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Exploring the theological, structural, and cultural reasons for treating laypeople as the objects of ministry, Stevens argues against the idea of ...
Exploring the theological, structural, and cultural reasons for treating laypeople as the objects of ministry, Stevens argues against the idea of clericalism. All Christians are called to live in faith, hope, and love, and to do God's work in the church and world. This biblical perspective has serious implications for the existing attitudes and practices of many churches as well as for our understanding of ministry. Stevens shows that the task of churches today is to equip people for ministry in their homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods.
Written by a scholar and pastor well known as an active advocate for the whole people of God, this thought-provoking book-made even more useful with the inclusion of case studies and study questions at the end of each chapter-offers inspiring reading for anyone interested in what the Christian life holds for the other six days of the week.
At bottom there can only be one sound and sufficient theology of the laity, and that is a 'total ecclesiology'...it will also be an anthropology, and even a theology of creation in its relation to Christology.
This book makes an outrageous proposal. Should the laity be abolished? Can it be? As Yves Congar once said, there will always be laypersons in their place in the church: kneeling before the altar, sitting under the pulpit and having their hand in their purse. Throughout almost all of its history the church has been composed of two categories of people: those who 'do' ministry and those to whom it is 'done'. Lay people are the object not the subject of ministry. They receive it, pay for it, promote it and perhaps even aspire to it. But they never quite become ministers for reasons that are deep in the church's soul: theological reasons that will be explored in this book, structural and cultural reasons that have been explored in many contemporary books on the subject. In spite of the fact that the clergylay division in the church finds no basis in the New Testament, it persists tenaciously.
Most efforts at recovering the New Testament vision of every member ministry are half-measures. They focus on the Christian in the church—lay preachers, lay pastoral care-givers and lay worship leaders. What is needed is a comprehensive biblical foundation for the Christian's life in the world as well as the church, a theology for homemakers, nurses and doctors, plumbers, stockbrokers, politicians and farmers. Recovering this, as Gibbs and Morton said decades ago, would be like discovering a new continent or finding a new element.
This, of course, raises the question of what is theology and what is applied theology, matters about which there is no agreement among theologians, though in passing I note that the word 'theology' was hardly ever used in the sense of unapplied theology until the Enlightenment. My central concern in this book is to recover a truly biblical basis for the theological enterprise, especially as it relates to the ordinary person not only in the church but the world. In this chapter I will adapt the famous words of Lincoln and I will introduce a theology of the people, for the people and by the people, taking each preposition as illuminative of the theological enterprise as it relates to the whole people of God.
1. 'Of ' the Whole People of God: Beyond Clericalized Theology
As mentioned above Yves Congar, the French Catholic, said, rightly, 'at bottom there can be only one sound and sufficient theology of the laity, and that is a total ecclesiology'. But to obtain this 'total ecclesiology' we must deal with some persistent misunderstandings.
First, we look in vain in the New Testament for a theology of the laity. There are neither laypersons nor clergy. The word 'laypersons' (laikoi) was first used by Clement of Rome at the end of the first century, but was never used by an inspired apostle in Scripture to describe second-class, untrained and unequipped Christians. It ought to be eliminated from our vocabulary. 'Laity', in its proper New Testament sense of laos—the people of God—is a term of great honour denoting the enormous privilege and mission of the whole people of God. Once we were not a people at all, but now in Christ, we are 'a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people [laos] belonging to God' (1 Pet. 2:9; Ex. 19:6).
The word 'clergy' comes from the Greek word kleros, which means the 'appointed or endowed' ones. It is used in Scripture not for the leaders of the people but for the whole people. Ironically the church in its constitution is a people without laity in the usual sense of that word, but full of clergy in the true sense of that word—endowed, commissioned and appointed by God to continue God's own service and mission in the world. So the church does not 'have' a minister; it is ministry, God's ministerium. It does not 'have' a mission; it is mission. There is one people, one trinitarian people, one people that reflects the one God who is lover, beloved and love itself, as Augustine once said, and one God who is sender, sent and sending.
Throughout almost all of its history the church has been composed of two categories of people, those who are ministers and those who are not. Ministry has been defined as what the pastor does, not in terms of being servants of God and God's purposes in the marketplace, the church, the home, the school or professional office. Going into 'the Lord's work' means becoming a pastor or missionary, not being co-workers with God in his creating, sustaining, redeeming and consummating work in both the church and the world.
Second, the result of this regrettable state of affairs is that writing a theology of the so-called laity is normally a compensatory thing—trying to correct the imbalance, to elevate the non-clergy layperson, usually at the expense of the clergy layperson. One of the first to write such a compensatory theology in modern times was Yves Congar, a person who had a profound influence on Vatican II. Where Congar's theology leads, though, is toward an ecclesiology in which distinction and ranking is inevitable. The fundamental assumption he brings to his otherwise ground-breaking study is that the church is not only the community that God has brought into being; it is also the means by which the Lord brings humankind into fellowship with himself. For this purpose the hierarchy is essential. Thus he ends up proposing a complementary relationship of clergy and laity, through which alone the pleroma (fullness) of the church can be experienced.
Shortly after Congar first wrote his 'study' Hendrik Kraemer penned A Theology of the Laity. This too has the bearing of a compensatory strategy and fails to provide what Congar sees as so necessary: a biblical understanding of the whole people of God (a total ecclesiology), one people loving and serving God in both the church and the world.
So a theology of the whole people of God should neither be clerical nor anticlerical. What we should embrace is a-clericalism—one people without distinction except in function, a people that transcends clericalism.
Third, a theology of the whole people of God must encompass not only the life of God's people gathered, the ekklesia, but the church dispersed in the world, the diaspora, in marketplace, government, professional offices, schools and homes. Here I affirm Yves Congar's call for a theology of the laity that is not only a total ecclesiology but also an 'anthropology, and even a theology of creation in its relation to Christology'. It must be a theology that encompasses earthly realities and expounds the menial, the trivial and the necessary: washing, cleaning, maintaining the fabric of this world, play, games, art, leisure, vocation, work, ministry, mission and grappling with the principalities and powers. It must help us understand and experience sexuality, family and friendship. It must show us the place of sabbath and sleep. It should help us live blessedly with the automobile, travel, the telephone, computer and e-mail.
Finally, a theology of the whole people of God must take the contemporary situation seriously. The work of theology is never finished. It is elliptical in nature with one focus on the timeless word of God and another on the context. So today we must consider the end of Christendom and the prevailing postmodern culture. Ellen T. Charry puts this brilliantly:
Now that Christianity is disestablished and the general populace more familiar with secularism or modern expressions of paganism than with Christianity, theologians should undertake to demonstrate that the apostolic faith has resources for and presents the promise of a version of human selfhood that is both dignified and honorable. In other words, knowing and loving God should again locate people in the world.
So a theology of the whole people of God must expound the unity of the people of God, exploring the meaning of the dispersed life, as well as the gathered life, of the people of God. This book is essentially concerned with a theology of the whole people of God: a people without the distinction of laity and clergy (Part I), summoned and equipped by God (Part II), for the life of the world (Part III). But, at the same time, it will serve a second, subsidiary purpose: a theology for the whole people of God. Theology, as we shall see, is inherently practical.
2. 'For' the Whole People of God: Beyond Unapplied Theology
A theology for the so-called laity is normally considered as communicating to the 'ordinary' Christian, untrained in academic theology, how the great truths of the faith impinge on his or her life. Sometimes this amounts to a 'watered down' systematic or biblical theology—putting the cookie jar on a lower shelf. But at its best, a theology for the laity is what theology is all about: the continuous and dynamic task of translating the word of God into the situations where people live and work. Biblical theology is practical to its core and it is heretical to promote, as theological institutions have for decades, unapplied theology.
To most ordinary people formal academic theology seems abstracted from life, a matter lamented by Lesslie Newbigin who notes how the work of scholars makes it appear to the ordinary Christian that no one untrained in their methods can really understand anything the Bible says. 'We are,' he says, 'in a situation analogous to the one about which the great Reformers complained...' What would recovering a theology for the whole people of God mean?
First, there is more to the practicality of theology than the relevance of its theory. Theology, it is often said, is practical because it is the basis of faith-filled action and life. It helps people gain the truth of God to meet their fundamental need of knowing God and relating rightly to the world. But, in this view applied or practical theology is essentially the delivery mechanism—communicating to and persuading people of the truth and their need to act on it. This is the old linear way of doing theology: first you get the theory and then, when you have banked the truth, you apply the truth, usually, in the case of theological education, after you graduate from a seminary. But what if the action is part of the truth? What if all action is theory-laden and all theory is action-laden? And what will we do with the words and works of Jesus, who, as Alister McGrath says, is the 'primary explicandum of Christian theology...something and someone who requires to be explained'. Jesus said, 'If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God' (Jn. 7:17). The Hebrew word for 'know' is the same word as 'intercourse'. As Robert Banks says, to invite someone to take a course on a subject is to invite intercourse with the subject.
Of course the term 'applied theology' does not appear in the Bible. But the idea of linking thought with action, of relating faith and life, of joining doctrine with ethical practice, the idea that divine truth involves love of God and neighbour, is so fundamental that the only theology that is truly Christian is one that has been applied.
Many of Jesus' words emphasize that obedience is the organ of revelation. In Luke 16:31 Jesus asserts that if people are not acting on the light they have (the law and the prophets) 'they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead', thereby suggesting that his own resurrection will have little evidential value to those who are not executing their knowledge. Francis of Assisi once said, 'Humankind has as much knowledge as it has executed.' That means that what you really know—in the fully biblical and Hebraic sense—is what you live. Lesslie Newbigin puts this aptly: 'Because the ultimate reality in the Bible is personal ...we are brought into conformity with this reality not by a two-step process of theory and practice...but by a single action comprised of hearing, believing, and obeying.'
Second, throughout the history of Christian theological activity the separation of theory and practice did not take place until fairly recently. Since the founding of the church up to the eleventh century, theology was not the basis of practical action but was itself essentially practical. In her recent work By the Renewing of Your Minds, Ellen Charry describes her experience of working through the writings of Paul, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, Anselm, St Thomas, Dame Julian, and John Calvin. She confesses that the divisions in the modern theological curriculum made less and less sense. She calls for a recovery of 'sapience'—engaging God in love so that knower and known are connected emotionally, something largely lost in modernity when theology became the intellectual justification of the faith. So theology as practical theology, and theology as spiritual theology, were disconnected, fragmented. Understanding the history of this fragmentation of theology is critical, though I can only deal with this in broad strokes.
Theology in the primitive church was integrated with and arose within the life of local Christian communities or monasteries. It related to practical issues and questions arising from the liturgy and life of the people of God. It was a practical habitus—the disposition of the soul, lived truth, phronesis, practical wisdom. It did not separate theory and practice. One did not study theology for three years, banking information about God and then, upon graduation, apply this in the field. Congar notes that 'up to the end of the twelfth century theology is essentially and, we may truthfully say, exclusively biblical'.
It remained this way well into the eleventh century even when the universities emerged, these being at first attached to monasteries and cathedrals. But by the twelfth century, as universities became more independent, academics adopted an Aristotelian model of thinking which aimed at demonstrating rational knowledge and ordering it for its own sake. Theology became a speculative science, especially with Thomas Aquinas, thus marking the end of the agreement that theology was in its essence practical, though not so in the Eastern Church until much later.
As theology became increasingly reduced to logical, rational formulae, issues of application, matters relating to the real life of people in the world became relegated to a single section of the comprehensive textbooks, as they are today. Applied theology is seen as a subset of systematic theology, along with ethics, missiology and other subsidiaries. In spite of the protest of the Franciscans, practical theology became marginalized while academic theologians pursued a rigorous dispassionate analysis of the truth. Theology was pursued in the universities, while practical theologians, largely centred in the monasteries, pursued Christian spirituality, exemplified in Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. We should see these works as theologies for the people of God and even theologies by so-called laypersons, even though they are normally considered as classics of spiritual theology. The Reformation was itself a reaction to the medieval church and Luther once said, 'True theology is practical...speculative theology belongs to the devil in hell.'
By the eighteenth century pastoral theology emerged as a separate discipline from moral theology and was concerned with poimenics—the activities of the pastor. By the nineteenth century the clerical captivity of applied theology was almost complete. So in most modern seminaries practical theology has frequently been reduced to how-to courses, often measured by effectiveness and success in church growth, irrespective of whether such actions are normatively Christian and without adequate theological reflection. And 'pure' theology has been reduced to the God-talk of Job's miserable comforters: rational, objective and abstracted.
Can theology be healed? There are some encouraging signs of renewal.
Third, we are witnessing a recovery of theology as phronesis—practical wisdom, especially with many contemporary theologians including the liberation theologies of Segundo, Gutiérrez and Bonino and the indigenous theologies of people groups throughout the world. For all the problems of these theologies—matters carefully critiqued by evangelicals for their flawed hermeneutic and what Stott calls, in the case of liberation theology, their 'dangerous innocence'—they have, nevertheless, recovered something essential. This was expressed by Henri Nouwen when he visited Peru. He said, 'theologia' is not primarily a way of thinking, but a way of living. Liberation theologians do not think their way into a new way of living but live themselves into a new way of thinking.'
So we are now in a better situation to define theology in a way that conserves its essentially practical nature. This was done brilliantly by the Puritan William Perkins, who said that theology is the 'science of living blessedly forever'. Years before him Martin Luther confessed, with respect to the way that his trials, controversies and sufferings had made him a theologian of the cross: 'It is through undergoing the torment of the cross, death and hell that true theology and the knowledge of God come about...The cross alone is our theology' (CRUX sola est nostra theologia). It is precisely this 'theology-wrung-out-of-life' which underlies Luther's celebrated statement concerning the qualifications of a true theologian: 'living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating.'
Only a curricular revolution can remedy this bifurcation so that we will not only think theologically but live theologically. If all the disciplines of the theological academy were consistently taught in the direction to which the Bible points—faith active in love—with theory and practice interdependently linked, rather than merely placed in a linear way, would there be any need for a separate discipline called applied theology?
What is theology for the whole people of God? Not merely 'watered-down' and popularized systematics but rather, as William Perkins said, 'the science of living blessedly forever'. It explains and empowers the life of the ordinary believer in the world. But it means even more: it sees acts of faith as not only applying but discovering doctrine. In 1949 Ian Fraser wrote a seminal article in the Scottish Journal of Theology, entitled 'Theology and Action'. In this, he says: 'Obedience to the living God must always surge beyond present theological containing walls. When Abraham went out, he knew not whither he went. The business of theology is not to circumscribe such obedient action. It is to feed on it...Theology draws its very life from worship, and in that life draws its nourishment from obedience.'
It is precisely the question of obedience—lived truth—that gives rise to a third distinction: theology by the whole people of God.
3. 'By' the Whole People of God: Beyond Academic Theology
In July 1859 John Henry Newman published an article in The Rambler, entitled 'On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine'. It was deemed scandalous! Would that the scandal could proliferate! Furthermore, William Hordern says, 'We simply do not have the alternatives of theology or no theology. Our alternatives are either to have a well thought out theology, a theology which has passed the test of critical thought, or to have a hodgepodge theology of unexamined concepts, prejudices and feelings.' Let me explore this point by point.
First, everyday life positively bristles with the need for theological reflection. Existential questions faced by most people positively cry out for an earthy theology: Who am I? Where am I? What is the purpose of my life? To whom do I belong? Does my daily work have any meaning? What happens when I die? Does the planet have a future? The theological task is not only to exegete Scripture but to exegete life, and to do these together.
Alister McGrath offers a searing critique of academic theology on the basis of the fact that God came down to earth in Jesus Christ:
Theology must come down to earth, to serve the church and its mission to the world—and if it will not come down to earth, it must be brought down to earth by so marginalizing academic theology within the life of the church that it ceases to have any relevance to that church, in order that a theology orientated toward the pastoral and missiological needs of the church may develop in its wake.
Second, many significant theologians through the history of the church have been non-clerical, non-professional theologians: Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen; and in the Eastern Church, Socrates and Sozomen. The Reformation was essentially a lay movement. John Calvin in one of his letters said, 'I have never been anything else than an ordinary layman (laicus) as people call it.' Through an 'accident in history', namely the overrunning of the Roman Empire in the West by the barbarians and the saving of religious culture by monks and priests, the Western Church reserved theological inquiry for the clergy. In the Eastern Church, however, there was less of a clerical monopoly so that even until modern times important chairs of theology are held by laymen though sadly not by laywomen.
Commenting on community theologizing in the Indian summer of the ancient world, William Frend notes that theology was the ruling passion of the Christian provincial. In Constantinople, the capital of the Empire, points of doctrine were argued in the bazaars, marketplaces and public baths, not by theologians but by educated ordinary Christians. Gregory of Nazianzus states in 379, 'If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten.' (In the twentieth century the layman C.S. Lewis is conspicuous for his theologizing.)
There is risk in this, as Alister McGrath shows in his study The Genesis of Doctrine. While the religious life of the monasteries birthed the concept of Mariology, popular piety gave rise to the dogma of the assumption of Mary. Theology has been done by thoughtful and educated Christians who are not part of either clergy or academy.
Third, theology is being done today by ordinary people. Like the character in Molière's play who was surprised to learn that he was speaking prose all the time, the serious but non-clergy Christian may be surprised to find he or she is doing theology much of the time. This 'people' theology proliferates in films and books, as well as private conversations: vernacular theology, spur-of-the-moment theology, off-the-cuff theology and indigenous theology.
For example, my young granddaughter was told by her 'atheist' friend that there is no God and no heaven. 'Well', she said, 'if there's no heaven, then what's the point of dying?'—pure theology!
In the film A Man for All Seasons Thomas More says to his daughter, 'When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again.' More is reflecting on the nature of the human person, on words and vows.
This is theology being done 'from the bottom up'. Much of the theology being done is inadequate but it is being done! Indigenous theology, on-the-spur-of-the-moment theology, while often reactionary, often reveals some unexplored dimensions of Christian truth.
Fourth, this theology from below is not simply a curiosity but is fundamental to the whole theological endeavour. It is remarkable that in his prolegomena Karl Barth affirms that through the centuries what he calls 'irregular dogmatics' has been the rule—theology done as a free discussion of the problems of proclamation. 'Regular dogmatics' has been the exception. He includes Athanasius and Luther in the former, in contrast to Melanchthon and Calvin in the latter. Barth counsels against the disparagement of the one by the other. Indeed he concedes that regular dogmatics—in the theological school and with a concern for completeness and rational consistency—'has always had its origin in irregular dogmatics, and could never have existed without its stimulus and cooperation'.
In contrast, the 'trickle down' process of theological instruction in the academy and pulpit gives 'predigested' truth without the privilege of dialogue and participational learning. Ray Anderson touches a nerve when he says, 'Intimidated by the claims of biblical scholars and theologians whose own professional careers are evaluated and affirmed by other scholars, the church acquiesces by surrendering its role in determining its own theological agenda.'
Fifth, to recover a theology by the whole people of God the theological task must be relocated. The academy must work with the congregation, the home, and the marketplace. For example, in the case of the congregation, our understanding of what constitutes theological education begins to change when a congregation redefines its primary arena of ministry as the daily life of its members rather than in-house service. By definition a marketplace is a place where things—goods, services, information—are exchanged. As part of my own learning I spend two weeks a year in the marketplace. One course required in the Master of Divinity programme at Regent College places every student for twenty hours alongside an ordinary Christian in the workplace, listening to the questions, praying, and trying to discover how the church can equip people for full-time ministry in the world.
Sixth, to recover a people theology professional theologians have a crucial role. They too are part of the community contributing their research and historical perspective. The temptation to distort the whole gospel is always present and professional theologians can bring the full scope of God's redemptive purpose to bear on new movements. This must be theology done by the whole people of God, not merely one part. John Macquarrie calls this 'co-theologizing'. In one sense it may be improper to call this the democratizing of theology because it is not about kratos (power), nor about rights, nor even about redressing an imbalance, but rather recovering a fellowship of doing theology together. Could we call this demo-theologizing or koino-theologizing? We have much to learn about this from believers in the developing world.
In contrast to the dichotomizing of theology and practice in the theological academy today, the New Testament presupposes a community in which every person is a theologian of application, trying to make sense out of his or her life in order to live for the praise of God's glory: theology of, for and by the whole people of ...[to be continued]
PART I: A PEOPLE WITHOUT 'LAITY AND CLERGY'
PART II: SUMMONED AND EQUIPPED BY GOD
PART III: FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD
Epilogue: Living Theologically
Posted December 5, 2000
Steven's book is thought-provoking but somewhat technical. The materials are probably too difficult for beginning college classes, would fare better in upper level classes, and would really connect in graduate classes, or with seminary students, or with those well-grounded in theology. Chapter 5 shows the honorable and godly nature of work and chapter 8 shows biblical parallels in God's sending people for mission; these chapters were especially strong. The entire book might be summarized with a paraphrase of John the Baptizer's words, 'The laity must increase while the clergy must decrease.'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.