The Household of God metaphor envisions God as the paterfamilias of the household with each of us as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. Some siblings are more mature than others in their faith are. Some are newly adopted. But we are all siblings.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the concept of the Household of God to some church groups. What I have found revealing is the answer I get in response to a question I ask at the end of my presentation: Who is the paterfamilias of the congregation? Every time the response has been, “the pastor!” This understanding is foreign to scripture and is inseparably tied to the myth of laity. The idea of laity, and our corresponding conception of clergy, is foreign to scripture. Where did we get the clergy/laity dichotomy?
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 term “laity” is not a direct translation from the noun laos (“people”) as is often purported. It came indirectly from laos through the 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 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, any more than you do surgery from a lay-surgeon, or legal advice from a lay-lawyer?
Real ministry, we are lead to believe, 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 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. 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 cannot be fully trusted with the things of God. Only professional Christians can do real ministry, and since they cannot 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. Am I exaggerating? Do people in the pews have any sense of call? Look at the best-selling book list in recent years. What continues to be at the top? The Purpose-Driven Life. You may love the book or hate it, but it is being read by millions of people who have received no discernment of call and ministry from the Church.
The clergy/laity distinction has undermined the missional nature of the church. Dualism has been a persistent problem pitting sacred versus secular. Instead of equipping people for ministry in the world, we have made them clients of "the clergy." Somewhat ironically, the place where we find some of the most insightful thinking about "the laity" in recent years comes from the Roman Catholic tradition. Because of the sacramental role of the priest (which Protestants reject) they believe there <em>is</em> a need for a set apart group that presides over the sacraments. Yet in recent years, there has been teaching to the effect that the work of the laity is out in the world and not inside the four walls of the church. Needlessly involving laity in the work of the clergy (and the clergy in the work of the laity) is destructive to the mission of the church. How much more so should this be true with regard to the descendants of the Protestant Reformation but it is far from being the case.
This is not to say we can function without leadership. The question is what kind of leadership. The vision in the New Testament appears to resemble the idea of a player-coach training a team for action. Maybe the image of a household manager training and coaching other household members in household management fits even better; it is a master and apprentice relationship. Instead, we have created a "professional-minister to client" relationship, where "the minister" does ministry on behalf of others rather than equipping others for ministry. If we are to truly become the Household of God we must deconstruct the myth of laity and recover the biblical vision of the whole people of God as "the clergy."
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
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, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 24-25.