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Abolishing the Laity

One peculiar feature of the Quaker tradition is our insistence on the role that each individual has in the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s will for the community. The entire membership of the church is called upon to exercise the authority that in many Christian traditions is held by a small group of ordained leaders. Quakers reject the clergy-laity distinction as unscriptural and spiritually damaging. All of us are called to be fully invested and involved in the life of Christ’s Body. Each one of us has a special and equally valuable role to play in the life of the community.

I think that Friends sometimes fail to recognize what an awesome responsibility is implied by our understanding of spiritual equality. We can be glib in our assertion that every believer is called to a particular ministry. Yet this insistence that all Christians are called to some form of ministry and leadership is deeply radical – and at odds with the way that most of the Church does business.

The Friends tradition demands a great deal from the average member. Each of us is called to be a leader. Depending on our spiritual gifts each of us will provide leadership in different areas of our life together. Some are called and gifted to focus on pastoral care and counseling. Others for evangelism. Some teach, and others give vocal ministry in the meeting for worship. Everyone has a part to play, and many of us have more than one role that we are gifted for.

While we are leaders in a variety of areas, the Friends tradition does not acknowledge a special class of Christian, set apart from the rest of the body. Rather, we are all set apart for the Lord’s work. In this, the testimony of Scripture is proven true: We are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”(1) Every Christian is called to a life of holiness and commitment that outshines the superficial purity of religious officialdom.

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to holiness; to leadership; to lives totally devoted to God’s service. We are also invited to participate in the decision-making of the Church. Gathered together in the Spirit, our lives – as individuals and as congregations – come to reflect God’s will and character.

How does this affect our understanding of membership? Perhaps the top-down leadership model of many denominations lets the bulk of the membership off the hook. There may be a different standard for ordained clergy than for the average woman or man in the pew. As Friends, however, we have no such release valve. The entire weight of Jesus’ call falls on each and every one of us, with all of its ecstasy and agony. We are left with only the tender care of the Holy Spirit and the loving arms of our community to sustain us in the Way.

How do we empower each sister and brother to live fully into the leadership that God is calling them to? How do we hold one another accountable as fellow learners in the school of the Spirit? How do we show the unconditional love of Christ Jesus, even while upholding the integrity of the community?

1. 1 Peter 2:9

  • There is no laity. There never was a laity. We are all one in Christ Jesus. One body with many parts. We just give glorified names to the least dignified parts. That’s why I am a Quaker. Christ is in me the Hope of Glory. We are the salt of the earth, the light on the hill. That is the truth. Just walk in the truth and it will set you free.

  • cThanks Micah. This lack of top-down leadership, and the humble call to all of us to serve with whatever gifts we have been given, is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer the world today. The simplicity of the model we continue to strive to live with in our meetings is a corrective for many of the ills of our world. When I seek to order my daily life after my worship community: seeking unity with the whole for my decisions, working as the body, acknowledging the gifts of each, and the of each to the whole, encouraging each to develop to its fullest — when I live in my life as in my meeting, then I really feel like I am living in the joy God intended me to!

  • Anonymous

    Great post as always, Micah. But I’m left wondering a couple of things. Isn’t there a difference between acting as a “priest” (as understood in Hebrews, and in the passage from Peter you quote) and acting as a “minister”? I think that members of most Protestant denominations wouldn’t deny that each believer is able, as a consequence of Christ’s sacrifice, to act himself or herself as “priest” in the sense that no Levitical priesthood is now necessary to screen him or her from the reality of God’s presence and act as intermediaries on their behalf. That’s the argument of Hebrews, and it’s central to the Protestant understanding of the Gospel. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all equally suited, *by virtue of our acceptance of the Gospel alone*, to engage in ministry. Quakers themselves recognized this with their establishment of elders and the recording of ministers within the monthly meeting as well as with their creation of yearly meetings. Friends exist within man-made structures of authority, too.

    I wonder if, to avoid confusing things, it might be better if Friends made use of Paul’s description of the Corinthian church, in which each member of the congregation seems to have been a participant, rather than invoking the “priesthood of all believers”, which has more to do with soteriology than church governance as far as I see it. How do you understand this distinction, Micah?