The Laity in the Early Church
Although there is still a lack of clarity about the kinds of church structures
that prevailed in the early church, it is generally agreed that in the beginning
there was no subspecies "laity" of the genus "Christian." In fact, to say
"laity" (or laos
, the New Testament word) was to say "Christian." The two
words were, for all practical purposes, synonymous.
This pristine condition did not last long. We cannot here trace the tedious
route by which the church departed from its original understanding of the laity.
It is clear, however, that before long the laity began to be defined as a
subspecies of the genus "Christian" and were differentiated from another
subspecies called "clergy."
The Laity and the Reformation
Such was the situation inherited by the Reformers. It could be described as a
"split-level church." On the ground level, exposed to all the dirt and grime of
the world, their salvation always in jeopardy, totally dependent upon
ministrations from those above them, were the laity. On the upper level, closer
to heaven, infused with special divine grace, and sheltered from the corruption
of the evil world, dispensing their medicine of the sacraments to the laity
below, were the clergy.
One effect of the movement toward reform was to demolish this "split-level
church" and begin construction of what might be called a "ranch-type church."
The Reformation blueprint called for a church in which all Christians lived on
one level, Certainly not everyone occupied the same room. There were various
"office spaces." But no one stood higher than any other, either in terms of
nearness to God or of shelter from sin. Clergy were seen as distant from the
laity only in terms of office and function, not in terms of their standing
The Universal Priesthood of the Baptized
fulfill their priesthood in a variety of ways. Some — the
clergy — are given special offices of preaching the Word and administering the
sacraments. They are ordained to official, public functions of priesthood in the
church. But the laity have their priestly functions, too. According to Luther,
they are to pray for each other. They are to listen to their sisters' and
brothers' confessions of sin and cries of distress. They are to speak God's
cheering word of forgiveness and consolation. They are to be agents of God's
overflowing goodness by ministering to the poor and oppressed. In short, they
are to be "little Christs" to each other, subpriests of Jesus, who is the great
high priest of all.
The Vocation or Calling of the Christian
Luther used the word "vocation" in three ways: a) to designate the summons
which reaches us in the proclamation of the gospel; b) to refer to the
occupation or status of a person in society; and c) to refer to the call to the
office of preacher in the church.
Once again the radical separation between "two kinds of Christians" was
overcome. No longer could any special group within the church, namely those set
aside for ecclesiastical office, claim monopoly on the word "vocation." All
Christians, whatever their office or status in church or world, lived out their
lives under God's call. Further, church offices were not to be thought of as in
any way superior to secular offices. Each could equally be the place of service
to the neighbor, and thus to God.
The Laity in the Church Today
We must now take note of an outburst of thought and experimentation
concerning the laity which coincided roughly with the close of World War II. Out
of the ashes of disillusion and destruction in Europe there emerged what has
sometimes been described as the "lay renaissance." Leaders in this recovery have
consistently spoken of their work in terms of three theological principals:
- Reaffirmation of God's love for the world
The doctrine of creation has been given new prominence. The church is
learning again that "God so loved the world". (When we read) "God so loved
the church," we can seem to be saying by our preoccupation with matters
ecclesiastical that we accept the neglect or even rejection of matters
economic, political or cultural. An examination of the list of coming events
in a typical congregational bulletin suggest by what it omits that the laity
come to Sunday worship and to weekday meetings with nothing but "churchy"
concerns on their minds. It is though they were expected to deposit all the
"worldly" concerns of their workaday lives at the door, much as patrons of
the old frontier saloons were requested to check their guns.
- The church's mission to the world
Although we need not belabor the point, it is clear from a biblical
perspective that the church exists not for its own sake but for the world's
sake, or better yet, for the sake of God's mission in and to the world. It
is becoming harder for us to settle into comfortable, narcissistic postures.
There are too many voices in the present and recent past reminding us that
God has called the church as servant in and for the world.
- The laity are the spearhead of the church's mission in and for the
The clergy are not the spearhead. Their essential work is "inside the
camp," teaching, preaching, administering the sacraments and engaging in
other related activities. It is uncharacteristic of them to be
professionally engaged in secular pursuits in the workday world.
For the unordained the situation is the reverse. Their habitat is more
completely the secular world. They work there. They play there. They are the
natural bridge by which a movement moves from the sanctuary to the street. They
are the profane (literally pro-fanus "in front of the temple") Christians. They
are Christ's many-membered body in touch at this moment in history with the
world that God loves.