Winter 1997

Volume 16, Issue 4

A Look at Laity

Q and A with Dr. Parker Williamson

Since 1988, Dr. Parker Williamson has been Executive Editor of The Presbyterian Layman, a national Christian newspaper renowned as a champion of the historic Christian faith. He is also Chief Operating Officer of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, Inc. A pastor for thirty years, Williamson holds degrees from Rhodes College, Union Theological Seminary, and Yale University. He received his doctorate from Waynesburg College. In 1993 he visited the major cities of South Africa working with religious, cultural, and governmental leaders on the role of the church in that country, torn by apartheid. In 1994, he traveled extensively in Great Britain, interviewing theologians who are leading the way towards a recovery of Nicene theology and Trinitarian faith. Most recently, he is the author of Standing Firm: Reclaiming Christian Faith in Times of Controversy, in which he traces our modern religious controversies to 325 A.D. in Nicaea, where the Church erupted into a battleground between the forces of Christian faith and cultural accommodation.

Q.What do you feel is the laity’s role in the church?

A.The great reform movements in history have always been fueled by intense activity on the part of lay people. During the Reformation, Scripture was translated into the language of the people and the printing press placed it into their hands. That in turn led to a love for the Scripture on the part of the laity, which then led to a powerful reform movement within the life of the church. That is not to say that the clergy were not involved, but I think that one of the deadest periods in the life and history of the church was during the Middle Ages when the clergy, in effect, claimed ownership of Scripture -- since they were the only ones who could read it. When lay people have read Scripture and affirmed its authority, we have seen revitalization and growth.

What does that mean for today? It means that reform, which we desperately need in the church, will come primarily through the leadership of the laity. That is one of the reasons why I am so excited about and committed to the work of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, which is the organization that publishes The Presbyterian Layman. It is a committee of Presbyterian lay men and women who are committed to the authority of the Scriptures and who are working for renewal and reformation within the PCUSA. The Presbyterian Layman now reaches some 580,000 Presbyterian homes across the country. We also are being read in a number of other countries. I believe it is a wonderful opportunity to share a biblical message with our denomination.

Q.What opportunities do you see for involving lay people in the church today?

A.The first level of involvement for people is gathering around God’s Word. Where two or three are gathered together in the Lord’s name and where they have His Word, church renewal will occur. It starts in those persons’ lives, creating a nucleus of energy in the life of a congregation. From what I have witnessed, people begin to go beyond the individual study of Scripture to sharing with one another in small groups -- the life that God’s Word leads us into. It becomes a communal experience. I don’t believe we are called to isolated, individual Christianity. Obviously, we have a personal experience with our Lord, but that ultimately calls us to be part of a believing community.

Third, after people study Scripture and experience the community that it generates, we begin to study doctrine, or the record of the church dealing with Scripture over the ages. We experience the "communion of the saints," that community of believers that knows no spatial or temporal limitations.

Q.What improvements need to be made in the future?

A.I think the church today is very clergy-dominated. The leadership is clearly clergy leadership, and if one looks closely, one usually finds it is "specialized" clergy leadership. Specialized ministers work in hospitals, teach in seminaries or colleges, or are involved in various social ministries. But they do not serve congregations. Much of the staff leadership at the top denominational level is in the hands of specialized clergy. Surveys show them to be quite liberal and to have a very low view of Scripture. The policies and programs that they often promote do not reflect Scriptural truth, and, consequently, they do not express the faith of the Christian community. No wonder the laity often feels estranged from this kind of leadership!

Q.How can the church overcome this specialized clergy domination?

A.One very simple way would be to require any minister who serves at national church staff levels or teaches in our seminaries to have a certain amount of experience serving a local congregation. Many of these leaders have gone from college, seminary, and graduate school directly into a teaching or upper level staff position. They are being asked to produce programs for congregations when they have never actually led a congregation.

I also think that a person serving in a seminary or staff position should be required to return and serve a local congregation for a certain number of years before continuing in national or regional leadership. This would allow the laity to reeducate the clergy. Parish ministers baptize, marry, and bury people; they literally share life with a living congregation, and the laity provide a constant "reality check" for them. Presbyterian polity insists on parity in clergy/lay leadership. We need to reclaim that parity.

Q.What kind of training do lay people need today?

A.It is crucial that we help lay people articulate their faith with clarity and conviction. That is one of the functions of The Presbyterian Lay Committee. An ancient term expresses it best -- apologetics, or the discipline of defending the faith. The early church leaders were called apologists. They were able to step out into society and articulate their faith. They were debaters, engaging the voices of culture and giving a reasoned argument for the truth that we receive in Scripture.

At one time all seminaries had courses in apologetics, but today that discipline has fallen into disrepute. Liberal leadership doesn’t like the idea of debating anything because it rejects the premise that one idea can be right and another wrong. Liberals want to absorb all ideas into a large, amorphous hole. So, today many "mainline" seminary curricula do not include apologetics courses. A large number of ministers, therefore, have never been trained to articulate their faith intelligently and with clear conviction in a multicultural context.

No wonder our laity feel a loss there as well! Without doctrinal apologetics the faith becomes an emotional experience, an almost unutterable feeling. Our lay people need to know how to share the Christian faith in a secular environment, where many voices are arguing for faiths quite different from Christianity.

In this country we have been riding on the faith of past generations when Christian faith and culture were so closely aligned. We can no longer assume that just because we are members of a church, people know what we believe. We must learn to state the faith clearly and convincingly.

Q.There seems to be a move toward democratization in the church today. What implications does this have?

A. The very strong movement in American culture towards individualization, or emphasizing the rights of the individual, is having an impact on the Christian church. Ours is a cafeteria-style life, where we pick and choose what appeals to us and discard the rest.

This movement also has anti-institutional aspects to it, which are both good and bad. Certainly the anti-institutional emphasis has caused many people to rethink the dominance of some of our institutions. The authority of the General Assembly or church boards is being challenged or questioned now. This is good in the sense that individuals are working toward thinking for themselves and assessing the culture around them.

However, one of the consequences of this movement is a loss of community. The doctrine of original sin warns us about the danger of living an isolated life. How easily we deceive ourselves when the only filters we use in viewing reality are our own private ones. We need one another. We need the correcting power that occurs in the life of a community where we are accountable to one another.

Q.Do you see any ways to alleviate this lack of community?

A.The evangelistic call of the church is to reach out and take the Gospel to these isolated individuals. As they respond, they are drawn into a faith community that is moving toward a proper and healthy communal life. Across the country, in vital communities of faith, people are coming together for worship, but they are also erecting family life centers, operating schools and nursing services, and generally looking at the health and life of their members. They are becoming enclaves of faith in the midst of a secular world.

If you look at the early church you will see a parallel development. The early church was a network of underground faith communities that began to connect. Ultimately they overcame the Roman culture. I see that happening today as our faith communities stand over and against the culture and begin to network with one another, often crossing denominational lines.

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Last updated 4-2-2002.