An Orthodox Vision of Lay Ministries

By Denise Jillions

The mandate for Christian ministry has been given to us by our Lord through his words spoken to the eleven disciples who met him in Galilee before he ascended unto the Father: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.” (Matt. 28:16-19) The ministry of Christ’s followers is to be based on His model, which was at once life example and teaching.

In the following pages the essential elements of the Orthodox understanding of Christian ministry are outlined.

“For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Collosians 3:3

The first principle guiding the Christian ministry is summed up in St. Paul’s eloquent words to the Collosians 3:3, “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” The Christian is the one who has died to himself and lives in Christ, no longer seeking to do his or her own will, but to be the instrument by which the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Whatever type of service we do in the Church, we are to do, not for our own satisfaction or reputation, but for the glory of God. To be in Christ means that, having been baptized into His death, we no longer live unto ourselves. Rather, we live His life in this world, participating in His ministry to the world. This is why he sent His Spirit to the Church on the day of Pentecost and sent it to us individually on the day of our Chrismation so that we, you and I, men and women of the Orthodox Church, could continue his life-saving work on earth.

We are appointed, we would even say ordained, in that we are each set apart through Chrismation to be the stewards and the ministers of His grace and of His truth. As St. Peter says, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Christ’s desire is to save the world through us who constitute His Church by dying to ourselves and becoming the vessels of His love and mercy to those around us. This is the ministry of the Church to the world and each of us participates in it in our own particular way.

We Serve Christ By Serving One Another

The second point to be learned, from the Gospel of Matthew, is serving one another. The key reading is the parable of the Last Judgment. (Matt. 25) In no uncertain terms Christ identifies Himself with all those who suffer, are sick, are in prison and naked and hungry, and consequently regards as true followers those who visit Him and feed Him through their ministry to these unfortunate ones. But to those who do not, his condemnation is not spared. His disciples ask, “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did minister to Thee?” He answers, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

There is no such thing as serving God in the abstract. Serving God means first of all seeing Christ in the other and then responding to the other out of love and reverence for Christ. The stark clarity of the story always amazes me. One would have to do a good deal of acrobatics to misinterpret it. According to Christ, we will not be asked whether we went to church on Sunday, whether we fasted, or even whether we served on the parish council or put in time at the annual festival. I do not mean that these are all unimportant, but that they sidestep the crux of Christ’s saving message, that He loves the person, saves the person, dies for the person that He calls our neighbor, the brother or sister next to us. Clearly, if we wish to serve Him we must address ourselves to the needs of our neighbor.

In our times, people have a way of surrounding themselves with nice neighbors, generally not poor or hungry or naked. But very often these same neighbors have other needs which are just as profound, and certainly in most of our cities and towns we don’t have to go but a few miles to find the truly poor and hungry and naked. The other thing that is perfectly clear in this story is that as we stand shaking before the throne of judgment, it just won’t do to tell Christ that we sent the priest to visit Mrs. Jones when she was sick in bed!

Priestly And Lay Ministries

This brings me to my third point, the distinction between the priestly and lay ministries. The clergy have a special ministry, one for which they have received special grace through the laying on of hands. The priest presents Christ, and his vocation is none other than to lead the world toward salvation and away from deception and evil.

But what is a head without its body as St. Paul says? (1 Cor. 12) The active ministry of the laity in the Orthodox Church complements the priest’s ministry, enabling him to be effective. Similar to the relationship between the male and the female in Christ, there is no competition, contradiction, duplication, or value judgment implied in making this distinction between the priestly and lay ministries. Our sister churches in the West are having some difficulty accepting such differences as distinctions and not value judgments.

In the Orthodox Church we have a different kind of denial of the ministry of the laity. How often have I heard lay people say, “That’s what we pay the priest for. It’s his job!” NO! His job is to lead, to present Christ, to keep reminding his flock of the Christian vision of life and death, to guide them to see Christ working in their daily lives, to push back the boundaries of the chaos by extending the love of Christ to those both inside and outside of the parish community.

It is the lay men and women, however, the members of the Body of Christ, who work to realize the victory of Christ over death and sin and evil in a particular place - in their neighborhood, at the factory, in their family, on the local P.T.A., at the voting machine, in whatever circumstances they find themselves. Specifically, their work is visiting the sick, ministering to the bereaved or discouraged, counseling the alcoholic, welcoming the stranger, hating and fighting oppression and poverty in all its material and spiritual forms, seeing and serving Christ in our neighbors daily, and thereby witnessing to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This is the type of service that glorifies God the Father and, according to Christ’s promise, wins us a place at His right hand with those who will be found worthy of His kingdom.

Being And Doing

My fourth point is that this has just as much to do with who we are as what we do - what might be called the tension between being and doing. Any Christian work, in order to be truly in the service of Christ, is grounded in faith, prayer and love. In fact, prayer itself is an active ministry. This is what distinguishes Christian service from secular social work. When we advocate lay ministry, we are not advocating the frenetic, often self-serving activity of do-gooders, who feel justified by their sacrifice of time as the pharisee felt justified by his adherence to the law.

As Orthodox we must resist the temptation to equate sanctity with religious observance, or faith with involvement, or salvation with good works alone. It is not only the morsel of bread which we give that nourishes the hungry man - because we believe that man does not live by bread alone and that he is more than his stomach - but it is the love of Christ which is being manifested by the act of feeding that man which indeed nourishes his weary soul and may bring him to repentance and salvation.

We do not believe that if it were possible to eradicate poverty on this earth the result would be the Kingdom of God. It is extremely important that while we do the works of mercy that Christ commanded to us to do, we remember that His Kingdom is not of this world and our primary vocation is to proclaim this and to make our lives a testimony to this revelation. In concrete terms, for example, the mother who is raising a child to know and love God is serving Christ. It is not only what she is doing - in other words, how many Bible stories she has taught her child - but how she is manifesting Christ in her daily interactions with the child, so that the child, in knowing and loving his mother, is learning to recognize and love Christ.

We are not as much concerned with the end product as with making the process one that will bring others to God, because it is He who saves. This should, of course, keep us from counting our successes and failures or judging others as less Christian because they happen to be less involved in church activities that show immediate and measurable results. Sometimes the most profound and meaningful “lay ministry” is done anonymously, quietly, and over the period of a lifetime.

Our Diversity Of Talents

And this leads me to my fifth point in terms of our understanding of Christian ministry, that God in His mercy endowed each of us with different gifts, and therefore we are called to serve Him in different ways. One result of this is that we are members of one another. We need each other, just as all the members of the human body need each other because of the different functions each performs. (Romans 12:4-8) Not everyone needs to be in the kitchen making soup or on the parish council, sometimes also making soup!

God has given us a great diversity of gifts for a good reason, and I believe it is time for the Orthodox laity, who has always appreciated its crucial role in the life of the Church, to understand the tremendous scope of its Christian responsibilities and make the most of this diversity. St. Paul says in Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” and goes on to suggest that it is not so much what particular work we do that is important, but in what spirit we offer ourselves to God and to one another: “...he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Whatever our talent, we are called to invest it as good and faithful stewards, not to waste it or hide it selfishly, but to invest it for the glory of God. Think of such valuable talents as landscaping, carpentry, writing, counseling, child care, sports, music, teaching, or just being a good listener, and consider the wealth of knowledge or information you may have about a particular matter.

The laity is the Church’s “natural resource,” waiting to be tapped. But as long as we persist in limiting the role of the laity in the Church’s mission, we will continue to have, on the one hand, not enough little jobs to go around for those who would like to be more active, and on the other hand, a tremendous passivity and inertia in the majority of our people. Once we change our vision of the Church’s mission, the possibilities for lay involvement are endless.

Men And Women: Their Complementary Roles

A sixth element of the Orthodox understanding of lay ministry is that both men and women share the task equally and in a complementary manner. Although St. Paul is frequently accused of limiting the role that women can play in the Church, he in fact was ministered to by women throughout his apostolate and thanked God for them in full recognition of this significant role in the life of the early church. By understanding the cultural context of his ministry and discerning the principles behind his injunctions, we Orthodox can say without hesitation that, when we speak of the ministry of the laity, there is no distinction between what men and women can do. The Christian ministry is not characterized by a spirit of competition and “equal rights” but by mutual love and concern for the upbuilding of the body of Christ.

In summary, although much more can be said to develop this topic, we can consider these six points the biblical and theological foundations of our understanding of Christian ministry:

1. As Christians we are dead to the world and we live in Christ, meaning that our entire life and activity must be dedicated to accomplishing His mission to save the world by our becoming the instruments of His love and power.

2. We serve Christ by serving one another, particularly those among us who are needy and suffering, because Christ himself has identified himself with the poor and the oppressed.

3. The laity has a special and distinct ministry which complements the ministry of the priest by extending the love of Christ to all those with whom we come in contact in the course of our daily lives and in our families.

4. This goal is not realized only by doing good works but also by living according to our faith, so that through our lives the light of Christ is apparent to those in darkness.

5. We are richly endowed by God with different talents and gifts, much as a body has many different members that perform different functions. Every Christian is called to invest these special talents so that his or her life will bear fruit for the glory of God.

6. Men and women together are responsible for the ministry of the laity and complement one another in the use of their special gifts.

Denise Jillions is an alcoholism counselor and family therapist. She heads the Section on Lay Ministries for the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.

Denise Jillions is an alcoholism counselor and family therapist. She heads the Section on Lay Ministries for the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.