The role of the laity

Priests and archpriests need a pious congregation in order to be understood.  For this reason a priest or a bishop cannot be ordained to serve a community which has no Christians. There must be a parish or Diocese; there must be souls, even if only a handful, to whom the clergyman can administer.  For such souls the God Man, the good shepherd, was sacrificed.  The laity are not slaves, but brothers in Christ of the clergyman, and like brothers they, too, have rights in the Church.

It’s tragic that collectively, we too often minimize the role of the laity as suggested in the passage by Bishop Augostinos of blessed memory.  It’s equally as problematic when we as a Church distort the responsibilities of the laity. 

Tikhon of Zadonsk (19th century) in his work, Journey to Heaven, outlines eight duties of the laity in relation to their pastor:

First, because the pastor speaks the word of God, then to whatever he teaches, pay diligent heed… 

Second, the pastor is the messenger of God who is sent to you by God, and he proclaims to you the way of salvation and invites you in the name of God into His eternal kingdom. For this reason, revere him as the messenger of God that proclaims to you such great good things, and who invites you to them… 

Third, because the pastor provides for the common good, and as he looks after you as well as for all so that all may receive eternal salvation, then love him as your father and benefactor, and be grateful to him. You call him father, that is well: he begets you as well as others, not to the temporary, but to eternal life…
Fourth, as he takes care and provides for all and for you, do not leave him in need, but help him in his requests and supply his needs, that he may have time to take care and look after the common good.  Thus, by mutual love and benefaction the common good will not be without success.

Fifth, because many among the people are not men of goodwill and as they do not love pastoral reproof but wish to live according to their own will, they invent and broadcast no little slander against the pastor.  Then when you hear such slander and ill report against the pastor, do not believe it and guard your lips, lest you say anything about it to anyone else.  Otherwise you will sin gravely, as you will return evil for good, which is a great iniquity… Most of all do not spread evil gossip against the pastor, lest you feel the avenging hand of God upon you. 

Sixth, if you see in the pastor such weaknesses as occur even among the people, do not be scandalized and do not judge him, but understand that the pastor is a man, just like everyone else, and that he has the same weaknesses as do the rest of the people. 

Seventh, because the pastor is subject to many temptations, and the devil and his evil spirits war against him most especially, therefore he also needs the special help and support of God. Then, you, and all the people as well, must pray to God for him that He may help him and strengthen him.

Eighth, when the pastor himself does not do what he teaches, but lives contrary to his teaching, heed the word of Christ which He spoke concerning such pastors, “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.”

The relationship with and the duties toward the pastor are of great importance, especially as the priests and deacons with the people, under the bishop, make up the local parish, the Body of Christ.  Ultimately, we are at our best in the context of divine services.  For this reason, Saint John of Kronstadt suggests:

By means of its divine service, the Orthodox Church educates us for heavenly citizenship, by teaching us every virtue, by purifying and hallowing us, and making us godly, through the sacraments, and by giving unto us all things that belong to life and godliness.  There is urgently necessary for us intelligently, reverently, and willingly to assist at the divine services of the Church, particularly on feast days, and to make use of the sacraments of penitence and Holy Communion.  But those who withdraw themselves from the services of the Church become the victims of their vices, and are lost. 

In other words, to be considered for the heavenly Kingdom, the laity must be connected to the Church, not as monastics, but instead as those who live in the world.  Father Cavernos, in his writing Paths to Holiness, express:

They [the laity] receive sanctity, not through leading an ascetic life like those in the monasteries or deserts, but by “…keeping carefully all the Divine commandments, participating regularly in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, and engaging in other activities dear to God.

Metropolitan Emilianos goes a step further by suggesting the very holiness of the Church is founded in the laity’s activity in the world:  “The holiness [of the Church] or union with God [of the people] is not characterized by a withdraw from the world, but by the parishioners involvement in redemption and sanctification of the rest of society through the sanctifying illumination of the local church.” 

More specifically, your involvement in redeeming and sanctifying the rest of society is founded, according to St. John of the Ladder, in doing all the good works you are able to do.

Some people carelessly living in the world inquired of me: ‘How can we, who have wives and are taken up with social cares, lead the solitary life [as this is the path a means to holiness]?’  I replied to them as follows: ‘All of the good works that you are able to do – do them.  Speak evil of no one.  Do not tell lies to anyone.  Do not boast to anyone.  Do not hate anyone.  Do not be absent from the Divine Services.  Be generous to those who have need of help.  Do not offend anyone.  Do not take that which belongs to another.  And be satisfied with that which your wives give you.  If you do this, you will not be far away from the Kingdom of Heaven.’

With a similar voice, Saint Cosmas Aitolos suggests:

The Martyrs earned Paradise with their blood; the Monastics, with their ascetic discipline.  Now, we, my brethren, who beget children, how shall we earn Paradise?  With hospitality by relieving the poor, the blind, the lame, as Joachim (the Father of the Theotokos) did.  Almsgiving, love, and fasting sanctify man, enrich him both in soul and body, and bring him to a good end; the body and the soul become holy.

I close with the charge given by St. John to the laity of Kronstadt:

Strive by every means constantly to delight the heavenly Father by your life; that is, by your meekness, humility, gentleness, obedience, abstinence, right judgment, love of peace, patience, mercy, sincere friendship with worthy people, kindness to everybody, warm hospitality, straight dealing in business, simplicity of heart and character, and purity of thought.