How Does a Member of the Church Live?
John L. Odhner, Council of the Clergy 2006
All together form one Church when everyone acknowledges charity to be the essential thing of the Church, or what amounts to the same, when everyone regards life as the end in view of doctrine—that
is,when everyone asks, How does a member of the Church live? rather than, What does he think?
In this paper I want to offer a few thoughts about the role of lay people in the church. Some of the issues I am thinking about are:
- We have decreasing involvement of younger laity.
- We do not have clarity about the role of laity in the church.
- Lack of clarity about the role of a member of the church is a barrier to growth.
- Since we are currently considering clarifying our membership expectations, it is of prime importance to look at expectations in the area of uses.
- Our priests are sometimes overworked, underemployed, and ineffective because of unclear role of the laity.
- We have seen many studies about the priesthood, but few if any about the laity.
My sense is that we need to pay more attention to the role of the laity and to clarify the role the Lord offers lay people in the church. I have more questions than answers, and I offer this as a springboard for discussion.
Ministerial Mission Creep
It was not long ago that the Rev. Kurt Hy. Asplundh offered us a paper distinguishing community uses from church uses. He spoke of the pull on ministers to become involved in benefactions and other secondary uses that may not be part of a priest’s job description, and may be a distraction from his use of preaching and teaching. I am sympathetic with this; I believe we all have had experience with ancillary uses distracting us from teaching truths and leading by means of them.
The Lord’s apostles had a similar experience in the early Christian church. The apostles were daily in the temple, and in every house; “they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus the Christ.” While the apostles were focusing on the Word, some of the people began complaining “because their widows were neglected. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.'” Everyone was happy with the apostles’ solution, and the result was that the Word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly (Acts 5.42-6.7).
We don’t need to do everything the way early Christians did. I am not suggesting that we should live communally, for example, giving all our property to the church (see Acts 2.44, 4.32). Yet the Writings speak well of the charity that was practiced in the early Christian church (TCR 638, 433-4, AC 4772), so it is legitimate to ask whether appointing lay people to care for widows fits with the overall doctrine about the organization of the external church.
The External of the Church
It is sometimes hard to know what the Writings say about church organizations. Many passages about the church are speaking of the church in terms of spiritual qualities such as charity and faith, the Lord’s presence with us, the Lord’s kingdom, etc. Obviously the organized church should reflect and support those spiritual qualities, but sometimes the details are uncertain.
I am particularly interested in the teachings about the external church. I imagine that in the Most Ancient times they did not have churches that were organized in the way we have them now. “The people of the Most Ancient Church were internal men and had no externals of worship” (AC 4493), though even with them the internal church must have had some expression in outward action. In later ages the internal church has always been manifested in outward organizations, and it seems that the Writings frequently refer to the kinds of activities that are done by organized churches such as teaching, leading, gathering in temples for worship, Holy Supper and Baptism. These are not things that people do on their own individually. They involve people gathering in certain places at certain times to act as a group-that is, they involve organization (although individual actions such as private prayers and reading are also externals of the church).
If we take these passages about the external church as telling us something about what church organizations properly do, there is an obvious place for priests. They are to preach, to teach and to lead. They are to govern “assemblages of people” (HD 313). Part of the role of lay people is to benefit from the services of the priests: “attending church, listening to the preaching, observing the sacrament of the Supper three or four times a year, and performing other acts of worship according to the requirements of the church” are “outward acts that ought to be done” (HH 222; see also AC 1618). Yet this kind of participation is relatively passive, and the Writings teach that essential worship is active: “Essential Divine worship in the heavens does not consist in going to church and hearing preaching, but in a life of love, charity, and faith, in accordance with doctrine; preaching in churches serves solely as means of instruction in matters of life” (ibid.).
What Jobs Are Lay People Doing?
To have organized worship there are all kinds of other things that must be done. Buildings, maintenance, finances, calendars, newsletters, are all things without which these assemblages of people would not happen. Consequently, we as a church have a number of uses that lay people do.
- In worship: ushering, music, set-up & cleanup, refreshments
- Pastor’s council
- Teaching Sunday school
- Secretarial work
- Building Maintenance
- In addition, we have in the General Church all the jobs connected with schools.
- School administration
- Janitorial work
(This is suggestive, not a complete list. Also, I am not distinguishing here between paid employees and volunteers. I see a place for both in the church organization, though obviously having more volunteers is preferable.)
If we add all these up, we can see that a great many people are involved in church uses, probably a majority of each congregation’s regular attendees. Given the difficulty of finding volunteers and the cost of hiring, we do well to avoid multiplying more than necessary the uses that are done by the church organization. Our resources are limited, and it is better to do the most important things well than to do everything poorly.
At the same time, it does not serve our congregations well if we omit vital tasks in the name of efficiency. We don’t have to let our mission be defined by our resources or lack of them; rather we can first see what the Lord is asking of us, and then, the Lord willing, find the resources necessary. This applies not only to what we do as priests, but to what our lay people do for the church. If lay people’s efforts are focused on the most important things, they will accomplish more and find more satisfaction in what they do.
Charity Makes the Church
We all are familiar with the teachings about the importance of charity in the church:
- All things of the church have relation … to charity and faith.
- The church is not with man before truths … become the good of charity.
- Charity constitutes the church, and not faith separate from charity.
- The internal of the church is charity.
- Hence there is no church where there is no charity.
- The church would be one if all were regarded from charity….
- How much of good would be in the church if charity were regarded in the first place.
- Every church begins from charity, but in process of time turns aside to faith….
- There is no faith at the last time of the church, because there is no charity.
- The worship of the Lord consists in a life of charity.
- The quality of the worship is according to the quality of the charity.
- The people of the external church have an internal if they are in charity.
- The doctrine of the ancient churches was … the doctrine of charity….
I would conclude from these and similar teachings that charity ought to have the first place not only in the individual who is a church, but also in the greater church made up of many individuals. This is in agreement with the teaching that the congregation as a whole is like the individuals who make it up (AC 4292, 5469, 917, 1040, HH 57).
Charity and One’s Employment
When we speak of charity being what makes the church and being the most important thing in the church, we might keep in mind that charity itself is to do the work of one’s employment justly and faithfully (TCR 422). Most of our lay people work for employers other than the church. Obviously, we have no authority over their work, and it is of great importance not only to those individuals, but to our communities and to our church organization that they make it a top priority to do their jobs faithfully. Nothing we do as a church organization should detract from that.
Still, it is not the Lord’s intention that one’s employment should totally fill one’s life. It is the Lord’s command that we remember the Sabbath, and while we should not take our people away from an honest day’s work, we can balance that by defending them from rigorous, profit-driven employers, from keeping up with the Joneses, from workaholism and other Egyptian taskmasters who might not want to let our people go to worship the Lord on a Sunday. Part of the church’s task is to set people free from the bondage of working for that which is not bread.
Our goal is not to produce robots, which work without will, or slaves, who work against their will, or oxen, which work strictly from worldly motivation, but to produce people who work freely, joyfully and spiritually for the greater good. Our job as a church is to help people move from a natural level to a spiritual level, to move from Egypt to Canaan.
We noted a just above that charity itself is to do the work of one’s employment justly and faithfully (TCR 422), yet spiritual charity is more than simply doing one’s job. There are many who do their jobs faithfully and justly not from any heavenly motive but from a worldly one (TCR 424), and even if a community were made up entirely of devils, just as many jobs would be done as in a community of angels (CL 266). Spiritual charity is something more than keeping one’s nose to the grindstone.
The Difference between Spiritual Charity and Natural Charity
Spiritual and natural charity are distinguished in the Writings in several ways. One difference between the two is that a person who believes in the Lord and shuns evils as sins becomes spiritual. “everyone who believes in the Lord and refrains from evils as sins performs useful services from the Lord, but everyone who does not believe in the Lord and refrain from evils as sins performs and useful services he does from himself and for the sake of himself” (CL 266). Obviously the organized church can contribute to making natural charity spiritual by teaching what evils are to be shunned, presenting the sacraments as sacraments of repentance, teaching people about the Lord and leading them in worship of Him.
Done on one’s own
Done by approaching the Lord (TCR 359, 372)
Begins with doing good
Begins with shunning evils (TCR 435, CL 266, Char. 8, 202, DP 265)
Looking for recompense or merit
No thought of gain or of self (TCR 361, 439)
Done from obedience, from truth, from compulsion
Done from freedom, from affection, from self-compulsion (AC 7840, Char. 210)
Thinking from person about the neighbor and the Lord
Thinking primarily of good itself as the neighbor (TCR 417, D Wis 11)
Doing occasional good works, benefactions
Constantly working for good in one’s job and all one’s dealings (TCR 423)
Done from worldly motive
Done from love of justice with judgment (TCR 359)
Charity without faith or subservient to faith
Charity joined to faith (AC 4988)
Done to everyone, blindly
Done with discernment (TCR 407)
Caring for the literally hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, strangers and prisoners.
Caring for the spiritually hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, strangers and prisoners (HD 107)
All of these differences between spiritual charity and natural charity are vitally important and are part of what we teach; moreover, each of them has implications for us organizationally. For example, the teachings that charity itself is doing one’s job faithfully, and that benefactions such as feeding the hungry are natural charity and are to be done with discernment, have led us to de-emphasize benefactions such as soup kitchens in our church congregations.
I want to focus especially on the last difference between spiritual and natural charity because I think it is very important for us as an organization. The Lord commanded in the Word that we should give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick and go to those in prison (Matthew 25), not to mention caring for the lame, blind, deaf, widows, orphans, etc. Those who approach this from the literal sense will take care of those who literally fit those conditions, while those who approach from the spiritual sense will care for those who are spiritually such (HD 107).
I believe we have rightly made natural benefactions such as giving to the poor into an ancillary, optional kind of work that we are very hesitant to impose on our congregations. At the same time, we may do well to give more emphasis to caring for those who are spiritually poor, sick, etc. The Ancient Church divided the neighbor into classes (the spiritually hungry, spiritually thirsty, etc.) and exercised charity towards them accordingly (HD 107).
Is this something that we do well? Are the people of the General Church caring for the spiritual needs of other people?
I believe that many are. Sunday School teachers obviously have a big impact on their students, and many of them could testify to spiritual hunger and thirst of children they have fed. Many of our classroom teachers have a direct impact on the spiritual life of their
I believe that these kinds of activities are things that we as pastors encourage and love to see happen. So when I speak of giving more emphasis to this kind of work, I don’t mean that we should be doing something we have never done before or that we are lacking in charity as a denomination. Rather, I believe that if we take small steps to find more ways for lay people to find uses in the church that directly impact people’s spiritual lives, then we as pastors will be relieved of some of the burden, and we will be able to focus more on our teaching and leading.
Should the Church Be Doing Works of Charity?
A number of passages suggest that the external of the church includes not only worship but also works of charity.
The internal of the church consists in willing good from the heart, and in being affected with good; and its external consists in doing it , and this according to the truth of faith which the person knows from good; but the external of the church consists in the devout performance of rituals, and in doing works of charity, according to the precepts of the church.
The Ancient Church distinguished the neighbor to whom charity was to be performed into many separate classes. Some were called the poor, some the wretched and afflicted, some the bound and in prison, some the blind and the lame, and others strangers, orphans, and widows. It performed different charitable works, whichever were appropriate to the character each class possessed. The teachings of that Church showed them what those works were, for that Church had no other teachings than these.
Charity, and therefore the works of charity, is the essential element of the Church
Divine good is in the interior of the church, of the Word, and of worship; the exteriors of the church, of the Word, and of worship are only the effects and works from them
Natural good constitutes the external of the church , and spiritual good the internal of the church.
The very affection of charity which a man feels within himself as a quietude and bliss in benefiting the neighbor without regard to any recompense, is the internal of the church; but to will this good and to do it from truth, that is, because it has been so commanded in the Word, is the external of the church.
To know truth and good, and to act from thence, is the external of the church, but to will and love truth and good, and to act from thence, is the internal of the church.
Worship itself consists in a life according to the precepts of the church from the Word
What pertains to doctrine does not itself make the external, still less the internal, as before said; nor with the Lord does it distinguish churches from each other, but that which does this is a life according to doctrinal matters, all of which, provided they are true, look to charity as their fundamental. What is doctrine but that which teaches how a man must live?
The church is with those who do good works…. Where good works are, there the church will be.
Works are what make a man of the church.
Works signify in general all things of the church.
The internal of the church is charity and the faith therefrom, while the external of the church is the good of life. The works of charity and faith, which are the good of life, belong to the natural man, while charity itself and faith therefrom belong to the spiritual man.
Divine worship consists primarily in a life of charity and secondarily in external piety .
Is Helping the Spiritually Needy Church Work?
Even if one accepts that we should all be striving to help with the spiritual needs of others, one could ask whether such charitable work belongs in church on Sunday.
In the Old Testament it was forbidden to work at all on the Sabbath, but the Lord abrogated this part of the third commandment, making the Sabbath no longer a representative day, but a day of instruction, rest, meditation and love for others (TCR 301). It was often on the Sabbath day that the Lord healed people, saying, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mark 3:1ff., Luke 4:31ff., Luke 6:6). The Lord not only made the Sabbath a day for healing and for love for the neighbor, but He often did this in the temple or a synagogue-in a place of public worship.
It was on the Sabbath in a synagogue that He healed a man with a withered arm (Mt. 12.12). It was on the Sabbath in a synagogue that He cast out unclean spirits (Mark 1.21). In was on the Sabbath that the Lord said to a cripple, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (John 5:8). It was on the Sabbath in a synagogue that He released from her bent over infirmity the woman who had be bound “lo these eighteen years”. The ruler of the synagogue was indignant that this kind of work should be done on the Sabbath, saying that there are six other days to be healed, but Jesus said that this daughter of Abraham ought to be loosed from her bond on the Sabbath (Luke 13.10). In was in the temple on Palm Sunday that the Lord cured the blind and the lame (Matt. 21.14).
By healing these people in the synagogues and the temple on the Sabbath, the Lord was making the Sabbath a day for loving the neighbor (TCR 301). This confirms that serving the spiritual classes of the neighbor is something that should be welcomed and supported in our congregations.
Degrading Charity to a Moral Level
We often fault those who embrace faith alone for rejecting good works, yet only in the most extreme cases do Protestants completely reject good works. Most Protestants teach that good works should be done, but not for the sake of salvation, but rather for the sake of society. “Don’t they preach charity and its deeds, what they call the deeds of faith,” some ask, “openly in our hearing?” But the answer is that “what they have in mind is merely moral charity, and its social and political good deeds” (TCR 506).
“They teach, that faith alone is like a queen, who walks in a stately manner with good works as her train of attendants behind her” (BE 59), not daring to be in front of her. By putting charity and works on a moral and social level rather than a spiritual level, “they cast out from the doctrine of the church everything that belongs to good-that is, to charity and its works-into a lower doctrine, which they call moral theology, and which they regard as natural and not spiritual” (AC 9300; see also TCR 460, AE 796, 789). When Melancthon found himself in an underground workhouse in the spiritual world, he was told that “no other lot awaits those who thrust charity and good works outside of the doors of the church” (TCR 797). Let’s keep a place within the doors of the church for true spiritual charity!
Every Member Has a Use
The Lord’s kingdom is a kingdom of uses. Everyone in heaven has a use. Heaven as a whole is as one person, in which every member, viscus and organ has a use.
It is known at the present day that the church constitutes the body of Christ, and that everyone in whom the church is, is in some member of that body.
It is a person’s use which makes him or her a member of the human form:
Now since all things, collectively and individually, were created in the world at the beginning for use, and all things also in man were formed for use, and the Lord from creation regarded as one man the whole human race, each member of which is in a similar manner designed for use or is use, and since the Lord Himself is the life of this man, as said above, it is plain that the universe was so created that the Lord is in first and in final things, in the center also and in the circumferences, that is, in the midst of all things; and that those things in which He is are uses.
There cannot be a particle, or the least of any particle, in any member, organ, or viscus, that is not a use in form.
It is known that every man is born to be of use, and that he may perform uses to others; and he who does not is called a useless member, and is cast off. He who performs uses for himself alone is also useless, though not called so. In a well constituted commonwealth, therefore, provision is made that no one shall be useless. If useless, he is compelled to some work; and a beggar is compelled, if he is in health.
For if the life of a human being is regarded from the creation of all things existing in him, there will be found no part which is not adapted for use, not a fiber or minute vessel in the brains, in the organs of the senses, in the muscles, or in any one of the viscera of the thorax or abdomen, or in any of the rest, which does not exist for the sake of use generally and individually.… All are formed from use, in use, and for the purpose of use, so much so, that they may be simply called the uses out of which the whole person is built up and formed, it being clearly evident that they have no other origin or end but use.
This principle will apply equally to a larger or smaller group of people. It will apply to the church as a whole, or just to our denomination, also to each congregation and each individual in the congregation. Each group more or less reflects the human form in which each member has a use. Every member of a choir should have a part to sing. What is the point of joining if you really don’t plan on singing?
Currently in the General Church there is not stated expectation that every member of the body will have a use. A person can be a member for many years without making any useful contribution to the body as a whole. Certainly as pastors we are all aware of the satisfaction and sense of belonging that comes to those who find uses in which they can serve the church and through it have an impact on the spiritual life of others. These people are de facto members whether or not they have signed the rolls. On the other hand, those who have signed the rolls of the organization but do not desire to serve the organization are members in name only. Are those individuals or the organization well-served by keeping them on the rolls?
The Church Is More than the Priesthood
The Writings speak of the priesthood as the first of the church (AE 229.4), though it is actually charity that is the first of the church (HD 121e) and the tribe of Levi was first of the tribes and given the priesthood because they represented charity. Priests represent the Lord’s government of His church, but it is charity which actually governs the church, for the Lord is present only in charity.
The church is much more than the priesthood, because the church is made up of all people who have the church in them (TCR 510, AE 20), that is all who are in charity and faith. Of course, I can’t judge who those people are, but my guess is that the church is 99% made up of lay people. That would mean, if every member has a use, that 99% of the uses of the church are lay uses. I don’t think we can quantify uses this way, but if we focus our discussion of church uses primarily on the priesthood, we are really missing the boat.
I suspect that some areas where we see a lack in our church organization are areas where it is vital for lay people to be able to respond to different classes of the neighbor. For example, is our recent discussion of marketing needs really a matter of understanding that “I was a stranger and you took Me in”? Can that class of the neighbor be served through a lay use of marketing? Can marketing be done in a way that recognizes people’s spiritual needs and meets them? Would this be a kind of spiritual use that could properly be done by a church organization, though not by a priest?
Again, one of the area where we might improve is in mentoring marriages. Mentor couples can provide a role model for new or troubled marriages. Often such mentoring has a greater positive impact on marriages than either pastoral counseling or marital therapy does. I wonder whether mentoring serves the class of the neighbor we call orphans-people who need to be adopted spiritually.
My hope is that we can offer every lay person the option of finding some use within our church organization that can be an expression of true spiritual charity-the kind of charity that was taught and practiced in the Ancient Churches, in which they identified people’s spiritual needs according to the classes of the neighbor, and served them accordingly.