The Role of Laity in Our Church
By Fr. Gene Maximiuk
It is my honor to present thoughts for your consideration on the subject of "The Role of Laity in our Church". This is a serious subject and one that you hear about every Sunday, every church meeting, fellowship gathering as well as in discussion groups led by the clergy, parish leaders and each other in your homes or in the local coffee shops.
I would like to approach the subject from 2 angles: One more ‘spiritual’ in nature and one more ‘pastoral’ in nature.
First of all we need to define the word ‘laity’. The word Laity comes to us from the Greek word ‘LAOS’. It means the ‘members of God’s nation’, those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. There is a sacred and priestly character that belongs to the laity. In governing the secular affairs of the Orthodox parish, the laity, men and women, have and exercise rights and responsibilities of a very important nature. They are elected to the executive board of the community, organize and carry out the religious, educational, and philanthropic projects of the community and look after its financial welfare. This secular role we understand, but it is the sacred role of laity that we have forgotten. When we ceased being real Christians, we forgot that we are a nation of priests and kings and prophets. This must be recaptured.
In defining the role of laity in our church, we must look to Christ and his Ministry. Christ had 3 ministries: The High-Priestly ministry, His Prophetic ministry and His Royal ministry. The common feature of the three ministries is that in the Old Testament the calling to these three ministries was accompanied by anointing with oil, and those who worthily passed through these ministries were strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This ‘anointing’ is important for us. Immediately after baptism, an Orthodox child is ‘Chrismated’, receives the gift of the Holy Spirit thereby becoming a layman, a full member of the people of God. All of us become a prophet, king and receive a share in the royal priesthood of Christ: All Christians alike, because they are chrismated (anointed ). By one Spirit we are baptized into one body and we are the body of Christ (the Church) and individually members of it.
We have seen that Christ is our High Priest, that is, the intermediary between God and us; that He is God’s spokesman and our advocate before God; and that this wonderful role is called priesthood. We have also seen that he makes His whole Body, the entire Church and all its members, a part of this priesthood. But the members of the Church must first be clothed in His sanctity. His priestly function must be transferred to them; they must become priests, inheritors of His Kingdom and future kings. St. John tells us in Rev. 1:6;5:10 that ‘He made us a kingdom, priests to His God.’ The church, you and I are a nation of priests; Chrismation transforms every Christian into a priest. This is what we now call ‘the royal priesthood of the laity’ through which Christians become a priestly and royal community.
We must rediscover this: The assembly of Christians bears the permanent responsibility of being the earthly representatives of Christ’s royalty, priesthood and prophethood. As a consequence of our baptism and Chrismation every Christian continues the saving work of Christ in some form. As St. John Chrysostom writes: "Thus you become king and priest and prophet in the washing (of baptism); a king in throwing down all evil acts and destroying sin; a priest in offering yourself to God and sacrificing the body and dying to yourself; a prophet in learning of the future and being filled and sealed with zeal. We are God’s supreme Creation, created in His image and likeness and given dominion over the earth as we read in the 1st Chapter of Genesis, we are all servants of God who participate in the sacramental life of the Church, and we are called to proclaim the Good News that has been revealed to us. Through our participation in the Divine Eucharist, through the love which should reign among us, through our kindness to our enemies, through our firmness in rejection the selfish compromises in which the wicked of this world seek to embroil us and through our witness of faith to all we truly are a priestly and royal community.
As was stated earlier through Chrismation each of us receives the Holy Spirit, a Gift which makes us members of this holy nation. This Gift is the source of all other gifts of the Spirit, which confers a specific responsibility to each of us. Thus the role of bishop, priest and deacon is simply a functional differentiation (functional priesthood) of the fundamental Gift of the Holy Spirit for we all equally receive the grace and energies of God. We all receive the one same Gift of the Holy Spirit(Chrismation), it is that we all have different functions and offices in the life of the Church. Peter Mohyla spoke of 2 priesthoods: one is spiritual and the other sacramental. We all belong to the spiritual priesthood, the sacramental priesthood is chosen from the ranks of the spiritual priesthood as the main agent in the work of the church. It is a functional role.
Just as the famous analogy of the different parts of the body compared to the different gifts of the Spirit used by St. Paul in 1 Cor. 12. We are all given various gifts and talents that are used together to help build up the Body of Christ, the Church. As various parts of a body have specific functions so do we in the life of the Church. Each member has a function and mission that helps the body function as a whole. We are all united then to each other. Just as the Church is ONE, so we are one, sharing in the same experience and reality of our condition before God. What is important to know is that we all have special gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit. For the Bishop, Priest and Deacon, our Ordination to the clergy is our gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. Our function as such is then is our ‘job’ in the Church. We then make up one of the many important parts of the one ‘Body’ of Christ.
One important factor in living the true Christian example is the will. Each of us is created with a free will to choose how we will live. We can try to program charitable acts as much as we want but the end result depends on each member of Christ’s Church constantly and willfully deciding that this is how they want to live. Without this constant assertion of will, no amount of programming in the Church will produce lasting results.
To summarize this section by virtue of our Baptism and Chrismation we are all kings and priests and prophets, it is time to be kings and priests and prophets. We must be the representatives of Christ in this world, continue His saving work. We must become His hands and feet. On the more pastoral level, the role of laity in Our Church is to reach out and minister to each others needs. A poem by Annie Johnson Flint helped me to realize what it means to be Christ’s ministers in the Church:
"Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work today; He has no feet but our feet To lead men in His way; He has no tongue but our tongues To tell men how He died. He has no help but our help To bring them to His side."
Through these words we see that the role of the laity in the Church is to be Christ’s representatives. We are to minister to each other and love each other as we do ourselves.
These next words I also find inspiring:
There’s somebody near you who’s lost on the way, Struggling, bewildered, alone; Somebody who’s tired and weary, to whom The love of the Lord should be shown; Reach out a helping hand.’
That is what we are called to do as our role in the Church: Reaching a helping hand. But the saddest thing about the hands of many Christians today is that they are withered. Yet withered hands, brought to Christ, are made whole. When Jesus saw the man with the withered hand He said," Stretch out your hand." And He restored it to wholeness.
Can we not reach out to each other? Can we not extend a non-judgmental hand to our fellowman as Christ did? I think we can, I know we can, and Christ commanded us to do so and we must if we want to attain the kingdom of God.
In Matthew 25:31-46 we learn what our pastoral role in the Church is. We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and go to those imprisoned. We are urged by Christ to do this for each other, no matter who we are. When we serve each other in this way, we serve God. As the late Metropolitan Ilarion of blessed memory said: Slyzutu Bohovi, to slyzutu Narodovi. To serve God is to serve the people.
I truly feel that the role of the laity in the Church is to, with the clergy, together, create open, loving, and caring communities. Just as a healthy family nurtures and loves each of its members, so must we as parishes do the same. Getting involved in each others lives and making each member feel the Love of God in their lives is one of the most, if not the most important, mission of the laity in the Church. A parish is a family first, not simply an organization. And as one of my parishioners recently said to me: " Things will not change until we begin to live outside of the church walls what we profess inside the church walls."
I would like to finally illustrate the role of the laity in the Church by turning to nature. When we think of the role of laity in the church we can learn from geese about what is our role in the Church.
As this fall progresses, look to the skies and look at the geese heading south for the winter, flying along in ‘V’ formation, you might consider what science has discovered as to why they fly that way. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in ‘V’ formation, the whole flock adds at least 71percent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.
People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily, because they are traveling on the thrust of one another. We are all heading in the same direction in the church, towards salvation. Our role then is to work together and build a sense of community, helping one another to grow and reach their full potential in Christ. There is no room for personal agenda’s in the Church. The only agenda is that of Christ’s.
When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone- and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. I f we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in formation with those people who are headed the same way we are. When we fall away, we feel how hard it is to go it alone, we can lose hope. We must realize that the only hope is in the Life of the Church, being members of a community that cares for each of its members.
When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point. It is sensible to take turns doing demanding jobs, whether with people or with geese flying south. We are all responsible for the life of the Church and must not hesitate to take an active role in leading where we can. The parish cannot grow if the work load is on only the same few people. We all must be active.
Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. What messages do we give when we honk from behind? Are we encouraging, supporting, caring, guiding, and helping? Or are we gossiping, criticizing, back-stabbing, demeaning each other? Are we building each other up or are we tearing each other apart?
Finally- and this is important- when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies; and only then do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their group. If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each other like that. We see the importance of ministering to the needs of each other, to stand by each other and help, reaching out a helping hand.
If one was to summarize the role of laity in our church, I think that all that has been said can be summed up by these words from Christ in the Gospel of Mark 12:30-31. Our role in the Church is this:
‘And you shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment.
And the second, like it, is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these."