What Is the Biblical View of the Laity?

With such potential in the rank-and-file membership of our churches, why have we not employed them more fully?

John Fowler is president of the Missouri Conference of Seventhday Adventists.


WHY ARE we as a church not effectively employing our laity? Is it because they are incapable of successful soul-winning work? Quite the contrary. Ample evidence establishes the fact that when employed properly they are highly effective.

Gottfried Oosterwal describes the effective work of laymen in the non-western world as follows: "The burgeoning church growth of the sixties did not result primarily from big evangelistic campaigns or from the work of well-trained ministers. It came about as a result of the work of lay members." 1

In A History of Christian Missions Stephen Neill notes that much of the work of the early church was done by laymen, even to the extent of establishing churches. Pointing out that the total membership of the church was actively involved in the witness of the church, he adds: "Where there were Christians, there would be a living, burning faith, and before long an expanding Christian community. In later times great churches were much set on claiming apostolic origin—to have an apostle as founder was a recognized certificate of respectability. But in point of fact few, if any, of the great churches were really founded by apostles. Nothing is more notable than the anonymity of these early missionaries." 2

Not only do we realize that laymen can do effective work, but we also recognize that the work of God will never be finished in this earth "until the men and women comprising our church membership rally to the work and unite their efforts with those of ministers and church officers." 3 The same inspired pen tells us that "hundreds of men and women now idle could do acceptable service. . . . [God] will use humble, devoted Christians, even if they have not received so thorough an education as some others." 4

With such potential in the rank-and-file membership of our churches, why have we not employed them more fully? In some cases there has simply been a lack of confidence in the church members' ability to do the work of soul winning. As a result we have actually restrained many who have desired to do personal and public evangelistic work.

Ellen G. White presents this truth pointedly: "If men in humble life were encouraged to do all the good they could do, if restraining hands were not laid upon them to repress their zeal, there would be a hundred workers for Christ where now there is one." 5

Has This Been the Result of an Overemphasis on Evangelism?

The heavy emphasis we have been giving to public evangelistic meetings possibly has eclipsed the importance of lay involvement. If evangelism is defined as the work of the "public evangelist," who is assisted by the churches once or twice each year, then what is there for the church members to do while the evangelist is away?

Another reason why we may be failing to train and employ our laity care fully is what Oosterwal calls the "'three-more-months-and-then-the-harvest' idea." 6 While we believe that we are living in the last hours of this world's history, we also realize that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter 3:8). We erect buildings to stand 100 years—why shouldn't we train our laymen as though we would be here that long? In fact, we may very well be here longer than 100 years more if we do not train and employ our laity in the grand work of evangelism.

Of all the reasons for not employing our laity properly, the one factor that probably hinders this effort the most is our theology of the laity. Theology is a potent influence in society. It strongly affects all belief and conduct. If our theology is in error, or confused, the result will be widespread confusion and error.

Two basic theologies govern our attitude toward the laity. One is Calvinistic, the other is Arminian. Church historian Williston Walker says that Arminianism was a reaction to "rigor of Calvinism" and that "it manifested it self in an emphasis on the more practical aspects of religion." 7

Against the Calvinist doctrine of ab solute predestination, Arminianism taught a predestination based on divine foreknowledge of the use men would make of the means of grace. It also op posed the sharp distinction between clergy and laity made by Calvinism. This distinction was not made by Calvin himself but reflects a later development of Calvinism.

Although Arminianism originated in Holland, it had its greatest influence in England through the work of John Wesley. One of its practical aspects was the concept of the oneness of the ministry and laity. This Arminian theology gave rise to "lay preaching," since it made no distinction between laity and clergy and taught that all believers are to work for the salvation of man. Seventh-day Adventists, generally, have been Arminian in theology. This can probably be traced to the strong influence of Methodists in the early Seventh-day Adventist church and our be lief that Arminian theology is more in harmony with Scripture than is Calvin ism.

Arminian theology is not without its opponents, however. D. Martyn Lloyd- Jones debunks Arminianism as "untheological." He leans toward a Re formed Calvinistic theology that rejects the "lay preaching" concept, believing that modern lay preaching originated with Arminianism. In his book Preaching and Preachers he states: "It was the shift in theology last century from a reformed Calvinistic attitude to an essentially Arminian one that gave rise to the increase in lay-preaching." 8

Preaching is something done only by one who is "called by a special act of God" beyond the call to be a follower of Christ. If a person does not receive that call, then he is to do something other than preach, but just what he should do is not defined very clearly by Lloyd- Jones.

The Biblical View of the Laity

This sharp distinction between the preacher and other church members is coming more and more under fire today. It seems to me that the critics of this concept stand on firm theological ground.

The term laity has often been used in contrast to the term clergy. The first denotes the role of church members who are not employed by the church; the second defines the role of those who are employed in the services of the church. This cannot help but lead to the idea that the primary responsibility for the work of the church rests upon the clergy. However, the Biblical view of the laity is quite different. In the New Testament, the singular form of the word laos is used almost exclusively when referring to the church as God's people. (See Hebrews 4:9; 11:25; 1 Peter 2:10.)

This points to a very important characteristic of the Biblical view of the laity. It does not refer to a group within the church but to the entire church it self. Laos, used in the context of the church, literally means "God's own people." It is nowhere used in contrast to others within the church.

Gottfried Oosterwal develops this point clearly, stating: "The terms laity and clergy in the Bible are used for one and the same people. These are not each other's opposites, or even distinct from one another. The laity is clergy. As God's chosen people, they are called laity." 9

He goes on to show the proper distinction between the terms, leading us to see more clearly the intended role of the entire membership of the church: "One might also say that the term laity stresses in particular the privileges of being chosen by God from among the many others to the exalted status of God's own people, separated and different from the world; while the term clergy emphasizes in particular the function and role of the laity, namely to share their gift of grace with others. Laity stands for the status of God's people. Ministry is their function." 10

This concept of every church member being a minister seems to be the stimulus for some of the great successful movements in the history of the Christian church. The Reformation of the sixteenth century, the great awakening in John Wesley's day, as well as the work of the Millerite movement of the nineteenth century and that of the Seventh-day Adventist church all reflect this emphasis.

Martin Luther wrote: "'Every Christian man is a priest, and every Christian woman is a priestess, whether they beyoung or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, scholar or illiterate. All Christians are, properly speaking, members of the ecclesiastical order, and there is no difference between them except as they hold different offices.'" 11

Oosterwal develops the idea that at baptism every believer is ordained to the ministry and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of ministry. This concept is based on the record of the baptism of Jesus, at which time He was ordained to His ministry and received the Holy Spirit. Also, the writings of Paul seem to support this view. In Ephesians, the fourth chapter, he speaks of the body of Christ, the church, and the gifts given to it. In verse 12 he states that these gifts are "to equip God's people for work in his service" (N.E.B.).*

Speaking persuasively regarding every baptized person's call to the ministry, Oosterwal adds: "To be baptized in the baptism of Jesus means not only God's confirmation that we are a member of His chosen people, the laity, but also our ordination to the ministry." 12

He argues cogently for a lay church, stating that the rediscovery of this concept could very well be the key to a finished task in the seventies. If the early Christian church was a lay church, then we who claim to be the remnant should by all means conform to the original pattern.

Ellen White's Position

Theory is one thing, practice another. Ellen White not only solidly supports this view of a lay church but outlines a concise program intended to bring about such an objective. However, there has been some confusion regarding her position in this area. Some have overemphasized one or two isolated quotations that tend to obscure her overall view. One of these follows: "Our ministers are not to spend their time laboring for those who have already accepted the truth.... Those who take their stand for the truth are to be organized into churches, and then the minister is to pass on to other equally important fields." 13

Such statements do not reflect the broad design Ellen White was given for the work of the ministers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In Gospel Workers she writes: "In laboring where there are already some in the faith, the minister should at first seek not so much to convert believers, as to train church members for acceptable cooperation." 14

She also compared the pastor to an overseer, supervisor, or superintendent of a job, whose task it is to train and guide those under his direction in accomplishing the task. Notice her plan: " 'In some respects the pastor occupies a position similar to that of the foreman of a gang of laboring men or the captain of a ship's crew. They are expected to see that the men over whom they are set, do the work assigned to them correctly and promptly, and only in case of emergency are they to execute in detail.'" 15

Seventh-day Adventists have an abundance of programs designed for instruction and employment of our laity. As the church leaders realize the importance of the laity in the work of the ministry and begin seriously to train them, a great work will be realized, health and vitality will come to the church, evangelism will become a vital part of the entire church program, a multitude of souls will be won, and the day of the Lord will come.

Ellen White presents a thrilling picture of a work soon to be a reality in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: "In all fields, nigh and afar off, men will be called from the plow and from the more common commercial business vocations that largely occupy the mind, and will be educated in connection with men of experience. As they learn to labor effectively they will proclaim the truth with power. Through most wonderful workings of divine providence, mountains of difficulty will be removed and cast into the sea. The message that means so much to the dwellers upon the earth will be heard and understood. Men will know what is truth. Onward and still onward the work will advance until the whole earth shall have been warned, and then shall the end come." 16


* From The New English Bible. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

1 Gottfried Oosterwal, Mission: Possible (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publishing Association, 1972), p. 63.

2 Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 24.

3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 117.

4 Ibid., vol. 7, p. 21.

5                         , The Desire of Ages, p. 251.

6 Oosterwal, op. cit., p. 62.

7 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p^ 399.

8 D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, p. 101.

9 Oosterwal, "The Role of the Laity," Andrews University Focus, vol. 9, no. 3, supplement (July, August 1973).

10 Ibid.

11 Quoted in The Lay Preacher and His Work (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publishing Association, 1940), p. 9.

12 Oosterwal, "The Role of the Laity."

13 White, Testimonies, vol. 7, pp. 19, 20.

14                          , Gospel Workers, p. 196.

15 Ibid., p. 197.

16                           , Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 96.

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John Fowler is president of the Missouri Conference of Seventhday Adventists.

December 1977

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