By Randy Harshbarger
In religious circles, the subject of God’s “clergy” and God’s “laity” has received much attention. Although the New Testament says nothing about the subject as it is usually thought of, just a little over one hundred years after the last apostle died, the bishops of the church in each community began exerting unscriptural power. Here was the result: after continuing to assume power not rightfully theirs, the church leaders eventually placed themselves above the common member of the church, i.e., the laity. During this period the laity became dependent upon the clergy for access to God’s favor.
Eventually the apostle Peter was given pre-eminence over the other apostles, in an effort to justify the clergy-laity system. It was suggested that Peter served as an elder in the church at Rome; upon this foundation the Catholic church claims Peter as her first pope. These events occurred just a short time after the first century church was obeying God’s command to have “elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:14-15). Forsaking the Divine pattern gave rise to the now universal distinction between the clergy and laity. God’s plan to have humble servants oversee the spiritual needs of the congregation gave way to man’s plan which provided an unscriptural elevation of certain leaders in the church over other members. This man-made distinction cannot be found in the word of God, and is therefore sinful (Acts 15:24; Rev. 22:18-19; 1 Jn. 3:4).
Discussions During Restoration Movement
Various leaders of the Restoration had a great deal to say about the clergy and laity, expressing much sympathy for the so-called lay member, while the clergy received many anathemas! When men began to break away from denominational concepts, it was natural that the exalted clergy should come- under attack. One reason for Thomas Campbell’s disassociation from the Seceder Presbyterians was his suspicion “of clerical monopoly.”(1) A casual perusal of all seven volumes of The Christian Baptist will reveal that Alexander Campbell had much to say on the subject. As one writer says in referring to The Christian Baptist, “It was small, as a hornet is small, and its sting was as keen. It attacked especially three characteristics of the existing churches,” one of which was “the authority and status assumed by the clergy.(2)
In the third issue of “this stinging paper,” Campbell began a series of articles on the clergy by saying, “No class or order of men that ever appeared on earth have obtained so much influence, or acquired so complete an ascendency over the human mind, as the clergy.”(3) This dominion over the laity, Campbell said, had been in existence for some 1500 years. Historians observe that Campbell seemed to relent somewhat after The Christian Baptist years. Tucker said, “Campbell grew to appreciate the need for an educated and specially trained ministry, but the anticlericalism of his early witness made a deep mark on the Disciples of Christ.”(4) Although Campbell may have altered his thinking along these lines in later years, many learned to oppose the clergy as it then existed from his mighty pen. We, too, must never cease to oppose this presumptuous curse in religion.
One thing that differentiated the Disciples from the Baptists was that the Disciples practiced no special call to the ministry. Also, no sharp distinction was made between the clergy and laity. Generally speaking, the early Restoration preachers and leaders, as well as the common member, held to the concepts just given. In other words, the clergy-laity system was absent. Brethren were concerned with the so-called laity becoming more active or prominent in the church, by playing a more important role in worship, decision making, and daily duties. However, after the Civil War, those members of the church who may be classified (and have been) as liberals, were having second thoughts as to the feasibility and effectiveness of each church having elders to lead and guide. Certainly it is regrettable that some men who did not possess biblical qualifications of a bishop or overseer, were appointed. Still, this was not a valid reason to have a pastor who cared for the flock by himself as opposed to God’s plan for elders in every church!
Those church leaders and members who advocated this one-man pastor position were the most liberal element in the church. Their desire to exalt one man over the rest of the congregation, to rule in the absence of qualified men, was another step that brought them closer to complete apostasy. This group of people accepted instrumental music among other things. Today a large portion of them call themselves the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They claim to be a denomination and make no bones about it! Issac Errett received from some friends a doorplate inscribed “Rev. Isaac Errett.”(5) It is heartening to know, “Errett was soundly condemned for imitating clergy-dominated denominations,” and there were still “inflexible restorationists” who sought to lead Disciples back to the old paths. The Lord condemned the wearing of religious titles that exalted certain men above others (Matt. 23:112). Appellations of honor that are meant only for God and His Son are not to be worn by men. In spite of this plain Bible teaching, the denominations already had, and the more liberal element in the church were ready for. the “clergy.” Those who knew what the Bible said (or what it did not say!) on the subject of distinguishing God’s clergy from His laity continued to resist moves in that direction.
It is not uncommon to hear members of the church describe themselves as “laymen.” They mean, of course, “layman” as opposed to one who belongs to something the religious world calls “the clergy.” Christians may have a true concept of what it actually means to be part of God’s clergy and laity; the denominational world does not. We believe the following definitions are generally understood and accepted by most people familiar with denominational jargon. “Clergy: men ordained for religious service, as ministers, priests, etc., collectively.” `Laity: all the people not included among the clergy; laymen collectively.” Those who understand a “clergyman” as one who has been elevated by special ordination or miraculous call need to understand that Christians are neither ordained nor called in the denominational usage of the words.
Therefore, we believe, using the widely accepted definitions of these words, “layman” describes us best, even those who preach. We are laymen as opposed to those trained to wear the clerical garb. We have not been trained as priests like those in Rome. None of us are exalted clergymen giving the rest of us humble laymen access to God’s grace. All professional or clerical training, theology, and titles are foreign to God’s Word
All Christians Comprise God’s Clergy and Laity
As was hinted at earlier, no distinction is made in the Bible between clergy and laity. Clergy is from kleros, an assigned lot or heritage. The only time the word appears in the New Testament, it teaches that all God’s people are equally His inheritance in Christ (Eph. 1:11). Because Christians are priests and ministers, we are God’s clergy. Because no distinction is made, we also comprise His laity. Laity is from laos, the people. “The people of God” is not a separate part of God’s family (Heb. 4:9; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9). God’s “people” are His “heritage.” Therefore, His laity is His clergy and His clergy is His laity!
All who have become children of God have entered the ministry or service of God (Rom. 6:14-23). As the apostles were sent forth to carry on Christ’s ministry (Jn. 20:21), all Christians likewise have a ministry to fulfill. “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15), is the proper starting place for the fulfillment of our ministry as children of God. Carrying the gospel to all, as we ourselves live by it, is God’s will for us as His ministers.
Christians are also described in this way: “Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God . . . But ye are . . . a royal priesthood . . . a peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:5,9). Notice the “people” make up the “priesthood.” All believers in Christ are priests! As priests we are able to offer “a sacrifice of praise to God” and sacrifices of service to Him (Heb. 13:15-1.6; Phil. 2:17). We are to be “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1), always striving to be acceptable to the Lord. However, we as priests cannot offer the sacrifice for our sin. We are priests who enjoy all spiritual blessings as a result of the death of our “great High Priest,”. Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:12). It is only by the sacrifice of Christ for our sins that we are able to render service as priests to Him.
Yes, we are priests. But only because the great High Priest has allowed us to be. As priests, as ministers of Christ, our prayer should be that our service rendered to Him will be accepted. “Having then a great high priest, who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).
Our Christian ministry, our priestly nature, our roles as part of God’s clergy and laity, is, as are all things, intended primarily for the glory of Him (1 Pet. 4:10-11). Although some might call us a “populist, antiinstitutional radical”(6) for writing along these lines, this will not deter us from saying some things that need to be said. All of God’s clergy and laity must faithfully discharge their duty in all respects. If it means opposing the growing storm of liberalism now prevalent, then so be it. Let us do all things to the glory of God and faithfully uphold His word.
Truth Magazine XXI: 11, pp. 168-169
March 17, 1977