Breaking the Clergy-Laity Tradition
(Continuing reflections on Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision by Paul Gupta and Sherwood Lingenfelter)
Perhaps one of the biggest hindrances to providing leaders for the growing church is the traditional clergy-laity distinction which has long characterised the western church. This was definitely a challenge that Paul “Bobby” Gupta faced as leader of the Hindustan Bible Institute in Chennai, India. He describes the leadership challenge they faced as a result of their goal to plant one million churches in India. The traditional formal method of training church leaders could not fulfill the need caused by India’s rapid church growth. As a result they began to develop a number of informal and non-formal means of education which I hope to explore further in this blog.
However, part of the challenge they faced was the clergy-laity distinction which had a limiting effect on the church’s view of who could be a leader. Gupta writes:
Finally, we understood that the largest pool of untrained leaders were the people in our local congregations who had been taught that only ordained pastors do the ministry. Our biggest challenge lay in “the mobilization of the national church to do the work…”[i]
How did the church come to this place? I explain this in the following excerpt from my book:
George Cladis observes, “We exchanged Paul’s notion of the church as the body of Christ for a clergy-centered ‘parish model’ of ministry that usurped the role of the laity.”[ii] He describes it this way:
A priest or minister is supplied for a geographical area, and this cleric is responsible for the spiritual welfare of his parishioners; they are the recipients of his ministry. Just as a doctor practices medicine and a lawyer practices law so the cleric dispenses religion. After centuries of such hierarchical parish systems, the authority and responsibility that once belonged to the laity was transferred to the priests and pastors; in a system of ministry that no longer reflected the nature of the early church as described in the acts (sic) of the Apostles and the writings of Paul.[iii]
Although this model was developed and is widespread in the West it has been adopted in Africa as well. This has led to the misconception among the membership of the churches that ministry is exclusively the work of the pastor. The average person in the church does not feel that they can or should be involved in ministry.
Larry Kreider writes:
In the church, the opposite of a servant-leadership understanding is a clergy- laity mentality. A clergy-laity mentality expects the clergy to do all the ministry because they are in authority while the laity is inactive, taking on the spectator role. This kind of thinking stunts effectiveness and maintains a distance between leaders and the rest of the church body. Elders who lead biblically know they must lead as fathers so the people see the need to participate actively to advance the kingdom of God and do not become complacent.[iv]
For the church to grow strong and be a vital force in the world today, the sleeping giant must be awakened. God’s people must be prepared for works of service. This can be accomplished as the pastor trains teams of elders and church leaders to minister in each local congregation.[v]
To my way of thinking we need to do away with the clergy-laity distinction as much as possible. We need to emphasize the body of believers being involved in ministry and service. Following Ephesians 4:11-13, Gupta writes:
“…The pastor must understand the urgency to equip his people to participate with him in ministry. Rather than create dependency, he must mentor individuals in the congregation to be about the work of the kingdom. He should help people recognize their gifts, point out open doors for ministry, and watch over and foster the progress of believers seeking to follow the Lord.[vi]
As I close, I don’t want to be understood as saying that we should not have trained pastors or those functioning in that role. It is a reality that exists and with which we must work. Their biblical ministry within the body is vital but often not being fulfilled within the church. We will address this in a later entry.
[i] Paul R. Gupta and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision, (BMH Books, Winona Lake, Indiana, 2006), p. 139, 140.
[ii] George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church, (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1999), p. ix.
[v] Philip E. Morrison, The Multi-Church Pastor (Gratia Veritas Publishers, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 2004), p. 43.
[vi] Gupta and Lingenfelter, p. 82.