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Rev. L. Nishan Bakalian. was pastor of the Calvary Armenian Congregational Church from 1984 to 1992. Rev. Bakalian has also served as the pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of Ashrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon, from 1992 to 1995, and as pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of New York, New York from 1995 until the summer of 2000.  Rev. Bakalian served as Chaplain at Haigazian University of Beirut, Lebanon from 2000 to 2007.  At the time of this posting Rev. Bakalian was serving as the pastor of the Armenian Martyrs' Congregational Church of Havertown, Pennsylvania.  This article was first published in the AMAA News, a publication of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), in the September/October 1996 edition.

The Role of The Layperson
in The Armenian Evangelical Church

Rev. L. Nishan Bakalian

If all our Union’s clergy and ministerial students were rounded up and taken somewhere to be imprisoned or even killed, what would our churches do? Would they continue; would they survive?

These ruminations are quite logical when considering the reformation ideal, “The priesthood of all believers.” This ideal, from which we often fall short, is one of the central tenets of the Reform tradition, and it represents a major difference between Evangelical and non-Evangelical Armenian churches - or at least it did at one time.

We frequently hear of the Armenian Evangelical of old. I prefer not to say “layperson,” because the distinctiveness of Armenian Evangelicals was not limited to either lay or clergy. They were shared by all, because they arose from the same orientation: to live as children of light, enlightened once again by the light of the Gospel, just as the Armenian nation was in the fourth century. This Armenian Evangelical wanted his life to reflect his convictions as much as possible. He was different from those around him. This found its positive as well as negative expressions. He knew his Bible well, and for this, often got in trouble with clergy. His word was trustworthy, standing up even in courts in the Ottoman Empire; he needed no oath to compel him to tell the truth. He refrained from many of the things in which those around him indulged, especially those things which were associated with immorality. For better or worse, the Armenian Evangelical was noticed for the following: not handling money on Sundays; not smoking and not drinking alcohol; not swearing, using foul language or lying; not being required to take oaths in court; not venerating saints; not genuflecting; not observing feast days and holidays (even including Christmas for a period of time); not singing Armenian folk songs or maintaining the culture; in some cases, not accepting intellectual or progressive thought; and separating himself from “worldly” concerns.

From our current perspective we may wish things could have been a bit different, so that over the years the Armenian Evangelical would not have expunged so much of his native culture from his life and worship, adopting a Western one in its place. In any event, that Armenian Evangelical of old is practically a forgotten species. The distinctiveness which defined his public behavior has gradually been forgotten, and a caricature has replaced it. Certain habits have been retained for the sake of appearance, not out of conviction. The internal drive which made him what he was are all but gone, and so must of our laypeople (here the unfortunate dichotomy enters) know neither what they believe, nor why they do. We have come to resemble the world around us, not as a strategy to win others to salvation and faith in Jesus Christ (note Paul’s words in I Corinthians 9.19-23), but in order to win society’s approval. This latter manifestation of Armenian Evangelicalism is the current norm, and it represents a collective abandonment of our purpose as a distinct group.

Is there not a middle ground between extreme “different ness” and extreme compromise, extremes which we have inhabited during our century and a half of history? We need the courage to closely examine our calling as Armenian Evangelical persons, as to whether or not we are still connected to that historic calling. Perhaps then not only will we live up to our past, but change some of those things previously identified with us into a healthier, better-balanced picture.

Our understanding of what is the church is a very significant issue here. In non-Reform churches (I.e., Apostolic or Roman Catholic), there is no church without the clergy; in the Evangelical or Reform church, the laity (the people) is the church. If this difference is not appreciated, it becomes very easy to say that there is no basic difference between our various churches. A look at the “New Creed” of Patriarch Matthew Tchouhadjian of Constantinople, written in 1846, which today still represents the Apostolic understanding of the church, highlights that fundamental difference. He wrote:

“Do you confess and receive, that in the Holy Church there are different offices and grades of authority successively rising, as reader, deacon, priest, bishop, catholicos; and that the catholicoses and patriarchs of every nation are Christ’s vice-regents, to rule the Holy Church, and govern her in due order; but should the life of one of these shepherds be vicious, the church governed by him does not thereby err in the least, and no blot comes upon the universal Church.”

Contrast this with the Confession of Faith of the first Evangelicals:

“You believe that any number of believers, duly organized, constitute a church of Christ, of which Christ is the only Head.”

Are we in agreement with this statement of our founders? The answer will show whether we are basically clergy-centered or lay-centered in our understanding, though it should be said that each of the aforementioned statements has deficiencies as compared with a healthy biblical orientation.

Our Armenian Evangelical forefathers were driven by a desire to realize the pattern for Christian life set forth in the Bible. In the scriptures we see that the Christian church began as a purely lay organization; of course, it did not stay in that condition, but developed its hierarchy during the first years after Pentecost. Certain people were set aside for specific full-time ministry of the Word; these are whom today we call “clergy.” This does not mean, however, that the presence of such special workers is what determined whether a church existed. In its most basic form, just as a gathering of ten adult Jewish males makes a synagogue, so also a gathering of two or three followers of Christ (of any sex) makes a church. It is a balance, then, weighted on the side of laypersons.

Related to this lay orientation, another distinctiveness of the Armenian Evangelical understanding is the connection of faith to daily life. Although the psyche of the Armenian people has been shaped by its Christianity over the centuries, often it has been Christian culture that has left its imprint on our people, and not Christian conviction. The “priesthood of all believers” means that lay people carry their faith with them in all they do, and do not limit it to certain places or occasions. Yet in this area, too, we have copied the characteristics and vices of the society around us. We have left “religion” to the paid professionals, and the laity has contented itself with “making a living” and helping out with the collecting and disbursing of money for the church. We have impoverished ourselves by withdrawing from the very things that used to define us, which would bring us vitality and direction today, and put us in contact with God to hear where he is sending us, and for what task he wants us to go.

Both Armenian Evangelical clergy and laity are responsible for pushing the balance towards clergy; frequently clergy have been afraid of giving laymen authority and negligent in training believers in the responsible use of authority. Laypersons have accustomed themselves to think of faith issues as separate and unimportant, as opposed to material issues. This has led to passivity in deepening ones faith, and aggressive activity in running the church like one’s personal business. Lay people must take ownership of the church and become full members of it, fully participating in its life and mission. The present contentment with only a fragment of our Lord Jesus’ Great Commission, an embarrassing dichotomy, has become established in our churches, along with a lack of vision for all God can accomplish through us. We have bred spiritually passive laymen over the years. Armenian Evangelical families have trained their children to keep their connection to the church as tenuous as possible, and to keep their treasures and their hearts anywhere but there. We trivialize the mission and ministry of the church by arguing over irrelevant topics, ensuring the disinterest of outsiders, and making outsiders of our own youth. For effective Christian witness, God can use the pastor, who is more or less trained in what to say and how to say it, but he can often more effectively use a layman who has a good basic knowledge of what he believes, and is deeply convinced of why he believes. The pastor’s job, then, is to train laypersons to live as children of light, to stand firm against the tide of this world, and to go and relate to one or two others in his daily life in such a way that they come to faith, and likewise spread the word, in particular including their own children (see II Timothy 2.1-2).

The purpose of the Church universal is to call and train laymen in commitment and service to Jesus Christ, with the world as their field. Whether Apostolic, Roman Catholic or Evangelical, our particular calling is to bring this message of salvation and new life to the Armenian people. The clergy can initiate this work, but it is the laity, the entire people, who in their daily lives must live in such a way as to translate the Gospel into the culture and mind-set of those around them. We have many examples in the Bible; if we merely examine the authors of the books of the Bible, we find that practically all of them were lay people - Moses, a political leader; Peter, a fisherman; Amos, a herdsman; Joshua, a military general; Nehemiah, a cup-bearer (government employee); Daniel, a prime minister; Luke, a doctor; Solomon, a king; Matthew, a tax-collector; Paul, a rabbi. Very few clergy are held up as examples of faith in the Bible.

Furthermore, if we turn to the birth of the Armenian Evangelical church, we see key lay persons leading, such as Sahagian and Peshdimaljian, who were key persons in setting the direction of the movement. Professor Peshdimaljian’s Bible studies inspired many young people to hold fast to Evangelical principles. Those principles are a worthwhile guide for us to use in affirming a lasting heritage to our youth today, yet one which operates within our Armenian cultural identity. They are as follows: purity in personal standards; theological depth; educational and cultural service; political leadership; evangelistic vitality; excellence in all endeavors. In summary, the church must train its members to live as Christians in their homes, their workplaces, in academic circles, among friends, in artistic endeavors, and in their relations with people of different churches and faiths.

More specifically, the Armenian evangelical church, especially its clergy, needs to inspire and call its members to share in the ministry of the Gospel in all aspects of life - worship, education, culture, politics, athletics, and so on. It must be a calling, training, and sending body, or else it will become a closed system, running out of energy, being indistinguishable from the decaying world it seeks to change. It will look a lot like it does today, unable to attract new members, unable to communicate a viable vision, because it lacks such a viable vision. We need to define ourselves in deeper and more meaningful terms; not as the people who do not drink, smoke or dance, nor as the people who do drink, smoke or dance (fill in your favorite prescription or proscription), but as multi-faceted and multi-talented people who follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, who study his Word, who go to all the places he went, who affect others with their wisdom and witness, yet are not affected by the materialism or unbelief surrounding them. This is what the scriptures call us to do when they speak of the various parts of the Body of Christ, each one necessary for the up building and strength of the church (I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4.l-16 & 6.6, I Peter 2). This is what our Armenian Evangelical understanding calls each of us to be, as communicant members and laypersons: to teach and preach the Bible in formal and informal, traditional and untraditional settings and approaches.

Laity and clergy are part of a single continuum of people for whom “living is Christ.” This is a decision for clergy or laity alike, essential to anyone who wants to be part of a church. After the decision to live for Christ is made, the possibilities open wide. No matter how much we try to add professional clergy to our ranks, nothing will improve until all the people of God accept this challenge. No matter how hard we try to “fit in” to the culture or society we are trying to reach, we will never speak in the language they need to hear until love for God becomes our primary motivation. Let Armenian Evangelicals rise and lay hold of their heritage and their future.