In Israel’s wilderness journey, all the people were in the camp together. The dangers by which they were surrounded were dangers for all. In Christianity, there are dangers too, and these are also for all. However, unlike in Israel, there is no one in the Church who can be excused from joining in the battle. There is no non–combatant class. There are none who by gender or age or anything else are exempted from the drill, the discipline and actual encounter of spiritual warfare. Just as every Christian is a priest, and every Christian is a minister, so every Christian is a soldier of Jesus Christ, and through practice must have the knowledge of his weapons, and understand the tactics of the foe he faces.
There are leaders of course. In Israel everyone was ranged under his standard and his captain. However, there is this great difference between the fleshly warfare of Israel and the spiritual warfare of the Church. In the former the responsibility assumed by the leader is also the acquittal from responsibility of those that follow him. Obedience is everything in the armies of this world. Who can help but admire the unhesitating devotion of troops who go forward, even to destruction, knowing full well perhaps that the leadership has blundered? By contrast, in spiritual warfare one can have pity for such but not admiration. The responsibility of the spiritual leader removes not one atom of responsibility from the follower. If the follower is misled he is guilty for being misled. Why? Because he is responsible—individually responsible—to follow Christ. His is the voice which must be heard amid all the din of the battlefield. If there are lesser leaders, their task is only to make men listen to that voice—to say, in effect, “Be my imitators, even as I also [am] of Christ” (1 Cor. 11: 1).
If we value the welfare of God’s people, we must press their own responsibility upon them to the full, and that none can excuse them from it in any part of Christian practice. Reader, whoever you are, allow no one to stand between your soul and Christ! He alone is your Master, and to Him alone you must give account. The vigour, brightness, and faithfulness of your life depend upon how you abide in the place of dependence on Him alone. This does not mean of course that you are to refuse the help that He would give you through another, for God has set us in one body—given us to each other to help each other. Let not that thought be weakened in the least! Scripture even tells us to “Obey your leaders, and be submissive; for they watch over your souls” (Heb. 13: 17), but it is a perversion of the truth to make this into an unqualified and grovelling discipleship for “if blind lead blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Matt. 15: 14). However good Christian leadership is, (and it ought to be valued where it exists—see Heb. 13: 7), there are no circumstances under which an individual saint can abdicate his personal responsibility before the Lord. Let us remember that we fall into one of the most subtle and successful snares of the enemy when we make another person the director of our consciences in the things of God, however much confidence we have in his genuineness, wisdom, or piety. We may not be Romanists as such but this is Romanism in principle, for Romanism all through is nothing less than giving Christ a human vicar on earth, a substitute to whom we give His place. Brethren, we must have no substitute for Christ and we must seek no substitute for ourselves. We must not falsify the blessed relationship into which we have been brought with Him, nor must we consecrate another to fill the place we have vacated.
This is what clerisy means—the taking up by a class among Christians of what the rest have given up to them. It means the unspiritualizing of the mass—the ‘laity’—who resign the duties for which they feel they are unfitted into hands more capable. Thus I need not study the Word for I have one who will study it for me. I trouble myself little about worship for I have one who approaches God on my behalf at the communion service. I occupy myself wholly with secular and worldly things six days a week because I have one who has devoted his life to things spiritual on my behalf. Who is he? He is my vicar. I grant you that this picture is not reflective of all, but if there are brighter examples it is just as true that there are darker ones as well.
Furthermore, this abdication of individual responsibility is a real thing among even those who have, supposedly, repudiated the clergy–laity split altogether. Indeed, in some ways, because it is covered up by a doctrinal veneer, it is worse. Take, as an example, matters of discipline carried out in the assembly. Is it right that a large part of an assembly merely confirm the judgment of their leaders? Is this not clerisy in all but name? How often are people carried by arguments which derive their force purely from the people that make them? The success of real teachers is shown by their ability to make others independent of them, but so many remain in spiritual childhood never having their senses “exercised for distinguishing both good and evil” (Heb. 5: 14). Carried along in the wake of others, helped perhaps by family and social ties, they may seem to make real progress, but then some disaster strikes and it rapidly becomes clear that have no idea of ‘why they are where they are’. Have not the many divisions among God’s people been marked by this ready and helpless leaning by the mass on the leaders? Has it not been because individuals have lost the voice of the Shepherd (see John 10: 27), that one voice which, amid the many voices so apt to be discordant, can never divide and can never be in contradiction to itself?
Wherever you find a state of things in which there is an unspiritual, unexercised mass who can be wheeled into line at the bidding of some trusted man, or men—then there is clerisy. It need not be official. Those who have a horror of the clerisy in the sects around them often little realise that they may be cherishing the very thing within their own circle. This is no imagination of my own. Thus you will hear otherwise intelligent Christians who, taking sides in some dispute, then come out with statements like: ‘Well we did not ourselves know much about these things, Mr So–and–so looked into them and we all had confidence in Mr So–and–so.’ Sometimes you will even find that there are persons that have not known, even by the representation of another, what the truth was that was in question! How can the commendation “thou ... hast kept my word” (Rev. 3: 8) apply to such when they neither knew, nor cared to know to what or in what way his Word applied? Of course there are many matters, local matters, which ought never to be carried around and of such things I do not speak. But where there is some truth or principle at stake then personal exercise is imperative. We cannot hide from it behind another. We must allow no substitute—no vicar.
The vulnerable in Israel’s army were those at the rear—those only following—and the young and the weak who were not soldiers (see Deut. 25: 17, 18). The lesson is plain: if we give abdicate personal responsibility we leave ourselves wide open to the attacks of the Enemy.