The Church and the Clergy System (Rethinking Church #20)

I ended the previous essay by listing some advantages of the practice of hiring a staff of highly educated professional ministers to organize, lead, and teach the church. As I noted, however, this practice makes sense only in parachurch churches. In fact, they cannot function otherwise. Today I want to consider the problems with the clergy system—the system not individual ministers.

The Spiritual Life of the Clergy

I’d like to believe that most people who enter the professional ministry do so because they feel a divine call and want to serve the people of God. They have a warm personal faith and want to serve the Lord freely and happily. However, entering into an employee/employer relationship with a church introduces a new dimension. You now become dependent and responsible to a church and its leaders. You are no longer free to speak, write, and serve as you please. Your time is not your own. Your family is not your own. Every job comes with restrictions and responsibilities, but this job entangles itself with your relationship to God. Even if your employer-church never asks you to say, refrain from saying, or to do anything that violates your conscience, how do you know whether or not, without being aware of it, you are trying to please the church when you should be endeavoring pleasing the Lord? And most insidiously, after a few years ministers are tempted to think of their ministry as they would any other job, a means of livelihood. If paid ministers are not careful, the work they began freely and joyously in response to a divine call will become a heavy burden. Spiritually exhausted and embittered, they look for a way out.

The Clergy/Laity Divide

The ideas of the ordained clergy and the paid ministry are not identical, although they often overlap. The New Testament makes a distinction among various functions within the church, and some possess a kind of authority. Jesus chose the twelve apostles for a special ministry. Their central claim to spiritual authority was their unique relationship with Jesus. They were chosen by Jesus and witnessed his teaching, miracles, and death with their own eyes and ears. They also witnessed the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. The core of their unique authority, then, was their first-hand knowledge of Jesus. Paul came later and rests his authority on having been chosen and called by the risen Jesus. No one can take the apostles’ place or challenge their knowledge of Jesus.

Apostolic witness and authority functions today only through the apostolic teaching, which is contained in the New Testament. No human being living today possesses any spiritual authority to speak in God’s name or make judgments about another person’s status before God except as they are faithful to the original apostolic teaching. No person owes spiritual obedience to another human being except as they trust that their counsel articulates the apostolic teaching. In my view, the spiritual authority of a person accrues today not by a ceremony called “ordination” conducted by an authoritative church body but by a life demonstrating deep knowledge, faithfulness, sincere love, wisdom, and holiness. In short, no one claiming “clergy” status possesses spiritual authority within the church—I am not speaking about parachurch churches, which operate by parachurch rules—to demand obedience from “lay” believers. Only if their lives demonstrate those qualities mentioned above do they have any spiritual authority at all. Even that authority is rooted the persuasive power of their words and lives.

Why do I insist on breaching the wall between clergy and laity? Clergy often give airs of having special access to God and use their supposed elite status to maintain power and privilege for selfish and quite worldly reasons. Sometimes the “laity” are quite content to let clergy play their game because it gives them an excuse for spiritual laziness. Let’s get clear on this: perhaps industry and the economy work better by instituting a complete division of labor, but not the church. Every believer is called to the virtues of faith, hope, and love. The Spirit works to transform everyone into the image of Christ. All Christians have a responsibility to use their lives in service to the Lord. We’re all in our own way preachers, evangelists, missionaries, pastors, and counselors. Everyone is a theologian, for you must not allow others to think for you. No one is allowed to hand their conscience over to another human being!

Clergy and the Mission of the Church

As I pointed out early in the series, the essential mission of the church is witness to Jesus Christ in life, word, and deed. The work of the church is helping people come to deep faith and be transformed into the image of Christ. One of the greatest temptations paid minsters face is coming to view the mission and work of the church through the lens of their own self-interest. The church can do its work and pursue its mission without seeking to become large, wealthy, famous, and powerful. However, the private interest of the clergy would be better served were their church-employer to become large, wealthy, famous, and powerful. Indeed, it almost seems that the big, parachurch model of church and the clergy system are congenital twins. We cannot imagine one without the other.

When faced with decisions about the direction the church should take, can paid ministers choose options that facilitate the church’s true work and mission but go against their private interests? Even if, as individual believers, they wish to pursue only the essential work and mission of the church, the swift current of the clergy system sweeps them downstream, no matter how hard they swim for the shore. How hard it is for clergy to seek first the kingdom of God! With human strength alone it is impossible, but with God all things are possible!

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