America is one big celebrity culture. Big names. Big followings. Big money. One expects celebrity worship and big money in the culture of the world, but we can also see it in what calls itself church. Truth is, there has been a religious system in place since 250AD that has elevated church leaders in an extremely unhealthy way.
In the early church there was no “clergy” and “laity” as these words have been used traditionally for centuries. In fact, the Greek word kleros (“inheritance”) – from which the English word “clergy” is derived – is used in the New Testament, but it includes every one of Jesus’ people. Every believer is “clergy.”
Sadly, very early on the visible church began to divide people into the “ordained” (clergy) and the non-ordained (laity). We can now reflect on how perverse this chasm was and still is today, and how easily it was created. By changing the definition of a good word, kleros, which includes all of God’s people, kleros was narrowed down to entail only a few male church leaders, instead of Christ leading through all the one anothers.
The Qualified Clergy?
By 250AD the doctrine of the “Bishop” was in place, and the priesthood of all believers were told, “Obey the Bishop because he speaks in the place of God,” or you will be in deep trouble. As time marched on a well-defined hierarchical religious system was functioning to keep the priesthood in line, ending with the Pope in Rome on top.
When Luther, Calvin and Zwingli took issue with Roman Catholicism in the 1500’s, they pushed the sacramental table aside and made the pulpit central. While the Reformation had no Pope, it did have an inordinate dependence upon “the minister,” or “the pastor.” Thus, in practice, Protestantism ended up with thousands of mini-popes keeping those in the pews in line at the local level.
(An important fact to keep in mind is that from 325 – 1600AD all clergymen were embedded in and protected by state control of the churches.)
In Catholicism and Protestantism the system is heavily weighted to authoritative leaders who make sure the priesthood, the so-called laity, color only within the prescribed boundaries. In American history there have certainly been well-known and influential preachers/pastors of larger churches. But since the 1960’s, the religious scene has magnified and accelerated the appearance of charismatic celebrities who are able to gather thousands around their personalities.
The religion of the personality cult is a perfect fit with the long-standing practice of pastoral authority. The reality is that a powerful system is in place that cultivates, fosters and encourages the pedestal-status of “the pastor.” John Piper can write a book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, but the reality is that the system requires them to be professionals or they are out on their ear.
The Centrality of an Individual?
Here are some examples of the doctrine as stated by those who advocate it. Ministry magazine said in 2010, “the local church pastor is key – absolutely central – to everything we are and do as a church.” Julia McMillan asserted in her otherwise excellent book, Prophetic Crack:
There is one primary voice in leadership. Where there is a pastor, that should be the only decisive voice that we hear. He is charged with soul care and is the ultimate voice the congregants expect to hear, especially regarding matters of vision and direction for the church. (Julia McMillan, “Prophetic Crack: Pushers in the Pulpits, Addicts in the Pews,” Thorncrown Publishing, 2010, p. 105).
Rick Bundschuh speaks of “the person who leads a church,” the pastor (The Church, 1988, p. 57). R.C. Sproul believes that the pastor is “the head of a group of people,” which is like being “the president of a company” (Now, That’s A Good Question! 1996, p. 343). Quotations like these are legion. The leading religious assumption across the board in all denominations is that “the pastor” is at the heart of a congregation’s existence.
However, one could rightfully ask, “Where in the New Testament would this pastor centrality and dependence be found?” Julia McMillan encourages us to be informed by “the Word of God” (p. 112), but her sentiments about the pastor being “the one decisive voice we hear” falls into the category of errant human traditions.
Paul made it clear that “the body is not one part, but many.” But if people were to judge by what they see practiced and a lot of what is in print, their conclusion would be that the body is one part, not many. All the bread is in the basket of “the pastor.”
For sure, American religion is all about the pastor, his vision and his leadership. Those who choose the role of pastor as a career are, like it or not, throwing themselves into a system that is unforgiving in its expectations, and totally without the sanction of Jesus. Some pastors seem to be successful in the clergy role, but in a high percentage of cases the system eats them up. I have said before – I’m convinced that most pastors go to bed at night with a gnawing in their spirit that church is way out of kilter, that games are being played, and that authenticity is almost never a reality. It is, in part, because of thoughts like this that Joel Gregory turned down the job offer to be pastor of a large, prestigious church (Too Great A Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church, 1994).
The System that Lords Over Christ in Believers
It is in this world where these church leaders are exalted, where their authority is pervasive and where their presence is viewed as mandatory, that people like Mark Driscoll rise to incredible heights of prominence. But it makes no difference if one is pastor over 25 or 25,000, the same basic expectations are in place. It must be underscored, then, that Mark is a cog in a system that should have never been in place. This system’s inner workings account for both his climb to the top, his fall to the cement, and the confusion about his future. Because the system is perilously flawed, and because it does not have heaven’s approval in the first place, is it any wonder or surprise that it comes equipped with buried landmines that have blown people’s lives apart – both in the pulpit and in the pew?
Only in a leader-based system that has little to nothing to do with Jesus could a member of it get away with parading perverse, abusive opinions like these:
Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission and if people don’t sign up, you move on . . . . I am about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus [chuckle], and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done . . . . You either get on the bus, or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options.
Such sentiments may be extreme, to be sure, but believers need to understand that in principle every pastor has the same extensive authority that Mark exercised on the day he uttered those atrocities. The system grants “the pastor” virtually unlimited power over the assembly. The fact that Mark could say such things publicly and not be thrown out in the street in disgrace shows how much people will tolerate from those who are highly respected in the system.
R.C. Sproul asks people to think about,“What causes the most pressure or strain on my pastor?” (Good Question! p. 342) It is unlikely that anyone would give the correct answer: the religious pastor-dependent system he/she is living in. This clergy-system requires those in it to perform numerous rituals, wear a variety of hats, prepare speech after speech and put out endless fires. How can we be shocked that so many are crushed by it? Christ never intended any one person to bear such a load, to be “the president of a company.”
The Clergy is the Priesthood of All Believers
What is Christ’s answer to all of this? “My Bride has many parts. I wish to be expressed through each of them. One person cannot express Me fully; many parts can each bring a portion of Me to the feast.”
The essence of church-life has been boiled down to hearing one person give a speech. “In Protestant worship,” R.C. Sproul observes, “for the most part, we sit and listen to a sermon” (Good Question! p. 353). But, where is this model revealed in the New Testament?
The most light shown of believers gathering together is in 1 Corinthians 14. This is a body gathering. There is no “centrality of preaching,” but “each of you has” a contribution. There are no persons “up front,” because there is no front.
R.C. Sproul asserts that the first cause of why people are leaving buildings is because “church is boring” (Question! p. 330). He then notes, “If people were having a vital encounter with the Living God, nobody would say that church is boring” (Question! p. 331).
Isn’t it fascinating that the meeting in which all participated was certainly not boring, and in it the Living God was encountered – “if all prophesy and an unbeliever or unlearned person is present, he/she is convicted and judged by all, the secrets of their heart are revealed, and falling down on their face they worship God and declare that God is really in you” (1 Cor 14:24-25)? On what solid basis do we discard this revelation in order to work our way through a church bulletin that for the most part centers on the activities of one person?
Going to the Root
Brothers and sisters, when are we going to wake up and listen to our Savior’s voice? For years we’ve been trying to apply Mary Kay to a system that in crucial ways is opposed to Christ at every turn. As I’ve read blogs and articles about the pathway for people like Mark to recover, they are just trying to tweak a troubled system – like putting band-aids on a cancer. No one is going to the root.
The clergy-laity system is wrong and we can see that this very same system reflects the world’s way of doing things. It’s a stronghold against the Living Christ. It should be abandoned, not cuddled and tweaked. It has elicited pride in those exalted high by their positions over God’s people, it has crushed many by its demands, it has left families splintered and couples divorced, it has split untold churches – why else would 70% of pastor’s wives confess that the day of their husband’s ordination was the worst day of their marriage?
I encourage you to stop perpetuating and encouraging a wayward system. I encourage you to pursue Jesus Christ with your whole heart. Are you willing to go with Jesus into the unknowns of change, or will you remain content like 80% of Bernie Siegel’s patients?
Some [patients] will do almost anything rather than alter their lives to increase their chances for a cure. When I offer them a choice between an operation and a change in life-style, eight out of ten say, “Operate. It hurts less. That way all I have to do is get a babysitter for the week I’m in the hospital” (Bernie S. Siegel, “Love, Medicine & Miracles.” 1990, pp. 2-3).
The Air in the Box
As I said in June, 2012:
As I see it, it isn’t really organic vs. institutional. Jesus simply cannot be institutionalized. He said the Spirit is like wind. You can’t put wind in a box and make it happen. Inherent in wind is freedom. The only image that really captures reality is Vine-branches, organic relationships.
I think this highlights a lot of the tensions we experience. Institutions of Christianity dominate the landscape. So, well-meaning people are attempting to put Jesus in structures that do not foster the expression of His life in the saints. I believe that in the innumerable church buildings we have every 1/2 mile in America, Christ’s life is still coming forth in varying degrees. That’s because even human structures and rules can’t stop Him from at least some expression. But the disheartening tragedy is that His life appears in spite of the religious structures that He is confined in. Wouldn’t it be glorious if the way believers functioned, and came together, welcomed and encouraged Christ to be fully expressed!
Christianity’s institutions are trying to express an organic Jesus in non-organic structures. Is it any wonder that things work out like they say in the commercials –”your results may vary” — “some assembly required” — “batteries not included.”
— Jon Zens, September, 2014
Austin Miles, Setting the Captives Free, 1989.
Gary North, “Beating the State: Third Century Christianity in the Third World Today,” (I do not agree with many of Gary North’s viewpoints, but his sociological observations in this article about “not having real estate” are insightful and important. I analyzed key aspects of Gary’s theology in the 1988 Searching Together, “Moses & the Millennium.”)
R C Sproul, “Church Life,” Now, That’s A Good Question! Tyndale 1996, pp. 325-368. Strangely, in discussing church-life, R.C. never speaks of Christ’s leadership of the ekklesias, and he never talks about the 58 one another’s in the New Testament.
Frank Viola, Reimagining Church.
Jon Zens, 58 to 0 – How Christ Leads Through the One Anothers.
Jon Zens, The Pastor Has No Clothes: Moving from Clergy-Centered Church to Christ-Centered Ekklesia.
Jon Zens, “Uninstitutional”
Jon Zens, “Unstitutional II”