One of our kids asked “Why were pastors at one time called priests [paraphrase]?”
Simply put, the word for “pastor” in Greek means “shepherd.” A shepherd is someone who watches over a pasture of sheep. The New Testament applies this term to elders in the church.
“I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but providing to be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3)
A pastor is someone who not gives general oversight to the church but demonstrates genuine care for the people in a loving way as if he were shepherding sheep. He cares for the church by pointing them to the true Shepherd (John 10:11). In a sense, we could say that a pastor is an “under-shepherd” to Jesus. God has called all of us to be His sheep and has called some people to be “under-shepherds” over His sheep.
The title “priest” refers to someone who is an intercessor on behalf of someone. An intercessor is someone does or says something on your behalf. A lawyer is an example of an intercessor. In the Old Testament, the only person who could come before God on behalf of the people was a “priest.” A priest would take the sacrifices that the people offered and burned them on the altar for people so that their sins might be covered. We find in Hebrews, however, that Jesus acts as our High Priest for our sins (Hebrews 4:14). We no longer need to go through a “priest” and bring sacrifices for our sin because Jesus is both the perfect sacrifice for sin and the perfect High Priest (Hebrews 7:23-24).
In some denominations, the leader of a church is called priest because they believe that we still need a priest to pardon our sins and give us forgiveness. But we find in Scripture that because Jesus is our High Priest before God, we don’t need to go through any man to receive forgiveness of our sins. We have open access to God to receive forgiveness.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19; 22).
Those churches (and denominations) who believe that only Jesus is our High Priest simply refer to their leaders as “pastors” because that is what they are called to do: shepherd God’s people. Pastors can’t pardon sin but they point people to Jesus who can pardon their sin.