THE POSITION OF THE LAITY IN THE CHURCH

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Preamble: In the Orthodox understanding of the Church there is no contradistinction between clergy and laity. Clergy and laity are necessary, because both are members in the Church, which is One Body, the Body of Christ, the unique Head of which is Christ Himself. Both clergy and laity are members in the Church, because they have been incorporated in it by the grace of God. The Church was established neither by the clergy nor by the laity, but by Christ Himself.  His is the Church, His are also both the clergy and the laity, and therefore any opposition between them is an opposition to Christ Himself. The distinction between clergy and laity is a liturgical distinction of ministries within the One Body of the Church which was established by the Lord Himself. Unfortunately, many times oppositions emerge among some members of the Church (clergy and laity) who do not respect the founder of the Church and its sacred institutions and jeopardize their position in it and the position of many others, perhaps because of ignorance, or some misunderstanding of the nature of the Church, or certain wretchedness. They forget that, because Christ is a God-man, the Church is also a divine-human body, which is connected with the Great Mystery of Orthodoxy, the Incarnation of God which was accomplished with the birth of Christ and the work of salvation of humanity and the entire world. They forget that the Church is the Ark of our salvation, the Pillar and Foundation of the truth against which neither the Gates of Hell can prevail. They forget that the Church differs from any other kind of human institution that was created by human beings. It is not a business, nor an association, nor a private club. It is the Church of Christ which we accept, respect and believe in, as we believe in the One God in Trinity and in the Only-Begotten Son of God who became man for our salvation. We believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, as it is designated in the ecumenical Creed, within which our salvation and the salvation of the world are accomplished (because Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus=Outside the Church there is no salvation, St. Cyprian). In order to avoid, then, misunderstandings and self-destructive oppositions, we considered it necessary to place on the pages of THE FORERUNNER from now on topics that relate to Orthodox Ecclesiology. The present article refers to the place of the laity in the body of the Church, i.e. to the general priesthood of the believers, which is distinguished from the special priesthood of the clergy. The general priesthood has to do with the offering which we as Christians owe to God and to our fellow-human beings. The special priesthood has to do with the offering of God to us human beings, which is given to us by Christ and the Church which is His body. The text that follows is taken from the accredited book A Tool of Orthodoxy of Fr. A., Alevizopoulos and published by the Apostolic Diaconate of the Church of Greece.

Protopresbyter George Dion. Dragas, PhD, DD, DTh.

a) A Royal Priesthood
God chose Israel in order to make it “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (Ex. 15:5-6).  “You will be called,” he says with the mouth of Isaiah, “priests of the Lord, ministers (λειτουργοί) of God” (Is. 61:6). “Tell my daughter Zion: Behold your Savior has arrived, having the reward and the work before him. He will call this people holy, redeemed by the Lord. You shall be called a much sought city and not a neglected one” (Is. 62:11-12).

These witnesses of the Old Testament, which refer to the chosen people of God are most precious, because they constitute a prototype of the position of the new people of God, namely, the Christians (cf. Gal. 4:21-31, Rom. 4:1-25, 9:6-8).

“And you,” says the Apostle Peter characteristically, “like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, in order to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:5).

These verses do not refer to a special class of Christians, but to all the faithful, who constitute the spiritual edifice of the Church, which has Christ as cornerstone and head, because He is our first born brother (Eph. 1:22, 5:23, Col. 1:18f).

Christ is “the King of the kings of the earth,” “who has made us a kingdom, priests for God and His Father” (Rev. 1:5-6), so that “we may reign along with Him upon the earth” (Rev. 5:10).

All these verses bear witness to the highest honor, but also to the greatest responsibility of every believer within the Church – an honor and responsibility which are unique!

b) Priests of our bodies

The faithful Christians are priests of their bodies and of all their existence. They are called to offer themselves and all their works as a sacrifice to God and with these, the entire creation, in which they are placed to be leaders (cf. άρχων in Gen. 28-30).

“I beg you, then, my brethren, on account of the mercies of God, to offer yourselves as a sacrifice, living and holy, well-pleasing to God, which is your rational worship,” says the Apostle Paul (Rom. 12:1).

Then whole life of man becomes a constant offering to God, a continuous divine liturgy.

The man of God ceases to think and to act egoistically, i.e. having as his center his/her own calculations and personal agendas, as the protoplasts did when they fell to the temptation of the devil. At the center, is now placed once again the will of God and the glory of God (I Cor. 6:20).

The personal life of every Christian becomes a constant witness to the presence and activity of God inside man, so that everyone can see his manner of life in order to draw the plain conclusion, that Christ lives in him, that he is not a common man, but a citizen of the Kingdom of God. His works and his entire life become in this way a constant divine liturgy and they acquire their original meaning which they had in the paradise of God (Matth. 5:16, I Cor. 10:31).

When man investigates nature, when he discovers and subdues its powers, when he transforms everything around him, he does not do these things anymore for himself, but for his brothers and, consequently, he offers them to Christ Himself as a Eucharist, a thanksgiving act (Prov. 19:17, Matth. 25:40, II Cor. 9:12-15).

“Whatever you do, do it with all your soul, as a work to the Lord and not to men, knowing that you will receive your reward from the Lord, because He is the one to whom you render your service” (Col. 3:23-24).

There are many verses in Holy Scripture, which emphasize that mercy and practical love towards brothers precede every other expression of worship. Indeed, they stress that without them the worship that one renders to God is vain (Hosea 6:6, Kings 15:22, Matth. 9:13, 5:23-24, Mark 11:25, James 1:27, 2:15ff).

The Prophet Isaiah speaks about true fasting and underlines the doxological character of offering to a brother: “Cut your bread and share it with the hungry; receive the poor as guests to your house; offer clothes to destitute that you might come across; never look down on any of your fellow human beings. Then your light will shine like the light of dawn, and your healing will rise quickly. Your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will surround you. Then, you will cry to the Lord, and He will hear you, and when you pray He will whisper to you: I am here, I am present, I stand beside you!” (Is. 58:7-9).

In this manner of life a human person offers the goods of his labor as a thanksgiving to God, as the bread and the wine are offered in the Eucharist.

“Your own from your own, we offer to You, in all and for all!”

The bread and the wine are the gifts of God, and at the same time they are the fruit of one’s labor, This labor, then, is what man offers as a sacrifice to God though his fellow human beings (Prov. 19:7, Matth. 25:40).

“Yours are all things, and from your own we offer our gifts to You,” says David the prophet-king.

“We are sojourners before You, who pass away, as all our fathers. Our days on earth pass like a shadow, and there is no permanence upon it. O Lord our God, all the rich gifts, which I offered that Your Temple might be built in honor of Your Holy Name, are taken from Your hands, because Yours are all things…” (I Chron. 29:14-16).

This place of man within creation reveals to us, that a person who is reborn by the grace of God cannot be against progress and science. What he is called to avoid, in every way, is the devil’s deceit; that is, the egoistic use of creation and of the powers of creation.

Man is called to return to the manner of life which characteristic of an agrarian society. He should use all his strength to contribute to the progress of science and life construction. But at the same time, he is called to imbue (instill in) all his works with the Holy Spirit of God and to make them a source of doxology of God’s Holy Name (I Cor. 6:20).

“Watch yourself, lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments and His laws, what I stipulate for you today; lest you become contempt; lest you build a beautiful house and you dwell in it; lest you multiply your oxen and your sheep, you increase your silver, your gold, your possessions, and then you become proud in your heart and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, from the land of slavery and led you through that great and terrifying desert… Him who fed you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors knew; and He did this in order to afflict you and to try you and, then, to bless you in these last days.

Watch lest you say to your mind: my strength and the power of my hand gave me this great affluence. You should remember the Lord your God always, because it is He, who gave you the strength to obtain power according to His promise, which the Lord made to your ancestors with an oath until this day!” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18, cf. 11:16).

c) Man as priest of God’s creation

All the above verses also reveal that man feels responsible for God’s creation and still hears again and again the voice of God which places him in paradise and commands him to till it, to cultivate it, and to use it in the service of the brethren, i.e. to make it an instrument of the glory of God (Gen. 2:15).

The spiritual man, the man of the new creation, the anointed king and son of the kingdom is no longer in conflict with God’s creation. He finds again his right place in it, the position which Adam had before the fall.

“When one gains purity,” says one of the desert fathers, “all things are subdued to him, just as they were subdued to Adam, when he was placed in Paradise and before he transgressed the commandment of God” (Paul). St. Isaac the Syrian adds: that the faith of the righteous in God “transforms the beats of the forest into harmless sheep.”

It is this royal and priestly authority of man upon the rest of the creatures of God that we see in the lives of the saints of the Church.

The Synaxarion of St. Koprion relates the following moving incident: “Once, as he was going up a mountain with the donkey of the monastery to cut wood, a bear attacked them and wounded the donkey. Then, the saint captured the bear and loaded it with the wood, saying: “I will not let you free until you fulfill the service of the donkey which you wounded and until the donkey recovers its strength… And so, the bear submitted to him and carried the wood!”  We see here the man of God re-gaining and exercising once again dominion among the living creatures; not, of course, in an arbitrary fashion, for ‘personal’ so-called reasons, but in order to impose order and harmony within God’s creation.

Another typical example is the following incident from the life of St. Anthony, as his disciples related it to St. Hilarion, during a visit to the garden of the Monastery of the Saint.

“When, in the beginning, our blessed father Anthony planted these trees, wild animals caused them a great damage, when they came to drink from the river which passed through the garden. One day, when the Saint saw the wild animals approaching, he took a rod and went near the animal which appeared to be the protector of the rest of them, and ordered it to leave; and, what a miracle! The beast stood and let the Saint bit it on his side, as he was saying: “Why do you treat me unjustly, who did not do this to you? Why do you eat my fruit for which you did not labor? Go away and never again dare to enter my garden.” So he said, and from that moment no beast entered this garden again. Bests only came to drink water from the river and, then, left.”

d) Man as the Herald of the Kingdom of God

“Go and proclaim the kingdom of God,” Christ says to us in the Gospel (Luke 9:60).   The whole life of the Christian is an opportunity for the glorification of the Name of God among human beings (Matth. 5:16, I Cor. 10:31, I Ter. 2:11-12), that is, to attract people who are not in the Church to come to the Orthodox faith. In this way, the life of the Christian becomes a judgment for the man of the world and an invitation to him to come to know the truth.

“Go and make disciples of all nations!” says Christ (Matth. 28:19). Our Church has stipulated that this pericopy should be read at the sacrament of Chrismation. The reason for this is to denote that this calling to Christ is addressed to every baptized Christian.

Christ did not come to save a certain number of “chosen” (“elect” “predestined”) people, as some deceivers claim… Christ came for the salvation of all humanity (I Tim. 2:4). All human beings are called to become children of the heavenly Kingdom of Christ. So, if we want the will of Christ to be done, we must work for the salvation of our fellow-human beings. “I have other sheep,” said Christ, “which are not from this flock. I must bring them in, as will, so that they can hear my voice, and then, there will be one flock and one Shepherd” (John 10:16, cf. Isaiah 66:19).

Every Christian ought to be “always ready to give a defense” to everyone who might ask for an explanation of “his hope” –the “hope” which all Christian cherish inside them. But the Apostle adds: that we “must act nobly, reverently and meekly, with fear and good-conscience, so that while others accuse you as being bad, those who defame your Christian behavior might be brought to shame” (I Pet. 3:15,16). “Your word should always be imbued with grace, spiced with salt,” and you must know “how to respond to everyone” (Col. 4:6).

For the believers, the only hope is a person: the Lord Jesus Christ (II Cor. 1:6, Tit. 1:2-3, I John 3:3). Apart from Christ, there is no hope for man (I Thess. 4:13, Eph. 2:12. How, then, can a Christian remain indifferent and fail to try to transmit the only hope for man to as many human beings he communicates with? This task is not simply the will of God, but the best proof of our love towards God (I John 3:17, 4:7-8:20).

It is also a witness of the genuineness of one’s orthodox faith and life. If we remain firm on this unique hope, then, we become inflamed with the desire of the salvation of our fellow-human beings and we cannot rest, as long as the people around us, our brothers, remain indifferent and deceived, outside this hope.

“Brethren, if one of you is deceived and runs astray from the truth and someone else brings him back, he should know that he who brings back a sinner from the road of deception, will save a soul, and will cover a multitude of sins,” says the Apostle James (James 5:19-20, cf. 1:15, Luke 24:32).

The salvation, then, of a brother who faces the ultimate danger does not permit any indifference on our part. “Life and death is from the neighbor,” says Abba Antnonios, “because if we gain the brother, then, we gain God” (Ez. 3:16-21, 33:1-20).

If we are indifferent, this means that we lack the courage of confession, or that “this hope of ours” is not firmly established inside us.

In the first case, we need to be reminded of the words of our Lord, who says that He will confess before His Father everyone who confessed Him before other human beings, but He will deny him who did not have the courage to confess Him, or refused to confess Him before other fellow-human beings (Matth. 10:32-33, Mark 8:38, Luke 9: 26, 12:8-9, II Tim. 2:12).

In the second case, we must keep always in mind the words of The Revelation:  “I would prefer you to be either cold or hot; but because you are neither cold, nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).

The following words of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow are in place here: “If you refuse to be taught and to teach, you are not a disciple of the Lord. What are you? I do not know, since I do not know what you will be in the present life and in the life to come” (cf. Jer. 20:9, Ez. 3:16-21, 33:1-20, I Cor. 9:16).