In our church body, the battle for a common understanding of the distinction between clergy and laity in ministry seems to be just beginning again. For quite a number of years, it seemed at this issue was becoming less controversial as congregations and mission agencies began to equip and deploy trained lay leaders in multiple facets of meaningful ministry. Recently there seems to be a newfound momentum to create a greater distinction and or separation of the roles and functions of ordained clergy and the laity. There is indeed a distinction, but I believe that the function of the clergy in the church is somewhat different than what the ultra conservative factions in our church body believe. In my opinion, to regress to a clergy only parish ministry model is a step backwards for the mission of the church and inspired more by our church body's European Christendom past than by the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.
The Scriptures speak much about the role of the "average believer" in the growth and expansion of the church. During the time of the Apostles, men were sent into missions seemingly without a proper theological education as we know it today. The diaspora sent thousands of regular Christians into the mission field to share the message of Jesus, gather believers in their homes and plant churches. The five-fold ministry described in Ephesians 4 was apparently the norm and the purpose of these ministries was to equip the saints for the work of ministry (see Ephesians 4:11-16) and the ministry of the church wasn't confined to the position of pastor.
The leadership of the church evolved as the church expanded and norms became rules. Under Constantine, church leadership became somewhat politicized and the church began to adopt a hierarchical form of ecclesiastical leadership whose purpose was to probably meant to mange the masses in the church more than to expand it as during the time of the Apostles. By the time of the Reformation, missions was almost a foreign concept, seen through the lens of worldly kingdoms and empires desiring to expand their borders and protect themselves from the heathens seeking to overcome Christendom from the East and the South.
What has arisen today in our church body is a codependent relationship between clergy and laity. The primary role that our clergy seem to take is one of the "caretaker." The care and feeding of souls is one important aspect of pastoral ministry, however, it does not in itself equip the saints for their ministry in the world, nor does it necessarily encourage a proper understanding of the priesthood of all believers.
If the church were a restaurant, the believers as customers gorge on the Gospel buffet prepared by their pastors, sucking up spiritual milk prepared for them by the kitchen. The pastors in this scenario see Jesus the master chef, and they being the only ones qualified to handle the ingredients, prepare the dishes and serve them to the waiting masses. At best, the leaders of the congregation are allowed to bus the tables and pay the bills. This arrangement is comfortable to all those playing the game. It allows the clergy to remain needed and feel special as well as allowing the laity to simply consume the ministry of the pastor. What it doesn't do is empower the followers of Jesus to be active and directly involved in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
This may seem like a harsh judgment of the church, and it may be skewed by my perspective as a missionary. Things have gotten so bad in some circles that, for some, the only valid proclamation of the Gospel message is when the pastor preaches during the Divine Service. I believe at what is at stake is the salvation of the world around us. By limiting the role of the laity to that of a consumer is to limit the potential of the church to save the lost. This Gospel is used primarily to comfort the saints and not to save the lost. There are even some in our church body who don't trust the laity to properly interpret Scripture, and don't encourage them to read it on their own without the intervention of the ordained clergy.
My missiology professor declared in class that "in the mission field, the church doesn't exist without the presence of an ordained Pastor." He also told me to stop using the Apostle Paul's method of indigenous lay leadership development for church planting and ministry. When I asked why I shouldn't use the Book of Acts a guide for missions he said "You are not the Apostle Paul and can't use his mission methods.". His suggested methodology was for the ordained missionary to establish a congregation which he himself would serve as pastor. Without the presence of other ordained clergy, any new missions would also have to be served by this pastor. New churches could be started only according to the capacity of the missionary to serve every location. This had been our missiology for many decades, and in many of our long-time mission fields there are still weak church bodies who are completely dependent on the white church in the west to provide direction, teaching and money.
Today in the world where the indigenous church is thriving and multiplying, western missionaries have generally let go and allowed local leadership to develop it's own leadership systems, theological training, missiology and church polity. As has been well documented, the West is no longer the epitome of mission effectiveness and vitality. We may see the church in the west as being more refined and evolved, however this doesn't make it better. The holistic understanding of the Eastern churches coupled with a more intentional empowerment and sending of laity has led the church in many Eastern and Southern countries to multiply where before it was simply adding at best. Our whole Western emphasis on tightly engineered systems and logic often doesn't fit well with other cultures, thus limiting the expansion of the church.
In many countries, the releasing of the laity for missions and ministry has proven very exciting. Ethiopia, for example, has experienced a miraculous expansion of the church through lay leaders who have been sent out to plant churches and make disciples. Only when the constraints of Western dominated ecclesiology and church polity was cast off did the church begin a resurgence in missions. In China, centuries of mission work dominated by Western foreigners had produced only a pittance of churches. The work of the missionaries brought and established the Gospel, but the Western forms being taught by the missionaries didn't set well with Chinese thought and culture. When the Communist government expelled all western missionaries from the country and began a concerted persecution of the church, those missionaries feared that the church would die without their presence. After many decades, Western missionaries were finally allowed to visit and, to their surprise, the indigenous church was growing and multiplying like wildfire. The laity are expected to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus in reaching the lost and planting new house churches. The simple message of Jesus taught by pastors and untrained lay folk is compelling the believers to take great risks in spreading the Gospel message even in the face of severe persecution.
Some may say that the unity of the Gospel is at stake and must be protected by imposing such limitations on lay ministry. Others might say that to be true to our confessions, we must not allow anyone to preach the Word without a regular call. These may be the stated and/or believed motives for promoting such a clergy driven ministry, however I'm not so sure that this is the case.
I believe that the underlying issue at hand is one of fear. As stated in the movie The Incredibles, "when everyone is super, then no one will be." Maybe the fear in releasing the laity for mission and ministry has to do with the clergy's desire to be special in their profession.
Christian Smith, writes that our clergy dominated system this is a fundamentally self-defeating system: It’s stated purpose is to nurture spiritual maturity in the church-a valuable goal. In actuality, however, it accomplishes the opposite but nurturing a permanent dependence of the laity on the clergy. Clergy become to their congregations like parents whose children never grow up, like therapists whose clients never become healed, like teachers whose students never graduate. The existence of a full-time, professional minister makes it too easy for church members not to take responsibility for the ongoing life of the church. And why should they? That’s the job of the pastor.
I personally believe that there is a special divine calling for pastors, but I believe that we have defined the role of pastors and laity so narrowly that we actually limit the potential of the pastoral office. If seen as the only person in the church that can preach, teach, baptize and serve communion, then the value of the pastor is simply that priest. Sure, there is a priestly role to be filled, but we are all priests. As Christians mature they should be allowed to take on more and more of these functions in the church so that the more highly trained pastor can operate at a much higher level of influence. As he equips and deploys leaders in many different capacities in the congregation, his ministry spreads and the Gospel reaches more people.
What is the future?
I believe that the future move of the Holy Spirit in our denomination will be the releasing of the laity for the expansion of missions. As they are empowered to do more, they will also seek more training. Many new pastors, deaconesses and evangelists will come out of this, as is happening already. We will also recognize that the followers of Jesus in our churches have the authority to plant new churches where they are led. Many churches are already empowering and releasing their lay leaders to do this. We aren't living in Apostolic times, however, we could see such a movement of God's people in the West in our lifetimes. I don't believe it will be a movement fueled primarily by the professional clergy, but rather the followers of Jesus living out their faith in ways that they previously weren't allowed to.