Abolishing the secular life

In our beginnings, Baptists did away with various traditional distinctions of Christian life. Although practising ordination, we denied it established any set-apart hierarchy within the life of the church; we also rejected the traditional Roman Catholic practice of recognising a particular consecration of certain people, clerical or lay, to ‘religious life’, characterised by the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience (in popular parlance, this is the way of life of monks and nuns, although that is to elide a number of important distinctions between (e.g.) sisters and nuns, or monks and friars).

This was all narrated as a rejection of priesthood, and of the religious life, and, historically, we generally accepted those characterisations as adequately clear accounts of our particular belief and practice. In recent decades, however, a number of us have habitually resisted the first: we do not reject or abolish the ordained priesthood, as Baptists; Christ has made us together a royal priesthood. So a fine contemporary Baptist slogan insists that our ecclesiology is about ‘abolishing the laity’. (I do not know who coined this phrase, but it seems fairly widely used, and I have cheerfully adopted it as catching something vital of my understanding of Baptist ecclesiology.) The priestly office, of holding God up to the world and holding the world up to God, is one we believe all Christians corporately share. Baptism is an act of ordination (the common UK liturgical practice of baptism – I can speak no wider with any expertise – fits well the definition of ordination offered in BEM, as it happens…); other than (arguably) the catechumenate, there is no order of laity in Baptist ecclesiology.

Now, of course, this conclusion is not a claim that baptism and membership of a Baptist church makes someone a priest in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church would understand the word; essentially (in common with other churches of the Reformation) we reject that understanding of priesthood as unhelpful. Rather, it is a heuristic, perhaps apologetic, approximation: ‘if your ecclesiology is based on a clerical-lay distinction, then you will better understand the inner logic of our tradition if you think of us as abolishing the laity, than if you think of us as abolishing the clergy’.

As a result of thinking through the arguments of Robert Song’s recent book, Covenant and Calling (which I blogged about here), I have been reflecting on the tradition of the religious life. Song does not mention the religious life at all in his book, but he is attempting to imagine a form of covenanted and fruitful faithfulness that is not marriage, and it seems to me that to think that through clearly there is a need to reflect on the religious life, if only to be clear why whatever is being imagined is not a form of that life. One result of my reflections is a further re-characterisation of Baptist ecclesiology. I do not think our vision abolishes the religious life; rather, if we have to work with the religious-secular distinction, I think a Baptist vision of the church abolishes the secular life.

Again, this is a heuristic/apologetic approximation; these are simply not native Baptist categories. Let me work with it for a moment, however. Developed Catholic understanding has, as its first distinction, the existence of the ‘consecrated life’. ‘The state of consecrated life is thus one way of experiencing a “more intimate” consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come.’ (Catechism 915). The ‘perfection of charity’ here is defined in terms of the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience (although the Catechism will later note that the eremitic life, recognised as a valid – perhaps as the basic – form of the consecrated life, does not necessarily involve profession of the evangelical counsels).

Within this basic practice, many different forms of consecrated life are acknowledged: hermits; consecrated virgins and widows; secular institutes; apostolic societies; and religious life. The first two are by nature solitary, and so fairly antithetical to Baptist visions of life and holiness; secular institutes are a bit of a historical anomaly, essentially being a way of recreating religious life in post-revolutionary France, where religious orders were for a while banned. The latter two are more interesting: apostolic societies ‘whose members without religious vows pursue the particular apostolic purpose of their society, and lead a life as brothers or sisters in common according to a particular manner of life, strive for the perfection of charity through the observance of the constitutions’ (Catechism 930) and the religious life, ‘distinguished from other forms of consecrated life by its liturgical character, public profession of the evangelical counsels, fraternal life led in common, and witness given to the union of Christ with the Church.’ (Catechism 925).

These are not, as I say, native Baptist definitions or distinctions, but let me work with them for a moment. Clearly, Baptists would not understand the core evangelical counsels to be poverty, chastity (defined as celibacy) and obedience, although in each case we might point to a close – and today equally counter-cultural – analogue. That said, if the distinction between the ‘consecrated life’ and another sort of life is a commitment to total dedication to God, and a pursuit of perfection intended to demonstrate the glory of the world to come, then there is little question that the standard vision of Baptist life, ‘a congregation of saints, walking together in visible holiness’ is more closely aligned with this vision of consecration than with its opposite.

Further, Baptist life is irreducibly communal: we watch over each other within the congregation, challenge, call, and spur one another on to holiness, confess to each other and pray God’s forgiveness for each other. Baptist life is also irreducibly missional, and so ‘apostolic’ in the terms of the Catechism. Our baptism is (amongst other things) a solemn and irrevocable vow to serve Christ in this way, within the community of the church. All of which is to say that, if we have to use these terms, a Baptist church is much more nearly a form of religious life, or perhaps an apostolic society, than it is a form of secular life. In refusing to have set-apart religious orders, we do not abolish the consecrated life; rather, we abolish the secular life.


  1. David Reimer
    Jan 23, 2015

    Re: ‘Abolishing the Laity’. Is it possible that the phrase was coined by Alan Kreider as the title to his early 90s article? See his ‘Abolishing the Laity: An Anabaptist Perspective on Ordination,’ in Anyone for Ordination? ed. by Paul Beasley-Murray (Tunbridge Wells: Monarch, 1993), 84-111. PDF of the typescript is available from the Anabaptist Netowrk.

    • steve
      Jan 24, 2015

      Hi David, Paul Stevens in The Other Six Days (2000) points to Elton Trueblood’s Essence of Spiritual Religion (1936) as the first instance of the phrase that he has discovered, and claims originality for Trueblood. It’s the sort of line that may well have been independently discovered by several people, I guess.

  2. Ken
    Jan 23, 2015

    Having been one who dislikes the idea of clergy/laity distinctions, I warm to the idea of ‘doing away with the laity’; it has a subtly positive feel to it. It has bothered me sometimes to hear baptists talking of a time of pastoral vacancy as an ‘inter regnum’. How did we let that phrase gain currency in our churches? Since Pentecost we have never been without our King. The idea that without clergy we are just chickens running around without a head, unable to do anything other than seek to fill that vacancy, is also very unpalatable – an effective denial of the priesthood of believers.

    • steve
      Jan 24, 2015

      Yes, Ken, I agree. I don’t suppose that too many Baptists who use the term interregnum’ have pondered it’s Latin meaning,however (and, to be fair, the OED does have something as neutral as ‘a breach of continuity, a pause’ as one of the word’s meanings).

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