Respiratory Filure in PC(USA)

I am a Presbyterian Jedi. At least that is what some seem to think. Last year I was elected to the Presbyterian Jedi Council (aka General Assembly Council.) I am now “in the know” and the fate of the denomination is in my hands. Depending on whom you ask, I could be either Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader. Either way, I get the same questions. Membership is declining and there is financial difficulty. What am I going to do to save the denomination?

I count it a great honor and privilege to have been elected to the GAC. I have met a lot of devoted people struggling with complex issues and entrenched problems. I have learned about many good things that are happening and some not so good things. Still, the GAC is no special group of people who are “strong with the force.” If we are looking for salvation, then I recommend we look to Jesus Christ. If we are looking to understand what is happening to us, then I don’t think we will find answers by looking primarily at the GAC or the General Assembly.

Chapter 3 of our Book of Order says our purpose is to be the reconciling and transforming body of Jesus in the world. We are part of God’s work in history that will culminate in the day when, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). We Presbyterians are connectional and we believe ministry toward this end happens in a variety of ways at differing levels throughout our denomination. However, the primary locus of ministry is where the Church directly connects with world: the congregation.

Living human bodies are engaged in an ongoing process of breathing. Breathing involves inhaling and exhaling. A congregation, as the body of Christ, also breathes. It inhales as the saints gather in worship and service. It exhales as the saints disperse to their daily ministries throughout the community. Our problem is we have invested almost entirely in the work of the gathered saints to the near complete neglect of the work of the saints in their daily ministries dispersed throughout the community! We are in respiratory distress.

Let us be clear about ministry. Ministry is not about what we do. It is about who we are doing for.1 Each of us has been called to creation stewardship (all the work that keeps the world running), to Kingdom service (carrying on the works of Christ), and to the exercise of charismatic gifts for the betterment of the Kingdom and transformation of the world. For the vast majority, most of our “doing” is not as the gathered congregation. Our ministry is as the dispersed congregation, focused on creation stewardship. Accountants, farmers, and sales clerks do no less ministry than pastors if they are doing what God has called them to do. We have virtually abandoned support of these ministers and devalued their ministry to the point that most do not connect what they do in their daily lives with service to God. Only Kingdom service, usually done within the walls of a church building, equates to ministry.

The gathered congregation is to be about the work of equipping. Equippers fix what is broken, align what is out of alignment, and supplement what is missing, so the saints can effectively do all varieties of God’s ministry.2 The saints in dispersion draw other people into God’s ministry until one day everyone and every realm is brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to the church … Why? … To build full-service religiosity outlets run by professional Christians with laity assistance? To build inwardly-obsessed communities with a professional caretaker? No. It is “… to equip the saints for the work of ministry … ” By far, the greatest portion of this “work of ministry” is the congregation in dispersion. So why isn’t this equipping happening? Why are we consumed with ministry as the gathered congregation? There are many aspects to this question but I believe the central problem is that we have bought into the myth of “laity.” By first understanding the reality of “clergy,” we can see the impact on our concepts of ‘laity.”

The word “clergy” comes from the Greek word kleros, which means “lot” or “inheritance.” When used figuratively, as in, “we are God’s inheritance,” or “we share in the inheritance of Christ,” it refers without exception to the whole people of God. It never refers to a specially called elite subgroup of people. “Clergy” and “the people of God” (laos tou theou) are one in the same group!

Furthermore, the term “laity” did not emerge directly from the noun laos (“people”) as is often purported. It came indirectly from laos through the adjective laikos, meaning “of the common people.” Laikos is not in the New Testament and it is not in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

The first known mentions of laikos come from about 300 BCE. It was an adjective used in papyri to describe the profane things of the rural people in Egypt. The earliest known use of the word in Christian literature is in a letter by Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church, written circa 96 CE. In exhorting the church to preserve godly order, he alludes to the order of the Old Testament era. He discusses the responsibilities of those who were neither priests nor Levites, and calls them laymen (laikos anthropos.) (1 Clement 40:5)3

Laikos was used sparingly by Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion in their Greek translations of the Old Testament during the second and third centuries. It was used as a synonym for bebelos which means “profane” or “unholy.” Laikos was also a synonym in Greek literature for idiotes which meant “nonprofessional.” (It is the word from which we get “idiot.”) Laikos did not begin to enter the common Christian vocabulary until the third and fourth centuries. Over time and across languages, the adjective evolved into the noun “laity” to represent the unprofessional, common, and profane people contrasted with the educated, holy, and sacred people known as “clergy.” 4

The Reformers saw this as a problem but they also struggled with church order. The outcome of their struggle to reconcile the issues was retention of the clergy/laity distinction while trying to elevate the laity.5 Did they succeed? Ask yourself if you prefer ministry by a lay- Christian, anymore than you do surgery from a lay-surgeon, or legal advice from a lay-lawyer?

Real ministry is what is done by a caste of Christians called “clergy,” those with special training and an extra endowment of spirituality. Laity exists to assist clergy in real ministry. We say we believe in the priesthood of believers but look at our language and structures. Clergy do “full-time” Christian ministry. We send people to seminaries to prepare for the ministry. We install them in our congregations as the minister. Prayer is deferred to the clergy because they have special status with God. The sick have not been cared for until visited by clergy.

Ask anyone for a definition of laity and it nearly always is given in terms of the negative:

  • Function – they do not administer the sacraments.

  • Status – they don’t have reverend in front of their name.

  • Location – they don’t serve primarily in the church.

  • Education – they don’t have a degree from seminary.

  • Remuneration – they are not paid for church work.

  • Lifestyle – they are occupied with the “secular” instead of the “sacred.” 6

When “laypeople” are referred to positively, they are said to be “the people of God” (laos tou theou.) True enough, but the “people of God” in contrast to whom? The clergy? Scripture only uses clergy (kleros) in reference to the whole people of God. Laos tou theou are the clergy!

The primary locus for ministry is the congregation in dispersion. We have moved the locus to the gathered congregation. Why? Because non-pastor Christians are “idiots!” (laity = laikos = idiotes = idiots.) They can be helpful assistants to clergy but they can not be fully trusted with the things of God. Real ministry can only be done by professional Christians, and since they can’t be everywhere, it is the job of the “laity” to bring unbelievers to the professionals for real ministry. Consequently, the saints are thoroughly under- equipped for ministry in dispersion, and they are demeaned and trivialized for ministry among the gathered. Am I exaggerating? Do people in the pews have any sense of call? Look at the best selling book list. What continues to be at the top? The Purpose-Driven Life. You may love the book or hate it, but it is being read by millions of people who have received no discernment of call and ministry from the Church.

I want to be understood on three points. First, the issue I raise here is about mission, not power and authority. “Clergy” is not a synonym for “pastor!” “Clergy” is a status and “pastor” is a function. I do not question that some are called to be pastors. I do not question that those who are called to pastor are held to higher standards of maturity and they are given authority. There is no radical democracy placing immature Christians on a par with the spiritually mature and gifted people called to leadership. However, pastors are not called to membership in an elite caste of omni-competent Christians. As Greg Ogden has observed, our theology of ministry has turned into a sociology of status.7 “Pastor” is a biblical function that equips all the ministers to be part of the omni-competent body of Christ. There is only one status: Clergy.

Second, some may infer I am blaming “clergy” for our state of affairs. They have played their part but let us be honest. Most “laypeople” like their dependency on “clergy!” Woody Allen, as a character in one of his movies, said he went to see a psychiatrist. He told the psychiatrist he needed help for a friend who believed himself to be a chicken. The doctor asked if Allen had told his friend that he wasn’t a chicken. Allen confessed he hadn’t because he needed the eggs. Pastors are the chickens and we like our eggs. It took all of us to create this and it will take all of us to undo it.

Third, I want to avoid giving the impression that no ministry, other than equipping ministry, should happen in the gathered community. We are called to be a community and how we care for each other is one way we give transforming witness to the world. Corporately, we exercise hospitality and do acts of service. We come together to worship. These are at the core of who we are. The issue is one of emphasis. Ask yourself, “Which is more important, inhaling or exhaling?” We seem to have decided that inhaling is the priority since there is virtually no attention given to ministry in dispersion. We are not breathing the breath of God back into the world through equipped saints in dispersion. Consequently, as a denomination, we are turning blue in the face and about to collapse.

In summary, we are to bring all people and realms under the Lordship of Christ. The focus of our ministry is the congregation. The primary focus of ministry is the congregation in dispersion, supported and equipped by the ministry of the gathered congregation. The problem is that our ability to exhale the breath of God into the world has atrophied. We need to learn to breathe again. All PC(USA) structures should be focused to these ends. Just imagine what would happen if we did!

MICHAEL KRUSE is a Presbyterian elder in Kansas City, Mo. He is a member of General Assembly Council, Synod of Mid- America.


1Stevens, R. Paul, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 56-57.

2Ogden, Greg, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), Chapter 6.

3Weber, Hans-Ruedi. “On Being Christian in the World: Reflections on the ecumenical discussion about the laity.” Document at World Council of Churches website: weber.html. 1999. Accessed May 1, 2005


5Gillespie, Thomas W. “Ministerial Orders in the Reformed Tradition: A Study in Origins.” A paper presented to the delegations to the Consultation on Church Union from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. circa 1979?

6Stevens, The Other Six Days, 24-25.

7Ogden, Unfinished Business, 239.


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