J.A. Wylie was a pastor and author who lived in the nineteenth century whose greatest work is the three volume masterpiece “The History of Protestantism.” The first book spends a small amount of time examining early Christian history and how the purity of the original church gave way to the corruption of the Catholic system. Wylie says “This change [making God less free in His gift of salvation] brought a multitude of others in its train. Worship being transformed into sacrifice – sacrifice in which was the element of expiation and purification – the “teaching ministry” was of course converted into a “sacrificing priesthood.” When this had been done, there was no retreating; a boundary had been reaching which could not be recrossed until centuries had rolled away, and transformations of a more portentous kind than any which had yet taken place had passed upon the Church.” (Volume 1, Chapter 2, page 8).
In short, Wylie believed that the downfall of the church began with assigning too much power to the clergy. When the office of pastor changed from a teaching office to a mystical, sacrificing priesthood, the clergy gained too much power and immediately passed the point of no return. It would take hundreds of years and a world-changing event for the Church to regain the original beauty of the office of pastor.
After the Protestant Reformation, the Protestant clergy no longer held the mystical power of converting a simple piece of bread to the body of Christ and they no longer had the power to forgive sins. The primary role of the minister of the Word was to exposit the Word of God to the people. It was an office of honor and respect. The title “reverend” was often used to convey respect to those men who had the awesome privilege and responsibility of preaching God’s Word.
As the Protestant church has changed and evolved since the time of the Reformation, so has the office of pastor. Where in times past the minister wore a robe, collar or both to differentiate himself from the laity, it seems that today the pastor is often the person wearing shorts and sandals. Where a pastor once wore clothing that conveyed dignity and displayed the uniqueness of the pastoral ministry, today the pastor often tries to be the most unnoticeable person in the church. Where the term “pastor” was once largely reserved for the minister who led his flock, today we have pastors of every type – music pastors, counseling pastors, administrative pastors, and even lay pastors (which seems to be a contradiction in terms). Where pastors and office-bearers once held the keys to the kingdom and had the privilege of administering the sacraments, today the laity is permitted and even encouraged to do this themselves.
I sometimes wonder if we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I wonder if we’ve reduced the office of the minister of the Word to such an extent that it no longer carries with it the respect and uniqueness that God intended. Surely pastors are called to a high office and are blessed with unique privileges and responsibilities. When we take those privileges and dispense them liberally throughout the Church, I wonder if we are elevating the role of the laity or reducing the role of the clergy. Either way, I suspect we are not honoring God or the special role He created for the minister of His Word.