October 18, 2009

In light of last week's article on the unending search for the perfect pastor, I want to address why today's "clergy" (professional) is not what is called for in the Bible.  In fact, the professional clergy is borderline anti-Biblical. It certainly is not what Jesus had in mind, especially when most churches today demand a pastor has to be extraordinarily gifted, a natural leader, a skilled orator, a capable administrator, a compassionate counselor, a wise decision-maker, a dispassionate conflict-resolver, and an astute theologian.

Most churches, large or small, almost always require their pastor to prepare teachings, homilies, and sermons, visit the sick, conducting funerals and marriages, properly administer the sacraments, oversee church social events, Sunday School, and catechism programs, prepare engaged couples for marriage, counsel those with problems, prepare denominational reports, attend denominational meetings, manage missionary and evangelistic programs, assemble and oversee staff (such as assistant ministers, youth group leaders, administrative staffs, and evangelism teams), organize fund-raising drives, attend to community relations, facilities use, and building maintenance, encourage, discipline, and edify parishioners, and establish the vision and direction of the church.

They must meet more qualifications than the average Fortune 500 CEO and have more responsibilities than the President of a Major Wall Street business.  The Church has become a "business extraordinaire."

The clergy is a highly overrated institution. Indeed, reports on the value and necessity of clergy have been greatly exaggerated. Many Christians assume, for example, that the most important thing in choosing a church is its minister, that a church cannot function effectively without a priest or pastor, that the first thing one must do in starting a church is to hire a minister to lead it, that Sunday morning should be judged by its sermon, and that the preeminent way to serve God is to go to seminary to be trained for Christian service.

But could it be that, on the contrary, clergy are neither necessary nor, in the long run, good for church? Is it possible that one of the best things that could happen to the church today is for all clergy to resign their posts and take jobs in the world? Might it be that church without clergy could be the best kind of church?

Certainly, for many we may as well ask whether we should shoot ourselves in the head. But upon closer inspection this perspective is not as lunatic as it first seems. The fact is, although our clergy-system is one of the dominant features of the church today, it has almost nothing to do with the New Testament, is fundamentally counter-productive, and is an inherent obstruction to healthy, biblical church life.

PLEASE NOTICE, FIRST of all, that when we talk about clergy we are most definitely not talking about the actual people who are clergy. The specific men and women who are priests, ministers, and pastors are, on the whole, wonderful people. They love God, want to serve God, and want to serve the people of God. They typically are sincere, compassionate, intelligent, self-giving, and long-suffering. Let it be clear, then, that the problem with clergy is not the people who are clergy but the profession that those people are a part of.

Furthermore, let it be clear that, despite serious problems of their profession, clergy do actually accomplish much good in the church. It's not that clergy don't help people significantly. They most certainly do-which is one reason why they are such a dominant feature of church life. But the good the people of the clergy are able to accomplish is despite their profession rather than because of it.

Without a doubt, the clergy is a profession and members of the clergy are professionals. Just as lawyers protect and interpret the law and doctors protect and administrate medicine, clergy protect, interpret, and administrate the truth of God. This profession, like any profession, dictates standards of conduct for how its members should dress, speak, and act, both on-duty and off-duty. And, like other professions, it dictates standards of education, preparation, admittance to the profession, procedures for job searches and applications, and retirement. Clearly, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers alike are expected-by their parishioners, friends, hierarchies, denominational authorities, and themselves-to have a distinct kind of training, be certain kinds of people, and perform certain kinds of duties.

Traditionally, the profession has demanded that clergy be male and, in some denominations, preferably married and, if so, happily married. The profession demands that its members possess a seminary degree and official ordination. The profession (unrealistically) requires that clergy be extraordinarily gifted: natural leaders, skilled orators, capable administrators, compassionate counselors, wise decision-makers, dispassionate conflict-resolvers, and astute theologians. Naturally, professional standards insist that clergy be morally upright and exemplary in every way. And, as an outward sign, clergy must dress respectably and speak with authority and conviction.

There exists a definite set of tasks which everyone (even the non-Christian) knows is the rightful duty of a member of the clergy. Everyone knows it because it is an institutionalized profession, created and maintained by denominations, hierarchies, theological seminaries, the laity, and, finally, the clergy themselves.

THE FIRST PROBLEM with the clergy is that God doesn't intend such a profession to exist. There is simply and unequivocally no biblical mandate or justification for the profession of clergy as we know it. In fact, the New Testament points to a very different way of doing church and pastoral ministry.

Nevertheless, human societies throughout history have consistently created spiritual castes of people-shamans, priests, soothsayers, witch-doctors, wise-men, prophets, gurus-and the Christian church has been no exception. It didn't take long for the church to construct, based on a handful of ambiguous scripture verses ("upon this rock I will build my church," "you shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing"), a massive, institutional, hierarchical superstructure. This, in effect, created a two-class, authoritarian system within the church in which clergy were considered more spiritual than laity.

Protestants broke with the Catholic church, of course. But Protestants are just as "catholic" as Roman Catholics when it comes to clergy. Though the Bible replaced the Sacraments as the center of God's revelation for Protestants, the profession they set up to protect and distribute this revelation is functionally identical to the Catholic priesthood. As the priest correctly administers the wafer, the minister correctly interprets the Word of God.

But when we go back to the Word of God and read it afresh, we see that the clergy profession is the result of our human culture and history and not of God's will for the church. It is simply impossible to construct a defensible biblical justification for the institution of clergy as we know it.

Next week, I will present three more problems with the professional clergy and offer a solution to the never-ending demands and unrealistic expectations for the church leader.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.