The Rights and Duties of Laymen

By J. C. Ryle

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus—To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons" Philippians 1:1

This opening verse of Paul's Epistle to the Philippians is a very remarkable text of Scripture. I suspect it receives far less attention from Bible readers than it deserves. Like the gold of California, men have walked over it for centuries, and have not observed what was under their feet. In fact, if some Anglican divines had stood at the Apostle's elbow when he wrote this verse, I believe they would have hinted that he had made a mistake.

Now what do I mean by all this? What is the remarkable point to which I refer? The point on which I place my finger is Paul's mention of "the saints" before the "bishops and deacons." He places the laity before the clergy when he addresses the Philippian Church. He puts the body of the baptized in the front rank, and the ministers in the rear.

There is no room for dispute about the various readings of manuscripts in this case. It was unmistakably given by inspiration of God, and written for our learning. As such, I see in it the germ of a great truth, which demands special notice in the present day. In short, it opens up the grave subject of the rights and duties of the lay members of a Christian Church.

I approach the whole subject with a deep sense of its delicacy and difficulty. I disclaim the slightest sympathy with those revolutionary counselors who want us to throw overboard Creeds, and turn the Church into a Pantheon, in the vain hope of buying off invaders. I desire nothing but scriptural and reasonable reforms, and I know no reform so likely to strengthen the Church as that of placing her laity in their rightful position. One of the best modes of promoting effective Church defense in this day—is to promote wise Church reform.

What, then, was the position of the lay members of Churches in the days of the Apostles? Let us imagine ourselves paying a visit to the baptized communities at Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus, or Thessalonica, or Jerusalem, and let us see what we would have found, and what Scripture teaches about them. In this, as in many other matters, we have a right to ask, "What light can we get from the New Testament?"

This is an inquiry which deserves special attention, and I am much mistaken if the result does not astonish some people, and make them open their eyes.

I say then, without hesitation, that you will not find a single text in the New Testament in which the ordained ministers alone are ever called "the Church," or ever act for the Church without the laity uniting and co-operating in their action.

Are the deacons appointed? The apostles recommend their proposal, but "the whole multitude" choose (Act. 6:5). Is a council held to consider whether the heathen converts should be circumcised, and keep the ceremonial law? The decision arrived at is said to come from "the apostles, and elders, and brethren," with "the whole Church" (Act. 15:22-23). Are inspired Epistles written by Paul to particular Churches? In eight cases they are addressed to "the Church, the saints, the faithful brethren"—and in only one case (the Epistle to the Philippians) is there any mention of overseers and deacons" in the opening address. Does Paul send instructions to the Church about the Lord's Supper, and about speaking with tongues? He sends them to "them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus" not to the ministers. Is discipline exercised against an unsound member? I find Paul giving directions to the saints at Corinth, without mentioning the ministry, "Put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1Co. 5:13). Is a man "overtaken in a fault" to be restored to communion? Paul tells those who are "spiritual" among the Galatians to do it, and does not refer it to their ministers. (Gal. 6:1). Is an Epistle written to the Christian Hebrews? Not a word is said about "rulers" until you come to the last chapter. Does James write a General Epistle? He addresses the "twelve tribes," and only names "teachers" in the third chapter. Does Peter write a General Epistle? He writes to the whole body of the elect, and says nothing to the "elders" until he arrives at the last chapter, and even then he is careful to remind them that they are not "lords over God's heritage." As for the Second Epistle of Peter, and the Epistles of John and Jude, they never touch the subject of the ministry at all.

Now let no one mistake me. That there was to be a distinct order of men to minister to the Church is, to my eyes, most plainly taught in the New Testament. Paul, we are told, "ordained elders in every Church" (Act. 14:23). See 1Co. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; 1st and 2nd Epistles to Timothy; and Titus. But that "the Church" in any city or country meant especially the laity, and the ministers were only regarded as the "servants of the Church" (2Co. 4:5), seems to me as clear as the sun at noon-day.

As for a Church in which the clergy acted alone, settled everything, decided everything, judged everything, and managed everything, and the laity had no voice at all, I cannot find the spirit of the shadow of such a thing in the Acts or Epistles of the New Testament. On the contrary, while Paul tells the Thessalonians to "esteem their ministers very highly," it is to the laity, and not the clergy, that he addresses the words, "Warn those who are unruly, comfort the feeble-minded, support the weak" (1Th. 5:13-14).

Before I go any further in this paper, I think it right to say a few words in self-defense, to prevent possible misunderstanding. If anyone supposes that I wish to exalt and exaggerate the position of the laity at the expense of the clergy, and that I think lightly of the ministerial office—he is totally mistaken. In a deep sense of the value of the Christian ministry, as an ordinance of Christ, and a necessity in a fallen world, I give place to no man. But I dare not overstep scriptural limits in this matter. I cannot refrain from saying that a sacerdotal ministry, a mediatorial ministry, an infallible ministry, a ministry of men who by virtue of episcopal ordination have any monopoly of knowledge, or any special ability to settle disputed questions of faith or ritual such a ministry, in my judgment, is an innovation of man, and utterly without warrant of Holy Scripture. It is a ministry which has been borrowed from the typical system of the Jewish Church, and has no place in the present dispensation. The Christian minister is a teacher, an ambassador, a messenger, a watchman, a witness, a shepherd, a steward—and is expressly authorized by the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, where his duties are clearly laid down. But there is a conspicuous absence of New Testament proof that he is a sacrificing priest!

In saying this I do not stand alone. The learned Bishop of Durham, in his exhaustive work on Philippians, uses the following language:

"The kingdom of Christ has no sacerdotal system. It interposes no sacrificial tribe or class between God and man by whose entreaties alone God is reconciled and man forgiven. Each individual member holds personal communion with the Divine Head. To Him immediately he is responsible, and from Him directly he obtains pardon and draws strength" (p. 174, ed. 3).

Again, he says—"The sacerdotal title is never once conferred on the ministers of the Church. The only priests under the gospel, designated as such under the New Testament, are the saints, the members of the Christian brotherhood" (p. 132, ed. 3). This is sound speech, which cannot be condemned. First published in 1868, it has stood the test of eighteen years' criticism, and its principles remain unanswered and unanswerable. To these principles I firmly adhere, and I press them on the consideration of all English Churchmen in the present day.

I leave the subject of the lay members of the apostolic Churches at this point, and commend it to the attention of all who read this paper. It is my conviction that the prominent position occupied by the laity in these primitive communities was one grand secret of their undeniable strength, growth, prosperity, and success. There were no sleeping Christians in those days. Every member of the ecclesiastical body worked. Everyone felt bound to do something. All the baptized members, whether men or women, if we may judge from the 16th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, took a direct active interest in the welfare and progress of the whole ecclesiastical body. They were not tame, ignorant sheep, led here and there at the beck of an autocratic shepherd. The best regiment in an army is that in which officers and privates take an equal interest in the efficiency of the whole corps. It is the regiment in which the officers trust the privates and the privates trust the officers. It is the regiment in which every private is intelligent, and behaves as if the success of the campaign depended on him. It is the regiment in which every private knows his duty, and is honorably proud of his profession, and would fight to the last for the colors, even if every officer fell. Such a regiment was a primitive Church in apostolic days. It had its officers—its overseers and deacons. It had orders, due subordination, and discipline. But the mainspring and backbone of its strength lay in the zeal, intelligence, and activity of its laity!

I hold it to be a canon and axiom of the Christian faith, that the nearer a Church can get to the pattern of Scripture the better she is, and the farther she gets away from it the worse.

A mischievous habit of leaving all religion to the parson of the parish has overspread the country, and the bulk of laymen seem to think that they have nothing to do with the Church but to receive the benefit of her means of grace, while they contribute nothing in the way of personal active exertion to promote her efficiency. The vast majority of church-goers appear to suppose that when they have gone to church on Sunday, they have done their duty, and are not under the slightest obligation to warn, to teach, to rebuke, to edify others, to promote works of charity, to assist evangelization, or to raise a finger in checking sin, and advancing Christ's cause in the world. Their only idea is to be perpetually receiving, but never doing anything at all. They have taken their seats in the right train, and are only to sit quiet, while the clerical engine draws them to heaven, perhaps half asleep.

If an Ephesian or Philippian or Thessalonian layman were to rise from the dead and see how little work present laymen do for the English Church, he would not believe his eyes. The difference between the primitive type of a layman and the English type is the difference between light and darkness, black and white. The one used to be awake and alive, and always about his Master's business. The other is too often asleep practically, and torpid, and idle, and content to leave the religion of the parish in the hands of the parson. When this is the case—and who will deny it? there must be something painfully wrong in our system.

With every desire to make the best of our Church, I cannot avoid the conclusion that in the matter of the laity, its system is at present defective and sub-scriptural. I cannot reconcile the position of the English layman in 1888 with that of his brother in any apostolic Church eighteen centuries ago. I cannot make the two things square. To my eyes, it seems that in the regular working of the Church of England, almost everything is left in the hands of the clergy, and hardly anything is assigned to the laity! The clergy settle everything! The Clergy manage everything! The clergy arrange everything! The laity are practically allowed neither voice, nor place, nor opinion, nor power, and must accept whatever the clergy decide for them. In all this there is no intentional slight. Not the smallest reflection is implied on the trustworthiness and ability of the laity. But from one cause or another they are left out in the cold, passive recipients and not active members, in a huge ecclesiastical corporation,—sleeping members, and not working agents in an unwieldy and ill-managed concern. In short, our laymen have been left as unwanted soldiers—they have fallen out of the ranks, retired to the rear, and sunk out of sight.

Now, what is the true cause of this anomalous state of things? It is one which may easily be detected. The position of the English laity is neither more nor less than a rag and remnant of Popery. It is part of those "damnable heresies" which Rome has bequeathed to our Church, and which has never been completely purged away. Our Reformers themselves were not perfect men, and among other blots which they left on the face of our Church, I must sorrowfully admit that neglect of the interests of the laity was not the least one. To make the clergy mediators between Christ and man—to exalt them far above the laity, and put all ecclesiastical power into their hands—to clothe them with sacerdotal authority, and regard them as infallible guides in all Church matters—this has always been an essential element of the Romish system. This element our Reformers, no doubt, ought to have corrected by giving more power to the laity, as John Knox did in Scotland. They omitted to do so. The unhappy fruit of the omission has been that gradually the chief authority in our Church matters has fallen almost entirely into the hands of the clergy, and the laity have been left without their due rights and powers. The effect at the present day is that the English laity are far below the position they ought to occupy, and the English clergy are far above theirs. Both parties, in short, are in the wrong place.

What are the consequences of this unsatisfactory state of things? They are precisely what might be expected—evil and only evil. Departure from the mind of God, even in the least things, is always sure to bear bitter fruit. Lifted above their due position, the English clergy have always been inclined to sacerdotalism, priestism, self-conceit, and an overweening estimate of their own privileges and powers. Fallen below their due position, the English laity, with occasional brilliant exceptions, have taken little interest in church matters, and have been too ready to leave everything to be managed by the clergy. In the meantime, for three centuries the Church of England has suffered great and almost irremediable damage.

Seldom considered, seldom consulted, seldom trusted with power, seldom invested with authority—the English layman, as a rule, is ignorant, indifferent, or apathetic about Church questions. How few laymen know anything about their own Church work! How few care one jot! How few understand the meaning of the great doctrinal controversies by which their Church is almost rent asunder! How few exhibit as much personal interest or concern about them, as a Roman spectator would have exhibited about the fight of a couple of gladiators in the arena of the Coliseum! How few could tell you anything more than this, "that there is some squabble among the parsons; and they don't pretend to understand it!" This is a melancholy picture; but I fear it is a sadly correct one. And yet who can wonder? The English laity have never yet had their rightful position in the management of the Church of England.

You may lay it down as an infallible rule, that the best way to make a man feel an interest in a business—is to make him a "part of the concern." The rule applies to ecclesiastical corporations as well as to commercial ones. The Church of England has lost sight of this principle altogether. The laity have never been properly employed, or trusted, or considered, or called forward, or consulted, or placed in position, or armed with authority, as they ought to have been. The consequence is that, as a body, they neither know, nor care, nor feel, nor understand, nor think, nor read, nor exercise their minds, nor trouble their heads much, about church affairs. The system under which this state of things has grown up is a gigantic mistake. The sooner it is cut up by the roots and turned upside down the better. If we want to remove one grand cause of our Church's present weakness, we must completely alter the position of the laity. On this point, if on no other, there is great need of Church reform.