Laity, the people as distinguished from the clergy. The Greek word λαϊκός, derived from λαός (Latin synonyme plebs), people, and signifying one of the people, is retained in the Latin laicus, from which latity is derived. In the Sept. λαός is used as the synonyme of the Hebrew עָם, people. As synonymes of these Scripture terms we may also cite the words " faithful," "saints," and " idiotae" (q.v.). Comp. Riddle, C/hristiua Antiquities, p. 188 sq., 274, 275; Vinet, Pastoiral Theology (N. Y. 1854), p. 345. In the O.-T. Scriptures we find allusions to the laity in Dcute. 18:3, where upon them is laid the obligation to pay a tithe to the priest when offering sacrilice; and in Ezekiel's vision of the new Temple, where " the ministers of the house" (οἱ λειτουργοῦντες) are to boil the sacrifices of the laity (Eze 46:24). So also in 1 ChrQn. 16:36, "all the laity said Amen, and praised the Lord," when Asaph and his brethren had finished the psalm given to them by David; see likewise 2Ki 23:2-3; Ne 8:11; Isa 24:2; Ho 4:9. In the N.-T. Scriptures this distinction seems to have been ignored by Christ and his apostles, for, although there are passages in which the laity are spoken of as a class, it is nowhere intimated that they were not allowed to exercise the prerogatives of the clergy in a great measure. Coleman (The Apostolical and Prnimitive Churich [Phila. 1869, 12mo], p. 230; compare p. 226 ), one of the best authorities on Christian antiquities, holds that in the early stages of Christianity " all were accustomed to teach and to baptize," a practice to which Tertullian (born about A.D. 160) soon objected (De Praescript. ch. xli). From the writings of the early fathers, it is evident, moreover, that only in the 2d and 3d centuries, after the general establishment of the churches, a stricter distinction was inaugurated. The introduction of the episcopal office, however, first definitely settled the position of the layman in the Church. As early as A.D. 182, or thereabouts, we find Clement of Rome pointing to the laity as a distinct class. In a letter of his to the Corinthians respecting the order of the Church, after defining the positions of the bishops, priests, and deacons respectively, he adds, ὁ λαϊκὸς ἄνθρωπος τοῖς λαϊκοῖς προστάγμασιν δέδεται, " the layman is bound by the laws which belong to laymen" (Ad Corinth. i, 40). A little later, Cyprian (born about the beginning of the 3d century) uses the words " clerus" and ' plebs" as of the two bodies which make up the Christian Church (Ep. Ix). But the idea that the priesthood formed an intermediate class between God (Christ) and the Christian community first became prevalent during the corruptions that ensued upon the establishment of the prelaicy. Gradually, as the power of the hierarchy increased, the influence which the laity had exercised in the government of the Church was taken from them, and in 502 a synod held at Rome under Symmachus finally deprived the layman of all activity in the management of any of the affairs of the Church (compare Coleman, Apostolic and Primitive Church, p. 118).
In the Church of the Reformers a very different spirit prevailed. All Christians were looked upon as constituting a common and equal priesthood. Still the desire of making a visible distinction often led even the Protestant Church astray, and to this day the question remains unsettled in some churches how far the laity ought to share in the government of the Church; and hence the depth of the distinction implied in the use of the word " clergy" and " laity" varies with the " Church" views of those employing them. Some very strict Protestants prefer the words "minister" and "people" instead of clergy and laity.
Farrar (in his Eccles. Diet. p. 349 sq.) thus draws the line of distinction between the clergy and laity of the Protestant Church: "It is for the sake of the people that the ordinances of religion, and the clergy as the dispensers of them, exist; they are called to bear the burdens of the Church, as they receive its benefits. It is, however, questioned by some how far the professional distinctions between clergy and laity are desirable. As religious teachers, the clergy may be expected to be more especially occupied in fitting themselves for that office inl qualifying themselves to explain, and to enforce on others, tile evidences, the doctrines, and the obligations; but they are not to be expected to understand more of things surpassing human reason than God has made known by revelation, or to be the depositories of certain mysterious speculative doctrines; but ' stewards of the mysteries of God,' rightly dividing (or dispensing, ὀρθοτομοῦντες) the word of the truth. The laity are in danger of perverting Christianity, and making it, in fact, two religions, one for the initiated few, and one for the mass of the people, who are to follow implicitly the guidance of the others, trusting to their vicarious wisdom, and piety, and learning. They are to beware of the lurking tendency which is in the hearts of all men to that very error which has been openly sanctioned and established in the Romish and Greek churches the error of thinking to serve God by a deputy and representative; of regarding the learning and faith, the prayers and piety, and the scrupulous sanctity of the 'priest' as being in some way or other transferred from him to the people. The laity are also to be constantly warned that the source of these errors lies in the very tact of thus regarding the clergyman as a priest (in the sacerdotal sense of that term), as holding a kind of mediatorial position, one which makes him something distinct from, and therefore no rule for themselves; a view which, while it unduly exalts the clergy, tends most mischievously to degrade the tone of religion and morals among the people, by making them contented with a less measure of strictness of life and seriousness of demeanor than they require in their ministers. Laymen need also to be reminded that they constitute, though not exclusively, yet principally, 'the Church;' the clergy being the ministers of' the Church' (1Co 3:5); that it is for the people's sakes that the ordinances of religion, and the clergy, as dispensers of the same, exist; that they are the 'body of Christ;' that on them rests the duty of bearing the burdens, as they receive the benefits of the Church; and, finally, that there is no difference between them and the clergy in Church standing, except that the clergy are the officers of each particular church, to minister the Word and sacraments to that portion of its members over whom they are placed." SEE CLERGY; SEE LAY REPRESENTATION; SEE LAY PREACHING; SEE MEDIATOR; SEE MINISTRY; SEE PASTORAL OFFICE; SEE PRIEST. (J.H.W.)