Category Archives: Clergy

New Anti-Institutionalism

I’ve been searching for a term that captures the mood that has gradually come over me in the last ten years. I think I’ve found it: New Anti-Institutionalism. I sense that this mood has become widespread among American Christians and has developed into something of a grass roots movement. But why “new”? How does it differ from “old” anti-institutionalism?

Old Anti-Institutionalism

For readers that don’t know my background, my theological and ecclesiastical identity was shaped in the (American) Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, out of which came the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. Among Churches of Christ there developed an anti-institutional tradition that resisted the rise of parachurch institutions that accompanied the increasing wealth, urbanization, and the social and missionary consciousness of churches after the 1880s. Many argued that these organizations were usurping the work that churches ought to do. Parachurch organizations may do good works in Jesus’s name, but they don’t answer directly to the authority of the church. Indeed, some feared that local churches would be brought under the authority of such organizations. I am sure that some Baptist and other independent churches also had similar fears and engaged in similar controversies. In Churches of Christ, the original anti-institutionalists argued that the local church was the only institution with divine authority to carry out such essential works of the church as preaching the gospel, sending out missionaries, and taking care of the poor. The cogency of such arguments depended on the widely accepted doctrine of the church known as restorationism. Restorationism is the idea that many of the divisions among Christians are caused by adding extra features to the simple organization of the New Testament church. However, following the simple pattern of the New Testament church, without addition or subtraction, charts the way both to faithfulness to Scripture and unity among believers.

New Anti-Institutionalism

The new anti-institutionalism does not object to the existence and work of parachurch organizations, certainly not for the reasons given by the old anti-institutionalists. We cannot discern one organizational pattern in the New Testament that must be implemented regardless of era or circumstances. Nor are we concerned with legal precision of organization. We worry, instead, about our freedom to preach and live the gospel in this post-Christian culture. The challenge to our spiritual freedom comes from within as well as without the church. Hence new anti-institutionalists focus as critically on institutions that call themselves churches as they do on so-called parachurch organizations. In fact, new anti-institutionalists consider most traditional churches to be “parachurches.”

Note: See my book Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned (Los Angeles: keledei, 2021) for my explanation of why most churches are really parachurch organizations. One suspicious critic seem to think of Rethinking Church as an apology for old anti-institutionalism. Not really, but I suppose one could think of it as a manifesto for New Anti-Institutionalism.

The Regulatory State

In nineteenth-century America, the dominant culture was friendly toward Christianity, there was no income tax, and no regulatory state. Churches and parachurch institutions had great liberty to organize and conduct their affairs as they please without government entanglement. In 2021, however, churches, schools, and all other legally recognized associations live under mountains of laws and government regulations. Their freedom to preach and live the gospel is under constant threat. Compromise and assimilation are their greatest temptations. The new anti-institutionalists assert that the threat from the regulatory state and the dominant culture has become so menacing and compromise so common that it has become impossible for a government approved institution to remain unequivocally faithful to the gospel. We don’t trust any of them.

The Impersonal Institution

Institutions are by nature fictitious persons. They have no heart or soul. They are organized as bureaucracies and operate according to rules. The bigger they grow the less nimble they become.  Self-preservation is their strongest instinct. The institution’s officers and bureaucrats almost inevitably substitute their own private interests for the founding goal of the institution. And when that institution calls itself a church, it often prioritizes such institutional goals as growth in numbers, visibility, and wealth, over the spiritual welfare of individual believers. The institution is well fed while its members starve. New anti-institutionalists object to institutionalization because it is the enemy of community and individual discipleship to Jesus.

Agility, Simplicity, and Freedom

New anti-institutionalists are not iconoclasts. We don’t want to demolish institutions for the joy of hearing the crashes and bangs. We want believers to be free in mind and heart to invest themselves directly in service to God without bureaucratic rules, government entanglement, and avoidable cultural pressure to assimilate. New anti-institutionalists prize agility, simplicity, and freedom—all for the sake of the gospel of Jesus.

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!

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.