Rethinking Religion, Part 3: The Clergy/Laity Distinction

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

This is part 3 of a multi-part series I’m calling Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one and two, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve written thus far:

Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) said this:

“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.”

I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). It was assumed to be a biblical directive, but it is not.

We’ve already shown that the top-down authority structure that is present in most modern institutional churches is a man-made product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been  handed to us by religious 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 the 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 practice of the one anothers within the assembly and to the priesthood of all believers.

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 lower class of “laity” has caused a deep rift in the body of Christ and in many instances, has led to the abuse of supposed authority. It has allowed those in supposed power roles to perpetuate those power roles by reinforcement of an assumed call to professional ministers that the rest of the assembly 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. I’ve noticed a pattern that those most desperate to be thought of as important are the same ones scrambling the hardest to be in control. There are obvious exceptions to this but I can’t help but notice this pattern. 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.

Who Are the Clergy?

Is there such a thing as clergy in the New Testament and if so, who does it refer to? Yes, there is such a thing as clergy in the New Testament. But its definition may surprise you. It’s not what we’ve been told it is. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Someone hasn’t been truthful with us and in fact, 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 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 conversation 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 New International Version (NIV) words it this way,

“… not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

In both versions, “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 of professional Christians called the clergy. It’s a little ironic that this verse is addressing the shepherds, pastors, or overseers of the assembly (those we call clergy) but Peter never uses that title to describe them. Instead, he uses it to describe those entrusted to their care – the entire congregation. Peter is telling the pastors, “Don’t be domineering over the clergy.” That’s backwards from what we’ve been told and the way we think. We’ve turned it around and flipped it on its head. But Peter’s meaning is inescapable. The “clergy” of God, according to Peter, is the entire church. It’s Christ’s inheritance that we get to participate in by grace alone. Paul adds:

“… giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance (clergy – κλῆρος) of the saints in light.” (Colossians 1:12 ESV)

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 (clergy – κλῆρος) who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:18 ESV)

In each of these occurrences of κλῆρος (clergy) in the New Testament, the point is clear: κλῆρος (clergy) is used in the New Testament to refer to the entire assembly. There is no hint of a special class within the assembly called clergy, who are uniquely gifted or called to be separated from the rest of the assembly or elevated above others in the local assembly. But we’ve turned clergy into a thing. A harmful thing. We (those with the power) have made the top-down authority structure of the clergy/laity system into an institution. It’s a concept that’s come to us via religious tradition and has no biblical precedence. None. It’s man-made by those in power. But we’ve taught this tradition as authoritative structure for so long that we have, by our very tradition, nullified scripture on the matter (Mark 7:8). Perpetuating a clergy/laity system within the assembly has put an incredible amount of unnecessary pressure on those with shepherding gifts to be more than they can possibly be or should be, and many are burning out and/or falling by the wayside 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 simultaneously exalt and isolate the supposed clergy as the lone professional in this system. Is it any wonder?

It’s equally unfair to the rest of the assembly because the overseers 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 talk 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 laos (λαός) which simply means “people” and similar to clergy, is used of the entire assembly. It is not used in the New Testament to refer to the people in general as opposed to the clergy. 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 assembly as a whole is referred to as God’s “people” (λαός), including the shepherds. There is no hint in the New Testament of a hierarchy within the church that demands we have a clergy/laity, us/them system in place. This system is crippling the assembly and needs to be jettisoned. In the New Testament clergy = laity (κλῆρος = λαός) = the entire church. The two terms are synonymous and interchangeable, not distinct and separate. The people (λαός) of God are not a non-professional segment within the assembly, there to support the professional clergy. Unhealthy tradition has birthed that idea, not Jesus. It’s a man-made tradition put in place by those in charge who want to stay in charge. 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 and the practicing of the one-anothers in the New Testament with authoritative control.

The Reformed Tradition of the Professional Clergy

I am thankful for so much of the Reformation. So many good things came out of it and I am grateful for how God moved during that time in church history and how so many truths of the Bible were re-awakened and restored. But while I am thankful for the Reformation, I am not thankful for everything about the Reformation. While I am grateful for men like Luther and Calvin and I love so much of what they said and stood for, I am not thankful for everything Luther and Calvin did or said. After all, these are mere men just like me and they 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 Rome. Concerning the clergy/laity distinction in the church, Luther, not unlike Ignatius, held the crippling 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 at the time of the reformation 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 assembled, as opposed to the one-man professional clergy of the day. Luther was so opposed to the idea of someone other than the professional clergy speaking in the assembly, 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 added:

“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 among those thought to be in charge. 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, power, and status. 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 beneficiaries and guardians of the system. 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. Since in most instances, one’s income is tied to there being a professional clergy within the church, Upton Sinclair’s statement is relevant to our conversation. He noted,

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

Ignorance is bliss and at times, intentional.

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. But I have discovered that within 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 varying degrees. Because of what tradition has handed us, we accept this premise without blinking. A huge part of the clergy persona is formal education. We’ve made it that way. 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 and do what they say. What an abusive mess! But here’s the good news: academic degrees are not a qualification for biblical elders. (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). The Apostles themselves (with the exception of Paul) weren’t degreed individuals. Even so, it was obvious to the world around them that 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 assembly. Paul considered his academic achievements as dung, but we flaunt and glory in ours. A degree on my wall does not assign me some kind of authority over you. Tradition says it does, not the New Testament. There exists no professional class in the assembly called clergy. Jesus agrees:

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)

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


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