This may seem unrelated to empowerment but I believe it is fundamental to the whole subject.
Is it just me or is there an inherent incongruence or contradiction in church life? We talk about being "little Christ's" to our neighbor as Luther did and to live out our vocation whatever station in life. We agree with Luther on the "priesthood of all believers" and many other fine teachings of the reformation, including justification and the related teaching of John 3:16, the Missio Dei and the Great Commission. Yet in the church we find professional clergy who often default as the deliverers of spiritual goods and services and the members, many of whom are believing they are faithful in simply coming to worship and being on the receiving end of those spiritual goods and services. Overstating things? Perhaps. Yet even if we reject that characterization of the church as false, clergy and laity, in the living out of those roles week after week will have its cumulative effect on us. Over time, people will more and more be entrenched in sitting and receiving and clergy will more and more be compelled to lead worship, Bible classes and visit ever more faithfully as that is the apparent expectation of each.
Well then the question becomes for us: is it really Biblical? Is it what we say we believe, teach and confess? Probably not. Yet the "consumer spirituality" and the "professional clergy, provider" roles seem to reflect what we are living out. Unspoken expectations? Yes, perhaps. Contrary to what we "speak" or even "proclaim"? Yes, most likely. So we have a contradiction or seeming incongruence going on.
So what to do?
Three options seem to be available to us.
The first is to do nothing. Live with the tension between what we do and what we teach or say we teach.
The second is to make the adjustment in the doctrinal department. Diminish the role of the laity, subtly tell them they are not qualified to evangelize or do real ministry and at the same time elevate the clergy to a high status that honors them as the sole providers of the spiritual gifts contained in the Word and Sacraments. This would resolve the tension between what is taught historically and biblically and how we, in many cases behave, or live out our faith as church members. I would say that some are leaning into this solution for the incongruence even though it is in discontinuity with Luther and the Scriptures, even if they assert that the opposite is the case. Laity like it because it relieves them of the burden of living more fully into being a disciple of Jesus and clergy like it because it elevates their role and importance. It is comfortable on both counts.
The third way is to correct in the behavioral department. Elevate the role of the laity back to what is taught in the Bible. "A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" and so on (1 Peter 2:9ff. and Eph 4 etc). Re-empower them to serve in real ministry that serves people with the gospel according to their vocation, station and calling in life. Remind them that they are the salt of the earth that ought not lose its saltiness (Matt 5). Then as clergy preach, teach and live according to what the Bible says about the role of clergy, who do not do it all but "equip the saints for the work of diaconia/ministry" (Eph 4:12) and honor others as having valuable spiritual gifts for the sake of the kingdom of God and the mission of God (1 Cor 12; Rom 12 etc.). This is not the easy path but it is the correct option in my humble opinion. It requires repentance and new behaviors. For clergy it requires saying "no" to certain spoken or unspoken expectations that may feel like failure and may meet with resistance and passionate disapproval of many people. It will re-introduce to both clergy and laity the appropriate guilt of failing to live out our role as followers of Jesus or disciples. That is not fun. But it will resolve the tension between the incongruence of what the Bible teaches and what we expect of one another. And the result will also, by the grace of God working through the means of grace, even and especially through the laity, bring many more people to Jesus.
- How are you and your church living out the Biblical patterns of church and discipleship (notice I did not say "membership"?)
- Where is the incongruence for you and your church? How can you address that incongruence?
- Where does there need to be repentance? Where does there need to be grace and forgiveness?
- What can you pray for? What can you praise God for? What is God's role in this?