Rethinking Church, Part Three: The Clergy-Laity Distinction

This is part three of a five-part series I'm calling Rethinking Church. In this post, we're going to talk about the clergy/laity distinction that we've inherited from church history. Is there a special class of religiously trained people called clergy in the body of Christ? As a reminder, I'm writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. This post is a closer look at one more way institutional church has elevated the role of pastor by insisting he or she has a special, elite calling that the rest of us don't have. This is further reinforced with the pastor being given unlimited authority within the congregation as reflected in the required use of honorific titles. This top-down approach to doing church has been handed to us by hundreds of years of church tradition, not by any mandate found in scripture or coming from God. 

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see at least five areas where I believe the institutional church has erred to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the church that is crippling it and causing disillusionment in those that have left. I'm writing this series in the following order:

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written as each one builds on the previous. 

I've previously noted that Ignatius of Antioch's insistence that

a top-down structure of hierarchic authority was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, it was assumed that "Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father... Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop... Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes." were directives given by Jesus for his church. But they are not. We've already shown that this top-down authority structure that is present in most modern institutional churches today is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius (ca. 110 AD). The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as authentic and mandated by God, is actually something that has been handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we've also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We've taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn't dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. 

But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they've left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it's time to ask why. Will Ignatius' words, "Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes" stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the church and the priesthood of all believers. 

Who Are the Clergy? 

In part two of this series, we talked briefly about the clergy/laity separation that exists within most institutional churches. I presented the idea that church tradition, not the Bible, has given us this distinction. Our continued practice of referring to pastors with honorific titles that mark them out as a special segment within the church called "clergy" while assigning everyone else to the class of "laity" has caused a deep rift in the body of Christ and abuse of supposed authority. It has allowed those in supposed power roles to perpetuate those power roles by reinforcement of a call to professional ministry that the rest of the church doesn't possess. Education and academic achievement are the requirements that launch one into the professional clergy role. I am in no way against education and academic achievement. I am, however, against the abuse I see it producing in the clergy/laity caste system. If I hear "let me put this in layman's terms" one more time... More on that in a moment. Again, please see part one and part two of this series for more discussion on this point. 

Is there such a thing as clergy in the New Testament? Yes, there is. But its definition may surprise you. It's not what we've been told it is by those in charge. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Someone hasn't been truthful with us. We've been lied to. I'm always a little suspicious of someone when they immediately turn to word studies to support their point. It's almost like they're saying "what I'm about to say isn't real clear in the Bible, so I need to get technical for a minute and take my argument to a place you can't follow in order to sound right and convince you." I hope that's not what I'm about to do. I don't think it is. I don't usually run to word studies (although I can - I've been a student of New Testament Greek since the mid-1970s). I think context is often a more valuable asset in determining the meaning of a passage. Context, context, context. That being said, let's talk about the word clergy for a moment. I think this will help our discussion and not hinder or confuse an otherwise simple concept. 

Our English word clergy is closely related to the New Testament Greek word "cleros" (κλῆρος) and can mean "lot" or "inheritance". It can also refer to those under one's care. Again, context determines meaning. In speaking to elders regarding their care of the church, Peter said, "... not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock." (1 Peter 5:3, ESV) The NIV words it this way, "... not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." In both instances, "those in your charge" (ESV) and "those entrusted to you" (NIV) are translations of our word "clergy" (κλῆρος) and refer to the entire church, not a special segment within it. This is inescapable. The "clergy" of God in the New Testament is the entire body of Christ. It's Christ's inheritance and we have all been made a part of it. Not just some of us. 

"... giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance (κλῆρος) of the saints in light." (Colossians 1:12 ESV, emphasis mine) 

Consider also the following: 

"... to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those (κλῆρος) who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26:18 ESV

In each of these occurrences of κλῆρος in the New Testament, the point is clear: κλῆρος (clergy) is used in the New Testament to refer to the entire church. There is no hint of a special class within the church called clergy, who are uniquely gifted or called to be separated from the rest of the church or elevated above others in the local assembly. But we've turned clergy into a thing. A harmful thing. It's a thing that's come to us via tradition and that has no precedence anywhere else. None. We've taught this tradition as authoritative structure for so long that we have, by our very tradition, nullified what scripture says on the matter (Mark 7:8). Perpetuating a clergy/laity caste system within the church has put an incredible amount of unnecessary pressure on those with pastoring gifts to be more than they can possibly be or should be, and many are burning out and/or falling into sin because of the insane pressure they face to function as a superstar CEO of a corporate institution that is all about perpetuating the institution. Suicide, divorce, adultery, and spiritual burnout are on the rise as we isolate the pastor as the lone professional in this system. Is it any wonder? 

It's equally unfair to the rest of the assembly because the pastors among us can't be real in front of us. We get a pretend version of them to varying degrees. Remember, I'm speaking as one of those mask-wearing former shepherds. I've been behind the closed doors and I've seen what goes on. In some of our denominations, the pastors aren't even members of the local assembly, but are members instead of the denomination's pastoral organization, taking the clergy/laity distinction to a crazy level. I'll be talking more about formal church membership in part five of this series. 

Who Are the Laity? 

Let's turn our attention to the laity. If there's a clergy, there has to be a laity, right? Otherwise, the professional clergy have nothing to do. What about the laity? The Greek word for laity (laikos) doesn't occur on the New Testament. Instead, the New Testament uses a closely related word, laos (λαός) which simply means "people" and like clergy, is used to describe the entire church. It is not used in the New Testament to refer to the common people of God as opposed to the special clergy of God. Its uses are all-inclusive in referring to the entire local assembly. Consider the following: 

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people (λαός). (2 Corinthians 6:16 ESV

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people (λαός) for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people (λαός), but now you are God's people (λαός); once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV

In each instance above, the church as a whole is referred to as God's "people" (λαός), including the pastors. There is no hint in the New Testament of a hierarchy within the church that demands we have a clergy/laity system in place. This system is crippling the body of Christ and needs to be jettisoned. In the New Testament, κλῆρος = λαός = the entire church. The people (λαός) of God are not a non-professional segment of the church, there to support the professional clergy. Sick tradition birthed that idea, not Jesus. Tradition gave us this broken system of top-down authority and we perpetuate it because we think we have to. But we're wrong. To continue down the road of promoting a clergy/laity system within the church, demands that we either ignore or explain away Jesus' words to us: 

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine) 

In the New Testament, both clergy (κλῆρος) and laos (λαός) refer to the entire local assembly. There is no distinction between the two terms beyond the emphasis intended for each, as reinforced by their individual contexts. Is Jesus' intention for his church to promote an "us and them" clergy/laity separation? No. "It shall not be so among you." Do we really believe Jesus' words? If we do, we'll put the brakes on this broken, and at times, abusive system which destroys the priesthood of all believers with authoritative control. 

The Reformed Tradition of the Professional Clergy 

I am thankful for the Reformation, kind of. Some good things came out of it and I am grateful for those. But while I am thankful for some of it, I am not thankful for everything about the Reformation. While I am grateful for some of the things men like Luther or Calvin said or did, I am not thankful for everything men like Luther and Calvin said or did. After all, these people had their blind spots, just like me. For instance, I don't think the right way to deal with those who disagree with you on doctrinal issues or the mode of baptism is to burn them at the stake or drown them. I love that Luther had the boldness to say things like, "Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes", "Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me", and "For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel." But other statements he made are a little scary and an indication of his own blind spots and (I believe) a failure to move far enough away from organized religion. 

Concerning the clergy/laity distinction in the church, Luther, not unlike Ignatius, held the view that only the specially trained ordained ministers were qualified to preach, baptize, and administer the Lord's supper. He felt that to veer from this and allow the un-ordained laity to do those things would result in a 

"perversion of public order" and an "undermining respect for authority" leading to "deplorable confusion." Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 323. 

This same mindset is all around us today. The Anabaptists of Luther's day believed it was crucial to have every member functioning in the body of Christ and anyone should be allowed to speak publicly when the church was gathered, as opposed to the one-man professional clergy of the day. Luther became so opposed to the idea of someone other than the professional clergy speaking in the church's meetings, that he referred to it as coming from "the pit of hell" and that those who were guilty of it should be put to death. Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 323. 

Concerning the professional clergy, Luther noted: 

"It is a wonderful thing that the mouth of every pastor is the mouth of Christ, therefore you ought to listen to the pastor not as a man, but as God." Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 326. 

He added, "The ears are the only organs of a Christian." John Calvin chimed in saying, 

"The pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth in a greater way than the sun, food, and drink are necessary to nourish and sustain the present life." John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV: 3:2, p. 1055. 

The clergy/laity distinction is so deeply rooted in our tradition and spiritual heritage that it's no wonder talking about it stirs up so much anger and suspicion. We're messing with a sacred cow and those most deeply immersed in this system have the most to lose because it's directly tied to their income. That's a scary and vulnerable place to find oneself in this discussion. But the church has a choice to make. If there is anything church history and tradition can teach us regarding the clergy/laity system, it's that the entire structure is built upon power and money where money flows up and power flows down and those in power are the beneficiary. We'll be talking more about that in part five of this series. 

The entire clergy/laity system needs dismantled if we take the New Testament at face value. Upton Sinclair summed it up perfectly when he said: 

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." 

I'm not being insensitive regarding those whose income is tied to the success and perpetuity of institutional Christianity or religion. I mention it because it's a valid point that contributes to the ongoing success of a failed system.

Does Education Imply Authority? 

Let's talk about one more thing related to the clergy/laity system before we go. Let's talk about education and authority. I'm not anti-education. I think being able to talk about the rich things of scripture with someone can be a beautiful thing. I know Christians who do so and they do it with gentleness and humility and I am thankful for them. In the clergy/laity system, academic achievement is of utmost importance because it signifies power and authority. It's a big piece of the pie that sets the professional clergy apart from the non-professional laity and is assumed to impart or convey authority over the laity to some degree. 

Because of what tradition has handed us, we accept this without blinking. A huge part of the clergy persona is formal education. We've made it that way. And we've made it that way on purpose. We hire the professionals on purpose. Sadly, I've seen degrees used as a trump card to get others (the lowly laity) to line up under the clergy. What a mess! But here's the good news: academic degrees are not a qualification for elders/pastors. (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). 

The Apostles themselves (with the exception of Paul) weren't well-educated individuals. Even so, it was obvious to the world around them that they had "been with Jesus." (Acts 4:13). Paul considered himself a "brother" and "fellow servant" with Tychicus (Colossians 4:7), Epaphras (Colossians 1:7), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), and Silvanus (1 Peter 5:12). The apostles never talked in terms of authority or "us" and "them" in the context of serving Christ. They considered themselves to be fellow laborers with all believers in the church. A degree on my wall does not assign me some kind of authority over you or give me special status that your don't have. Tradition says it does, not the New Testament. Jesus has a different idea: 

"But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12, emphasis mine) 

James D. G. Dunn added this:

"The clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies." - James D. G. Dunn 

Next up: Rethinking Community and Accountability

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