What Is the Difference Between Pastor, Priest, Parson, and Minister?
- Candice Lucey Contributing Writer
- 2022 23 Feb
Someone asked me recently “why do you call your pastor a pastor and not a priest?” I had a few ideas, but no solid facts to offer her. Whatever the facts are (and I’ll explore those), for myself, there are connotations that stick.
Synonyms for Pastor
The Collins Online Thesaurus indicates that a pastor can also be known as a “clergyman or woman, minister, priest, vicar, divine, parson, rector, curate, churchman or woman [or] ecclesiastic.” I would never address my pastor “good morning, Vicar Ben.” Maybe in another culture, the two words would feel similar, but not to me.
When I think of a vicar, priest, curate, or even a minister, I picture an obviously, at times obnoxiously, religious figure. He is dressed in formal attire and is what I would think of as a professional cleric.
That is not to say he doesn’t believe what he preaches; nor would I take for granted that he does believe. Many such clerics are far from obnoxious, but my perspective is colored by associations from life and the direction my education took.
I studied English literature and the history around the works of writers such as Austen, Burney, and Defoe. There was a time when the younger sons in wealthy families were only permitted to take certain jobs.
The oldest son inherited the family estate, but his brother had to work for the church or join the military or become a lawyer. He did not have to love the Lord; he just needed a theological education.
There were authentic Christians among them; and it must be said that even today in cultures where one can choose his career, non-believing men will still become preachers in any denomination.
But there is also a real sense in which certain synonyms are wrong. A pastor is not “divine.” He or she is not a deity. There is nothing about this person, which is better than his or her flock. This person is a servant, a shepherd of sheep.
The congregation is that flock, and the pastor serves them. A “divine” according to the Collins online dictionary is “a priest who specializes in the study of God and religion.” Yet, the suggestion of extra-holiness is there. Moreover, a “priest” can be the leader of a pagan group too.
Collins explains that a curate is “a clergyman in the Anglican Church who helps the priest.” He isn’t the leader, plus his denomination is specified.
Meanwhile, a minister would be the equivalent of a pastor and is typically associated with Protestant churches.
Priest means “elder” apparently, not servant or shepherd or helper. I said this to someone, and she told me it’s strange: so many priests are really quite young. Maybe their personalities are “old” in one sense, introspective; they might seem wise for their age.
But, as with any vicar, minister, pastor, etc., wisdom and discernment are special gifts, which some individuals possess, and others do not regardless of age or their profession.
Wisdom does not come with the title but from the Lord himself when we ask for it. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given” (James 1:5).
Consider Timothy: Paul advised him, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Age had nothing to do with his qualifications to serve the church.
Pastors, Priests, and Perversion
Michael Gembola wrote the article titled, “Narcicissim and Spiritual Abuse in Church Leadership,” which reviews three books on the subject. His article begins with a summary of why some Christians urge would-be pastors “if people want you to be a pastor, run the other way.”
As Gembola points out, this was also the attitude of the early church. They understood that “a sense of self-importance in ambition for ministry was not just a danger to the soul of the minister, but it led to all kinds of other problems,” which can result in “far-reaching damage when we find them in church leadership” (Ibid.).
After all, abuse by a pastor calls one’s entire worldview into question. If this man, who led me to Christ, could still abuse me, is God real? Is God good?
Gembola asserts “we can argue persuasively that the Bible and the church offer the deepest answers for the problems of life” (Ibid.) in spite of recent revelations about mega-church leaders.
God himself addressed abusive leaders: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool. You slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. [...] I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them” (Ezekiel 34:3,10).
What I’m trying to get at is that I once associated spiritual abuse with the Catholic Church almost exclusively, thanks to the many priests who were found guilty of molesting children or of murdering them.
Now I realize that this appalling sin issue crosses all denominations (and all religions). There are predators in every sector of society and throughout the Christian church worldwide. They defame the good name of those who genuinely try to feed the sheep and protect them.
Abusers give the church a bad reputation and, by extension, distort the reflection of Christ, which those within and outside of the faith observe.
They rob their victims of not only a sense of safety and identity but also plant the seed of doubt in their hearts, which can lead to rejection of Christ himself. That’s the real danger, and it has nothing to do with the title pastor, priest, or parson.
Typical Titles for Theologians
Is there really a classification system, a way of knowing, which denomination a preacher belongs to just by his title? Let’s see: a parson is a parish preacher. My friend told me that she always thought that parsons went door to door, made more house calls perhaps more than the average priest.
But there is no indication etymologically speaking that this is so. Parson appears to be a synonym for any of the other terms.
So, what about the title priest? This word more specifically applies to a Catholic preacher. But then I read that Methodist ministers are sometimes called “priests” also, but they might be known as ministers.
In the Methodist church, “Local pastors are not ordained but are licensed to preach and conduct divine worship and perform the duties of a pastor. They are appointed but need not make themselves available as itinerant ministers.” There are also Anglican priests, but they are sometimes known as ministers.
Yet, a pastor in, say, a Baptist church is ordained and fully qualified; he or she holds a ministry degree, often a master’s or a doctorate. This does not in itself qualify one to become a pastor; there are other training elements to undergo first.
But the pastor of your local Evangelical Free or Alliance Church is fully qualified to plan and deliver sermons and to minister to the congregation.
What was the title first used by early Christians? Like the Jews, Christians looked up to elders or “priests.”
John Piper explains that elders were “the older men of the community who, because of their wisdom in counsel and the natural honor due to them (Leviticus 19:32), became the official administrators or leaders of the community.”
The term “priest” however has “no counterpart” in the Christian church; the title was not adopted into the new traditions. This is because, as Piper explains, the church is a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
Christ’s death and resurrection removed the veil, which had previously limited access to God so that only priests could enter the Holy of Holies. Now, all believers can approach the Father thanks to the Son’s intercession.
What Do We Call Our Church Leaders?
I’m not much closer to the answer now than I was before. What are the differences? There are so many tiny nuances in the titles of church preachers, and they differ worldwide, across languages. All I know is, to be a Christian shepherd/servant, you need to follow Christ personally, whole-heartedly.
If one doesn’t lay down his or her life for the church but instead uses the church as a platform for personal gain, then this is hypocrisy and abuse. God has strong words for those phony shepherds (Ezekiel 34), but he offers mercy to them if they confess and truly repent.
And for those who are looking for a pastor to satisfy a “shopping list” of qualities, I would ask “do you know where the pastor’s heart is regarding Christ?”
Personal faith means way more than good looks, flashy sermons, slick music, and a large congregation. A good pastor/minister/parson is worth his weight in a graze-worthy meadow.
Journal of Biblical Counselling, Volume 35, No.3, p.62 (CCEF, Glenside: PA, 2021).
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.