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On Being Christian in the World

Presentation: On Being Christian in the World by Hans-Ruedi Weber at the May 1997 international consultation on the theme: "Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God."

07 May 1997

Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997

On Being Christian in the World: Reflections on the ecumenical discussion about the laity

by Hans-Ruedi Weber

I. The focus
Many inspiring speeches have been made about the laity being the people of God. The meaning of the words "lay" and "laity" is then interpreted in the light of what the Bible affirms about God's chosen people. Thus ordinary Christians receive an important and demanding role. It can indeed be illuminating to look at the laity in this way (cp. below III/1), but it must be acknowledged that, contrary to what is often affirmed, the terms lay and laity have in Christian history not been derived from the specific biblical meaning of the people of God, the laos tou theou. Tiresome and pedantic as it may be, in these introductory remarks some word studies and distinctions are needed for focusing the subject before turning to the historical development and some biblical comments about the ecumenical discussion on the laity.

1. Laity and Laos
In the Graeco-Roman world the adjective laikos 1 was since the third century B.C. used in papyri, e.g. in order to designate profane things which belonged to the rural population in Egypt. The words lay and laity (laikos) never occur in either the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament, or in the Greek New Testament. The first known Christian usage of the term is found in a letter addressed around A.D. 96 by Clement of Rome to the church in Corinth (1 Clement 40:5). There it refers not only to rules but also to a special group of persons within the Christian worship assembly: "the lay person (laikos anthropos) is bound by the lay ordinances (laikois prostagmasin)". The ancient Latin translation of this passage rendered lay person with plebeius homo and lay ordinances with laicis praeceptis. Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion (2nd century A.D.) used in their new Greek translations of the O.T. for a few passages laikos as a synonym for bebelos which means profane, unholy (e.g. in 1 Sam. 21:5f and Ez 22:26). Only from the 3rd and especially the 4th century onwards did this term gradually enter ecclesiastical language, usually referring to what is profane, distinguishing the laity from the priests/clergy and deacons. Clement of Alexandria wrote for instance that the temple curtain separates the holy from the lay infidelity (laikes apistias).

Laity is thus not a biblical word. At its origin and in Christian history it had a quite different meaning from the one now given to it when interpreting it in the light of the vocation of God's people. Words often change their meaning and there is nothing wrong in redefining their content. However, knowing the above facts, intellectual honesty forbids us to affirm that the term laity has been derived from the biblical content of the laos tou theou, the people of God. Some even feel that this whole vocabulary should be abandoned, all the more so because in the common language of today lay/laity mean the non-specialists and laos is better known as the name of an Asian country rather than a central biblical concept. Moreover, several other biblical key terms can illumine the vocation of the laity as well as that of the people of God. In this presentation the terms lay and laity will be maintained alongside the word "Christians". This appelation refers directly to the essential link of those so designated with Christ. It is also the name by which Christian believers became known in the ancient world and by which they referred to themselves (Acts 11:26; 1 Pet 4:16).

2. Necessary distinctions
In the course of church history the laity were usually seen as Christians who are neither clergy nor monks and nuns. Such a distinction can be helpful because each of these groups has a differently oriented vocation within the life and mission of Christ's company. For the clergy this is signified by a special ordination, for members of religious orders by the monastic vows. This paper does not deal with the function and status of set apart minister and religious orders but with those who are usually only negatively referred to as the non-clergy 2.

A positive understanding of the vocation of the laity starts with a deeper understanding of baptism which is a basic ordination for a Christian life. With regard to this there is no distinction among clergy, members of religious communities and the laity. All form fully part of the churches' life and mission. Due to their baptism also clergy, monks and nuns participate therefore in their own way in the ministry of the laity as it is described in these pages, and for all the worship of God is essential.
Even among the laity, the large majority of Christians, it is helpful to distinguish (not separate) three different categories: (a) A few become professional church workers: church administrators, lay missionaries, lay theologians or other full-time workers in the churches' service, life and mission. (b) Relatively few lay people use much of their free time in organized church activities while not gaining their livelihood through the church. They act e.g. as Sunday school teachers, animators of Christian study circles and action groups, they sing in church choirs or are members of parish councils and synods. - (c) By far most Christians spend practically the whole of their life, including their leisure-time hours, in "worldly" environments and work: in families, neighbourhood associations, in the rural, urban and industrial world, in its politics and its increasingly secular movements and institutions. Hopefully as Christians they also participate regularly or occasionally in the worship of the church, be it as members of a local parish, as friends of a religious community or in much less structured support groups.

The border area between the three categories of lay people must remain fluid. In different periods of life a lay Christian usually holds different positions in church membership. It is important that especially between the second and third category there be much movement: an excellent preparation for a Christian presence in the secular world is to prepare for and animate a Bible study group. Conversely no parish council should ignore the voice and experience of those mentioned in the third category.

The above distinctions among the laity are clearly more sociological than theological. Nevertheless, the positions held within church membership and the differently oriented work and concerns strongly influence for each the special interests, the priorities, conceptions of the church and understandings of the world. If such different priorities and points of view are not recognized, talk about the laity soon looses its focus and gets confused.

3. Focusing on being Christians in the world
The 20th century ecumenical discussion on the laity has in the first place focused on the above mentioned third group of lay people, those spending most of their time in "worldly" environments. Their vocation and experience are marked by the fact that they almost always live in the transient, penultimate realities of this world although as Christians they attempt to live according to what Christian faith teaches about the ultimate reality. "A lay person is one for whom things exist, for whom their truth is not as it were swallowed up and destroyed by a higher relevance. For him or her, Christianly speaking, what is to be referred to the Absolute is the very reality of the elements of this world whose outward form passes away" 3. Many lay people have a passion for what happens in today's world, passion both in the sense of being passionately involved and of empathy with the hopes, sufferings, questions and failures of the whole of humankind. They have a ministry of incarnation.

It often was affirmed that the development of a theology of the laity needs a total ecclesiology. This is true. However, the doctrine of the church is not the only and perhaps not the best framework within which the situation and vocation of Christians in the world can to be understood. For many such lay people the doctrine of creation and the hope for a new heaven and earth are primary. They ask first of all: "What is the human vocation?" "Where does history lead to?". Their spirituality is a very earthly one, a "holy worldliness". Their first partners from Monday to Saturday are usually not church members or Christian action groups. In their experience the dialogue and collaboration with people of other faiths, especially with secularists, becomes more urgent than inter-confessional dialogue. They also tend to have a less church-centered understanding of the ecumenical movement.

This focus on being Christians in the earthly realities does not mean that the ministry of clergy, monks and nuns as well as that of the full-time or part-time ministry of the above first and second type of lay people be unimportant. On the contrary: the more the emphasis is put on being Christians in the world, the more important spiritual nurture become. Nevertheless, little will be said about organized church activities because as soon as clergy-laity relationships and church activities become the focus in laity discussions the true double aim of Christian existence, namely the worship of God and the Christian presence in the world, is often lost sight of. Both too few and too many church activities can stiffle the vocation of the laity. The question is: What kind of organized church activities and how many of them are needed to let Christians grow in faith and obedience.

Despite the attempt in the ecumenical discussions to concentrate mainly on the being Christians in the world there soon was a tendency to speak more about clergy-laity relationships, on church structures and church educational activities. This is at least partly due to the fact that many clergy and lay people of the first and second category became the spokespersons in these discussions. What was discovered about the ministry of the laity became thus often only an appendix to existing understandings of the church and existing ministerial patterns. Consequently the real challenge of the rediscovery of the laity has until now seldom been faced either among the churches or in the ecumenical movement.

II. Historical developements
Long before the 20th century rediscovery of the laity, these Christians living in the world existed, worshipped and worked throughout church history. However, church history was usually written as a history of councils, ecclesiastical assemblies, of hierarchy, the heresies and church-state relationships. Goethe once aptly pointed to this fact by his verses:

"Mit Kirchengeschichte, was hab ich zu schaffen? / Ich sehe weiter nichts als Pfaffen.Wie's um die Christen steht, die Gemeinden, / Davon will mir gar nichts erscheinen".(Church history, what is it to me?/ Because only clerics do I see.Of Christians' concerns and of congregations,/ nothing seems to be told to me).

When in the 1960s the WCC Department on the laity made an attempt to rewrite church history from the point of view of ordinary Christians living in the world, it soon became clear that for large stretches of the Christian journey throughout the centuries the sources were lacking. Nevertheless, 35 years later the volume which came out of this writing project still seems to be the only survey of this subject 4.

1. The pioners
It was in the ecumenical youth movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the ecumenical reflection on the role of the laity began, in the World YMCA (since 1855), the World YWCA (since 1894) and the World Student Christian Federation (since 1895). Especially the second and soon also the third of these strongly emphasized the role of women in Christian life and mission. The members of such movements were not anti-clerical, but keen young lay people with a great evangelistic commitment, a deep concern for what happened in society and the conviction that Christians of all continents and confessions must band together for their world-wide task. The Methodist layman John R. Mott has summed up their vision in what was probably the first major publication of the ecumenical discussion on the laity 5.

This new thinking and action soon influenced two more official developments in the early ecumenical movement: At the Jerusalem world conference of the International Missionary Council in 1928 the challenge of the rapid and world-wide spread of secularisation was beginning to be recognized. This challenge had to be more seriously faced in 1937 at the Oxford world conference on "Church, Community and State" of the Life and Work movement. The person who brought together this new missionary and social-ethical thinking and who pointed to the crucial role of the laity in both of them was the Anglican layman Joseph H. Oldham. He gathered the creative thinkers for a given subject, among them outstanding decision-makers in the secular world, and through questions stimulated corporate thinking and relevant action. "If the Christian faith is in the present and future to bring about changes, as it has done in the past", he wrote in preparation for the Oxford conference, "it can only do this through being a living, working faith of the multitudes of lay men and women conducting the ordinary affairs of life. The only way in which it can affect business or politics is by shaping the convictions and determining the actions of those engaged in business and politics... We stand before a great historic task -- the task of restoring the lost unity between worship and work."6

2. World War II and Bossey
The experience of Christians as soldiers at the front, as prisoner of war and in concentration camps during the second world war painfully revealed to them the gap between traditional church life and modern society. In meeting deeply committed secular humanists, Marxists and believers of other faiths they also discovered how ill equipped they were to become credible witnesses. Out of this grew in the mid-1940s various centres and movements where church and world could meet, for instance the lay academies and training centres which developed first in Europe but increasingly also in other continents.

The Ecumenical Institute at Château de Bossey near Geneva, inaugurated in 1946, has been part of this whole movement. Under the leadership of Hendrik Kraemer and Suzanne de Diétrich it became a "laboratory" where educators, people involved in industry, in politics, in the medical profession, the arts etc met for confronting the urgent agenda points of the world with the exigencies of biblical faith. Already from 1947 onwards the pioneers of the new thinking on the laity gathered annually at Bossey and the institute collaborated with the WCC Secretariat for Laymen's Work which had been created in 1949. All this led to the so far most important official statement of the WCC on the laity, namely the report of the 6th section of the WCC Assembly at Evanston in 1954 on "The Laity: the Christian in his vocation" 7.

3. WCC department on the laity
The department (1955-71) developed a world-wide network of people, movements and organisations related to the ecumenical rediscovery of the laity. Out of this grew e.g. in 1972 the "World Collaboration Committee of Christian Lay Centres, Academies and Movements for Social Concern". There also was put much emphasis on study and on the training of lay leaders for the churches' presence in the world. Insights from the Orthodox Churches became stronger, and a fruitful collaboration with people and movements in the Roman-Catholic lay apostolate were developed. While in the 1950s, 1960s and up to the mif-1970s much thinking and talking was done about the laity, soon it became clear that more than lip-service is needed. To see and begin to draw the implication of the ministry of the laity for established church structures, ministerial patterns and priorities in church budgets remains a harf struggle 8.

From the 1970s onwards the general reflection on the laity faded in the WCC into the background. New, often more militant movements rightly came into the forefront: the special concerns and contributions of women, of Christian base communities, of action groups for justice, peace and ecology, of the rights and contributions of children and of differently abled prople. There also developed a new thinking on popular education and participation, on theological education for the people of God and on ecumenical formation.

4. Roman Catholic lay apostolate
The various forms of Catholic Action and the initiatives by Pope Pius XII led to the three large world congresses on the lay apostolate in Rome (1951, 1957, 1967) and a world consultation in holy year of 1975, organized by the Roman Catholic "Permanent Committee for International Congresses of Lay Apostolate" (later the "Consilium de Laicis"). The first of these meetings were only internal Catholic affairs, but increasingly they became truly ecumenical events for two reasons: Firstly, already years before the second Vatican Council the Concilium de Laicis and the WCC department on the laity strengthened their collaboration which led to jointly organized meetings (still discretely in 1964 at Glion, then more officially in 1965 at Gazzada and in 1974 at Assisi). Secondly, at that time many Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant lay people hoped that through their collaboration a major break-through might happen in the ecumenical movement; Christians fully involved in the secular world stand after all from Monday to Saturday essentially in the same battles of faith, from whatever confessional background they come.

Within the Roman Catholic Church the pronouncements of Vatican II strongly fostered the lay apostolate through the constitutions on the Church (1964), on the Church in the Modern World (1965) and through the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (1965). In 1976 the former freeer thinking and action of the Consilium de Laicis received a more official status as the Pontifical Council for the Laity and came under stricter supervision of the Curia. Reflection on the lay apostolate continued, for instance at a synod of bishops in 1987 and through papal statements 9.

5. Faith and Order
Reflections about the laity are sparse in pre-war Faith and Order documents. In 1952 the Faith and Order theological commission mentioned in its preparatory volume for the third Faith and Order world conference at Lund the ecumenical rediscovery of the laity as the first of four "trends in theology which may prove to be of great significance for our thought on the Church". A short description of this trend is there given. Neither Lund nor most Faith and Order studies since have really taken up this challenge. An attempt to reopen this question through a "laity dialogue" during a joint session of the Faith and Order Commission and the laity department in 1960 did not achieve much. Both the language and the central concerns of the two committees proved to be far apart.

According to its mandate Faith and Order has been mainly concerned with the gathered life of the churches, their unity, worship and ministerial patterns, their common faith, life and witness. Much work has since been done in Faith and Order studies which could be highly relevant for church members when they are scattered in everyday life and engaged in their ministry in the world. However, such insights gained in theological and ecclesiastical in-group discussions would have to be properly translated. The famous statement on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" (1982) speaks little to the experience and vocation of Christians of the earlier mentioned third category of lay people. Yet they could learn much e.g. from the Faith and Order studies on God in nature and history. If a new reflection on the ministry of the laity starts in the WCC it will be important that the Faith and Order Commission be fully involved, not only as one who teaches but also as one who is being taught 10.

6. New developments
There are at present signs that ecumenical study and action on the vocation of the laity is being resumed. The apostolic exortation of Pope John Paul II on "Christifidelis Laici" in 1989 points to this. In the WCC the former sub-unit on "Renewal and Congregational Life" and since 1992 the work done by "Lay Participation towards Inclusive Community" has taken up the discussion. Together with the World Collaboration Committee of Christian Lay Centres, Academies and Movements of Social Concern a large world convention was held at Montreat in 1993. In this connnection the talk about "the laos: the whole people of God" became popular. The Ecumenical Institute at Bossey participates in this reopening of the ecumenical discussion of the laity and new types of training. It is too early to judge how deeply this might affect the life and mission of the churches 11.

III. Some biblical perspectives
In the New Testament one finds no definition of the church but over 90 images evoking what it means to be part of the Christian company. Similarly one should not use a once for all definition or just one biblical affirmation for describing and understanding the situation and vocation of Christians living in the midst of earthly realities. Some of these evocations concentrate much on the gathered life of the community of believers and these are preferred by clergy and professional church workers, e.g. the "church", the "body", the "household of faith", the "shepherd and the flock", the "building up", the "gifts of grace" which were set apart for a special ministry within the church. Other evocations speak in a stonger and more challenging way to Christians living in the world: e.g. the "salt of the earth", the "light of the world", the "leaven in the lump", the "soldiers of Christ", those "gifts of grace" given for service in the world. The following four mutually complementary evocations have been prominent in the ecumenical reaffirmation of the vocation of the laity 12.

1. The people of God
One must be careful in indiscriminately using the term laos. Just as its Hebrew equivalent ('am) so also laos has different shades of meaning. In the Septuagint it occurs over 2000 times. It there often simply refers to a family relationship or to the mass of people. In addition laos is used for designating a special group within a people, distinguishing e.g. the rural population from the class of rulers, the army of soldiers from the officers, the worshippers from priest and Levites or the "people of the land" from other social groups. Sometimes the same expression changed its meaning in different periods of biblical history: the "people of the land" referred for instance in pre-exilic time to the influencial land owners while after the exile the same expression was used more for the poor and the exploited.

Theologically most important are the passages referring to the people of Israel as the specific "people of God" (laos tou theou). This expression occurs most often in the psalms and the prophets, but never in the Old Testament wisdom literature. The Israelites are God's people through God's mysterious love and election (Deut:7:7f) and they became God's people through the covenant at Sinai (Ex 19:4-6). Usually they are distinguished from the nations (the ethnoi), but rarely ethnos is used also for the Israelites. In the O.T. this specific meaning of laos as "the people of God" is never applied to any other people than that of the Israelites. Of course, all the nations belong to God and God works among all of them (cp. Amos 9:7). However, only the Israelites are God's own and peculiar people, elected, set apart and sanctified for a presence among the nations, walking according to God's ordinances. On the basis of the Old Testament it is therefore impossible to speak about "peoples of God".

In the New Testament laos appears 141 times, often in the general meaning of the crowd, mainly in Luke/Acts. It then becomes almost synonymous with the Greek term ochlos. Yet also in the New Testament laos most often refers to the people of Israel. Only in 12 passages, and never in the gospels, is the community of the Christians called "the people of God" . Among the key texts are Acts 15:14; Rom 9:24-26; Hebr 13:12 and 1 Pet 2:9f. Contrary to what many assume, the New Testament never speaks about the church as "the new people of God" or "the new Israel".

Understanding the special lay vocation in the light of the biblical teaching on the people of God means to emphasize the intimate relationship between Jews and Christians and to learn much from the very "earthly" Hebrew scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament. It means to be present before God in worship and present among the nations as servants and witnesses. It also leads to reflection about how election and sanctification (today not very popular subjects) have to mark this double presence before God and in the world.

2. The image of God
The biblical understanding of human beings as an "image of God" is for the laity perhaps even more important than that of the "people of God". All human beings, not just the Israelites, are described as an image of God in a few key texts of the priestly writers in Genesis and the deuterocanonical book of Sirach.

To be an image of God gives human beings their true identity. The Hebrew terms for "image" and "likeness" probably refer originally to the erect stature of the human body. Men and women can see not only what is below them but also what is face to face with them and above them. They receive their true identity by such a vis-à-vis with the whole creation, with fellow human beings and with God. The essential togetherness and complementarity of women and men are emphasized. "God created humankind in his image, male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27). All human beings receive great dignity, and it is because they are an image of God that their blood may not be shed (Gen 9:6). In the passages on the image of God the human vocation is seen as a vocation for creative work and responsible stewardship over the earth: "to have dominion" and to "subdue". These are strong verbs and they can mislead people to exploit the earth. Fortunately in the biblical parallel account of creation the verb "to keep", "to guard" is used (Gen 2:15). Responsible stewardship becomes possible only for those who remain in the vis-à-vis with the Creator and who, as God's image, "praise his holy name and proclaim the grandeur of his works", whose "eyes saw his glorious majesty" and whose "ears heard the glory of his voice" (Sirach 17:1-14). The ministry of artists receives here its appropriate place. The notion of the image of God links up more strongly with blessing than with salvation. Indeed, in the Old Testament not only a saving God is recognized but also a blessing God, concerned with the whole of creation. Such blessing leads to the reponse of praise 13.

According to New Testament testimonies the distorted but not destroyed image of God became incarnate in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4; Col 1:15). Those who truly live in Christ will be transformed so that they can "mirror" God's image. Paul wrote that such a metamorphosis can happen if by the power of the spirit we reflect like a mirror - or contemplate as through a mirror - the glory of the Lord and are thus being transfigured into his image (2 Cor 3:18). In another key passage Paul exhorted Christians no longer to role-play according to what this age commands but to be transformed/transfigured by a renewal of our judging power and so to discern what is the will of God (Rom 12:2). Both contemplation and walking step by step according to the discerned will of God are thus involved.

Understanding the lay vocation in the light of the biblical teaching on God's image means first of all to discover this image in all human beings, whatever their race, nationality and belief, in children, highly educated intellectuals, differently abled people, powerful and poor. For Christians it means to become truly human through a life in Christ. It leads to an attitude of awe, respect and responsibility with regard to the things, animals and human persons. It is a call to manifest God's glory in creation and history, to be a healing and humanizing presence in an often dehumanizing society.

3. God's priestly agent
In the course of different periods of the Old Testament the functions of the priests changed. At times their main task was to distinguish what is holy and profane. At times they were mainly concerned with worship and sacrifices. In still other periods they became the principle teachers and lawyers. It therefore is difficult to make generalisations about the priestly ministry. Moreover, in the New Testament priesthood was seen in the light of Christ's sacrificial death and there is no direct continuation of the work of priests among the Israelites and either the work of set-apart ministers in the early church or the vocation of the church as a priestly agent. Jewish priests who became Christians received no special function within the Christian community (Acts 6:7). According to the letter to the Hebrews the only priest is the crucified and risen Christ, and in him priesthood was radically reinterpreted: he, the highpriest, became the sacrifice.

The few New Testament texts which speak about the Christian community as a priesthood (1 Pet 2:5,9) or as "priests for God" (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) refer back to the famous passage of Ex 19:6. Whatever that text may originally have meant, in the New Testament the function of God's priestly agent is described in a threefold way: "to offer spiritual sacrifices"; "to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light"; to be, live and suffer as "God's people". In 1 Peter this life as a priestly agent is strongly related to the suffering together with Christ in the daily life (1 Pet 3:8-22; 4:12-19). In the Book of Revelation "God's servants" who become his priests are never fully identified with the churches but often described as the martyrs. Paul taught that in baptism we die and are buried with Christ (Rom 6:1-11). One might therefore say that the New Testament speaks not so much about "the priesthood of all believers", but "the sacrifice of all believers". Paul in fact used sacrificial language to describe Christian life: Believers are called to bring up to the altar their whole existence "as a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1) and he was thankful that through his apostolic ministry members from among the nations were becoming "an offering, sanctified by the holy Spirit" and a "first fruit" (Rom 15:16; 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15). This sacrificial terminology is here not "spiritualized", as often assumed. It rather is radicalized and points to the existential reality of Christians living and suffering in the world, especially in situations of persecution. Worship and life, praise and -- if need be -- martyrdom are intimately related.

The passages about the priestly agents do in the New Testament not become a battle-cry against the service or domination of set-aside ministers, though in church history the priesthood of all believers has at times been misused in this way. Nor do these passages refer to a special "ministerial priesthood". There was of course from the beginning the ministry of the apostles and of other set-apart ministers, but only from post-biblical times onwards were these called priests. There is one exception: Paul once called his work "a priestly service" (Rom 15:16), yet he referred there not to a special priestly function within the worshipping assembly but to his missionary work among the nations.

Understanding the lay vocation in the light of the biblical teaching about the church as God's priestly agent means that believers "are permitted and enabled to share in the continuing highpriestly work of Christ by offering themselves in love and obedience to God and in love and service to human beings" 14. For Christians living in societies which accept them such sacrificial language becomes dangerous, but it remains deeply meaningful for those who are persecuted for the sake of their faith. Moreover, all must remember that paradoxically in the New Testament the term joy is most often used in connection with suffering. In the midst of a life according to "the sacrifice of all believers" we are surprised by joy.

4. God's diaspora
"I have often wondered whether it has not been a mistake to concentrate the doctrine of the church so much on its being gathered. I think that the church will be seen to be gathered from the four winds of the earth only at the end of history as we know it. For the time being the church is not a gathered community, but, to use the paradoxical phrase of one of the Reformers (Melanchthon), 'the communiy of the dispersed'. Without dispersion there is no savour" 15. This insight of the first full-time secretary for work on the laity in the WCC has strongly influenced the ecumenical reaffirmation of the laity.

The Greek term diaspora has no clear equivalent in the Hebrew Old Testament. The dispersion of the Israelites was in the first place seen as a judgement. However, in the time after the Babylonian exile and in the Septuagint such a diaspora received also a positive significance, recognizing in it a divine strategy, God's way of making known among the nations the divine ordinances and promises.

In the New Testament diaspora is only twice applied to the Christians dispersed in the Roman empire (1 Pet 1:1; James 1:1). The experience of dispersion becomes there closely linked with a series of other New Testament expressions. Like the patriarchs in Canaan and the Israelites in Egypt so Christians are foreigners (xenoi) in this world, aliens (paroikoi) and exiles (parepidemoi) whose true citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven, looking forward to the city which is to come. They are in but not of the world.

In the course of church history the experience of living in dispersion and the consciousness of being foreigners have at times led Christians to escapism and to the withdrawal into a wrong kind of other-worldliness. More often lay people have been so much conformed to the spirit of this age and felt so much "at home" in the world, that their function as salt was lost. Yet for all who attempt to live as Christians in the midst of earthly realities the experience of being a diaspora becomes very real. The tragedy is that when organized church life becomes self-sufficient they may feel also in church gatherings as aliens. Yet they very much need support groups, a community of the dispersed. The unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetius described around 124 A.D. the Christian existence in the world with words as the following: "Though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour there is more like that of transients. They take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country... They repay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evil-doers; and under the strokes they rejoice like men given new life" (par. 5).

Understanding the lay vocation in the light of the biblical teaching on God's diaspora means to bear and sustain the tension between the "already" of Christ's saving work and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God. It means to live in the midst of the present earthly realities with a "nevertheless"-hope, persisting in a pilgrimage towards the promised new heaven and new earth.


  1. H.H. Walz, "Lay, Theology of the Laity, Laymen's work", The Ecumenical Review, July 1954, pp. 469-75. - Ignatius de la Potterie, "L'origine et le sens primitif du mot 'laïc'", Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 80 (1958), pp. 840-53. - Alexandre Faivre, Les laics aux origines de l'Eglise, Paris 1984.
  2. On clergy-laity relationships from the point of view of the laity: "Christ's ministry through his whole church and its ministers", contribution of the WCC Department on the Laity to the Faith and Order meeting in Montreal, 1963, Laity No 15, Geneva 1963, pp. 13-39.
  3. Yves M.-J- Congar, Jalons pour une théologie du laïcat, Paris 1953; quoted from the English edition, Lay people in the Church, London 1957, p. 21. - Cp. Hendrik Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, London 1958. - It is significant that besides these Roman Catholic and Protestant treatments of the subject no similar work from an Orthodox author has become well-known. The Orthodox understanding of the church and the world emphasizes wholeness and the question of a particular vocation of the laity never was prominant (N.8).
  4. S.C. Neill and H.R. Weber (eds), The Layman in Christian History, Philadelphia 1963.
  5. John R. Mott, Liberating the Lay Forces of Christianity, New York 1932. - Cp.especially the 1930s numbers of the earliest ecumenical journal, The Student World, Geneva.
  6. W.A. Visser't Hooft and J. H. Oldham, The Church and its Function in Society, London 1937, pp. 117f and Oldham's pamphlet The New Christian Adventure, London 1929.
  7. Report on "The Significance of the Laity in the Church", The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, London 1949, pp. 153-56. - "The Laity: the Christian in his vocation", Evanston Report, London 1954, pp. 160-70. - Besides Kraemer's earlier mentioned book see: The periodical Laymen's Work, Geneva 1951-1955. - H.R. Weber, A Laboratory for Ecumenical Life: the story of Bossey, Geneva 1996.
  8. Cp. the periodical Laity, Geneva 1956-1968 and the plenary on "The Laity: the Church in the World" at the third Assembly of the WCC at New Delhi, 1961, in Laity No. 13, Geneva 1962, pp. 5-27. - For Orthodox contributions see: "Orthodox views on the ministry of the laity", Documents of the lay department, No IV (1957) and Vasil T. Istavridis, "The Orthodox World" in The Layman in Christian History, pp. 276-97.
  9. Acts and Proceedings of the three world congresses on the Lay Apostolate in 1951, 1957, 1967 and the Report on the world consultation in 1975. - The periodical The Laity Today, Rome. - Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Vatican II, 1965. - Vocation and Mission of the Laity, Synod of bishops, Rome 1987. - "Lay people in the Church Today", Gregorianum 68,1-2 (1987); cp. there a Rosemary Goldie, "The Laity in the Ecumenical Movement", pp.307-33. - Christifideles Laici, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John-Paul II, 1989.
  10. The Church: A Report of the Theological Commission of the Faith and Order Commission, Faith and Order Papers No 7, Geneva 1951, pp. 39-41. - Minutes of Commission, St. Andrews, Faith and Order papers No 31, Geneva 1960, pp. 82-88. - On the way to fuller koinonia: Report of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order, Geneva 1994, especially section IV, pp. 254-62.
  11. Christifideles Laici (cp. Note 9). - New Ecumenical Perspectives on the Laity, Geneva 1990. - Weaving Communities of Hope, Report of the World Convention in Montreat, Geneva 1994. - Laos: the whole people of God, Geneva 1994. - "Reopening the ecumenical discussion of the laity", theme number of the Ecumenical Review, 45/4, Geneva 1993.
  12. Relevant entries in Theological Wordbooks for the Old and the New Testament and Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, Philadelphia 1960.
  13. Cp. what Claus Westermann, Theologie des Alten Testamentes in Grundzügen, Göttingen 1978 (English ed: Atlanta 1982) teaches about God's blessing and the human response.
  14. T.W. Manson, Ministry and Priesthood: Christ's and Ours, London 1958, p. 70.
  15. H. H. Walz, "Adult Christianity", Laymen's Work, No 8, Geneva 1955, p. 20.