The Church Without Laity (Part 1)

By Allan Turner

The church purchased with the precious blood of Jesus Christ is unique (cf. Acts 20:28). It is most unfortunate that it remains a church unknown to most. It is, astoundingly, a church without laity, and it is this feature that we’ll be focusing on in this series of articles. But to do so, it is necessary to begin this story at the beginning.

Before His death on the cross some two thousand years ago, Jesus declared, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18b). It is, therefore, this church—the “My church” of Matthew 16:18—on which we’ll be concentrating our attention. But to see this church as Christ created it will not be easy for some of you because you will come to this study with various denominational preconceptions about what the church belonging to Christ ought to look like. Nevertheless, in order to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of this church, it is required that one reject, at least for the moment (and I hope permanently), all denominational thinking, for it is just such thinking that has caused the church without laity to be marginalized and unappreciated for most of the last two thousand years. Therefore, I ask all of you who read here to make a genuine effort to free your minds of the denominational clutter that so easily besets us and to be willing to open your Bibles in a study of a subject that is of paramount importance to us all, in that it has to do with where we will be spending an eternity.

Acts 2 records the founding of the “My church” of Matthew 16:18. It took place after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven in A.D. 30. As the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached by His apostles on that first Pentecost after the Lord’s ascension, a day that was later referred to by the apostle Peter as “the beginning” (Acts 11:15), those who heard and obeyed the message were added to the church by the Lord Himself (cf. Acts 2:47). It has been this way ever since.

The Church Is A “Called-out” Group Of People

The church that the Lord added people to at its beginning was a “called out” or “gathered people” (for such is the meaning of ekklesia, the Greek word often translated “church” in the New Testament) that did not consist of a clergy-laity distinction, as do most religious bodies today. On the contrary, Christ’s church, a church He purchased with His own blood (cf. Acts 20:28; Hebrews 10:29), consists entirely of a priesthood of believers who have been “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27 Romans 6:3). It was Peter himself who said to all baptized believers: “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). In another place, he said, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Therefore, the church belonging to Christ is a called-out group of people who make up a priesthood of all believers. As such, they are able to offer their own sacrifices to God without any earthly mediators.

Ironically, and I say this because current practices in many Protestant churches belie this idea, the watchword of the Protestant Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” Luther himself said: “All Christians are priests and all priests are Christians. (Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 283). It was even earlier than this that Augustine, who is so greatly admired and venerated by Roman Catholics, wrote, “None of the faithful doubts that the priesthood of the Jews was a figure of that royal priesthood which is in the Church, to which are consecrated all who belong to the Body of Christ, the sovereign and true Head of all priests” (Augustine, Quaestionum Evangeliorum, ii, 322ff, quoted in Paul F. Palmer, SJ, “The Lay Priesthood: Real or Metaphysical?,” Theological Studies, Vol. 8 [1947], p. 583).

But in quoting these two men, one a Catholic and the other a Protestant, I have really gotten a little ahead of the story I wish to tell. My point in quoting them at this time is simply this: many years after the “My church” of Matthew 16:18 was established, prominent Catholics and Protestants recognized that in the New Testament, and this is going to be a complete surprise to some who read this, there was no concept of a “priesthood within the priesthood” of all believers. In the “My church” of Matthew 16:18 there was no laity, period. All were priests. In fact, not only did Christ’s church not have a laity over which earthly priests were to exercise authority, there was absolutely no clergy-laity distinction to be found in Christ’s church.

Defining Terms

Even though clergy and laity are frequently used terms today, it cannot be assumed that all understand how these terms are being used here. Permit me, then, a little time and space to define terms. Depending on the specific denominational context, the laity are defined by function (namely, they do not administer the Word and “sacraments”), by status (they do not have a “Rev.” in front of their names), by location (they serve primarily in the world), by education (they are not theologically trained), by remuneration (they are not full-time, paid “ministers”), and by lifestyle (they are not considered overtly religious, but are primarily occupied with secular life). Notice that these qualifications are mostly negative. On the flip side of this coin, the clergy are defined positively with reference to the things mentioned above. As such, the clergy dominate the work and function of the various churches they “serve.”

A Departure From “The Faith”

During the first century, a century that had revealed to it “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3b), Christ’s church existed exclusively without any clergy-laity distinctions. It was not until the second and third centuries, when rank apostasy had produced a man-made ecclesiastical order in the church, that a definite clergy-laity distinction clearly manifested itself. Such remains in place until now in many different denominations. This man-made innovation was the result of three major influences: (1) a man-made molding of the original, godly structure of the New Testament church into the image of the secular structures of the Greek-Roman world which, incidentally, were not unlike the professional-lay distinctions we find in our own modern societies; (2) the transference of the Old Testament priesthood model to the leadership of the church; and (3) the false, but popular, piety that elevated the Lord’s Supper to a mystery which required priestly administration. After all, if the utterly false idea of transubstantiation is believed (a doctrine that says the fruit of the vine and unleavened bread of the Lord’s Supper, when blessed, actually turn into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ), then it is only natural to think that special care and handling of such must be given by a select few who can correctly administer said “sacrament.” However, and this is always the case, such developmental theology was the product of men and, therefore, did not reflect the truths taught in the New Testament.

The Lord Established Only One Church

Jesus Christ established only one church (sometimes referred to as a “body”) of which He, and He alone, is the Head (cf. Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4; Colossians 1:18). Consequently, “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5), and this refers to the ascended and glorified Jesus, functions as this body’s High Priest and only Mediator (cf. the book of Hebrews). Thus, the church belonging to Christ needs no earthly mediator through which it offers its sacrifices, and any such vicarious system is a perversion of the “My church” of Matthew 16:18. As such, this universal body of believers has no earthly head or organizational structure. This means that all ecclesiastical structures, whether they be Catholic or Protestant, are not just extra-biblical, but anti-biblical as well. “In Him” (Colossians 2:10), and this is to say in connection with Jesus Christ, the church is complete, and because it is, it needs no exalted priestly caste, like the old Jewish system, to intercede or mediate on its behalf.

Nevertheless, the Lord instructed His called out group of people—that is, His church—to organize themselves into local congregations. These were sometimes referred to as “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). Consequently, within the pages of the New Testament, we can read about the church at Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2), the churches of Galatia (cf. Galatians 1:2), the saints that made up the church at Ephesus (cf. Ephesians 1:1),  Philippi (cf Philippians 1:1), and Colosse (cf. Colossians 1:2). We can further read of churches at Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (cf. Revelation 2-3). The men in these local congregations who had the “oversight” (the Greek word here is episkopeo, from which we derive the word “bishop”), were called “elders” in 1 Peter 5:1-5. The English word “elders” is translated from the Greek presbuteros, from which is derived the transliterated term “presbyters.” Therefore, an elder (or presbyter) was a bishop (that is, one who exercised oversight) in a local congregation. This is borne out by the immediate passage under consideration, and by others, like 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, where the qualification of these men are discussed in some detail.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, he calls these unique men “bishops,” but in Titus he refers to the same group of men as not just “bishops,” but also as “elders.” Consequently, the Scriptures make it clear that an elder and a bishop in local churches of Christ were not different offices (or functions), but were, instead, terms that described the maturity of the men (they were elders, or older men) who exercised the oversight (or bishopric) in a local congregation. In Peter’s instructions, we learn that these men were to “feed” the flock of God which was among them (cf. 1 Peter 5:2). The NKJV translates this word as “shepherd,” while the ASV says “tend.” The Greek word so translated is poimaino, from which we get the word “pastor.” So, according to the New Testament, the terms elder, bishop and pastor are used interchangeably of the same man, and are not titles, per se, but serve to describe who and what these men are in connection with the “flock,” or local church, of which they are members. But when those in these churches started changing the government of the local church, mimicking the Greek-Roman culture in which they lived, they developed an ecclesiastical order that conferred a higher ranking on a bishop than they did an elder, eventually granting to bishops oversight over more than the local church of which they were a member.

Always A Plurality

On top of everything else, and this is going to be another big surprise for some of you, elders, bishops and pastors, who were the overseers of local churches of Christ, were always referred to in the Scriptures in the plural. In others words, when the apostle Paul was in Miletus and wanted to speak with the leaders of the Ephesian church, he sent and called for “the elders [plural] of the church” (Acts 20:17). This is not a surprise for the careful Bible student, for in Acts 14:23 we learn that Paul and Barnabas, in their second missionary journey, had “appointed elders [plural] in every church.” Also, in a letter written to Christians everywhere, James assumes the established order in every church would be “elders” (plural), for he instructed Christians, no matter where they were, to “call for the elders [plural] of the church” (James 5:14). One can conclude, then, that the New Testament order was that if a local church had elders (and this was not a given, for there would not always be men with the necessary qualifications), there would always be at least two of them.

Therefore, according to the New Testament, a local church that was scripturally and fully organized had a plurality of elders/bishops/pastors who exercised oversight in that local church. These men had to meet certain stringent qualifications (cf. 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1) and be selected by the local church of which they were members (cf. Acts 6:3). Consequently, one man could not scripturally exercise oversight in a local church, as is done in many denominational churches today. It was not until the 2nd century, in the face of various heresies (Docetism, Gnosticism, and Judaizing tendencies) that Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 50-110) argued for having a single bishop so that doctrinal unity could be maintained. By the time of the writings of Tertullian (A.D. 197-200), a structure for the church consisting of ordinary members who were served by a priestly or ecclesiastical order of bishops, presbyters and deacons, was already in place.

In the 3rd century, the Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum in the East devoted five chapters to the office of bishop, claiming that bishops were “priests and prophets, and princes and leaders and kings, and mediators between God and his faithful, and receivers of the word, and preachers and proclaimers thereof, and knowers of the Scriptures and of the utterances of God, and witnesses of his will, who bears the sins of all, and are to give answer for all” (translated by R.H. Connolly [Oxford: Claredon Press, 1929], page 80).

Meanwhile in the West, Cyprian, who was the bishop of Carthage, and therefore a usurper of the biblically ordained government of the church, which recognized no earthly church government larger than that which was contained to the local church, modeled his church order on the civil orders of the rulers of the city of Carthage. In doing so: 1) He made a clear distinction between the order of bishops and the laity. 2) He sacralized the priesthood according to the Old Testament model of the sacrificial priesthood. 3) He established a monolithic episcopate that was to be the same for all of Africa. 4) He linked ministry to sacrifice, again in the image of the Temple priesthood. 5) He modeled the bishops in the image of the Roman senators. 6) He consolidated the supposed ruling powers of the bishops through various means, such as episcopal conclaves. 7) He further argued that anyone who separates from a bishop, separates from the church. Consequently, in less than two centuries, the church, which was now to be identified with Christendom, had moved from a community of priests to a separate clergy that vicariously represented both the priestly and kingly rule of the people belonging to Christ.

According to the New Testament, however, the plurality of men who were appointed elders/bishops/pastors in local churches of Christ did not exercise their oversight “as being lords over” those who had been entrusted to them, but as “examples to the flock”(1 Peter 5:3). In the chart below, one can see the erroneous view of the church as developed by man contrasted with the New Testament view.

R1C1 R1C1

Looking at this chart, it is easy to see the stark difference between what God ordained and what man ultimately created. Elders/bishops/pastors, although they are entrusted with the oversight of the local church, are not something other than or more than their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Accordingly, they exercise their oversight not as “lords,” but as “examples” of what pure, unadulterated Christianity is all about.

Even so, from the 4th to the 16th centuries, the clergy-laity distinction grew even worse. After his “conversion” in A.D. 312, the Roman emperor, Constantine, appointed bishops as civil magistrates throughout the Roman empire. He also organized the various churches into dioceses along the pattern of Roman regional districts. Furthermore, he consistently used the terms “clerical” and “cleric” to designate a privileged class. By the time of the Gregorian reform (A.D. 1057-1123), the structure of the entire Western (or Roman Catholic) Church was shaped by Roman Law. Therefore, in the period prior to the Protestant Reformation: 1) the bishop of Rome came to be regarded as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed to be the church of Christ on earth; 2) the language of worship ceased to be the language of the people; 3) the clergy dressed differently and were prepared for ministry in a seminary; 4) the clergy became celibate, and thus distant from the normal experiences of the laity; 5) the cup, or fruit of the vine, was removed from the laity in the “Eucharist,” the term by which the Lord’s Supper came to be identified by the Romanists. In due course, the clergy-laity distinction became institutionalized in religious orders, priestly ordination, and the seminary system.

Clergy-Laity Distinction Continued Among The Protestants

Even the Protestant Reformation, with its call to recover “the priesthood of all believers,” did not succeed in reinstating the laity as one dignified people called to service by means of their membership in the church belonging to Christ. Why the full implications of “the priesthood of all believers” was not fully realized in the churches spawned by the Protestant Reformation is an interesting question. Some of the reasons why are as follows: 1) The Reformation was primarily concerned with soteriology (i.e., salvation) than ecclesiology. 2) The priesthood of all believers was interpreted according to its effect on individual salvation. But with regard to the collective religious experience, it was “business as usual.” 3) The preacher or “Rev.” replaced the priest. 4) The sermon became the central act of Protestant worship—the Protestant “Christ-event,” if you will. In turn, this gave the preacher the same clerical standing as the Catholic officiant at the Mass, even though he now wore a Geneva gown. 5) The scholarship inferred in such a ministry ultimately succeeded in once again taking the Bible out of the hands of the layperson and putting it in the hands of the seminary-trained scholar. In the evolution of Western society from A.D. 500 to 1500, a period referred to by some, and I think rightly so, as the “Dark Ages,” the common man (or layperson) had lost access to high culture and learning. As early as the 8th century, the language of scholarship and worship had ceased to be the language of the people, and was, instead, Latin.

Although the Reformation spawned denominations that took seriously the priesthood of all believers, like the Quakers, Moravians, Puritans, Baptists and Anabaptists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ et al., which were all lay oriented, even these denominations—denominations that stemmed from the so-called “radical reformation”—have now gravitated to the pre-Reformation clergy-laity distinction.

These churches eventually adopted the Catholic seminary system. While exceptions do exist, the seminary system, which was fully developed by the 19th century, became the universal model for equipping a generation of “pastors,” thus ensuring their enculturation into a clerical culture. Today, theological education remains, for the most part, the exclusive preoccupation of those intending a career in "the ministry" (read clergy). Ordination is still retained almost universally for the full-time, supported, church worker. Most denominations still regard the ordination process as conferring a priestly character. Para-church organizations not withstanding, there are no denominations that ordain people to secular careers and missions. In fact, "lay" spirituality is something that is rarely taught and promoted. Although the Reformation rejected the two-level spirituality of the monastery and common Christian, Protestant spirituality, with few exceptions, has focused either on charismatic and mystical experiences, or on the deeper spiritual life of outstanding church leaders. Consequently, there has been little exploring of the holiness of the ordinary Christian in the totality of his or her life: eating, sleeping, working, buying and selling, playing, having sexual relations, and dying. It is clear, then, that in all these years Christendom has not become free of the Greek dualism that relegates bodily life to a lower, less important, even insignificant, level of existence.

When thinking about all this, it is imperative we recognize that the same cultural and social forces that were at work in Christendom during the sixteen centuries before the Protestant Reformation (secular management models; professional-lay analogies; the tendency to deal with outside threats by increasing central government) are still at work even today. Therefore, the fleshly predisposition to a clergy-laity model must be continuously fought by all who would honor the church for which Christ died—the “My church” of Matthew 16:18. Addressing the need to reject the current clergy-laity model, D. Elton Trueblood (1900-1994), who was a Quaker, went so far as to call for a new Reformation:

Our opportunity for a big step lies in opening the ministry of the ordinary Christian in much the same manner that our ancestors opened Bible reading to the ordinary Christian. To do this means, in one sense, the inauguration of a new Reformation while in another it means the logical completion of the earlier Reformation in which the implications of the position taken were neither fully understood nor loyally followed (E. Trueblood, Your Other Vocation, page 32).

Abolishing the clergy-laity model and recovering the unique dignity of the whole people of God is—in theory as well as practice—a tall order indeed. Lord willing, it is precisely this glorious pursuit we’ll explore in the December issue.

(Allan Turner is a preacher, writer, editor who lives in Corinth, MS. He has his own web site located at and is the editor of this on-line magazine. You can write him at

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