEPastorPriest
Used in the New Testament?Yes (e.g. Eph. 4:11), though translations vary; Greek: poimenos, meaning “shepherd”Yes, describes Christ in Heb. 9 and Christians in general (e.g. 1 Pet. 2:9, Rev. 1:6); Greek: presbyteros, meaning “elder”; some churches refer to this office as “bishop,” and some churches refer to bishops as “priests”
Used in the Old Testament?Yes (e.g. Jer. 10:21), though many translations render the word “shepherd”; “pastor” doesn’t have the same meaning as in the New TestamentYes, hundreds of occurrences; those that defend the use of the name today argue that there is an overlapping purpose to the nature of the role, even if certain practices (e.g. animal sacrifices) are obsolete
Churches that use the term todayIt’s permissible in virtually every tradition, including Roman Catholicism, thought it’s not always the norm; especially common in Protestant and evangelical churchesA primary name for clergy in the Catholic tradition, along with “Father”; Anglican/ Episcopalian is the only Protestant tradition that commonly uses the name, though historically it’s emphasized that they use it as a synonym for “elder”
Use in LutheranismCommon; in the Lutheran tradition, the English word “pastor” accurately describes the New Testament’s description of those who shepherd congregationsRare; it’s possible that some Lutherans use the term like it’s used in the Anglican/ Episcopalian tradition, however it’s mostly avoided in part to make a distinction between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs about the nature and role of clergy
Use in CatholicismRareCommon

What would happen is someone addressed a Lutheran minister as a “priest”? First, it’s unlikely that a minister would be offended if someone called them a priest, but it may signal to them that the person is new to Lutheranism or new to their church. Second, some pastors may use the occasion as an opportunity to teach about why it’s not common to call clergy “priest” in the Lutheran tradition.

What would happen if someone addressed a Catholic priest as a “pastor”? In many cases, no re-direction would be given because “pastor” is within the acceptable semantic range for Catholic clergy. Some priests, however, may prefer to be addressed with a title that is more conventional in the Catholic church, like “father.”

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.”

Ephesians 4:11 (NIV), emphasis added
“The duty of a priest is to preach… It is the ministry of the Word that makes the priest and the bishop.” Martin Luther

Do pastors and priests have different roles in a church?

The names “pastor” and “priest” have overlapping definitions, however the theological implications of the terms have important and stark differences. The debate hinges on the nature of clergy as an intercessor between God and people. These differences relate to, but aren’t limited to, the doctrines of the Atonement of Christ, the intercession of the Holy Spirit, the sanctification of the believer, and the role of church in administering baptism and communion.

ROLEPastorPriest
GenderTraditionally refers to men, though today the term could describe a man or a womanThe term only describes men
MarriageProtestant clergy, including Anglican priests, can marryCatholic priests are unmarried and celibate
EducationMany go to seminary and earn a 2 to 4-year degree, but it’s not uncommon for pastors to have less than a Master’s degreePreparation to be a Catholic priest can take up to 10 years
OrdinationNot required to be a pastorRequired to be a priest
WorkSunday services are emphasized, but Wednesday and Sunday evening services aren’t uncommon; communion is offered routinely, but how often varies by tradition and churchSunday services are emphasized, but a daily Mass with the Eucharist is offered
ConfessionConfessing to a pastor tends to be informal and infrequent; the emphasis is on believers approaching God directly through Christ to confess their sinsFormal and frequent
SermonOften between 30-60 minutes depending on the preacher and the church; sermons are often seen as the centerpiece of the serviceSermons or homilies are often less than 30 minutes; the Eucharist is the centerpiece of the service
WardrobeSome traditions have clerical attire; others wear suits and ties; still others wear jeans, shorts, polo shirts, Hawaiian shirts, flip flops, etc.Clerical attire
AuthorityEcclesiastical oversight; doesn’t share in the authority of Christ in the life of believersEcclesiastical oversight; shares in the authority of Christ in the life of believers

What did Martin Luther believe about priests?

Luther identified many abuses in the Catholic church in the 16th century, especially in the priesthood. His teaching and writing are filled with comments and criticisms about the excess, corruption, and sin he observed in the office. The prideful, worldly, selfish men in the priesthood disturbed Luther greatly.

In response, he sought to recover the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. One church historian describes Luther’s convictions this way,

“Luther needed to retrieve the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers because, from the third century onwards, a gulf had opened between ordained and lay people, until it reached something of a chasm in the sixteenth century. This gap between the spiritual world and temporal world de-sanctified the earthly realm and created a chasm between the two, exalting the spiritual world over the temporal world.” [3]

Luther rejected the division between clergy and laity that the Catholic church taught. He believed the doctrine was a tool for clergy to live how they wanted to the detriment of congregants. Luther wrote,

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the ‘temporal estate.’ [On the contrary] . . . all Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate,’ and there is among them no difference at all but that of office.” [3]

For Luther, clergy’s primary role is to teach Scripture to people and serve according to its instructions. Scripture is for all people and Luther believed that clergy had an important role in helping them understand what it means and how to apply it. Clergy are also supposed to serve people according to Scripture’s teachings, not church tradition. Administering baptism and communion are central to clergy responsibilities, according to Luther.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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