October 25, 2009

With this column, I conclude a three part series on whether the professional clergy is a necessity in the church today.  The first article called attention to the ringing requirements of the pastor and the almost near impossibility for any man, including Jesus Himself, could meet the demands called for in today's local churches. 

Last week, I began to address the problems with what is perceived as the necessity of a professional clergy.  I noted that one problem with professionalism today is that God didn't intend such a profession to exist. We find no biblical mandate or justification for the profession of clergy as we see it today. I pointed out that the New Testament gave a very different way of doing church and pastoral ministry.

Today I will present three more problems which point to its unbiblical nature and call for a new clergy, one that is not professional and unrealistic in its demands.

THE SECOND PROBLEM with the clergy profession is that it crushes "body life." We can see in the New Testament that God doesn't intend church to be a formal association to which a rank-and-file membership belongs by virtue of paying dues and attending meetings, an association which is organized, guided, and governed by a professional leader (and, in larger organizations, by an administrative bureaucracy). Yet that is exactly what most churches are.

By contrast, God intends church to be a community of believers in which each member contributes their special gift, talent, or ability to the whole, so that, through the active participation and contribution of all, the needs of the community are met. In other words, what we ought to see in our churches is "the ministry of the people," not "the ministry of the professional." In this way, the church is to act like a body, with each unique, necessary part working for the good of the whole body. And, Paul argues clearly that each member's gift is indispensable, that the body needs each part to contribute or else it will be lame (1Cor. 12:20-25).

The problem is that, regardless of what our theologies tell us about the purpose of clergy, the actual effect of the clergy profession is to make the body of Christ lame. This happens not because clergy intend it (they usually intend the opposite) but because the objective nature of the profession inevitably turns the laity into passive receivers.

The role of clergy is essentially the centralization and professionalization of the gifts of the whole body into one person. In this way, the clergy represents Christianity's capitulation to modern society's tendency toward specialization; clergy are spiritual specialists, church specialists. Everyone else in the church are merely "ordinary" believers who hold "secular" jobs where they specialize in "non-spiritual" activities such as plumbing, teaching, or marketing. So, in effect, what ought to be accomplished in an ordinary, decentralized, non-professional manner by all church members together is instead accomplished by a single, full-time professional-The Pastor.

Since the pastor is paid to be the specialist in church operations and management, it is only logical and natural that the laity begin to assume a passive role in church. Rather than contributing their part to edify the church, they go to church as passive receivers to be edified. Rather than actively spending the time and energy to exercise their gift for the good of the body, they sit back and let the pastor run the show.

Think about Sunday morning. Parishioners arrive on schedule, sit quietly in pews, and watch and listen to the minister who is up-front, center-stage, whose presence dominates the service. They stand, sit, speak, and sing only when they are directed to by the minister or the program. Yet, in reality, what happens during these two hours on Sunday morning is only a micro-cosmic picture of the whole church reality.

If the people of a congregation began to get a vision that the church is not a formal association but a community, that gifts are distributed-apart from ordination-to each person, that everyone must actively participate and contribute for church to work, that no one's gift is more important than another's, and that everyone's participation will ensure a full, healthy church life-in short, a vision of a biblical view of church life-I suspect many would begin to ask themselves: "Then what are we paying our minister for?" And, that would be a reasonable question to ask.

Full-time, professional clergy are only needed when church members are not doing their part. On the other hand, when each church member is actively participating and contributing their part for the good of the body, a professional minister is unnecessary. That is a fact that is proven every day in tens of thousands of communities and home churches all around the world.

THE THIRD PROBLEM with the clergy profession is that it is fundamentally self-defeating. Its stated purpose is to nurture spiritual maturity in the church-a valuable goal. In actuality, however, it accomplishes the opposite by nurturing a permanent dependence of the laity on the clergy. Clergy become to their congregations like parents whose children never grow up, like therapists whose clients never become healed, like teachers whose students never graduate. The existence of a full-time, professional minister makes it too easy for church members not to take responsibility for the on-going life of the church. And why should they? That's the job of the pastor (so the thinking goes). But the result is that the laity remain in a state of passive dependence.

Imagine, however, a church whose pastor resigned and that could not find a replacement. Ideally, eventually, the members of that church would have to get off of their pews, come together, and figure out who would teach, who would counsel, who would settle disputes, who would visit the sick, who would lead worship, and so on. With a bit of insight, they would realize that the Bible calls the body as a whole to do these things together, prompting each to consider what gift they have to contribute, what role they could play to build up the body. And with a bit of courage, that church might actually take the painful steps in the direction of long-term change. Some might leave for other churches that have full-time ministers. But those who remained to participate in the work of building body life would mature faster and further than they ever would have with a pastor to do it all for them.

THE FOURTH PROBLEM with the clergy profession is what it does to the people in that profession. Being a member of the clergy as we know it is difficult. Doing it very well is almost impossible. Yet good-hearted men and women, convinced that they are serving God in this way, admirably pour their lives into this task. What they encounter as professional clergy, however, is stress, frustration, and burn-out.

It's no wonder, of course, since clergy are trying to do the work of a whole congregation all by themselves! How can a single person be a natural leader, a skilled orator, a visionary, a capable administrator, a compassionate counselor, a wise decision-maker, a dispassionate conflict-resolver, and an astute theologian all at once? Why do we make one person be all things to all parishioners?

Being a minister is, quite simply, unrealistic. It is as unrealistic as a corporation expecting a single employee to successfully fill or oversee all of the corporate roles, from mail-boy to secretary to middle-manager to president, while most of the other employees arrive at work one day a week to simply watch this super-human achievement (and sometimes do a chore they are asked by the super-employee to do). In this way, the clergy profession demands super-Christian, super-human accomplishment. Christians-with our realistic understanding of human limitations and weaknesses-should know better than that. God certainly did, which is why he gave the task of maintaining and building up the church as the shared responsibility of all believers, not the centralized, specialized, professionalized task of one person.

CLERGY ARE THE keepers-of-the-church; but the church really doesn't need to be kept in this way because God keeps it and asks all believers to participate in keeping it. The clergy, as a profession, are assigned to preserve, protect, and dispense Christian truth, correct teachings, the Bible, the sacraments, and authority. Yet the Christian truth does not need a professional class to protect it. Truth is not that fragile.

Christian truth is not some kind of classified or dangerous material which only card-carrying experts can handle. Nor is it like riches which need the protection of safe vaults and armed security guards. It is the Holy Spirit's and not the hierarchy or the denomination's job to preserve Christian truth in history; and the Holy Spirit has seen fit to do so by distributing it to all God's people so they can share it together.

The problem with clergy, we've seen, is not the actual people who are of the clergy-who are typically sincere and committed-but the social role of the profession to which they belong. Ministers often hope to re-shape that role in ways that are more realistic and biblical. But they eventually discover that, for the most part, they can't reshape the role at will because their congregations and denominations expect the standard things from them. Of course, that's the nature of social roles: they shape people more than people shape them.

A problem even more basic and serious than the clergy role, however, is that most Christians have completely redefined what a healthy church looks like in the first place. For most church-goers, a solid, healthy church is one which is growing numerically, has a fabulous pastor, and offers many activities and programs. That may be what a vibrant voluntary association-such as the YMCA-looks like. But if the Bible is our authority, those factors are irrelevant when it comes to church.

What's important in church, according to the Bible, is that each member actively contributes to the good of the whole body through responsible participation and the exercise of their gifts. What's important in church, according to the Bible, is that believers become strong and mature in their faith through the edification of one another. A biblical church is a "people's church" with a decentralized ministry.

Of course, when we speak of "church without clergy," we do not mean the elimination of full-time ministers. Indeed, the church needs more full-time ministers. The relevant question, however, is: what kinds of ministries ought these full-time people to be doing? According to the New Testament, full-time ministers ought to be ministering in and to the world, in such tasks as working with the poor, doing evangelism, and making peace where there is conflict and violence. Biblically speaking, it is the world, and not the church, which needs full-time Christian ministers.

WHAT WE NEED today is church without clergy. Pastors themselves need to be liberated from the demand to be ultra-versatile, multi-talented, super-human performers. And lay people need to be jarred from the pacifying illusion that it is enough to simply attend church on Sunday mornings and tithe ten percent of their income.

Church without clergy is not easy; it demands the full, active participation of everyone. But the rewards of church without clergy-the riches of participation, of solidarity, and of community-make the effort exceedingly worthwhile. And, those who make that effort will be well on their way to transforming church from something they simply go to, to something they, together, are.

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.