Reflections on Reimagining Church II – Why Clergy Bugger Up The Church

Perhaps one of the most pivotal arguments from Frank Viola is that the introduction of the clergy has resulted in a caste system and has been central to the dysfunction of the church. Chapter 8 entitled ‘Re-imagining Leadership’ is worthy of a post on its own because of its incendiary nature.

Viola argues that we have changed the ‘functional’ imagination of leadership present in the NT into a ‘positional’ idea and that often both ‘clergy’ and laity prefer it this way.

It may be easiest if I just quote from the chapter and offer a few comments as I go along:

The chapter opens with a summary quote from heavyweight Howard Snyder:

“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.”p.153

In describing the distinction between positional v functional leadership Viola says:

“Native to hierarchical/postional oriented churches is a political machine that works behind the scenes. The machine promotes certain people to positions of ecclesiastical power and authority. Native to functionally oriented churches is the mutual responsibility and collegial interplay of its members” p.156

Viola comments on the essence of hierarchical leadership and contrasts it with the leadership Jesus speaks of in Matt 20 (“It should not be so among you”):

“What is the hierarchical form of leadership structure? Its the leadership style that’s built on a chain of command social structure. Its rooted in the idea that power and authority folow from the top down. Hierarchical leadership is rooted in a worldly concept of power.” p.156

He goes on to cite Matt 23:8-12 “Do not be called Rabbi… etc” and argues that both gentile hierarchical forms and Jewish positional leadership models are not to be co-opted to the church because they “place severe limitations on the headship of Christ”.

As he turns his attention to the current church system he is not afraid to launch a few grenades:

I”n this connection (thinking of leadership as function) the modern clergy system is a religious artifact that has no biblical basis. This system has allowed the body of Christ to lapse into an audience due to its heavy reliance on a single leader. It has turned church into a place where Christians watch professionals perform. It has transformed the holy asembly into a centre for professional pulpiteerism supported by lay-spectators.” P. 160

Ok so that ought to get more than a yawn because there is a lot of truth in it…

He goes on in similar vein:

“Perhaps the most damning feature of the clergy system is that it keeps the people it claims to serve in spiritual infancy. Because the clergy system usurps the Christian’s right to minister in a spiritual way during corporate gatherings, it ends up debilitating God’s people. It keeps them weak and insecure.” p.160

The rest of this page is both provocative and insightful as to why the invention of clergy has been the church’s undoing. Viola affirms that those who serve as clergy usually do with the best of motives and to see people mature in faith, but few if any are able to trace the immaturity of their congregations back to their own profession.

He says:

“The clergy profession ends up disempowering and pacifying the believing priesthood. This is the case regardless of how uncontrolling the person who fills the clergy position may be.

Here’s how it works. Since clergy carries the spiritual workload, the majority of the church becomes passive, lazy, self seeking (“feed me”) and arrested in their spiritual development.

Just as serious, the clergy system warps many who occupy clerical positions. The reason? God never called anyone to bear the heavy burden of ministering to the needs of the church by himself… If the truth be told many Christians prefer the convenience paying someone to shoulder the responsibility for ministry and shepherding. In their minds, its better to hire a religious specialist to tend to the needs of God’s people than to bother themselves with the self emptying demands of servanthood and pastoral care.” p.161

Ok – so those are HUGE statements to make but I can certainly see more than a kernel of truth in them. Certainly we speak of team ministry and of people serving on another, but I would agree with Viola’s argument that the presence of a pastor tends to create a reliance on one person that should not exist.

Viola cites Christian Smith:

“The problem is that, regardless of what our theologies tell us about the purpose of the clergy, the actual effect of the clergy is to make the body of Christ lame. This happens not because clergy intend it (they usually intend the opposite) but because the objective nature of the profession inevitably turns the laity into passive receivers”

p. 162

He finishes by saying:

The truth is that many of us – like Israel of old – still clamor for a king to rule over us. p.163

I don’t know about you, but I find this chapter disturbing and challenging. I don’t think we can easily dismiss what Viola has to say because we can see its effects all around us in unhealthy congregations that long for the ‘king’. And many us in Christian leadership quite enjoy being ‘royalty’…

I find it hard because I feel I am a gifted leader and yet the system that exists for me to lead within does tend towards producing this unhealthy spectatorism and dependence. This system is well established and the culture is strong. It is well known and loved by most within it.

Is it possible to shift that culture while being a ‘clergy’ member?… I really don’t believe it is. It may be possible to shift it by being a congregation member who is gifted but refuses to be elevated to a paid position. But you can’t shift a culture while participating in it.

As I look again at receiving an income for using that gift I am aware that no matter how I view it in my head many will see me as the paid professional who knows more, is more godly and ought to carry more weight. And there will be times when I will savour that… its nice to be thought of as some kind of super-saint even if it is a load of bullshit.

I know there are plenty of Christian leaders / paid staff who fully endorse the idea of equipping the saints, of releasing people into giftedness etc, so this is not a dig at anyone. However I wonder if we miss out on seeing the church develop more fully while we continue with paid clergy?…

Do we undermine what we hope to see by being the ones who receive a salary, or do we see the body develop more effectively by having time to help others express their giftedness?…

Be honest.

What do you think?…

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36 thoughts on “Reflections on Reimagining Church II – Why Clergy Bugger Up The Church

  1. Blue pill…

    Red pill…

    Which one are you gonna take, Hamo?

    I gotta admit… Viola’s ‘PC’ was a deciding factor (there were preceding reasons) in me not pursuing my church job 18 months ago, for the reasons you outline in your summary.

    Question then emerges – can the current established church structure exist without a paid ‘expert’, or is a new structure required?

    What will you be part of?

    Of course, different congregations react/respond differently, but in your particular case, here’s the key question:

    ‘Will the Quinns Bap mob allow themselves to be moved from partaker to participant?’

    If no, then reject the job, cos it will be all based on sustaining lies and rubbish.

    If yes, well then you gotta work out if you trust the answer you got to the question!!





  2. Good post and very true. I hear a lot about equiping the saints but the reality is that never happens. It always seems to boil down to a show in the end.

  3. I like the Didache when it says,

    while honouring the apostles as the Lord – but let him not stay more than one day or if need be a second as well: if he stays three days he is a false prophet.

    Or whoever shall say in a spirit – give me money or say something else you shall not listen to him, but if he tell you to give on behalf of others in need, let no man judge him.

  4. toddy – I took the red pill a long time ago 🙂 and I wonder what that means for the situation we now find ourselves in.

    I have never written off any expression of church as I believe they are all flawed in one way or another. I also believe Roxburghs statement that where the spirit of god is present there is hope.

    What that means for us in the next phase I don’t know but I think there are creative ways to be in leadership that may allow us to help people on a re-imagining journey.

    To be honest there are days when I see the whole thing as doomed – but those are the days I take out the god factor and insert myself as the great hope!

    I’m not sure yet whether I even agree with Viola totally – even though much of what he says is accurate and quite insightful.

    I guess I am wondering today how we help ‘clergy dominated’ churches reimagine?

  5. I think the problem doesn’t so much relate to the “paid position” as it does to the expectations placed upon the person in the paid position. If a congregation is operating out of a paradigm that encourages (actively, passively or inadvertently)a clergy/laity divide then it will be extremely difficult to make serious inroads in adopting different approaches to leadership and ministry. I have heard a number of big church pastors lament a lack of congregational involvement in ministry over the years to know this is a real problem!

    I think repentance is required first and foremost (in the sense that there has to be a turning away from the one and a turning to the other). I think (though I am still chewing all this over) that if a general missional mindset can be established within the congregation and the value of all gifts and everyone’s life-as-ministry (not just the person receiving the pay cheque)can be widely accepted, then it is possible for someone still to be paid to undertake specific work. But surely work that is commensurate with clear gifting and that can’t otherwise be undertaken without financial support from the congregation.

    I have no problem with people going to Bible college and studying, but I agree with Viola’s (as quoted by Hamo – I haven’t read the book) take on the role of professional clergy within the church. I say this as someone who has the professional “credentials” and is a “minister” within a national denomination.

    There are legal issues involved in all of this too, such as how do we deal with services to the community such as marriages etc.

  6. I have struggled to argue with Viola, despite my earlier endeavours to… I think that his information is correct, but he can rub readers the wrong way with his ‘all or nothing’ approach.

    But then, I used to think that Pauls Apostolic letters were full of arrogance and self-grandiosing!! So who am I to judge…

    If each group that meets can focus on principles over rules, then there is hope. As soon as the ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ or ‘that’s what the other mob did/said’ stuff comes in, doom abounds as the group slowly disappears up it’s own gunga-funnel.

    I keep thinking I’ve taken the ‘red-pill’ but then realise I probably still need to actively take it every day, to prevent me from slipping into old (and dysfunctional) ways of thinking.

    Of course, I’m only commenting here today because the cricket finished early… curse that GABBA greentop!!

  7. Just read your thoughts Andrew… so, if the problem is the congregations of churches with paid pastors, how do we change that?

    More pertinently, why (even when?) did this become a problem?

    I’ve got the feeling that Hamo’s last question (‘I guess I am wondering today how we help ‘clergy dominated’ churches reimagine?’) is getting harder and harder to answer…

  8. One of my critiques of Viola is that he is very ‘gathering’ focused.

    He looks at who runs the meetings, who participates etc, but in my opinion he doesn’t pay enough attention to what happens in the rest of the week and how the church can function and people can use their gifts.

    A second observation is that Viola is primarily critiquing the single pastor church where authority resides heavily with one man – or maybe a couple. I know many churches have moved on from this, however I am sure there is still a way to go to see us functioning more healthily as a body.

    If we replace (as Danelle and I hope to do) the notion of salaried staff with people being freed up and supported to help others get ‘in the game’ then perhaps we can justify some people recieving income from the church.

    Alex – Viola addresses this in the follwing chapter – but I doubt I will have time to explain it on here before holidays.

  9. Toddy – wish I had the answers to that question! 🙂

    But here’s some thoughts based on my specific experiences.

    I don’t think it’s just the congregation. I think its a plethora of things. It’s traditions, its culture, it’s attitudes towards ministry. A lot of it is subtle or implied. It takes place at a number of different levels. This is why I think a paradigm shift is required for real change to happen.

    How that takes place is going to depend a lot on the congregations themselves. I think it will be much harder (I know some who say it’s impossible – maybe they’re right) for a big congregation to change than a small one, like ours.

    I think we (that is the small established church I’m involved with) have managed to shift our thinking dramatically over the past 3 or 4 years and that a paradigm shift has definitely taken place. I am now at the point of finishing up in my paid position. While there are a lot of reasons for this, one of the reasons is that I believe it will further encourage the rest of the congregation (starting with the leadership) to take a more active role in the day-to-day stuff and more interest in each others ministry as a part of life, not just something that happens on Sundays (you know – handing out books, greeting at the door, Sunday school etc.).

  10. I spent a few years as a congregational member trying to convince the leadership team (senior pastor and elders) at my old church of the need for change. My position was that if we wanted to effectively evangelise our community we had to do things differently (and that would include taking seriously the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and working that out in a practical way).

    However, I was effectively told that, in their view, most of the congregation wanted things to remain with the status quo. I believe that this is gradually changing … ordinary church members are getting tired of the old system. They want to take the red pill, but they don’t know where to get one. They want things to change, but they don’t know what the new, “reimagined” church looks like.

  11. So I guess part of the question is whether a church is actually prepared to support people financially as they equip others to do the work of ministry?…

    Lets face it the dominant paradigm is ‘we pay you to do the lions share and we’ll pick up the rest in our spare time’.

    To be fair there is some realism in this position. People in full time work are limited in what they can do both in terms of time and energy.

    But its really not the way we see things happening in scripture – so should we just accept it as a reality of 21st C life?…

    I just can’t swallow that to be honest…

    If I step back into the ‘system’ then it has to be with a view to serious change, otherwise there is absolutely no point.

    I realise that in posing these questions I do not sound like someone ideally suited to any kind of local church leadership – but – maybe as Darryl says – there are plenty of people in our churches already desiring a shift from a clergy centred imagination of church. Maybe there is more hope than we realise…

  12. The Church has had positional leadership from the very beginning. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. That is positional, not functional – he wasn’t the only apostle in Jerusalem. I think we can also put forward credible arguments that the leadership roles of Peter and Paul were not simply functional…

    I just don’t think positional leadership per se is the problem. It is often suggested that the explosive growth of the house churches in China can be attributed to the clergy being imprisoned: i.e. the clergy are the problem, as shown by the growth that happens when you remove them from the equation.

    But it simply isn’t the case that the house churches in China don’t have positional leaders/clergy. They have positional leaders/clergy, who are able to operate in that role while removed from their congregations and in prison: i.e. not functional leadership! Some can ‘function’ as leaders in windows between imprisonments; some can smuggle out conversation or even write and smuggle out books; some simply have an inherent inspirational leadership that they lead despite being completely and indefinitely cut off from their people…

    I have to admit I’m yet to have been given input on leading congregations from inside prison during my time at theological college!

    But, while it is easy to take shots at all the ways in which positional leadership is bad for the church in practice, I’m not convinced by Viola et al. Perhaps it is because it is so easy to point to the downside that it is easier to dismiss positional leadership than to re-imagine it?

  13. When we started our faith community, Serpents and Doves, more than 2 years ago, the absence of clergy was a value we embraced from the outset. It immediately put the onus of faith and discipleship on everyone in the community. Although we have key leaders, we emphasise to everyone that the community is what they make it. This is really important because people then cannot leave because they “don’t like how we do things” (unless they already voiced their objections). It is their responsibility to change how we do things, because it is their community. This sense of ownership and belonging is critical for a whole church to operate effectively. Real community is one of the key deficiencies of the Western church.

    In addition, we place focus on and recognise the 5-fold ministry gifts. Often clergy (particularly Senior Pastors) are expected to be Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers. We need to acknowledge that gifts are spread out among God’s people and for this reason, a broader, circular leadership is much more effective. Due to the structure of professional clergy, some of these ministries (Apostolic and Prophetic) are poorly represented, and thus we need to look beyond clergy.

  14. Hi Hamo

    I just wanted to say that your response to Frank Viola’s book has been very measured, very humble and above all very honest. You have recognised that, while not necessarily 100% perfect, Frank’s analysis of the issues surrounding leadership and authority in the church are very much in line with what the NT describes, both as direct command and as narrative example. You have been very honest about how this challenges some of your preconceptions and some of the underlying assumptions you may prefer to hold to about full-time, salaried minister status. Such honesty and humility is very refreshing and a great encouragement to the rest of us who recognise the importance of re-examining these issues.

    Enjoy Grace!

  15. I’ve already noted that the Church has had positional leadership from the start – to suggest that it is a later development is simply inaccurate, a selective reading.

    I’d add this: rather than adopting an either/or view, we can observe a both/and positional and functional leadership interacting together in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the post-biblical Church history.

    Sometimes the two have competed; sometimes they have worked in harmony; sometimes one has been marginalised by the other. And in two out of three of those scenarios it is not good news for the Church. But perhaps the fact that it is modelled in OT, NT and Church history suggests that the two working together is a dynamic God wants us to work at…

  16. Bugger – just wrote a long comment and then lost it!

    The short version:

    – appreciate everyones thoughts

    – agree with AD that some element of pos leadership existed ( and in human systems prob always will)

    – if Gods intent is trimitarian relationships then we must question this

    – agree with Viola that no matter how you see it clergy dependence is a maturity killer in churches and we must reconsider what we are doing here

    Just started reading George Fox’s biog so might change tack in the next few posts!

  17. definitely solves it rhetorically. I doubt anyone would disagree with you there.

    But in reality the system continues and perpetuates itself. How we bring major paradgmatic chnge is the question

    I would see a shift in praxis as essential otherwise we say things but nothing is different

  18. Hey Wayne,

    Holding people accountable to what?

    For there to be real change there has to be a level of understanding – and for there to be understanding there needs to be a paradigm shift. Otherwise people are just going to feel like their faith is not adequate, or that you are trying to get them to do more work in what is an already too busy life.

    Our faith traditions have created a way of thinking about Christianity and being Christians that make the ideal you mention difficult to put into practice – just as Toddy says – simply because it is completely misunderstood. Without the paradigm shift most are just going to keep thinking, in one form or another, that they pay you to be the minister. It’s not their job.

    Would still like to have that cuppa sometime! 🙂

  19. Hey Mark,

    Are you saying “you think you have seen a paradigm shift but there really hasn’t been one”?

    Not sure where you’re coming from.

    No, you don’t see it in many churches because most churches are not aware of the operational paradigm in the first place or the need to shift it!

    If you’re interested in paradigm shifts, Google Thomas Kuhn.

  20. Most churches do not provide an alternative they are pawns and evangelists for the dominant system in which we live – preoccupying, pacifying, dominating, sedating, cloning, just another a cog in the matrix. Their “leaders” are but purveyors of the status quo, nothing radical about being a member of a social club. Announcing not the Kingdom but “our” church is here, come and be entertained and BTW our coffee is the best in town.

    If we find the need for “ordained clergy” (a term or designation that I can’t find in Scripture), then I suppose we must find something for this “ordained clergy” to do. Thus, we end up with a “priesthood of the few”, which does tend to “obscure, threaten, or usurp the priesthood of all”. Why? Because by definition now, the responsibilities of the “all” are not as important as the responsibilities of the “few” – the “ordained clergy”.

  21. Mark R has hit the nail on the head.

    As soon as you introduce the concept of a ‘clergy class’ – either an individual or group of individuals – you end up differentiating what they do from what everyone else does usually by stopping others from doing it.

    An elder/leaders job is simple – to be an example of what everyone else should be and to train others up to be just that – in effect to do themselves out of a job! I don’t see too many elders/leaders/pastors aspiring to that ideal and for very obvious reasons….

  22. i think the comment has been made on this site before – that there is a co-dependence that maintain the status quo and yet is unspoken of in many churches…

    the people need the pastor to run the church and the pastor needs the people to need the pastor to run the church.

  23. I dont see this, “that they pay you to be the minister. It’s not their job”

    If this is the case, then the answer is not to ditch the minister, but for the minister to do their job, equip the saints for ministry.

    (but we have been down this road before, and I am feeling another yawn coming on… 🙂 )

  24. and therein lies the alternate realities Mark E. That the pastor believes his job is to equip people to do the work and that the people believe they pay the pastor to do the work (cause they’ve been at work all week doing their jobs).

    we can’t escape it – most people pay the pastor to run the church on their behalf. It is a simple exchange of spiritual goods and services for money paid (tithe). And most pastors accept that responsibility knowingly and willingly and thankfully – until there is too much work for them to do alone (then they pay another pastor to jump on staff and share the load 😉 )

  25. thats your view….you may feel you cant escape that…but its not my view, opinion or paradigm. But I do accept that with full time pay, comes full time responsibility.

  26. I’ve been thinking some on this today, Alex said, “And yet there are clear references to paid ministry in the NT.” Indeed but I do not think the references in the NT refer to “The Pastor,” Matt6, Luke 10, Matt 10, 1 Tim 5 and extrapolating these verses are not so clear as Alex would suggest.

    Historically, pastors during the first-century period were not paid on a full-time basis. Although they may have periodically received gifts of food, clothing, and even some monetary assistance at times, there is no historical evidence to suggest that such pastors were given a full-time salary sufficient to meet their financial needs and obligations. This is confirmed by the following considerations:

    I’m not against leaders, they are important as an example to all believers as to how they ALL should be serving … imitate me says Paul. If our churches truly implemented New Testament patterns of ministry, one wonders whether there would be any real need to support one, full-time pastor? If the local church had a functioning priesthood (as opposed to the passive, spectator event that is the mark of most churches) and an equally shared eldership, there simply would not be the urgency or necessity to hire someone on a full-time basis.

    I don’t understand how a priesthood of the few can do anything except “obscure, threaten, or usurp” the priesthood of all. If there are some that are “more priest” than others, then the responsibilities of the others are lessened while the responsibilities of the few are heightened.

    Sorry for the rant .. I close, in his [Paul] letters he discloses that he worked night and day with his own hands to support himself, so that no one would ever be able to accuse him of depending on the hearers of the Gospel for his material needs

  27. Usher: Hey Deak, I wonder how many of these arguments are based on theory as opposed to real-life experience in community or at least making an effort to live without a “paid” pastorate and do away with Constantine’s model?

    Deacon: I imagine most. Many of the arguments seem to go along the lines of a typical business decision today – 95% are made to protect turf and the status quo. If one can shoot it down, then one wont’ even have to attempt it.

    Usher: To live in community for us buzzards is quite easy. There is no threat of hoarding or caste roles as roadkill doesn’t keep!

    Deacon: Yeah, that’s true but there’s definitely a fight for the low branches when those megachurches get out – I can smell the roadkill now!

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