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 appointed (ordained) to perform religious duties, rituals, and tasks. Some do not consider common people (lay people) qualified to do these tasks. Some terms commonly used to refer to clergy 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 which God has not gifted them for. Sometimes this goes unchecked because of a reluctance to question someone’s right to serve. In reality, it isn’t about rights, but about finding a role where they can apply their gift.

At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that only seminary graduates may perform certain functions in the church. Such an environment may deny people 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. This may happen even though there are members of the congregation who are gifted speakers and capable Bible teachers.
  • “Lay people” fail to discover and develop their God given talents. There is an assumption that 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. Alternatively they might want to baptize 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 there are other examples, 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 forbidden to other Jews. 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:

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
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. 2:5, 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 equal.

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 NKJV)

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

Some may counter saying that Paul and Peter were speaking of fellow ministers who would be clergy by today’s standards. These latter verses must be read in light of the fact that we are all priests. When that is understood, the terms “brother” and “fellow laborer” deny 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)

Mutual edification

In the early church, every member participated in the church assemblies (1 Cor 14:26) using their God given gifts. They considered God to be at work among all believers in each local congregation. The Holy Spirit brought out qualities in them that would build up the church. Some of these Spirit given gifts (1 Cor 12) pertained to leadership. Nevertheless, nothing in 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. This pecking order 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, then those with greater experience could mentor them in exercising their gifts.

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.”