I was asked to write something about the difference between lay and ordained ministry, with particular reference to the Church of England. Here it is…

I once saw a church which listed as its ministers, ‘everyone in the church’. This is entirely appropriate, as all Christians are called and equipped to share in ‘the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12).1 Through the Spirit, each member has been given an important role in the body, so that no one can be told, ‘I have no need of you’ (1 Corinthians 12:21). As such, ‘when each part is working properly,’ it becomes possible for the body to ‘grow so that it builds itself up in love’ (Ephesians 4:16). Through Jesus, our high priest, we are all able to ‘offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name’ (Hebrews 13:15). It is therefore the whole church, and not a subset of the church, that is being built up ‘to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:5).

All Christians should therefore seek to use their gifts to build up the church. Some will be particularly gifted in caring for others. Some will be particularly gifted as encouragers. Some will be particularly gifted in understanding the Scriptures, and in helping others to hear what God is saying to the church today. Some will have time available to them. Some will have other resources and abilities. All should heed Paul’s exhortation: ‘Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them’ (Romans 12:6).

But is this all that needs to be said about the body of Christ? Is it simply a matter of each individual Christian using his or her gifts as they find themselves personally directed by the Spirit?

There is no doubt that some churches seek to function in this way. Rejecting an unbiblical ‘one-man ministry’, they set out to adopt a kind of ‘every-member ministry’ in which no person is set above any other person. But often, in due course, whether formally or informally, those churches come to recognise certain people as having a particular responsibility over the rest of the church—the responsibility of oversight.

This is reflected in the New Testament. The body of Christ is described not as an unstructured entity, but as something which is ‘held together by every joint with which it is equipped’ (Ephesians 4:16) and ‘nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments’ (Colossians 2:19). The church functions in a structured way, and certain people are set apart to oversee the life of the body. These people have the office of elder or overseer, and they are assisted in their role by another group of people known as deacons. The word overseer translates the Greek word episkopos, from which we get our English word bishop, while the word elder translates the Greek word presbuteros, from which we get our English words priest and presbyter. In the context of the New Testament, elders and overseers were apparently the same people (e.g., Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7), although the church soon began to recognise a smaller number of those people as having a more ‘episcopal’ role within the wider church. (It is also apparently the case that the Greek word presbuteros carried none of the sacerdotal overtones of our English word priest, and it is difficult to imagine that Cranmer consciously intended to retain those overtones when he used the word priest in the Book of Common Prayer.) But in what follows my preferred term will be overseer, as I think it contains within it the essence of the distinction between lay and ordained ministry.

Overseers are appointed through the oversight of the wider church

In thinking about the way overseers are appointed, the focus is on the identity of the overseer, and hence on the ontological dimension of ordained ministry (emphasised within the more Catholic traditions of the Church of England).

Whereas lay ministers are (as it were) appointed through baptism, without reference to the wider church, this is not the case with overseers. The first time we read of the appointment of elders, it is Paul and Barnabas who do the appointing (Acts 14:23). This seems to be a general pattern: even in the case of the seven (who appear to be deacons), it was the apostles who actually appointed the men who had been selected by all of the disciples (Acts 6:3). Titus was instructed by Paul to appoint elders in Crete (Titus 1:5), and Timothy seems to have had a similar role in Ephesus (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:3; 3:1–7; 5:19). Thus, however home-grown the ordained minister is, it is not the local congregation alone that performs the ordination. (Incidentally, this is reflected in the general practice of congregational churches, who will often call upon a respected pastor from another church to play a role in the installation of a new pastor.)

This connection with the wider church is vitally important. It is through the overseer(s) that the local congregation is held accountable to the wider church. It is largely through the connection between the overseers of different local congregations (particularly via the bishops) that the wider church is ‘held together by every joint with which it is equipped’ (Ephesians 4:16). They represent the local church to the wider church, and the wider church to the local church. And this means that, when an overseer presides at the Lord’s Supper, this is done on behalf of the whole church, and hence the local celebration of communion becomes an expression of (and a part of) the eucharistic celebration of the wider body of Christ (ideally of the whole body of Christ).

Overseers are to oversee a particular part of the church

The focus here is on the functional and relational aspects of ordained ministry (emphasised, respectively, by the evangelical and liberal parts of the Church of England). What are overseers called to do? And how are they called to think of themselves in relation to those in their care?

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders ‘in every church’ (Acts 14:23), and Peter speaks to the overseers about ‘those in [their] charge’ (1 Peter 5:3). Overseers therefore have a responsibility towards a particular part of the church, generally a local congregation. Their responsibility involves ‘keeping watch over’ the people entrusted to them, ‘as those who will have to give an account’ (Hebrews 13:17). This emphasises the seriousness of their calling, in a way that is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman to the house of Israel (Ezekiel 3:17).

The nature of their work is described in terms of shepherding (pastoring). Peter describes Christ as our ‘Shepherd and Overseer’ (1 Peter 2:25), and later exhorts the elders to ‘shepherd the flock of God’ (1 Peter 5:2). This shepherdly role involves feeding the flock, reflected in the importance of teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9), and it involves protecting the flock from being led astray. This seems to be Paul’s concern in speaking to the Ephesian elders: ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears’ (Acts 20:28–31).

In practice, this means that the overseers will oversee what goes on within the church, particularly the teaching and preaching ministry of the church. They will be given the training, time and resources they need to fulfil the role. They will provide coherence to the life of the church, holding together its various aspects, and raising up and supporting leaders within the church. And, as shepherds of a particular flock, they will often act as the ‘public face’ of the church, playing a significant role within the wider community.


Lay and ordained ministry are more similar than they are different. But there is a distinction to be made, and my suggestion here has been that the idea of oversight provides a helpful way of focusing on the differences between the two kinds of ministry.

1 Quotations taken from the ESV