It is occasionally fashionable in main-line Christian circles to speak of "empowering the laity." But when we cut through faddish rhetoric and token gestures like "laity Sunday" to examine the actual role of the laity in mainline churches in America today, it becomes painfully apparent how dis-empowered the modern Christian laity truly is. I do not believe this to be an accident, nor do I believe that the laity is mostly to blame for this, though much "empower-the-laity" rhetoric coming at us over the pulpit implies as much. Rather, I believe that current church institutions, practice, and hierarchy conspire to keep the laity permanently dis-empowered and convince them that this is the best state of affairs. Indeed, the cognitive distinction between laity and ordained is itself part of the problem. The laity/clergy dualism is evidence of the bankruptcy of modern institutionalized Christianity, indicative of the failure of modern religious institutions to realize the potential of the movement founded by Jesus. I believe that the best way to empower the laity can be nothing less than to abolish the laity (and with it, the clergy).
To many who are accustomed to business as usual in the churches, much of what I have to say in the following essay will be counterintuitive. For instance, it is the norm among historians and sociologists of American religion to claim that one of the unique characteristics of American churches is their high degree of lay involvement. To anyone steeped in that mythology, the claim that the life of the laity in American churches is uniquely impoverished will likely appear unfounded. Perhaps, the common logic will run, this is a problem in Europe, where lay activism has been hampered by a stifling state-church tradition, but not in America! But I am not talking about lay participation, I am talking about lay empowerment and control. From this point of view, Christianity is as impoverished in hyperactive American churches as it is in anemic European churches. Most lay involvement in mainline churches takes the form of energy-draining activity to further an agenda that is usually not set by the laity, and may not even be ratified by the laity. "Lay empowerment" sermons usually amount to nothing more than a plea to work harder, serve on more committees, do more evangelism, raise more money . . . all to promote a denominational or confessional or institutional agenda in which the laity have had little, if any, input.
In the modern church, the primary form of control exercised by the laity over the church's institutional life is utterly passive. An individual who finds the agenda of a particular church offensive can leave the church and join any other which is more to his or her taste. Supposedly, those churches that please no one will wither and die, and those that please many will thrive, a rather relentless market logic in societies dominated by the market. America, with its plethora of choices (we have more denominations than we have brands of cereal) is particularly affected by this type of passive control. But more often than not, this "voting with one's feet" leads individuals simply to leave institutional church life altogether. This is the vast majority (90-95%) in Europe, and roughly half of the population in North America. Furthermore, while many have simply left the church never to darken its doors again, a large percentage (probably the majority) of those who remain affiliated with a church participate only in marginal ways--through attendance ranging from sporadic to steady and through contributions ranging from a few nickels in the offering plate to a full tithe. Many participate passively in American churches because they believe it is the only choice they have to fulfill their hunger for true spirituality. The large numbers of people who stay away from organized churches altogether or who are only nominally affiliated with churches--even in a country with seemingly endless religious choices--is one indication of how truly unsatisfying such passive control is as an expression of one's spirituality and as a fulfillment of one's sense of calling.
Another example of the passivity of lay control over the life of the church can be found in the procedures used by most denominations to place ordained ministers. Roman Catholicism allows virtually no congregational control; a few Protestant churches with a radical congregational polity allow almost complete control; most others fall somewhere in between. But in general, congregations are confined to rejecting someone they are unhappy with or choosing one of a limited pool of candidates. They have no say in how seminaries train potential candidates, and they have little influence in the institutional process of certifying ministers. When, for example, ELCA Lutheran churches in San Francisco (and now recently Iowa) attempted to call openly gay clergy, the clergy in question were defrocked. The congregations were threatened with expulsion from their denomination for hiring the clergy they wanted rather than the clergy they were supposed to choose. Though many Lutherans were outraged by this ham-handed mistreatment of churches which were, after all, merely exercising their right to choose their own spiritual leaders, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America policy and polity remains secure.
In many major Christian bodies, the real decision making power is vested in councils of bishops or other church-wide clerical bodies. Some denominations allow limited lay participation in the larger structures of church government. Congregations can often, for instance, send a certain number of "lay delegates" to "synod" or "diocesan" conventions or to "associations" or "conferences." Many of these gatherings are held for the sake of form only--no votes are taken, no decisions made. Or votes and decisions which do take place are about issues that have little consequence for the life of the church. Such assemblies almost never have the right to discuss or vote on matters of theology or belief--that remains the prerogative of seminary trained theologians and bishops. But even where such gatherings make significant decisions (usually on social statements, social policies, or governance), almost universally, such conventions or conferences are disproportionately attended by ordained clergy. The usual proportion is about one third--some denominations have more and some less. Furthermore, the clergy have even more disproportionate power at such gatherings, since as church professionals they attend every year whereas lay delegates typically serve a term or two and then relinquish their delegacy to someone else equally inexperienced. Most lay people who participate in such gatherings are ill-equipped to participate actively or effectively. More often, they respond passively to an agenda which has been set by institutional bureaucracies and ordained ministers.1
But the passivity of the modern Christian laity is most evident in the day to day (or should I say Sunday to Sunday) life of the church--in its worship and social life. Church life for most Americans is truly a spectator sport--sitting through worship services crafted by somebody else, reading liturgies printed in a book, listening to (or dozing through) sermons preached by the same cadre of institutionally molded minds Sunday after Sunday, enrolling in Sunday School lessons approved by church boards of Christian education, taking Bible studies taught by the same "experts" using materials created by the same seminary-trained theologians.2 I always wondered what was going on when friends of mine would instinctively ask, "Did you enjoy church today?" I used to think, "How can you just ask 'Did you enjoy church?' like you might ask somebody if they enjoyed a football game or a movie?" The truth is, for most Americans church is not qualitatively different from the Superbowl, except that when watching the Superbowl you can enjoy some pizza and a cold beer. At its best, church is no more nor less challenging than an interesting lecture, or a well-crafted PBS documentary. At its worst it becomes a trite and boring obligation, good only for alleviating an ill conscience or making a pious display for folks in the next pew.3
The sad truth is we have consigned ourselves to an institutional church where the most significant aspects of our communal life of faith are entrusted to a trained, professional elite. Our reward is the comfort of routine and the abdication of ethics. Our lot is to "be good," to "do what Jesus taught." And when we are confronted by the perplexities and ambiguities of a morally complex world, we turn to the clergy. We ask, "What does the church teach?" We ask, "What does the Bible say?" We seek the refuge of religious authority. The wages of this type of institutional behavior is an impoverished spiritual life: rampant biblical and theological illiteracy and deadening apathy.
Another tragedy of this pattern of spiritual life (if impoverished spirit is not bad enough) is that it teaches acquiescence and surrender in other realms of life as well--in the social, the political, and the economic realms. It teaches that critical moral decisions are best left in the hands of trained elites. It teaches that action and initiative taken by ordinary people is inappropriate or will be unfruitful. It teaches that religion is best when it is an opiate of the masses. This is partly why, historically, those Christian movements which have been most laity-driven and laity-empowering are also those which have most offended the supporters of the status quo and have been most brutally suppressed by the powers that be--from the Albigensians and the Waldensians of the Middle Ages, to the peasant revolt of Reformation era Germany, to the church-based civil rights movement in the Southern U.S. of the 1950s, to the liberation-theology base camps of central America today. An empowered church that truly prays, "Thy kingdom come . . ." is dangerous to power-mongers. A truly empowered church will result in nothing less than a revolutionary movement--a movement which can topple the sanctuaries of hierarchical power, can overwhelm the shibboleths of a prejudice-ridden society, and can liberate humanity and the entire planet.
A truly empowered church (and I believe it is time to speak of "the church" rather than "the laity") is a people gathered and impelled to service by a calling. It is a people who participates fully in crafting theology, teaching and preaching, worship, sacrament, mission, and service. It is a movement where the life, calling, and yearnings of the people find full expression in every aspect of the life of the institutions organized to embody that movement. The true role of the clergy (if the institution of the clergy is not itself inherently corrosive to the life of the church) is to facilitate the empowerment of the church as whole, not to play the role of gate-keeper, guardian of the sacred, or occupier of strategic power points in a church as institutional hierarchy. The true role of the clergy is not to restrain, control, or suppress the laity, but to free it and assist it in the pursuit of its mission, in all its varied manifestations. In many times and places throughout history, the clergy has played this facilitating, liberatory role. But more often than not it has been the guardian of other, more rarified interests.
The Church as Revolutionary Movement
It is as false to say that the church is inherently corrupt as it is to claim that the church is infallible. This essay is written in the hope, in the deeply felt conviction, that life in community, life as a church, is valuable and can be empowering. If anyone reads this essay and concludes that they must depart the church and forsake its evil ways, I will be grieved. This is a call to reclaim what is ours, not to abandon the field. Ultimately I believe that the religious and spiritual communities we belong to are the most promising vehicle of renewal we have at our disposal.
Church life draws us into a larger life, a life that links us to others beyond the confines of our isolated "nuclear families." It is a life where emotion is allowed, sometimes even welcomed. It is a life where it is not inappropriate to see the connections between emotion and intellect, between spiritual and material, between the personal and the political. Not that there are not plenty of frigid, compartmentalized churches where privacy is valued over community; but we know in our gut that the church is a place where, more than anywhere else, we are supposed to be able to make connections. We are supposed to be able to focus on what matters in life.
To the extent that churches do foster a communal life where connections are made and where what we do matters, the church will become a disturbing, disruptive element in an unjust society. It may even threaten to become a revolutionary force. This is what happened in southern black churches in the 1950s, and it is what has been happening in the peasant churches of Central America in recent decades. The church can and should be a focal point, a lens through which the broader society comes under scrutiny. It can also become a base from which individuals acting in concert with each other can challenge injustice and sometimes even defeat it. The church, at its best, can be a community moved to tremendous sacrifice and achievement by a powerful vision. But it can be such a force only to the extent that each member of the church community is an active participant in creating the vision and helping one another to realize the vision.
The Church as Social Force: Community, Consensus, and Freedom
It is impossible to know or predict the results of a true spiritual renewal. I believe they are unknowable for a good reason: spiritual renewal is a communal process or it is not genuine. It is a process in which every member of the community helps determine the shape and direction of the community. Since I cannot know the minds of others until we have entered into a truly co-operative venture, I cannot know what spiritual renewal in community with others will bring. But I have faith that if I can learn to respect and love others as much as I hope for them to respect and love me something marvelous will be accomplished.
Nothing I say in this essay should be construed in such a way as to suggest that I believe a "Christian state" is desirable--even a Christian state based on love, peace, and equality. I use Christian language and images to discuss political reform because I am a Christian. But I am convinced that the vision of a "Peaceable Kingdom"4 is shared by almost all human beings, regardless of the idiom in which they express that vision or the spiritual tradition through which they have defined it. I am not sure yet what it might mean for Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans, Humanists, and others to find a common spiritual ground from which to act together politically to achieve peace and justice. I do believe that as long as religious communities are obsessed with preserving tradition as an end in itself (along with the whole bailiwick of traditional antagonism toward and prejudice against other belief systems), we will remain stuck--spiritually as well as politically. I believe that true spiritual renewal will soften or break down boundaries without watering down those things that make us distinct and unique. It will enable us to preserve those pieces of our traditions which empower us. It will render denominationalism irrelevant. It will also weaken the power that religious institutions of every stripe have to manipulate people by using fear of "the other" or the intolerance spawned by dogma.
The Church as Social Force: Power and Justice
A positive vision of "the peaceable kingdom" has informed every significant movement of spiritual renewal in history. This is a vision of the blessed realm where "a person does not sow and another reaps; a person does not build and another inhabits; but each reaps the rewards of his or her own labors." This is the realm where the implements of war are converted into tools of peace, where each has enough but not too much. In this blessed realm, one person will not say to another, "Know God," because the knowledge of God will be like the oceans.
The ultimate goal of prophetic activity is not to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," which as an end in itself is meaningless. Rather, it is to call people to faithfulness to God's way, God's purpose or intention for humanity, the peaceable kingdom. Comfort and wealth are not wrong in themselves, but only comfort obtained at the cost of another's hardship, wealth obtained by stealing the rewards of another's labors. The prophets denounced wealth because they knew that the luxuries of the rich had been paid with the blood of the poor. They denounced religion because the rich had turned it into a self-serving, pious display. The rich had sapped religion of its meaning by robbing, murdering, and ravishing the poor even as they made pretense of loyalty to God. They had eviscerated the vision of the peaceable kingdom in favor of a kingdom of pitiless inequity and violence.
American history is saturated with the hopes of ordinary people who sought to build a peaceable kingdom, a "city on a hill" in the "new world." The great American tragedy is that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" has never achieved its potential. From day one the American dream was founded on genocide, theft, and slavery. Even the pious Puritans, fleeing religious oppression, managed to cover themselves in blood when they brutally quashed religious dissent in the colonies, exterminated the Pequod Indians, and embarked on the relentless drive to acquire land in the west. Democracy has had its brave moments, but in modern times it has always suffered under the death grip of ever more powerful interests whose creed is wealth and who have not shrunk from impoverishing and plunging entire nations into war, propping up assassin regimes, befouling the air, water, and soil for millennia to come, and capitalizing on the desperate and the resourceless.
America, like the ancient ruling classes of Israel denounced by the prophets, makes a pious show and waves the flag of liberty, equality, and justice even as it revels in force, injustice, racism, disregard for the poor, squandering of the environment, and government of, by, and for big business. Most ordinary people have come to take for granted that their votes do not count or mean much in our virtual single-party system, that courts and legislatures can be bought and cowed by the powerful, and that in practical terms the meaning of citizenship is vassalage to the Internal Revenue Service and the draft. We console ourselves with the trinkets of capitalism. We distract ourselves with video games and the ten zillion channels of cable TV. We consider it a patriotic duty to shop even as we struggle to make ends meet. We try, often unsuccessfully, to protect our kids from the violence and drug-induced mania that slowly engulf the nation. We are a country divided by race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and the tatters of privilege. We look at each other, but we cannot see each other.
Our perception of and sensitivity to the danger probably varies depending on which rungs of the ladder we cling to (or which side of the ladder we are trying to ascend). But the danger is there, and it is rotting our souls individually and collectively the longer we fail to heed it. We are neither uniquely evil, nor uniquely good. To claim either is arrogance. But we are, quite humanly, in need of spiritual renewal, in need of a modern vision of the peaceable kingdom. I believe the church is where we can do this best.
I don't believe in panaceas. I don't believe in magical solutions. I harbor no illusions of an imminent millennium. If every single millennial movement so far hadn't failed to usher in the promised global harmony, I wouldn't be writing this essay. But neither do I believe that humanity is incapable of reaching the peaceable kingdom. Nor should we underrate the value of beginning to build small peaceable communities everywhere we can. In order to do so, we need to become attentive, we need to exercise care and practice caring, and we need to break forever the patterns of passivity and dependence upon which our secular and religious cultures are built.
The church today is structured in a way that silences ordinary people and prevents them from participating fully in the life of the church. It does so for the same reasons that Americans live in a so-called democracy that habitually violates the will of the people and safe-guards the interests of the ruling classes first: because the rhetoric of freedom is much safer than to the powers that be than real freedom; because those who have privilege fear the masses; because those who are married to the status quo don't want community to become unruly. They want smooth sailing and they know they might not get it if anybody and everybody has a right to speak their mind. To the extent that churches collaborate with the status quo, they will have established bureaucratic procedures and "good order" that prevents even one jot or tittle of disorder or unpredictability. The power of the pulpit and control over the sacraments will be firmly vested in an ordained clergy which is in turn certified and given institutional approval by denominational structures that are controlled by a professional elite. Clergy at all levels--from the local congregation to the national leadership--will be trained in elite institutions and will mostly come from elite backgrounds, since years of seminary training are not accessible to poor folks (seminaries as a rule offer no need-based financial aid) and seminaries make life hard if not impossible for women, gays and lesbians, people of minority racial or ethnic backgrounds, and the disabled. Like other powerful institutions that control social life in America, the church will pay lip service to democratic values but will be rigid, hierarchical, and elitist in actual practice.
In order for the church to shake off the shackles of passivity and dependence and work to bring society closer to the peaceable kingdom, it is simply not enough to have a pastor who preaches social justice sermons every Sunday. Everything that the pastor, no matter how well meaning, might say is undone by the passive way in which the values are transmitted--if they are transmitted at all--when she or he simply preaches them at us over the pulpit. The church needs to model what it preaches. And if it is to effectively preach responsibility and participation, it must be participatory and must share significant responsibilities. Participatory principles must extend especially to those portions of life in church community which are most central in our time together: to preaching, worship, and sacrament. But they also require a re-envisioning of how the church complements and sustains the ministries of individuals once they leave the walls of the worship hall or the sanctuary. It requires a redefinition of ministry and mission.
The Role of the Laity in a Revolutionary Church: The Priesthood of All Believers
The history of the ordained priesthood has by and large been a scandalous string of attempts to bottle the sacred and sell it. Not that all clergy are snake-oil peddlers. To the contrary, if we exclude televangelists, the religious right, and bishops, most pastors and priests are decent human beings committed to helping people. But it is not of individual clerics that I speak here, it is of the institution of the ordained clergy. And historically, especially in Western Christianity, the institution of the ordained clergy is based on the idea of boxing in the sacred and limiting access to it. But you can't bottle the sacred, you can't box it, and you can't control access to it and sell it for a nickel. Attempts to do so are usually signs that one has cut oneself off from it.
The sacred is as close to every being as his or her own breath. It is as easy to access as the mountain on the vista that we have but to turn our heads over our shoulder to see. It is as plentiful to each of us as water in the ocean is to the fish that swim in it. It is impossible for anyone to have more privileged access to the sacred than others. Claims to a preeminent right to teach by virtue of such supposed access can safely be dismissed as charlatanism--and a spiritually perilous form of charlatanism at that.
Each person receives her or his calling the moment she or he perceives a basic human need and offers her- or himself to fulfill it. "Here am I, send me . . ." The world is so urgently in need of such caring and careful giving of oneself there can be no limit to the number of called. There is no human judge appointed to determine who is called and who is not. There is only the field and the workers. "The field is white, ready to harvest . . ."
Ultimately, our connection to God is what puts us in touch with the call. God touches our eyes and we see; God touches our hands and we feel; God touches our hearts and we are moved. When we commit to the calling, when we cultivate it and live with it, that is our priesthood. Need and relationship give birth to the call. Priesthood is the ongoing response, the commitment to the call. When we accept the priesthood, we consecrate our minds to think, our hands to build and heal, our tongues and our hands to speak out. "The angel took the coal from the altar and touched my lips . . ."
There is no limit to the number of priests in God's kingdom. "You are my peculiar people . . . You are a nation of priests." Membership in God's kingdom is the sole criterion for priesthood. Each person's priesthood will lead her or him down a unique path. The fields of labor are infinitely diverse.
So what should be the role of the church in cultivating the priesthood of all believers? The church is a place of reflection. It is a community that can help individuals to muster the resources they need to accomplish their ministry. Sometimes those resources are material, sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual. This kind of priesthood of priesthoods requires extreme attentiveness. It requires an elevated forum for caring and careful listening and council. It requires a process for evaluating and allocating resources. It requires an openness, a flexibility that can accommodate movements of the Spirit. Finally, it requires a full-hearted, open-handed generosity that permits ungrudging support and celebration of all ministries of the gathered saints in their seemingly chaotic and conflicting diversity. The church should be a place of charism, of blessing. We gather together, we bless, and we send forth.
Unfortunately, most churches are miserably inadequate in their stewardship of the ministries of God's people. Worship and liturgy in American churches are generally a monotonous one-man show in which the preacher supposedly imbued with God's word imparts treasures of the spirit to the gathered faithful. There is no council, no mutual reflection, no sharing. To the extent that such happens, it takes place only for the limited few who have had the privilege of seminary training and denominational certification. The varied priesthoods of the gathered saints are rarely even mentioned, except in passing, token tributes to what is commonly called the "vocation of the laity." Granting the callings of the laity the care, attention, material and spiritual support which every priesthood deserves is usually out of the question. Most churches are so glued to a predictable structure that the spirit moves in vain. Those who choose to move are forced to move after church, in other settings. The time and energy of the saints are precious. They are our most valuable resources in the pursuit of our ministries--too precious to be wasted in the trifling entertainment which generally passes for Sunday worship and sermons.
A deeper tragedy is the careless way in which ordained clergy pose as the ministry. Despite lip service that "we are all ministers" the habit of assuming that only a few are really ministers usually reveals itself in the day to day life of the church and in ordinary talk about "the ministry." Most lay people have little concept of what their own priesthood is, let alone how to cultivate it. This is little wonder given the remarkable inattention to such matters in the gathering of God's "royal priesthood." If we are to equip one another fully, if we are to break forever the deadening habits of passivity, the one-man show must end. The people need to reclaim and reinvest the "liturgy"--the "worship of the people"--with its original meaning. The church needs to take the "commissioning" out of the hurried one-liner at the end of the "service" and put it back into the heart of the gathering of the saints.
Fortunately, the nature of call and priesthood is such that many committed lay people connect and cultivate in spite of an inattentive, careless religious culture. Many lay people take what inspiration they can get from the one-man show, and nurture a personal piety and spiritual life independent of the church that can sustain them in their calling. And God blesses them. But they deserve so much more from the ecclesia. Furthermore, the church ultimately fails in its role of nurturing missions when it suppresses multi-faceted learning in favor of a monotonous, hierarchical transmission of the "mana from above." Where are the many gifts of the Spirit Paul spoke of? How do they manifest themselves in a communal life dominated by one institutionally approved voice?
The institutional model of teaching/learning5 presupposes that knowledge is transmitted in a one-way path from an all-knowing6 teacher to an ignorant student. Institutional credentials are required as proof of one's knowledge and ability to teach. Lack of institutional credentials, on the other hand, is proof of one's ignorance and disqualifies one from being anything but a learner. Experience or self-directed learning is not valued as a source of knowledge, unless it is tested in an institutional setting, or unless it is set up to fulfill some institutional requirement. Generally, knowledge is viewed in abstract terms as an understanding of various theories and the ability to apply them to different situations. Knowledge tends to be defined circularly as the state of knowing what is known. In order to acquire knowledge, one must be taught by someone who knows. The institutional model of teaching/learning depends on the existence of a supreme authority. It is a variation of the concept of "apostolic succession": only those with authority can bestow authority upon others, and there is no legitimate authority outside of that chain of authority.
The institutional model of teaching/learning has the most merit in those sectors of society and the economy which are most specialized and require familiarity with complex technical formulas or practices, like engineering or medicine. Indeed, in these fields the institutional model of teaching/learning has led to incredible technological advances. But this model of teaching/learning has the least merit (and becomes increasingly absurd) in those regimes of knowledge which are (or should be) general rather than technical, ordinary rather than specialized. In those areas of life where every human being has (or needs) knowledge, applying the institutional model of learning is not only absurd, but might actually be considered obnoxious or oppressive. The life of the Spirit and the life in community are prime examples of such realms of human existence.
Why, then, does the church--a community whose primary purpose is to foster life in the Spirit--function under an institutional model of teaching/learning? Why does it create experts (bishops, theologians, ordained ministers) who supposedly have knowledge of things spiritual which ordinary church members don't (or shouldn't) have? And why do these experts exercise authority over the church community through institutions to which ordinary church members aren't allowed access (in the form of seminaries, synods, councils, etc.)? The realm of Spirit is a realm to which every sentient, breathing being in God's creation is presumed to have immediate, intense, personal access. So why does teaching in the church remain the prerogative only of those who have had elite training in exclusive, academic settings? The imposition of regimes of institutional learning on the life of the church can be described as nothing less than a scandalous usurpation. It is a usurpation which typically serves the interests of the dominant classes in society, and which from time to time has been ousted by movements of spiritual renewal and popular rebellion.
While the institutional model of teaching/learning is absurd and oppressive in the life of the Spirit or the life in community, the "experiential" model of teaching/learning is uniquely appropriate to these realms. Experiential learning is a natural part of the life of every human. It is the most accessible and the most powerful form of learning there is. It does not require the study of books or memorization. It does not require erudition or even literacy. It requires only awareness. It is impossible for anyone to be more expert than another in those areas of life where knowledge is gained primarily through experiential learning.
By its very nature, experiential learning is most beneficial when it is shared in community. Experiential learning varies according to the diverse life experience of each individual. Each individual has learned/knows things that other individuals do not, because each individual's experience is unique. Each individual knows things that other individuals need to know. This is especially true in the struggle against injustice. Those who are contributing to a situation of injustice need to hear what the oppressed know. One of the ways in which oppression is maintained is by silencing those who are oppressed. Only when all members of a community are empowered to teach and learn from each other can a community begin to creatively envision new ways of living in community that are fair to all. When each member of a community shares what they know, a community begins to develop a "collective wisdom." Members of that community begin to know and understand things about life, about the Spirit, about living in community, that they could not possibly know just trying to figure things out on their own. In the realms of life best served by experiential learning, a community can only be impoverished by its failure to bring everyone into the teaching/learning process--both as teachers and as learners.
Scripture and tradition are in one sense simply "collective wisdom" which has been treasured from the past. Scripture and tradition are the "collective memory" of the church. And like individual memory, they are subjective, liable to be interpreted and re-interpreted differently, depending on who is interpreting them and depending on the circumstances or needs that call for them to be interpreted. For this reason scripture and tradition should be cherished but can never outweigh the "collective wisdom" which evolves from lived experience in the present. An individual should never be disqualified from teaching others about the life of the Spirit because they supposedly do not have adequate knowledge of scripture and tradition. It is life and experience which qualify one to teach about the life of the Spirit. Those who are versed in scripture and tradition may be able to shed useful light on a particular question, but it can't be assumed they are better equipped than any other member of the community to "know" what needs to be known. (How they interpret the "collective memory" will be biased by their own perspectives and life experience!)
Yet, because scripture and tradition are such a vital and valuable resource in the life of the Spirit and in the life of the community, it is absolutely critical that each member of the community be encouraged to seek full access to the "collective memory." Many a martyr has died in the sordid history of Institutional Christianity trying to bring the scriptures to the people: by translating it into "vulgar" tongues, by printing it in formats that can be widely distributed, and by teaching slaves and outcastes to read. It is the birthright of every human being to have access to and to interpret, according to their best lights, the collective memory of the community as expressed in scripture and tradition. And the best possible place for them to do that is in community, where others will benefit from their insights and where they will benefit from the insights of others.
The laity has generally been cowed into believing that they cannot possibly preach or teach: that they have neither the knowledge, nor the training, nor the skills, nor the authority. But if the church will thrive the laity must learn that they must preach and teach! The laity must begin to reclaim their authority, the authority which is implicit in the concept of the "priesthood of all believers." They must begin to believe that their collective knowledge is vital to the survival of the community, and they must find elevated, attentive forums to cultivate that knowledge together. The pulpit is the central, the most important, most elevated forum for teaching and learning there is in the church. It is the forum where we offer our greatest attentiveness and care in learning together as a community of gathered faithful. As such, it should belong first and foremost to the laity. The pulpit should be as familiar a place to every member of the church as the pew is. It is a scandal that the laity have for the most part been shut out from the pulpit, that they have been taught to fetishize it rather than use it.
Our understanding of the preaching task needs to be transformed. There is no place for a view of the preacher as "intermediary" between ordinary human beings and God, as the repository of arcane knowledge which has been transmitted through the "academic/apostolic succession." Teaching/learning is least pretentious, most effective when it is a multi-faceted process, where learners are simultaneously teachers. Teaching/learning is at its most fundamental a sharing of experience. If it is not mutual and egalitarian, it is not genuine. Preaching is a form of teaching which involves thoughtful sharing and careful listening. It can continue to be the most valuable teaching/learning opportunity available to the church, if we cultivate it and nurture it as a forum of splendid diversity and communal knowledge. If we continue to allow the pulpit to be a mono-tone amplifier of authorized, institutional voices, it will literally put us to sleep when we need to be awake, it will disempower us when we need most to be empowered.
Worship and Sacrament
Different Christian confessions define sacraments differently, and much useless ink (and blood) has been spilt trying to define them. But by most definitions of a sacrament (incarnation of or presence of the divine in ordinary acts, sign or presence of grace, etc.), there is no reason why any spirit-filled life is not filled with sacraments every day.
In the church as gathered "nation of priests," there is no reason why sacraments like holy communion or baptism (or marriage, etc., depending on how many sacraments you believe in) cannot be performed by any believing and called member of the community. God is always present when even two or three are gathered. It goes without saying that there is no conceivable reason why someone coming forward to receive a sacrament would ever be turned away. A sacrament is a sign of our relationship and covenant with God, a relationship which God offers unstintingly in all times and in all places to all who will come. Woe unto those who forbid God's children to come and receive God!
A sacrament is a gift of God to those who are called. As such, there is no conceivable reason why clergy should be considered the only ones capable of administering a sacrament or discerning how or to whom it needs to be administered. A sign of a dis-empowered laity is a laity which believes that if it performs a sacrament on its own that sacrament is somehow invalid or less meaningful. I believe that in order for a sacrament to carry the meaning intended by a God who welcomes all to the table, the laity not only can but must participate in every aspect of the administration of the sacraments.
Altering the symbolism of a sacrament in response to new circumstances or needs does not invalidate the sacrament. To do so is simply to apprehend the grace of God in a way that is more meaningful to those who are participating in the sacrament. The sacred comes to us not through slavish adherence to tradition, but in honest attendance to our callings. Public ritual in the church needs to be used to affirm the callings of all members of the church. It needs to be a forum in which symbol, image, word, and music are used to strengthen each member in his or her specific callings. This will probably require us to depart from traditional liturgies. It will call for on-going participation of all members of the church in crafting and presenting liturgy, ritual, and sacrament. It will require us to be aware of what each person's calling is, so that we can craft liturgy, ritual, and sacrament appropriately.
Mission and Service
As long as we have an economy where working poor are being turned out of their homes because their paychecks can't cover all their bills; where teenagers are forced to sell their bodies in order to eat; where people die ignominious deaths of diseases that would have been prevented or treated if they could have afforded health care; where toxic waste poisons working class neighborhoods, Indian reservations, and poor rural areas, the priesthood of some people will be survival, protest and resistance. The priesthood of a large number of others will be solidarity and progressive action.
No calling is unworthy: the raising of children; any work that pays rent and keeps people clothed, fed, and healthy; work that provides daily bread for the rest of society (like sanitation, nursing, public transportation, food service and distribution as well as farming!). The church has always paid lip service to these callings, even as it promoted a religious culture which would never view the cultivators of these priesthoods as "spiritual" people. The church does not attend to or raise up the spiritual dimensions of these callings through discussion, listening, or ritual. But the truth is, janitors are as essential to the healthy operation of churches as pastors are.
But while these "daily bread" labors can be ministries, a priesthood is not made by consignment to the working class in an economy that denies individuals the opportunity to pursue the calling that touches their heart, that denies critical educational opportunities, that favors special interests and connections, discriminates racially, and demands middle or upper class respectability. Otherwise we should believe that it was better for Jarena Lee to remain a slave woman than, against overwhelming odds, to become a preacher of the gospel. The great social challenge facing the church is how to enable the fullest ministries of all God's children and how to topple the social stratification and economic servitude that hinder people from exercising their priesthood. To its great shame, the church has for the most part given its blessing to injustice and inequity, and done it using the rhetoric of "vocation." It is unacceptable (and should be an embarrassment to institutional Christianity everywhere) for churches to pay lip service to the "vocation of the laity" and simultaneously under-compensate non-clergy janitorial or other help staff they employ (while paying their clergy tidy salaries and benefits), thus participating in and contributing to the system of economic injustice which hinders working people from responding to their callings. For some classes of people (gays and lesbians or the disabled, for instance) the church has actively proscribed church-based callings and contributed to a social environment that would deny them any kind of dignified vocation in or out of the church.
If the community of the faithful is truly to honor the callings of all its members, then first it has to know what calling each of its members has. It can only do this by offering individuals opportunities to publicly--in full, solemn assembly--reflect on what their calling is and how they are trying to fulfill that calling. Only then can the community respond to that individual's calling in ways that will truly support them in their priesthood/ministry. Sometimes prayer and thanksgiving will be an adequate response. Sometimes, concrete action and/or activism, or financial or other support will be a more appropriate response. A community needs to prayerfully ask itself, What is hindering this individual in the full pursuit of his or her calling? What can we do, individually or collectively to help sustain or promote this individual's ministry?
Some of us are already doing this as individuals, to varying extent. But for the most part the church does not provide real forums for its members to reflect and respond. The church simply acts as if there were no real callings to respond to among the laity. To the callings of the clergy, in contrast, the church has devoted ample ritual and public, deliberative processes. In a church which truly honors and blesses the ministries of all, the pulpit might (probably will) be used as a forum for members of the church to learn more about the callings of other members, but it does not need to be the only forum. Once the church begins to create forums to learn about and consider the ministries of all its members, then congregational meetings and the committee machinery which is already in place in most American churches can begin to be used for the all important task of empowering and responding to the callings of the members. Churches will begin to act with a sense of focus and mission that emerges out of their commitment to empower one another. Tepid involvement--token offerings, half-hearted attendance, reluctant service--will be transformed into impassioned commitment. Churches will find themselves becoming a community that its members will literally give their lives for.7
The Role of the Clergy in an Empowered Church
So far, I have suggested that the laity should take over teaching and preaching functions, the sacraments, and worship. Since these functions have traditionally been viewed as the centerpieces of ordained ministry (certainly they are the most visible and public aspects of ordained ministry today), some people may feel that I am trying to deprive ordained clergy of their jobs. But I like my pastors. They are good people and I don't want to see them out of a job. Given that the goal of church life should be to support as many diverse ministries as there are needs and callings, it would seem rash to assume that there will be no place for individuals who work full-time in ministries supported financially by the church. Indeed, in a fully empowered church we may find a need for a good many more of these kinds of positions than we do today in our anemic, passive, laity-repressing churches. But never should individuals in such positions be allowed to appropriate a monopoly over the teaching and sacramental functions of the community. Nor should anyone have priority of access to the deliberative functions of the community, the structures of church governance, or the allocation of church resources. (For example, if we can pay ministers' expenses and compensate them for time spent attending church conferences, we can easily do the same for a lay person.) Church professionals in pastoral ministry in a lay-controlled, lay-driven church will be less visible than they traditionally have been, and will probably focus more time and energy on counseling, facilitating, and administrative functions. Of course, the role of church professionals should be no less visible than the roles of every member of the community; nor can church professionals be any less connected to the mission and vision of a revolutionary church than any other member of the City of God.
Ultimately it is not within the scope of this essay to determine what role the clergy should have in a laity-driven church. If anything, I have tried to make clear that responding to a call is simply a matter of applying one's talents and resources to a situation where there is a basic human need. Ordained clergy are not excluded from pursuing a calling and cultivating their priesthood any more than anyone else should be. But their ministry can't be defined in such a way as to take the wind out of the sails of the laity.
Most of what I have addressed in this essay is the quality and nature of life in community. This is partly because I am most familiar with church life as it plays out in concrete communities. But I also believe that lay people can reclaim most of their power without having to fundamentally challenge or alter the wider structures of the church. As the laity becomes truly empowered, the hierarchical, institutional church will simply fade into irrelevance. If seminaries, bishops, and church councils want to continue to operate in an elitist, hierarchical fashion, let them. They only have power over us to the degree that we grant it. (We may, in some denominations, find ourselves being "disciplined" or expelled from the denomination, like St. Francis and First United Lutheran Churches in San Francisco, when they ordained openly gay and lesbian clergy in defiance of ELCA rules. But as one rebellious member of First United put it to a disgruntled episcopal representative: "Does this mean we don't have to send you a check any more?")8
Nevertheless, a lay-empowering approach to church life does have implications for the larger structures of church life. It is worthwhile considering what some of those implications are.
The Process of Ordination
If we consider what traits we value most in an ordained minister, we should see that nothing about current processes of ordination guarantees that a future ministerial candidate will have those traits. The traits that we generally value most in a minister (lay or ordained!) are things like openness, capacity for forgiveness/reconciliation, vision, compassion, and commitment. Indeed, the elitism of the ordination process in mainline churches may actually increase the likelihood that some critical traits will be absent among our clergy--for example, diversity, and the ability to relate experientially to many different kinds of individuals from all walks of life. Jesus did not value very highly the only traits which the ordination process guarantees that it will confer on candidates who pass through it: elite, institutional formation and credentials, and social acceptability. In fact, Jesus eschewed social acceptability and had only words of condemnation for institutionally formed elites.9 So why are we, in the movement Jesus founded, so devoted to creating a caste of Pharisees and Sadducees to rule over us in our life of faith?
This is not to say that our ordained ministers are bad people. Most of them are wonderful people. It is, however, to suggest that most of what an ordained minister needs to know about ministry, he or she learns after seminary, once he or she is actually living in a minister's shoes. This should give us pause. It should call us to question the entire ordination/formation process as it currently stands in mainline churches.
The very nature--indeed the openly avowed purpose--of current ordination processes is to exclude. Of course, defenders of the system will argue that the function of exclusion is good, because it protects the ministry from those who are morally unfit and requires high standards of commitment and knowledge. Actually, it requires piles of money. And it's good at wearing down and scaring off (if not excluding outright!) women, racial or ethnic minorities, the poor, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, and the disabled. Let those many of us who have at one time or another been victims of ecclesiastical abuse--sexual or other--bear witness as to whether it truly keeps out those who are morally unfit.
Many of those who have traditionally been excluded from the ordained ministry have taken a noble, if limited, approach to reforming the institution: Broaden the Franchise! Women who have felt the call in America have fought institutional exclusion (with varying degrees of success) for almost two hundred years. Great strides have been made since the 1960s. But with the Roman Catholic Church and a significant number of Protestant denominations still formally prohibiting the ordination of women, between one third and half of Christian women in America are still denied the possibility of ordination outright. Many in other denominations are finding prejudice against female clergy and male-dominated seminaries formidable obstacles even where no formal barriers remain. Racial and ethnic minorities in America have generally taken another path: separatism. This has been most fruitful for African Americans, since Black churches became the base from which all major civil rights victories have been won in the United States. (It should also be noted that in the Black church, hierarchical structures have generally been weaker and the lines between clergy and laity generally less heavily drawn than in white churches.) But the church is an institution which should by its very nature be inclusive, and the legacy of religious racism is a church still tragically segregated: more segregated than any other public institution in American society today. Since the 1960s, gays and lesbians have resorted to both tactics: seeking the right to be ordained in mainline churches, and forming separatist gay and lesbian churches. (The Metropolitan Community Churches are the most prominent example of the latter.) The journey to "broaden the franchise" to the GLBT community has only just begun. Spurred by the passage of the ADA, people with disabilities have also begun to challenge formal and informal barriers that keep them from ordination.
But at best, the "Broaden-the-Franchise!" approach has serious limits. As should be evident from the histories of all excluded groups, the purpose of exclusionary rules and procedures has not been to keep out the spiritually or morally unfit (of which sole God is ultimately an adequate judge anyway) but to buttress a certain vision of hierarchy. Ordained ministry is really about determining who is fit to rule and who is fit to be ruled. Broadening the franchise only substitutes a set of fresh, young elites for an old, crusty elite. But remember: today's old, crusty was once young and fresh. Broadening the franchise addresses legitimate injustices, but misses the heart of the matter, the heart of the gospel for that matter. If we are to usher in the Kingdom With No Kings But God, then we must be about empowering the whole people of God. Old notions of ordination are outmoded, appropriate only to a time when the peasants were illiterate and the church's role was to uphold the sovereignty of the king and the nobility. Ordination should be accessible to all Christians. It should be a way that we, through public ritual and communal acclamation, celebrate and support the splendid and diverse callings of our many members.
Because American church culture views ordained ministry as "the ministry," as soon as anyone begins to experience a profound connection to the life of the Spirit and life in the church, they think that means they should seek ordination. Individuals who experience the call to a deeper life in the Spirit naturally feel a desire to participate in the teaching/preaching task and in the sacramental life of the church. They want to share what they have begun to experience. This is natural! But bringing people to a profounder experience of the Spirit and a desire to share this in community should be a goal for every member of the church--not just the ordained. Because the church tends to treat ordained ministry as the only way to nurture this sense of call, many who feel this call to a deeper life in the Spirit end up doubting it or suppressing it because they can't see themselves in the role of ordained minister or because they are disillusioned by the many barriers to ordained ministry. On the other hand, most churches currently have a glut of ministers awaiting call because so many have erroneously pursued a deeper life in the Spirit by seeking ordination.10 This is foolish and wasteful.
The concept of ordination should be separated from professional service in the church. Professional service is simply one of many tasks that a church may require in order to facilitate the ministries of all its members. Ordination should be the means by which the gathered community of the saints recognizes a particular calling of a particular individual--church professional or not. Imagine how powerful a process it might be for an individual to publicly deliberate with her or his congregation to find out what her or his calling is. Such a process should not be taken lightly, and might even take years to complete. The congregation would then seek to prepare that individual, or assist the individual in preparation for that ministry by accessing whatever resources were available--inside or outside of the community. At the end of the process, the community would hold up that calling through word, ritual, and symbol, and then gather around, lay their hands on, and pray over that individual, blessing her or him in the fulfillment of that calling.
The Seminary System
If we are going to support schools whose purpose is to prepare people for the ministry, we need to make them accessible to all people without regard to ability to pay. This would, of course, completely transform seminaries from the elite-factories they are today into people's institutes with radical potential. It would also be an unprecedented approach to education generally, doing for higher learning what the Protestant Reformation did for primary education and literacy in the middle ages. Far from undermining public education through various "school choice" initiatives, churches today should be throwing their full support behind the maintenance of high quality, universal public education at every level. Accessible education is a matter of basic justice, and should be high on the agenda of a church committed to empowering people in their ministries.
Church professionals should participate in wider structures of church governance in the same proportions as they exist in our churches and congregations. This includes ecclesiastical councils, synods and conventions, etc., etc. Larger church structures should be about facilitating ministry that is national or international in scope, not about determining congregational policy/polity or enforcing doctrinal homogeneity.
Ultimately, the task of re-envisioning the church is simply a part of the broader task of re-envisioning society and ushering in the Reign of God. The envisioning process for the church as a whole should be no different than it is for individuals. We perceive a need, we feel a call, we act. The process of acting, of responding, is what creates our priesthood. If we see, understand, and claim the power that we have as individuals in community, we will have understood what Jesus meant when he said, "The Kingdom of God is in your midst!"
1. There are three basic "ideal types" of church polity--episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. Episcopal polity vests power in bishops. Presbyterian polity vests power in a body of ruling elders or clergy. Congregational polity vests power in the congregation and the laity. But how these polities actually play out in real life can be very complex. Different denominations actually vest different powers in different places. For example, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a congregation has the right to call its pastors, but they must do so from a roster of clergy who are certified by the bishop and by a synodical committee. In this example, different aspects of the calling of an ordained minister in the ELCA are actually under the control of congregations, synods, and bishops. ELCA polity seems to fit none of the three categories (or all three at the same time). It is not always a clear cut or easy matter to determine where the power actually lies in a particular church system. I currently belong to a UCC church, and although I've read a lot about UCC polity I still don't fully understand it. (I'm not the only one.) What can be said is that some churches vest more power in bishops (like the Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and to lesser extent Lutheran and Methodist) than others. Other churches vest more power in presbyteries (like the Presbyterians, for example). Others vest more power in congregations (like the UCC, different varieties of Baptists, Quakers, and Mennonites, and Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, and "Free Church" traditions)
The fact that congregational polity plays some role in almost every church tradition in America today reflects hundreds of years of struggle, spiritual renewal, and lay activism. Many of the churches today which have the strongest congregational polity were born as the result of radical spiritual renewal and reform movements that were led by the laity. I have chosen not to get into the history of Christian lay activism and leadership in this essay, because I wanted to focus on the situation in churches today. But it should suffice to say that for many Christians in America, reclaiming the power of the laity is simply a matter of reclaiming a tradition and heritage which is there, but which we simply never knew about (or we forgot).
In America today, the distinctness of many church traditions has eroded because of the ease with which Americans cross denominational lines, especially between "mainline" churches. As a result we often know nothing about the history and tradition of the churches we belong to. In the UCC church I belong to, 95% of the members are from religious backgrounds other than the UCC. Most of them know little to nothing about the teachings, history, and polity of the UCC--many of them probably don't care that Lyndale United Church of Christ belongs to the UCC. Actually, the official name of my church is "Lyndale Congregational United Church of Christ," but in recent years one of the pastors has been trying to drop the word "Congregational" because he says it might be confusing or a barrier to people who don't know what it means. But sometimes I think that poor, misunderstood, unwanted word, "Congregational," is the only thing that links us to a radical tradition started by a bunch of upstart separatists in Holland and England in the seventeenth century who defied the authority of Popes, Bishops, and Councils, and who claimed their own power as ministers of Jesus Christ. It's also a word which links us to nineteenth-century abolitionists who put their lives on the line to end the barbarism of slavery in America, and to a host of other progressive, church-based movements of the laity to make democracy work and uphold the dignity of women and the working poor. We desperately need that word today.
One result of our amalgamated, generic church life is that we often do not know what is ours to claim. I am speaking now to members of my own congregation and other UCC people--we may not know that as members of the UCC we have rights and we have power. We can call whomever we want as our pastor--certified or not, seminary graduate or not. We can open the pulpit to lay preachers every Sunday if we want. We control what we do with our church offerings. The point of this essay is not necessarily that all American church people have been deprived of the right to define and empower all sorts of ministry. Many in more hierarchical churches do not have the right to do so, but those of us in the UCC do! And we fail to exercise it because we have been trained by American church culture to believe that church life is about passivity. It is about letting pastors do it for you.
For many others in churches with congregational polity (and now I am speaking more to the Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Free churches), members are well informed about their polity, but they are intimidated by the specter of Orthodoxy and Biblical Inerrancy. They know that no pope or bishop has power over them, but they are so fearful of being perceived as one who is "not saved," they are so steeped in the cult of authority and blind obedience, they find independent action and an internally defined priesthood/ministry even more threatening than members of other churches where freedom of the laity is less well established.
Ultimately, polity can't save us. Our polities reflect noble histories of lay activism and reform, but we cannot rest on the laurels of past generations. The laity can only be empowered to the extent that we recognize, claim, and exercise our God-given right, a right which no council or bishop can grant or take away.
2. I don't mean to suggest here that all preaching by ordained ministers is boring or unoriginal. Much of it is, and I have suffered through quite a bit of very bad preaching in my life. Fortunately, since I have been a member of Lyndale Congregational United Church of Christ, I have been blessed to have pastors who, for the most part, excel as preachers. But part of my point here is that even the very best preaching, if it is done by the same person (or persons) all the time is literally "monotonous"--"having but one tone."
3. Another the major obstacle to lay initiative is the stress on "obedience" in a good portion of organized Christianity. Contrary to what many authoritarian teachers of the gospel would have us believe, there is nothing inherently virtuous in obedience. Obedience is only virtuous when it is offered to a just and virtuous authority. On the other hand, obedience to an unjust or malevolent authority is morally wrong and disobedience is virtuous. This requires the conscientious Christian always to question authority and make judgments as to when obedience is required and when it is not. No spiritual authority has the right to demand blind allegiance.
Unfortunately, the hallmark of faith in many churches is a cult of authority--be it papal infallibility (in all its Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and other manifestations) or biblical inerrancy (which is always used to buttress errant human claims to authority). Independent thinking--and that includes any independent sense of call--in such quarters inspires fear and loathing among laity and clergy alike. Nevertheless, even the most authoritarian churches do not deny that freedom of conscience forms the only meaningful basis for faith. They may censure or punish dissent, but at least they give lip service to the notion that each human being must determine how to show allegiance to God according to their own best lights.
4.1 I have given considerable thought to the language and images in this essay, because words are more than "merely" symbolic. They help us transform the world by pointing us to something beyond themselves. It is impossible to guarantee that language I find helpful will not be offensive or a hindrance to someone else. But I can explain why I use certain terms and hope that readers will at least understand better what reality I'm trying to point to by using the words.
The "City of God" is an image that I like; coined by St. Augustine, it has a rich Christian heritage; it connotes a concept of ordered community based on principles of love and justice; and it lacks the association with militarism and hierarchy implicit in images like "the Kingdom of God." I am not, however, entirely opposed to the use of the phrase "Kingdom of God." In my mind this term functions as a sort of paradox. Kingdoms of this world are based on force and power. Kings are usually male, and kingdoms are based on male supremacy. The God I worship is a God of peace and love; a God of men and women; a God who does not regard status or position. God will overthrow the powerful and will give the earth as an inheritance to the meek--both men and women. To use the term "Kingdom of God" is like saying, "the Kingdom which is not truly a Kingdom, because it does not recognize kings or kingly power, but instead enthrones love, justice and peace." This is why I also like to use the traditional Christian phrase, "the Peaceable Kingdom"--which makes the paradox more explicit.
5. I use the term "teaching/learning" because I see teaching and learning as a two-way process. As I hope will become apparent, I believe the most valuable learning experiences involve relationships in which individuals are both teachers and learners at the same time.
6.Of course the institutional model of teaching presupposes that teachers are omniscient (and students ignorant) only in the particular area in which the teachers have been accredited (and in which the students are being accredited). Only God knows everything about everything.
7. I was raised a Mormon. Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) claims as one of its unique characteristics an active "ministry of the laity." While Mormonism possesses some of the features of lay ministry I have discussed in this essay, Mormonism is not a truly lay-controlled or lay-driven movement. It is true that Mormon congregations have no paid, full-time clergy. Mormon bishops serve as pastors of their flock in addition to whatever occupation they make their living by. The only "seminary" is a four-year course that all members are encouraged to take covering the Old Testament, New Testament, the Book of Mormon and Mormon church history. Preaching and the administration of the sacraments in Mormon churches is done primarily by the membership at large. All Mormon males are "ordained" to the priesthood after the age of 12. But ordinary church members have no say in the government of the church and no control over its policies. They do not vote (except to formally acclaim or ratify decisions of the hierarchy). Church conventions are purely inspirational, and have nothing to do with governance. Members are allowed to preach only at the invitation of the bishop--and members with unorthodox views are typically kept silent. A self-perpetuating "Quorum of the Twelve" in Salt Lake City controls the doctrine, practice, and government of the church. All church leaders from the highest to the lowest level are appointed by someone higher in the hierarchy--never elected or chosen by the laity. Though they are allowed to preach, women cannot be ordained, which excludes half the population of the church from the "priesthood." Until the 1970s, blacks could not be ordained either, suggesting that for most of its history the "lay ministry" of the Mormon Church served the function of upholding white, male supremacy. This had (and continues to have) frightening political and social significance in parts of the United States where Mormonism is hegemonic--Utah, southern Idaho, and other parts of the inter-mountain West.
Nevertheless, the Mormon church claims an extraordinary level of commitment from its members. The allegiance that typical Mormons give to the church is due in no small part to the significant and visible role played by the membership at large--both women and men--in preaching, the sacraments, and in congregational leadership roles.
8. Rebellion can be more costly for some congregations, especially when church realty and/or finances are under denominational rather than congregational control.
9. It seems only fair to note that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples were seminary graduates, nor were they "certified" for ministry by the ecclesiastical boards of their day.
10. The significant exception is the Roman Catholic Church, which is experiencing the opposite problem because of the onerous celibacy requirement attached to the priesthood. In fact, the Catholic Church is contributing to the "clergy glut" in Protestant churches as Catholics who feel a sense of call but don't want to be burdened with life-long celibacy pursue ordained ministry in other churches. The Episcopal Church in particular has felt the effects of Catholic clergy run-off.