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The Ambivalence of the Laity

By definition, ambivalence means simultaneously holding two opposite feelings towards someone or something.  Laity refers to the people as opposed to the clergy.  Combining these two terms describes the state of people in the church who feel both loyalty and skepticism, both acceptance and rejection towards their leaders.  On the one hand, they may wish to be loyal and submissive to authority, but on the other hand, they want the right to think independently and insist on making their own decisions.  Even though they want leadership rather than dictatorship, sometimes they cannot discern the difference between the two.  This ambivalence often leads to paralysis in the functioning of the church body, and can result in breakdown and dissolution. 

This dilemma has some basis in the scriptures.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 11:1)  In terms of the ambivalence of the laity, this is an intriguing statement.  Paul indirectly concedes that his leadership was a function of his faithfulness to Christ’s example.    He stated this in the positive sense, of course, implying that he was indeed following Christ.  But the corollary is equally valid.  Anyone who judged him to have strayed from that baseline was warranted in rejecting his leadership.  This conclusion calls for a close examination because it calls the authority of the leader into question.

But, is it proper to call spiritual authority into question, given the strong scriptural pronouncement against such an action?  “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”  (Hebrews 13:7)  Also, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls.”  (Hebrews 13:17)  The Old Testament condemns sins of disobedience and rebellion from Adam and Eve to Korah’s rebellion, and finally brands the entire nation of Israel as disobedient.  “But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.”  (Romans 10:21). 

One could argue from these and similar scriptures that the slightest hint of dissemblance from the congregation is proof enough of rebelliousness.  The leader of the church at any level should expect to receive unquestioning loyalty from the people and prompt compliance with his wishes.  Anyone who behaves otherwise would sabotage the spirit of unity and cause division to the body.  Paul thus admonished the Romans, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.”  (Romans 16:17)  Thus, there seems to be no room for ambivalence among the laity.

The cultural traditions of Western Civilization further complicate the issue of unquestioning allegiance and blind loyalty.  This culture promotes rugged individualism; independent thinking and even rewards the “maverick” mindset.  “Going rogue,” assertiveness and non-conformity are often seen as positive traits.  Educators train students to resist the opinions of others and seek out their own version of the truth.  Put in more common (and crudely stated) terms, “Nobody is going to tell me what to do!”  It’s the democratic way.  We do concede to certain kinds of authority like those we find in civil, academic, military and even organizational jurisdictions.  They must be clearly spelled out and placed under strict limitations, however, for us to submit.  Yet, when we become part of the body of Christ, we are suddenly introduced to those who have God-given authority over our lives.  The apparent dichotomy can often seem extremely frustrating.  God created us with a will and then we are admonished to do the will of God.  We are urged to study the Word of God for ourselves, and then we are commanded to listen and be taught.  We are encouraged to pray about upcoming decisions and then are asked to abide by the decisions of our elders.  On the surface, it would seem that all of this is confusing and conflicted.  We must dive deeper than surface appearances to arrive at the answer.

No less a personage than Jesus Christ encountered resistance among His disciples.  Judas comes immediately to mind, and we know about his demise.  But Simon Peter also remonstrated with Jesus over Jesus’ prophecy of His execution.  Jesus strongly rebuked him and Peter seemed to have received it, but in the hour of Christ’s deepest agony, Peter defected and flatly denied that he knew Jesus.  It was a stormy relationship, but Jesus healed the wounds at the last when He prodded Peter about his love and then instructed him to “Feed my sheep.”  (John 21:16). 

This incident opens the gateway to spiritual conflict resolution.  Jesus, who had already been betrayed by Judas, felt the added sting of Simon Peter’s rejection.  In neither instance, however, did Jesus react to the negativity.  Judas became the arbiter of his own fate without giving Jesus a further chance to intervene.  Peter, however, became the beneficiary of the agápē love of the Savior who willingly forgave His disciple’s egregious defection and brought him back into the fold. 

Two aspects of the solution to the ambivalence of the laity present themselves.  First, if the leader is to assume the role of the authority figure, he must also operate under the equally weighty responsibility of loving and caring for his followers.  Authority without responsibility is tyranny.  No leader is called to be a tyrant.  He must do everything possible to lead people to success and well-being, and he must feel a sense of failure (as opposed to a sense of exoneration, revenge or relief) when people fail.  Second, every lay person must subordinate egoism and selfishness to the proper authority built into the body of Christ.  He must not contend for his own view, opinion or way to the disruption of the church.  No goal must supersede that of the triumph of the body.  If the leader is concerned with the welfare of the individual, the individual must reciprocate with an equal concern for the welfare of the body. 

Unresolved ambivalence first leads to paralysis and then to death.  No leader and no follower must elevate their personal ambitions over and above the life and spiritual prosperity of the body of Christ!

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Reader Comments (1)

Could you please elaborate on the proper course of action when leadership goes awry. Surely scripture depicts leadership more so than laity. I've been struggling personally with this matter. My pastor publicly professes essentiality of the Holy Ghost if asked directly. However he also also makes statements such as "you mean to tell me if I don't speak in tongues I'm not saved". As well as not willing to say if one does not have it they are not saved and many other arguments. What does the saint do with this. Why does it seem that leadership deals only with the matter of compliance by the laity and no instruction when leadership has turned. What resolution is there. It has been brought up and pastors speak of the incident among themselves and the person that has made the allegation is not permitted in the discussion.

Additionally there are other matters occurring that create question and yet know direction or voice on what the laity should do.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim

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