the weblog of Alan Knox

The changing role of the "layman"

Posted by on Sep 23, 2008 in books, church history, elders, office, service | 5 comments

Everett Ferguson edited a book called Church, Ministry, and Organization in the Early Church Era (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993). The book is a collection of articles concerning early church leadership.

One chapter, “The Role of the Layman in the Ancient Church,” was originally a speech given by George Huntston Williams to “the working party gathered by the Department on the Laity of the World Council of Churches, New Haven, Connecticut, July 21, 1957”. In this article, Huntston discusses the changing role of the layman in the early church.

First, Huntston defines what he means by “laity”:

Our understanding of the laity will be shaped, not primarily in terms of ordination and the lack thereof, nor of theological education and the relative want thereof, but rather in terms of the Church gathered for worship, instruction, and deliberation (ekklesia) over against the equally important “church” diffused or scattered or seeded in the work-a-day world (diaspora) as leaven in the lump (not as wheat among tares!). On this view even the ordained cleric is, in a sense, in his action as husbandman and citizen a ‘laic.’ (pg 273-274)

Thus, Huntston is differentiating between those who remain in one place (“laity”), and those who are scattered and move around from place to place.

While I don’t use the term “laity” in its traditional sense, it is a valid scriptural term. The Greek word behind the English “laity” simply means “people”. It is the term used when the church is referred to as the “people of God”. Thus, as Huntston says, all Christians are “laity” in this sense.

How did the “role of the layman” change in the early church? Well, Huntston describes three different states (although I would assume there would be some overlap):

At three points is the position of the laity markedly different in the ante- and the post-Nicene epochs. In the very first days of the Church’s self-consciousness as a new people set apart, the whole of the Church as the laos tou theou [people of God] was seen over against the people of the old covenant, while the baptismal recruits were understood to have entered into a priestly kingdom, neither Jew nor Gentile, no longer in bondage to the world about them, yet servants of the King to come. Then, with the maturation of subapostolic Christianity, this historico-thoelogical conviction made room for the functional differentiation between the clerical officers of the priestly people of God and the unordained faithful in a process which was completed before the end of the persecutions and which was indeed abetted by them. The bishop had become an awesome monarch… Finally, with the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of his office, Christianity in the period of the great councils found itself contrasting not clergy and laity as in the ante-Nicene period, but clergy and the chief of the laity, namely, the Christian emperor. (pg. 274-275)

According to Huntston, the role changed from a focus on the service (ministry) of all people of God, to a focus on the “ordained” people of God, to a focus on what he calls “the imperious royal-priestly claims of the Christianized head of state”.

I think other historians have made similar claims. The questions for us to consider are the following: Is this development normal and natural and should we continue developing the role and responsibilities of believers as times and customs dictate? If so, how do we determine how the roles of the people of God change? If not, how do we determine which “state” is preferred?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-23-2008

    Alan you asked:

    Is this development normal and natural and should we continue developing the role and responsibilities of believers as times and customs dictate? If so, how do we determine how the roles of the people of God change? If not, how do we determine which “state” is preferred?

    1.I find it quite mysterious that we hold on to what we like and quote the early “fathers” to solidfy our positions. So in an essecence my answer is no. If we are to be students of the book, then we must start their and as much as possible, try to capture what we see and pray for wisdom.

    2. I don’t believe those role changed, I believed they were probably redefined and pressed upon the priest of God.

    3. Back to number 1. I have to ask you, Sir. Do you believe there is enough in scripture for us to set forth a biblcal ecclesiology? Or should pragmatism drive our ecclesiology? That is a serious question I am wrestling with. I don’t want to come off as a guy who knows because I don’t. But I feel that if I can get a glimpse and grasp it from the scriptures then there I should attempt to mimic?

    Maybe I am wrong and I haven’t been involved as long as you or many of your readers, but I think if I am to work hard to mimic something it should be scriptural not historical.

  2. 9-23-2008

    1. “Is the development normal and natural”? Yes it’s normal and natural, but is normal and natural spiritual? I am amazed at the number of Christians who cannot distinguish between “natural”, “carnal”, and “spiritual” man. On this point I’d have to say that “you can’t fix what you don’t recognize”. Many remain in a spiritual quagmire simply because they think its “normal”.
    2. “How do we determine how the roles of the people of God change”? Since my understanding of scripture is that the lines drawn today between clergy and laity are extra-biblical and not scriptural, and that it is a “normal” condition and not a spiritual condition, I’d have to conclude that this is, in fact, a digression from the Word of God that can only lead further and further away from Truth. The Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul says:
    “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed”! Galatians 1:6-9.
    Admittedly strong words and I advise myself caution in their application in this context because we are dealing with a world of well intentioned believers. The scriptural context here is the Judaizers and an integral part of the Jewish system was the separation of the priest from the people, or a clergy/laity system, which is something the torn curtain did away with. Why, if the Father tore that curtain, opening access to every believer, did we in our infinite wisdom so quickly sew it back up again?
    3. “How do we determine which ‘state’ is preferred”? It certainly cannot be the world view of the “carnal” mind, the only reliable standard is the Word of God and though many disagree on proper interpretation, God’s true teachers need to continue to hammer God’s Truth every opportunity they have for dialogue, using every academic tool they have. By the way, Alan, you do a superb job of this. I don’t remember if I brought this up before but I dislike the use of the term “leader” (hegeomai) on both scriptural and cultural grounds. My objection on cultural grounds is that there are several layers of separation between us and the original meaning of scripture, and these layers have often led us away from Truth rather than into Truth. For that reason I prefer to use the term “guide” where we are quick to supply “leader”. My reasons are two-fold: First when we use the term leader in our present world-view we are doing two things wrongly:
     We are interpreting backwards from our current world view in an attempt to interpret scripture when we need to interpret from the world view of scripture forwards.
     Because of that false starting point we have a tendency to invest that “title” with all the authority we “think” it ought to have.
    Second, when we call someone a leader there is a presupposition that they have been somewhere and are capable of guiding us there. Having been somewhere is what cuts the true from the false rather quickly. So called leaders may have studied where God was in past times and may be able to “wax eloquent” with the best, but only a true “guide” knows where He is right now. I’m not suggesting they’re some kind of a super Christian, what I’m suggesting is that the God of true “guides” is a “present” God not just a “past” God. I often refer to Him as the moving Jesus. It’s not enough to know what He did; we must come to understand what He “is” doing.

    My conclusion of this matter is we’re in deep doo-doo and change must take place. Just how to facilitate change is the real question to my mind, and while I counsel Godly wisdom here I also ask the question: Just how many parts of an evil system do we want to keep?

  3. 9-23-2008


    Yes, the role of servant (minister) was taken away from all believers, and assigned to a select few. I agree that we should return to the scriptural teaching of every believer a servant (minister).


    Another excellent comment. I agree that we must seek the (super)natural and not the natural.

    By the way, my PhD mentor (Dave Black) and I discussed the term “guide”. We both agreed that we like it as a translation of hegeomai.


  4. 9-23-2008

    We only have one leader and that’s God. As I explained I use the term “guide” in relation to following those who have been somewhere, but I also see it as Paul’s primary tool in “guiding” the church in decision making processes. He seems to “guide” their thinking in areas that need correction rather than dictate direction, and he then seems to leave implementation up to them.

  5. 9-23-2008


    I agree.