I once heard a highly regarded clergy leader refer to a particular individual as “an M.Div. who is just a layperson.” Even worse, I often hear laypersons describe themselves this way. The regrettable tendency to qualify the word layperson with the “J-word” is rooted in the secular definition of a layperson as an amateur. In common usage the term layperson has come to mean inexpert, amateur, inexperienced, or ordinary. In some cultures, the terms lay or laity connote political anti-clericalism or the advocacy of reason and secularity against religion. Even within the church, there is a tendency to think of laity as secondary, as a lesser order of Christians.
These distorted understandings flow from the dualistic paradigm of ministry which places clergy and laity in counter distinction to one another. However, the distinction between clergy and laity was unknown in biblical times. The ritual of ordination did not emerge until sometime around the year 200 CE. The construct of ordination grows out of the concept of “order” (ordo in Latin or taxis in Greek) – a concept linked to the Greco-Roman political and social order of the time. The concept of order displays a penchant for distinction and heirarchy that was part of the cultural mindset of the Roman world. With this came a distinction between the clergy (derived from the Greek term klerikos, meaning chosen one) and the laity (from laikos, meaning people).
But this dichotomy is unsustainable when laity is properly understood to mean the people of God. Describing the church as “the people of God,” the writer of 1 Peter used the Greek word for people, laos, which is the source of the words laity and lay. One does not cease to be a part of the people of God when one is ordained. Clergy are not the opposite of the laity. They are part of the people of God. Clergy are not something other than the people of God.
Reclaiming the full biblical meaning of the term laos is necessary to correct the abuse of the terms lay and laity in both secular and religious language. It is necessary to honor and affirm the ministry of the whole people of God. .