The priesthood of all believers is a doctrine that finds its root in the Bible and was one among other rich truths, which came alive as a result of the Reformation. The Reformation was clarion call to all believers to get involved in theology and Christian service to all believers, which previously was treated as a preserve of theologians and “priests”.

Sadly, the subtle teaching of the clergy and laity distinction often undermines the appreciation and application of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It is becoming a common phenomenon in the church today to observe two existing classes of people classified commonly by ordination and intonation of the clergy and the laity.

The priesthood of all believers is a truth that should be guarded to prevent the secular and sacred divide syndrome. In this editorial article, I have stated and illustrated the negative implications of the clergy/laity distinction and how it militates against the application of the priesthood of all believers.

Clergy/laity distinction foreign to Scripture

Let me first address the problem we have at hand. How did the church come up with this unbiblical position that the New Testament does not teach, namely the presence of a separate caste of church leaders designated as “clergy” who serve as priests over the “laity”?

It is clear that the New Testament teaches leadership and authority among the people of God. However, it does not teach the clergy/laity distinction as is assumed and practiced by several churches today. The meaning of these two words, clergy and laity, is misused and misapplied in religious circles. It is therefore needful to take a closer look at these two words and determine the correct biblical meaning and understanding of clergy and laity.

Definition and meaning of laity and clergy

The Greek roots of the words “laity” and “clergy” have a very different meaning from the common use in religious groups today.


The Greek word from which the English word laity is derived is “laos”, which simply means “people”. This means that all in the body of Christ regardless of office whether saint, bishop, or deacons as stated in Phil.1:1 are the people of God, “the laos” of God. This, according to 1 Peter 2:9-10, is a title of honour. “His own special people” is conferred upon all who have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

The laos of God—originally meant “the crowd” and “the people as a nation”. This word was eventually used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament Septuagint as a universal designation for the “people of God”. This is translated in the New Testament, for instance, in Acts 15:14, “Simon has described for us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles, a people [laon] for himself.” (See also Acts 18:10, Rom. 9:25, 2 Cor. 6:16). It is clear that the word laity when biblically used means “the people of God”.

This word was never used to describe “ordinary” untrained people [lay-people] but the people of God. Paul Stevens makes an illustrative comment on the erroneous understanding of the lay people [laity] in the church; he writes that:

“Depending on the specific church context, ‘lay’ is defined by function (does not administer the word and sacraments), by status (does not have a ‘Rev’), by location (serves primarily in the world), by education (is not theologically trained) by remuneration (is not full-time and paid) and by lifestyle (is not religious but occupied with secular life).”[1]

When the word laity or lay is understood in these terms, then lay people are the non-ordained Christians whose function is to help the clergy do the work of the church. It is this unbiblical understanding of the word laity that constantly undermines the priesthood of all believers and consequently makes the people of God not to take their rightful position of service in the church of God.


The English word “clergy” is derived from the Greek word “kleros”. It is used to describe aspects of being the “whole people of God”. The word originally means lot, share, portion, or inheritance assigned to someone.

Peter and John use this word when they challenged Simon Magus that he had no part or share (kleros) in the ministry, because his heart was not right with God (Acts 8:21, cf. Deut. 12:12).

For example, in 1 Peter 5:3 the elders are exhorted not to lord it “over God’s heritage” (KJV) (Greek: ton kleron), which refers to the entire flock of God’s people.

Jon Zens makes the following comment on the use of the word “clergy” for the ordained office. He says,

“Nowhere in the New Testament is any form of kleros used to designate a separate class of ordained leaders. Instead, it refers to the inheritance/share (Greek: klerou) laid up for all the saints (Col. 1:12; Acts 26:18). The saints as a collective whole are conceived of in the New Testament as God’s inheritance.[2]

When the term “clergy” is used to denote the ordained or special group of religious leaders, we strip the word of its biblical meaning. Sadly, this erroneous understanding of clergy has become the accepted term in our religious vocabulary and consequently informs our practice. This inevitably leads to having “priests within the priesthood”, an Old Testament analogy of the Levites. The message is that while all Christians should avoid becoming overly involved in the world, “clergy” must not do so in order to attend properly to sacred matters.

When we hold to such understanding of clergy, that the clergy are the “professionals” who function in a vicarious way to engage in “sacred” activities as a result of their ordination; we unconsciously justify the notion that “clergy” are paid to perform whatever is necessary to keep the religious machinery going. And the unspoken belief goes like this, so long as the laity [church] pay the “clergy” [priest] to do the necessary religious activities, the rest—the “laity”—can sit in pews and watch the clergy work.

The danger with this unscriptural position is that it slowly eats up those within its ranks. Burnout, moral lapse, stress, family neglect, divorce, and early retirement become the norm among the clergy due to this clergy/laity distinction.

It is clear that this erroneous clergy role will demand practical omni-competence from those occupying this office. Is it any wonder that we are experiencing repeated tragedies among the clergy in light of what is expected of one person?

Christ, the head of the church, never intended it to be so. The priesthood of all believers is the mind of Christ for his church. Paul’s remark in 1 Cor. 12:14 demonstrates that “the body is not one part but many”. We should be able to discern that the “clergy” position is neither healthy for those in it, nor is it beneficial for the body of Christ. The church is a place full of the people/laos of God and clergy-priests.

The church: a place full of laos and clergy–priests of God

The biblical understanding and application of the priesthood of all believers is that the church is a place that is full of clergy—a whole people of God who share in the ministry without distinction. The church in the New Testament has no “layperson” in the contemporary use of the word, but is full of the “clergy” who are the “laos” of God in the true sense of the word “clergy” (Acts 26:17-18; Eph. 1:11).

The New Testament church is a church of joint inheritance shared equally between all heirs. It is a family of collective giftedness. It has a universal empowerment of the people of God (the laos) through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It practices universal ministry and has the universal experience of the call of God by all the people of God. Therefore, the church comprises within its body a family full of ministers, a community of laos (people) or “laity”, serving God through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit throughout the whole week.

All believers in this sense find their identity in and through their connection to the Lord Jesus Christ. All are ministers and all give and receive ministry. Unfortunately, the subtle teaching of the clergy and laity distinction undermines the application of this truth of the priesthood of all believers as earlier mentioned. Here is a quote by Stevens to comment on this observation,

“When we step into a modern church we see something quite different. Few business people think of themselves as full-time ministers in the market place. Fewer still are encouraged in this by their churches and hardly anyone gets commissioned to their service in the world except foreign missionaries [and pastor]”[3]

The priesthood of all believers entails that all believers are clergy because they have been appointed or commissioned by God to service [share/lot] and are honoured as God’s inheritance by virtue of them sharing in the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit and his ministry. Unlike the Old Testament temple system, the New Testament church has a congregation full of priests for ministry.

We have noticed that these words, “clergy” and “laity” are found in the New Testament. However, the common use and application is far removed from the biblical concepts. Unfortunately, it is this unbiblical framework of thinking that has influenced or ill-informed many of our members/leaders. The consequence of this is the failure among many churches to exercise the priesthood of all believers in its biblical teaching. There is need to go back to the Bible and re-examine the meaning and application of the priesthood of believers.

The need for continued reformation

In light of the above, it is clear that there is a need for the church to continue revisiting the unfinished task of reformation through the lens of the Scriptures. It is unfortunate that there is resistance to the Protestant Reformation and its call to recover the priesthood of all believers and abolition of the laity/clergy distinction in the church of Jesus Christ.

The Scriptures are very clear that before the coming of Christ, the Holy Spirit worked through a select group of people called priests. These mediated all affairs between God and the people. They did all the religious work. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, instead of the few select priests, now it is the entire church, the people of God, a royal priesthood—making the church to become a place full of clergy.

Unfortunately this is not a common phenomenon. What we often see in most churches is that 10 to 12% of the entire church membership carries the work load of the church ministry and maybe less than 10% take their vocation in life as ministry to the Lord.

When we consider the need and challenges that the church faces in mobilising and managing her priests (the people of God—the laos) for ministry, it is clear that the work of continued reformation is necessary.

The church should seriously be alarmed when the clergy/laity distinction, which in the past was institutionalised in religious orders, continues to deter the ministry of the priesthood of all believers. There is still a great work to be done both from the pulpit and congregation to reinstate the laity as the people of God called to be ministers of God. The church today should not rest until the full implications of the Reformation on this matter are realised.

The church should unleash her members—the loas of God—to serve as the clergy in the truest sense of the word. When the church fails to recognise the members (the people of God—laos) as the ministers—and treat them as such—the clergy/laity distinction will continue to affect the church and her ministry negatively. The clergy/laity divide militates against the practical outworking of the priesthood of all believers.

It’s a common practice to ordain the “full-time” supported church workers, and at the same time give no or little recognition to “lay” ministries in societies. Though controversial, I long for the day when churches will officially ordain or set apart her members/people—the laos to societal careers and missions. Does this not explain why theological education remains by and large the exclusive preoccupation of those intending a career in the “clergy” and not for any ordinary Christian? Unfortunately, the seminary system, developed in the nineteenth century has become the universal model for equipping a generation of “ministers”—pastors—and consequently inculcating and enculturating in them a clerical culture.

So what we see now is that the kingdom of priests in the world is rarely recognised—the church ministry eclipses the kingdom ministry in most cases. In which case, ministry is viewed as advancing the church rather than the kingdom. So anything without the name of church receives less attention in terms of support, training, and prayer. The laos in the world is rarely treated as the church scattered.

Let me conclude with a long quote by Elton Trueblood as he comments on the priesthood of all believers. He says:

“Our opportunity for a big step lies in opening the ministry of the ordinary Christian in much the same manner that our ancestors opened Bible reading to the ordinary Christian. To do this means, in one sense, the inauguration of a new reformation, while in another it means the logical completion of the earlier reformation, in which the implications of the position taken were neither fully understood nor loyally followed.[4]

There is need to recover the dignity of the whole people of God as priests and at the same time clearly recognise the place of leadership within the community of the people of God. God has given to the church gifts of leadership and authority but not outside and above the community of believers. Leadership and authority are not meant to create a divide between clergy and laity—presenting two peoples in the church separated by education, ordination, and culture.

The priesthood of all believers in the New Testament presents a new concept of community where all members are ministers, therefore:

  1. There is no hierarchy of ministries—on the contrary all members of the church have in principle the same calling, responsibility, and dignity according to their gifts and call in the church.
  2. All members of the church belong to one another, they minister to one another, need one another, and contribute to the rich unity and ministry of the whole church. The church of Christ is not composed of those who minister and those who are ministered unto. Paul elaborates on this as he writes to the believers in Rom 1:12 “…that I may be encouraged together with you by mutual faith both of you and me”(NKJV).
  3. God has adopted, called, empowered, and gifted the members of his church to be co-workers and co-lovers of God. We are a special people belonging to God, a royal priesthood.

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Reformation Zambia

This issue of Reformation Zambia discusses the biblical teaching and application of the priesthood of all believers.

Joseph Phiri has done an exposition of 1 Peter 2:9, in which he has shown the identity of every believer in the body of Christ as “… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…” He has demonstrated the privileged position of all believers in Christ and the end to which God has called them—to be a royal priesthood.

Choolwe Mwetwa has ably handled the practical implications of the teaching of the priesthood of believers in the generic and specific senses. He has illustrated the meaning and essence of this doctrine as it manifests in the life of a church and an individual’s ministry in the body of Christ and community.

[1] Paul Stevens; the abolition of the Laity, Paternoster Press, 1999, 25

[2]Jon Zens, Searching together, The “Clergy/Laity” Distinction: A Help or a Hindrance to the Body of Christ? February 1996

[3] Paul Steven, Abolition of the laity, 39

[4]E.Trueblood, Your other Vocation, Harper &Row, 1961, 56