The Clergy and the Laity in the Christendom and New Testament Models of Church
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
In the New Testament, an understanding of ministry rests not on the clergy-laity distinction but on the twin concepts of the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Spirit. Today, four centuries after the Reformation and one century after the Pentecostal movement, the full implications these two concepts have yet to be fully worked out. I would propose that the clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation church and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the primary obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the Kingdom in today world. Because it creates a false idea that only ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership in the church and its ministry in both the church and the world.
In the New Testament, there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity. The contemporary system of clergy is a religious relic, a hangover from the church of the Middle Ages that has no biblical foundation. This system has caused the people of God to become bystanders and observers, dependent on a single leader or a paid professional ministry team. Consequently, the church has become a place where Christians observe professional clergy perform. Irrespective of what our theology textbooks say about the role and purpose of the clergy. The reality is that all too often they cause God’s people to be ineffective and disenabled. This happens not because clergy want it to happen (they usually intend the opposite) but because the objective nature of the professional ministry inevitably turns the laity into passive receivers.
Depending on the specific church context the ‘laity’ are often defined negatively:
• By function -- they do not administer the Word and the sacraments.
• By status – they are not ordained.
• By location – they serve primarily in the world, rather than the church.
• By education -- they are not theologically trained.
• By remuneration – they are not full-time, nor are they paid.
• And by lifestyle -- they are not religious professionals but occupied with secular life.
Generally, lay people are deemed to be assistants to the pastor or minister, rather than the other way around.
The New Testament knows nothing of two kinds of people:
• The professional clergy -- those who are superior, gifted and powerful.
• And the laity -- those who are inferior, untrained and relatively powerless.
In the New Testament there is only one people, the laity (in Greek Laos), which includes those in leadership roles. Moreover the leaders, like those they lead, are first and foremost members of the laity and share in the same privileges and responsibilities as all of the people of God as Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9-10:
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[a]in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
New Testament writers rejected two belittling words for “laity” that were available to them when describing the people of God: laikos and idiotes. The word laikos meaning, “belonging to the common people” is not used at all in the New Testament. It was first used by Clement of Rome, at the end of the first century, to describe the place of the laity in worship when the presbyters were being deprived of their functions., The other word, idiotes, root of the English word idiot, means “layperson in contrast to an expert or specialist.” This negative word is never used as a self-description of God’s people in the New Testament. In Acts 4:13 members of the Jewish Sanhedrin expressed their amazement that these “unschooled, ordinary men”. In this case the idiotai were Peter and John, could preach with such eloquent power. The word is also used in 1 Cor. 14:23 to describe the outsider who wanders into a Christian meeting and cannot understand what is going on.
Instead of laikos and idiotes the New Testament writers use two other words. The Greek word laos originally meant “the people or the crowd.” It was eventually employed in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) as the universal designation for “the people of God” translating the Hebrew am. This word may be properly translated “laity,” but to do so we would need to reinterpret its meaning. It does not mean “untrained” or “ordinary”; rather it means “the people of God” (Acts 15:14; Romans 9:25; 1 Peter 2:9) - a truly extraordinary people, and includes rather than excludes those who were priests.
In the church, today we have two classes of people separated by education, ordination and intonation. Thus it is the laity who receives the ministry and the clergy who give the ministry. However, in the New Testament there is only one ministering people with leaders, also members of the laos, serving them to equip the people for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). The second word used to describe the whole people of God is the Greek word kleros, the word from which our English clergy is derived. The word means “lot, share, or portion assigned to someone” and is used for the privileges and appointment of all the people of God (Galatians 3:29; Eph. 1:11; Col. 1:12). With the exception of Ignatius of Antioch, who used kleros to describe the martyr. The term was not used for “clergy” until the third century. It is only at that time that the term laity reappears. In a sense, laypersons can exist only when they have an opposite against which they can define themselves, and until the third century there simply was no such opposite. The church in the New Testament has no lay people in our contemporary sense of that word. It is full of clergy in the true sense of that word of all being ministers. A biblical theology of the laity must communicate this.
When we step into the church of the New Testament, we meet a single people (laos) marked by universal spirit-giftedness, priesthood, empowerment, calling and ministry. The church as a whole is the true ministerium, a community of apostles, prophets, teachers and priests serving God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit 24/7. All are clergy in the sense of being appointed by God to service and dignified as God’s inheritance. All are laity in the sense of having their identity rooted in the people of God. All exercise ministry. All receive ministry. That is the constitution of the church.
But when we step into the modern church or the church still holding on to Christendom, which as not thrown off the clergy/laity division of the Middle Ages we see something quite different. Deeply ingrained is the belief that the full-time professional ministry is the highest human vocation. From the perspective of the New Testament, however, a part-time option has never been available! It is only when a person feels he or she is not able to go into the ministry that the second-best alternative is to spend discretionary time in church-related activities. Instead of the pastor becoming an assistant to the people, preparing them for ministry in the church and world, equipping thus gets reduced to making para-clergy out of the rest of the members of the church in order to assist the minister.
Not surprisingly, few business-people think of themselves as full-time ministers in the marketplace and fewer still are encouraged in this by their churches. Hardly anyone gets commissioned to service in the world as a doctor, nurse, mechanic, builder, teacher, etc. Christians in the first century would have found such a state of affairs anachronistic - a throwback to the situation before Christ came when only a few in Israel knew the Lord, when only one tribe was named as priests and when only a select few heard the call of God on their lives.
Three conclusions may be drawn from this:
First, there is no such thing as an individual layperson. If, we live out the Christian life interdependently as the body of Christ, the individual Christian is an oxymoron. Consistent with the Old Testament, the saints in Paul’s letters are really a unit. The saints are the church, which is the body of Christ. Believers are held together in what can be conceived as a corporate, inclusive personality. It is biblically inconceivable for a person to be a believer in Christ and not be a member of this community. John Wesley once observed that the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion. The believer’s identity is communal as well as individual. Whereas the basic unit of the church is the individual member, for Paul the basic uniqueness of the individual arises from his or her membership in the church.
Second, there is no hierarchy of ministries. All members of the ecclesia have in principle the same calling, responsibility and dignity. They have their part in the apostolic and ministerial nature and calling of the church. Incarnating our loving submission to Christ’s lordship in every arena of life precludes saying that certain tasks are in themselves unholy and others are sacred. Laos theology is concerned not only about the work of the ministry but also about the ministry of work.
Third, supported Christian ministry is not the vocation of vocations but merely one way of responding to the single call that comes to all (Ephes. 4:1). Most expositions about ministry are magnetically attracted to the supreme place of the ordained professional as the minister-par-excellence. It is small wonder that laypersons aspiring to ministry attempt to become amateur clergy persons or para-clergy. There is a number reason for this. Work in the church is strategic because the church is the prototype community and the outcropping of the kingdom of God, but work in the church is important only in view of what its members will be and do in society. Church leadership must be evaluated not in terms of its priestly character but by whether the saints are equipped for the work of the ministry 24/7 (Eph. 4:11-12).