Lay Preachers

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Lay preachers is the designation for preachers who are chosen out of the congregation to the office of preaching and are without theological education and receive no fixed remuneration. In Holland and Germany they were called "love preachers" (Dutch Liefde-predilkers, German Liebesprediger), i.e., those who preach for love's sake, or lay preachers (Dutch Leeken-predikers, German Laienprediger), which in the Netherlands meant men without special training, who nevertheless received some remuneration.

In the primitive church all the male members were "brethren"; each had the right to serve according to his gifts as evangelist, preacher, or teacher. Preaching was not yet attached to a special office. There was as yet no privilege for proclamation of the Gospel. Only as ecclesiastical offices became more sharply defined was this right reserved to the priest. Even as late as the third century laymen were permitted to preach occasionally, although it was considered improper to do so in the presence of the bishop without his express request. Soon afterward lay preaching ceased entirely; it was forbidden. Vainly did small groups such as the Cathars, Waldenses, and Lollards from time to time seek to re-establish lay preaching within the bounds of the Roman church of the Middle Ages. The Lateran Council of 1179 (Pope Alexander III) forbade the Waldenses to preach; but they continued their preaching with the greatest success and joyfully endured the bloodiest persecution and most inhuman suppression. This was also true of other groups such as the Cathars and the Lollards.

During the Reformation lay preaching was revived. Luther at first granted the right of preaching to every Christian; but in his struggle with the Anabaptists he abandoned the principle, severely attacking "corner preaching." Zwingli, too, opposed the right of free preaching; preaching he considered a privilege of church office.

In Anabaptism, however, lay preaching attained its full right, and the principle is still firmly held in the Mennonite churches in various countries and continues to be widely practiced in more than one group. In fact in the first quarter of the 20th century at least three fourths of all Mennonite congregations were served by lay preachers, and in 1955 at least half.

In the earliest times the Mennonites were averse to theology, considering it unnecessary or actually harmful. God's Word was the only foundation to build upon. To understand and explain it, no learning or worldly wisdom was required, but only a faithful, honest, untiring seeking and searching in the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). Every Christian should know the Scriptures. Scriptural knowledge was in fact very comprehensive among the Anabaptists. It was said of them, "It seemed as if they had eaten the entire Bible," or "They had the Bible on their thumbs" (Doopsgezind Jaarboekje  I, 89; see Formantijn).

The change from lay preaching to a trained and salaried ministry began first in Holland. There the Mennonites began as early as the late 16th century to call educated men into the ministry; they were usually physicians, who in addition to their own vocation also preached, receiving little or no compensation for their preaching, and who had little formal theological education. There were important men among these preachers, especially in the first half of the 17th century and later, like Anthoni Jacobs Roscius, Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan, Antonius van Dale, Gerardus de Wind, and Herman Schijn. After the Mennonite Seminary was established in Amsterdam in 1735 theological study became the common custom in Holland. By 1830 nearly all the Dutch churches employed theologically trained preachers. Only a few churches like Ameland and Balk held to the old custom of lay preaching, until about the middle of the 19th century. The lay preachers supported themselves, receiving only some small remuneration for the time they could not work on their farms or in their business. In the country this system lasted until the early 19th century, but in most cities untrained preachers received a salary from 1680 on. The few untrained preachers (10 out of 114 in 1955) who served in Dutch congregations were salaried like those trained.

In Germany the city churches all had trained and salaried preachers for a long time, whereas the country churches in West Prussia (extinct since 1945), Baden, Wurttemberg, and Bavaria (Badischer Verband) faithfully retained the old practice. In the Palatinate and Rheinhessen the transition to a salaried ministry was made early in the 19th century.  A small circle of four congregations led by Johannes Galle (see Jakob Galle) vehemently attacked it as a ruinous innovation. But a scant generation later all opposition had disappeared. All of the six churches of the Palatinate-Hessian Conference had single salaried pastors. The Munich-Regensburg circuit also followed this practice about 1910-1953, but later reverted to the older practice. The two churches in the South Palatinate, Deutschhof and Branchweilerhof, and since 1945 also Berlin, had a lay ministry.

It is of interest to note that as recently as 1898 Eduard Dyck, the preacher of the Rosenort church near Elbing in West Prussia, was to be penalized for preaching a graveside sermon as a lay preacher, thereby breaking a police regulation of 13 February 1852. But he was declared not guilty by the court at Tiegenhagen; the state attorney appealed, but the appeal was rejected (Menn. Blätter 1898, 67; 1899, 3).

In Russia the lay ministry was retained throughout the entire history of the Mennonite Church there, although a few men did secure theological training in Germany and Switzerland beginning about 1900. However, when such men became ordained preachers they usually also held a teaching position as a means of livelihood.

Among the French Mennonites the lay ministry was still universal, while in Switzerland three of the largest congregations had trained and salaried ministers (1955).

In North America the lay ministry was maintained exclusively to the present (1955) in all the more culturally conservative groups, such as the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Church of God in Christ Mennonites, Conservative Mennonites, Kleine Gemeinde, etc. In the largest of the American groups, the Mennonite Church (MC), only recently was there any appreciable increase in the use of trained and fully salaried ministers. In 1955 not more than 10 per cent of these congregations employed pastors with training and salary. On the other hand practically all of the congregations of the remaining groups in the United StatesGeneral Conference, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, and most of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren-employed trained and salaried pastors, though by no means did all of them have full seminary training, many having training only in Bible institutes or colleges. The General Conference Mennonite Church was the earliest to adopt the salaried ministry (quite general from 1900 on) and had the most universal practice. In Canada, however, the number of salaried (and trained) ministers was still very small in any of these conference groups. In Mexico and South America salaried ministers were unknown except in the indigenous Argentine Mennonite Church.

The reasons for the increasing surrender of the lay ministry in the United States were varied. In some cases it was the desire for better preaching and more effective pastoral service. The increasing pressure of the surrounding secular culture, and the competition of other religious groups, called for more full-time religious leadership, which could not well be accomplished without paying salaries. Untrained men felt increasingly inadequate and refused to accept the call to the pastorate. Mechanized farming and urban living made it difficult for men to carry the dual load of a full secular occupation and the pastor-preacher assignment.

The demands for theologically and Biblically trained preachers forced the larger Mennonite conferences and national groups to establish theological seminaries or Bible training schools. Where this was not done because of the inability of the group to maintain a school because of small size, the preachers secured their training in theological schools of other denominations. At times the outside influences channeled into the Mennonite brotherhood through such training were significant and beneficial, but also at times harmful. The most notable case of this latter was been the incursion of theological liberalism and modernism into the Dutch and Northwest German churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a general fact that those groups which have maintained the lay ministry remained more theologically and traditionally conservative. On the other hand the lay ministry was at times not strong enough to resist successfully the inroads of strange doctrines and certain influences hostile to the historic Mennonite faith. It is impossible to establish a general rule that the change from a lay ministry to a trained and supported ministry was always harmful. It has been and can be a source of strength and progress. The change in the Palatine-Hessian congregations in the early part of the 19th century was credited for saving these congregations from serious decay and even extinction.

(See also Ministry, Elder, and Bishop)

Author(s) Christian Neff
Harold S. Bender
Date Published 1955

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. "Lay Preachers." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 24 Sep 2023.

APA style

Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. (1955). Lay Preachers. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 300-301. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.