Church, STOP Using the words “Laity” and “Clergy”

I am just going to come right out and say it…the Church needs to stop using the word “laity” (or “lay-leader” or “lay-person”, etc.) AND the word “clergy”.

I’ll give my reasons why shortly (and what the Bible says about leaders), but first…a little word lesson…

Laity” means = “uneducated” or “not belonging to the clergy” and comes from the Greek word lāikós which means “of the people” (as in the common people). It is first recorded being used in 1,540. That’s over 1,000 years AFTER the establishment of the Church!!

Clergy” means = “office or dignity of a clergyman” coming from 2 French words “clergié” which means “learned men” and “clergie” which means “learning, knowledge, erudition”. This word first stated being used around 1300. Again, over 1,000 years AFTER the establishment of the Church.

As you can see, the words intentionally (yes, intentionally) attempt to create a class distinction between what is considered “common church people” and the more educated “leaders” or “pastors/bishops/etc.” of the church — a class distinction the early Church didn’t make and that Jesus certainly didn’t make either.

In fact, as you can see, these words were not used by the church for a VERY long time after the establishment of the Church, and cannot be found in the Bible by anyone when describing others in the Church. They are simply not there. The Bible draws no distinction between the Church body and its leadership especially on the terms of education.

This isn’t to dismiss education or downplay it’s importance. Education is important and being a lifelong student is important (for all of us). But what the early Church (and those who interacted with them) noted and valued more was that these people walked with, talked with, sounded like and acted like….Jesus (see Acts 4:13).


Paul himself was probably one of the most educated Christians of his day due to his upbringing (he was a Pharisee), and yet he did not draw a distinction between himself and the others in the Church quite like what we see today.

Look at what he says about himself and another leader in the Church here in 1 Corinthians 3:4-7,

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

The New Testament Church called leaders out (to be sure) but NOT because they had a degree from a prestigious seminary (again, not a bad thing, but not required) but rather because their actions, behaviors, and character stood out as being mature and Christ-like. They were not elevated to a leadership role to put them on a pedestal, but rather to draw from their maturity and experience to help guide and lead the Church body.

Qualifications to be an elder or an overseer, which are pretty much the only “roles” the New Testament clearly gives any kind of “qualifications” for, point almost exclusively toward a more “character” centric list of qualifications than being “education” centric (AGAIN not diminishing education, but it wasn’t the most important qualification for someone to be considered a leader – see 1 Timothy 3).

Even so, after someone was called out to be a leader in the Church they were not given a special office to lord over others. Which is perfectly in line with what Jesus said to the disciples would be the case for leaders in the Church.

Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-27,

25 …“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This was later supported and taught by Peter as well (who was there when Jesus said this) to the elders of the Church in 1 Peter 5:1-3,

1To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 

Take careful note of what Paul says about leaders in 1 Corinthians 3, the qualifications of an elder/overseer in 1 Timothy 3 (and in Titus), what Jesus said to the disciples in Matthew 20, and what Peter said to the elders of the Church in 1 Peter 5…and compare that to this system of “laity” and “clergy” that we have created for ourselves.

It is vastly different from the picture that is often painted about leaders today, isn’t it?


Words Matter

Their definitions matter.

What a word implies matters.

And as you have seen when I showed you the definitions of these words above, by their very definition these words try to draw a major line between the average “church person” that, according to the definition of “laity” itself is considered to be uneducated and unqualified and the “clergy” which again, according to the definitions of these words, are people who are more educated and more qualified – and perhaps even more privileged.

As a result…

It Creates An Unbiblical Caste System

It’s true, and it’s almost subliminal (few truly notice this happening, but it does), but the use of the words “laity” and “clergy” creates an unnecessary caste system that the Bible simply doesn’t create.

What is a caste system?

There are many definitions for “caste system”, but for the purpose of this discussion we will use the following:

A caste system is a division of society based on differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, PROFESSION, OCCUPATION, or race.

In other words, it elevates some, and demotes others. It intentionally or unintentionally (historically speaking it was intentional) communicates to the church that there are some more “qualified” to do the work of the ministry of the Church than others and that these people get certain privileges or respect that others don’t necessarily deserve as normal church people.

I have been in some denominations where people quite literally fight to get into a position to, and I’m not even joking here, to carry the Bible of the pastor from his office to the pulpit. Others fight to get close to the pastor or other leaders of the church because they might get more attention or power.

The Catholic church practically worships the Pope.

Other denominations elevate bishops, pastors, and other leaders to a level just short of how the Catholic Church views the Pope.

But, this isn’t what Ephesians 4 tells us should be happening or why these leaders exist.

Ephesians says there were some gifted to the Church to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers….and that these roles existed for the following purpose:

…to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, because pastors and leaders have been elevated to such a position that the Bible never intended for them…

It Unintentionally Places the Responsibility of the Work of the Church On a Few Rather Than On Us All

Pastors and leaders in many local churches and across almost all denominations are elevated to such a position by themselves, by seminaries, and by the Church itself, that the Church doesn’t actually see itself as being responsible for the work of the Church, but instead they see themselves as the recipient of the ministry. As a result, they go from worker to consumer.

This is why we see pastors and church leaders burning out in unprecedented numbers. They often feel they alone carry the responsibility for the health, function and work of the church, and to be transparent…the people in the church think and say as much too.

By the way, when I say “work of the church” I am NOT talking about running sound systems and lights, taking up the offering, preaching, teaching Sunday School, counting money, cleaning the bathrooms, cutting the grass, and so on. These are great ways to serve each other during the Church gathering or care for the property, but it is not the work of the Church.



I think there are a few things we can do to take us from where we are to where we need to be:

  1. STOP using the words “laity” and “clergy” and START recognizing everyone as workers in the Church who are all working toward the same goal – making disciples.
  2. STOP requiring qualifications for church leaders that the Bible doesn’t require and START looking at what the Bible tells us are the qualifications for church leaders (HINT: most Biblical requirements have to do with the character of the person rather than education or seminary training).
  3. STOP elevating church leaders to unbiblical pedestals and START looking at leaders as mature believers who God has sent to help equip us all to be mature believers.
  4. STOP putting all the responsibility of the work of the church on a select few and START exhorting everyone (and holding them accountable) to be co-laborers for the work of the church with different roles and spiritual gifts that compliment one another in the work.
  5. STOP having double standards of accountability for leaders over non-leaders and START holding each one of us equally accountable in all ways.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a place to start. And as you can see, most of it revolves around changing how we view leaders and non-leaders in the church.

If we can get some momentum here, I think we’ll find the line between “clergy” and “laity” begin to dissolve and look more and more like what Jesus had intended from the start…

Each one of us being co-laborers in the field, working under and for the same King, and toward the same goal…MAKING DISCIPLES.

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