Why would minister be a function name for both a member of the government and a clergyman?

Is the religious usage of minister restricted to Protestantism or did it already occur in Latin?

Are there other domains where the word minister could be used?

  • Could the government minister have come after administer (late Middle English : via Old French from Latin administrare, from ad- ‘to’ + ministrare) became secularized? Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 12:06

5 Answers 5


The word minister has the general meaning of "one who acts upon the authority of another" (see here).

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (see this entry), it is from c. 1300 and derives from the Latin word with the same spelling, which means "servant, priest's assistant".

The meaning related to religious functions is therefore prior to the Protestantism, which began in the 15th century only.

The Wikipedia has a page that explains the meaning of the word in the Catholic Church as:

In the Catholic Church the term minister enjoys a variety of usages. It most commonly refers to the person, whether lay or ordained, who is commissioned to perform some act on behalf of the Church. It is not a particular office or rank of clergy, as is the case in some other churches, but minister may be used as a collective term for vocational or professional pastoral leaders including clergy (bishops, deacons, priests) and non-clergy (theologians and lay ecclesial ministers). It is also used in reference to the canonical and liturgical administration of sacraments, as part of some offices, and with reference to the exercise of the lay apostolate.

The Wikipedia also brings definitions of the word in different domains (see this page):

  • Minister (Christianity), a Christian who ministers in some way

  • Minister (diplomacy), the rank of diplomat directly below ambassador

  • Minister (government), a politician who heads a ministry (government


At the very core of its meaning, a minister is simply someone who serves others (see @kiamlaluno's answer), whether it be under the government (public/civil servants), the Lordship of Christ (servants of God/the Most High/etc), or any other authority or mandate. Today, the word minister may unfortunately conjure up an image of superiority or high office, but the fact remains that ministers are [supposed to be] servants, usually with special tasks to fulfill or accomplish.

  • +1 for highlighting a common point between confirmed by the 'minus' Latin etymology. Thanks. Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 22:25

The NOAD reports the following definition of the noun minister.

  1. (also minister of religion) a member of the clergy, especially in Protestant churches.
    • (also minister general) the superior of some religious orders.
  2. (in certain countries) a head of a government department: Britain's defense minister.
    • a diplomatic agent, usually ranking below an ambassador, representing a state or sovereign in a foreign country.
  3. archaic a person or thing used to achieve or convey something: the Angels are ministers of the Divine Will.

As per the origin of the word, the dictionary reports that the word, when used for the sense 1 and 3, derives from the Old French ministre (noun), ministrer (verb), which derives from the Latin minister "servant," from minus "less."

  • The example in NOAD's definition 2 is incorrect: the political head of the UK Ministry of Defence is the Secretary of State for Defence (more commonly referred to as the Defence Secretary); any Defence Minister would be junior to the Defence Secretary. This is true for most other departments in HM Government. Also, NOAD spelt defence wrong in this particular context. Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 16:28
  • 1
    @Steve Melnikoff The NOAD reports the word that is used in American English; defence is a British English word.
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 18:03

The pairing of "minister" and "ministry" allow for a broad use of "minister" in varied contexts. Kiamlaluno's answer provides the appropriate definitions but the word can be used in a more general capacity to mean someone who administers or deals out some aspect of a ministry. This ministry is not necessarily a good or useful thing:

I am a minister of death.

The implication in this usage is someone who is above mere death and has been given the responsibility of representing or authoritatively speaking for Death. The idea of death as a ministry is a good example of the mirrored image of a government or religious ministry.

Less grim, I find these other examples apt:

He ministered to the lost

She was ministered to by the priest

This usage of a verb is not listed in the above linked answer:

verb [intrans.] (minister to) attend to the needs of (someone)

This again can be paired with a darker sense of "attending":

The grim reaper ministered to the dead.

Your mileage may vary, however. It works well with death and destruction as an intentional counterpoint to the organizations of religion and government. I wouldn't use it to describe a zookeeper feeding the ducks.

  • +1 Thanks for this thematic answer, including the verbal form. Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 22:33

Over at Christianity.StackExchange.com, we have the following post in which the various distinctions between minister, priest, etc... are made.

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