Published: 7 July 2018

Is The Clergy/Laity Distinction Biblical?


One of the few things that most religions have in common is a clergy/laity distinction. The clergy are people who have been appointed (ordained) to perform religious duties, rituals and tasks which the common people (lay people, laity) aren’t considered qualified to do or aren’t expected to do. Some terms that are commonly used to refer to clergy within Christianity are priest, reverend, minister, preacher, bishop, pastor, father, etc. In short, clergy are the people behind the pulpit and laity are the people in the pews.

Opposite views of clergy and laity

Although in the minority, there are some movements and denominations that have rejected the notion of a clergy/laity distinction. While this is a more biblical approach, it isn’t without its problems. The emphasis upon equality among believers may result in people serving in a capacity they are not gifted for. Sometimes this is allowed to go unchecked because of a reluctance to question someone’s “right” to serve. In reality, it isn’t about rights, but about finding a way for them to apply their gift in the correct role.

At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that only seminary graduates are qualified to perform certain functions in the church. In such an environment sometimes people are denied the opportunity to use their God given gifts.

For example:

  • Many “lay people” live under the assumption that they cannot understand the Bible since they don’t have seminary training. They rely upon the clergy to explain the Bible to them.
  • In the minister’s absence, a “lay person” is not typically selected to deliver the sermon even though there may be members of the congregation who are gifted speakers and capable Bible teachers.
  • “Lay people” fail to discover and develop their God given talents because they assume such tasks are exclusively within the realm of the clergy.
  • It never occurs to some people that they could have the honor of baptizing their own children, or of baptizing someone they have taught the gospel to. Although this is a duty and privilege given to all disciples (Matt 28:19), most people assume that only clergy may baptize.

Perhaps other examples could be cited, but these should serve to underscore the potential problems. One additional problem worth mentioning is that some members of the “clergy” develop a sense of entitlement, privilege, and power which they can potentially abuse. “Lay people” are reluctant to hold them accountable since the clergy hold a special status in the church and are considered to have a connection to God that lay people lack.

What does the Bible say about it?

The words clergy and laity are not in the Bible. It is true that under the Old Covenant there was a priesthood composed of the descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron. These priests served God in certain capacities that other Jews were forbidden to perform. This system was setup at God’s direction, but was only temporary.

When Jesus ushered in the New Covenant, the priesthood of the Old Covenant and the law surrounding the priesthood, was changed (Heb 7:11-12). Jesus is now the High Priest, and all of His followers comprise a new priesthood:

4 As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone– rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him– 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message– which is also what they were destined for. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:4-9 NIV)

All disciples of Jesus are priests regardless of gender, ethnicity, education, social class or age! There is no distinction between believers.

Servant leaders

The most prominent and respected servant leaders of the early church reinforced this truth by their words and actions. They gave no hint of a clergy/laity frame of mind. From the passages below, you can see that all were considered to have equality.

With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it. (1 Pet. 5:12 NIV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: (Phlm. 1:1-2 NKJ)

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. (Phlm. 1:23-24 NKJ)

Some may counter saying that Paul and Peter were speaking of fellow ministers who would be considered clergy by today’s standards. I would argue that these latter verses (and other similar passages) must be read in light of the fact that we are all priests. When that is understood, the terms “brother” and “fellow laborer” are robbed of any sense of a spiritual pecking order. In addition, being a Christian in the early church meant you were willing to risk your social status, property and even your life to follow Christ. Only the most committed became disciples, therefore there weren’t any “pew warmers” or “lay people.” Furthermore, Paul directly stated how others should view him and the other leaders:

One should think about us this way– as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Cor. 4:1 NET)

In the early church, every member participated in the church assemblies (1 Cor 14:26) using the gifts that God had distributed to each person. They considered God to be at work among all believers in each local congregation bringing out qualities in them that would serve to build up the church. Some of these Spirit given gifts (1 Cor 12) pertained to leadership, but nothing in the text of the New Testament hints at a professional clergy or religious elite who had special roles and tasks that were theirs and theirs alone. 

Over the next several centuries outside influences brought about a clerical hierarchy which evolved into the clergy system that we know today.

Who then should perform “clerical” duties in the church?

None of this is meant to express that a seminary education isn’t a valuable asset to the church – it is an asset. Likewise, the above comments aren’t meant to discourage the practice of paid, full time ministers. We just need to recognize that among believers, we are all priests. According to the Bible there are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God, just fellow laborers with differing gifts (1 Cor 12). Each disciple should determine what gift(s) God has given them and then be mentored by those with experience in exercising that gift.

Who should perform duties and functions in the church? Every Christian who has both the ability and the desire to do the work! There is no duty that is exclusively the role of the “clergy.”