Trust the Laity

It is a teaching moment that happens in every seminary. The professor has finished presenting some difficult point in theology, Scripture, or history. Perhaps the issue is that human language is inadequate to describe God, or that there are contradictions in the New Testament, or that marriage took a long time to become a sacrament. Some seminarian invariably asks, “How can we preach this?” Or, “How can I ever tell my people this?”

The question reveals two assumptions, both false. The first is that seminarians are highly intelligent people who have been initiated into a caste-specific lore inaccessible to ordinary people. The second assumption is that the laity are less intelligent and more easily shocked by the arcana of higher theological learning than are these new initiates.

When the question occurs in my classes, I point out the error in both assumptions. First, people studying for the ministry these days (in all denominations) are not for the most part exceptionally bright; the talent pool for ministers is distressingly shallow. More important, for the most part, the laity (in all denominations) are as bright, and often better educated, than the clergy. In many Catholic parishes, the people in the pews are smarter and more knowledgeable than the priest in the pulpit.

This is something new. The so-called immigrant church did not count many scholars among its laity. And in those days, the...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).