Lay Preaching

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Lay Preaching [1]

In order to form just views of this subject, it is well to consider that primary design of Christianity which contemplates world-wide diffusion. For the accomplishment of that design, preaching is the grand and divinely appointed agency. But the true idea of preaching, as instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ, is not narrow and exclusive. It is comprehensive and manifold. It demands adaptation to all men and all circumstances. Preaching warns, proclaims, invites, teaches. Although made the special work of certain representative disciples, it is, in fact, enjoined upon the Church as a whole, and upon its members in particular, "as of the ability which God giveth" ( 1 Peter 4:10-11). There is no Christian so humble as to be beneath the application of the following and many kindred precepts: " Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" ( Matthew 5:16); "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples" ( John 15:8) " Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God" ( Luke 12:8). These declarations of the Savior have a special significance when viewed in comparison with various other passages which indicate that an important element of preaching consists in bearing witness of things seen, heard, and experienced in reference to Christ and his kingdom (see  Luke 24:48;  Acts 1:21;  Acts 1:2;  Acts 2:32;  Acts 4:20;  Acts 22:15).

When considered in the plain light of Christian history and obligation, the subject of lay preaching becomes relieved from both the difficulties and the technicalities with which it has sometimes been invested by a pretentious ecclesiasticism. None of our Lord's disciples were priests, and yet, from the moment of their call to his discipleship, he proceeded to instruct them in the matter and duty of preaching. At an early period of their instruction they were sent out to preach experimentally (see  Matthew 10:5-42;  Luke 9:1-6). Not only were the twelve thus sent forth to preach, but "other seventy also." The number seventy was symbolic both of multiplicity and completeness, and the act of sending out seventy (lay) disciples, "two by two, before his face, into every city and place whither he himself would come," was in itself significant of our Lord's purpose to employ all his true disciples in spreading the truth and establishing his kingdom upon the earth.

In imitation of its divine Lord, the Apostolic Church employed not only the apostles, but its lay members in preaching the Word. "At that time (after the death of Stephen) there was a great persecution against the Church which was at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles." "Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word" ( Acts 8:1;  Acts 8:4). The same fact is illustrated by the course of Paul, of whom, immediately after his conversion, and long prior to his ordination, it is recorded, "and straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues" ( Acts 9:20). In this act the regenerated persecutor showed that Christian obligations precede ministerial, and that whosoever is born of God not only hath the witness in himself, but is prompted by the Holy Spirit to utter his testimony in the ears and to the hearts of his fellow-men.

The allusions to the modes and accompaniments of worship in  Romans 12:6-8, and 1 Corinthians 14, as well as in several less detailed passages, clearly imply that the apostles were accustomed to encourage the exercise of all species of gifts in the Church, but especially those of exhortation and prophecy. From these scriptural examples, it is just to infer that lay preaching, in the various forms of teaching, evangelizing, and prophesying, had from the first a double object: 1, to do good to all men; and, 2, to develop and prove the gifts of those who from time to time were called from the ranks of the laity to the more public ministry of the Word. Such, doubtless, continued to be the practice of the Church during the early centuries, and it was only by degrees that it became modified under the hierarchical spirit which became developed at a later period. Interesting proof of this is found in connection with the history of Origen of Alexandria. He, as a layman of known learning and skill in exposition, having gone to Caesarea, was invited by the bishops there to preach. True, his preaching on that occasion was made the ground of a charge from Demetrius of Alexandria against the bishops who invited him. But the form which the charge took is in favor of the general right of laymen to exercise their teaching functions in the Church. His alleged offense was not that he, being a layman, taught, but that he taught when bishops were present. The accused bishops, Alexander of Jerusalem and Theoctistos of Caesarea, defended themselves, not with a plea of ignorance or of exceptional circumstances, but by an appeal to the common law of the Church. They knew the custom, even in the form of which Demetrius complained, to prevail at Iconinu and other churches of Asia. They believed it to prevail elsewhere, and thought it proper to be recognized at Alexandria also (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6:19).

In the fourth Council of Carthage we find, with the name of Augustine among the subscriptions to its laws, the rule, "Laicus praesentibus clericis, nisi ipsis jubentibus, docere non audeat" (can. 98). From this we may infer that in the absence of the clergy a layman might teach, and also in their presence at their request. It is noted by Socrates (Hist. Eccles. 5:22) as an exceptional custom of the Alexandrian Church that the office of reader might be filled by even an unbaptized catechumen. The commentary of the pseudo-Ambrose on Ephesians 4 th recognizes that at the commencement "omnibus concessum est et evangelizare, et baptizare, et scriptures in ecclesia explanare." In the so-called Apostolic Constitutions, representing the practice of the Church in the 3d and 4th centuries, we find the law that "if any man, though a layman, is skillful in expounding doctrines, and of venerable manners, he may be allowed to teach" (8:32). Similar indications are also found in the Shepherd of Hermas. (See Laity).

But it is unnecessary to dwell upon the lingering evidences of a custom that was destined to be crushed out by increasing perversions of the original spirit of the Gospel. When ritual ceremonies came to supersede not only the practice, but the very idea of evangelization, it is not surprising that preaching itself became a ceremony, and at length a rare and infrequent ceremony. Not merely laymen, but even presbyters of the Church, were inhibited from preaching, except by special permission of bishops; while many of the bishops, who had arrogated to themselves the exclusive right of preaching, either through ignorance or indolence practically abandoned the custom. "There was a time when the bishops of Rome were not known to preach for five hundred years together! insomuch that, when Plus Quintus made a sermon, it was looked upon as a prodigy, and, indeed, was a greater rarity than the Saeculares Ludi were in old Rome" (Bingham, Orig. Eccl. book 2, chapter 3, § 4). This general abandonment of the great and peculiar work of the Christian ministry had its counterpart of error in monasticism, which, by an equal perversion, sent myriads of the best men in the Church during successive centuries to waste their lives and religious zeal in fruitless penances in desert places and gloomy cloisters. Had the lives and talents which were thus thrown away in monastic idleness been wisely employed in various forms of evangelization, whether lay or clerical, who can tell how much better the world would have been today! In fact, nearly all the real progress made by Christianity during several of the medieval centuries was by exceptional missionary effort among various aboriginal nations of Europe. The general abandonment of preaching above alluded to formed a pretext for the establishment, in the 13th or 14th centuries, of several preaching orders of monks, specially the Franciscans and Dominicans. These monks, in an ecclesiastical point of view, were laymen, and by profession they were also mendicants. Nevertheless, they acquired great influence and great wealth for their several orders. But such results did not relieve the evangelical barrenness of the period, nor render less necessary the great Reformation of the 16th century. In the Reformed churches there was a general breaking away from the trammels of ecclesiasticism, together with an energy of purpose which did not scruple to employ any agencies at its command for the dissemination of truth. Still, under the influence of long-prevailing custom, that great element of Christian power to be derived from the personal activity of devoted laymen was to a large degree suffered to lie dormant, and in some cases actually repressed. The first formal and greatly effective organization of lay preaching as a system, and as a recognized branch of Church effort, took place under John Wesley at an early period of that great religious movement known as the revival of the 18th century. See Stevens, History of Methodism, 1:173,174.

Not only was great good accomplished by the Wesleyan lay preachers in England, but by persons of this class Methodism was introduced into America. (See Philip Embury); (See Robert Strawbridge); (See Capt Webb). In all parts of the world, wherever Methodism has extended its activities, organized lay preaching has been a leading feature of its evangelical movements. (See Exhorters); (See Local Preachers); (See Readers). During the current century other evangelical churches have adopted analogous measures in various forms, and employed lay evangelists under such names as Bible-readers, prayer-leaders, colporteurs, etc. In some churches in which official sanction has not been given to lay preaching e.g. the national churches of England and Scotland, many earnest Christian laymen, including some noblemen, have gone forth independently, under their personal convictions of duty, preaching wherever they could assemble congregations.

The vast Sunday-school enterprises of modern times are themselves at once a grand result and agency of lay teaching in perfect harmony with the design of the Christian ministry, and powerfully auxiliary to its most effective administration by regularly ordained ministers of the Word. The Christian Associations of the present day are chiefly composed of laymen, and the whole weight of their influence is given to encourage the evangelization of the neglected classes of society by all available agencies, such as lay preaching and its various auxiliary forms of Christian work. By these numerous and multiplying means of Christian teaching and influence the modern Church is approximating the intense activity of the apostolic Church, and at the same time adapting itself to the moral necessities and special conditions of the present age. In this manner the primary design of Christianity is answered, and great good is accomplished among classes of people that would scarcely be reached by the regular clergy of any of the churches. Nor are the just prerogatives of ordained preachers in any degree prejudiced by the cooperative action of pious and judicious laymen. On the other hand, all ministers of a truly apostolic type cannot fail to see that their own success is greatly promoted by their imitation of the apostle to the Gentiles in enlisting and encouraging as extensively as possible all worthy helpers in Christ. (See Young Mens Christian Associations). (D.P.K.)