Church HistoryMinistry

Who rules: The lay or the clergy?

Hopefully on reading that title you are screaming out, “Neither! Christ rules!” However, since the beginning of the church there has been unhealthy tension between the shepherd and the sheep, the appointed leaders and those they lead. It is a sad consequence of our human sin, and it manifests itself from both sides. On the ‘ministry’ side, some have abused their power—controlling people towards their own ends. On the ‘lay’ side, the sin is much the same. Some have wanted to rule over their leaders and control the situation and people towards their own ends.

Sadly, until Christ’s return, God’s people will always face this tension. But, because we are the renewed people of God, we should never be satisfied to leave it at that! Thus, given the Reformation has been such a hot topic (did you notice?), it gives us an opportunity to revisit the Reformation teaching of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ to remind us that no such lay/clergy divide need exist.[1]

We begin with Martin Luther. In the church of his time there existed a clear divide between the spiritual and the secular. The spiritual were the clergy and those who had taken vows to the church (like monks). The secular were pretty much everyone else. Luther’s great realization was that all believers were priests. All believers were spiritual. In his study of Psalm 110 and the book of Hebrews, Luther taught that Christ’s priesthood is the true priesthood, that all believers share in this priesthood and therefore all believers are priests. This broke down the traditional spiritual/secular divide and began a new relationship between the pew and the pulpit, between the clergy and the lay.

However, as Luther taught the priesthood of all believers and emphasized this over and over again, the pendulum began to swing the other way. The Radical Reformation took place, the Peasant’s War broke out, and some began to reject any notion of ordination or appointed leadership. To over-simplify the situation, while Luther put out the fire of the clergy reigning over the laity, another fire began to burn where leadership was rejected altogether.

As a result, Luther began to teach more clearly on the place of appointed leadership. He explained that while all are priests before God, some within the priesthood of all believers have a particular office or function as appointed leaders.

Martin Bucer and then John Calvin built on this teaching.

Bucer, when writing to Thomas Cranmer about the Book of Common Prayer, emphasized that the clergy’s role in the corporate gathering was with and alongside the other believers, not for or instead of them. Bucer wanted all believers to be able to exercise their priesthood. However, in his study of Ephesians 4:11-14, Bucer was very clear that appointed leadership was a gift of Christ given to the church. He went as far as saying, against the Radicals, that to reject appointed leadership is to reject the source of that leadership (Christ), and the purpose of that leadership (that the church might grow). For Bucer, those who exercised their roles as clergy were exercising their Christ-given gifts.

We see this emphasis with Calvin too. In reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12, Calvin taught that all believers are priests, and we all sacrifice ourselves to God, and to one another, by exercising the gifts God has given us for the sake of the whole. In this way, all gifts, including a minister’s, are God-given and not merited, and are for the edification of the believers.

There is much more we could say but, put simply, the Reformers saw no need for a tension between the clergy and the laity. In fact, if we hold to the priesthood of all believers, then we hold to the place of appointed leadership. The responsibility of all of God’s people is to joyfully exercise our God-given gifts, for the glory of God and for the edification of all. That is the key.

Sometimes, in our circles, we shy away from talking about ‘gifts’. There is a rightness to this in light of the excesses of charismatic teaching. However, we need to recover this language if we are to truly give every-member ministry and appointed leadership their rightful place.

Sometimes I use the language of gifting and wiring to clarify what I mean. I’ll ask people: “How has God gifted and wired you to serve him and his people?”[2] In other words, “How has God built you and how can you faithfully serve him?” Framing the question this way both recognizes people’s gifts and keeps the focus on serving others for the sake of the whole. The challenge for church leaders is to recognize the gifts and abilities of their people and help them exercise them, rather than trying to squeeze them into a ministry hole or roster gap. The challenge for our congregations is to recognize the gifts given to their leaders and thank God for them.

The sooner we realize that Christ has given us all sorts of gifts and abilities for the sake of his church, the sooner we will realize that no tension needs to exist between leaders and members. Leaders will see that theirs is but one gift among many, and members will see that they too have crucial God-given roles to play.

Who rules? Christ rules! And the biblical picture is of the body, each part beautifully building each other up, praising the head for all the gifts he has given for the sake of the whole.

Our thanks to Gotherefor for their partnership in the release of this article.

[1] I actually don’t think this lay/clergy language is helpful. Hopefully by the end of the article you will agree! However, I use it here as that is the language used when talking about the divide.

[2] Funny how nobody has ever been gifted or wired to help stack chairs or clean toilets, but that’s a different article!