Clergy and Laity Distinctions: Biblical or Not?

Most Christian denominations designate certain individuals as “clergy.”  Clergy in these denominations or groups hold most, if not all, of the leadership positions.  Besides administrative functions, they do most of the teaching, perform baptisms, weddings, and lead services, etc.

It is hard to pin down the purpose of having a laity.  Most groups with clergy acknowledge that “lay” people are members too and are important, but the emphasis always seems to be about how important the clergy are in leading the church.  Still, it is acknowledged that all kinds of church “roles” like lectors, ushers, business administrators, small group leaders, even theologians, are “lay” people.

On the other hand, there are groups that do not recognize clergy at all.  For example, the Brethren practice the universal priesthood of all believers to the point that in each service there is no designated leader, different men lead hymns, pray, and teach in spirit-led worship.   They do not practice ordination, believing it unscriptural.

Some churches ordain pastors but do not use the term ”clergy”, rather they are recognized as gifted or ordained to be ministers without using the title of Reverend.

There is a lot written by credible sources about this problem on the internet.  I searched Google, “churches that don’t use the term clergy” and got article after article from a variety of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds.

The tradition in the Christian Church traces to the Catholic church who defines the laity from the Greek “laos”, the people and clergy from the Greek “kleros” meaning “a lot.”  A catholic becomes a clergyman by going through tonsure, having their head sheared, and being given a tunic or surplice.  Historians date the beginnings of the practice of defining clergy in the Christian Church to the second century.[1]

Catholic and other sources document the model of the Levitical priesthood and the Law as their model in establishing the clergy in the Catholic Church.[2] One argument is that while there was a Levitical priesthood Israel is talked about as potentially having a priesthood of all followers like Peter writes about.[3]

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:  (1Pe 2:9 KJV)

This actually is a quote from the book of Exodus that refers to the nation of Israel.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Exo 19:5-6 WEB)

This shows the desire of Yahweh that Israel should be a kingdom of priests! And it somehow is used to substantiate following the Levitical model found in the Law in the Christian Church where the law has been superseded.

Here’s something interesting about clergy.  Some people may be surprised to find out that Knights Templars, and at present the Teutonic Knights and Knights of Malta are all considered clergy.  The Knights Templars are famous for their pursuit of the holy grail, but basically, they were an elite fighting force.  They were instrumental in the Crusades and later in banking.  The Teutonic Knights are European monks now, but their original charge was to capture and hold Jerusalem.  Likewise, the Knights of Malta are a religious order but they were instituted and charged with the defense of the Holy Land.

Clergy is a legal term and clergy are given special privileges in many countries. Some clergy historically have held special privileges in some countries like land ownership and even noble status.  In the United States clergy can opt out of Social Security.  Marriages performed by clergy are in some places legally recognized automatically. These legal benefits are certainly advantageous, and I have known churches appointing people to be clergy for these purposes.  But that is for legal purposes, not scriptural.

The problems cited with the system include that it is unbiblical, it promotes a system where tremendous burdens are placed on the clergy class while at the same time giving them too much power, and it works against “lay” people seeing the importance of their role in the church.

We do have some New Covenant scripture to consider. There are appointments or “ordinations” in the New Testament.  The appointment of Barnabus and Saul is cited as a model for New Covenant ordination.  It illustrates that men are appointed or ordained to a task, in this case, to be missionaries, or even to be pastors.

Now in the assembly that was at Antioch there were some prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen the foster brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they served the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Separate Barnabas and Saul for me, for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Act 13:1-3 WEB)

Furthermore, Paul appointed people who appointed others as elders.

I left you in Crete for this reason, that you would set in order the things that were lacking, and appoint elders in every city, as I directed you; (Tit 1:5 WEB)

However, while this talks about people being appointed to certain tasks or responsibilities, it never goes as far as distinguishing them as a class called clergy, separate from a class called laity.  That is what is in dispute.

The argument is not just from smaller groups on the fringes.  There are even Catholic priests who complain that the clergy distinction problem is unbiblical and creates an unsustainable model.[4]

[1] A History Of The Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1958, p. 82-85

[2] The true origins of the Clerical Collar.

[3] The-Catholic-Priesthood.pdf (

[4]  Clergy-Laity Divide in the Church – Church Authority

last edited 4/24/2023

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