The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 15

Clergy and Laity

The picture we have drawn of the early church includes local churches with an abundance of spiritual gifts and apostolic teams moving in the bloodstream. We have wondered how it would do as a blueprint for today. What then shall we say of the ordained ministry? If all Christians are to exercise a gift, should all be ordained ministers, as among the Jehovah's Witnesses? It was well said about the early Society of Friends that the idea was not to have no ministers, but to have no laymen. Should we stop ordaining? Or should we ordain everybody?

From another angle we must ask which members of the body of Christ should be paid, or be in so-called full-time ministry. If some should be paid, how much and by whom? An American humorist once defined a minister as "a good man hired by the wicked to prove to them by his constant example that righteousness does not pay." Who should hire or fire ministers, for what purpose, and on what basis? Evidently the questions are thorny: one chapter will answer little and satisfy less. Anglicans and Roman Catholics, Brethren and Friends, and all in between, will be hurt unanimously.

Ordination generally takes place by the laying on of hands. Roman Catholics require a bishop in the apostolic succession, Anglicans claim the same succession but include the hands of other priests with the bishop. Presbyterians ordain by ministers without a bishop. Baptists use deacons, who are really elders, for the same function. In some denominations there are representatives from other churches at the ordination, and it has even been insisted that every member of the local congregation participate in it. In any case the person being ordained is recognized, indicated, and given new authority by the laying on of hands. The higher Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Greek Orthodox add that something priestly is also imparted by the proper hands in the proper ceremony.

Like most Christian activities, the roots of ordination lie firmly in the Old Testament. The Jews used the laying on of hands to designate or indicate a person or animal for a particular function. If a man brought a sin offering he laid his hands on the head of the lamb. What was meant by this was: "This is my lamb. I deserve the penalty, but this innocent victim takes my place: Lord, have mercy on me a sinner" (Lev. 4:24, 29; 16:21; Num. 12:8). The patriarchs laid hands on their children to indicate the blessing that was destined for them (Gen. 48:14-20). Moses laid hands on Joshua to appoint him as successor (Num. 27:18-20). David Daube gives evidence that rabbis used to lay hands on their disciples to ordain them for the same work, and that this practice was continued in the early church, so that it became accepted that a bishop could ordain his successor.[39] That the laying on of hands was not confined to ordination for church offices is clear from the fact that Jesus laid his hands on children and on the sick, as did the apostles. It was also used in connection with prayer for the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Evidently the laying on of hands was not restricted to the ordination of ministers or elders for a local congregation, since it is evident that Barnabas and Saul were appointed for missionary service, and Timothy was ordained for a function in the mission team by this ancient sign.[40]

It is therefore obvious that the laying on of hands was used for a wide variety of functions in both the Old and New Testaments. We saw in Chapter II that local churches like the synagogues that preceded them woe free to make their own rules according to the degree of organization that they had attained. In the worldwide church today we must also allow each church or grouping of churches to use the laying on of hands for as many functions as they find appropriate. Whether they decide to "ordain" full-time teachers only, or all teachers, including Sunday School teachers, or the men who are authorized to administer the bread and wine, or only one man per congregation who is to be "The Minister," or go the whole way and ordain all who hold any office in the church - these things must be decided by whatever wisdom the church can muster. Whatever we do, let there be some logic that can be explained to the ordinary man. I would also plead for a sensible understanding of the practice of ordination or the lack of ordination in other groups and a respect for equivalent functions. For example, if one denomination lays hands on theologically trained itinerant Bible teachers, and another does not, can we not agree to recognize the species rather than question the validity of the rite of recognition?

I would ideally like to see two kinds of laying on of hands. At the local church level the laying on of hands by representatives of the congregation could be used to designate all elders, deacons and deaconesses, and also to commend missionaries leaving the congregation to go into the "bloodstream" ministry of the church universal (see Chapter XIII).

There would also be a denominational laying on of hands 'Where a trained and approved teacher, evangelist, prophet, pastoral counselor, or administrator is designated for a wider ministry, whether at the local church level or in the "bloodstream." After ordination in this way he would still have to be accepted either by a local congregation or by an order or mission team to work with them. Just as a local church or mission team has to maintain a list of its own workers, so each denomination would maintain a list of its approved "ordained men" for a wider ministry. I hope that the practice of extending denominational approval to those ordained by other groupings will also become more common.

In this way churches could be encouraged to recognize the gifts of the Spirit among their members, and also the gifted men available in neighboring churches and in the various "bloodstream" teams. The safeguard is that any local church is responsible for testing and if necessary refusing the ministry of any teacher, evangelist, prophet, or pastor, whether or not he is on the "ordained list" of a denomination, if he does not have the marks of a man of God. This principle of testing by the local church is clearly taught in the New Testament.[41] It is not sufficient that a preacher should have had a good training or be on the denominational roll, since it is clear that many of tile New Testament false teachers began in good standing in the church. If every local church felt responsible to test those who came to preach and refused to hear again those who brought heresy or a wrong spirit, it would be comparatively easy to maintain the doctrine of the church.

We have not yet discussed the question of whether ministers should be paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time. If ordination is to be used by a local church to commission the gifted persons who serve it, and if it is also used at the denominational level to recognize various approved workers, then obviously the question of whether or not a man is paid to do these jobs is irrelevant. As in the early church, there will be an army of gifted persons exercising their functions as teachers, pastors, evangelists, elders, deacons, and in other good works; and most of these will be earning their own living. Their profession is the wave-length by which they are known in society, but their gift is the medium through which they communicate Jesus Christ to the community.

For the first three centuries of church history the vast majority of elder-bishops seem to have had their own means of livelihood. But the church will always need a number of men and women, both at the local level and in the bloodstream, who will give themselves to exercising their spiritual gifts on a full-time and therefore salaried basis. In some cases these may move in and out of so-called full-time service. On Paul's first missionary journey, and on his second journey up to the time of his arrival in Corinth, he never stopped to earn his own living. Most likely he used funds provided by his friends in Antioch. Paul tells his churches that they should provide finance for their teachers (Gal. 6:6; I Tim. 5:17; 1 Cor. 9:8-12). Even Jesus accepted financial support from his followers (Luke 8:3). How many persons should be supported partly or in full by local churches will vary according to circumstances. It is in any cast a matter of economics rather than theology.

Let us imagine a church growing from the very first converts in a new area. Whether this is in Africa or Britain, in a primitive tribe or in Chicago, among middle-class suburbanites or industrial workers, it makes little basic difference. When ten or twelve families have begun to meet they can be constituted as a congregation. Among these the leaders will become obvious, and as soon as possible elders should be designated. As Roland Allen pointed out from his experience in China there is no need for these men to be sent away for elaborate theological training. Any mature Christian man who is respected in the community should be able to conduct a simple communion service or share what he has learned from personal Bible study. Paul ordained elders very soon after the first churches were founded in Galatia, and we do a disservice to church growth by following any other method.[42]

As the church grows and the elders consider its spiritual needs, it may become obvious that one of their number could do much more if he were freed from having to earn his own living. He might, for example, concentrate on pastoral visitation or devote a few months to putting up a church building. liter as the giving of the members increased, it might be possible to have a full-time deaconess to work among the women and children and for the service of the community. The next step could be a missionary project to send a Timothy, a Mark, or a Silas to join a mission team. If the church grew to the point where it could take on a theologically trained "rabbi" to teach its members and help teach other struggling churches in the area, there would then be the equivalent of our twentieth-century seminary-trained minister, the difference being that he is not the vicar, the parish Priest, or the pastor. Nor would he necessarily have to live himself to sitting on committees, running the administration, Or even be chairman of the session. This could be done by others gifted in these directions, and his task would be to devote himself to the study of the Word of God, teaching in the congregation, communicating with intellectuals, refuting error, and perhaps pursuing a writing and radio ministry. Instead of bypassing the parish ministry in large numbers, the best theologians and teachers might be challenged and recaptured for the work they are trained to do.

Such an approach to part-time and full-time ministry could deliver us from the ridiculous idea that a church must hire a man who has all the gifts, and that his success is measured by how many "laymen" can be persuaded to attend his activities. The idea of the one-man ministry became entrenched in the Middle Ages, when the lord of the manor hired a priest to care for the religion of his subjects. The one-man ministry was further strengthened, instead of being reformed, at the Reformation, and it has only been seriously questioned by such groups as the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Plymouth Brethren, and in our own day by the Pentecostal assemblies. The sixteenth century rediscovered Paul's doctrines concerning faith, and today many Roman Catholic theologians agree that Luther also was a true doctor of the church. It might be even more significant for the growth of the body Of Christ in an exploding world population if the twentieth century rediscovered Paul's view of the gifts of the Spirit to provide the ministry required for true congregational life.

Before closing this brief discussion of the ordained ministry, we should note in passing its relationship to the celibacy of the clergy. That Paul expected most local church elders to be married is obvious (I Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6) It is generally agreed that many presbyters and city bishops of the first three centuries were family men The movement towards celibacy began with the asceticism of St. Antony (ca. 251-356) and the early Egyptian monks. That monks should be celibate was laid down by Buddha and also by Mahavir, founder of the Indian Jains, in the sixth century B.C. The practice was adopted by the Essenes and in the famous Qumran monastery in the two centuries before Christ. If strong-minded monks and gentle nuns are to live in ascetic communities, they have to be celibate. How then did a necessity for monks become a rule for all the ordained clergy? The article "Celibacy of the Clergy" in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church provides a short answer. At the Council of Nicea (325) a proposal by the Egyptian monks that all clergy should be compelled to give up living with their wives was decisively rejected. At the Council of Trullo (692) the eastern branches of Christendom decided that priests and deacons could marry before ordination, but not after; and only unmarried priests were allowed to be made bishops. In the west a decretal of Pope Siricius (386) ordered celibacy for "priests and Levites." On ordination the practice throughout the Middle Ages was for a married man to send his wife to a nunnery. In 1917 the Roman Catholic Church finally forbade the ordination of a married man by Codex Iuris Canonici, but the present revolt indicates that the question is by no means settled.

For Protestants the question has been carelessly settled by implying that all men should be married, that celibacy is unfortunate, that bachelors are suspect and spinsters to be pitied. Jesus Christ clearly indicated that for the sake of the kingdom of heaven some disciples will renounce marriage voluntarily; and Paul said that in unsettled situations to be single is an advantage (Matt. 19:10-12; I Cor. 7:25f.). The celibate Roman Catholic orders and not a few outstanding individual Protestants have demonstrated that for some tasks unmarried men and women have tremendous advantages. There are also innumerable cases where the cause of Jesus Christ would have been helped if young men had delayed the responsibilities of sex relationships until basic studies were behind them and they were settled into their life work. As it is, the average North American Protestant male is emotionally and sexually involved with girls from his early teens; he is married when he should be sharpening his mind with other men in university; and he is immobile with children when he could be out staking the claims of the church in unfamiliar ground. That celibacy is required as a qualification for the service of Jesus Christ is monstrous. That so few adopt celibacy, at least for a period, as a means to an end is tragic.

As we have noted before, both in the Bible and in the church, the truth often lies at once in the two extremes. Celibacy is good and marriage is good, and both have their right places. Christians called to a settled work in a local situation will usually be more effective if married, This includes most men in the so-called ordained or parish ministry. Many of those called into the bloodstream of the body of Christ would profit from voluntary celibacy, at least for a time. For some tasks unmarried men and women are needed, but, as Paul warned, "each has his gift from God" and it is certainly "better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (I Cor. 7:7-9). For special tasks there should be orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans that require celibacy for their members, but if any of these marry later there is no reason why they should be disqualified from being licensed to a parish ministry. A similar system already works effectively in some of the Anglican orders where marriage may terminate membership in the order, but does not exclude from continued usefulness in a parish situation.

Celibacy was an interesting tangent from our subject in this chapter. If churches consist of gifted persons performing a variety of functions in a local situation, and the bloodstream consists of apostolic teams moving to nourish, stimulate, and repair the body, then what is the meaning of clergy and laity? The honest answer is that they have no meaning. This does not, however, mean that ordination is meaningless. Every church and denomination must use the outward sign of recognition, the laying on of hands, to express what they intend to indicate. Men and women can be ordained by the laying on of hands for various functions, but that does not elevate them from laity to clergy. Ordinations may be more frequent, clergy could be dispensed with; all Christians can be invited to work but none will be laymen. How each denomination can rediscover the New Testament is difficult to visualize. To expect uniformity of practice is foolish. To understand the practice of others is wise. To use all the gifts given by Christ to build his church is in any case imperative.

Chapter 16...