An Orthodox Vision of Lay Ministries

Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus’ life example and teaching is at the base of their ministry. The Christian ministry is characterized by mutual love and concern for the building up of the body of Christ, and not by a spirit of competition and “equal rights."

As Christians we are dead to the world and alive in Christ. Our entire life and activity must be dedicated to accomplishing His mission to save the world by our becoming the instruments of His love and power.

This first principle guiding the Christian ministry is summed up in St. Paul’s eloquent words to the Colossians 3:3, “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” The Christian is the one who has died to himself and lives in Christ, no longer seeking to do his or her own will, but to be the instrument by which the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Whatever type of service we do in the Church, we are to do for the glory of God and not for our own satisfaction or reputation.

We serve Christ by serving one another, particularly those among us who are needy and suffering, because Christ himself has identified himself with the poor and the oppressed.

The second point to be learned about Christian ministry, from the Gospel of Matthew, is serving one another. The key reading is the parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25). In no uncertain terms Christ identifies Himself with all those who suffer, are sick, are in prison and naked and hungry, and consequently regards as true followers those who visit Him and feed Him through their ministry to these unfortunate ones. There is no such thing as serving God in the abstract. If we wish to serve Christ we must address ourselves to the needs of our neighbour.

The laity has a special and distinct ministry which complements the ministry of the priest by extending the love of Christ to all those with whom we come in contact in the course of our daily lives and in our families.

As we stand shaking before the throne of judgment, it just won’t do to tell Christ that we sent the priest to visit Mrs. Jones when she was sick in bed! This brings me to my third point, the distinction between the priestly and lay ministries. The priest represents Christ, and his vocation is none other than to lead the world toward salvation and away from deception and evil. But what is a head without its body as St. Paul says? (1 Cor. 12). The active ministry of the laity in the Orthodox Church complements the priest’s ministry, enabling him to be effective. There is no competition, contradiction, duplication, or value judgment implied in making this distinction between the priestly and lay ministries.

Extending the love of Christ to all those with whom we come in contact is not realized only by doing good works, but also by living according to our faith, so that through our lives the light of Christ is apparent to those in darkness.

My fourth point is that this has just as much to do with who we are as what we do – what might be called the tension between being and doing. Any Christian work, in order to be truly in the service of Christ, is grounded in faith, prayer and love. In fact, prayer itself is an active ministry. This is what distinguishes Christian service from secular social work. When we advocate lay ministry, we are not advocating the frenetic, often self-serving activity of do-gooders, who feel justified by their sacrifice of time as the pharisee felt justified by his adherence to the law. We must resist the temptation to equate sanctity with religious observance, or faith with involvement, or salvation with good works alone. It is not only the morsel of bread which we give that nourishes the hungry man – because we believe that man does not live by bread alone and that he is more than his stomach – but it is the love of Christ which is being manifested by the act of feeding that man which indeed nourishes his weary soul and may bring him to repentance and salvation. We do not believe that if it were possible to eradicate poverty on this earth the result would be the Kingdom of God. It is extremely important that while we do the works of mercy that Christ commanded us to do, we remember that His Kingdom is not of this world and our primary vocation is to proclaim this and to make our lives a testimony to this revelation. We are not as much concerned with the end product, as with making the process, and one that will bring others to God, because it is He who saves. This should, of course, keep us from counting our successes and failures or judging others as less Christian because they happen to be less involved in church activities that show immediate and measurable results.

We are richly endowed by God with different talents and gifts, much as a body has many different members that perform different functions. Every Christian is called to invest these special talents so that his or her life will bear fruit for the glory of God.

God in His mercy endowed each of us with different gifts, and therefore we are called to serve Him in different ways. One result of this is that we are members of one another. We need each other, just as all the members of the human body need each other because of the different functions each performs (Romans 12:4-8). Not everyone needs to be in the kitchen making soup or on the parish council, sometimes also making soup!

Men and women together are responsible for the ministry of the laity and complement one another in the use of their special gifts.

A sixth element of the Orthodox understanding of lay ministry is that both men and women share the task equally and in a complementary manner. Although St. Paul is frequently accused of limiting the role that women can play in the Church, he in fact was ministered to by women throughout his apostolate and thanked God for them in full recognition of this significant role in the life of the early church. By understanding the cultural context of his ministry and discerning the principles behind his injunctions, we Orthodox can say without hesitation that, when we speak of the ministry of the laity, there is no distinction between what men and women can do.

These words come from an essay by Matushka Denise Jillions. Read her full essay here.