Back in February of this year (2009), I had the privilege of speaking at George Fox Seminary with Len Sweet, MaryKate Morse, Alan Hirsch, and Dan Kimball.
During the panel discussion, Alan Hirsch slipped into “instigator mode” (I think he was bored that day or was thirsty for a good ole’ fashioned brawl). Alan asked, “Frank, what do you think of the clergy, and do you see a place for it?”
Having read and endorsed my book Pagan Christianity, Alan knew full well where I stood on the subject. My answer was simple: “Some of my best friends are clergymen … I shall put a period at the end of that sentence.” To which the audience laughed. We then went on to other matters.
The irony in Alan’s question was that we were all sitting in a seminary named after a man who was vehemently opposed to the clergy system and was sorely persecuted for his critique of it.
The full answer to Alan’s question is that my views on the clergy are identical to that of George Fox himself.
I felt that answering the question in this way could have created a potential riot (there were a good number of clergy in the room), so I chose to give the response I did, which brought some needed comic relief to the anticipated tension that Alan’s question brought to the audience.
That said, there are two things I want to share on the subject today:
First, I’ve become quite amazed at the number of pop “church” books that have come out since the release of Pagan Christianity which are trying quite desperately to defend the clergy/laity divide. A number of these books present themselves to be new, radical, and offering a different perspective on church.
If I may be candid, they merely rearrange the liturgical furniture and tweak the ecclesiastical vocabulary while leaving untouched the root issues of the church’s problems. None of them deal with the sacred cow of the clergy system—the pink elephant in the room that many Christians dare not touch.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Most of these books are merely a rehash of most church renewal books that have come out over the last 50 years. Band-Aids and patchwork operations applied to a defective ecclesiology. And to quote Led Zeppelin, “the song remains the same.” That always happens when one deals with the symptoms of a problem rather than the root/systemic causes.
Point: You can rearrange the chairs on the Titanic all day long, but the ship is still going down.
Second, in this regard, I wish to point my readers to the work of Jon Zens. Zens is one of the few scholars outside the institutional church who is writing 100 years ahead of his time. A former clergy-man himself, Zens effectively shreds all the typical justifications for the clergy caste system and turns them into confetti. About a year ago the “Zens-Master” (as I like to call him) went nose-to-nose with another scholar and turned the shredder on high. You can read Jon’s incredible exchange here.
But be forewarned: They are not for the faint in heart.
“The New Testament doctrine of ministry rests therefore not on the clergy-laity distinction but on the twin and complementary pillars of the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Spirit. Today, four centuries after the Reformation, the full implications of this Protestant affirmation have yet to be worked out. The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principal obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the Kingdom today because it creates a false idea that only “holy men,” namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity.”
~Dr. Howard Snyder
“Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism—when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts … such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change.”
~James D. G. Dunn