One of the features of post-modern thought has been to challenge the idea of structures of authority. In this paradigm words are seen as tools of manipulation by those who occupy positions of power. Therefore, the thinking is, we shouldn’t readily trust people in authority because they are merely interested in the personal benefits of the power they hold over others. This feeling accounts, in large measure, for the current attitude toward leadership in many spheres including the church. Though there has been a lot of controversy throughout church history on the subject of the clergy/laity relationship post-modern thought has raised the issue to a new level.
I have found myself reading Scripture with a new desire to see how the Bible addresses this subject. It’s obvious that the Old Testament describes priests and Levites as having a special role of service in the spiritual life of the covenant community of God. Their service was recognized and honoured by the support of the rest of the community through tithes and sacrificial offerings. But much is made now of the fact that this was God’s arrangement under the Old Covenant of law which was replaced by the New Covenant of grace under Jesus Christ. This is clear throughout the New Testament but especially in the Letter to the Hebrews (i.e. chapter 8, 9, etc.). Under the New Covenant, it is argued, the old distinctions between a priestly service and others no longer apply. After all, the entire church is now a body of priests (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6).
In the minds of many, the implication of this change means that there should be no distinction between those who serve as leaders in the Christian community and those who are served or who serve otherwise. The argument is that we are all servants under Jesus Christ who is the head of the church and we are all one body under him. When we make too much out of leadership in the church we tend to regress to living as if we were still under the Old Covenant. And it is true; church history bears out the fact that this has been a tendency with many accompanying abuses.
Yet I find that what was established as a law in the Old Testament with regard to spiritual leadership in the community of God is still an important principle in the New Testament. Though too much might be made out of the distinction between an ordained leadership and others, in reading the New Testament, it is hard to miss the point that God has called some to special roles of leadership that should be recognized and honoured. What began with the call of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:14) and was established more formally in the early church continues to be an important principle of the development of the church.
Recently we have gone through a process of identifying leaders in the church where I am serving as the transition pastor. In line with the New Testament pattern we follow a procedure that seeks to identify those whom we believe are qualified to lead in the life of the church (Titus 1:5). These are distinguished as those who the Bible says should lead with grace and should be honoured for their role and work (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
But is there also a place for the kind of leadership in the church that is professional in the sense that it has a special rank of ordination and receives payment for service? It seems evident that while too much can be made out of titles along this line, there certainly seems to be support in Scripture for the principle of a professional ordination that is also paid for its service. In my reading this week, I discovered that Jesus and the disciples were cared for out of means accumulated by a good number of women who also followed Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). I see that Jesus supported the idea that those who serve should be provided for by those who are served (Matthew 10:10). And while it is true that Paul tried to minimize his own dependence upon the financial gifts of others, counting it a privilege to preach the Gospel without cost, he also affirmed the principle of financial support for those who preached the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9).
Clearly, no one should serve in a professional capacity merely for financial reasons. But it is also the case that those who are called to serve should not feel guilty for receiving financial support for the spiritual work that they do. The supreme motive for serving as a pastor or spiritual leader should be the privilege of sharing the Good News of Jesus but it’s wonderful if such people have the freedom to devote all of their time to it without thought of their daily care by other means.