The role and identity of the “layman” is an important concept in the Bible that relates to the priesthood, spiritual leadership, and ministry. As Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, understanding the biblical distinction between clergy and laity can help us grasp key truths about our identity in Christ.
In modern English, the word “layman” refers to someone who does not have specialized or professional knowledge of a subject. In a religious context, it refers to someone who is not ordained into the clergy. However, the biblical meaning goes much deeper.
Throughout Scripture, we see a distinction between those appointed as priests and leaders, and the “laity” – the regular people of God. Israel had its Levitical priesthood, but also had the 12 tribes with no specialized role. In the New Testament church, some are called as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, while most are simply “saints” (Eph 4:11-12).
Understanding the role of the layperson in the Bible provides us crucial insight into the Body of Christ. It helps us grasp God’s design for spiritual leadership and ministry. It also aids us in comprehending our identity and purpose as followers of Jesus.
- In the Old Testament, the “layman” referred to non-priestly Israelites outside the tribe of Levi
- Jesus came to do away with the clergy/laity divide through His sacrifice and priesthood
- In the NT church, “laity” refers to all non-specialized members of the Body of Christ
- Though some are called to leadership roles, all believers have a ministry and spiritual gifts
- The Reformation recovered the “priesthood of all believers” principle
- Understanding the layperson helps us grasp body ministry and our identity in Christ
The Layperson in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament period, prior to Christ’s coming, Israel had a clearly defined system of priests and Levites who led worship and administered the sacrificial system. The “laypeople” were members of the 12 tribes with no specified religious duties.
The Priesthood in Israel
The Lord chose the tribe of Levi to be Israel’s priests, beginning with Aaron and his sons (Ex 28:1). The priests offered sacrifices, maintained the tabernacle, taught God’s law, supervised worship, and represented the people before God (Lev 10:8-11, Deut 33:8-11).
The rest of the Levites assisted the priests and handled tabernacle duties like transportation, maintenance, and temple music (Num 3-4). No one outside Aaron’s lineage could serve as priest (Num 16:40). This family of priests mediated Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh for over 15 centuries.
The Everyday Israelite
The “laity” in the Old Testament context referred to everyday, non-priestly Israelites who belonged to the other 11 tribes. These laypeople had no specialized religious status or duties. They practiced spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, tithing, and observing holy days – but depended on the priesthood to offer sacrifices and approach God’s presence on their behalf.
The layperson’s role was to learn God’s law, follow His commands in daily life, and trust in His provision and protection (Deut 6:4-9, Josh 1:8, Ps 46:1). So while set apart and holy to the Lord, they relied on the Levitical priests to lead corporate worship and act as spiritual go-betweens.
“You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Exodus 19:6 NKJV)
The Layperson in the New Testament
With Christ’s coming, the Bible reveals a major shift away from the Old Testament clergy/laity divide. Jesus is portrayed as the great high priest, who offers the perfect sacrifice once for all (Heb 4:14, Heb 10:12). Through faith in Christ, believers now have direct access to God and are called a “holy priesthood” and “royal nation” (1 Pet 2:9).
Christ’s Universal Priesthood
The New Testament identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, who offers Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sins (Isa 53:5-6, Heb 9:11-14). Jesus is also our great high priest, who mediates the new covenant and gives us access to the throne of grace (Heb 4:14-16).
As both priest and offering, Christ’s work is completely sufficient for salvation – no longer is a human priesthood required. His sacrifice sanctifies all believers, so we can all approach God’s presence (Heb 10:19-22). In Christ, the exclusive Aaronic priesthood finds its fulfillment and end.
The Church and the Priesthood of All Believers
Based on Christ’s universal priesthood, the New Testament identifies the church as a “holy priesthood” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5, 1 Pet 2:9). Through faith in Jesus, all believers now have access to offer spiritual sacrifices and approach God intimately.
“To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:5-6 NKJV)
Though the clergy/laity divide still existed practically, the doctrinal foundation was laid for eliminating pedestrian distinctions. Elders like Peter could identify themselves as “fellow elders” rather than as a special priestly class (1 Pet 5:1). The groundwork was laid for understanding all believers as priests under Christ’s high priesthood.
The Layperson in Church History
Throughout church history, the people of God have wrestled with clergy/laity distinctions and implementing the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. At times, the laity was suppressed under human priesthoods. Yet restoring lay ministry has brought revival and reformation.
Suppression and Revival in the Early Church
In the early post-apostolic period, church leadership gradually became more centralized and consolidated. The role of the laity diminished as ordained bishops and presbyters took prominence. Cyprian advanced a strong form of episcopal hierarchy where bishops held unique priestly authority.
Yet often, revival and reform arose from the laity – like the vibrant lay-led cell churches under persecution. The Montanist movement began as a prophetic lay revival before becoming unorthodox. Layaccess to Scripture fueled doctrinal debate and fervor.
The Medieval Roman Church
In the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the clergy/laity distinction solidified into a rigid hierarchy. Bishops and priests performed unique sacerdotal functions. The Eucharist was limited to ordained priests, and the Bible was restricted from laypeople.
Yet sparks of reform came through late medieval lay piety movements. Some like Peter Waldo formed unorthodox sects by preaching without authorization. Others like the Brethren of the Common Life fueled reform through lay access to the Scripture. Cracks formed in the clerical wall.
Protestant Recovery of the Layperson
The Protestant Reformation represented an explosive recovery of the layperson’s place in Christ’s church. Luther proclaimed the “priesthood of all believers,” arguing all Christians are priests under Christ with full access to God through faith. The distinction between clergy and laity was demolished.
Reformers translated the Bible into common languages and emphasized universal priestly duties like prayer, worship, evangelism, and discipleship. Important lay roles in teaching, missions, charity, and church governance emerged. The stage was set for order without human priesthood.
Lay Ministry in Evangelicalism
In the last two centuries, the Evangelical church has upheld the Reformation’s gains while introducing some clergy/laity distinctions. Most evangelical churches have pastors who are specifically called, trained, and compensated as ministry professionals set apart to lead local churches.
Yet evangelicals have also championed the priesthood of believers and activated the entire church for “every member ministry.” Laypeople are encouraged to use spiritual gifts, teach, evangelize, disciple, lead home groups, and participate in all areas of church life. The ideal of “mutual ministry” is promoted within biblical offices.
The Biblical Role of the Layperson
Based on this historical survey, we can summarize the following key principles about the identity and purpose of laypeople according to Scripture:
- All believers are priests under Christ with direct access to God (1 Pet 2:9)
- The church is a kingdom of priests, without earthly mediator (Rev 1:6)
- Each believer has spiritual gifts for edifying the Body (1 Cor 12:7)
- We are all called to ministry and service in Christ’s name (Eph 4:12)
- The Spirit’s presence enables all believers to teach and lead (1 Jn 2:27)
- Biblical offices like elder require character over pedigree (1 Tim 3:1-7)
- Mutual ministry should operate through biblical order (Rom 12:3-8)
In Christ, all Christians have equal standing as priestly saints indwelt by the Spirit. Our identity is not lay or clergy but in Christ alone. All believers are called and gifted to build up the church through mutual ministry under spiritual authority.
Implementing Lay Ministry in the Church
Based on the Scriptural principles we have surveyed, what are some practical ways churches today can implement meaningful lay ministry while still having godly leadership and biblical order? Here are a few key suggestions:
1. Recognize the Priesthood of All Believers
Churches should teach and operate based on the truth that every member is a priest under Christ. There are no second-class Christians. Healthy churches affirm and activate this universal calling.
2. Provide Lay Leadership Training
Equipping all members to use spiritual gifts should be a top priority. Offer classes on spiritual gifts, Bible study methods, sharing your faith, teaching, discernment, and ministry skills to equip people for service.
**3. Promote Giftedness over Pedigree for Official Roles **
When selecting leaders like pastors and elders, focus on character, maturity, wisdom, and spiritual giftedness over formal training only. Be open to raising up lay leaders from within the congregation.
4. Implement Team Ministry Structures
Rather than centralizing power and authority, utilize elderships, ministry teams, and lay councils to make decisions and share ministry tasks. Shared leadership reflects the diversity of the body.
5. Foster a Culture of Mutual Ministry
Within biblical offices and roles, cultivate a culture where pastors equip and laypeople serve according to their gifts. Recognize the Spirit’s manifest presence in the body, not just the pulpit.
6. Commission and Send Out Lay Missionaries
Activate all members in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Financially and prayerfully support laypeople who are called to domestic and foreign missions ministry.
Understanding the important role and identity of the layperson in the Bible helps us grasp key truths about Christ’s church. Jesus came to eliminate human priesthoods and religious hierarchies that would separate God’s people. Through His once-for-all sacrifice and high priestly ministry, believers now have direct access to the Father by faith.
This means every Christian can approach God, serve in ministry, lead through humility, and build up the body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. While still having biblical offices like pastors, elders, and deacons for teaching and protection, the church should operate as a kingdom of priests under our great high priest Jesus.
Comprehending these truths helps us live out the Reformation principle of the priesthood of all believers. It fuels a passion for equipping and releasing all Christians into meaningful ministry that reflects our true identity as saintly priests unto God. Our calling is to serve others, point them to Christ, and manifest the Spirit’s gifts for God’s glory.