“Lay People” Are the Church’s First Order of Ministers

By Fletcher Lowe, reprinted from Living God’s Mission.

Over two thousand years ago, Paul said it this way: “Equip the saints for ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12)

Sixty-six years ago, the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churchesfleshed it out:

The real battles of faith today are being fought in factories, shops, offices, and farms, in political parties and government agencies, in countless homes, in the press, radio and television, in the relationship of nations.  Very often it is said the Church should “go into these spheres,” but in fact the Church is already in these spheres in the persons of its laity.”

Anglican lay leader Mark Gibbs 49 years ago put it in the context of clergy and laity:

“The laity are not called by God to any lower standard of discipleship than clergy or churchy laity. They are not limited to any less standard of Christian life and witness. They are, indeed, God’s first line of agents in the world.  [God] has placed them and can use them in secular structures where the clergy can seldom penetrate.”  (Mark Gibbs, October, 1971)

So now Episcopalians in their Catechism ask and answer the question:

Who are the ministers of the Church?

The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. (BCP p. 855)

Notice, the first order of ministry in the church is lay persons.  Notice also that the remaining three are in-house orders whose function is within the institutional Church.

In defining the ministry of the laity, the Catechism states it this way:

The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP, p. 855)

Notice that the laity’s calling is beyond the Church doors with one exception – the last one, participating in the governance of the Church. Notice too that in the world of daily living, lay people exercise many of the functions the church asks of bishops, priests, and deacons.

  1. Lay persons are bishop-ing in the wider world. Often, they are called to oversee their workplaces, their homes and their communities, to work for unity and reconciliation, to make efforts to build up their organizations. That’s bishop-ing.
  2. Lay persons are priest-ing in the wider world. Often, they are called to give and receive forgiveness (pardon), to offer blessings with food and friends and family, to teach and to guide. That’s priest-ing.
  3. Lay persons are deacon-ing in the wider world. Often, they are called to serve others in countless ways. Most everything we do has a serving opportunity with it, be that in business or garbage collection or clerking at retail or fast food or medicine or homemaking or parenting or whatever. That’s deacon-ing.

Within the wider world the lay people, commissioned by their baptism, are the front-line bishops, priests and deacons. The Dismissal sends them out from the church building to be the church, to live into their ministries wherever they live and more and have their being.  Thanks be to God!

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