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Lay People, God's Priestly People

One of the major challenges in church life over the years has been keeping clear the proper roles of laity and clergy. You may have seen the church sign that says something like: "John/Jane Q. Smith, Pastor; ministers, every member." Something to that effect. It's the right thing to say, but let's face it, it is an empty platitude most of the time.

What if we took the saying seriously? What, in truth, does it mean? How do lay people, busy as they are with jobs, family responsibilities and a host of other demands, also serve as ministers? These basic questions need repeated engagement. We will circle around to them often, because, for all of us (clergy included) to grow to maturity in Christ, the people of God - the laity - need to know the significance of their ministries in taking up their crosses and following Jesus.  Read and re-read Ephesians 4:11-13.  

You may have heard the phrase, "priesthood of all believers," which comes from the Protestant Reformation. In earlier generations, when Catholics and Protestants stood wary of one another, we Protestants made reference to this phrase as one of our most important distinguishing characteristics. The problem is, it took on a meaning it should not have. Historically, we Protestants disdained Catholics' "dependency" on priests and loudly asserted that "we go straight to God." It was a way of saying, "I'll be my own priest, thank you very much," referencing the priesthood of all believers as the reason.

The problem is, that's not what the phrase means. Indeed, it's impossible for a person to be her or his own priest and the belief that we can comes not from the Bible but from our tendency to lift up individual freedom above practically all else.  On the contrary, it means something much closer to what we find in  Galatians 6:2, "Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ," (New Revised Standard). Bearing one another's burdens is a priestly function. We listen to one another. We pray for one another. We admonish one another. We offer wisdom to one another. (We need to study the scriptures together so that we know how to engage in this priestly ministry with one another.) You can read all of the New Testament descriptions about the church through this lens. It helps us to understand 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." All believers together form the priesthood. (By the way, most knowledgeable Catholics agree, with some careful qualifications, of course.)

How, then, do we distinguish the distinct and important roles of clergy and laity? One way is to examine the various lists of gifts in the New Testament, along with those of bishop/overseer and deacon in the pastoral letters and to do so in Iight of the resurrected Christ's commissioning of the apostles.  All of us operate under this apostolic authority. I strongly encourage local communities - pastors and lay people together - to study these scriptures together and listen for the Spirit's guidance.

On that point, one caveat: For now, let's not get caught in difficult conversations about male-female leadership or the present-day legitimacy of charismatic gifts. We know that Christians disagree about these matters. Right now, we need to stay dialed in on the proper roles of clergy - especially pastors - and laity, which will open up fruitful reflection for the people of God about their ministry.  

I'll cover two points about pastors and then get to laity. In a nutshell, our job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. See that? Our job is to equip. Our ministry is to help the ministers minister. Again, Ephesians 4:11-13.  

To be sure, one of the very important ways we help to equip the saints is by engaging in the ministry alongside you, which often means that we're participating while someone else (a lay person) leads. Clergy were first (and still are) laity. Clergy have a specific calling, to be sure, but it grows out of the fact of our being members of the Body of Christ. Long before we were clergy, we were laity, formed and discipled by the lay members of the Body. My ministry carries the imprints of dozens of Christ-loving lay people (thank you Irene Catlin, Betty Jo Banks, Dr. Taussig, Dr. Linder). It is not an exaggeration to say that the Spiritual Maturity Project is as much a result of lay ministry (you know who you are!) as it is my clergy vocation.

Pastors equip their people for the work of ministry. The Greek word for ministry is a rich one. Diakonia. Service. Ministry. A diakonos can serve in very humble settings, giving someone a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus. Every person in a congregation with that servant's heart who helps to set up and take down tables and chairs so that members of the Body can grow and thrive provides a crucial diakonia. The mouth needs the hand, else we starve. Likewise, a diakonos might be a public servant, a leader in the community. Either way, it's ministry. The pastor's main job is to help people find and fulfill these ministries.  

Another way of talking about clergy ministry is that we are ordained to word, sacrament, and order.  This is United Methodist talk, but there are close analogies across many Protestant denominations. We clergy do so by witnessing to our own faith first - in word and example - and we equip people by teaching, preaching, baptizing, administering the Lord's Supper, and engaging in pastoral conversations to help people heal and grow. In this way, we help to order the life of the church.

So, although clergy have a specific ministry, we first learned to minister among the laity and we continue to serve with the people of God as part of the people of God. We do our part, the laity do their part. The problem is, it's not so clear what that part is for laity. We have depended far too much on the church's organizational structures. "Ministry" for lay people has been understood to mean that they serve as officers and such in the church. Again, someone has to do this work, but it has gotten us stuck too much in the organizational maintenance mode rather than equipping one another for ministry in daily life, where most of us spend most of our time. 

So, how do lay people engage regularly, organically, in ministry? To answer, I will return to this topic off and on over time. Right now, at this juncture in the collective American Christian life, I believe God is calling some of us to emphasize the importance of study.  Lay people need time to study, especially, but not exclusively, the Holy Scriptures. I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, discipline your schedules to allow time for study. Every congregation needs a group of serious students. I invite you, if you have not seen two pieces I've written recently, to take a look at this Firebrand Magazine article and this blog post

The church simply cannot be the church if we don't start moving much more intentionally into careful and sustained study. While we study together, we listen for the voice of God, God's word to us in our time and place. We need to understand what the priesthood of all believers means, so that we can live that priesthood in our context. The church can spend time doing a lot of good things, but is she doing the ministry? Is she fulfilling Christ's apostolic commission? Look around. There's no one else to do it. We must make sure we answer these questions in the affirmative.

I have some ideas about how to get these study groups started. I've begun putting together a framework. If you'd like to talk about starting one in your area, I'd love to help.  Email me at [email protected].  Let's talk!



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