Just a Lay Person?
Sue Mallory, in her book, The Equipping Church, admits: “I put off writing this book for a long time because I wasn’t sure I had an audience or a right to speak. After all, I thought, I’m just a layperson.” What had held her back? The self-fulfilling prophecy, “I’m just a layperson.”
Sue is not alone. Centuries of church tradition have conditioned countless Christians to think of and call themselves “just laypersons.”
Comments from recent blogs illustrate how entrenched this phrase has become:
- “I’m just a layperson looking in from the sidelines.” (In football, that’s benched.)
- “I’m just a layperson, not a pastor or church leader.”
- “I wouldn’t know, since I’m just a layperson.”
- “I’m just a lay person. I don’t think they’d listen to me. Really.”
Eugene Peterson, in his book, The Jesus Way, writes: “Within the Christian community there are few words that are more disabling than ‘layperson’ or ‘laity.’ Lesslie Newbigin points out that the word layman “has come to mean, in common speech, an ignoramus, an outsider.” John Stott adds, “Lay is often a synonym for ‘amateur’ as opposed to professional,’ or ‘unqualified’ as opposed to ‘expert.’” Dictionaries define laity as “not clergy.” A speaker at a men’s retreat recently observed, “It’s easy for us to define ourselves by what we’re not.”
Adding the word “just” to “layperson” makes this self-identity all the more disabling. “Just” means trivial. Insignificant. Of little consequence. A marriage license is “just a piece of paper.” A child’s behavior is “just a phase.” A $10 donation is “just a drop in the bucket.” So if I call myself “just a layperson,” what am I saying? I’m a featherweight in spiritual matters. Ministry in my workplace? What right have I, a rank amateur, to speak with co-workers about things of God?
If our religious tradition teaches us to see ourselves this way, is it any wonder so many settle for being “just laypersons”? Might this help explain the perpetual immaturity we see so often in the church?
“Just a layperson?” Sue Mallory finally asked herself. “I had to learn to think again.” Yes, Sue. We all need to rethink our use of the “lay” language. Many words in the New Testament tell us who we are as Christ-followers. But nowhere does it call any of us by those disabling terms, “laypersons” or “laity.” R. Paul Stevens writes, “While we observe in the church today two classes of people [clergy and laity]…, we discover in the New Testament one ministering people….” (The Other Six Days, p. 30).
Greek words meaning “layperson” existed at the time the New Testament was written. But the writers chose not to use them. “Laikos,” meant of the common people. And “idiotes” meant non-expert. But the New Testament uses neither term to describe believers. Instead, it calls us “laos Theou,” the people of God. Every true Christian belongs to the “laos.” But as the first century ended, one of the church fathers, Clement of Rome, began dividing the church into classes, calling the non-ministering members “laikos” (laity). Now, some twenty centuries later, the “laity” terms, firmly embedded in our religious language, shape the way we think.
Doing away with such language won’t be easy. But we need to begin by returning to the New Testament words that tell us who we are (including who we are in our workplaces). For starters, here are a few of those terms:
Salt (Matt. 5:13): Christ’s life in you equips you as a thirst-maker. Among those in your work network, your example can stimulate thirst for the living water. Like salt, you penetrate and help preserve.
Light (Matt. 5:14): Christ’s life in you shines as light into the spiritually darkened corners where you work.
Seed (Matt. 13:38): Yes, God’s Word is seed. But as a “son of the Kingdom,” so are you. Like seed, Christ’s life in you can take root and bear fruit in others.
Priest (Rev. 5:9-10): You serve as God’s representative as you deal with co-workers, clients, supervisors, students, patients, or others in your work circle.
Temple (I Cor. 6:19): You are a house in which God lives, so when you show up for work, God is there in a special way.
Child of God (Jn. 1:12): In your workplace you are to display the family likeness of your Father.
Branch (Jn. 15:5): You can produce the fruit of God’s Spirit. And, like a branch, you can bring that fruit within easy reach of co-workers who would never attend a church service.
Part of Christ’s Body (I Cor. 12:27): You are gifted to encourage and serve others—not only those in your church gathering on Sunday, but also those you work with through the week.
Imagine the effect if Christians in workplaces around the world thought of themselves and acted in these ways. The scattered church is already out there. Employers—many of whom are not trusting Jesus—are paying us to be in the very world Jesus sends us into. Knowing our true identity is critical.
As you read your Bible, keep a sharp eye out for other New Testament descriptions of who it says you are in Christ. Then consider how you can live out those roles in your workplace.
Photograph "Book Design Research" by Alex Osterwalder, used under a Creative Commons License.