Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms lists secular, temporal, and profane as parallels to the term lay, while spiritual, religious, and sacred are given as contrasting words. I doubt if it takes deep religious psychoanalysis to see that this use of words points to a basic heresy that has been with us for years. What we have here is a heavy semantic hangover from the Roman Catholic concept of priesthood. Luther’s recapture of the concept of the priesthood of all believers has not yet influenced the dictionary.
The New Testament clearly teaches that all Christians are to be ministers. Anything else clearly violates Christ’s demands of discipleship. When he spoke of self-denial, of taking up the cross daily, and of comradeship with him, there was never the vaguest hint of a select upper crust of professional Christians under which lay a stratum of amateurs for whom a lower level of dedication was acceptable.
Not only the demands of discipleship hit hard at our traditional thinking on this issue but also the structure of the New Testament Church. This was intended to equip the saints (all of them) for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12). Christ has reconciled us to himself by the cross and has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:15–20). If reconciliation is for all, then obviously the ministry is for all as well.
Hendrik Kraemer points out that in the New Testament the words kleros (root of clergy) and laos (root of laity) both refer to the same group of people. I defy the idea that because a man makes his livelihood in the secular world, God expects only a partial commitment of his life. In medicine, technology, and science, “layman” means the casual, indifferent, uninformed amateur contrasted with the dedicated specialist. If “lay” Christianity means that, then I am unalterably opposed and favor abolishing the word.
In the profoundest sense, all of us have been called, not to a work, but to Christ himself. This is central. Within our life in him, we are given our work and callings. Some are designated pastors, teachers, and evangelists for building up the total ministry of the total church.
The picture of the clergyman on the front lines, fighting the lonely battle for God, while the members in the rear areas send up supplies so their paid representative can fight harder may appeal to the selfish, lazy, and materialistic inclinations in us, the members. It may also appeal to the pastor whose ego is gratified by his position of religious authority, prestige, and recognition. But it clearly does great injustice to the scriptural principles of Christian witnessing and the mobilization of the Church. The layman is out on the front lines away from the church building—in his home, office, shop, and club. He is there being God’s man. The pastor is in the fighting, too, but he concentrates on training and equipping the troops for the battle they are fighting. I confess I’m tempted to identify with Ernie Pyle’s comment during the war: “I’m a rabid one-man movement bent on tracking down and stamping out everybody in the world who doesn’t fully appreciate the common frontline soldier.” Maybe I don’t quite want anybody stamped out who doesn’t appreciate the potential of that common frontline layman, but there is such a thing as Christian straightening out.
Elton Trueblood feels so deeply about the modern confusion over ministry and laity that he doesn’t like to talk about “laymen”; he prefers to speak of the “ministry of common life.” I have not yet abandoned the word “layman,” for it points to a distinction for which we as yet have no other term. But I eagerly hope for a better word, one that would describe the facts, yet rebuke the error. Perhaps “lay-minister” at least stabs at it.
The Bible stresses that every Christian is a priest. We are a kingdom of priests unto God. The biblical and Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of every believer does not mean there are no more priests. It means that we all are priests of God.
Many people conceive of a ladder of dedication. At the top is the missionary, particularly the one who goes overseas. Just below comes the pastor. Then the professional religious worker. Finally, down on the bottom rung is the lowly layman, sometimes looking as if he is barely on the ladder at all. The layman thus becomes a sort of also-ran Christian whose chief function is to pay the bills for the pastor and fill up the pews for the public services of the church.
This is the age of the spectator. The stadium sporting events—football, boxing, and basketball, where most of us only watch others perform—draw the big interest. And the age of the spectator has moved out from the athletic field to engulf the American home. We are a nation of TV addicts, professional watchers. Fred Allen predicted that if the television trend continues, we may become a race of people whose heads are dominated by huge saucer-sized eyes, our brains having shriveled away to nothing. And, since most of us watch television in the sitting position, the posteriors will become more significant. We may look something like A1 Capp’s Shmoo—all bottom, no head, just big eyes on top.
We can still smile at these possible consequences for watchers instead of participants. But the result in our churches is not humorous. It is cause for tears and repentance. We have developed a spectator Christianity in which few speak and many listen. The New Testament Church began with Jesus’ command to everyone of his followers, the apostles and ordinary believers alike: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” But what started as a lay movement has deteriorated into what has been acidly but accurately described as a professional pulpitism financed by lay spectators. The Church was intended to be a vibrant, redeeming community of compassion, mission, service, witness, love, and worship—not a fraternity of fans of the faith.
Professional spectators almost always turn into critics. The football fan becomes the Monday-morning quarterback. The professional theater-attender develops into an amateur Brooks Atkinson. The professional observer of government who never becomes personally involved is the cynic who informs us that all politicians are crooks anyway.
Spectator Christianity ultimately becomes critical and contemptuous, cold and cynical, sterile and unproductive. It observes and criticizes others but never gets committed to life with Jesus Christ. And therefore it is not Christian, even though it sits in church or works in religious activity.
Theodore Roosevelt described those timid souls who refuse to become involved:
The true Christian is involved. He cannot avoid it. He is a participant in the redemptive mission of God through the Church, not a critical onlooker. He is involved in the world—its business, its government, its culture, its hunger, its travail, its tears—because he loves its people. Here he cannot be a spectator either. In his prayers for believers, Jesus said, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.” The layman is sent into the world in exactly the same way Christ was sent—as an agent of redemption.
When Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel,” he meant it geographically, yes, but also vocationally. Go ye to Africa, Korea, Indonesia. But go ye also into the worlds of business, law, education, mechanics, art, music, government, agriculture. Go ye into all the worlds and preach the Gospel there. Go to the end of your world—where the influence of our Lord Jesus stops in your job or society—and start preaching there.
The layman has a life in the church for worship, fellowship, instruction, and strengthening. From there he moves into the world of unbelief to be a witness, a minister of reconciliation, a servant of God.
Canon Bryan Green contends that though America may be ahead of England in many technological spheres, England is “ahead” of us religiously:
Your American churches are crowded with people today, but there is no biblical or spiritual depth among your laymen. Religion is largely a sentimental Sunday affair which does not radically influence daily life. If something doesn’t change, fifty years from now your churches will be empty as ours are today.
If I were an American minister, rather than concentrate on the people outside the church, I would spend all my time seeking the conversion and deepening of those people who are already church members.
I think Canon Green hits the heart of the problem. If there is to be any large-scale lay witnessing, then there must be large-scale conversion within the Church. The word is conversion. The conversion may be from an unregenerate, nominal church membership to a personal experience of grace, or from a lukewarm, defeated Christian life to a life of power and victory. In either case a radical transformation is demanded.
Much exhortation to witness is futile and may actually be harmful. If men do not have a vital, up-to-date relationship with Christ, witnessing can become a Pharisaical religious proselytizing stemming from the desire to hang more scalps on our ecclesiastical belts or pad our religious pride by the number of visits we made. Or witnessing may be done out of fear and guilt more than out of faith and guidance. The result? Not much! Compulsive witnessing may have the thresher going wide open, but not much wheat comes out.
The answer lies in our relationship with Christ himself. If we are totally committed to him, Christian witnessing will be neither optional nor mandatory; it will be inevitable. He assumes the responsibility for our effectiveness. “Ye shall receive power after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you and ye shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:8).
For a long time I was confused over the nature of Christian witness. I thought witnessing was something to do. So I tried to do it, and I exhorted others to do it, too. “Let’s get in there and witness!”
Now I realize I was missing a lot of the point. Christian witnessing is not really something we do; it is something we are. A relationship with Christ through the Spirit produces the fruit of Christian character, Christian living, and this draws men to Christ. It alone overcomes the priggish religious self-consciousness that stifles true holiness and effectiveness.
Jesus, describing the mighty work of his Spirit within us, said: “Ye shall be witnesses to me”—not “ye shall do witnessing.” If we do something, we can be proud of it. Is this evangelical Christianity’s own form of works religion? Like the foolish Galatians, we, having begun in grace, think we shall carry on by human effort.
If our current straining, striving, evangelistic promotion is God’s way, why doesn’t the New Testament have the same tone? Did Paul try to pistol-whip the Christians at Rome into soul-winning activity? No, he clarified the quality of life produced in Christ as men, “rescued from certain death, put [themselves] in God’s hands as weapons of good for his own purpose” (Rom. 6:14, Phillips).
In a life filled with God there is a calm, continuous outflow of witness. Sometimes it is in the silence of a friendly ear as we take time to listen to others’ problems. Sometimes it is in the openness of admitting our own failures, telling how Christ has worked in them. We often help others most from our weaknesses, rather than our strengths. Christ’s grace is perfected in our inadequacies. Strong saints are not ashamed to own up to problems.
The pulpit can become a coward’s corner, as Stephen Olford says, and so can the Sunday-school class lectern. If a man is not bold, open, frank, across a coffee cup, he has a serious short circuit in the sanctuary or classroom. Can we confront men in face-to-face personal encounter with the same courage we show on the platform? Only Christ gives this. It is a matter of relationship, not nerve, technique, or a dominant personality. The Holy Spirit’s work is characterized by relaxed boldness. This makes for easy, natural conversation.
Sam Shoemaker describes this kind of witness: “They have lost completely all shyness about speaking of these things. Shyness usually means you are pretty shy on religion itself. When your heart gets full of it, so too does your talk. You don’t talk dogmatically or self-righteously, but you lard your spiritual experience into your ordinary talk, and people get intrigued.”
The Christ-filled life produces durable relationships. Often the culmination of evangelism takes place only after long cultivation of a friendship. Patience is essential, and this comes hard for an impetuous activist like me. God set up a nine-month preparation period for human birth. Too many times I have wanted the whole spiritual process to take place in fifteen minutes—from conception to delivery. And at birth, growth has only begun.
So a witness must be a Christian involved in other people’s lives. Some pastors admit they don’t want to be too close to their laymen. This is a sure way to produce nothing: nothing of depth, growth, or reproductive capacity. And laymen who don’t want to be intertwined with the stuff of people’s lives in Christian companionship and evangelistic concern will bear scant fruit. When Christ is ministering to men through us, in his calm, shattering honesty, outflowing concern, and transforming power, we can expect anything to happen.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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