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 â€œchurchâ€ 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 monarchâ€¦ 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?