Earlier this week, I posted a response to Ed Stetzer’s recent bomb-shell blog post that called for the end of the clergy / laity caste system. The fact that Ed is heavily involved in the Southern Baptist system makes this all the more astounding.
If you have not yet had the opportunity to read my post from earlier this week, let me encourage you to do so:
In my post earlier this week, I talked about the need to go beyond simple ‘rhetoric’ when discussing the abolition of the clergy / laity caste system. The clergy / laity caste system is the lynchpin that holds the institution together. If we’re seriously considering abandoning such a lynchpin, as Ed Stetzer called for, then we need to understand the severity and implications to such a call.
For me personally, the journey out of the clergy / laity caste system was not an overnight process; rather, it was a journey that occurred over a few years in three major ‘steps’. A few months ago, I had the privilege of being a guest blogger on the blog of a local Pastor who asked me to share my story of why I left the institutional system. I shared my ‘three step marathon’ with him on his blog. Because this story could be helpful for others who are taking Ed Stetzer’s call seriously, I would like to re-share my ‘three step’ journey out of the institution with you here as well.
Step 1: A Vantage Point Shift
I became a believer when I was eighteen years of age, and it didn’t take long for me to see that there was something radically wrong. The Christ I fell in love with, and the church I read about in the scriptures, was not being expressed in what was being presented to me as ‘church’. At the time, I didn’t know why I felt this way. It was simply something I knew deep down in my spirit.
Fortunately, as a new believer in Christ, the Lord put a mentor in my life that also seemed to question the same things. This gave me ‘permission’, so to speak, to not just swallow what was being presented to me. Eventually, I went off to a religious university to be trained for the professional ministry. After college, I planted an institution and was employed as a ‘Lead’ Pastor for a little over four years before I stepped down.
During this time of working ‘behind the curtain’, my suspicions were confirmed. The ‘church’ I was trained to plant was not the New Testament church in any way, shape, or form. Although the Lord did many good things in the organization I helped to establish, I knew it was only a shadow. I knew there was so much more to the church I read about in scripture. An extended trip overseas to witness the body of Christ outside of a ‘Western’ grid only confirmed this.
Upon returning from this trip, a couple of key things happened to me. First, I heard Francis Chan (popular evangelical author / Pastor) say something that I had been thinking since I became a believer. He said this:
If I had been raised on a deserted island, had never been to bible college, had only read the scriptures, and had never saw an (institutional) church before, I would never recognize my own church as anything remotely similar to the church that is described in the New Testament. – Francis Chan
That stunned me. Up to that point, I had never heard anyone who was a member of the clergy class say anything like that about their own church they were leading. I knew he was right, however. A short time after that, I was spending some time with a person who had spent years on staff with, and mentored by, another well known and respected author / Pastor in the evangelical world. This man’s mentor was a person whom had also influenced me from afar. Like tens of thousands of other Christians, I had read many of his books. He was considered an expert on theology and the church. I asked my friend a very frank question:
“During your time on the church staff with (unnamed respected celebrity pastor), did you see and experience what you would consider the New Testament church?”
Without hesitation he said “No way.” My friend was simply being honest. He had no ‘axe’ to grind and genuinely loved this Pastor. When I heard him say this, I felt the Lord give me a new sense of freedom from looking to these people as experts. These popular evangelical ‘experts’ were propagating a ‘system’ that was clearly not found in the New Testament. They were simply propagating a system that had been in place for hundreds of years that they had not questioned or examined. For me, I sensed the Lord showing me that it was time to stop blaming people for the church’s problems, and start examining the very ‘system’ itself.
From man’s vantage point, we see the church through an organizational grid of more than 33,000 different sects and denominations. There is absolutely no scriptural justification for this. While many would agree that there is only one church, the practice on the ground denies this. A quick drive down the street in any American city will demonstrate this. In one city will exist several ‘separate’ churches with their own names, logos, clerical staffs, and doctrinal positions. This is foreign to the New Testament. The city of Corinth, Ephesus, Sardis, Rome, etc… had no ‘First Baptist’, or ‘Vineyard’ or ‘New Life’, (insert your church name here). There was simply the church in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Nashville, etc…
While there may have been several groups meeting together that were scattered across a city or region, they did not see themselves as separate churches. The New Testament only identifies one church community as distinct from another based on geographic location. This is certainly not the case in today’s religious system.
The Lord does not carve up the body of His beloved Son the way mankind has done. He only sees one body. He does not recognize the organizational grids, names, logos, by-laws, etc… that we have created. He does not see us as members of ‘crossroads community church’ (for example), He simply sees us as members of His beloved Son.
Since the Lord sees His bride through the ‘grid’ of His one and only Son, I stopped seeing and associating with the church through the man-made labels that have been created by man. As you may be able to imagine, viewing the church this way can cause problems if you remain in institutional life:)
This shift in the ‘vantage point’ of how I see the church was step one in my journey out of the institution.
Step 2: Knowledge of Church History & The Clergy / Laity Error
Like many Christians, I read the scriptures and read words like ‘church’, ‘elder’, ‘pastor’, ‘ministry’, etc… and read into those words what I had experienced in the Western American Church context. As I studied the context and history of the New Testament, however, it became undeniably clear to me that those terms meant something completely different than what I thought they meant. Jesus Christ abolished the ‘selective priesthood’ and the concept of an external ‘temple’ made by human hands. In Christ, we are all priests. In Christ, we are being fashioned together into a living holy temple. (1 Pet. 2:5,9)
As I investigated church history, I saw that this New Testament understanding of Christ began to dissipate greatly in the second and third centuries. Instead of understanding Christ (and His body) as being the ‘temple’, cathedrals and religious edifices were constructed and referred to as ‘churches / temples’. Religious life, money, and focus shifted to these new entities. There are reasons for this, but that is another subject for another day.
The New Testament Greek word ‘Cleros’ means one who receives a ‘lot’ or ‘inheritance’. The Greek word ‘Cleros’ is also where the word ‘clergy’ comes from. Scripture indicates that all who are ‘in Christ’ have received Christ Himself as our ‘lot’ or ‘inheritance’. In the New Testament, the term ‘Cleros’ (clergy) is actually used to describe the entire church! Unfortunately, in the second and third centuries, the term ‘clergy’ began to be applied to a select group within the church to reinforce a hierarchical understanding of church leadership. This led to the creation of the unbiblical ‘clergy / laity’ system that continues intact to this very day. There is much more that needs to be said about this, but for time’s sake here, I’d like to recommend some excellent resources out there that carefully examine the history of our modern church practices that are rooted in the unbiblical ‘clergy / laity’ divide:
Both of these books are written respectfully, but honestly, regarding the presentation of historical data that illustrate how the institutional understanding of ‘church’ and ‘clergy’ came about. I only recommend these books to those who really want to know where the roots of the current clerical / Pastoral system came from. Those who are satisfied with the current system should not read these books.
Step 3: The Necessity of Expressing Jesus Christ
It saddens my heart to hear the way much of the ‘institutional vs. Organic’ church conversation is played out. I hear these terms tossed around as if they describe two different styles or ‘methods’ of how to have a church meeting, or two different flavors of ice cream. In my opinion, that could not be further from the truth. When people see the ‘institutional’ or ‘organic’ church conversation as being simply about methodology, it is a sign to me that they are blind to the much larger issue at hand. This is not about simply discovering a more ‘biblical’ way to function as the church, it is about having a correct understanding of the very person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has a Head, and He also has a Body.
Christ as Head
Jesus Christ is the Head (direction setter, origin, and source of life) of the church. This is not something that He delegates to one person in the church, or a select group of people in the church. As my eyes were opened to Christ as the Head of the church, the more I saw the tragedy of the institutional system that places a clerical leader(s), or group of people in that position. When an entire community of people begin to look to Christ as the Head, and not another member of the body, the body of Christ can be free to function and express Christ without the hierarchical box that unfortunately keeps the saints from fully expressing Him.
Christ in the Body
Ephesians 1:23 states an often overlooked, yet profound truth about the church. The fullness of this person of Jesus Christ who “fills all in all”, will only be found in and through the people who are ‘in Christ’. Simply put, it is the members of His body as they function together with one another by His divine life that actually manifest the fullness of Jesus Christ. This is why the saints must be free to express Christ in church meetings, and in community life with one another.
The New Testament church knew nothing of the passive condition of today’s attenders who come to sing a few songs led by a select band on a stage, listen to a preselected person deliver a sermon to an audience, drop a few dollars in the plate, and go home. The scriptures are clear about the purpose of church meetings. They were a time in which each person in Christ was meant to come and bring a contribution of Christ. They were to come speaking Christ with one another, edifying one another, and building one another up. Each member is to minister (serve) Christ to the body. When the church is equipped for the work of ‘ministry’ (Eph 4:11-13), it is a stunning sight to be a part of and behold!
I have been a part of institutions who have tried to make cosmetic changes to their ‘methodology’ in order to function in a more ‘organic’ way, but it has never worked. In my experience, it is like putting lipstick on a pig thinking it will become something different. The real issue lies below the surface. In the institution, there is a monumental elephant in the room that few are willing to address. Simply making cosmetic changes to the same system will not address or remove the ‘elephant’.
I’ll never forget the first time I caught a glimpse of the church that had no ‘clergy / laity’ divide in which all the members had been equipped to express Christ. I saw the headship of Christ, and the fullness of Him manifested in that body of believers in a way that I had never seen before. The sight of Christ was so beautiful that I knew at that moment that I had to leave the institution. I have never looked back. It has been one of the greatest decisions of my life!
For the journey,