We Are All Clergy

I remember the event clearly:  it was a group of young married couples from our church who went out to dinner.   My wife and I were invited (even though we had been married for 24 years by then), I think because I was called “The Pastor” of the church.   When the person who was organizing the event turned to me and asked if I would give thanks for the food, I said, “No.” I thought he was going to have a coronary on the spot.  He just looked at me with a blank stare begging an explanation.  I then added, “There are plenty of people here that can pray besides me.”

I realize I was being a bit of a smart aleck, but I had grown tired of being seen as some kind of “special Christian” just because I was paid by the church instead of paid by AT&T.  Intentional or not, there has grown up among the Christian community a dividing wall that separates us into two classes of Christians, the clergy and the laity.  Like it or not, the outcome is to divide the body of Christ in a way God never intended.  I cannot find that divide in the New Testament.  It didn’t exist until sometime in the 2nd century.

In my research for a project I completed in 2009, I ran across an interesting statement that I introduced this way:  “After stating quite clearly that Paul made sure local church leadership was established in the churches he planted and these leaders were elders and deacons, Shelley in his book Church History in Plain Language,[1] writes:

The general picture, however, soon changed.  After the turn of the century Ignatius, the pastor of the church at Antioch, wrote a series of letters.  In these he speaks habitually of a single bishop (or pastor) in each church, a body of presbyters, and a company of deacons.  God’s grace and the Spirit’s power, he teaches, flow to the flock through this united ministry.  No one seems to know just how the single pastor, assisted by the elders and deacons became the widespread pattern within the churches, but we know it did.   

And so began, post New Testament, a long history of the church deciding for itself what leadership structures should exist. Remember that the Holy Spirit had only inspired the biblical writers to speak of two, elders and deacons (Phil. 1:1), neither of which is capitalized or used as a title for anyone in the New Testament.  I noticed in my research that Paul never refers to himself as the Apostle Paul but Paul an apostle, often followed by the use of the term servant to qualify his role.  We are the ones who have put a capital “A” in apostle and a capital “P” on pastor, not God.

The best description of all God’s people with regard to this issue is found in 1 Peter 2:9,

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Not some of you, not a few special ones who have been ordained, not those who are seminary educated, but “you,” all of “God’s elect…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit…sprinkled with (Christ’s) blood” (1 Peter 1:1-2).  The gospel is that great equalizer.  No distinction, no spiritual classes, no hierarchy other than Christ himself who is our “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14).

In case you are still struggling with this notion, look up “priest” in InterVarsity’s New Dictionary of Biblical Theology and under “Christian Priesthood” you’ll find the following entry:

Apart from Jesus, no individual member of a Christian community is described as a priest in the NT. Only in post-biblical times did some of the terms used to denote Christian leaders come to signify an office like that of the OT priesthood; these included the Greek presbyteros, properly ‘elder’, but also translated ‘priest’. However, the Christian community (see Church) as a whole is described as ‘a royal priesthood’ (1 Pet. 2:9, cf. v. 5), that is, a holy people devoted to the service of God and his kingdom. This language recalls that of Exodus 19:6;…[2]

The reference to Exodus 19:6 is a fascinating one.  It says of all the children of Israel camped at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  Something happened between verse 6 and the end of the chapter that changed everything God had intended and he gave the Law with all its hierarchical structures.  In the church God again comes back to that principle that all believers in Christ have direct access to the Father and are responsible before the Father for their own spiritual health.

If you insist on using the word, “clergy,” you had best drop the contrast with “laymen.” According to the Bible, we are actually all clergy.

[1] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, rev. ed. (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 70-71.

[2] T. D. Alexander & B. S. Rosner, Ed., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

About Jim Hislop

Jim Hislop is the Director of Western Seminary's Center for Leadership Development.

4 thoughts on “We Are All Clergy

  1. Wow. It is so encouraging to read such clarity and wisdom. agod bless you for being faithful to share and write.

    Greetings from Norway

  2. My thoughts exactly. The curtain was torn and we have been sewing it up ever since. (Funny though, your path in the church of today will not be a smooth one if you operate under or expouse this viewpoint!!)

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