I have been writing about the influence external factors have had in creating the Gnostic dualism that pervails in the American church. Yet the problem is not purely a result of outside influences. There is an internal dualism that has plagued the Church since not long after the New Testament era. It is the dualism of clergy and laity.
I can’t count the number of times I have heard pastors and theologians say that “laity” means “the people” and is the English word for the Greek laos. However, the term “laity” is not a direct translation from the noun laos (“people”). It came indirectly from laos through the Greek adjective laikos, meaning “of the common people.” Laikos is not in the New Testament and it is not in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint!
The first known mentions of laikos come from about 300 BCE. It was an adjective used in papyri to describe the profane things of the rural people in Egypt. The earliest known use of the word in Christian literature is in a letter by Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church, written circa 96 CE. In exhorting the church to preserve godly order, he alludes to the order of the Old Testament era. He discusses the responsibilities of those who were neither priests nor Levites, and calls them laymen (laikos anthropos.) (1 Clement 40:5) (1)
Laikos was used sparingly by Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion in their Greek translations of the Old Testament during the second and third centuries. It was used as a synonym for bebelos which means “profane” or “unholy.” Laikos was also a synonym in Greek literature for idiotes which meant “nonprofessional.” (It is the word from which we get “idiot.”) Laikos did not begin to enter the common Christian vocabulary until the third and fourth centuries. Over time and across languages, the adjective evolved into the noun “laity” to represent the unprofessional, common, and profane people contrasted with the educated, holy, and sacred people known as “clergy.” (2)
The word “clergy” comes from the Greek word kleros, which means “lot” or “inheritance.” When used figuratively, as in, “we are God’s inheritance,” or “we share in the inheritance of Christ,” it refers without exception to the whole people of God. It never refers to a specially called elite subgroup of people. “Clergy” and “the people of God” (laos tou theou) are one in the same group!
The Reformers saw this as a problem but they also struggled with church order. The outcome of their struggle to reconcile the issues was retention of the clergy/laity distinction while trying to elevate the laity. (3) Did they succeed? Ask yourself if you prefer ministry by a lay- Christian, anymore than you do surgery from a lay-surgeon, or legal advice from a lay-lawyer?
“Real ministry” is what is done by a caste of Christians called “clergy,” those with special training and an extra endowment of spirituality. Laity exists to assist clergy in “real ministry.” We say we believe in the priesthood of believers but look at our language and structures. Clergy do “full-time” Christian ministry. We send people to seminaries to prepare for the ministry. We install them in our congregations as the minister. Prayer is deferred to the clergy because they have special status with God. The sick have not been cared for until visited by the clergy.
Ask anyone for a definition of laity and it nearly always is given in terms of the negative:
- Function – they do not administer the sacraments.
- Status – they don’t have reverend in front of their name.
- Location – they don’t serve primarily in the church.
- Education – they don’t have a degree from seminary.
- Remuneration – they are not paid for church work.
- Lifestyle – they are occupied with the “secular” instead of the “sacred.” (4)
When “laypeople” are referred to positively, they are said to be “the people of God” (laos tou theou.) True enough, but the “people of God” in contrast to whom? The clergy? Scripture only uses clergy (kleros) in reference to the whole people of God. Laos tou theou are the clergy!
The primary locus for ministry is the congregation in dispersion throughout the community during the week. (More on this in following posts.) We have moved the locus to the gathered congregation. Why? Because non-pastor Christians are “idiots!” (laity = laikos = idiotes = idiots.) They can be helpful assistants to clergy but they can not be fully trusted with the things of God. “Real ministry” can only be done by professional Christians, and since they can’t be everywhere, it is the job of the “laity” to bring unbelievers to the professionals for “real ministry.” Consequently, the saints are thoroughly under-equipped for ministry in dispersion, and they are demeaned and trivialized for ministry among the gathered.
I have written about this topic enough to know that the minds of many reading this post are reading into it things I have not said. I want to say point blank that no where in this post have I said there is not role called pastor. I have not said that there should be no authority structures. I have not said that the church needs to be radical democracy. If you have interpreted what I have read to say this then I invite you to go back and read what I have written again. It isn’t there. What I have said is that there is not a super-spiritual caste of people who are “God’s inheritance” or “the clergy.” The whole people of God are “God’s inheritance” and therefore the clergy. Pastor and leader are roles occupied by some of the clergy in service to the rest of the clergy.
There is yet another persistent misunderstanding with regard to my writing on this topic. Many, especially those from the Reformed tradition, read this and affirm the importance of the role of elder versus the role of the minister of word and sacrament. Again, if this is your interpretation, then you have completely missed my point. I am saying that baptism is ordination into ministry. The fact that so many define “ministry” as what goes on under the auspices of an ecclesiastical authority, usually within the four walls of an ecclesiastical facility, is proof positive of the dualistic split we have made between the material and spiritual aspects of life.
My point here isn’t necesssarily about the words “clergy” and “laity” themselves. I am using them here to illustrate a duality. Our friends in traditions like the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions have a different take on the role of Church tradition and therefore retain the lingo that came after the New Testament era. My aim here is not to bash anyone uses the lingo. In fact, I sincerely believe that since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has done more to bring into fulfillment the work of the “laity” than have all the Protestant traditions who preach “the Priesthood of all believers.”
However, as a child of the Reformation, I find it troubling who pervasive the language of clergy and laity is a tradition that has championed sola scriptura. I like Karl Barth’s observation on this topic:
“Theology is not the private reserve of theologians. It is not a private affair for professors…Nor is it a private affair for pastors…Theology is a matter for the church. It does not get on well without professors and pastors. But its problem, the purity of the church’s service, is put to the whole church. The term ‘laity’ is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from Christian conversation.” (5)
Above I said that “laity” is defined in the negative. Is there a mission for those not ordained to ecclesiastical office?
(1.) Weber, Hans-Ruedi. “On Being Christian in the World: Reflections on the ecumenical discussion about the laity.” Document at World Council of Churches website: www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/education/weber.html. 1999. Accessed May 1, 2005 The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 24-25.
(3.) Gillespie, Thomas W. “Ministerial Orders in the Reformed Tradition: A Study in Origins.” A paper presented to the delegations to the Consultation on Church Union from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. circa 1979?
(4.) Stevens, R. Paul,
(5.) Karl Barth. Theologische Fragen und Antworten, 1957, 183-184, quoted in R. J. Erler and R. Marquard, eds., translator, G. W. Bromiley. A Karl Barth Reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986, 8-9. I found the quote in R. Paul Stevens. The Other Six Days. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 24.