The Return of the Clergy

By Ron Halbrook

Although the Protestant Reformation spoke of the priesthood of all believers, the Protestant systems -including American denominationalism-almost invariably created their clergies. For instance, William Paley, “Archdeacon of Carlisle,” delivered a sermon entitled, “A Distinction of Orders in the Church Defended Upon Principles of Public Utility,” given in the Castle Chapel, Dublin, “At the Consecration of John Law, D.D., Lord Bishop of Clonfert and Kilmacdaugh, September 21, 1782” (The Works of William Paley, 1860, pp. 585ff).

He argued that while “the precepts of Christian morality and the fundamental articles of the faith are” precise, absolute, and universally binding, “the laws which respect the discipline, instruction, and government of the community, are delivered in terms so general and indefinite as to admit of an application adapted to the mutable condition and varying exigencies of the Christian church.” Appeal is made to 1 Cor. 14:40: 2 Tim. 2; and Tit. 1:5, “all general directions, supposing . . . the existence of a regular ministry in the church, but describing no specific order of pre-eminence or distribution of office and authority.” Other such expediencies include the deacons of Acts 6, the collections for the saints of Acts 4, and the laying by in store upon the first day of the week in 1 Cor. 16. Therefore, the New Testament writings “exclude no ecclesiastical constitution” which future ages deem expedient.

Paley continued,

The separation of a particular order of men for the work of the ministry-the reserving to these exclusively, the conduct of public worship and the preaching of the word-the distribution of the country into districts, and the assigning of each district to the care and charge of its proper pastor-lastly, the appointment to the clergy of a maintenance independent of the caprice of their congregation, are measures of ecclesiastical policy which have been adopted by every national establishment of Christianity in the world.

While some prefer “a perfect parity among their clergy,” Paley defends “a distinction of orders in the church” as better promoting “the credit and efficacy of the sacerdotal office.” His defense is that (1) subordination breeds peace among “preachers of peace;” (2) differing orders are necessary “in order to supply each class of the people with a clergy of their own level and description, with whom they may live and associate upon terms of equality”-a thing which, no matter how despised by some, is demanded by “the rules or prejudices of modern life” (“when we have the world to instruct and to deal with, we must take and treat it as it is, not as the wishes or the speculations of philosophy would represent it to our view”); (3) respect for “the superior clergy” is enhanced by privileges, emoluments, credit, and reputation; (4) gradation of orders is necessary to invite the young to preach. The objects of all this is to save the lost and promote good works. “As far as our establishment conduces to forward and facilitate these ends, so far we are sure it falls in with his (Christ’s-RH) design, and is sanctified by his authority.”

Though Paley regards the arrangements as mere expedients, Christ through inspired men made divine arrangements to “forward and facilitate these ends” (cf. Eph. 4:8-12; Rom. 11:33-36). The simple work of elders, deacons, evangelists, and teachers can hardly satisfy men whose thinking is saturated with and conformed to the ways of “this present age” (Rom. 12:1-2). As. Paley noted, different religious groups since the New Testament age have created different clerical systems; what is true of one is not necessarily true of another. The emoluments, prerogatives, titles, gradations, and functions of the various clergies may be diverse. Yet, a classical earmark of human error in rebellion against divine truth is a clerical system of some sort.

Restoring the Ancient Order

Though the Protestant Reformation had an important “back-to-the-Bible” thrust-to which we are indebted-the work of overturning the clerical concept mostly waited for the labors of the restoration movement in this country. Protestantism spawned its own errors and its own clergies, but various restoration efforts in America attempted to bypass all human systems and aimed at primitive Christianity as revealed in the New Testament. Human councils, creeds, and clergies were abandoned by those seeking to speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent. Great strides of progress were made in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Alexander Campbell assailed “the kingdom of the clergy” and “the hireling priesthood,” as in “The Third Epistle of Peter, to the Preachers and Rulers of Congregations-A Looking Glass for the Clergy” (Christian Baptist, 1823). In the Christian Baptist for Jan. 5, 1824, he urged, “Let us have no clergy at all, learned or unlearned-let us have bishops and deacons, such as Paul appoints . . . .” In the Millennial Harbinger of 1831 (p. 75), he argued that churches cannot think from the New Testament that “in their church capacity . . . . that they must have official heads and hands to administer ordinances, or to make it lawful for them to meet to worship God . . . .” In his anxiety to avoid even a near approximation to a clergy, Campbell did not think it right “to employ men to preach the gospel in a Christian congregation” (Millennial Harbinger, 183, p. 237), but thought a church could support men to convert the lost. “The hireling is one who works for wages merely; but everyone who receives wages is not a hireling. Were that the truth, then Paul himself was a hireling . . .

(Millennial Harbinger. 1835, p. 474).

In the early days, Campbell and others, while thoroughly convinced in opposition to the clergy, were somewhat confused over the work or office of the 0vangelist. They argued that it pertained only to the age of spiritual gifts, and that the proper way to spread the gospel was for whole churches to move into new regions, living such examples as would compel people to obey the gospel. Then the concept shifted to the evangelist as an itinerate, supported only for the purpose of going into new regions. But there were brethren who recognized that an evangelist could labor with a local church. J. B. Ferguson did so in Nashville, Tennessee, ana Moses Lard argued that an evangelist could do such work for one year or ten without taking to himself the work of elders or pastors (Lard’s Quarterly, Vol. II, pp. 258-259).

Return of the Clergy

But from 1866 to 1906, the one-man pastor system became popular along with instrumental music in worship, human societies doing the churches’ work, and fairs to raise money. When the Back-to-the Bible movement began changing into a Back-to-Denominationalism movement, the return of the clergy was inevitable! Though the word “clergy” was generally avoided, Isaac Errett set the pace by accepting the title “Reverend.” Men like D. S. Burnet, B. K. Smith, J. C. Stark, and Thomas Munnel promoted the clerical concept of the “ministry,” calling preachers “the pastor” and urging them to oversee the flock. When Daniel Sommer delivered the Sand Creek Address in 1889, he opposed the whole package of digression, including instruments, societies, fairs, and “the one man imported preacher-pastor to take the oversight of the church.”

By 1906 churches generally known as Christian Churches or Disciples of Christ had largely given up the concept of the preacher simply proclaiming the gospel and had adopted a clerical concept of the one-man pastor, promoter, general organizer, fund raiser, community spokesman, often civic leader, counselor, in short “the administrative leader of the church” (Clarence E. Lemmon, The Art of Church Management (1933), p. 3). Emphasis was placed on “an educated ministry” -referring, not to a thorough knowledge of Scripture, but to various studies in science, history, and human behavior. In the ’30’s and ’40’s, “Dr.” Hampton Adams wrote books on The Pastora’ Ministry, You and Your Minister, and Calling Men for the Ministry (including chapters on “The Minister As A Preacher,” “. . . As A Pastor,” . . . As An Administrator”), having obtained “the A. B. and D. D. degrees from Transylvania College; the B. D. Degree from The College of the Bible, Lexington, Kentucky; the M. A. degree from Yale University”.

On the other hand, a small but significant segment of brethren were meeting elsewhere across the country in groups identified generally as churches of Christ. Rather than return to a denominational concept of the clergy, these churches still aimed at a return to the Biblical concept presented in 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5. “An evangelist” could fulfil his “ministry” or do his “work” if he would simply, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” In keeping with Ephesians 4:11, “evangelists” and “pastors” were considered separate offices, works, or ministries. All clerical systems were alike anathema.

The Clergy Returns, Again!

But by 1950 these churches of Christ had experienced such an astonishing growth that many of them began to yearn for recognition, status, and acceptance by the world. Along with better motives, the Herald of Truth originated in a sense of denominational pride; the idea of some was that the Lutherans have “the Lutheran Hour” on the air and “we” should have “the Church of Christ Hour.” Benevolent, educational, and recreational institutions supported from church treasuries became increasingly popular in the ’50’s; brethren could point with pride to “Church of Christ” institutions not one whit behind Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian organizations.

Thus began 25 years of digression and controversy, debate and division. A small but significant segment of brethren tried to sweep back the tide of apostasy, but after the flood only small islands of resistance remained-just as had been the case in the previous century. And, once again, as the Back-to-Denominationalism trend set in to replace the Back-tothe Bible effort, the return of the clergy has been inevitable! A clerical system of some sort is a classical earmark of apostacy from the ancient order of things revealed in the new testament.

As social, recreational, and educational programs multiply among the churches, preachers are expected to be expert organizers, promoters, fund raisers, and managers. Paley’s defense of an ordered clerical system reveals some shrewd observation on his part, for it is true that the wise, mighty, and noble of this world tend to demand “ministers” who can satisfy their sense of prerogative. As churches of Christ have sought after and adjusted themselves to the demands of the wise, mighty, and noble, the .churches have discarded the concept of the preacher as simply proclaimer of God’s Word. The time is ripe among churches of Christ for the return of the clergy. The term “clergy” will be scrupulously avoided out of deference to “our traditions,” but clerical titles, responsibilities, prerogatives, ministries, and special education are already in the process of acceptance. While few brethren are ready to let the camel bed down in the tent, the nose, if not the head and neck, are already in.

For several years now, Ira North of Madison, Tennessee, and other brethren have openly accepted the title “Dr.” in reference to their work as preachers. Leroy Garrett used to make a specialty of calling all preachers laboring with a given church one-man pastors or clergymen, but he now makes a specialty of writing and publishing such ideas as this: “If contemporary preachers were as well grounded in behavioral sciences as Paul was, they surely could avoid some of the serious blunders they make in inter-personal relations and in misunderstanding scripture. Why do we exclude anthropology, sociology, and psychology from our `preacher curricula’ or, if we offer a veneer in these areas, why do we `doctor’ the content to harmonize with our religious creed and doctrine” (“The Ghetto Church of Christ,” by Cloyd Anthony, Restoration Review (1970), p. 14; cf 1971, P. 14).

Victor Hunter, former editor of Mission, has been working in Trenton, New Jersey, for about a year as a kind of liaison between members of churches of Christ and Princeton University. He is helping young men get into the “Divinity” program, and the school allows them to do their “pastoral field work” under Vic. He may have the distinction earned by Isaac Errett a hundred years ago, when he accepted a name plate inscribed “Rev. Isaac Errett,” a first for that day in the restoration effort. Vic is listed in the phone book as “Rev.,” both under his residential listing and that for the church.

An “educated ministry” is becoming the order of the day among many churches. This goes hand-in-hand with the push for church support of colleges. In appealing for church donations to colleges, Batsell Barrett Baxter said in 1963, “Actually the church has depended upon these schools for many years to play a major role in the training of preachers, elders, teachers, and others. Is it not right that the church should provide the funds for the training of its own leaders?” Again stressing the importance of an educated “leadership in the church,” he challenged, “What feasible, workable, effective method can today take the place of the Christian schools! (Questions and Issues of the Day, pp. 29-30, emphasis original). We wonder what “feasible, workable, effective method” New Testament churches had in the first century to raise up gospel preachers! If churches are dependent upon “these schools” for preachers, it will be natural for churches to inquire how much education a preacher has-particularly how much from “these schools”-before providing support for the spread of the gospel. This is creating a mentality illustrated by “personal workers” from a Nashville church, who visited some brethren who had just moved into the area. When the newcomers told where they had begun attending, they were duly warned, “You don’t want to go over there; we’ve heard that their preacher doesn’t have much college education.”

A Call for Ordained Professional Ministers

Mission magazine began “a series on training our ministers” in the June, 1976, issue. Ron Durham, the editor, posses what he sees as one of the dilemmas in our “leadership crisis”: “On the one hand, we oppose a professional clergy system. On the other, experience .seems to dictate something like that very .system because it works” (emphasis here and following original). Durham calls for a revision of our understanding or “theology of the ministry,” and then states emphatically, “We must accept the brute fact that it is right ,for the church to train and hire professional ministers.” Early restoration preaching in opposition to “the Romish’ clergy system” led to irresponsible, “simplistic book-chapter-and-verse pronouncements” and general opposition to “the religious professional.”

Though Durham opposes the authoritarian, creedal, “Romish” clerical system, he proposes “for us to devise an ordination (appointment) system” so that the church may “respond flexibly to changing needs.” While he recognizes “the biblical picture of . . . `lay’ evangelists, deacons, and elders-indeed, all disciples-” ministering as best they can, there is an imperative need for “professional ministers.” In other words, in place of the old conservative. creedal Protestant or Catholic clergy of the nineteenth century, Durham proposes for churches of Christ a new Liberal or Neo-orthodox, noncreedal, nonauthoritarian, broadminded, professionally trained clergy. That is, we should adopt the popular clerical concepts of the twentieth century instead of the popular system of the nineteenth century, but the Biblical concept of gospel preachers or evangelists is outdated in any case.

The rationale for the new clergy system is exactly the one used for the older system. The Mission mindset is largely the product of twenty years of emphasis on “Where There Is No Pattern” in the interest of churchsupported colleges, clinics, camps, orphanages, and other centralized projects such as the Herald of Truth. This attitude toward Scripture is at one with the old denominational emphasis on “expediency,” the thrust toward doing or allowing whatever is not expressly forbidden. William Paley said “the laws which respect the discipline, instruction, and government of the community, are delivered in terms so general and indefinite as to admit of an application adapted to the mutable condition and varying exegencies of the Christian church.” The New Testament writings “exclude no ecclesiastical constitution,” thus permitting a clergy system, whether it be the Romish system of the early centuries, the subsequent Protestants vstem of the reformation, or the more recent liberal and NeoOrthodox systems.

Paley urged concession to “the rules or prejudices of modern life” in constructing an ordered clergy, and Durham likewise appeals to “a practical situation. Our age is marked by a tendency to turn to religion as the answer to emotional and psychological ills. A biblical theology of the ministry will not allow us to dismiss this fact of life. . . ” Furthermore, the church should “not settle for the minister” who “refuses to equip himself to deal” with such affairs. (Ron Durham will have to pardon me for observing that this sounds something like a creedal, authoritarian judgment, i.e., we must get rid of all preachers who will not accept “ordination” as a “religious professional”!)

Abandon the All-Sufficiency of Scripture

The new approach “will require” of preachers “training not only in Bible but in all disciplines as psychology and counseling.” The church must “provide internships and job prospects for the professionals.” It must develop “the sort of responsible ordination or appointing procedure which would supply the dimension of accountabilitv which is so generally lacking in our ministerial training.” This cry .for “accountability” has been the battle cry for building every ecclesiastical structure of human authority and religious oppression, from the earliest Roman Catholic model to the latest restructure of the Disciples of Christ denomination! In short, it means that those who do not accept the system and submit to the systemizers will be shown the nearest exit. The church “will not settle for the minister” who adamantly defends the outmoded concepts of gospel preaching found in the Bible.

Of course the Mission folks are still a minority in comparison to the mainstream of institutional churches of Christ, but they are also the cutting edge of a newer liberalism which is destined to grow as it did from 1875 to 1900. Just as the Isaac Errett’s and J. H. Garrison’s put out material like The Old Faith Restated in an effort to put the brakes on, even so the James Bales’ and Tom Warren’s are fighting tooth-and-nail to stop the kind of thinking characteristic of Mission. Harding College is a somewhat conservative influence and the Harding Graduate School of Religion features men of a somewhat conservative mold like Earl I. West and Jack P. Lewis. Though these middle-of-the-road liberals consider it anathema to be charged with any responsibility in producing the Mission mind set, a recent issue of the Harding of Memphis Graduate School Bulletin shows something of the relationship. In an article stressing the importance of “The Biblical Field,” Jack Lewis begins, “The preacher today must be trained in many skills. His work touches administration, business management, social work, youth work, and counseling, as well as ministry of the Word. Each of these contributes its share to the ongoing life of the church and to his success in evangelism” (Vol. 14, No. 4, July, 1975).

In contrast to both the missionaries and the middlers, the Bible still says a gospel preacher fills his “ministry” full whenever he will “preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). Nothing is said about training, ordaining, or accountability in psychology, counseling, administration, business management, social work, or so-called youth work. A few of us still believe that it is the work of a preacher, as a preacher, to simply “preach the word. ” Nothing more. Nothing less.

New Testament Christianity Vs. Clerical Systems

New Testament Christianity is the perfect antipathy to all clerical systems with their inevitable titles, flaunting of academic degrees, prestige, elevation, and prerogatives. Every clerical system has this in common: The gospel preacher is made into something more, less, or other than a gospel preacher. He is given the role and responsibility associated with some Scriptural function which belongs to another in the divine order, or is given a role and a responsibility which find no counterpart in Scripture at all.

The work of a gospel preacher is to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified-that includes our obedience to the gospel call, all things that pertain to the kingdom of God, and the whole counsel of God (2 Tim. 4:1-5; 1 Cor. 2:2; Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 8:12; 20:20-27). Preachers, like anyone else, can derive temporal and secondary benefit from knowledge of the world around him; God put no premium on ignorance. But God’s Word is the one power unto salvation, and a knowledge of that Word is the one absolute necessity for the work of a gospel preacher (Rom. 1:16; 2 Tim. 2:2).

Various clergy systems have included one or more of the following characteristics, all alike unscriptural: (1) claim to special or miraculous call; (2) clergy-laity distinctions; (3) swayed by ambition, material interests, and clerical arrogance; (4) systems of church government based on human reasoning, civil government, or some non-biblical pattern; (5) setting aside the divine plan in order to make room for human substitutes; (6) titles of distinction; (7) clerical attire setting off some brethren from others; (8) placing youth in the position of overseeing others of more maturity, dedication, and knowledge-as in the one-man pastor system; (9) unscriptural theology, philosophy, and special knowledge made the province of the clergy; (10) presumption that ordination by clergy bestows some special blessing; (11) tend to move in circles of the affluent, proud, and popular, shunning the humble, poor, and retiring; (12) dependence on written, flowery prayers and speeches instead of the earnest outpouring of a heart which loves God, knows His Word, and genuinely seeks to save souls; (13) dependence on oratorical or philosophical display for power in preaching, along with (14) theatrical gestures or maneuvers; (15) the art of pompous and pious tones in preaching; (16) soft, indirect preaching, passing over popular sins and people; (17) lead people to identify political theories and national interests with the will of God, as by arming soldiers with religious motivations and zeal in wartime; (18) presumption to being holders of the mysteries necessary for the care of souls, and convincing people to depend on ,them for this care-including today, psychology, sociology, anthropology, “church management,” and a plethora of “counseling” sciences; (19) presumption of near infallibility on all sorts of matters of judgment. (20) The clergy are a presumed class among the people of God, wholly unauthorized in Scripture, though mentioned in every Scripture which speaks of lawlessness, apostasy, and will worship (Matt. 7:21ff; Col. 2:23; 2 Thess. 2; 2 Jn. 9).

Christ specifically forbade the spirit which leads to clerical systems, including the use of presumptive titles (Matt. 23:5-12). All of the following titles-with their attendant garb and privilege-violate both the spirit and letter of Christ’s teaching: Pope, Patriarch, President, Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal, Reverend, Right Reverend, Very Reverend, Doctor, Reverend Doctor, Most Worshipful, Worshipful Master (Masonic), Holy, Most Holy, Very Holy, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. The statement of Jesus, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven,” has been violated by the assumption upon the part of some of the very title mentioned: “Father” (Matt. 23:9).

All clerical prerogative or professionalism violates the principle of Christ, “All ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). Like the children in a family, all saints have equality of spiritual standing before God (Gal. 3:26-29). All members of the family may not perform the same service, but God did not provide for any professional or clerical elevation at all in His family. The concepts of elevation, honor, and reverence inherent in the professional clergy are in open rebellion to the expressed will of God.

Be Strong and Work!

God’s people must view with sadness, if not surprise, the return of the clergy. Yet, on the positive side, let us have a mind to work that which is right. “Be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the Lord, and work: for I am with you, saith the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4). God will bless the faithful teaching of His Word, to His glory (1 Cor. 3:6). If He does not need an ordained clergy or professional ministry, He does command that His people be busy serving “unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Elders, deacons, preachers, and teachers are not positions of elevation and prestige. They are only offices, ministries, or works ,for service to others. In the same passage where Jesus eliminated from Divine service the clergy system, he commanded humble, energetic service. “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exhalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:11-12).

The need of the hour is not a professional ministry, pastoral preachers, or a clerical system of any description. We do not need the return of the clergy, for this is only a part of the sickness of God’s people “from the sole of the foot even unto the head” (Isa. 1:6). The need today is exactly what it has always been since the first era of apostasy: a return to the divine standard. We need humble servants, saints busy in the kingdom, preachers who preach the Word, elders who oversee the flock, and deacons who serve. We need faith in God and His Word, a restoration of the ancient order of things (Isa. 55:8-10).

Let us not be ashamed, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). Let us not fear, for “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27). Let us not falter, for “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). Be not of those who say, “We will not walk therein,” but of those who say, “Here am I; send me” (Isa. 6:8).

Truth Magazine XXI: 11, pp. 169-174
March 17, 1977