Thursday, February 12, 2009

False Ideas 6: The Rise of the Clergy

I mentioned earlier in these posts that it didn’t take long for the institutionalization of Christian leadership to take root in the church. I believe it had taken place before the New Testament was even completed.

The apostle John lived longer than the other eleven disciples. Later in his life, one of his greatest battles was against this separation between Christian leaders and the rest of God’s people.

He wrote of one such skirmish in 3 John when he said:

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.
3 John 9–10

Apparently an insecure leader, who wanted to be exalted above the rest, seized control of a church and censured input from anyone else. This contrasts with other leaders who remain anonymous out of respect for their servants’ hearts and are mentioned in verse 8. John writes of these heroes with flattering terms, encouraging the church to support such men who “went out for the sake of the Name [of Christ], accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (v. 7).

The issue is not receiving support for ministry. The issue is in developing a separate class of Christians who are elevated to a higher stature. It is becoming professional Christian leaders who have seemingly greater responsibility and therefore more privilege and respect than other Christians that is the problem. I believe that Diotrephes is not the only one who is such a threat at this time.

In John’s last writing, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, he addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor. In a few of the churches the rise of the clergy is addressed. It is called the deeds of the Nicolaitans. Scholars disagree over what this group is. Some believe it is a band following some false teaching of Nicholas, but the only Nicholas that they can point to is the one mentioned in Acts 6:5. This is one viewpoint, but I see another view that is probably more consistent with the whole of Scripture.

Nike, a word made famous by athletic shoes, means “victory.” It comes from the word nicos, which means “to conquer” and is the prefix in the word Nicolaitans. Laos is the Greek word for “people” and is the term from which we get the word laity. I believe the Nicolaitans were an emerging professional class who ruled over God’s people in the church. From their name we can say they were the ones who “conquered the people.” And Revelation 2:6 says that Jesus hates “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.”

To the church in Pergamum, Jesus writes that the Nicolaitans were guilty in the same way as Balaam, a professional prophet for hire, whom Balak bought (the highest bidder) and sent to curse God’s people with his special spiritual authority (vv. 14–15). It is interesting that the name Balaam in Hebrew is made up essentially of the same combined words as Nicolaitan in Greek—meaning to conquer or destroy the people. Nicolaitan may be a good Greek translation for the Hebrew word Balaam.

Our very language betrays that we have fallen victim to the deeds of the Nicolaitans—those who would “conquer the people.” Some people have a special “call to ministry.” We refer to them as “ministers.” They are “ordained for ministry.” We even call them “reverend” as though they are more holy than the rest and deserving reverential respect. The New Testament does not use language like this, in fact, quite the opposite. Leaders in the church are not to do the work of the ministry, but to equip the ordinary saints to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11–16). The ministers in the New Testament are all those who are of the family of God. No one but God is to be revered.

Jesus took this idea way beyond our comfort zone. He said we should not call anyone our leader, our father, or even our teacher, because God is all of these things for us (Matt. 23:8–12). God is the only one to be revered or worshiped. To do otherwise is clearly blasphemous. The idea that some people are more holy than others is not found in the New Testament. The people, whom the leaders are supposed to equip, are called “the saints,” which, as we have seen, means “holy ones.” They are the ministers—the ones “called to the ministry.” These ordinary Christians are set apart, called to be holy and to serve.

The idea of professional Christians who are for hire is something that Jesus hates. He refers to leaders who are for hire as hirelings (John 10:12). They are not only “for hire” but, like Diotrephes, they have ambitions to be higher than the rest. This is what Jesus says clearly that he hates, and so should we.


Unknown said...

Neil...thank you for your blogs and for your ORGANIC CHURCH book. The clergy/laity divide also blinds believers to the value of their daily work. The familiar self-putdown, "I'm just a layperson," effectively shuts ministry outside the office or shop door, leaving it mostly in the hands of the professional and trained "expert." My website,, aims to restore the vision of workplace ministry to ordinary Christians.

Anonymous said...

You make a point in that many institutionalized churches and many denominations do, indeed, place pastors, reverends, priests, bishops, archbishops, etc., into a "Westernized" hierarchical system that implies a "holier" or "closer to God" system in which individuals in those positions demand more respect, worship, etc. However, I hesitate to say that -all- pastors/clergy fall into that category.

I recently attended a funeral of a denomination other than my own (I am just learning about the organic church movement). I was appalled at the rituals and almost "evil" nature of the entire ordeal. The clergy was dressed in this ornate garb in which he presented himself as some sort of object to be worshiped; someone who was closer to God than the rest of those in attendance. My eyes were opened to a world I was denying existed.

However, I do believe that God does lead individuals to a humble and righteous path of leading a local (geographic) gathering of believers into being a part of the whole Body of Christ. Through teaching and self-disclosure and realness, they are able to dispel the pedestal syndrome, per se, and promote an equality-level spiritualness while still leading and teaching a group of believers in, yes, four walls of a building. A local church can be taught to BE the Body and live out Christ's mission in a 24/7 day concept.

And, it's not all completely on the clergy's fault for the layperson putting him on a pedestal. Western society and the media, etc., also contributes toward that personified holiness which clergy need to fight. (The Pope is one example).

Just my initial two cents worth.

Anonymous said...

Did you have a bad experience or something?

I'm in full agreement that ministers or pastors or whatevers should not think of themselves as greater or more holier than thou; nor should the people think of the whatevers as greater or holier than thou. This is a fairly simple point to make.
But here is where you fly off the handle.

Your exegesis of John 10 is profoundly absurd. The hired hand is the one who runs away when the wolves come. What about all those faithful ministers who fight off the wolves tooth and nail for the sheep of Christ? Like you, a church-plant leader; would you not fight off the wolves from the people you teach?
Are you claiming to know what is in the hearts of each of those individuals? Seems like you do because if they claim to have a calling to preach the Word you automatically think it's for selfish pursuits. Oh, and Jesus hates them. That's a misguided point of view.

In addition, do you completely dismiss the letters to Timothy? And what about Luke 10 where Jesus sends out the 72 and tells them not to jump house to house, but to stay and eat and drink all the people give them - for a worker deserves his wages? Jesus never denies the right of those He sends to be paid (in food, drink, clothing, money, etc.) And men can do this faithfully with pure hearts in the sight of God.

I'm all for thinking of better ways to act the Church; but it seems like to preserve your precious organic system you are objecting to anything and everything you can to preserve that system.

And are you really one to tell everybody else what Jesus hates; especially with such lackadaisical exegesis?

David Oliver Kueker said...

I remember driving back to Illinois late in the evening after a Neil Cole Greenhouse in Grand Rapids, Michigan in March of 2008. Talking to God all the way, I came to a realization of my calling as a bivocational organic church planter.

My day job? I'm a mainline denomination pastor with 28 years of experience. There is no real conflict between the work that I do that is spiritual, such as disciple making, and my role as the paid administrator for a non-profit organization. I've struggled for much of my adult life with painful ambition, professional jealousy, envy and coveting the achievements of others. I'm thankful that I've made peace with much of it.

My day job is hard work and I earn what I'm paid for that work. But I love most the way that God can flow into the most mundane of activities when I am yielded to my Lord as a servant. That flow of grace does not rise up out of my title or position or graduate degrees; it flows up out of my soul, where I understand that I am only one of many people God is using to minister to those in need. So I am not a hireling for ministry; the pay is for the hours of endless institutional drudgery that is the day job. Few people would willingly undertake it or stick with it.

I regret the pain of anyone who is or was abused through the misuse of power or the use of position to manipulate or control others. What I have come to love is the making of disciples, and I've found that the only way that I can do that is to release all the barriers that I can that separate me from serving side by side with others where there is no distinction between clergy or laity, male or female, religious or non-religious.

If you want to talk about the institutional church with its layers of priests and restrictions on laity, you need look no further than the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Jesus held no position in the temple - he could have been high priest if he wanted - but did ministry inside and outside of the Temple as it pleased him. The existence of the Temple didn't really help him or hinder him; Jesus seemed to me to pretty much ignore temple politics as he taught a system of disciple making that did not require a temple. Good thing, for that temple was destroyed in AD 70.

Human beings rebuilt that ecclessiastical structure a few centuries later within Christendom as spiritual teaching again became entangled with political governance. It's a challenge to us to flow through it like Jesus did without becoming entangled in it or trapped by it.

Neil Cole said...


Hmm, well, no, I haven't been hurt in the past by clergy. I am not writing this out of a painful past.

I am always amazed at how people who disagree always accuse the one they disagree with of having poor exegesis.

First of all, I never shared any of my exegesis of John 10, but you really cannot get away from the fact that Jesus is stating that those who are shepherding for pay are not likely to stay and lay their life down for the sheep.

Frankly, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any scholar who doesn't see this in what Jesus is saying here. I am not suggesting that anyone who does make a living from the Gospel is a hireling, I am stating that if you are doing ministry to make a living than you are a hireling. There is a difference, a big one. If you are not willing to serve without pay than you are not qualified to be paid. If you cannot lay your pay check down for the sheep you certainly will not lay your life down for them.

But, speaking of exegesis, you may want to take a second look at the passages you brought up. The "pastoral epistles" do not teach anything to support the idea of professional Christian leadership. I am afraid you are reading your own experience into the text.

Regarding Jesus' sending of the 70 he said "a laborer is worthy of his wages." The idea is a day's wage, support for the day that you are at work. I do not see this as justification for a full time salary and benefits.

That said, I do think there is a time to release leaders to equip the saints with all their time. I am not opposed to that, what I am opposed to is the whole professional status of the clergy.

I find that many people in that place feel threatened by what I am sharing. Once our entire sense of identity and livelihood is invested in being a special worker for God's people on behalf of the Lord. Seeing pastors as "God's leader" that has a special, higher calling than others can be very abusive.


Neil Cole said...


Yes, I believe that God calls people to lead, but I also believe that we are screwed up in our understanding of what it means to lead in God's church. That is a huge problem.

I believe that God has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, not to do the work of ministry, but to equip the saints to do the work of ministry. If that were what our leaders were doing we'd have no problem...but it's not.

We all use language that betrays our real thinking. That a few are "called to the ministry". We call them "Ministers" and refer to them as "Reverend." They are pastor-teachers who feed the sheep and protect us from false doctrines and keep us on the narrow path.

The fact is that this probably starts to sound normal and good, because we are so accustomed to this thinking, but what I was saying is actually not so good. If our leaders were doing things right they would be equipping the saints to do the work, not doing it for them.

Evangelists are not called to evangelize for the rest of us. Evangelists are not called to reach the lost, but the found. Their mature job of equipping is to motivate the saints to reach the lost, not do it for them.

Teachers, likewise, are not called to teach the saints, but to equip them to teach. Wow, now that is revolutionary, isn't it? But where in the Bible does it tell ordinary saints to teach? The Great Commission! IF the ordinary saints were equipped in this way, false teaching would be drastically REDUCED! Think about it. The saints would know the word so much better for having taught it. Those of you who teach know how much more you learn when you teach than when you hear others teach. Do not be selfish with this blessing...share it!

Now, you cannot effectively train the saints to reach the lost or teach obedience to the scriptures if you do not do it yourself. And every on of the gifted equippers is also a saint (or we have a huge problem). So yes, they also evangelize and teach...but the core of their mature ministry is to equip others to do it, not do it for them.

This changes everything. So, I do believe that some reach that level of maturity and expectation and we need to release them to do that work. But not hire leaders to do the work for us. THAT is where we fail the Kingdom of God and the lost world the most.


Mike Edwards said...


I am still uncertain where to best ask this question to you, but I am wondering (after reading Organic Church) how you see the simple churches in any given area (city, county, etc.) relating to one another and being eldered, shepherded appropriately.

In what way is a "corporate" connection beneficial or harmful in this way? Trying to get a sense of how you see this happening in your experience.