Just a week ago the annual meetings of the Council of the Clergy of the General Church concluded. One of the topics discussed was church government. As we read in New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, the priesthood–we call them ministers, pastors and bishops–are responsible for governing the church.

But what is a priest? What is our job description? One way of getting a handle on this is to look at the uses of a shepherd. (“Pastor” actually means “shepherd”.) Shepherds help their flocks by providing protection from wild animals. They guide the sheep in and out of the sheepfold. They lead them to good sources of water. And they ensure that their flock has plenty of good food.

Pastors are commanded by the Lord to do the same, only on a spiritual level. Pastors ensure order in the church by means of Divine Law. We administer external worship–Sunday morning gatherings, Holy Supper, Baptisms, Weddings and the like. We teach people the truths of faith from the Word. And then we are meant to use those truths to lead people to live a life of good, and so to lead them to the Lord. Note that teaching truths is not enough, if we are not also leading to the good of life.

In both Ezekiel and in John we read contrasts between good shepherds on the one hand, and evil shepherds and thieves on the other. What marks an “evil shepherd”? Evil pastors abuse their power. They work for the sake of their own gain and honor, rather than for the sake of the salvation of souls. And they separate the truths they teach from the life of good.

Now, the one truly good shepherd is the Lord Himself. He alone teaches, and He alone leads. But He has provided for there to be a priesthood that exists for the sake of facilitating the learning of His truths and the living of His goodness. A good shepherd, like the Lord, gathers the scattered. He works to help heal the spiritually sick and wounded. Very importantly, a good shepherd “enters by the door”, meaning a good pastor preaches not from his own intelligence and prudence, but from his understanding and perception of the Lord’s Word. And then a good pastor joins truth to good and so leads his flock to the Lord.

So what can you do with this information? Two things. First, now that you know more of what the Lord has taught us in His Word about the purpose of the priesthood, you can hold us accountable. What’s more, only by having a clear idea of what the role of the pastors is can you know how best to partner with them to help form the Lord’s church. The priesthood is not the church; we are only servants. You as the church have a responsibility to approach the Lord, learn from His Word, and live a life of charity. We clergy cannot do that for you. But be confident that we are all dedicated to helping you do that for yourselves.

[The above is a summary of the message I delivered at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral on Sunday, March 7th, 2010, at 11:00 a.m. Below are the full readings and a transcript of the complete sermon. You can also listen to it online at NewChurchAudio.org.]

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