I was in Petaling Jaya rummaging through the stuff in my old room, looking for a missing document when I came across a copy of my ordination certificate. I was reminded that I was ordained by the Georgetown Baptist Church, Penang on the 26th of June, 1988. (For the record, the ordination council consisted of Roger Capps, Thomas Chin and Lawrence Khong.) I remember I wanted so badly to be ordained, not because I thought that ordination would make me any better than my fellow members but because I felt I had paid a heavy price to enter church ministry and found pastoral ministry difficult. I wanted the affirmation the ordination represented; I wanted the church to publicly acknowledge that I had been called by God into full-time church ministry. But I never saw ordination as something that made one different or more spiritual than those who were not ordained.
Perhaps it was my Baptist upbringing. Perhaps it was the books I was reading, or my mentors in Regent College (my seminary), but I had never believed in the division of God’s people in the New Testament into two classes — the clergy and the laity. I had believed all along that all followers of Jesus were called and empowered to minister, and that therefore one’s baptism was all the ordination one needed for service. The clincher for me was Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Spirit was poured out on all the believers present. In the Old Covenant, the Spirit was poured out only on specific individuals for specific roles — Kings and Prophets — but never on Israelites in general. With Pentecost, a new day dawned, when all of God’s people were called and empowered to serve. Like the apostle Paul, one’s salvation and one’s call to ministry were part of the same conversion package. The early church impacted the known world of their day because it was a lay movement, a movement where all Christians knew they had the responsibility and the power to show and tell the Gospel.
Today, a clergy-laity division of God’s people continues to be very entrenched in many denominations and churches. Since most believers are on the laity side of this divide, we end up with many believers not understanding their critical importance in God’s purposes. Indeed the laity is often defined in terms of what they are not rather than in terms of what they are. As Paul Stevens writes:
Depending on the specific church context, ‘lay’ is defined by function (does not administer the Word and the sacraments), by status (does not have a ‘Rev.’), by location (serves primarily in the world), by education (is not theologically trained), by remuneration (is not full-time and paid), and bylifestyle (is not religious but preoccupied with secular life) — usually in terms of negatives! (R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999], 25.)
Indeed many Christians believe that laity are non-ordained believers whose main function is just to assist the clergy to do church work.
But the Greek word behind the word “laity”, the word “laos”, just refers to “the people of God,” referring to all the people, and not a group that is non-clergy. And the New Testament understands ministry as based on gifting where all have a role to play, and knows nothing of a clergy-laity divide (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:12–31). This does not mean that anyone can serve as a church leader, for e.g. leaders are chosen on the basis of character (1 Timothy 3:1–13) and giftedness (Romans 12:8). But church leadership is not contingent on ordination. It is the responsibility of every member of the church to serve. Some serve as leaders.
Does that mean that my ordination in 1988 is not important? Well, I appreciate the affirmation it represents, and pragmatically I appreciate the fact that it opens some doors for ministry. I suspect that I get to do things like lead in the Holy Communion at last Saturday’s Graduates Christian Fellowship dedication service, partly because I am a Reverend. But I continue to hold on to my opposition to a clergy-laity divide because I believe it is unbiblical and holds many of the saints back from giving themselves wholly to Kingdom ministry. Wherever we can, Bernice and I teach and encourage followers of Jesus, especially young adults, to understand their place in God’s purposes and the high calling of being “laity”, i.e., God’s people. I don’t think we are going to change church traditions anytime soon, but we do what we can to help folks recover the true meaning and power of being “laity”.