The Church

Why you should banish the word “layman” from your vocabulary.

Clergymen One sometimes hears the phrase “in layman’s terms…“ followed by a description of some process or situation to explain to the untrained exactly what is going on. There are certainly times where I want a trained professional performing some task. The guy who replaces my water heater, or the one who took out my gall bladder – I don’t want someone with no credentials doing that work. But that sort of thinking can be problematic when brought into the church. It can (and did) lead to a caste system within the body of Christ, a spiritual hierarchy where some are the privileged few, others are deemed lesser in ability, and in extreme cases, even in their standing before God. There are two main areas where caution needs to be exercised:

Thinking that pastoral training equates to privilege or ability. I am not at all denigrating training, but it’s really critical to understand that if you are a leader in a local church, your training doesn’t set you apart from your congregation. This is not a new problem. The development of this can be traced historically and in parallel to the Roman Empire. Earlier Christians such as Cyprian had a background in civil service that they imported into the Church. Stuart Hall notes that “a bureaucracy parallel to that by which the Empire was run, managing dossiers of letters and documents had grown up, and for Cyprian only those recognized in the system belong to it. His own training in public affairs made him take this for granted.”[1] W.H.C. Frend also comments, “the clerical career had become designed to rank pari passu with the grades of the imperial civil service, just as bishoprics were becoming coterminous with civil boundaries.”[2] What this demonstrates is that thinking about leadership in the church was influenced if not dominated by governmental structures, and those structures from a state that opposed the Lordship of Jesus.

When we turn to the New Testament, however, there’s a very different model of leadership presented, and it is absent of officialdom or of hierarchy. The qualifications for those in leadership are related to character, and these emphasize humility, knowledge of Christian doctrine, and conformity to Christ. Evangelical churches don’t model themselves on government (they shouldn’t anyway), but they have certainly looked to the corporate world for how to do things. This can be brought into the church in subtle and seemingly innocuous ways. For example, stressing leadership skills or organizational effectiveness, at the expense of these other issues of life. And if you are a leader, how you exercise those skills can make all the difference. This is what Peter refers to, I think, when he cautions fellow elders not to lord it over the flock. (1. Pet. 5:3). Training may help you and your congregation in many ways, but one thing it should not do is convince you that you are the only one equipped to do a job. And, our sinful hearts being what they are, it is far too easy for someone in leadership to take umbrage at opposition, or to feel their turf is being encroached upon. Insert your story here of a case where a local church was blown up because of leaders becoming heavy-handed. We all have them, and it’s so important for those in ministry to remember that what leadership brings is not added qualification for ministry, but added responsibility.

Making a distinction between clergy and laity.

The word “lay” comes from the Greek λαός (laos) for “people.” But any kind of distinction between the “called” (κλῆρος=clergy) and the laity is completely unfounded in the New Testament. Paul refers to all believers by this title, when he says to the Romans, “among whom are you also the called of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:6). The effects of a sharp distinction between pastor and people have been harmful to the body of Christ. Every single Christian is a priest to God, and on an equal standing before him. Training or vocation does not influence this at all. “There is no clergy-laity distinction. All are called of God. The ‘secret call’ of the preacher or pastor does not make him or her more called than the carpenter.”[3] When we use terms like clergy and laity, we are drawing a distinction foreign to the New Testament, one which encourages the kind of caste system which finds no place in the body of Christ. We are in fact undermining the kind of Church God is building. I am thankful that when our pastor greets newcomers from the front, he states his name and says, “I am one of the pastors here.” The implications of that are profound. He is not putting himself forth as lead pastor or senior pastor, but one of the shepherds. And that is an encouragement to the rest of us that the body is to build itself up in love. That a pastor supports his family and earns a living through giving himself wholly to the work of the Lord is not in conflict with this in any way. We should honor and respect those who do so, but it is the responsibility of the whole church to seek the welfare of the whole church.

That some are appointed to leadership in a local congregation is absolutely right, but that leadership is decidedly non-clerical. Alexander Strauch well summarizes the ethos of this. “It is a simple but profound fact that no clergy-laity dichotomy appears in the New Testament. Paul, the great church planter, taught that there is a wide divergence of gifts and services among the brethren, but no sacred clergy. In his many greetings to fellow workers and helpers, Paul never greets anyone as a clergyman or a layman. The more one comprehends Paul’s teaching on the gospel and body of Christ, the more one realizes the falsehood of the clergy-laity division. In fact, the very concept of a small, professional, ministerial body that is vested with superior rights and privileges over the sacraments and the Word, and is alone qualified to ‘minister’ would be unthinkable to the inspired writers of Scripture. Such a concept is foreign to the New Testament writers, who taught that the whole body of Christ is ministerial, saintly, and priestly.”[4]

If you are a Christian but are not serving in full-time ministry, remember that you are every bit as much a priest as anyone. You are sealed with the Spirit of God, and you are a worshipper. You too, have the responsibility to study to show yourself approved, rightly handling God’s word. You, too, have the responsibility to build up the body of Christ, to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:15-16).


[1] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church,(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991), p. 90.

[2] W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1965), p. 238.

[3] R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Dowers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1985), p. 29.

[4] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, Co., Lewis & Roth, 1988), p. 257.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *