Ministry of the Laity

Life in the Church, to which every Christian is called, is a permanent ministry, in which the Christian serves God through the Church, and serves the Church itself. "For the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many," (Mark 10:45; cf. Matt. 20:28.) This was the new principle, hitherto unknown to human society, which was the basis of the Church's life.
Fr N. Afanassieff | 18 January 2010

Source: All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church  

As the title of this article shows, it confines itself to the ministry of the laity within the Church; it does not deal with the very varied forms of lay ministry outside the Church. I recognize the disadvantages involved in restricting my subject in this way, but in my view the ministry of the laity within the Church is much more important than their ministry outside it, because the latter is to a large extent determined by the former. Moreover, the question of the ministry of the laity outside the Church is not a complicated problem for the Orthodox conscience. The Orthodox Church has always accepted and fully approved the principle of the laity undertaking missionary work, education, scientific and social work. Most of the time the Orthodox Church left the laity almost complete freedom in this field of their activity, merely insisting on a minimum of supervision from the ecclesiastical hierarchy. 

Today the doctrine of the laity occupies a central position in theology. This may represent an attempt to appreciate the role of the laity after centuries of passivity in the Catholic Church and (to a certain extent) in the Orthodox Church. The problem of the laity has now been raised, and this fact alone is of value, because it shows a change of mind within ecclesiastical thought; at the same time it may be regarded as “a sign of the times.” The laity are regarded as a special state within the Church, differing almost ontologically from the “clergy,” and having definite duties and (more rarely) rights and its own activities, all of which have undergone considerable changes during the course of history. This conception of the laity is a heritage of medieval Catholicism, which still carries much weight in contemporary theology. The Catholic theologians always speak of “the Church of the laity” and “the Church of the priests,” (Y.M.J. Congar, Jalons pour une theologie du laicat. Paris, 1954, p.223) which shows that there is a split in the theological concept of the Church, the one Body of Christ.

In the Early Church 

It is hardly surprising that the question of the laity never arose in the Early Church. In accordance with the ecclesiological consciousness of the time, the Church (being one body) always acted as a whole; any action taken by part of its members involved the action of the whole Church, and any action undertaken by the Church was undertaken by all its members. To use contemporary terms, which were coined at an early date (at any rate they were known to Tertullian), action undertaken by the laity was also action undertaken by the hierarchy of the Church; and action undertaken by the latter was also action undertaken by the laity. They could not act independently, because neither of them constitutes the Church when separated from the other. 

In the writings of the Apostles we only find the word “laos” = the people of God, which included all the members of the Church whatever their position. (As far as we know the word laikos was used for the first time by Clement of Rome.) That does not mean that at the time of the apostles (and in the periods which followed) all the members of the Church formed a sort of amorphous mass in which there were no distinctions; or that at that time the situation within the Church was as described by Tertullian and opposed by him when he wrote about the Gnostics: “Today they have one bishop, tomorrow a different one; a man who is a deacon today will be a reader tomorrow; a man who is a priest today will be a layman tomorrow.” (Praescript., c. XLI, 8.) Ever since the time of the Apostles there has been a differentiation between the members of the Church based on the diversity of the ministries accomplished by the members of the Church. In other words, the differentiation was functional, not ontological.

A Permanent Ministry 

Life in the Church, to which every Christian is called, is a permanent ministry, in which the Christian serves God through the Church, and serves the Church itself. “For the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45; cf. Matt. 20:28.) This was the new principle, hitherto unknown to human society, which was the basis of the Church’s life. (Th. W.N.T., B. II., page 81.) In the Church, life and ministry are one and the same, because in the Church the Holy Spirit, by which and in which the Church lives, forms the principle of activity. Where the Spirit is, there is life also, and hence action and ministry. The whole of St. Paul’s doctrine about “the work of the ministry” is based on the words of Christ quoted above. The work of ministry is incumbent upon all the members of the Church, but they do not all minister in the same way; they render service in accordance with the gifts they have received (1. Cor. 12:4-6). 

The facts given in the New Testament writings, especially in the Epistles of St. Paul, enable us to distinguish between two kinds of ministry within the Church: one accomplished by the whole people; the other accomplished by certain persons who were specially called. Owing to this, a difference developed between the members who exercised a special ministry and those who exercised the general ministry. During the course of the historical process which I have no time to describe here, this fundamental division between the members of the Church has led to the formation of two groups: the laity and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. This differentiation is based on the diversity between the forms of ministry; it does not mean that some members had ministries and other had not. But during the course of history in the Western Church, and to some extent in the Eastern Church also, the laity were deprived of their ministry; the fact that there can be no inactive members in the Church was forgotten. 

The ministry of the laity is the manifestation of the ministry of the whole people of God. The laity serve in the Church when the whole of God’s people serves. Hence in the Church nothing is done without the people, for the Church is the people of God gathered together “in Christ.” The laity, as members of God’s people, take part in everything that happens in the Church, but they do so in accordance with the ministry to which God’s people is called. 


The Ministry of the Laity 

After this brief introduction of general premises, I can tackle the question of the ministry of the laity in the Church. At present, in accordance with the doctrine of the Orthodox Church (and with that of the Catholic Church) ministry in the Church is expressed in three domains; the liturgy, church-government and teaching. Catholic theology resolutely excludes the laity from all these activities in the Church, considering that they belong solely to the competence of the clergy. Only recently a few timid attempts have been made to reconsider this question. The Orthodox Church is far less categorical in this domain, and in fact the actual life of the church is to a large extent a contradiction of its “manual theology.” According to this theology, the laity “undergo” the sacramental acts (so to speak), but do not accomplish them; the laity do not participate in the fulfillment of the sacraments. On the other hand the laity have recently been admitted to an important share in the government of the church, and even to some extent in its teaching. It is one of the paradoxes of our contemporary life that the laity are excluded from the priesthood, although they are called to it as members of God’s people in the sacrament of aggregation to the Church. 

On entering the Church each member is installed in the Church (through the sacrament of aggregation) for the ministry of the general priesthood. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9; cf. Rev. 1:6; Rev. 5:10). From the time of Tertullian a vast number of misconceptions accumulated around the doctrine of the royal priesthood. On the one hand there was a tendency to minimize this doctrine to such an extent that it became nothing but a meaningless formula. On the other hand we find erroneous conceptions of this doctrine which consider any member of the Church as a priest entitled to accomplish any of the acts of the Liturgy. Under the influence of the individualism that has penetrated into church life, we are inclined to consider the pronounced “you” (in the biblical texts quoted above) as being addressed to isolated members of the Church. But in actual fact the pronoun “you” in the New Testament writings does not indicate several persons together, but refers to a whole body – in this case to all the Christians gathered in a church assembly, in other words the Church as God’s people. Every member is really installed with a view to the royal priesthood, but he does not fulfill it for himself or for others; he only fulfills it when liturgical acts are fulfilled by the Church as a whole, i.e. when God’s people is gathered with its head (Greek: proistamenos) in the church assembly. 

It Is not the Priest Alone 

Among the many examples of this in the writings of the early fathers, I will merely quote that of Saint John Chrysostom: “It is not the priest alone who renders thanks (he is speaking of the Eucharist): it is the whole people.” (John Chrysostom. In II Cor. XVIII, 3.) The Eucharist is celebrated by the whole people, but only when its chief is at its head, for without him there is no people; in the same way, there is no head unless the people are present also. 

According to the expression of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the bishop is “the mouth-piece of the Church”, for it is through him and in him that the ministry of the priesthood accomplished by God’s people is manifested. This means that every Christian present, as a member of God’s people, is cooperating with the bishop whenever he accomplishes a Liturgical act. 

This con-celebration by the laity is effective and real, not ceremonial. In the Liturgy the laity are not passive – for those whom God has appointed to the ministry of the royal priesthood cannot be passive. On the contrary, they participate actively; the liturgical acts are performed by the head of the Church with the con-celebration of the laity. The feeling is deeply rooted in the Orthodox Church (though it is not always translated in actual life) that the bishop or priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the people, and the people cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the bishop. The people is appointed for the service of the royal priesthood, and the bishop is appointed to preside over the people. ‘Thou has made us unto our God kings and priests; and we shall reign on earth” (Rev. 5:10.) This refers to all, and not to some. It means that Christ has made all His followers into God’s people, so that they may serve their God and their Father (Rev. 1:6) in the Church and through the Church, to serve Him when God’s people is gathered under the leadership of their head whom God has appointed to this ministry. 

The Role of the Church Member in Governance and Teaching  

The priesthood belongs to God’s people as a whole, and every member plays an active part in the Liturgy as co-minister with his bishop. But in what way do the church members participate in church-government and in the Church’s teaching? Are they the co-ministers of their bishops in these spheres also? As we know, since early times the people of God was governed and instructed by those who had been set to the ministries of government and teaching. “He gave some (to be) apostles; and some (to be) prophets; and some (to be) evangelists; and some (to be) pastors and teachers” (Eph. ~:11, cf. I Cor. 12,28.) Like teaching, government is a special ministry in the Church for which special gifts are indispensable. Among God’s people there were always some who carried out these ministries. Those who were so destined were called by God not in the sacrament of “baptism by water and the spirit” but by the sacrament of ordination, in which they received special gifts. If church-government and teaching are special gifts of the Spirit which are not given to everyone, but only to those who are called, that means that God’s people as a whole do not possess that gift. Church-government and teaching are prerogatives of those who are specially called, and not of the whole of God’s people. The people does not govern itself nor instruct itself; it is governed and instructed by its pastors, in accordance with the will of God who gave the work of the ministry. Since they do not possess the gifts of government or of teaching, the faithful cannot be co-members of the bishop in the spheres of government and teaching.  

Does this mean that in the sphere of government and teaching the faithful are entirely passive? The government and teaching carried out by the bishops does not exclude the participation of the faithful, but their participation is of a different kind from the work of the bishops. The people does not possess the gifts of government and teaching, but it does possess the gifts of “judgment” and of investigation, which are a special kind of ministry entrusted to the Church as God’s people. “Let the prophets speak, two or three; and let the others judge” (I Cor. 14:29; cf. I Thess. 5:21). The task of the people is to “judge” and examine what goes on in the Church; that is the ministry of witness which springs from the ministry of the royal priesthood.  

The Ministry of Witness  

The bishop governs God’s people not in his own name (ex sese) and not as a “right” (as if he received the power from the people), but in the name of God, because he is set by God “in Christ” for the ministry of government. Thanks to the fact that it possesses the gifts of investigation and of “judgment,” the people testifies that everything which happens in the Church (under the leadership of its pastors) is done in accordance with God’s will according to the revelation of the Spirit. In the early Church the people participated in all the acts of the church – receiving catechumens and penitents, ordination, excommunication, etc. For all later times the early Church presented a pattern of church unity, in which the Church as a whole, and every individual member, lived and worked in accordance with God’s will. The bishop governs God’s people not in isolation from it, but from within the midst of his flock (Acts 20:28); and the faithful are governed by their bishop not passively but with their own active participation, thanks to full knowledge of what is happening in the Church and testimony concerning what is God’s will.  

In the early Church this testimony was expressed through the consent given by the people to everything that was to be done in the Church, and through the reception of what had happened in it as being in accordance with God’s will. However, it would be a mistake to think that the consent of the people had a juridical quality, like that given in representative bodies today. The words “consent” and “reception” do not mean that the people expressed its personal opinion or desire concerning the accomplishments of this or the other church act. The church authorities were not dependent upon the faithful’s will, which had not enough authority of its own to take action. The Church does not live and act through the will of men, but through the will of God. Consent and acceptance mean that in accordance with the testimony of the Church the bishops teach and govern according to the will of God.  

That is the basis on which the faithful participate in church-government, and in teaching. It was observed only during the first centuries. After the time of Constantine the organization of the Church no longer gave any room to the people’s ministry of witness and today it has become practically impossible. I cannot trace here the whole history of lay participation in church government. I can only state that little by little the laity had less and less share in it, and sometimes none at all. (The Orthodox Church always retained the idea that it was necessary for the laity to share in the activity of the Church; in proof of this one can quote the epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs, and especially the decisions of the Council of Moscow of 1917/18.)  

Reviving the Work of the Laity  

But the norm remains the same, for it corresponds to the nature of the Church. Even if it cannot be fully applied today, this norm shows us which course we ought to take if we want to revive the work of the laity in the Church. It is thought that we can do so by inviting some representatives elected by the laity to share in church-government, side by side with the bishop. (It was in conformity with this way of thinking that the laity were called by the Council of Moscow to participate in the government of the Church. But its decisions have only been applied by the Russian Churches abroad.) Perhaps this is the easiest way to revive the work of the laity in church-government. But does it correspond to the nature of the Church and to its doctrine of the ministries? How can ordinary elections of lay representatives (on the same lines as modern political elections) really endow them with the ministry of government and confer upon them the grace required for this ministry? And if the representatives elected by the laity do not possess the gift of government, how can they govern the Church? It is surprising that this question is not even raised when speaking of the laity.  

In the Church the different forms of ministry can only be fulfilled through the gift of the Spirit; hence the persons who fulfill those ministries must be appointed by the Church. Orthodox theology, like Catholic theology, regards ordination in the Church as a sacrament, i.e. as an act of the Church whereby the gifts of the Spirit requested in the Church’s prayers are bestowed by God. Ordination, therefore, does not mean the appointment, election or nomination by the congregation of persons whom it would like to fulfill a certain ministry. Neither the bishop himself, nor the congregation by itself, can nominate anyone to a ministry in the Church, for it is God Himself who calls His servants to exercise such ministries. “And He gave some…” (Eph. 4:11.) Moreover when the laity are admitted to church-government by election or nomination, the following question arises: if certain laymen participate in the government of the Church does that really mean that God’s people is participating in it?  

For God’s people it does not matter whether the bishop governs alone or whether he is helped by lay representatives. It does not matter because in both cases the people is not exercising the ministry of witness to which it is called by God, and which is its particular ministry in church-government. The people cannot transfer this ministry to representatives, because it belongs to the people as a whole, and not to separate members. Democratic principles, however perfect, have no place in the Church, for the Church is not a democracy; it is the people of God chosen by God and appointed by Him to serve Him in the Church. The activity of God’s people has nothing to do either with universal suffrage or with representative government, for it depends on grace. The laity, as such, cannot govern and teach in the Church with those who have received the gifts of the Spirit, and who are called to govern and to teach in the House of God.  

Ministries Based on the Gifts of the Spirit  

In order to agree with the doctrine of the Church one could follow the same course, taking one’s stand however on grace and not on law. We know that the multiplicity of ministries has gradually disappeared from the life of the Church and been replaced in fact by one single ministry: the priesthood. Does not our time demand the revival by the Church of certain ministries which existed in former times, or even the creation of new ministries? Without a doubt, the new conditions in the life of the Church require new ministries. Like the ministries at the time of the apostles, these ministries should be based on the gifts of the Spirit in order to correspond to the nature of the Church. In other words, the persons to whom the Church would entrust these ministries should be appointed by the Church.  

If it is indispensable to create a Council for the government of the Church, in addition to the bishop, why not revive the ancient ministry of the presbyters, who would be elected by the Church and established for the ministry of government, as the members of the Presbyterium were in early times? If the hierarchy of the Church seeks persons to be teachers, why not revive the ancient ministry of the Didascales ? But in the strict sense of the word , both will cease to be laity, because they will be accomplishing a special ministry in the Church. By clinging to the legal sphere, we bring about a confusion of ministries, because we admit the laity (who always remain what they are) to ministries which are not within their competence. And according to the will of God, the ministries must not be confused, but differentiated. Furthermore, in this way we create ministries which are devoid of grace, thus introducing into the Church the notion of differentiation between the sacred and the secular – whereas in reality everything in the Church is sacred, nothing is secular.  

Hand in Hand  

The revival of the ministries exercised in the early Church should go hand in hand with a revival of the ministry of witness of the whole people, for we must revert to a form of church-life in which the people participates in all its activities. In this connection we should recall the words of Cyprian of Carthage, which have been forgotten during the course of history: “From the very beginning of my episcopacy I made it a rule not to take any decision without your advice (i.e. the advise of the Presbyters) and without the agreement of the people.” (Epist. XIV, 4.)  

Christians, who are living members of the Body of Christ, live in the Church. Their lives are a constant ministry, which begins as soon as they enter the Church and are established as God’s kings and priests. Life in the Church means life with the Church. Hence God’s people participates in every manifestation of the Church’s life. If any sphere of it were closed to God’s people, that would mean that there is a secular sphere within the Church, or that the faithful have ceased to be God’s people.  

It is in the sphere of the Liturgy that the ministry of the faithful has been most actively shown; the faithful are, in the real sense of the word, co-ministers with their bishop. In the sphere of church-government and teaching, God’s people is governed and taught by those who have been appointed to those ministries. In these spheres the gift of witness belongs to God’s people, which testifies that the bishops appointed by God in the sacrament of order are governing and teaching in accordance with God’s will. The ministry exercised by the bishop and the ministries exercised by the faithful are different ministries which cannot be confused, but which cannot exist without one another. This difference of ministries is conditioned by the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit. “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.” (1. Cor. 12:4-6.)  


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