Monday, June 18, 2018

The Commentariat Speaks (13)

Many moons ago I wrote a post about the evolving definition of the word “religion”. When I was a teen it was common to hear that “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” By the strictest definition of the day this was probably true, and it was a distinction worth making.

Today, however, the popular usage of “religion” (and the dictionary definition with it) has broadened sufficiently that this is no longer the case, and anyone who insists upon repeating that old saw is not just pedantic but factually incorrect.

The point that among religions Christianity is uniquely relationship-based remains worth making, but the stark contrast between religion and not-religion no longer exists. You can have your religion more or less relationship-free if that’s your thing.

Not that it’s likely to do you much good.

Morphing Meanings

A similar thing may have happened with the word “clergy”. That, or I have never used it with precision, which is not impossible either. Over at Cane Caldo’s place the other day, the following exchange:
ME: How about maybe the problem is the concept of clergy in the first place?

CANE: There are Apostles, bishops, deacons, and elders in, and prescribed by, the Scriptures. We may disagree in interpretation of organization, but the existence of a structure of clergy is Biblically and prudential[ly] sound.
Ah, sez I to myself, resolving to school Cane on the meaning of the word. Are you kidding me? Overseers [the literal meaning of the word sometimes translated “bishop”], deacons [literally “servants”] and elders are not clergy!

See, to me “clergy” has always been a toxic term: a way of dividing the church into people who do stuff and people who sit in the pews, which is not at all a New Testament way to look at things. Worse, it always seemed to me there was something mediatoral about the way “clergy” was used within Catholicism (which this little bit of online error confirms), evoking practices like ritualized confession or the felt need for a human being interposed in various ways between the believer and Christ. Again, not so New Testament, and not correct.

Dictionary Time

So I blithely wander off to find this at

In the Christian church, the clergy is the entire class of religious officials, from priests to pastors to bishops and beyond. If you have a sense that your life path lies in helping others practice their faith, you should go into the clergy.

Clergy comes from the word clerk, which in turn comes from cleric. If the only clerks you think of are those that work in shoe stores, think of it this way: when you join the ministry of a church, the idea is that you serve the church. Clergy is the word for all of the clerics combined, and is paired with the laity, which are [sic] all the people in the church who aren’t in the clergy.”
That’s sort of like what I’m describing. “Religious officials” sounds pretty institutional and the clergy/laity contrast I deplore is baked right into the second paragraph.

But a quick check of other dictionaries turns up some variety. From The American Heritage Dictionary:
“The body of people ordained or recognized by a religious community as ritual or spiritual leaders.”
Once you add “or recognized” and include “spiritual” as well as “ritual”, common usage has become sufficiently expansive to include legitimate New Testament leadership. And indeed, maybe this was always the case.

Oot. So Cane is right, I’m wrong, and you learn something new every day. It happens.

Useful Distinctions

Still, if by this standard elders are technically clerisy, there remain worthwhile distinctions to be observed between the role of, say, a Catholic priest and New Testament church leadership. The two are night and day. There is not even a hint of ritual intermediary in the roles of pastor (shepherd) / bishop (overseer) / elder / leader, all of which really describe different aspects of the same job, as Michael Morrison points out:
“The Greek construction in Ephesians 4:11 implies that pastors and teachers are two descriptors of the same people. There is one article for apostles, one for prophets, one for evangelists, and only one for ‘pastors and teachers.’ One of the primary functions of a pastor is teaching. We see in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 that pastors are overseers, and we see from 1 Timothy 3:2 that overseers must be ‘able to teach.’ The titles overlap.”
Intercession and Mediation

Now, James does indeed speak of the value of intercessory prayer from church elders, but ends not by saying, “Therefore, confess your sins to an elder,” but rather, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,” and goes on to remind his readers that “The prayer of a righteous person [literally, “prayer of the righteous”] has great power.” This does not even limit intercession to men, let alone priests. And indeed, there is only one Mediator between God and mankind.

Further, in the New Testament all believers are functionally part of the priesthood, serving and performing priestly acts as described here. And while “deacon” is the formal NT designation for someone who serves, service in the church is nowhere limited to deacons. All believers serve one another.

In that respect at least, the clergy/laity distinction remains greatly misleading.

No comments :

Post a Comment