The Myth of the Lay Person – Contending for the Liberation of the Church
By Paul Anderson and Graeme Sellers
From the earliest days of their training Lutheran pastors are well-rehearsed in this definition of the church: “The church is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” Upon closer examination, however, there are some serious deficiencies in this definition.
This definition falters most profoundly as it highlights the role of pastoral professionals to the exclusion of the so-called laity. The artificial distinction between clergy and laity is one of the greatest heresies of our day. It is a false divide most vigorously defended by those who have a stake in preserving the present ecclesiastical power structure, a structure which reserves for seminary-trained experts the right to do the “higher” ministry of preaching, baptizing, marrying, burying, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
But Scripture, especially its account of the Church’s infancy, exposes the fallacy of such thinking. Pentecost-the birth moment of the Church-was a lay movement and a triumph of the purposes of God to advance His kingdom through ordinary, unschooled people. When Peter and John were dragged before the Jewish high council for preaching the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, their lack of formal training was a source of astonishment for Israel’s religious leaders. “The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John,” Acts 4:13 reports, “for they could see that they were ordinary men who had no special training. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.” Intimate friendship with Jesus, not a degree from the local yeshiva, was the basis for participation in kingdom ministry as the Church was being born. Unordained men and women turned the world upside down and electrified it with the revelation of God’s heart for humankind.
Two thousand years later, it would appear that we have “advanced” the Church right out of the ways of God.
Our Baffling Theological Madness
In today’s clergy-dominated church, we have trouble trusting lay people. They may fly 747’s, or oversee multinational corporations, or teach in the classroom, but often we are reluctant to release them into meaningful roles in the church. For all our talk about the priesthood of all believers, we perpetuate the regime of the priesthood of the priests. In this regard the Reformation is incomplete. It will remain unfulfilled until we deliver it from the misguided belief that only religious professionals belong to the priestly caste. If we are to live into the promise of the Reformation, then followers of Jesus must be liberated from an institutionalized church that is reluctant to trust people without seminary training.
The faulty definition of the church we’ve inherited-the church is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly administered-holds us hostage to an ideology and practice that limits kingdom possibilities. This definition is restrictive and presumptive-restrictive because it cordons off the boundaries of authentic priestly ministry and presumptive because it presumes that “we” (seminary-trained experts) know better than “they” (rank and file followers of Jesus) do.
Should this not strike us as a form of theological madness? If we haven’t lost our minds, at the very least we appear to have lost our Bibles. The exclusivity of this understanding of ministry fails to find expression in Scripture or in the experience of the young church. We grandly caution against an “improper administration of the sacrament” as though we have fully apprehended the mystery of sacramental ministry and are the only ones who can be trusted with it. We fear authorizing non-professionals to do sacramental ministry because they might make mistakes, and we cannot allow the honor of God to be compromised. Do we seriously imagine that we must defend God’s honor, or that His honor is so frail that the least flub in the flesh will mortally wound it? History’s witness is that God is quite able to defend His honor without our aid and that, as a general rule, our attempts to assist in His defense end unhappily.
Our exclusive understanding of ministry would be baffling to the New Testament writers. Paul left behind unordained elders to oversee local churches he had just established. But according to the constitutional requirements of many churches today-and this includes most Lutheran congregations-Paul’s elders would not be qualified to serve at the Lord’s Table. Not only would we insist that they jump through our institutional and educational hoops, we’d also demand they undergo a battery of personality tests by a licensed therapist to ensure their emotional stability according to the latest clinical standards. Far-fetched? Then consider just one recent example.
A revered pastor in the Lutheran renewal movement recently accepted a staff position at a prominent ELCA church. He has more than thirty years of experience as a pastor, including a number of years within the ELCA before transferring his credentials to another Lutheran organization. But when he met with his local bishop, the bishop was surprised and upset that this pastor had performed word and sacrament ministry at his new church without being a rostered ELCA clergyman. Operating within a fixed institutional paradigm, the bishop was unable to see past humanly concocted rules for ministry.
The call of God on this pastor’s life, the many years of experience doing authorized sacramental ministry, the reservoir of integrity and respect that he had built up over his time in ministry-ultimately, none of these really mattered. What mattered were the rules, the regulations. The result? In order to be re-rostered with the ELCA-and therefore authorized to perform sacramental ministry-this pastor would have to pass muster with a candidacy committee, submit a sermon in writing, and see a psychiatrist who would administer the MMPI and Myers-Briggs personality inventories.
If receiving sanction to perform ministry is this serpentine for an ordained, seminary-trained pastor, then what chance does a person without specialized training have in today’s church? Almost none. This begs the question: Where did we get the idea that baptizing or presiding at communion is solely the province of the ordained? Who says a father or mother can’t baptize their child at a public ceremony
Why can’t members of a home group who have been experiencing the healing power of the Holy Spirit for six months celebrate communion together without a pastor present? The answer is clear: the rules, the regulations, and a definition of the church that insists on reserving sacramental ministry for an elite class of spiritual shepherds simply will not allow it.
Look, Honey, I Shrunk the Church!
This definition not only restrains those who are followers of Jesus, it miniaturizes the church into a one-hour Sunday morning activity. While it’s true that the Word can be preached and that baptism and the Lord’s Supper can be celebrated on any day of the week, our culture typically sets its watch for these activities to occur on Sunday morning. Predictably, we tend to focus on Sunday disproportionately, giving it far more attention than the kingdom-things we engage in Monday through Saturday. The numbers alone should tell us we’re off track: this single hour on Sunday morning is only 60 minutes out of 10,080 weekly minutes, yet we feature it to the neglect of the 167 other hours we spend elsewhere. The upshot is this: elevating the clergy and their Sunday morning role as dispensers of grace minimizes those who are not ordained and suggests that there is really only one hour of the week where meaningful ministry takes place.
A top-down definition of the church overestimates the role of clergy and underestimates the role of the unordained; it flatters the pastors and demeans the people. Inevitably it hamstrings the cause of Christ and the expansion of the kingdom by excluding the majority of those who belong to Jesus from key ministry experiences. As a result, we are encouraging those who need it least and discouraging those who need encouragement the most. Clergy do not need more encouragement to minister, but rather to stop dominating the ministry and start releasing others into their kingdom destiny as ministers of God’s grace and mercy to a hurting world. Those who are not religious professionals do not need to be held back, tamped down, and reined in; they need permission and championing to courageously step forward into their appointed place with God without worrying that they are inferior because they have not graduated from seminary or been stamped with an institutional seal of approval.
The stewarding of the sacraments is not the core-identity of most pastors today. In any given week the amount of time clergy spend performing technically sacramental acts is relatively minor. And Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians would seem to suggest that his focus on discipling people to become more and more like Jesus Christ held far greater importance for him than sacramental duties (1 Corinthians 1:17): “For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News…” Those pastors who see their calling as essentially sacramental in nature tend to have a lopsided view of ministry and are the least likely to release people into significant kingdom ministry. But the Bible’s description of a pastor’s role is quite different. Not only are pastors to preach the Word in season and out of season and devote themselves to prayer, but they are also responsible “to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ, until we come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature and full grown in the Lord, measuring up to the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13, NLT). According to Scripture, equipping is a chief role of pastors, and the enduring quality of their work will be measured in part by their faithfulness in raising up and releasing followers of Jesus into ministry.
Who’s Zooming Who?
If pastors are hesitant to release the followers of Jesus into unrestricted, full Good News ministry, it may be because institutional paperwork has become the enemy of powerful kingdom work. Even the language of the institutional church is imposing: pastors “preside” at communion and they “officiate” at baptisms. Make no mistake; these are power words, conveying the concept that certain priestly duties are exclusively for the spiritually elite and specially ordained. Outsiders need not apply. But whom are we kidding here? Or, as Aretha Franklin asked in her pop hit, “Who’s zooming who?” There’s no language in the New Testament mirroring the pretentious self-importance of pastors “presiding” and “officiating.” The New Testament speaks the language of serving, sacrificing, and decreasing so that others might increase.
Rather than watch-dogging the sacraments against potential intruders, pastors should be encouraged to assist in ceremonies in which a father baptizes his child or a friend baptizes someone she prayed with to receive Christ. Pastors should be delighted to serve as part of a team during a communion service in which the words of institution are spoken by a respected follower of Jesus. To do so is to give value to the priestly roles of all of God’s children and accords beautifully with Peter’s description of Jesus’ followers as “a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession” (I Peter 2:9a). This means that at the very minimum our inherited definition of the church needs to be tweaked to say “…where the Word of God is taught, received, and applied, and where the sacraments are shared for strength and for the building up of the body of Christ.”
Or consider this definition, offered by Ted Haggard, pastor of a healthy church in Colorado Springs. “The church is a dynamic, empowering, life-giving set of relationships.” While this is not an exhaustive definition, it includes some aspects missing in the Lutheran definition.
Importantly, this definition breaks free from the false division between laity and clergy. There are things that distinguish each of these groups, of course. But the distinction is not that the pastors do the ministry while the people receive the ministry. Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Ephesian church that ministry is the calling of each person who belongs to Jesus and that the pastor’s main job is to train and equip people to do it effectively.
Haggard’s definition also rightly calls attention to the crucial ingredient of relationships. When Paul discusses the church, his language is almost always relationship-based: the relationship between different members of the body, the interdependence of the body’s many parts, the gifting of each one in the body, the need to honor and respect one another for the body to function properly.
An understanding of the church as a dynamic, empowering, life-giving set of relationships levels out the playing field, inviting both the professional and non-professional church member into significance. Perhaps most importantly, it understands the church from the perspective of who we are rather than what we do. The church is not a series of sacramental ministries performed with priestly precision, which effectively make it pleasing to God. It is people in relationship with each other and with God, who is pleased not because of all the technical religious skills we’ve acquired, but because of the life of His own Son which abounds in us.
What’s at Stake
What is at stake? Not just the tweaking of a definition but the liberating of the church. We desperately need to dispel the myth of the lay person and break down the dividing wall between pastors and those whom they shepherd. The sleeping giant-the rank and file followers of Jesus-needs to be awakened, trained, and released for service. Pastors must embrace their primary responsibility as releasing people to do the ministry of the kingdom. This focus will necessitate proper training and Spirit-saturated empowering and careful attention to character, of course, but it must be done. There is nothing optional about this calling if we are to fulfill the destiny God has placed upon us, His church.
The mainstream Lutheran Church, along with many other denominations, is on a self-delusional head trip. It has reserved the important stuff for those who have gone to seminary. It has restricted the “highest” expressions of ministry for those who bear the imprimatur of the institution. Little wonder, then, that in congregations all across the globe, people look at their pastors and say, “They’ve got the training. Let them do the ministry.” Far better, far healthier, and far more biblical to hear them say, “Equip me, pastor. I want to do what God designed me to do.”
Why do non-ordained people frequently doubt their own calling and effectiveness? Why do they typically defer ministry to the experts? Why do they often feel unqualified, dumb, and fearful of failure? Perhaps it’s because they’ve been saddled with a definition of the church that denies them significance and equal footing with those specially trained for pastoral ministry. Perhaps it’s because they are waiting for an understanding of the church that highlights the value and purpose of all the people of God, and not just the ordained. Although seeing the church as a dynamic, empowering, life-giving set of relationships is an incomplete description-it doesn’t include some important aspects, like teaching the Word of God-it does give proper focus to the communion of the saints, not just the communion of the priests.
Ultimately, what’s at stake is the destiny of Jesus’ followers and the winning of a world lost in darkness. It is the people of God, not just the pastors of God, who have been called out of darkness into His wonderful light so that they can show others the goodness of God. The stranglehold of exclusivity and division must be broken, and the breaking starts first with those who have been called to shepherd God’s flock. When healthy pastors rise up-men and women more interested in empowering people than in demonstrating and protecting their own power-then God’s people will be encouraged to follow the dreams God has placed in their hearts and to step confidently into their kingdom future with the One whose promise over their lives is Yes! and Amen! in Christ Jesus.
Paul Anderson, Director of Lutheran Renewal. Graeme Sellers is senior pastor of Nativity Lutheran Church in Gilbert, AZ. He is also on the Leadership Team of the ARC.
The Awards Banquet – Toward a Theology of Rewards
By Paul Anderson
At the end of our high school basketball season, we always had an awards banquet. All players and coaches and the most loyal fans showed up as we celebrated. Some players were thankful to have just made the team, while others were given awards, like “most improved” or “most valuable player.” This was not a time to cut players from the squad because the season was over. Rather, it was rather a time when the year was reviewed and when excellence was honored. Playing well was its own reward, but it was also honored at the end.
In the same way, God’s team comes together at the close of the season. Faithfulness is rewarded. No one is judged in the sense of being condemned (John 5:24), but everyone is accountable for the way the game has been played.
My family was having morning devotions recently. We read about how Jesus encouraged hosts to invite the poor to dinner, saying, “You will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14). My ten-year old asked a logical question, “What will we be repaid?” While I couldn’t answer her question very well, it was significant that the youngest raised it. Children love rewards. Adults do too, but sometimes it gets messed up with our understanding of grace. Karis wanted to know the pay-off to decide whether it would be worth going after.
While it is not clear what the reward is, it is worth waiting for, and it was motivation for Paul, who spoke about crowns, rewards, and a prize. A crown (“stephanos” in Greek, a laurel wreath) was what a victorious athlete received. The reception of that prize was motivation for self-discipline and hard work. Paul said to “run in such a way as to get the prize” (I Cor. 9:24). It is not wrong to have the prize in view. In fact, it brings greater courage, perseverance, and discipline, qualities that we need to run a good race. While athletes work hard for a perishable wreath, the Christian who is disciplined himself and runs a good race is given an imperishable crown (I Cor. 9:25). We are warned against losing what we have worked for, like an Olympic athlete who is discovered to have broken rules and must surrender his medal: “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (Rev. 3:11; see also II John 8). Demas, a partner with Paul, no doubt lost his crown when he quit the team for worldly pleasures.
Scripture speaks of a crown of rejoicing, a crown of righteousness, a crown of life, a crown of glory. Part of the reward appears to be a place with Christ (Rev. 3:21), which could include added responsibility and accompanying authority. The reward of the stewards who were responsible and wisely invested for their master was greater responsibility.
The sequence, in theological terms is salvation, sanctification, glorification. Salvation means that we are on the team, invited in by the sheer grace of God; sanctification is how we play on the team.
Glorification is what happens when the season is over. Sanctification continues to the point of death; glorification happens mainly after this life, though for Jesus it included going to the cross, then being raised, ascending, and returning to His place of power. Glorification for us includes a glorified body that will last forever (Phil. 3:21), a sharing in the glory of Christ, as we are co-heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17), and a giving of rewards. God sees the whole process as one completed whole: “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).
We are saved (we make the team) by grace, but it is unto good works, to playing well, not sloughing off (Eph. 2:10). As author Bruce Wilkenson says, “What you believe determines where you will spend eternity. What you do determines how you will spend it.” We have an opportunity to “lay up treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20), which should motivate us against needing to lay up treasures on earth. Treasures in heaven are real and can occupy our heart (v.21). Living this way will afford us “a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom” (II Pet. 1:11). On the other hand, some will be saved by the skin of their teeth and will have little to show for it. They made the squad, but they didn’t get much playing time. “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (I Cor. 3:14,15). Judgment Day for them will not be a happy occasion. “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming” (I John 2:28). The tears God wipes away may be the regret of having not used our gifts more wisely or having not helped the team to win.
Theocracy is not the same as democracy, and Christians will not be rewarded equally. God’s justice is perfectly fair. Believers will not be condemned, but they will be judged as to how they have stewarded what was given to them (Matt. 25:14-30; 20:1-16). Not to be judged in any way would be to say that we are not ultimately accountable to God, but Scripture makes it clear that we are: “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). You won’t give an account of how your teammates have played, nor will they judge your activity. The Coach, who knows every player perfectly, will hand out the awards.
Rewards suggest that justice will be meted out at the end. The day of Christ will bring it about. Justice is not fully realized in this life, which is why we have the final judgment. The rewards come not when we die and go to heaven but at the day of the Lord (Rev. 22:12; Matt. 16:27). “Behold, I am coming soon. My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). I can forget to give something I have promised, but Jesus never does. He, in fact, brings it with Him when He comes for His Bride. He tells us it will be soon to motivate us to be waiting, watching, and playing to the best of our ability. Our expectation should grow with each day. “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27). Giving a reward is not peripheral in the thinking of Jesus; it is a central part of His great return.
Good deeds, such as hospitality (Matt. 10:40,41), the care of the needy (Matt. 25:34-40), or even the giving of a cup of cold water (Matt. 10:42) are an investment in future benefits and are evidences that we are playing well. “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” (I Thess. 2:19). “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12:3). Good works are rewarded, and so is good character. Simply standing fast and enduring in the face of difficulty brings a crown (James 1:12).
While Jesus speaks about suffering and self-denial, He also speaks about rewards. Those who suffer and bear it have a “great reward” in heaven (Matt. 5:11,12; Luke 6:22,23). “If we endure, we will also reign with Him” (II Tim. 2:12), which sounds like the reception of a crown.
Nothing escapes the watchful eye of God. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Cor. 5:10).
- make hard work worth it
- tell us something about the kindness of God
- let us know that the best is yet to come
- amplify rather than diminish the grace of God
- motivate those in pain to hold out
- must be worth it if they come from the Father
- show us the close connection between faith (pistis) and faithfulness (pistos)
Rewards reflect back on the Rewarder. He calls us to Himself, calls us into service, gives us the power to do what He requires, then rewards us for faithfulness. What grace! God is the rewarder, making any reward an optimum prize and any judgment a sad verdict. God Himself is the best prize: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1). He is worth going after, greater than any gift He could give us. He is the pearl of great price.
And yet the righteous are promised rewards, some now and most later. Jesus taught His disciples, “Great is your reward in heaven.” The wicked get their “reward” now and punishment later. They are under the “buy now-pay later” plan. The righteous wait for their reward later, though in one sense obedience is its own reward. Obedience is always rewarded, and disobedience is always judged, though not always in this life and not materially, as Old Testament Jews were prone to believe. So whether the reward is the effect of the cause or whether God stands at the end of the line with awards, obedience to the will of God pays dividends. The psalmist says that “in keeping them (God’s law) there is great reward” (19:11).
Rewards are based on both God’s justice and His mercy. In His justice He evens the score, if not now, later; if not in this life, in the next. God is a debtor to no one, and He will pay those to whom He has made promises. Though it didn’t always look like the obedient got the best deal, the psalmist could declare, “Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth” (58:11). The blessing to a kind foreigner named Ruth would not be overlooked by a just God: “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2:12). This blessing was based on the understanding that those who plant obedience will reap a harvest. There is cause and effect built into the system. If we don’t get an upgrade in this life, we get it in eternity. God doesn’t miss the caring gesture, the gentle remark, the gift given, the hand extended, the forgiveness granted freely.
What does the champion of grace say at the end of his life? No one understood the mystery of grace better than Paul (Eph. 3:1-8). He told Timothy that he was “Exhibit A” of God’s grace because of his past life (I Tim. 1:16). He urged his son in the faith, struggling as a pastor in Ephesus with problems over his head, to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 2:1). And yet his closing testimony said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will award me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Tim. 4:7,8). Why would he talk about rewards at such a time? Why not say more about grace? Because they are not at odds with one another and because Timothy needed perseverance to keep on. And Paul knew that one great motivator for endurance was the awards that followed faithful service.
Heaven is going to be outrageously extravagant, where we will have the time of our (eternal) lives. But it will be even greater for those who lived with eternity in mind. My children, like all kids, love rewards and are motivated by them. If children need incentives, then God, the best Father of all, gives them freely. Dear brothers and sisters, we’re going for the prize, so play your heart out-and get ready for the Awards Banquet!