Church History: A Biblical View
Part II The Ante-Nicene Age: Lesson No. 10 - Growth of the Clergy
A. Definitions. There has long been a tendency on the part of religious adherents to make fundamental distinctions between the professional and common members in their ranks. In so-called Christendom this is often referred to as the clergy/laity distinction. "Clergy" is derived from the Greek word, "kleros," meaning "lot," which originally denoted the object cast by way of selecting someone to occupy an office but which eventually came to refer to the office, and then the office-holder himself. "Laity," on the other hand, is derived from the Greek term, "laos," meaning "people." Hence, "clergy" refers to the elite class which is specially selected, trained, and supported to instruct and lead the laity in those things in which they are supposedly deficient or indisposed to do themselves. The "laity" is the much larger class of unskilled, common rank and file.
B. Reasons for the clergy/laity distinction. The clergy/laity distinction serves the desires of both parties. (1) Emulation of Jewish and heathen practices. Both Jews and heathen, from whose ranks Christians came, had priestly castes which were distinct from the common people. As it has ever been the desire of men to be like those around them to enhance their standing, so it was with the growing "Catholic church." (2) Desire for proxy religion. Whether it was out of a genuine feeling of unworthiness to approach God humanly unaided, or a base desire to be relieved of personal religious responsibilities, the common people wanted special men to do for them what they could, or would, not do for themselves. (3) Desire for authority figures and professional "church managers." This
point is similar to the preceding one except that, while that one had to do with substitution in one's relations and obligations to God, this one has especially to do with one's everyday life and relations with his fellowman. The lay person wants someone to learn and interpret the rules for him — to define the faith and identify heretics. He wants someone to tell him what to do and a leader to represent and defend his faith. He also wants someone to manage the organization and maintain its good discipline. The clergy fell into these roles. (4) Human pride and greed. Man's nature calls for recognition of his achievements. Most organizations have systems of rank or hierarchy which, aside from the practical considerations, give prestige, honor, and recognition to the achievers. It was not long before those who considered themselves more righteous or diligent within the church sought the worldly recognition to which they felt entitled. This desire to be ranked above the under-achievers, combined with the laity's desire for "proxy religion," fueled the growth of the clergy/laity distinction. Furthermore, it was not long before clerical offices became lucrative, as well as prestigious.
II. The Clergy/Laity Concept
A. Official ordination. No official, formal ordination procedure for church leaders is prescribed in the Scriptures. Men who met the prescribed qualifications (I Tim. 3; Tit. 1) were appointed by the evangelist as overseers of the flock of which they were members (Acts 14:23; 20: 28; Tit. 1:5). Perhaps the closest approach to a formality was the laying on of hands (I Tim. 5:22) which was a visible recognition of their appointment to the office. However, as clerical offices became more prestigious and worldly-important, the appointments to such offices were considered too important to be left to the evangelists and laity. Bishops began to be nominated and approved by other bishops who were members of other congregations. They were then ratified or elected by the congregations they were to serve, although congregational elections became more and more token. Then, presbyters and deacons began to be ordained by the bishops.
B. The "orders." The stratified ranks of the clergy were composed of two orders.
(1) Major. (a) Bishops - the heads of churches, and eventually the heads of all churches in a city or district. In addition to the means mentioned in previous lessons, bishops continued to consolidate their prestige and authority by encouraging the ideas that they alone were the possessors of the miraculous gifts and they alone were qualified to lead in worship (which led to the beginning of a special priesthood). (b) Presbyters - initially identifiable with bishops but eventually fell into a subordinate and advisory role. A presbyter was sometimes placed over a church in a city which had multiple churches, but he was still amenable to the bishop of the city. (c) Deacons - men who assisted in the care of the needy. Because they answered to the bishop directly they eventually acquired influence beyond what their official station would seem to have indicated.
(2) Minor. (a) Sub-deacons - performed in the role of the deacons but were subordinate to them. (b) Readers - read the Scriptures publicly and had charge of the church's literature. (c) Acolytes - served the bishops in their official duties and processions. (d) Exorcists - had the work of casting out evil spirits. (e) Precentors were for the musical portions of a service. (f) janitors (sextons) took care of the church's buildings and yards (g) Catechists and interpreters - gave instruction and interpretation. (h) Deaconesses assisted the poor and sick, especially those of their own gender.
III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) The church of the New Testament has no priesthood .
(2) (T or F) There is a clergy/laity distinction among Christians in New Testament.
(3) What reasons can be given for the rise of the clergy/laity distinction?
(4) Are there any signs of a clergy/laity distinction in the church of Christ today?
(5) What offices and means of ordination did the "Catholic church" have that the New Testament church did not have?
(6) By what further means did the bishops consolidate their prestige and authority?
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