The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:52:55

Distinction and complementarity between laity and clergy in the early Church

Katie van Schaijik, May 22, 2019

This morning's first reading, from Acts 15, blends beautifully with my ToB theme

Some of the Jewish believers were insisting that circumcision according to the Mosaic law was a condition for salvation—a claim that caused "no little dissension and debate" in that mostly Gentile early Christian community. So Paul and Barnabas "were sent by the Church," i.e., the laity, to go up to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles and presbyters about this question. 

Note the active agency of the People of God. They, as a group, sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. Plainly, they had real decision-making power.

When [Paul and Barnabas] arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the Church, as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters.

There it is again: two separate and distinct subjects of the welcome: "the Church" and "the Apostles and presbyters." Manifestly, the laity compose a corporate subject that is distinct from the clergy. This is a vital truth that has been largely lost in the institutional Church of today. 

Today, if, say, the bishop were to announce a visit to our parish, that visit would be entirely managed by our pastor. He would welcome the bishop in the name of the parish as a whole. The laity would have no say—zero—in arranging that visit. Nor (in all likelihood) would we have any opportunity to communicate with the bishop independently while he's here, apart from a perfunctory handshake in a receiving line after the event. Our activity, our liberty, our influence in the event is restricted to a choice to cooperate with the pastor's plan and show up or not. 

If we have an especially open and responsive pastor, he might solicit the input of the some of the laity, so he can take our ideas into consideration. But still, all the decisions will be his. If we're really good and generous, we'll volunteer to help with his arrangements. If we're grumbling and unhelpful, the whole burden will fall to him, which will be exhausting. There's a danger of mutual resentment.

I've said it before: the position of the laity in the Church today is more like that of wives under Sharia law than wives in the Christian vision. We lack equal standing with our spouse. Essentially, we stand under them, not vis. a vis. 

Back to the reading. Paul and Barnabas reported to the whole Church what God had been doing among them—how the Holy Spirit was working in the Gentiles. After that, some of the Pharisees, who had become believers, made the case for circumcision. Finally, "The Apostles and presbyters met to see about this matter." It was they who would decide the doctrinal question.

Three key points: 

1) Paul and Barnabas, unlike those former Pharisees, grounded their argument for doctrinal development not in the law, but in the experience of the faithful. This coheres nicely with a favorite theme of Jorge Bergoglio/Pope Francis': "The institutional church does more than give to the people; it also receives from the people." As he sees it, "The Christian faith of the people is a theological source, a hermeneutical locus of lived, enculterated faith." [my bold]

2) The Apostles rendered a decision only after there had been a report of communal experience and an open airing of contending views.

3) The authority to render decisions on doctrinal matters lies with them (the ordained ministers), under Peter. 

In marriage, as we understand it through ToB, there is complementarity, which implies difference. Men and women are not the same and they are not interchangeable. But neither is one over the other. Rather, they are complementary equals. Their relation is entirely reciprocal.

The same should be true of the union of love between the clergy and the laity.