A church without clergy – The Christian Web of Apologetics |


But could it be that, on the contrary, the clergy is not necessary, nor, in the long run, good for the church? Is it possible that one of the best things that could happen to the church today is for all clerics to leave their posts and dedicate themselves to secular jobs? Could it be possible that the church without clergy was the best kind of church?

Certainly for many this question is as if we asked them if we should shoot ourselves in the head. But under closer examination, this contingency is not as lunatic as it seems at first. The fact is that although our clerical system is one of the dominant characteristics of the church today, it hardly has anything to do with the New Testament, it is essentially harmful and an obstruction inherent in the healthy and biblical life of the church.

First of all, I want you to notice that when we talk about the clergy, we are not specifically talking about those who are clerics. The concrete men and women who act as priests, ministers and pastors, in their generality, are wonderful people. They love God, they want to serve and serve God's people. Typically they are sincere, compassionate, intelligent, self-giving and suffering. Let it be clear, then, that the problem with the clergy is not the people who are clerics, but the profession of which they are a part.

I also want to make it very clear that in spite of the serious problems with the profession, the clergy currently provides the church with much good. It's not that clerics do not help people in a relevant way. Their laugh does it – which is one reason why they are such a dominant figure in the life of the church. But all the good that the clergy is able to bring is in spite of their profession, rather than because of it.

There is no doubt that the clergy is a profession and its members are professionals. Just as lawyers protect and interpret the law and doctors protect and administer medicine, the clergy protect, interpret and administer the truth of God. This profession, like any other profession, dictates rules of conduct on how to dress, speak and act, both on and off duty. And like other professions, they dictate rules of education, preparation, admission to the profession, procedures for seeking and applying for work, retirement, etc. Clearly, both Catholic and Protestant ministers are expected – by their parishioners, friends, hierarchies, denominational authorities, and even by themselves – to have a distinctive kind of preparation, to be a certain type of people and to develop a certain kind of obligations.

Traditionally the profession has demanded that clerics be men; in some denominations preferably married and, if they are, that is happily married. The profession asks that its members hold a graduation in a seminar and that they be officially ordained. The profession, out of all sense of reality, requires clerics to be extraordinarily gifted: natural leaders, distinguished speakers, capable administrators, compassionate counselors, who make wise decisions, resolve conflicts dispassionately, in addition to wise theologians. Naturally, the professional standard insists that clerics possess a high honesto standard and be an example in everything. And, as an external sign, they must dress respectably and speak with authority and conviction.

Clerics function, essentially, as professional church directors, being responsible for preparing the teachings, sermons, homilies, visiting the sick, conducting funerals and weddings, administering the sacraments appropriately, supervising the church's social activities, Sunday school , catechetical programs, prepare couples who intend to marry, advise those who have problems, prepare denominational reports, attend denominational meetings, direct missionary and evangelistic programs, gather and supervise departments (such as: ministerial assistants, leaders youth groups, administration, evangelization team), fundraising, community relations, use of facilities and maintenance of the building, encourage, discipline and edify members, and establish the vision and direction of the church.

So there is a definite set of tasks that everyone (including non-Christians) knows is the duty of a member of the clergy. Everyone knows it because it is an institutionalized profession, created and sustained by denominations, hierarchies, theological seminaries, lay people and, finally, by the clergy themselves.

The first problem with the clergy is that God does not pretend that such a profession exists. There is, unequivocally, no divine mandate or justification for the clerical profession as we know it today. In fact, the New Testament points to a very different way of exercising ecclesial and pastoral ministry.

However, human societies, throughout history, have continuously created certain spiritual castes of shamans, priests, fortune-tellers, witch doctors, magicians, prophets, gurus, etc., and the Christian church has not been the exception. It did not take long for the church to build a solid institutional and hierarchical superstructure, based on a handful of ambiguous verses of Scripture: "On this rock I will build my church," "You shall not muzzle the ox that threshes." This produced the effect of the creation of an authoritarian system of two castes within the church, in which the clergy were considered more spiritual than the laity.

Protestants broke with the Catholic church, right. But the Protestants are as 'Catholic' as the Roman Catholics when it comes to the clergy. Although the Bible replaced the sacraments as the center of God's revelation, in the case of Protestants, the profession they established to protect and distribute this revelation is functionally identical to the Catholic priesthood. Just as the priest correctly administers the host, the minister correctly interprets the Word of God.

But when we go back to the Word of God and read it again, we see that the clerical profession is the result of our human culture and history and not God's will for the church. It is simply impossible to elaborate a biblical defense that justifies the institution of the clergy as we know it today.

The second problem with the clerical profession is that it destroys the 'life of the body'. In the New Testament we see that God does not intend the church to be a formal association to which a membership of ordinary people belong by virtue of attending meetings and paying tribute, nor an organized association, directed and governed by a professional leader (or in larger organizations by an administrative bureaucracy). However, this is exactly what the church estuary is.

On the contrary, God wants the church to be a community of believers in which each member contributes with their special talents, their gifts or abilities, for the benefit of others, so that through the participation and active contribution of all, the needs of the community. In other words, what should be seen in our churches is a "people's ministry," not a "ministry of the professional." In this way the church would act as a body with each part, unique and necessary, working for the benefit of the whole body. Paul argues clearly that the gift of each member is indispensable, that the body needs each party to contribute or the body will be lame. (1Cor 12: 20-25)

The problem is that, despite what our theologians tell us about the purpose of the clergy, the current effect of the clerical profession is to leave the body of Christ lame. This happens, not because the clergy want it (rather they want the opposite), but because the objective nature of the profession inevitably turns the lay people into passive recipients.

The role of the clergy is essentially the concentration and professionalization in a single person, of the gifts of the whole body. Thus the clergy represents the capitulation of Christianity to the tendency of modern society towards specialization; Clerics are spiritual specialists, ecclesiastical specialists. All others in the church are mere 'ordinary' believers who perform 'secular' jobs specializing in 'non-spiritual' activities, such as plumbing, teaching or marketing. Thus, in fact, everything that should be done in a regular, decentralized, non-professional manner, by all the members of the church together, is nevertheless carried out by a single full-time professional: the Pastor .

Since the pastor is paid to be a specialist in the activities and direction of the church, it is simply logical and natural that the laity begin to assume a passive role in the church. Instead of contributing their part to build the church, they go to church as passive recipients, to be built. Instead of using time and energy actively to exercise their gift for the benefit of the body, they sit down and let the pastor carry out his show.

Think of Sunday morning. The faithful arrive at the appointed hour, sit quietly on the benches watching and listening to the minister who is in front of them, whose presence dominates the cult. They stand up, speak and sing only when the minister or the program tells them to. In reality what happens during those two hours on Sunday morning is only a photograph, on a microcosmic scale, of the reality of the whole church.

If the members of a congregation began to have the vision that the church is not a formal association, but a community, that the gifts are distributed – apart from the ordination – to each person, that everyone should participate actively contributing to the work of the church, that there is not one gift more important than another and that the participation of all ensures a healthy and full church life – in short, a biblical vision of the church life – I suspect that many would begin to wonder what they are paying for a Minister. That would be a reasonable question. Full-time professional clerics are only needed when church members do not do their part. In other words; When every member of the church actively participates and contributes with his work for the benefit of the body, a professional minister is unnecessary. This is a proven fact every day in tens of thousands of communities and domestic churches throughout the world.

The third problem with the clerical profession is that it is counterproductive. Its purpose is to educate for the church to mature spiritually – a valuable goal. However, at present it produces the opposite effect, since it educates creating a permanent dependence of the laity on the clergy. In their congregations, clerics are like parents whose children never develop, like doctors whose clients never heal, like teachers whose students never graduate. The existence of a full-time professional minister makes it too easy for church members not to take any responsibility in the life of the church. Why would they do it? That's the pastor's job (that's how you think). But the result is that the laity remains in a state of passive dependence.

However, imagine a church whose pastor had left and who could not be found a substitute. Ideally, eventually, the members of that church would have to get up from their benches, meet and think who would teach, who would advise, who would mediate in disputes, who would visit the sick, who would lead the worship, etc. With a little bit of insight they would realize that the Bible calls the body, as a whole, to do these things together, telling each one to consider what gift he has to contribute to it, what role he can perform for the edification of the body. And with a bit of courage, that church would take the difficult steps towards a long-term change. Some may have left to other churches with full-time ministers. But those who stayed to participate in the task of building the life of the body, would mature faster and beyond what they would never have matured with a pastor who would give it all done.

The fourth problem with the clerical profession is the effect it produces on those who belong to this profession. Being a member of the clergy, as we already know, is difficult. Doing it very well is almost impossible. Although there are well-meaning men and women who, convinced that they are thus serving God, pour their lives in this task in an admirable way. However, what they find, as professional clerics, is stress, frustration and burn.

No wonder, because clerics try to do all the work of the congregation themselves! How can a single person be both a natural leader, a skilled speaker, a dreamer, a capable administrator, a compassionate counselor who knows how to make wise decisions, resolve conflicts dispassionately, and a clever theologian? Why do we make a single person all things for all the members of the congregation?

Being a minister is simply unreal. It's as unreal as a company that wanted a single employee to be able to successfully perform or supervise all functions, from janitor to assistant secretary and even president, while the other employees go to work one day a week, just observing this superhuman feat (doing from time to time some task requested by the super-employee). In this way, the clerical profession demands super-Christian, super-human executions and results. Christians – with our verdadero understanding of human limitations and frailties – should consider something better than that. God certainly did; that is why he gave the task of building and maintaining the church as a task of shared responsibility for all believers, not the centralized, specialized and professional task of a single person.

Clergymen are the guardians of the church; but the church, really, does not need to be kept that way because God is the one who keeps it and asks all believers to participate in this task. The clergy, as a profession, are assigned to preserve, protect and dispense Christian truth, correct teachings, the Bible, the sacraments and authority. But Christian truth does not need a professional caste to protect it. The truth is not so fragile.

Christian truth is not a class of material classified as dangerous that can only be manipulated by experts with an identification card on the flap. Nor is it like riches, which need the protection of an armored box and security guards. The preservation of Christian truth, throughout history, is the work of the Holy Spirit, not a hierarchy or the work of a denomination. And the Holy Spirit does it by distributing it to all the people of God so that this work can be shared by all together.

As we have seen, the problem of the clergy is not the people who belong to it, but the social role of the profession to which they belong. Ministers often hope to reform that role in more realistic and biblical ways. But eventually they discover that, the laugh of the times, they can not change it to their liking because their congregations and denominations expect from them the usual. Of course, that is the nature of the social roles: these conform the criteria of the people instead of being the people who make them up. A problem even more basic and serious than the role of the clergy, is that the river of Christians have completely defined the appearance of a healthy church. In the first place, for the part of the assistants to the churches, a solid and healthy church is one that grows numerically, that has an extraordinary pastor and that offers a great diversity of activities and programs. This could also be the appearance of an active and passionate non-governmental association made up of volunteers, such as Green Peace. But if the Bible is our authority, those factors are irrelevant when referring to the church.

What is important in the church, according to the Bible, is that each member contributes to the common good of the whole body by actively participating in the exercise of his gifts. What is important in the church, according to the Bible, is that believers grow strong toward maturity in their faith through mutual edification. A biblical church is a "people's church" with a decentralized ministry.

By the way, when we say "a church without clergy", it does not mean the elimination of full-time ministers. We assume that the church needs more full-time ministers. But the relevant question is: What kind of ministry should these people be exercising full time? According to the New Testament, these ministers should be ministering in and to the world, in tasks such as: working with the poor, evangelizing and bringing peace where there is conflict and violence. Biblically speaking, it is the world, not the church, that needs such full-time Christian ministers.

What we need today is a church without clergy. The shepherds themselves need to be freed from the demands of being extremista-versatile, multi-talented and super-human. The laity needs to be freed from the comfortable illusion that it is sufficient to attend church on Sunday mornings and offer ten percent of their income.

A church without clergy is not an easy church, it demands the active participation of all. But the rewards of a church without clergy – riches of participation, solidarity and community – make the effort well worth it. And those who make the effort will feel good in transforming the church, from a place to which it simply goes, into something that they are together.

Christian Smith

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