Professional clergy

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Series: The Church is highlights 

‘There is thoroughly entrenched in our church life an unbiblical two-caste system. In this two-caste system there is a clergy-caste which is trained, called, paid, and expected to do the ministering. And there is the laity-caste which normally functions as the audience which appreciatively pays for the performance of the clergy—or bitterly criticizes the gaping holes in that performance (and there are always gaping holes). No one expects much of the lower or laity caste (except attendance, tithe, and testimony). And everyone expects too much of the upper or clergy caste (including the clergy themselves!). The greatest problem in the whole business is the fact that the Bible’s view of ministry totally contradicts this system.’ —Robert C. Girard, quoted by Frank Viola in Reimagining Church

What Girard was taking issue with is the divide between clergy and laity. Clergy, in this scheme of things, consists of the elite few who are ordained, empowered, educated, and paid. The laity are those who obey the clergy, fill the pews, and pay the pastor’s salary. Clearly, such a scheme is both unbiblical and senseless within the context of the church being an organism rather than an organisation. I have no issue with either Girard or Viola on this score. However, do we create such a clergy/laity divide when we elect to pay some people a salary for serving the church?

Viola writes that ‘the elders were not regarded as religious specialists, but as faithful and trusted brethren. They were not career clergy, but self-supporting family men with secular jobs (Acts 20:17, 32–35; 1 Tim. 3:5, 7; Titus 1:6; 1 Peter 5:2–3). Because of their tireless labor, some elders received double honor from the church. But double honor is just that—extra respect.’ Firstly, Paul writes the following in 1 Corinthians 9:11-12; ‘If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right’. Quite clearly he believed that a church worker was entitled to receive material support from the people he served. Secondly, Viola argues that the ‘double honour’ referred to in 1 Timothy 5:17 does not refer to financial reward but to respect. However, the passage continues with, ‘For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”’ The context is that of financial/material recompense, not ‘respect’. So, I do not believe that we can or should argue that it is biblically ‘wrong’ to financially recompense workers for the time and effort they spend on serving the church.

The real issue for me is not whether we are scripturally allowed have salaried church staff, but what effect this has on the functioning of the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, there are some very negative effects from employing church staff. Firstly, there are those church members who think that because they contribute to a minister’s salary they somehow own him and have the right to control him. Secondly, there is an expectation among some that the paid worker should do the work of the ministry and that all others should applaud or criticise his performance. In can see no logical reason why a church staff member should feel superior to a non-staff church member simply by virtue of the fact that he or she is drawing a salary. On the contrary, I would think that a salary is evidence of dependence on, and accountability to, the congregation.

A clergy/laity divide is both unbiblical and counter-productive. Elitism, control and entitlement on the one side, and passivity, servility, and non-participation on the other side, is wrong on a number of levels. However, whether we should employ full-time workers is surely more a matter of particular circumstance, needs and culture, rather than biblical understanding.

I appreciate Frank Viola’s views because whilst they are sometimes rather extreme they usually give me pause for thought, reflection, and a fresh study of the scriptures.

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