I must admit to being called something I have never been called before in my life (and I have been called many things), the vicar. I have been called “Father” by Catholics and Anglicans in Canada but perhaps because the term vicar is no longer in vogue across the pond it took me my non-conformist roots by surprise. While I would beg to differ as to the appropriateness of this term, in my case I took it as a compliment coming from someone who meant well by it and didn’t know any different. But this got me digging a little more deeply where the term came from and what the Bible, especially the New Testament, instructs us to call our Christian leaders.
A vicar refers to the priest of a local Church of England parish. It is originally a Latin word vicarious and means someone who is a representative of a higher authority. While that higher authority could be taken to mean Jesus, it actually refers to the bishop and the hierarchy of the church. The Archbishop appoints Bishops who in turn appoint local priests who represent his ecclesiastical authority in the local parish. BTW (by the way), a rector was historically the vicar of a wealthier parish that was entitled to receiving a portion of the tithes from local church lands (easily seen by looking at the often modest size of a vicarage and the likely grandeur of a rectory).
More commonly, however, those more accustomed to Christian culture would recognize three likely titles to be associated with a Christian leader: priest [vicar], minister and pastor.
Let’s look at the Biblical validity for each of those titles:
1. Priest. This term most obviously draws from the OT usage where the priests represented God amongst the Israelites. It is commonly used by Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans. While that is an honourable title capturing an aspect of the Christian leaders role the priesthood had another function which is not consistent with leadership in the Church, to be the mediator between God and man (Ex 28:1 and various other verses in the Old Testament). The priest was to represent God, instruct the people, but also to make sacrifices on behalf of the people, to perform holy acts that the common folks could not. Thus, the people could only come to God through the priests. On this last point Hebrews makes it very clear that this is no longer the case:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV).
If Jesus is our high priest, and every believer has equal access to God because of what Jesus has done (known as the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers) then “priest” is not the most accurate title for a Christian leader.
2. Minister. This term is quite common amongst Protestantism. It can actually refer to a political or religious minister, someone who serves on behalf of (thus where we derive both the political and religious term: ministry). Thus, in a formal Christian context it refers to a man who is authorized to perform religious functions on behalf of a church. Thus in 2 Cor 3:6 Paul refers to “ministers of the New Covenant” (cf. Eph 3:7, Ro 15:16). This is a noble sense of the word which I am okay with. Yet the term is often used in a general sense and not in the formal sense of a title or office. It can likewise cloud the waters by giving the impression that only Ministers minister and tricking other Christians into the false belief that they can kick back, relax, and be pew warmers. The one value of the term, however, highlights that ministers are different. They have a unique calling, they have been set apart for service. Thus the applying the title Reverend X or Pastor Y is an appropriate formal distinction that doesn’t mean the shepherd is better than the sheep but acknowledges their unique God given role.
3. Pastor. In Ephesians 4:11-12 it is clear that the ascended Lord Jesus, “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Here pastor (Latin for shepherd) is used in the sense of an office within the Church to fulfil various pastoral roles. But in the NT we also find another important office, that of an elder. We often take the word elder or overseer to be synonymous with this position of priest or minister but the local church has elders (plural). Paul’s letters affirm this when he instructs elders to be appointed in the churches (Tit 1:5) or writes to the elders in a church (Acts 20:17). From such passages we see the New Testament pattern for senior church leadership is not of one priest, or minister, but a plurality of elders, among whom there is often a pastor who is also an elder, who acts as a first among equals.
This is why at Cromhall Chapel my official title is “pastoral-elder” and along with the rest of the eldership shepherd and tend to the flock (1 Pet 5:1-5) entrusted to our care under Jesus who alone is head of His Church (Col 1:18).
So is there is not a new vicar in Cromhall and certainly not at the Chapel, although after saying all this I do still take it as a compliment. I hope this background has been instructive, clarifying and thought provoking on a subject we may naturally not give much though to.
The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,