Too few laymen realize the responsibility that is theirs as members of the Church. For the most part they have the tendency to sit passively in the pew and leave to the minister not only the preaching responsibility but the task of directing every other phase of the church’s activities.
But even more than that there is lacking in many laymen a vital experience with the living Christ, and this makes church membership more a matter of social contacts than of knowing and surrendering to the will of the Saviour.
The early Church was really founded by laymen, and we can learn much by looking at them, studying their backgrounds, and discerning what it was that sent them out to turn the world right side up and bring into reality the church of the risen Lord.
These were ordinary men who performed an extraordinary task.
Matthew had come from the Internal Revenue Service—he was a tax collector who actually levied taxes for a foreign government.
Mark was a lay companion of Paul and Peter and also Barnabas his cousin who had thought so much of Christ that he sold all that he had and submitted it to the common good.
Luke, one of the best educated of these laymen, was a physician and also a historian and writer. To him we owe the clear and factual books of Luke and the Acts.
John was a fisherman who became the beloved companion of our Lord and who wrote one of the four gospels, three epistles, and to whom was given the revelation of things yet to come—the last book in the biblical canon.
Peter, Andrew, and James, also fishermen, left their nets and under the hand of God went out to preach the story of the Cross and the empty tomb.
Paul, the brilliant university graduate, could have become a rabbi but he met Christ on the Damascus road and from that day was a man transformed by the Spirit of the living God, to receive special revelations of divine truth, and to impart this truth by word of mouth and by pen.
These men were all laymen, many of whom in the course of events went on to assume ecclesiastical posts, but as we are today had the same original handicaps and potentialities.
They were not supermen. They did have characteristics, however, that we would do well to study, for these may be ours on the same conditions.
First they had had a personal experience with Christ. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Religion for too many of us is a matter only of church membership. Lacking in vital personal experience with Christ, many have never recognized themselves as lost sinners, dependent on the cleansing, forgiving, and redeeming work of Christ. They have never had the sense of a tremendous change, a reversed destination, or a new perspective.
The 1959 national Freedoms Foundation “George Washington Honor Medal” award was recently presented to Dr. L. Nelson Bell for his regular CHRISTIANITY TODAY feature, “A Layman and His Faith.” The citation commended Dr. Bell for “an outstanding achievement to bring about a better understanding of the American Way of Life.” This is the fourth time Dr. Bell has been similarly honored by the national Freedoms Foundation.
Little wonder that those with whom we rub shoulders in business, or meet casually on the street, see no difference between us and the other cultured pagans about us. There is no aroma of the presence of Christ, no evidence of his transforming power, no word from our lips to indicate that we are not our own but belong to him who has bought us with the greatest price in the annals of eternity.
Secondly, these early laymen were filled with the Spirit. They had experienced his wonderful infilling.
Dumbfounded but thrilled over seeing the resurrected Christ with whom they had spent three years, they were not yet ready to witness for him. “Tarry ye in Jerusalem” was the command. “Ye shall receive power,” was the promise. “And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness” was the fulfillment.
Testimony to experience of such spiritual power is pitifully uncommon today. We are afraid of being fools for Christ’s sake. We do not want to become “emotional” or “take our religion too seriously.”
It is this absent recognition of absolute need of the Holy Spirit that is handicapping seriously the witness of laymen in the Church today.
The Holy Spirit will be given to us in response to prayer and surrender. Without his presence and power there can be no effective witness.
The early Christians were men of prayer. They knew the privilege and blessing of prayer. We read: “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together.” “These all continued with one accord in prayer.” “Peter went up to the house top to pray.” “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
Prayerless laymen are useless laymen. When God has placed such a glorious privilege and power at our disposal, why do we so constantly neglect it?
The laymen of the early Church had the Old Testament Scriptures. Following the example of their Lord they knew, believed and used the Scriptures.
Again and again they resorted to the Bible, to Moses, the prophets, and the Psalm writers who had foretold Messiah, and that Christ was this One.
They accepted the full integrity and authority of the Word, and in their hands it was the Sword of the Spirit.
Laymen today cannot afford to be spiritual illiterates; they too must steep themselves in this God-breathed literature. In so doing they become effective witnesses for the Christ revealed therein.
These early laymen talked, preached, and lived Christ. They had a consuming desire to tell others who he was and what he had done, even in their own lives. They were assured in their hearts that the hope of salvation rested in none other than Christ, and the responsibility of telling the story was their own.
How different it is with us today! Christian laymen have the same wonderful Saviour to know—the same infilling of the Holy Spirit can be theirs—the same privileges of prayer are available—the Bible in its entirety is an open Book—the whole world needs their witness.
What are we going to do about it?
L. NELSON BELL
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