The Clergy System (Rethinking Church #19)

It is time to rethink the idea of the church as an employer of ministers. We will examine this issue from the perspective of the spiritual life of the minister and from the church as the employer of ministers. We will consider the spiritual advantages and disadvantages of the paid ministry.

This is Personal

As I said in the previous post, this issue is personal for me. I served in the fulltime ministry for eight years. I received a divine call into ministry as a college student. Based on that call I changed my major from Chemistry to Bible. To better prepare myself for a life of church leadership I spent four years in graduate school working on a Master of Theology degree. Many friends in my own generation entered the ministry and served for many years. Many of my heroes are preachers and missionaries. And now that I have been teaching theology for thirty-one years in a university that grants two degrees specifically designed to prepare people for fulltime ministry—M.Div. and MS—I have scores of former students in fulltime church ministry.

I share this background because I want readers to know that I do not doubt my original call into the ministry or my decision to accept it. Nor do I wish to make any negative judgment of the fine men and women who serve in churches all over the world. Quite the opposite, I want to encourage them in their work and support them in whatever ways I am able.

The Divine Call

Throughout the history of the people of God in the Old and New Testaments and the history of the church from the First to the Twentieth Century, some men and women have felt compelled by a divine call to speak, preach, teach, and serve in the name of the Lord. Such prophets as Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the priests deriving from family of Aaron and the Levites were called into special divine service. Some of these people lived from tithe offerings from the people and some supported themselves. Jesus called twelve apostles for the special ministry of preaching the gospel to Jews and consolidating the fledgling church. Paul received a call from the resurrected Jesus to preach to the gentiles. In some cases, the apostles and other Christian missionaries, teachers, prophets, and elders received economic help from other believers (1 Cor 9:3-18).

Paul lists the central functions designed to help the church grow and keep it strong: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11-12). The church cannot thrive without these services and functions, but not everyone is gifted and called to the same role. Paul devotes a whole chapter of 1 Corinthians to the theme of unity and diversity within the body of Christ. I will quote just three verses: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (12:12-14). Some people find themselves gifted and called to teach, preach, and minister in leadership. They devote themselves to study, prayer, and practice to prepare themselves for service. Thank God for his gift of these people to the church!

But we must distinguish between God’s gifting and calling of men and women into the service of the Word and taking a job with a church as a paid minister. The two may go together but they are not bound by necessity to do so. Hence my admiration and praise for people gifted and called into ministry does not necessarily translate into admiration and praise for the clergy system as it now stands. You can accept a divine call to evangelize, teach, and preach without becoming clergy. And simply because you get a degree in ministry and a church hires you does not guarantee that you are doing the work of the Lord.

The Advantages of the Paid Ministry

The advantages of churches/parachurches hiring people to organize and lead ministries are obvious. (1) It would be nearly impossible for large churches to function as they currently do with an all-volunteer staff. People are busy, and most people don’t have the training they need to perform some of these functions. Some tasks require many hours a week to carry out. (2) I think modern urban and suburban professionals demand highly educated, professional, and skilled people to lead their churches. After all, the corporations for which they work demand such professionalism. (3) Relieving gifted and called men and women of the necessity of spending most of their time working in “secular” work, frees more time for doing the work of ministry. In the case of foreign missionaries, it is often legally impossible for them to work in the host country. Apart from financial support from their home country they could not engage in mission work. (4) The fourth advantage assumes that the modern church needs ministers with a high level of theological education. Without the prospect of a paid ministry position, a young person might not be willing to devote seven years of their lives to getting the college and seminary training needed for ministry in the modern world. In that amount of time they could have trained for a high paying secular career.

Notice, however, that these advantages for the most part relate to big parachurch churches operating in the ways such churches have for the last hundred years. Of course these churches need highly educated, skilled, professional ministers. But if you call into question the exclusive validity of the big church model, these advantages become less decisive. If you gather around a table, share a meal, remember the Lord in the Supper, read the Scriptures, and pray for each other, you don’t need a highly skilled speaker, a talented worship leader, an efficient administrator, or a meticulous bookkeeper.

Next Time: The disadvantages of the clergy system.

1 thought on “The Clergy System (Rethinking Church #19)

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hi Ron.
    I’ve a confession to make.
    I really love homegroups, and homechurch. However you want to call them… but i don’t like or adhere to cliques, to matey-matey groups, clubs and families within families in churches (often differentiated by how long you’ve been a Christian, whom you know, and how much money you pay- alledgedly/ superficially).
    The reasons homegroups appeal to me is the undeniable friendship aspect that underscores the tightness of feelings in such a group, be they deep sharing of difficulties, or intimate worship, witness and even song!
    But my confession is that any particular church has a ‘homegroup coordinator’ who specifies and stipulates topics which groups are supposed to follow so that upon coming together in big church everybody has the “same hymn sheet”. Why so? Though I don’t really mind this. But it can get awfully boring and uncaring: and abstractious from individuals’ needs and even, the direction of the HS… I believe that most churches often arrange themselves around a seasonal calendar laid out in the back of the 1614 KJB: so you can almost predict what folks will be reading on any given day…
    For this reason, i’ve often attended more than one church, and at least three such home groups (including my own, having taught some theology).
    I think that there is a level of coordination in some churches which is overbearing, and unnecessary, and probably related to a needful controllingness which isn’t entirely Christian in nature.
    This is just a witness and not intended to criticize.



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