The Bible’s Viewpoint
Should There Be a Clergy-Laity Distinction?
Most Reverend, Right Reverend, Father, Most Holy Father, Rabbi, His Eminence, His Excellency, His Holiness, His All-Holiness—these are some of the titles that distinguish the clergy of various religions from the laity. The separation of the clergy from the laity is common to many religions, but is the arrangement from God, or is it a human tradition? More important, does it have God’s approval?
“IN THE New Testament and during the early apostolic times there is no mention of clergy or laity,” wrote professor of theology Cletus Wessels. The Encyclopedia of Christianity states: “There gradually arose a differentiation into clergy as the officeholders and the laity as the rest . . . ‘Ordinary’ church members now came to be seen as an unqualified mass.” That differentiation became prominent during the third century C.E.—more than two hundred years after Jesus Christ!
If, then, the clergy-laity distinction is not based on the model set by Jesus’ apostles and other early Christians, does that make it wrong? According to the Bible, yes. Consider why.
“All You Are Brothers”
God’s Word tells us that all Christians serve as God’s ministers and that none is above or beneath the other. (2 Corinthians 3:5, 6) “There was a very positive insistence on the absence of class” among early Christians, says religion writer Alexandre Faivre. That “absence of class” harmonizes with Jesus’ words to his followers: “All you are brothers.”—Matthew 23:8.
Spiritually older men did, of course, serve as overseers, which included being shepherds and teachers. (Acts 20:28) However, these men were not paid clerics. For the most part, they were ordinary working men—husbands and fathers. Moreover, they qualified to serve as overseers, not by attending religious seminaries, but by being diligent students of God’s Word and by cultivating the spiritual qualities required by God. These qualities include being “moderate in habits, sound in mind, orderly, hospitable, qualified to teach, . . . reasonable, not belligerent, not a lover of money, a man presiding over his own household in a fine manner.”—1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Why It Is Wise to Stick to the Bible
“Do not go beyond the things that are written,” the Bible states. (1 Corinthians 4:6) Sadly, when people disregard that divinely inspired directive, spiritual harm usually results, and that is true of the clergy-laity arrangement. How so? Please consider the following six points.
1. The separation of a clergy class implies that one must have a special calling to be a minister of God. Yet, the Bible says that all true Christians should serve God and praise his name. (Romans 10:9, 10) As for ministering within the congregation, Christian men in general are encouraged to reach out for that privilege, which is the custom among Jehovah’s Witnesses.—1 Timothy 3:1.
2. The clergy-laity distinction exalts the clergy class, an evidence being adulatory religious titles. Yet, Jesus said: “He that conducts himself as a lesser one among all of you is the one that is great.” (Luke 9:48) In harmony with that spirit of humility, he told his followers not to adopt religious titles.—Matthew 23:8-12.
3. A paid clergy class can impose a heavy financial burden on the laity, especially when the former have lavish lifestyles. Christian overseers, on the other hand, care for their financial needs by doing normal secular work, thus setting a good example for others.*—Acts 18:1-3; 20:33, 34; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10.
4. Because a clergyman may depend on others for financial support, he might be tempted to dilute the Bible’s message in order to please parishioners. Indeed, the Scriptures foretold that this very thing would occur. “There will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled.”—2 Timothy 4:3.
5. The clergy-laity distinction tends to cause lay people to relegate religion to the clergy, while the laity just turn up for weekly services. Yet, all Christians must be conscious of their spiritual need and be good students of the Bible.—Matthew 4:4; 5:3.
6. When the laity are Biblically uninformed, they can easily be misled by clerics, even exploited by them. Indeed, history contains many examples of such abuses.*—Acts 20:29, 30.
In order to adhere closely to the pattern set down in the Bible, Jehovah’s Witnesses have, not a clergy class, but unpaid spiritual shepherds and teachers who willingly minister to God’s flock. Why not see for yourself by visiting a Kingdom Hall in your locality?