The layperson is but a sheep! In his 1906 encyclical Vehementer Nos Pope Pius X wrote: "This flock, those who hold rank in the different degrees of hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful; and those categories are so distinct in themselves that in the pastoral body alone reside the necessary right and authority to guide and direct all the members toward the goal of society. As for the multitude, it has no other right than that of allowing itself to be led and, as a docile flock, to follow its shepherds." This stratification of the church into an upper and lower class with the clergy as upper and the laity as lower reflects the twelfth-century pronouncement of Gratian (the father of Roman Catholic canon law): "There are two kinds of Christians, clergy and laity."
Two views of the church
Obviously the theology of the laity raises the whole question of ecclesiology, involving two basic views of the church. The first, the narrow view, maintains that the ministry constitutes the church in which it is difficult to see how the laity can play any other than a minor role. In this view the clergy are in effect the church, with the laity considered an appendage. The apostolic succession of the ministry is the sole guarantee of the existence of the church. The clergy are the rulers, the laity are the subjects. We are reminded of a retort made by a certain monsignor to Henry Manning in 1857 when the laity of England were showing signs of being "uppish": "What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle in ecclesiastical matters, they have no right at all." 1
The second, the wider view, affirms that the church is the whole company of those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and evidence the same in their life. The advantage of this definition is that it emphasizes personal faith and obedience of the Christian, and plainly states that Christians are a company, a fellowship. One problem is that it concentrates on human beings and their faith, rather than on God and the salvation He offers. The concept of the church as the body of Christ, which is central to this second view, draws attention to three facts: Christ is the head of the church; He is the life of the church; and the church is always His church.
The church, then, is the community in and through which Christ is bringing His redemption to bear on the life of people. "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (John 20:21, RSV),* said Jesus to His disciples, and there is no ground for restricting this commission to the twelve or merely to those who are ordained.
The proclamation and imparting of faith is the task and privilege of the whole church without differentiation. The church is always a people in mission: regenerate men and women, establishing beachheads for the kingdom, day in and day out, right where they are occupationally and vocationally. When the mission of the church is being considered, anything like clericalism is wholly out of place. Hence the statement of Bonaventure is startling indeed: "So the cleric is distinguished from the layman as having the charge, not only of living by faith and upholding it, but of imparting it."2
Of course, there are many ministries, and among them is the ministry of oversight, which is sealed by ordination. But all ministries are within the compass of the church. The church encompasses the ministry, and not vice versa. The ordained minister fulfills a representative function within the church. "The church is a universal priesthood," John Stott reminds us. "But the church is not a universal pastorate."3
The question of the right relationship between the ministry and the laity is the central question for all true ordering of the church. The ministry derives from the congregation and exists for the congregation; but this does not mean that the congregation controls the ministry. The pastors are recognized by the congregation as called of God to their office, and the primary and basic function of their ministry is the training of congregants "for the work of the ministry" (Eph. 4:12).
Our greatest need is to develop the concept and practice of partnership in the service of Christ. This is no day for suspicion between ministry and laity. The task of the church is the task of the whole church. It is not a matter of rulers and ruled, teachers and taught, but of the people of God receiving all that God purposes to give, and passing it on to the world. In order that this shall be done, the great army of laypeople must be instructed in the faith and given all possible guidance in translating this faith into action in the differing circumstances in which they serve. But no witness can be ultimately fruitful unless it issues from a life that is consecrated to God through and through. This is the supreme vocation of the whole church. Ministers and laity are partners in an enterprise that is as wide as humanity. Their task is to bring the fullness of Christ through the fullness of the church to the whole human race. The time is short, and the business is urgent.
1 Cited in John R. W. Stott, One People
(Downers Grove, 111.: Inter-Varsity Press,
1971), p. 31.
2 Yves M. J. Congar, Lay People in the
Church (Westminster, Md.: Newman
Press, 1967), p. 13.
3 Stott, p. 45.