The Laity in the Church

Some might say that the laity are the Church, but that’s not true. The Church consists of three estates, three realms in which God rules and blesses us all. We have grown accustomed to thinking of laity and clergy in the church. The clergy are the ministers; narrow or wide sense, I do not know. The laity are the rest, and the majority by far. What we call the clergy approximates the old “ecclesiastical estate,” though our term “clergy” may be more restrictive. What we call laity encompasses both the “domestic estate” and the “political estate.”

Notice that these three estates, and the distinction between clergy and laity, rest completely within the Church. They are part of the kingdom of the right, the spiritual kingdom of God. This is important.

The concept of the three estates is a framework of thought, not a doctrine of the Bible. However, the reality it describes is reflected throughout the Bible and our own experience. It helps us to understand and talk about the ways God blesses us as Christians, and even how He does His work in the world.

There’s an old notion that unless a person is a member of the clergy, he’s not really serving God when he works. The concept of the three estates shows us why this is false. When I serve in the domestic estate as a son, a husband, or a father, I’m serving God as well as my neighbors. The same is true when I serve in the political estate as a citizen, or even if I were an elected or appointed official.

The laity also have a role in regard to the ecclesiastical estate. It’s written, among other places, in the Catechism’s Table of Duties where you see the word “Hearers.” Our congregations are composed almost entirely of lay members, and it is they who make the congregations operate from day to day and from week to week. A congregation without a pastor is said to be vacant. A pastor without a congregation is not really a pastor, though he may become one. Also our synod, the ELS, is organized with a particularly active role for the laity.

The synod exists most concretely only once a year, beginning usually on Father’s Day in June. It lasts for less than a week. During that time, the synod makes decisions about what its representatives have been doing, and what they should do in future. By design, about two thirds of those who make these decisions are members of the laity. This is often touted as a good thing. It can be a very good thing, though it can also be made to serve evil purposes.

As long as the laity are well informed about the issues that come before them, and as long as they are also well catechized in the doctrine of our faith, the ELS will be blessed through their leadership. However, the clergy find themselves in a position where they may sometimes decide not to inform the laity. I’m not thinking of the “synod cheerleader” role that pastors are sometimes encouraged to assume, where they promote every new synod interest that eminates from Minnesota. That’s different. I’m thinking of the pastor as an equipper of saints (a teacher) and a watchman, standing high on Zion’s wall. If he sees an army approaching, he should mention that to the populace of Zion within. He might even shout. If the city is already beseiged, and he sees the army break camp and move off, he should mention that to his people as well.

When the lay delegates at our synod conventions don’t really know about the things they’re voting on, then the organization of the synod is thwarted. Instead of being a lay-led synod, it becomes a synod led completely by the most eloquent speaker, or the most familiar face, or by the latest breezes blowing across the Bethany College campus. It becomes impossible for well-meaning, well-qualified individuals (clergy or lay) to address serious issues. Justice and due process are compromised. The problem may not be the fault of the laity. It may come only from influential individuals who would prevent the laity from becoming fully informed. This is far worse than having a synod led only by informed clergy.

I wish that the ELS would never have to deal with such a situation, but I fear that it may have already begun. The antidote (beside prayer) is good communication, a keen and dogged interest on the part of our laity, and continued good catechesis and study of our Bibles.

So pass the word. If you know lay members in other ELS churches who are not aware of important issues and their important role in our synod, tell them. Our pastors, generally speaking, won’t do this, because they probably shouldn’t. Initiating such a contact is too much like interfering in the ministry of another pastor. (The Plucked Chicken, on the other hand, has 100% volunteer readership!) Our laity will have to take the initiative to inform itself, especially in those places where their pastors have not really been telling the whole story about current and recent events in our synod.

The ELS laity is important to the well-being of the synod. What our lay delegates and our congregations know can easily make the difference between utter disaster (like schism) and God-pleasing peace. Right now, the synod is still leaning precariously toward schism. I pray that God will restore peace, partly because then we can focus on lots of really positive things, like Christian education and missions.

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