In Praise of Clergy

by Bill Ireland

“Who’s got a song?”

If I had a dime for every time I’ve said those words. As a home church leader, I’m supposed to elicit interaction among the members of our small group. The scripture does say, “When you come together, every one of you has a song …” I figure there’s no harm in priming the pump. But what happens next is predictable: nothing. Of course no one has a song. They’re looking to me for that.

This weekly impasse led my wife to offer me some sage advice: "Don’t ask that anymore. Just sing a song."

It’s a fundamental dilemma for small groups: how to get people to step out of the large-group mentality and contribute their unique gifts. The Bible tells us those gifts are there. But they’re in hiding most of the time. Coaxing them out takes patience, boldness, and some training. We’re all programmed to be passive consumers.

This touches on the fundamental argument in favor of house churches: the deadly sterility of the clergy/laity dichotomy. House churches, when they’re functioning well, offer a way out.

The professional clergy model works well for huge, cumbersome institutions—like traditional churches—which need to maintain order above all. No confusion about roles; no wacky ideas bubbling up from the unlearned masses; no uncertainty, no risk. In other words, no life. (Also, as we’ve discovered in the light of recent clergy scandals—no safeguards.)

But if we want to see the Body of Christ, functioning as it’s gloriously depicted in I Corinthians, Ephesians and Acts—ah, that’s a different matter! For that we must face the risks implied in Paul’s words “every one of you.”

But people don’t spontaneously adapt to this bottom-up mentality. The tension between ideal and reality is what I was hearing in that silence following my well-meaning question. Which brings us back to a stark truth: The church still needs leaders; dare I say—clergy!

This shouldn’t be a total shock. Even the most radical advocates of simple church recognize the role of elders, pastors, teachers and other ministries. Some say the governing ministries were intended to be broad, regional functions, with local congregations operating democratically. If that’s so, it’s puzzling that Paul would leave Titus in Crete to appoint elders in every city—with the explicit function of ruling the church. Clearly, these elders weren’t meant to sit on their rocking chairs dispensing advice.

Our problem isn’t that leaders exist. It’s that the Body as a whole does not function as intended. Ephesians 4:11 indicates that the leaders’ function is to bring the Body to a place of full functionality. Can a gifted leader do that, without taking over the whole show? That’s the challenge facing the house church movement. I don’t know many who’ve found the right balance. But it’s exciting to try.

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