God’s Clergy and Laity

By Randy Harshbarger

In religious circles, the subject of God’s “clergy” and God’s “laity” receives much attention. Although the New Testament says nothing about the subject as it is usually thought of, soon after the last apostle died, the bishops of the church in each community began exerting unscriptural power. They assumed power that was not rightfully theirs. These leaders eventually placed themselves above the common member of the church, i.e., the laity, and it was during this period that 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 is said 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 church” (Tit. 1; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3). Forsaking the divine pattern gave rise to the 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 John 3:4).

Leaders of the Restoration had much 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 Camp- bell’s disassociation from the Seceder Presbyterians was his suspicion of clerical monopoly. A perusal of all seven volumes of The Christian Baptist will reveal that Alexander Campbell had much to say on the subject. One writer said about 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 church one of which was ‘The authority and status assumed by the clergy’” (from W.E. Garrison, An American Religious Movement: A Brief History of The Disciples of Christ).

In the third issue of Campbell’s paper, he 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 ascendancy over the human mind, as the clergy” (The Christian Baptist, Vol. 1, No. 3). This domination of 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. It seems that Campbell grew to appreciate the need for better educated and trained preachers; yet, his early opposition to clericalism left its mark. 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. The New Testament of Jesus Christ teaches that every member of the body is vitally important (1 Cor. 12). Every member of the human body is designed to work in harmony together, and the same thing is true of the spiritual body of Christ. Let us be one together, exalting none, save the Lord Jesus Christ.