by Rev. Robert E. Lucas
Currently much attention is being focused on the Church and the relation her members have to the principal reason for her existence: to bear witness to the love of God our Father in the sin inundated world and to aspire to His heights of perfection.
And no discussion could be more pertinent during these times when so much thought is being directed in the area of the role of the layman in the Church. The layman has a vital role to perform and all too often he himself does not realize his potentiality as a definite asset to the furtherance of the cause of the Mystical Spouse and as an apostle to the world.
The sentiment of the Prince of the Apostles bears witness that our concept certainly is not analogous with that of Christ when he utters,
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness unto His marvelous light.” (I Peter, 2:9.)
It is sad indeed that the active apostolate of Christ’s ministry has been borne and exerted principally by those whom He has called, trained, and laid His hands upon in ordination and sent forth to teach in His holy name. The role of the layman has been misunderstood and this ignorance has precipitated adverse conditions in the Church that have resulted in serious threats to the very life and existence of the Mystical Spouse.
St. Peter expressed the mind of God when he captured in words for posterity the desire so close to the heart of Christ for the laity. He thus exalts the layman to a lofty comparison with the glorious formal priesthood of Christ. However, the layman is distinctly different from the priest only in that he has not been commissioned to teach officially and to lead others with the authority of Christ. But the layman must be a witness to the teachings of Christ made explicit by the priest. He is, as it were, an assistant to the sacerdotal ministry, an extension of it, simply because it is physically impossible for the priest to reach out in his human limitations to all places. And in this wise, the layman carries the torch, brings the shining example of Christ’s philosophy to the world.
In the sermon on the Mount, Christ addressed Himself to the world in general and to His followers in particular when He taught: …
“Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under the foot of men.” (Matt. 5:13)
Not only is the layman obliged to live so that Christ will be loved and honored and the object of adoration the world over, but he is at the same time warned that unless he aspires to the high ideals Christianity demands of him, nothing less than an eternity in hell will result.
The layman’s objective is to realize his ultimate end; to save his soul and to enjoy the beatific vision after the final judgment. Everything else which comes to focus must be subjected to the final scrutiny of criteria which will judge whether or not the methods or means he employed will serve to bring him to the feet of God. And if the layman is sincerely zealous for the salvation of his own soul, he will also be seriously concerned for the salvation of those about him. It is this that prompted Christ to teach,
“Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5-16.)
Elsewhere John bears witness to feelings we should possess in regards to one another:
“He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.” (I John 3:14.’)
And if we love our brother, how can we not be solicitous for his eternal welfare?
The layman cannot be separated in duty and objective from the priest. His hopes and desires are congruent and integrally part of the aspirations, the dreams, and the hopes of the priest. The layman is in a particular advantageous position superior to the priest for carrying Christ into the world through the good example of his daily life. He witnesses to his Christian faith to the individuals in whose company he travels. The many and diverse duties incumbent upon the priestly office make it nearly impossible for the priest to serve as effectively in this apostolate as the layman. The layman is naturally “designed” by God for this task and it is not too remiss to conjecture that his impression, if it is favorably positive and relates well to Christ’s life, will do more good for the Church and Christ’s cause than similar efforts exerted by the priest.
This is simply so because the generality of people, whether or not they are correct in this supposition, assume and expect the priest to be forever exemplary and do not consider an unusually good priest anything out of the ordinary, but presuppose such a condition naturally should exist. However, the layman, who is appealing in the sight of God is looked upon far more favorably by his fellows because they can readily identify him with themselves. And today, who can deny that the role of the layman is an understandably important one?
The Church does recognize the role of the laity and maintains that the widest possible use of their talents should be made and recognizes the need for advise and help from the layman on a far from subservient plane. However, little sympathy can be accorded to the peculiar philosophy of those with an undue preoccupation on the part of some with quibbling about policy-making in the organizational life of the Church. The Church does foster the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy and numerous are the admonitions addressed to them by the episcopacy to assume a more active role in spreading the faith of Christ.
The very fact there is an immensely disproportionate misconception of the layman’s role bespeaks a failure on the part of the Church to illustrate effectively just what is expected of her laymen. And so it is not any wonder that this very ill-conception has been the reason which has caused so much confusion, strife, chaos, and needless offense and insidious insults to be heaped in the face of God in all of our parishes. This is the principal reason much havoc has been wrought, the scene set for Satan to easily and effectively stir up evil in the hearts of the laity and cause much harm both spiritually and temporally to the Church and remain a problem of constant and serious concern to all who desire that the will of Christ be felt in our midst. These are times when decisions about the future of the Church must be resolved. Total misunderstandings about the positions of the layman in the Church by both layman and priests have too long flourished among us.
Yet in paradise was demonstrated the basic method by which men could be happy with God. And it was by disobedience that man severed himself from the merciful Father in heaven, impaired his faculties, and caused the stain of original sin to clothe the soul of his progeny to the consummation of the world. Since it was by disobedience to God’s will that man lost the opportunity to a happy and blissful eternity, it is not unnatural that the means to bring about a restoration of this impairment is by subjection of his will to that of God or by being obedient to Him in sincere and humble condescension to God’s desires for his life as expressed through His spouse, the Church. The Church has been established to accomplish this purpose. But man has disobediently abandoned God’s will for himself and espoused the cause of Satan.
The layman cannot be pitted against the priest nor can the converse expect to receive benediction from on high. This is a blatant violation of basic Christian principles. Anything less than the ideal is not worthy of Christians as followers of Christ. For too long a time, now, laymen have exerted an undue influence in the material and spiritual functioning of parishes without any Biblical injunction, theological basis, or canonical sanction for this practice. The priesthood, which is sworn to uphold the sacred character of the Church has aided and abetted it by permitting the practice to persist. The affect on the Church, to say the least, has been dastardly damaging, not alone to its temporal or material progress, but what is far more important, the spiritual lives of the faithful are at stake, the destiny of their immortal souls is in danger and their eternal salvation is alarmingly imperiled.
What the layman must understand explicitly is that his eternal salvation is inexorably bound together with his healthy parochial attitude. What he thinks of his priest — for he must never forget, even for a moment, the priest is another Christ — may well determine where he spends eternity. The sentiment advanced in the Old Law is expressive of the honor and love laymen should accord the priest:
“With all thy soul fear the Lord and reverence his priests.” (Ecc. 7:31.)
The influence of the layman cannot interfere in the fluent operation and functioning of Christ’s Church. The role of the layman has been superbly expressed in the words of a noted American ecclesiastic: “It is wrong to think of the laity as a democratic caucus and it is wrong to think of the Church as some kind of a celestial erector set or a kind of pousse-cafe’ with different non-fusing levels. The Church is organic— there is a continual flow of life blood of the Redeemer on all levels and through all levels. Can you conceive of asking the position of the many outstanding lay saints in the Church? Or the contributions many laymen have made? Would their contributions have been notably greater if they had been granted a role in the parish policy-making? Let’s rise above the tawdry business of the role of the layman in parish supplies to the true role of the layman: the awesome dignity and power that is his through the effects of the sacraments and translation of these sacramental graces into bearing witness before the world.”
The layman is not equipped, is not prepared, nor is he divinely endowed to transact the business of the Church. Nor should he even be interested in doing so unless his cooperation and aid is solicited by the pastor. Too often policies determined by unqualified laymen have caused innumerable instances of damaging difficulty to the Church. The layman’s object is to reinforce the authority of the priest because it is the priest’s authority that gives basis to the role in which the layman is involved in working out his own salvation. Unless the priest be possessed of authority the layman is in danger of remaining sterile and impotent in his role. Unless the laity love and respect the priest, there cannot be a flourishing Church filled with pious faithful.
Obedience is the keystone of civilization, for it is the mother of order and without order nothing can exist. In tracing the history of civilization from the earliest times, we see shining like threads of gold in the fabric of character development, the sterling virtue of obedience. Long before the world was created, God struck the evil and rebellious disobedient from heaven and created hell as their domicile.
It is conceded and readily granted that it is the nature of man to be self-willed, to do what he wants to do, but he must learn to restrain himself; it is this which differentiates him from the animal. If there is no respect for authority, in time man will even lose respect for obedience to God and there are already increasing signs of this among us. The layman must realize his obligation of obedience to the Church as a necessary condition for a happy eternity.
In order to serve the Church, his fellow man, and above all, Almighty God Himself, the layman must serve as he is instructed to serve, he must obey the rules, the regulations and ordinances that have been laid down for the good of his religious society. The layman does not lower himself when he humbly condescends in obedience to the will of the Church. Just as a child is bettered by obeying the parents by overcoming a negative trait the parents are desirous of eliminating from his character, so the layman, too, must comply with the Canons of the Church to remove the barriers keeping him from a blissful eternity.
The layman can never escape the obligation to obey, for in every walk of life, there is someone to whom he must owe obedience. It is good for him to train himself to obey the Church laws, regulations his priest might pass for the good of the parish, and the admonitions of his parents. Even kings must submit to parliaments, the president must submit to Congress, the priests to their bishops, who in turn are obedient to the Holy Fathers, the Patriarchs.
No one was more critical of the attitude of the Pharisees or more condemnatory of their outlook on life than Christ. No one denounced more vehemently their hypocrisy, no one loathed their practices more than the Saviour, but He demanded obedience to them because they were possessed of authority by God. He never declared because of their sinfulness that they had lost God’s sanctioned right to teach and govern. And so he obliged His followers:
“All things, therefore, whatever they shall say to you, observe and do.” (Matt. 23:2.)
In reality, the laity, in innumerable instances have been obedient to the evil proddings of Satan. They have corporately cooperated in the degradation of the clergy and their authority. Eternal wisdom springs forth from the writings of the Old Testament to remind us that when we
“ … smite the shepherd, the sheep will be scattered.” (Zechariah, 13:7.)
What more effective means could Satan employ to divest God and His Church of its authority and imbue man with a strong sense of rebellion and irresponsibility towards lawfully constituted ecclesiastical authority than to place doubts in the minds of the laity about the priest? The devil is succeeding only because the laity is eager that he succeed. They have not taken too seriously the admonition by St. Paul to the Hebrews when they too questioned the authority of the priest:
“Obey them that rule over you and submit yourselves for they watch over your souls and they must give an account, that they may give the account with joy and not with grief over you; for that is not profitable to you.” (Hebrews, 13:17.)
Under the present conditions in the Church, how can the laity respect a priest if all his actions are curtailed by a group of laymen, which in no way is canonically sound? How can his parishioners honor him, respect him, and love him if he must subject himself to their scrutiny and approval? How can they respect him or of what authority is he possessed if he must ingratiate himself with them to remain in the parish? How can they respect him if they have the power, superseding that of the bishop, and thereby Christ’s, to hire and fire him at will if he dares to utter a truth which they find hard to hear and offensive, however moral and credible it may be? How much respect can the master have for the servant? How much respect can the laity have for the priest, if when finding need for some object necessary for his pastoral ministration, he must secure approval from them for its purchase? How can the laity love and adhere in obedience to Christ if they, by their actions, actually despise those whom He has sent: “As the Father sent Me, so I send you.” (John 20: 21.)
“And Christ drew near and spoke to them saying,
‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me ‘ (Matt. 28:18.)
Isn’t the Church presently in a contradictory situation? If Christ so speaks to His priests and ordains that they have
“all power in heaven and on EARTH,”
how is it that His priests are not allowed to function and fully exercise their priesthood? How is it that His priests have been degraded; and by those no less who refer to themselves as Christians! If the priest is another Christ as the Church teaches, how can he be dependent upon the popular support of the people? From what source does the priest derive his authority? Is it from the laity or from Christ? And yet there are those laymen who persist in approving or refusing a bishop’s pastoral appointment of a priest to a parish. This has come about because we have placed and tested Christian principles by the vote. Once we try to prove Christian morality by the results of the voting poll, we have lost Christ completely! Right and wrong can never be decided by the ballot!
How much can the scared heart of Christ endure? Was not the crucifixion enough? Must we continue by repeatedly inserting the spear into Christ’s side and bringing Him more and more anguish and sorrow by our continued refusal to follow His desires for us?
The priest is not subject to the laity, but is responsible to the bishop and he seriously sins who criticizes or causes difficulty for him or opposes his plans or desires for the good of the parish.
“He that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and he that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me.” (Luke 19:11)
“Touch ye not my anointed; and do not evil to my prophets.” (Psalms, 104: 15.)
Man was not created and placed on earth for a continual struggle, but to prepare himself for eventual union with God. And there is a directed road to lead him towards this purpose. God has created man with a noble object — nothing short of life eternally with Him. But how can man attain this purpose under the principles being adhered to in many parishes? Are the churches, rather than a means to a glorious end, breeding places of the devil’s pollution? Is it not true that the devil is exerting a definite influence among the laity and succeeding? Are not the laity, in their degradation of the venerable priesthood of Christ, cooperating capably and surrendering themselves to the will of the devil and assisting to duplicate on earth the despicable atrocious horror true of hell?
No one can claim ignorance as an excuse. Orthodox Catholics must investigate the teachings of the Church and having been convinced of their veracity and credulity, must exert every effort and explore all means to bring about some semblance of order that will suggest they are followers of Christ. Of course, there will be those who insist the present day circumstances are not causes of alarm and that the Church will weather the storm and that the conditions now prevalent should obtain. In this wise, attention can only be drawn to Christ’s own words:
“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)
“… not every man that saith to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me in that day ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name … and in thy name, done many wonderful works?’” (Matt. 7:22)
The very “duties” and “Offices” which so many laymen perform about the church today, which have usurped and excluded the divinely commissioned authority of the priesthood will be the very means that will be utilized as a condemnatory sentence to an eternity for them in hell.
The laity must always strive in its endeavors towards God’s love and holiness so that Christ’s words will not condemn them:
“Ye hypocrites, by well did Issais prophesy of you saying: ‘These people draweth near unto me with their mouths and honoreth me with their lips; but their hearts are far from me. But in vain do they worship Me.’” (Matt. 15:7-9)
“Full well you reject the commandment of God that you may keep your own traditions.” (MARK 7:9)
Christ thus rebuked those who refused to accept Him and His teachings, preferring those of their own choosing. They thought they might dismiss Him insignificantly and forget to consider as binding on the eternal destiny of their soul His profound admonitions. But they forget, as many often do, that once the truth has been heard, it remains for man to accept it or reject by disproving it from Scriptures, Canon Law and Church History. Because the teachings here advanced are impossible to disavow, they are binding upon the conscience of all Orthodox Catholics and they must ardently espouse them and consider themselves individually responsible to see that they are implemented into the life of every local parish, simply because
“he that is of God, heareth God’s words.” (John 8:47)
If we do not accept the testimony of Christ’s teaching concerning priests and laymen:
“For the lips of the priest shall keep knowledge and they shall seek the law at his mouth; because he is the angel of the Lord of hosts,” (Malachias, 2:7)
“… ye therefore hear them not because ye are not of God.” (John 8:47)
Nor is there any validity in the argument that the democratic spirit should prevail in the Church. How many husbands or fathers, if after admonishing their children to follow a particular course of action, would tolerate one of them to refuse to acknowledge his authority and adamantly insist a vote be taken of the household to ascertain if the admonition should be adhered to? Utter nonsense! But this would be the democratic process that necessarily should be followed! Unless the father in the family is possessed of authority in the family circle, complete disorganization and actual hatred will soon breed among members of the group. And where but from Almighty God does the father derive his authority? Why is the Church any different? There must be one final authority and Christ was not impervious to the needs of good order in laying the foundation for a Church that would endure the ages. Otherwise His words would not have been so heavily weighed:
“… and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” (MATT. 16:18)
Very few are convinced that democracy actually represents the fullness of governmental wisdom. It may be that this is only a passing phase in the social evolution of man. Even in this so-called democratic age, there is growing tendency even among nations to place limitations on the self rule of the people and to resort to autocratic methods of government. This can appreciably be noted in present American governmental procedures where the state is more and more restricting the personal freedoms of its citizenry. In reality man only has as much freedom as he is willing to place shackles on his own wants and desires. Unless man does this, he is not free, but a slave to his own appetites.
Many mistake license, which abundantly prevails in our general modern society and in the Church as well, with that glorious gift of God — freedom—whose object is to make us after Christ who maintained,
“And ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)
“Whosoever commiteth sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34)
Arguments have been advanced that the pastor should remain supreme in the spiritual realm while the so called “lay committee” should reign with a free hand over the matters of “temporal” nature. But where in the Church can the delineation take place between the two areas? In neither situation, no matter how ostensibly corporal, material, or temporal, it is still definitely spiritual to some degree as it will be utilized to achieve a spiritual goal. And who decides the matters which fall into each category? Inevitably, it is the so called “committee” which judges supremely and infallibly in these instances.
Certainly in the Orthodox Catholic Church, there has been an abundant opportunity to test the value of lay representation on Church councils. Diocesan synods have supplied many lamentable exhibitions of theological incompetence and bigoted prejudice on the part of lay delegates, resulting in the defeat of needed reforms and adherence to the canons. It certainly is not an edifying spectacle in diocesan synods when eminent lawyers stand to satirize theological doctrine, ridicule the very authority of the priesthood and question its divine commission while such proceedings are blasphemously considered to be taking place under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In many parishes, the priest, although he is competent to do so and is even canonically empowered, if the need is evident, to make changes in worship services and the cycle of services, cannot even think of doing so without the consent of the parish “lay committee” or even an entire congregational meeting, both of which function illicitly in the eyes of God!
How can these laymen, totally ungrounded as they are in matters theological assume competence in this area? Lay representation in the governing bodies of the Church has resulted in situations almost everywhere in the Orthodox Catholic Church which are tantamount to domination of the clergy by the laity, even though it is doctrinally maintained that all authority proceeds from Christ and works downward through the bishops, priests, finally reaching the laity.
The “lay committee” system which exists in all parishes is a perfect illustration of government of a religious society not by clerics, but by the laity: not by religious, but by the seculars. The pastor is supposed to be supreme in things spiritual while lay members look after its “temporal” welfare. As the appointment of a pastor ultimately rests with the remains up to the “lay committee,” and in many instances, they refuse the bishop’s appointments, and because they control the purse strings, they in reality have the determining voice in regulating the conduct of the services, the ornaments of the church, and in some cases, the preaching from the pulpit.
Other wealthy contributors who are not on the “lay committee” often threaten to withdraw their support unless the pastor makes changes in the ceremonial, or refrains from preaching doctrines which they don’t find edifying. If they don’t succeed in convincing the priest to make “amends,” a little pressure on the committee and a threat to leave the parish usually is not without consequence. This is intolerable to any priest who believes he has a commission from God.
In their acceptance of a pastor, the “lay committee” often considers a man’s social standing, his ability to raise money, his looks, the size of his family, his voice or his speaking ability, rather than his spiritual qualifications and gifts or his priestly experience and wisdom. They don’t seem to realize the very fact he is functioning in the diocese and has received jurisdiction from the bishop presupposes he is qualified to administer a parish. How much better it would be if the canons were adhered to and parishes were more effectively administered if the appointment of pastors was totally in the hands of the bishop, as he is in an appreciably better position to understand the needs of the parish, as well as to know the character of the clergy and their spiritual competence.
It is for the layman to rise above the base foolishness of this current misconception of his role in the Church. Christ’s desire for the layman is certainly far nobler and assuredly a higher calling than the one in which he is continually involved in bringing offense to the throne of God. The layman must continually work to perfect his faith, to make sure his salvation by performing good works in cooperation with the priest. Assuming his proper place in the Church and honoring Christ’s priests and their divinely constituted authority is necessary for the laity to have Christ address them with these words of reassurance at the final judgment:
“Well done thou good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of Thy Lord.” (Matt. 25:21)
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America