Let’s abolish lay ministry

There has been much talk of the difference between ‘professional’ ministry and ‘lay ministry’. But are such distinctions helpful? Gordon has a better suggestion.

A slightly arbitrary definition of ‘lay ministry’ is ‘unpaid ministry in the church performed by nonprofessionals’. The idea of ‘laity’ comes from the Greek ‘laos’, meaning ‘people’, distinct from any priestly class. Lay ministry is often associated with church work that is necessary but unpaid. Such unpaid ministry may or may not be formally recognized by a denomination or church, but it is certainly recognized by God.

But as soon as we consider this sort of ‘lay ministry’, problems abound. Is it even reasonable to speak of ‘lay ministry’ as something distinct from, say, ‘ministry’? And if it’s not a separate category in Scripture, why should we import it into our understanding?

The term ‘lay ministry’ isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. Even the idea of lay ministry struggles like a dying possum on an overhead electric wire to find basis in the New Testament. The Bible lends no support to the idea of a special class of Christian person who deserves to be known as a ‘layperson’ and who is fundamentally distinct (or even superior) to, say, a clergyman or pastor. True, in the Old Testament, there was a distinction between regular Israelites and people of the tribe of Levi (the tribe from which all the priests were drawn): the Levites had no inheritance in the land because they were devoted to God’s service (Num 18:21-24). Certain roles relating to sacrifice and ceremonial law could only be performed by the priests. Consequently, they and their fellow Levites were entitled to support from gifts and offerings the other tribes brought to the tabernacle. However, as the book of Hebrews makes plain, the Old Testament priestly ministry has been fulfilled in Christ. He is our “faithful high priest” who makes “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). His ministry is unique. But to the extent that all Christians are in Christ, we are now priests of God—not offering sacrifice for sin but proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). In this sense, we are all proclaimers.

Nor do we find anywhere in the New Testament a clear basis for distinction between lay ministry and other sorts of ministry. There is no evidence, for example, that anyone was formally and regularly paid for Christian ministry. Jesus and the disciples were informally supported in their ministry by wealthy women (Luke 8:1-3), and the apostles and teachers were entitled to receive financial support or payment in kind (1 Cor 9:4-12), but this is as far as the evidence takes us. We struggle to find anyone in the Bible who was regularly paid to undertake Christian ministry. Even in Timothy’s case, it’s not clear he was ever paid for the thankless task of caring for the Ephesian church. As far as we know, then, every Christian minister in Scripture, including the Lord Jesus himself, was a ‘lay’ minister.

The problem of definition is also not resolved by appealing to the current state of play within various parts of Christendom. People with minimal theological training and no official denominational recognition can end up being paid to lead congregations or parts of congregations. They may even, to the astonishment of bishops and others, do this quite well. Here are so-called ‘lay’ leaders doing professional ministry. Without pointing the bone at any particular popes or archbishops of Canterbury, unqualified individuals can sometimes end up doing far better and more genuine Christian ministry than many paid sheepish wolves. A false teacher may well have taken on teaching and leadership within a church at the invitation of a denomination or a College of Cardinals, but unless they’re teaching God’s word, they are not actually doing the work of gospel ministry. So, then, it is possible to have professional, trained, ordained individuals who are not doing gospel ministry while untrained amateur Christians work free of charge, labouring in gospel ministry that will last into eternity long after the straw of so-called ‘professionals’ has burnt to crispy ash (1 Cor 3:11-14).

Here is a fine quote from Martin Luther which speaks out against the Roman Catholic view of priesthood and sums up the impossibility of distinguishing lay ministry from any other sort:

The ministry of the Word belongs to all. To bind and to loose clearly is nothing else than to proclaim and to apply the gospel. For what is it to loose, if not to announce the forgiveness of sins before God? What is it to bind, except to withdraw the gospel and to declare the retention of sins? Whether they [that is, the Roman Catholic church] want to or not, they must concede that the keys are the exercise of the ministry of the Word and belong to all Christians.1

So because Christian ministry is given by God’s Spirit, and because God isn’t constrained by our financial arrangements and denominational patterns, and for a host of other reasons, we need to sit loosely to any structure that insists on distinguishing lay people from clergy—especially when that distinction is grounded not in a commitment to the ministry of God’s word, but in the usurping authority of a denominational organization that is really only there to serve the local church.

A better suggestion

So far, I’ve been working fairly hard to define lay ministry and to find a biblical basis for the idea as it’s commonly understood. But I have a bigger, bolder and better suggestion to put to you: let’s get rid of lay ministry altogether. Let’s bury the idea of a priest-laity distinction right where it belongs—deep in the bowels of the Old Testament. Let’s recognize that there is no such thing as lay ministry anymore; there is only ministry.

The advantages of my suggestion should be apparent—the most important being that it is actually true to the way the Bible presents ministry. By trashing the idea that money or professional qualifications should form any part of what defines ministry, we are free to rediscover what the Bible has always taught, which is that the source of all ministry is God the Father who, through the work of the Son, gives gifts of his Spirit to all who believe the gospel. He does this regardless of whether or not the Christian has remembered to fill in his superannuation details so he can be formally registered as a gospel minister with the denominational head office.

So what’s the best way forward? The answer, surely, is to train every Christian in ministry, and encourage believers with the thought that every single one of them can and should exercise a ministry of the Word. Make no mistake: Word ministry is exactly what every so-called ‘lay’ minister should be exercising. When Paul speaks of how Christians are to be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), he is showing that every single Christian, without exception, is involved in ministry of the Word. Furthermore, this Word ministry that Christians share is a supernatural ministry, supernaturally given. In Acts 2:16-20, Peter tells a crowd of amazed Jews that the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32—“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”—is now fulfilled by every Christian as they receive the Spirit and tell out the gospel. So it’s not surprising that Peter later writes he expects every Christian to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).

Now in saying this, I’m not denying that some individuals are particularly gifted by God’s Holy Spirit to be teachers and evangelists. Nor do I with one sweep want to wipe away the truth that some are uniquely qualified by gifts and godly character to be leaders in God’s church. So, for example, in 1 Corinthians 12, the Spirit’s giving of gifts means that some will be privileged with the responsibility for teaching God’s word, and in Ephesians 4:11-14, Jesus gives apostles, prophets, pastor-teachers and evangelists in order to built up the church. But the idea in both passages is that some are gifted to help every Christian serve and speak. But how are we going to find these gifted individuals in order to encourage them to develop their leadership? The answer, as I’ve already suggested, is to train every Christian to be a minister.

A plan

How do we do this? My action plan has three steps.

Firstly, we need to teach everyone the gospel. As we do this, we teach them how to express the gospel to others. Shouldn’t every Christian who loves Jesus be able to confess their love for Jesus publicly? So every member of every church should be encouraged to write down and learn a very simple statement of how they came to know God, and trust in the death and resurrection of his son for their forgiveness. There are now a huge range of training programmes available to help people learn how to do this—from the most basic gospel presentation, to correspondence and Bible college courses in evangelism, apologetics and discipleship.2 Why not work through one of these in your small group?

Secondly, we need to emphasize and re-emphasize the fact that every Christian has a responsibility to speak this truth. Why is it that Australians are better known as sports people than classical musicians? It’s because just about every Australian from the age of four gets involved in sport. The little-known republic of Kalmykia is disproportionately brilliant at chess for much the same reason. While Australian kindergarteners are tossed cricket balls and thrown into the pool, Kalmykian kindergarteners are being told to move their pawns to K4. The same principle can be applied to training every Christian in ministry. The Bible is clear that the responsibility to make disciples is shared by all Christians everywhere. The original disciples were commissioned for the job even before they received the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20)! So, then, we ought to teach what the Bible teaches to every Christian, all the while encouraging them to take what they learn and tell others. And we should embrace our responsibilities in this area more seriously than Australians embrace their cricket or Kalmykians their chess.

Thirdly, we should take every opportunity to talk up ministry in every context. I don’t mean clerical or lay ministry but ministry. Preachers, Bible study leaders, youth group leaders and Sunday school teachers: why not talk about ministry in your sermons, lessons and Bible studies on passages like 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, Matthew 28, Romans 12, 1 Peter 4, Acts 2 or one of the other passages that speak about our ministry to “one another”? Deacons, elders, presbyters, parish council members, committee members and synod representatives: why not make it a regular and annoying subject in your meetings? Why not encourage your home groups to spend a term doing Six Steps to Talking about Jesus as a leadup to the mission you’re doing with students from your nearby Bible college? Why not steal the medical profession’s slogan (“Watch one, do one, teach one”) and apply it to the training of any ministry skill? What would be the result? People with particular gifts in ministry will emerge as you encourage them to use their gifts.

If you are not in any of the roles I mentioned above, make a start. Read the Bible to your daughter. Help your group leader by giving him clear, specific and biblically-based feedback on the study he just led. (You can do this without being asked by your parish council or board of deacons simply because you understand that handling the word of God rightly really matters.) Speak to your co-worker about the gospel over lunch, observed by no-one except the Lord Jesus. You are exercising ministry of the Word. You are a minister. And if you can be bothered, write to one of your denominational authorities and ask them to send you a special framed certificate commemorating your Bible-reading exploits with your kids at dinner time.

Many thanks to Col Marshall for allowing the use of his ideas and concepts (which were derived from a work in progress) in this article.


1 Martin Luther, ‘Concerning the Ministry’, Luther’s Works, vol. 40, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Concordia Publishing House, St Louis, 1955-1986, p. 27. The mention of ‘keys’, and indeed the entire quote, is in reference to Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

2 For example, Matthias Media courses such as Two Ways to Live and Six Steps to Encouragement.