Clergy and Laity in the Orthodox Church

Venerable Theodora of Alexandria

My beloved spiritual children in Christ,
Christ is in our midst! He was, is, and ever shall be.

By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Clarification of Terms

The Meaning of "Lay"

The words lay, laity, layman come from the Greek word laos (λαός) which means people. "Laikos," layman, is the one who belongs to the people, who is a member of an organic and organized community. It is, in other words, not a negative, but a highly positive term. It implies the idea of full, responsible, active membership as opposed, for example, to the status of a candidate. Yet the Christian use made this term even more positive. It comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament where the word laos is applied ordinarily to the People of God, to Israel, the people elected and sanctified by God Himself as His people. This concept of the "people of God" is central in the Holy Bible. The Holy Bible affirms that God has chosen one people among many to be his particular instrument in history, to fulfill His plan, to prepare, above everything else, the coming of Christ, the Savior of the World. With this one people God has entered into "covenant", a pact or agreement of mutual belonging. The Old Testament, however, is but the preparation of the New. And in Christ, the privileges and the election of the "people of God" are extended to all those who accept Him, believe in Him and are ready to accept Him as God and Savior. Thus, the Church, the community of those who believe in Christ, the true people of God, the "laos" and each Christian a laikos--a member of the People of God.

The layman, is the one, therefore, who shares in Divine election and receives from God a special gift and privilege of membership. It is a highly positive vocation, radically different from the one we find defined in Webster. We can say that in our Orthodox teaching each Christian, be he a Bishop, Priest, Deacon or just member of the Church is, first of all, and before everything else a layman, for it is neither a negative nor a partial, but an all-embracing term and our common vocation. Before we are anything specific we are all laymen because the whole Church is the laity--people, the family, the community--elected and established by Christ Himself.

The Layman Is Ordained

We are accustomed to think of "ordination" as precisely the distinctive mark of clergy. They are the ordained and the laity, the non-ordained Christians. Here again, however, Orthodoxy differs from Western "clericalism," be it Roman Catholic or Protestant. If ordination means primarily the bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of our vocation as Christians and members of the Church, each layman becomes a layman--laikos---through ordination. We find it in the Sacrament of Holy Chrism, which follows Baptism. Why are there two, and not just one, Sacrament of entrance into the Church? Because if Baptism restores in us our true human nature, obscured by sin, chrismation gives us the positive power and grace to be Christians, to act as Christians, to build together the Church of God and be responsible participants in the life of the Church. In this Sacrament we pray that the newly baptized be:

"an honorable member of God's Church"
"a consecrated vessel"
"a child of light"
"an heir of God's Kingdom,"

that "having preserved the gift of the Holy Spirit and increased the measure of grace committed unto him/her, he/she may receive the prize of his/her high calling and be numbered with the first borne whose names are written in heaven."

We are very far from the dull Webster definition. Saint Paul call all baptized Christians "fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God" (Ephesians 2:1). "For through Christ"--he says--ye are no more strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the whom all the building fully framed together growth unto a holy temple in the Lord, in Whom ye also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit."

The Layman in the Liturgy

We think of worship as a specifically clerical sphere of activity. The priest celebrates, the laity attend. One is active, the other passive. It is another error and a serious one at that. The Christian term for worship is leitourgia which means precisely a corporate, common, all embracing action in which all those who are present are active participants. All prayers in the Orthodox Church are always written in terms of the plural we. We offer, we pray, we thank, we adore, we enter, we ascend, we receive. The layman is in a very direct way the co-celebrant of the priest, the latter offering to God the prayers of the Church, representing all people, speaking on their behalf. On illustration of this co-celebration may be helpful; the word Amen, to which we are so used, that we really pay no attention to it. And yet it is a crucial word. No prayer, no sacrifice, no blessing is ever given in the Church without being sanctioned by the Amen which means an approval, agreement, participation. To say Amen to anything means that I make it mine, that I give my consent to it...And "Amen" is indeed the Word of the laity in the Church, expressing the function of the laity as the people of God, which freely and joyfully accepts the Divine Offer, sanctions it with its consent. There is really no service, no liturgy without the Amen of those who have been ordained to serve God as community, as Church.

And thus, whatever liturgical service we consider, we see that it always follows the pattern of dialogue, cooperation, collaboration, cooperation between the celebrant and the faithful. It is indeed a common action ("leitourgia") in which the responsible participation of everyone is essential and insidpensable, for through it the Church, the People of God, fulfills its purpose and goal.

The Place of Clergy

It is this Orthodox understanding of the "laity" that discloses the realm meaning and function of clergy. In the Orthodox Church clergy is not above laity or opposed to it. First of all, strangely as it may seem, the basic meaning of term clergy is very close to that of laity. Clergy comes from "clerus" which means the "part of God." "Clergy" means that part of mankind that belongs to God, has accepted His call, has dedicated itself to God. In this initial meaning the whole Church is described as "clergy"--part of inheritance of God. "O God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance": (kleronomia or clergy--in Greek). The Church because She is the People of God (laity) is His "part", His "inheritance".

But gradually the term "clergy" was limited to those who fulfilled a special ministry (diakonia) within the People of God, who were especially set apart to serve on behalf of the whole community. For, from the very beginning, the People of God was not amorphous but was given by Christ Himself a structure, an order, a hierarchical shape:

"And God has set some in the Church, first apostles, secondary prophets, thirdly teachers...Are all apostles? Are all teachers?...Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular..." (1 Corinthians 12:28-29)

Historically the Church was built on the Apostles, whom Christ Himself has elected and appointed. The Apostles again elected and appointed their own helpers and successors, so that throughout the whole uninterrupted development of the Church, there has always been the continuity of this Divine appointment and election.

The "clergy" therefore is needed to make the Church what she has to be: the special people or part of God. Their special function is to perpetuate within the Church that which does not depend on men: the Grace of God, the Teaching of God, the Commandments of God, the saving and healing power of God. We stress this "of God" for the whole meaning of "clergy" lies precisely in their total identification with the objective teaching of the Church. It is not their teaching or their power: they have none, but that which has been kept and perpetuated in the Church from the Apostles down to our own time and which constitutes the essence of the Church. The Priest has the power to teach, but only inasmuch as he teaches the Tradition of the Church, and is completely obedient to it. He has the power to celebrate, but again, only inasmuch as he fulfills the eternal Priesthood of Christ Himself. He is bound--totally and exclusively--by the Truth which he represents and, thus, can never speak or command in his own name.

Our people in their criticism of the clergy fear the excessive "power" of clergy, yet too often they do not realize that the priest represents nothing else than the "Power" of the Church, of which they are members and not any specific "clerical" power. For it is clear to everybody that the Church existed before we were born and has always existed as a body of doctrine, order, liturgy, etc. It does not belong to anyone of us to change the Church or to make it follow our own taste, for the simple reason that we belong to the Church, but the Church does not belong to us. We have been mercifully accepted by God into his household, made worthy of His Body and Blood, of His Revelation, of Communion with Him. And the clergy represent this continuity, this identity of the Church in doctrine, life and grace through space and time. They teach the same eternal teaching, they bring to us the same eternal Christ, they announce the same and eternal Saving Act of God.

Without this hierarchical structure the Church would become a purely human organization reflecting the various ideas, tastes, choices of men. She would cease to be the Divine Institution, God's gift to us. But then "laity" could not be "laity"--the People of God--any more, there would be no Amen to be said, for where there is no gift there can be no acceptance...The mystery of Holy Orders in the Church is that which makes the whole Church truly and fully the laos, the laity, the very people of God.

The Basis for Unity and Cooperation

The conclusion is clear: there is no opposition between clergy and Laity in the Church. Both are essential. The Church as a totality is laity and the Church as a totality is the inheritance, the clergy of God. And in order to be this, there must exist within the Church the distinction of functions, of ministries that complete one another. The clergy are ordained to make the Church the gift of God,--the manifestation and communication of His Truth, grace and salvation to men. It is their sacred function, and they fulfill it only in complete obedience to God. The laity are ordained to make the Church the acceptance of that gift, the "Amen" of mankind to God. They equally can fulfill their function only in complete obedience to God. It is the same obedience: to God and to the Church that establishes the harmony between clergy and laity, make them one body, growing into the fullness of Christ.


Many mistakes have been made on both sides in the past, let us forget them. Let us rather make an attempt to find and to make ours the truth of the Church. It is simple, wonderful and constructive. It liberates us from all fears, bitterness and inhibitions. And we shall work together --in the unity of faith and love--for the fulfillment of God's kingdom.


The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George