One of Christendom’s most enduring legacies is creating a professional clergy class. As someone who has been in full-time ministry for 34 years and ordained for almost as long, you might imagine I consider this a positive.
But, no. I believe the creation of a clergy class and the subsequent clergy-laity dichotomy has done and continues to do great harm to the church.
Let’s dig into this topic.
We Have Clergy, We Have Laity…What’s the Problem?
Eugene Peterson, in his book The Jesus Way, referred to the clergy-laity dichotomy as a:
“Barefaced lie, insinuated into the Christian community by the devil.”Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way
I feel I’m in good company in saying the clergy-laity division is a problem.
Peterson argues that laity is one of the most debilitating words within the church. I believe there is no question that the creation of a clergy class and a laity class has harmed the church irreparably.
But Isn’t That How Things Have Always Been?
It is natural to think that, but it hasn’t always been this way. However, for more than 1700 years, there has been a standard model the church has utilised.
On a local level, there is a priest or a pastor who oversees the church. That person was typically part of a larger hierarchical organisation.
As one moves up within that organisation, there is an accumulation of power and privileges. Likewise, the further up the ladder, the less connection there is with regular church members.
But that has not always been the model. In fact, it is a model that is opposed to what Jesus said concerning how his church was to be led.
So, How Did We Get Here?
From the beginning, the church has had leaders. People like James, Paul and Peter. When Paul and Peter wrote letters to churches…they both addressed church leaders. Paul even wrote some letters we call “Pastoral letters”.
(Although leader was a term the early church tended to avoid due to the connotations that came along with it. You are far more likely to read servant than leader.)
Since the “pastor-led church” model has been around for a long time. We tend to think, “This the way it has always been”, or “If there were something wrong with this model, someone would have fixed it”.
As to the former statement, we’ll dig into this today.
As for the latter statement, here is a question:
What is the motivation to make those changes if the people responsible for making fundamental changes to an organisational structure are the same ones benefiting from things remaining as they are?
We’ll dig into this more when we look at Power, Status, & Privilege.
The Challenge of Examining Early Church Structure
So, if there wasn’t always like this, what was it like?
Here is our first challenge. When we look back and attempt to understand what leadership might have looked like in the early church, the Bible does not provide many details.
You can dig through the writings in the New Testament or even some of the early church leaders, and you will find very little on how local churches structured themselves. Specific terms like Elder, Deacon, and Bishop are used in various locations, but they are never organised into a consistent, clear organisational structure.
Because it is not spelt out, there is a tendency for people to read their own perspectives back into the text. Are you in favour of a grassroots, highly fluid organisation? You can find that. But if you want to argue for a very structured, hierarchical church structure, you can do that too.
This might make us wonder, were New Testament writers just not concerned about leadership structure?
The best way to answer that is to recognise that regardless of how they viewed church structure, the authors of the New Testament were far more concerned with the character of church leaders. That is where their writings focus.
With all of that said, there are passages which are instructive—the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, for example. Although not a local church, the leader of this gathering, James, did not simply issue a decree that everyone under him was required to follow.
All parties had the opportunity to share their views. Then the leaders took time, listened to the Holy Spirit and discerned together what the Spirit was saying.
Similarly, Paul’s Pastoral letters to Titus and Timothy could lead one to argue that pastoral leadership was the norm from the start. Or, it could illustrate that pastoral letters were only addressed to two missionary church plants, and his other letters appear to be addressed to a group of leaders.
Neither the New Testament nor other early church writings provide much in the way of specific instructions.
Different People Did Have Specific Roles
Since the beginning of the church era, we do see specific people given specific roles. In Acts chapter 6, a group of individuals are named deacons and given administrative responsibility regarding food distribution. They were people of character who focused on a specific task. And they were given those roles by twelve Apostles so that they could focus on their particular roles, prayer, and the Word.
But that does not indicate any hierarchy. If we see it as such, it is likely due to our tendency to read what we experience or know back into the text.
The Problem of Hierarchy:
The clergy-laity division is, in one respect, a part of a larger issue hierarchy within the church. Jesus stated at the Last Supper (in Luke 22) that his followers were not to lead as the world’s rulers did. They were not to “lord authority” over others.
And Peter, who was at that meal, echos what Jesus said in one of his letters where he addresses church elders and says;
“Do not lord it over those in your charge but be examples to the flock”.1 Peter 5:3
Two quick points. First, you can only be an example to the flock if you are closely connected to the flock. Second, again, leadership is not to be lorded over.
Yet, while Jesus states that his followers are not to copy the leadership models of the world they see around them, relatively early in its history, the church adopted a model of leadership that mirrored the Roman Empire.
So How Did This Clergy-Laity Thing Happen?
It does appear that a clergy class was emerging and accumulating more authority before the advent of Christendom.
It is possible that as the church grew and became scattered, this was an attempt to help manage the organisation. That is not an argument that it is what should have happened. However, this is to illustrate that not all of the blame can be placed on Christendom.
At that time, however, clergy still tended to be raised from within and remain within their local congregations.
Under Constantine, the emergence of a clergy class was accelerated and institutionalised.
Clergy were now transferred from church to church, with the Roman Empire having a significant say in who went where.
This furthered the social distance between clergy and laity since the clergy would no longer be known by the local church.
This division increased over time.
- Eventually, the clergy began to wear special clothing and gain special privileges.
- Sermons were being delivered in a language most would not understand.
- Singing was restricted to clergy and trained choirs.
- The church even ended agape meals.
The Line Was Moved
Stuart Murray noted that before Christendom, a clear dividing line existed between those within the church and those in the world, those outside the church.
With Christendom, there was no longer any “outside the church”. Everyone (with a few exceptions) was now part of the church. Christendom took the line that had existed between the church and the world and placed it firmly between the clergy and the laity.
Removing the Line
With the abovementioned changes, the church became the domain of the clergy, and everyone else’s job was to attend worship services.
The church is no longer a community I am part of as I navigate the alternative path of being a Jesus follower. Church is an event I go to for about an hour a week…as long as it suits my schedule.
And please hear me on this…this is important. That sentence above is not to critique how most people relate to the church.
It is a critique of the system the clergy class has established.
Here’s a peek behind the curtain. Clergy actually have meetings where they gripe about the lack of commitment among the laity in their churches and read books on how to get you to do more and give more.
Which is a further divide between the clergy and the laity.
For those of us in these roles, our livelihood depends on the laity doing their bit.
That is what the current model has given us.
No wonder Peterson calls this debilitating.
- A small percentage of the church runs meetings and is content if the laity shows up, gives some money, passes out bulletins, or teaches a kids’ class.
- The vast majority of church-goers believe this is all there is…this is what Jesus wanted for them when he called them into his church.
We can and must do better.