In response to John MacArthur’s recent dismissal of the ministry of women preachers, teacher and leaders many of my friends have been posting banners that say I SUPPORT WOMEN CLERGY. Well I need to say clearly, I don’t support women clergy.

That’s because I don’t support the concept of male clergy either. I support women pastors, preachers, leaders and teachers in the church in the same way as I support their male counterparts. However, I think the term clergy is unhelpful language that is subversive of the New Testament’s teaching on the priesthood of all believers and undermines the church’s ministry and mission. In pushing back against someone who is trying to exclude part of the people of God from their calling I think its unhelpful to use a term “clergy” that effectively down through church history has excluded most of God’s people from understanding their calling.

I would contend strongly that any clergy/laity dichotomy is absent from the New Testament. For those who disagree I would recommend Paul R Stevens book “The Abolition of the Laity.” We certainly come across male and female leaders among God’s people, but New Testament scholars are pretty unanimous in saying that the concept of “clergy and laity” as we commonly understand it today is missing from the New Testament’s understanding of the church.

So how did this unhelpful divide come about?  The word “clergy” derives from the Greek word kleros, which means “lot” or “inheritance.” Its often used figuratively, as in, “we are God’s inheritance,” or “we share in the inheritance of Christ,” In the New Testament without exception it refers to the whole people of God. Not once can we take the meaning to refer to come special elite subgroup of people of God, the clergy. In New Testament terms as far as I can understand it, “Clergy” and “the people of God” (laos tou theou) are one and the same people. So, I guess I do support women clergy, if it means supporting all the ministry of all God’s people who are female but not if it is used to support specifically the ministry of women called to minister within the church as ordained preachers, pastors or leaders.

Interestingly I have discovered that the term “laity” is not a direct translation from the noun laos (“people”) as is often claimed. It came indirectly from laos through the adjective laikos, meaning “of the common people.”

One academic article I have filed (sorry lost the source) puts it like this

Laikos is not in the New Testament and it is not in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The first known mentions of laikos come from about 300 BCE. It was an adjective used in papyri to describe the profane things of the rural people in Egypt. The earliest known use of the word in Christian literature is in a letter by Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church, written circa 96 CE. In exhorting the church to preserve godly order, he alludes to the order of the Old Testament era. He discusses the responsibilities of those who were neither priests nor Levites, and calls them laymen (laikos anthropos.) (1 Clement 40:5) (1)

Laikos was used sparingly by Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion in their Greek translations of the Old Testament during the second and third centuries. It was used as a synonym for bebelos which means “profane” or “unholy.” Laikos was also a synonym in Greek literature for idiotes which meant “nonprofessional.” (It is the word from which we get “idiot.”) Laikos did not begin to enter the common Christian vocabulary until the third and fourth centuries.”

What happened was that over the centuries especially when the church became more uniform after Constantine, the adjective began to be used as a noun “laity.” Laity was used to describe the unprofessional, unordained, ordinary people of the church and these were contrasted with the specially trained, ordained, holy, and professional (ie fulltime)  people known as “clergy.” This is the understanding of “laity” I most often encounter in the church today

This concept of two classes of believers in the church was theologically rejected by the Reformers who emphasized correctly the “Priesthood of All Believers.” However, functionally the distinction effectively continued. In fact. its my perception that the idea of the church’s leaders, pastors and teachers being “clergy” has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance recently, especially among younger leaders. I see lots of groups and conference for “young clergy.” If I am honest, and I am trying not to sound like a grumpy middle-aged man (ok I may well be one) I worry about this and its impact on the church. I want to affirm and encourage young leaders. I hope that is what I have done throughout my ministry. My worry is about the message that other young people in the church who are not called to ministry within the church are getting through the use of this terminology. My heart sinks every time I hear a fellow believer saying “I am only a lay person” The message they have received subconsciously from the church is that they are different and in a sense inferior to the “clergy.” The Church Growth Movement of the last decades of the 20th century is much maligned, but I think its rallying cry of “EVERY MEMBER A MINISTER.” was right (not so keen on those old Spiritual Gifts questionnaires though)

I agree with Ed Stetzer who wrote in an article in Christianity Today

“My fear is that we have created a class system in the body of Christ comprised of the “called” and the “not so much called.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The ministry assignment of the laypeople is not to simply “lay” around and tell the called what they should be doing. Laypeople are not to be customers of religious goods and services served by the storekeeper clergy. We are all called although our current assignments may vary dramatically”

That academic article I have lost the reference to, ends with these words and they seem better than any words I can come up with to end my reflections on this subject

“It is time to dispel the myth of laity and embrace the reality that all the baptized are clergy. We are all kleros + laos = klaos; “the clergy people of God.”

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