Continuing our series on the snares confronting the modern church, we now delve into the subtle yet pernicious snare of clericalism. This term, perhaps unfamiliar to some, captures a dynamic that, unfortunately, is far too familiar within the walls of many congregations. Clericalism refers to an undue emphasis on the authority and influence of clergy, often at the expense of the laity’s role and contribution. When left unchecked, it can lead to a form of spiritual dictatorship, stifling the vibrancy and diversity of the body of Christ.
At its core, clericalism deviates from the biblical model of church leadership. The New Testament depicts the church as a body with many parts, each equally valuable, and each playing a crucial role (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). It also outlines a plurality of elders leading the church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). But clericalism disrupts this balance. It consolidates power in the hands of a select few, often reducing the rest of the congregation to passive participants in the pastor’s vision.
This scenario is not just theoretical but has manifested itself in a number of high-profile cases. One such case involved Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill Church. Known for his charisma and what seemed to be compelling teaching, Driscoll also fostered an environment marked by a lack of accountability and a consolidation of power. Staff members and elders who disagreed with his approach were reportedly marginalized or removed, their contributions minimized in the pursuit of a singular vision.
In a similar vein, Steven Furtick, the founder and lead pastor of Elevation Church, has faced criticism for a lack of financial transparency and an alleged autocratic leadership style. While leading a church that has seen significant growth, Furtick’s leadership has also raised questions about the balance of power and the role of congregational oversight in the life of the church.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing examples of this is the fallen, worldwide megachurch, Hillsong Church, where the influence of clericalism is more than discernible in the positioning of its leadership. In one article from 2015, a worship leader from Hillsong provides a telling insight, particularly in the statement: “We are about fulfilling our Senior Pastor’s vision (not our own).” This is inherently problematic. As leaders are meant to guide and shape their flock’s direction, they are required to do so according to the “vision” set forth by God in the Holy Scriptures.
When the “vision” of the Senior Pastor becomes the unquestioned blueprint for church operations, the risk of clericalism rises. The consequence can be a dynamic where the church’s primary mission morphs from serving Christ to serving the vision of its human leader. Notably, the church’s health then become scontingent on one person’s perspectives, personal morality, and ideologies rather than the robust, timeless truths of the gospel. If you’re familiar at all with Hillsong, you know how that turned out.
Moreover, Hillsong’s widespread influence—borne out of its highly successful (from a worldly perspective) music ministry—further entrenches this dynamic. Its music, undeniably popular, has a reach that extends far beyond the walls of its home churches. And with its global acclaim, the likelihood of a top-down leadership structure—where the vision of a few dictates the church’s trajectory—becomes even more pronounced.
This manifestation of clericalism eclipses the inherent value of the individual believer and their divinely given gifts. In such a setup, members are seen as mere conduits to carry out the lead pastor’s purposes, as opposed to active participants in God’s kingdom work.
In all of these instances, and in many others, a common thread emerges: the consolidation of power within the clergy, specifically within the role of the lead pastor. In this model, the church’s direction becomes synonymous with the vision of one person—and that person is never Jesus Christ. The vibrant diversity of spiritual gifts within the congregation often becomes secondary, used for the purpose of fulfilling the lead pastor’s agenda. And the Word of God tends to be nothing more than a means to that end.
This isn’t to say that pastors should not lead or that they should not have plans of action and discipleship for their congregations. The problem arises when that leadership becomes dictatorial, when “vision casting” turns into vision enforcing, and when the congregation is expected to follow without input or critique.
Clericalism also risks marginalizing the laity, reducing their role to merely supporting the clergy’s initiatives rather than actively participating in the life and ministry of the church. It breeds a passive form of Christianity, where congregants are spectators, even consumers, as I previously covered, rather than participants in the life of the church.
In essence, the snare of clericalism is a distortion of biblical leadership. It is a shift from servant-leadership, as modeled by Christ, to a form of spiritual dictatorship. As we continue our journey through the complex landscape of the modern church, let’s be aware of this snare and strive for a church that values each member’s contribution and models mutual respect.