Editorial: July 2012
For centuries, laity have been considered as second class members of the church-they are consigned to passive positions. Even the highly educated and very talented people, despite their capability and commitment, have no space in the church for active ministry. The laity remains voiceless and without power. They do not know their rightful place and role in the church; obviously, there is no effort to claim their rightful place. The clergy is taken to be the divinely ordained superior class. They are considered to be more holy and are empowered to teach and rule the laity.
The apostles were key figures in the early church. Their importance lay in the fact that they were the men who had been with Jesus Christ and were witnesses, not only to His teaching and ministry, but also to His death and resurrection. This qualification is not transferable.
The early church, while acknowledging the primacy of apostolic leadership, was a fellowship of believers where each member exercised his gift and worked for the common good of all. In the Bible, we do not read of offices, only of people with different functions such as elders and deacons. The priesthood was of the whole body. The Gospel call was for all Christians, not exclusively to ministers. Christian leadership was charismatic, dynamic and non-hierarchical. Leaders were not appointed by human authority, but by promptings of the Spirit. The primary responsibility of the apostles was to be evangelists and missionaries, travelling through the country, and not to govern a community. The early church understood itself as a community of the Holy Spirit. Only those who could testify to a saving experience of Christ were admitted as members.
With time, the development of commerce and the consequent increase of wealth bred materialism in the church and blunted the keen edge of Christian witness. Children of uncommitted parents were allowed to be received in baptism. Moral respectability, rather than spiritual rebirth, became the criterion for admission. The divine right of clergy dominated. In the course of a few centuries, the ministry of the church began to be viewed in terms of its hierarchical structures. Episcopacy was identified with the apostolic tradition. The bishop controlled the finances of the churches and this resulted in abuses. The scaffolding became the building! Laity was only expected to 'pray, pay and obey.'
By the third century, the church was becoming institutionalised under monarchical episcopacy and began to develop an institutional structure. Cyprian of Carthage wrote as follows, "The bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the church." This development was questioned by the Montanist movement. They viewed the church as a community living separated from the world, in expectation of the immediate return of the Lord. According to Tertullian, the church was not a conclave of bishops, but the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
Gradually, the clerical offices became a formal hierarchy. Pope Boniface boldly asserted that outside the church there was no salvation and that submission to the Roman Pontiff was for every human being an utter necessity for salvation.
Under 'Christian' emperors, the church became the church of the bishops. Emperors claimed to have the supreme authority and responsibility for human society. The church was to assist the emperor in providing for peoples' spiritual well-being. The church began to assume a political model and borrowed from the State many of its political forms. It was easy for the emperors to deal with bishops in church matters, just as they dealt with civil servants.
Corruption, negligence, ignorance, absenteeism and immorality were widespread among the clergy and taken for granted by the lay people. Sound teaching of the basic truths of the Bible was either rare or non-existent. The Bible was hardly even read. The church came in between the believer and his Bible.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century opposed the idea that authority rested in an exclusive priesthood. One of the three reformation principles was termed the priesthood of believers. This meant that there were no longer two levels of Christians. There was one status for all men and women, clergy and laity-there is only one people of God.
Jesus was a layman in the Jewish society of His time. He did not belong to the priestly group of Judaism, nor did He belong to the group of scribes and Pharisees. He was a lay and secular person, who was eating and drinking like the commoners and was found in the company of aam admi, even tax collectors and prostitutes (Matt. 11:19). He preached about God's love and care in the beauty of the lilies of the fields, and the birds of the air, unconditional acceptance of the prodigal son, justice in paying equal wages to even those who came at the last hour. He went about feeding the hungry, healing the sick, inviting people to give up their greed and share with the needy. He criticised the religious leadership and cleansed the temple, calling for a radical change in the system. He did not establish a clerical class; instead, He appointed twelve disciples. All those who came to believe in His message were commanded to continue and carry out His mission. This mission is not restricted to a select few, namely the clergy. It also belongs to the laity because of their technical competence and occupational involvement in secular matters. Numerous volunteers, both men and women, collaborated in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, without any ecclesial ordination. That greatly contributed to the amazing spread of Christianity in the early days, despite heavy odds and state-sponsored persecution. Peter says, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light" (1Pet.2:9).
The lay people are the frontliners in carrying out the mission. The clergy is to act as servant priesthood in the service of the royal priesthood of the laity, not as super ministers, who dominate and control. The role of the clergy is to coordinate the diverse ministries of the church, as equal partners.
When we think of great men and women of God with good testimony, we usually remember full-time Christian workers. Many Christians feel that only the clergy have the responsibility to the outside world. It is the duty of every Christian to communicate the Gospel. The Great Commission is intended for all of us (Matt.28:18-20). As Christians, we are the flesh and blood testimonies for our Saviour. Often, the only Gospel that your neighbour reads will not be the four gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but the one according to you. Never under-estimate the impact you can have for Christ. When you live for Him in your workplace, you will send forth a quiet message that will be heard through your acts, words and attitudes.
It is sad that very few biographies are written about lay people who distinguished themselves as God's servants in society. The Bible has a long list of heroes who were laymen and women. Abraham was a rich owner of livestock. Joseph was a government official. Joshua was an army chief. Ruth was a housewife. David, a man after God's own heart, was a shepherd, a warrior and then a king. Nehemiah was the cupbearer of a king. Daniel was an administrator. Cornelius was a devout man, a centurion in the Italian Regiment.
It is through lay people that the world observes how Christianity is relevant to everyday life. Lay people should take the Gospel into the neighbourhood, the classroom, the playground, the office and the business world. It is they who can show the world that the Gospel of Christ really works. People around us cannot see what we believe, but they do see how we behave. "Let our conduct be worthy of the Gospel of Christ" (Phil.1:27). Is your life a witness for the Gospel?
Many of the laity think that they have nothing more to learn about the faith, after Sunday school. The fact that the laity is the church and has an important role to play in its mission has been ignored. It is necessary to move the laity to mature faith through regular Bible study, thus establishing them in God's word.
Reportedly, the American trend is to turn away from organised religion and seeking unorthodox ways to build spiritual lives. Many are rejecting organised religion as being rigid and dogmatic. Organised religion is compared to supermarket tomatoes-flavourless and dogmatic.
God is calling everyone to be His servants. Pastors are called to protect, direct, correct, feed, teach and care for the sheep. They should be loving, loyal, faithful and committed to the Lord and His flock. Theological training and priestly ordination do not necessarily equip the clergy to handle financial, administrative, legal or even personnel matters in a competent manner. The lay people are equal partners in the ministry of the church. Claiming superiority of holiness over the laity is Pharisaic. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal.3:28).
You and I are placed in this world to be salt and light. We should go into the world with a confidence born out of our belief that God is its Creator. We should study His instruction manual, the Bible, to know how He intended us to live. We should apply what we learn from His word in our daily lives.
Many of us assume that we cannot climb the social ladder if we are good, honest, principled, kind and unselfish. Daniel disproved this assumption. "They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy, and neither corrupt nor negligent" (Dan.6:4). He was faithful and diligent in his work. His personal purity was of the highest calibre. He was consistent in his walk with God.
Spoils of office have great attraction, with their attendant powers. Many get into the church bodies and stay on. This should be curbed by fixed tenure and prescribed terms.
We are all idolaters, by nature. So, we excel in exalting men. (We are equally good in pulling them down!). The bronze serpent that Moses made became Nehushtan in course of time, and the Israelites burnt incense to it.
The laity not only belongs to the church, but they are the church. The laity should have the rightful place in the church and should be truly responsible for the church. St. Augustine wrote, "As we call everyone 'Christians' in virtue of a mystical anointing, so we call everyone 'priests' because all are members of only one priesthood."
The second Vatican Council exhorted the laity to give greater attention to their ministry. "Their activity within church communities is so necessary that without it the apostolate of the pastors is generally unable to achieve its full effectiveness… As sharers in the mission of Christ, priest, prophet and king, the lay faithful have an active part to play in the life and activity of the church."
Many who are doctrinally opposed to clericalism and teach that there is no need for a priestly order, since the veil was torn two thousand years ago, seem to be labouring hard to stitch the veil back into position. Unprincipled, self-serving leaders rule over the unsuspecting flock. This is now unfortunately true not only in the traditional churches, but also in the new pentecostal and charismatic churches, though yet without cassocks!