Concerning Church And Ministry
On the Relation of Synod and Local
Congregation to the Holy Christian Church
The thoughts, words, and subject matter in the "Thesis on the Relation of Synod and local Congregation to the Holy Christian Church," as originally accepted by the Church of the Lutheran Confession, are herewith reaffirmed and taken up in their order with the purpose of expanding upon the meaning and intent of the truths therein expressed, in order that we may state with full clarity what they briefly say and suggest concerning that which Scripture teaches us to hold and confess regarding the doctrine of the Church. At the same time we desire, in this presentation, to disassociate ourselves from doctrines that conflict with scriptural teaching on this subject and from views that we have on Christ.
In so doing, we seek to preserve inviolate and unimpaired, for ourselves as a church body as well as for each believer in Christ, the full prerogatives and splendor of our function as royal priests of God and the true blessings of our faith in the Holy Christian Church.
The Church According To It's Inner Nature and Essence, is the Total Number of all those Whom God Recognizes as His Dear Children by Faith in Christ Jesus. 2 Tim.2:19; Gal. 3:26; 1 Pet. 2:9; Eph. 2:19-22; Acts 2:47b.
Expression has been given in another of our confessions, the one entitled: "Concerning Church Fellowship", to the unique character of the Church, the Communion of Saints, it¹s singular unity and the legitimate manner, outlined in Scripture, by which that unity is to be reflected and maintained in outward, visible fellowship. Further clarification is needful only to the extent that a proper relationship be defined as it obtains between a so-called "local congregation" and the wider association of Christians by congregations within a framework of what in our age has often been called a "Synod," or a "Conference," or simply: a "church." The use of the term "church" when speaking of outward, visible organizations has been a cause of considerable difficulty to all efforts at maintaining unity of faith and confession in this area of doctrine among otherwise like-minded Lutherans. The existence of these is recognized by the title of our Theses: and in a brief preamble we have offered an approach to the elimination of misunderstanding in this matter. The introductory paragraph reads:
"In the discussion of the doctrine of the Church, specifically the relation of synod and local congregation, it is helpful and essential to distinguish between THE NATURE AND ESSENCE of these respective bodies on the one hand and their ORGANIZATIONAL FORM AND FUNCTION on the other."
It is of great importance to note that the scriptural concept of "church" can be applied to visible church organizations only in an improper sense. We acknowledge that they are thereby defined, not essentially, but by synecdoche, a figure of speech "by which a part is put for the whole, or the whole for a part, the special for the general, or the general for the special, or the like." (Thorndike-Barnhart, Dictionary) If therefore we wish to apprehend clearly the relation of Synod and local congregation to the Church, we must necessarily begin by setting forth what Scripture means when it speaks of the Church. To this effort the first Thesis addresses itself.
We rejoice in the knowledge that, among those who retain as their heritage the fundamental blessing of the Lutheran Reformation, the doctrinal position affirmed by this Thesis will elicit only unqualified approval.
It merely rephrases in the briefest possible way a truth which the Lutheran Confessions have taught us to regard as a part of the elementary knowledge of properly instructed Christians. All these will say with the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
"Wherefore we hold, according to the Scriptures, that the Church, properly so called, is the congregation of saints (of those here and there in the world), who truly believe the Gospel of Christ and have the Holy Ghost." (Apol. Art. Vii, 28; Triglot, p. 237)
The Thesis, through the scripture references adduced, further declares that this Church is invisible to the eyes of men and its membership known only to the Lord; that it is nevertheless not a Platonic or imaginary state, but an actual spiritual priesthood of believers, a world-wide congregation of saints who are made holy through faith in Christ and who serve God in holy works, that it is not a mere idea or ideal, but an actuality for which Christ gave Himself into death, that He might "present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."(Eph. 5: 27)
We teach with Martin Luther that "Christians are a separated, chosen people and are called not only a church or people (ecclesia), but holy, universal, Christian, that is; a Christian, holy people, who believe in Christ, wherefore they are called a Christian people; and who possess the Holy Ghost, who daily sanctifies them, not only through the remission of sins which Christ has gained for them (as the Antinomians foolishly suppose), but also through the putting off, sweeping out, and mortifying of sins, wherefore they are called a holy people..."(Luther, of Councils and Churches, 1539)
Lest the nature of the sanctification of the Church be misconceived, we join John Gerhard in here declaring that "we emphatically do not employ the designation of 'saints' in an Anabaptist or Pelagian sense; nor do we indulge in the fantasy that the true citizens of the Church, in the weakness of this life, are wholly and utterly sinless..." (Loc. de eccl.,Par. 51) Rather, we confess with Luther: "The holy Church sins and falters or indeed also errs, as the Lord's Prayer teaches; but she neither defends nor excuses herself, but humbly prays for forgiveness and amends her ways as much as is ever possible. It is then forgiven her, so that her sin is no more counted as sin." (Walch, XIX, 1294) Cf. also: Luther¹s Works, Am, Ed. Vol.22, pp.178-180(Walch, VII, 1734, 425ff).
Thus before the Lord the Church indeed stands a living, holy, temple, united and imperishable, an organism that is vital, alive and growing. Outside of this Church there is no salvation for men; such as should be saved will be, and are being, added to it constantly through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. These are the outward marks which indicate the presence of the Church; but they are not a part of, nor do they belong to the essence of, the Church. We hold that to speak of "a visible side of the invisible Church" is unscriptural and a contradiction in terms. But we say with our Confessions: "The Christian Church consists... especially in inward communion of eternal blessings in the heart, as of the Holy Ghost, of faith, of fear and love of God; which fellowship, nevertheless, has outward marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments, in accordance with the Gospel of Christ." (Apol.VII, VIII, 5; Triglot, p.227)
Whatever then may be the relationship existing between the Church on the one hand and the congregational or synodical organization on the other, it is certain that they must in no wise be identified. Visible church bodies are neither holy nor perfect; they are not one, but many. Though they contain Christians, they do not consist of believers only, as does the Church; though the Word and Sacraments are present and operative in them, these are not entrusted to them as such and are not administered by them as such; though they grow and multiply, it is not these, or any one of them, of which the Lord Jesus spoke when He said: "...I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Mt. 16:18)
Not only do we insist that this distinction must be made; we ask also that it be meticulously and consistently respected throughout any wider discussions of the doctrine of the Church and related matters. Much of the confusion that has in the past frequently beclouded this doctrine even within the confines of the most conservative Luthernism can be traced directly to the lack of consistency that loses sight of the doctrinal premises when they become involved in the process of practical applications. We shall find it necessary to refer to aberrations of this type as we now proceed to an exposition of those Theses in our series which undertake to define the proper relevance of certain visible organizations to that object of our faith- the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.
ANY GROUP OF PROFESSING CHRISTIANS GATHERED IN CHRIST'S NAME (Mt.18:20) CAN RIGHTLY BE CALLED "CHURCH" BECAUSE OF THE CHRISTIANS IN IT. THEREFORE ALSO A SO-CALLED LOCAL CONGREGATION GATHERED ABOUT WORD AND SACRAMENT IS RIGHTLY CALLED "CHURCH" ONLY BECAUSE OF THE CHRISTIANS IN IT.(Eph.1:1; Phil.1:1; Col.1:2; Mt.18:20) THE OUTWARD ORGANIZATIONAL FORM OF A CONGREGATION IS OF HUMAN ARRANGEMENT AND MAY VARY WIDELY AS IT DID EVEN IN THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH. COMPARE CORINTH WITH JERUSALEM. (1Cor.12 and 14; Acts6)-7
"When we speak of a Christian congregation, or local church, we always mean only the Christians or believers in the visible communion. As the wicked and hypocrites do not belong to the Church Universal, so they are no part of the congregation either. This is the clear teaching of Scripture." (Pieper, Dogmatics, III; Eng. Ed. p.419f)
These precise statements of a revered teacher, presumably agreed to by several generations of a Lutheran orthodoxy of which we desire to be heirs, well serve to introduce this portion of our confession. Sometimes they have been misunderstood. Oftener they have been ignored. Substantially they represent a proposition basic to the scriptural thinking of our Theses.
The expressions: "church;" "congregation;" "communion;" belong to the vocabulary which must be employed when we wish to state clearly what we teach and believe in regard to the matters now under consideration. Yet it is by the very use of such terms that we may be misunderstood and may in turn fail to understand others. It must be regarded as an unhappy circumstance and a measure of human inadequacy that we are compelled to deal in words which through careless usage or by reason of their origins have become ambiguous. Of necessity, then, those who undertake to teach and confess the doctrine of Scripture in any point, and certainly not least in the area here under consideration, will at the outset define their terms.
We are told that Luther regarded the German equivalent of the word "church" (Kirche) as being "un-German," a vague and fuzzy expression. In his translation of the Old Testament he employed it only about fifteen times, and then invariably to denote idolatrous sanctuaries or associations and never as designation for the believers of the Old Covenant or their assemblies. In his translation of the New Testament Luther uses the expression "Kirche" only twice, and these instances consist in compound words( "church-dedication,"Jn.10:22; "church-robbers, "Acts19:37). Uniformly he translated the Greek "ekklesia"with "Gemeinde" (congregation). (Quartalschrift, Vol. 26, p.207f) Despite such care on his part, Luther too has been misunderstood and cited for false positions relative to the doctrine of the Church.
It may not be possible to obviate all wrongful interpretations of what we endeavor to say in this our confession. We shall nevertheless be at pains to remain as definite as possible in our expression. To this end we desire wherewith to establish and announce the policy to be pursued herein: Whenever we employ the term Church as a proper noun, or in its generic use as indicated by quotation marks ("church"), we wish to be understood as referring to the invisible "ekklesia" of the Scriptures in its essence and with its characteristics; to the Holy Christian Church, whether in its totality or in its parts. With this provision established, we trust that mutual understanding will prevail.
But it behooves us also to establish a consistent use of the word "congregation" for our purposes. In the statement of Dr. Pieper quoted above, we note that he carefully distinguishes between the concept "Christian congregation, or local church" and a "visible communion" to which he does not want to apply the word "congregation." Thus in the context in which he deals he wishes to be understood as equating "congregation" with "church." This, then, is the definition of a congregation: "A congregation is the assembly of believers who congregate about Word and Sacrament at a particular place." (Op. Cit. p.420) The "visible communion," so often loosely called "a church" or a "local church" or a "local congregation" for the sake of convenience in casual discussion as well as in theological debate, includes whatever number of unbelievers and hypocrites may be mingled therewith. Dr Pieper in his doctrinal treatment does not wish the word "congregation" to be employed in that sense.
Our theses sympathize with that restriction. Indeed, they make an issue of it. Though they speak of "the outward organizational form of a congregation," the very syntax of that phrase indicates that "congregation" is something distinct from "its outward organizational form." And so it must be. Holy Scripture indeed recognizes the existence of visible communions or fellowshiping groups. But we have already pointed out that when our Savior, in My.16: 18, declares that He would build His Church, He was not speaking of any visible church body as such, but of His spiritual Body. This is the first instance of the New Testament use of the term "ekklesia," which we translate as "church;" and in similar contexts the Apostles consistently employ the term in the same sense.
With these preliminaries serving to guard our terminology against semantic confusion, we turn to our thesis which says that "any group of professing Christians gathered in Christ's Name(Mt.18;20) can rightly be called "church" because of the Christians in it. Therefore also a so-called local congregation..." With these words we intend to convey this truth above all, that a "local congregation" (Ortsgemeinde) in the sense of a circumscribed group of professing Christians (as distinct from a group of "believers") can be designated as "church" only because we believe that the Church is present in it, present wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution. The very existence of the Church is a matter of faith and not of observation. When people are assembled in Christ's Name, that is, in connection with the Name of the Lord, this means, as it has always been understood among us and as both the Second Commandment and the First Petition of the Lord's Prayer have taught us, that such people are assembled about and concerning the Word and Sacraments. These are the marks which indicate what we cannot see but accept as fact: the presence of the Church.
The saints that come together within an outward fellowship, the faithful in Christ Jesus, make such visible communions "church", and ARE "church." Their sum is rightly labeled a congregation, namely an assembly of those who have been "called out" and separated from the world. Of this congregation, as part and parcel of the Holy Christian Church on earth, it can be said that it possesses all the rights, duties and powers of the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and this because each and every individual of the congregation so constituted, as a spiritual priest before God, is endowed with the treasures which Christ has earned, won and conferred upon His Church.
Scripture assures us that we shall be able to find the Church wherever men assemble about the true Gospel and the Sacraments in order to use them according to the Savior's directive (Mt. 18:20); and because His Word calls upon His disciples to do so (mt. 18:17; Heb. 10:24-25), we recognize the fact that through their response to this need and the will of their Lord outward organizations will come into being. Their faith will bring Christians together as "church;" and the assembling will not be invisible. The Gospel and the faith that it generates will, by God's grace, create tangible forms. We know also that in the very nature of things the assembling of Christians and the resulting form of their being together will, first of all, be of a local character and composition. In other words, we regard the establishment of "local congregations" as the primary outcome of the operation of the Holy Spirit Who gathers God's elect and permits them to recognize one another by their confession. In this sense we may scripturally affirm that local visible communions in which the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity and the Sacraments are administered according to their divine institution exist by God's will and order and through the operation of His power in the Gospel.
Concerning such local visible communions, however, our thesis in its second part rejects the thought that they must be cast into any one divinely fixed outward form. From the very outset of the life of the New Testament Church the structure of its visible communions as well as their manner of operation with the public ministry of Word and Sacrament varied substantially from place to place and region to region. Reference is made to the difference in this respect between the Mother Church at Jerusalem and the Church at Corinth. In Jerusalem organizational design and functioning are evidenced, for example, in the purposeful and orderly procedure that marked the choosing of the seven deacons (Acts 6). In contrast, the worship of the Corinthian congregation reveals a use of the God-given charismatic gifts so individual and so joyfully uninhibited by organizational form that it actually created a problem to which Paul had to give considerable attention (I Cor. 14). Yet the Apostle did not simply impose upon the Corinthians the system of Jerusalem. For when God's children are called together for the exercise of the priestly prerogatives of their holy station, it is God's Spirit Who moves them; and "where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (II Cor. 3:17) They are "dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world" and are not "subject to ordinances." (Col. 2:20) Among them prevails the divinely sanctioned diversity in unity described by the Apostle in I Cor.12, a diversity which exists between them not only as individuals, but as groups as well. Therefore visible assemblies may and do operate under voluntary and diversified regulations and constitutional provisions designed, not to achieve structural uniformity but to promote the interests of good order and mutual love in the discharge of the labors in the Gospel, seeking to achieve as best possible under all circumstances the design of the Lord Who says through His Apostle that "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal." (I Cor. 12:7)
In this sense and for this reason we affirm that "the outward organizational form of a congregation is of human arrangement," and does not as such determine its character. When a visible local assembly is called a "church," therefore, it must be borne in mind that this sacred term does not properly apply to it insofar as it is an outward assembly, but only to the extent that it is truly a "congregation." While with the Catechism we speak of the "church power (or authority) which Christ has given to His Church on earth," and apply this truth by saying that the Keys have been conferred upon the "local congregation," we must bear in mind that such an assertion is correct only when we are properly defining "local congregation" as Dr. Pieper does. For "it is to the Church in the true sense, that is, to the communion of saints, to which as such (or as to holy people) the Lord has entrusted and committed the preaching of the Gospel and therewith the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and not the church in the improper, or synecdochical sense, that is, insofar as the term is used to include persons who are not Christians, or insofar as it associates concrete things and forms (Sachen) with believers." (Quartsalschrift, Vol.26, p. 217)
WHEN IT IS SAID THAT A SYNOD IS "CHURCH," THIS IS SAID WITH REFERENCE TO ITS INNER NATURE AND ESSENCE, NAMELY INSOFAR AS IT CONSTITUTES A COMMUNION OF TRUE BELIEVERS. WHEN IT IS SAID THAT A SYNOD OR CONFERENCE IS A "HUMAN ARRANGEMENT," THIS IS PROPERLY SAID WITH REFERENCE TO ITS OUTWARD ORGANIZATIONAL FORM WHICH IS DETERMINED AND DEFINED BY THE CONGREGATIONS THAT HAVE CONSTITUTED THIS BODY.
Some Lutheran teachers have argued that the formation of local churches must be regarded as having a divine mandate while the organization by congregations of larger bodies such as synods is a purely human and optional arrangement. The contention is that local churches originate through the inner necessity established by God's will and order that Christians fellowship, institute the public preaching of the Word, exercise Christian discipline and celebrate the Holy Supper. Since these are manifestly enjoined upon Christians and since they could not be exercised without local assemblies, it follows that local churches are divinely instituted. Such logic, however, could be applied with similar authority in demonstrating that wider associations of Christians also have a divine mandate. For since our Savior has directed His disciples to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every living creature, and since a single church could hardly hope to approach an adequate implementation of this obligation, it follows that the mission command presupposes (and thus makes "mandatory") the cooperation of many Christians and many places as necessitated by the needs and opportunities. This conclusion is supported by the fact that in the primitive Christian Church the believers linked hands and means in speeding the Apostles and their helpers upon their missionary enterprises.
We have pointed out that it is the Holy Ghost Who causes Christians to seek one another out by their confession and to engage in the exercise of fellowship and joint work. This is always true, no matter what outward form or organization may be set up for the furtherance of this exercise. Proper and divinely approved forms of worship and work are products of the faith and liberty of those who possess the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and faith in action is inventive, liberty is unfettered. (I Cor. 12:4-7; I Cor. 3:21-23) The New Testament knows of no specific forms that have been prescribed to restrict or limit, geographically or functionally, the manner in which the individual Christian will govern his association with his brethren in the administration of the Means of Grace. (Col. 2:20f; Gal. 4:9 f.)
In the same sense in which a "local congregation" is "church", therefore, a wider association of Christians reaching beyond the boundaries of a "local congregation" is also rightly called "church." In our circles such a larger fellowship has often resulted in an outward organizational form which is popularly known as "synod." If in the Theses as well as in this exposition we employ the synodical appellation, we wish it understood that we do not apply the term "church" to the form or to the name, even as we do not refer to a congregation as "church" in relation to its visible structure.
The circumstances that a number of confessing congregations, acting in Christian liberty, combine to constitute a larger church body, the outward form of which is indeed of human devising, does not denude such a larger body of the characteristics of "church", but rather confers that character upon it. For the essential nature of the confessing congregations is not altered by their humanly constructed, yet wholly legitimate union with others of the same mind; rather, when these congregations are added together, the resultant total is again expressed by the concepts confessional congregation, or assembly, within which the Church proprie dicta, the communion of saints, the true possessor of all the treasures of Christ, is contained. In a synod are embodied all those Christians who lie hidden in all constituent congregations.
"As the sum of all such congregations and their individual members, a synod therefore naturally and originally possesses all treasures and powers that Christ has given to His Church on earth: the authority to preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, the Office of the Keys, etc..." (Quartalshrift, Vol. 8, p.135f)
"But in whatever manner the Church at large or the local church may establish herself outwardly, always it remains church in the proper sense of the word: Communion of Saints. By the process of their banding together as a larger outward communion, the members of a local congregation do not forfeit their faith, their membership in the Body of Christ; rather, the banding together is an outgrowth of their faith, and in this larger fellowship they desire to exercise their faith just as in the local congregation, though in areas of Christian work which lie beyond the capacities of the latter body.
"Herein we cannot go wrong: Where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel, there is the Church, the communion of saints, be the form and name of the outward organization whatever it will. The synod embraces all Christians of the congregations which have joined it for the purpose of joint confession, joint preaching of the Gospel and mutual strengthening in faith. Synod is only another outward form of the Church, a different form of the Congregation of Christ than the local assembly, differing from this form not in its general, but in its specific task and activity.
"The peculiar idea that only the local congregation has been ordained or instituted by God, and can possess the Gospel, Sacraments and power of the Keys only in this form, that the synod on the other hand is a purely human organization serving as human advisor to the congregation and for purely human efforts in furthering the cause of the Gospel, ...rests upon a confusion of the essence with the outward form of the church, of the concrete historical development of the church with the New Testament concept of the Kingdom of God, and upon the transfer of the Old Testament concept of the Church into the New Testament Church, a special church FORM... with whose function the effective operation of the Gospel and the salvation of souls is inseparably linked. Thereby the freedom of the New Testament Church from the statutes of the old covenant is actually denied.
"The fact is that the New Testament Church has not a single prescribed outward form, no outward divine institution, but the Lord has given to His Bride, His communion of saints, the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Gospel, has entrusted it to her own use and for a preaching to all the world, commanding her to be a faithful steward of His goods and to let everything also in outward matters be done decently and in order. To this end He endows her through the Holy Spirit with specific men and gifts, which she is to place into her service according to her best judgment. A particular church form... He did not prescribe for her." (Quartalschrift, Vol. 25, p.42f)
Against this the contention has been raised that the New Testament which speaks of local churches, does not speak of synods. If this were intended to mean that the word "synod" is not known to the New Testament authors, or that no assembly of Christians outwardly constituted in the form of a present-day synod existed in apostolic times, we would agree. But the outward form is not essential, nor is the name. It remains true that from the outset of New Testament church life the various local congregations were aware of one another, exercised what fellowship was possible under the circumstances and cooperated in joint worship and work. (Acts 11:22 ff; II Cor. 8:19.22.23) When Christians in various localities join forces thus to discharge their priestly functions, they are in this association "church." Surely Christians who constitute congregations do not cease to be Christians or to act as Christians when they merge their forces congregation-wise in order to show forth the praises of Him who has called them into His marvelous light. For ³whatever a Christian be, of the same nature also is every other Christian, likewise the Christians as greater or smaller assembly or totality. What the Church is in its spiritual character, that it is by virtue of the spiritual character of its individual members.² (Quartalschrift, Vol.15. p. 76)
To say, then, that "a synod, an ecclesiastical body or federation, consisting of a number of congregations of the same confession, or any similar permanent organization, is not a 'church' in the same sense of Scripture, but is solely a human institution in which the individual congregations (and certain individuals as associates or advisory constituents) are members, for the purpose of performing in a more effective fashion such portions of church work as cannot be done by the average individual congregation alone with the same measure of effectiveness..." (The Church, the Christian Congregation and the Ministerial Office, by P.E. Kretzmann, p.105)- is to misstate the case and could be rightly understood only if the observation limited itself to a synod¹s organizational form. The very fact that a synod legitimately and by divine autorization engages in "church work" indicates that according to it essence it consists of Christians and is therefore "church".
THESES IV & V
WHEN THE FORMAL ORIGIN OF SYNODS AS WE KNOW THEM IS KEPT IN MIND THERE WILL BE NO ROOM FOR A SITUATION WHERE A SYNOD INVDES AND OVERRULES A CONGREGATION IN ITS EXERCISE OF CHRISTIAN DISCIPLINE. WHEN A SYNOD GOES BEYOND THE FUNCTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED TO IT BY THE CONSTITUTING CONGREGATIONS IT OVERSTEPS ITS CALL AND BECOMES A BUSYBODY IN OTHER MEN'S MATTERS. I Pet. 4: 15. (Cf. Thesis 3 of "Concerning the Ministry of the Keys and the Public Ministry.")
IF WE REMEMBER THAT A SYNOD IS "CHURCH" WITH REFERENCE TO ITS INNER NATURE AND ESSENCE, WE WILL NOT DOUBT THAT WHEN A SYNOD FAITHFULLY AND CONSCIENTIOUSLY FULFILLS ITS ASSIGNED FUNCTIONS (WHETHER IT BE THE TRAINING OF PASTORS AND TEACHERS, IN PROMOTING THE WORK OF MISSIONS, OR IN THE AREA OF DOCTRINAL DISCIPLINE, THE SUPERVISION OF DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE), ITS ACTIONS ARE COMPLETELY VALID AND HAVE DIVINE AUTHORITY. FOR THEY ARE FUNCTIONS FOR WHICH AS "CHURCH", IT IS FULLY COMPETENT AND QUALIFIED. Mt. 18:20; Jn. 20: 21-23; Mk. 16: 15; I Cor.3:21-23.
Resting upon previously established premises, these theses call for but little exposition. They concern themselves exclusively with the propriety and validity of the functions which congregations assign to their confederated associations. Here we find ourselves, on the one hand, in the domain of Christian liberty, where "all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not" (I Cor. 10:23); and where Christians are children of their Father in heaven Who is "not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints." (I Cor. 14:33) On the other hand, we find ourselves compelled by the instruction of Holy Scripture to recognize as wholly valid in the sight of Christ our Lord those activities in which a synod properly engages as "church."
Where there are Christians, there is the Ministry (Office) of the Keys; for it was conferred upon them individually. The functions of this Office, moreover,are one and indivisible, even as the Gospel is a unit. One may not say that a Christian, or any confessional combination of Christians, has the authority to baptize but not to provide for the administration of the Sacrament of the Altar; the right to teach nut not to preach the Gospel; the right to forgive sin but not to retain it. Yet such is the implication of the position taken by some who insist that Christians in a local association may exercise the functions of church discipline, but that Christians assembled as a synod may not. The latter group, it is said, may jointly send out missionaries, but may not in their gathering observe the celebration of the Holy Supper except as "guests", in and under the auspices of a local congregation. Such wholly unfounded restrictions, such arbitrary sundering of Christian from a portion of their spiritual powers, not by common consent and agreement based upon mutual love and a desire for good order but by dictum allegedly based upon some scriptural provision that to exercise them they must be congregation in a certain external form, does violence both to their perogatives and to their glorious station.
The apprehension that a larger church body might invade the province of its member congregations or arrogate to itself functions which are properly discharged only by each constituent part of the body is a fear which has beat like a pulse in the throat of the Church for generations. As a defense against such usurption the "rights" of the local congregation have been stressed. But not always wisely; for to safeguard those rights, as we have reported and heard above, some have resorted to the extreme measure of categorically denying to a synodical association the character of "church."
The misgivings which support that position cannot be dismissed as baseless. The pages of history are dotted with instances of synodical tyranny imposed upon local churches too weak or too indifferent to resist it. In some cases synods trained and conditioned their constituency in an attitude of dependence which discouraged the exercise of individual sovereingnty and created a state of mind sometimes called "synoditis," a Big Brother complex that accepted synod, rather than Scriptures, as the voice of God and the arbiter of doctrine and practise. The present-day slogans of a false ecumenicity, moreover, designed as they are to diminish the individual priesthood of the believer in favor of bigger and better majorities, create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of hierarchies and superchurches hostile to Christian liberty and respect for individual consience.
We are in our day highly sensitive to the dangers that threaten us from this source; yet we hold that in the regulation of a proper relationship between the local congregations and the larger body, the highly articulate Scriptural rule of love and good order is a sufficient guide and admits of no conflict of interests or duties when faithfully followed. We also recognize the fact, however, that the arch-enemy of the Church and the sinful flesh still adhering to Christians in this life may at times hamper us in our desire to practice what we have learned and believe; and we know that against the wiles of these foes no humanly contrived constitutional provisions can of themselves form an impenetrable armor. We must persevere in watchfulness and prayer, looking to the Lord of the Church for deliverence from the evil of fleshly usurption of power and disruption of good order in our midst.
It seems to us obvious, however, that this end will not be well served, and no protection can be afforded, by the expedient of denying to an association of congregations the character of "church." It saddens us to observe that, among Christians who do regard their synod as "church," instances of incredible abuse of power by synodical officials and slavish obedience of individuals and congregations have indeed come to abound. At the same time we have noted the fact that in Lutheran circles which in principle emphatically accord to a synod no status above that of a purely human organization, local reliance upon and subjection to synodical government, as well as a corresponding force of hierarchical control have been even more widely and deplorably in evidence.
The authority of a synod cannot be limited or secured against abuse by the claim that it is not "church." Such an affirmation would prove far more than its proponents would wish to prove. For since a synod does, by common consent and consent and intent of its constituency, do the work of the Church, a denial of its character would make of a synod an abomination, a pretender, a thief who enters into the fold by some way other than the Door. But in its proper place synodical association is as valid an arrangement as any that Christians make for the efficient pursuit of their divinely appointed task - as valid as the forming of a local congregation. A synod is in its essence a sum of the local congregations involved; and by it, through its instrumentality, the congregations may choose jointly to administer the Keys in whatever manner they deem effective, expedient and consonant with Christian love and good order.
We have confessed and do again concede that good order is not always observed, and the law of love is transgressed even by Christians. Thus experience has shown that synods sometimes do go "beyond the functions that have been assigned... by the constituting congregations." When this occurs, it requires immediate rectification. Abuses of this sort are, after all, not peculiar to synodical bodies. Instances are not unknown in which misguided, unscrupulous leaders and indifferent, uninstructed members, probably paced by a strong admixture of hypocrites and unbelievers, have turned visible local church organizations into horrors of papistic corruption. But these are matters for discipline for which Christian congregations should be fully competent, and do not in any way give cause for the desperate measure of denying to a synod its right of priestly function as a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It has been our duty to offer the clearest possible witness of our agreement in. and our devotion to, the rightful function of the saints in their priesthood and their freedom in the perfect law of liberty; and this obligation we have herein sought to discharge. Being conscious of the truth, however, that the best testimony of words may by our weakness lose much in the translation into conduct and action, we close with a prayer offered by Martin Luther in his "Instruction for Parish Visitors:"
"May God, the Father of all mercy, grant us through Jesus Christ, his dear Son, the spirit of unity and the power to do his will. Even though the finest spirit of unity prevails among us we still have our hands full to do good and to be established by the power of God. What would happen if there were to be disunity and disagreement among us? The devil has become neither pious nor devout this year, nor will he ever be so. So let us be on guard and anxious to keep (as Paul teaches) the spiritual unity in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:3). Amen." (Luther's Works, Am. Ed., Vol. 40, p.273)
Concerning the Ministry of the Keys
and the Public Ministry
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ conferred upon His disciples no more than a single assignment and thus instituted but one office, or service, in His Church on earth, namely, the service of preaching the Gospel. His directive reads: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature." (Mk.16: 15) This order is further amplified and defined by the explicit statement that such work consists in "teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you." (Mt.28:20) That in this expression our Lord did not refer merely to an ethical or moral system which He allegedly established is understood by all who know that "the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." (Jn.1:17), and that the Ministry of the New Testament therefore is concerned with evangelical and not legalistic commandments. (Compare II Cor.5:18)
"Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you," the risen Savior said to His disciples; "and when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." (Jn.20:21-23) This grant of power and authority, of duty and prerogative, the Lord had previously characterized by a graphic expression when He declared to Peter: "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom." (Mt.16:19)
Concerning this spiritual endowment the Church of the Lutheran Confession has expressed itself confessionally through a set of propositions entitled: "Theses on the Ministry of the Keys and the Public Ministry." Their scriptural premises and the conclusions established thereon are herewith being subjected to closer scrutiny and more extended definition, in order that both our doctrine and our practice may be fully understood by all and stand vindicated in the light of Holy Scripture.
THE MINISTRY OF THE KEYS, WHICH IS THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD, HAS BEEN COMMITED TO THE HOLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH--THEREFORE TO EACH CHRISTIAN MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD. CHRISTIANS ARE TO BE PERSONALLY ACTIVE IN THIS MINISTRY IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY WHICH IS NOT IN VIOLATION OF GOD'S WILL AND ORDINANCE. Mk16:15; Mt.28:18-20; Jn20:21-23; I Cor.3:21-23; I Pet.2:9.
The gospel in its very nature is a proclamation. It is a Word, a Message. St. Paul calls it the "word of reconciliation," (II Cor.5:19) and cries: "Woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel!" (I Cor.9:16) An "unpreached" Gospel would be a contradiction in terms. Scripture itself is speech; for it is a speaking of God to him who reads it. Thus we may rightfully say that God through the very act of revelation of the Gospel instituted preaching.
St. Paul calls the Gospel "the word of faith, which we preach," and in conjunction with Deut.30:14 declares that it "is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thine heart." (Rom.10:8) For Scripture teaches that those who receive the Gospel as a personal, inward possession by faith do in and through that very experience become preachers of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit, Who always accompanies the Gospel, not only creates faith by means thereof but in that very act also makes witness of those whom He enlightens and sanctifies. Thus Peter expressly assures believers that they are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and a peculiar people in order that they may announce abroad the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. (I Pet.2:9) God so fashions His Christians that from within their new hearts they proclaim the Gospel; this is an inherent function of the new life within them.
Thus we cannot actually speak of an authority or a command to preach the Gospel in the sense that such an activity is permitted a Christian only if, when and because he has been especially called or authorized to engage in it. Preaching is an assigned duty only in the sense that prayer also is an assigned duty. Our Lord did not, therefore, institute a new function or create a new office when He charged His disciples, saying: "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." (Acts1:8)
In this, as well as in all His other statements defining and describing the Christian calling, He formally ratified the Vocation into which the Holy Spirit has placed every true believer since the beginning of time, gave it a New Testament definition, and by way of encouragement and exhortation placed Himself with His gifts and blessing at the head of His witnessing Body. In this sense we speak of a commissioning when we say that "the Ministry (or service) of the Keys, which is the ministry of the Word, has been committed to the Holy Christian Church."
Obviously it is the will of God that the Gospel be preached. But this will is fulfilled, not by a formal Institution of a preaching office in some abstract sense, but simply by the calling of human beings into the fellowship of the Gospel and thus making of them actual and active Gospel witnesses. They are to grow in the knowledge of God and unto ever fuller possession of the doctrines of the Word; they are to teach and admonish one another with the word of Christ that dwells in them richly (Col.3:16), for each is a messenger of the Lord (I Pet.1:9) ; they are to judge the doctrine of others (I Jn.4:1), and are directed to avoid those who teach otherwise than God's Word teaches. All this belongs to the ministry of the Word. And these things have been committed to every Christian with a call to active duty. For the Christian is not merely in principle a preacher of the Gospel; he also administers this office or service to its fullest extent. When the Christian assembly meets in worship, such activity is in evidence on all sides. St. Paul calls the congregational singing of hymns a teaching and admonishing (Col. 3:16). The participation in the words of confession, in liturgical responses is an act of preaching, as is the witnessing of the children of the Church in catechumenal examinations and in Christmas services.
The only restrictions laid upon God's spiritual priests in the exercise of the Gospel ministry arise from the provisions for mutual love and good order as stipulated by the Scriptures. Since the Church is a Body, its members defer to one another and conform their activities to that which best serves common good. The orderly processes of life in the Christian community, or congregation, are not to be disrupted by any loveless individualism. The Apostle warned his spiritual children against such offenses in his instructions to the Corinthians (I Cor. 12:4-30; 14:1-40). Yet in principle there is no duty of the Ministry of the Keys from which any person is personally excluded. It was to no group of ecclesiastical dignitaries or body of clergy, but to the Christian laity and clergy alike that St. Paul wrote: "For all things are yours... and ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." (I Cor.3:21-23)
IT IS GOD'S WILL AND ORDINANCE THAT CHRISTIANS PROVIDE FOR THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION OF THE KEYS. THIS IS ACHIEVED THROUGH THE CALLING OF QUALIFIED INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE THUS PLACED IN CHARGE OF THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION OF WORD AND SACRAMENT AND PERFORM THIS TASK IN BEHALF OF THEIR FELLOW CHRISTIANS (VON GEMEINSCHAFTS WEGEN). SUCH SERVICE IS REFERRED TO AS THE PUBLIC MINISTRY; AND ITS DUTIES ARE TO BE EXERCISED ONLY BY THOSE WHO ARE PROPERLY CALLED TO IT BY THE CHURCH. THIS PUBLIC MINISTRY IS GOD-ORDAINED AND NOT A PRODUCT OF HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT. Acts 1:23-26; Acts 6:5-6; I Tim. 3:1-5; I Thess. 5:12-13; I Tim. 5:17; Tit.1:5-9. Augsberg Confession, Article 14: "Of Ecclesiastical Usages- Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called."
It is not in contradiction to what we have professed in our discussion of the first Thesis if now we say that there is a manner of administration of the Keys in which not every Christian is personally active as an individual. We call it the Public Ministry; but in so doing we need to define our terms precisely lest their true sense be mistaken and the Truth compromised.
The Public Ministry is not a function different in content than the Ministry of the Keys which, as we have seen, is the inalienable possession of every child of God. We call it "public," but not in the sense that it is either restricted to, or characterized by, an administration of the Keys that is public rather than private or hidden. The Gospel ministry is one and indivisible; and they who are charged with its duties, namely all Christians, perform them without regard to times, seasons or circumstances.
If the Public Ministry is distinct in character, it is because those who serve therein function, not only in their own right as disciples of Christ, but in behalf of, in the name of, and by the request of, their fellow-Christians. It is the Gospel service performed not by right of an individual priesthood alone, but vicariously for many spiritual priests; wherefore it is called "public" as distinguished from "private" or "personal." It is of this Ministry that the Augsburg Confession speaks when it says that "no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called." (Article 14) German theology defines it as "Das Amt von gemeinschaftswegen," since it is an office administered by one in the stead and in the name of others.
We confess and affirm that the Public Ministry is divinely ordained; and we reject the teaching of those who see it as a mere convenience or as no more than a development of the need for order among men. Our Confessions say:
"For the Church has the command to appoint ministers, which should be most pleasing to us, because we know that God approves this ministry, and is present in the ministry (that God will preach and work through men and those who have been chosen by men)." (The Apology, Trig. 311:12)
God's Word makes it unmistakenly clear that He desires that the Gospel be preached and the Sacraments administered. It teaches that God expects His Christians to administer these Means of Grace. Scripture also reveals the divine design by which Christians are to implement the preaching and teaching of the Gospel in their own midst and for their personal instruction and nourishment, namely through a Public Ministry for which the Lord promises to supply the gift of adequate personnel. Thus St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
"He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, Apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ;
"Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, they may grow up into him all things, which is the head, even Christ;
"From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:10-16)
This marvelous passage supplies us with a true evangelical understanding of the nature of the Public Ministry. The Church has indeed received no formal command which categorically "institutes" a public ministry of the Word. Rather, the Church has received the Gospel and the responsibility of proclaiming it. It administers the forgiveness of sins. By word of the Holy Ghost and the example of the Apostles it has learned how to do this in a God-pleasing manner; and the Lord places into its hands the gifts which the Church may and does use for its purposes. We reaffirm what our Confessions say in this context:
"For wherever the Church is, there is the authority (command) to administer the Gospel. Therefore it is necessary for the Church to retain the authority to call, elect and ordain ministers. And this authority is a gift which is in reality given to the Church, which no human power can wrest from the Church, as Paul also testifies to the Ephisians, 4:8, when he says: "He ascended, He gave gifts to men." And he enumerates among the gifts specially belonging to the Church pastors and teachers, and adds that such are given for the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Hence, wherever there is a true Church, the right to elect and ordain ministers necessarily exists.... Here belong the statements of Christ which testify that the Keys have been given to the Church, and not merely to certain persons, Mt. 18:20 "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, etc."
"Lastly, the statement of Peter also confirms this, I Pet. 2:9 : 'Ye are a royal priesthood.' These words pertain to the true Church, which certainly has the right to elect and ordain ministers since it alone has the priesthood" (Smalcald Articles, Trig. 323f: 67f)
Thus the calling and ordaining of public servants of the Word is one of the functions of the spiritual priesthood by which Christians jointly discharge their Gospel ministry. In this they are guided by the instruction of Scripture which carefully lists the proper qualifications to be sought in those who are to serve in the name of their fellow-Christians and thus represent them. Having chosen them under guidance of the Holy Spirit and committed to them the duties to which they have called them, they regard these servants as stewards of God and esteem them highly in love for their work's sake. Their respect for them is not such as is accorded to dignitaries clothed in a rank which exists as distinct from, and higher than, their own. For "in I Cor. 3:6 Paul makes ministers equal, and teaches that the Church is above the ministers." (Smalcald Articles, Trig. 507:11) And how indeed could it be otherwise? For in and through their called servants all Christians together with them are performing their priestly functions as commissioned ministers of Christ. No Christian, in calling a pastor or teacher, elder or deacon to administer the Office of the Keys in his name, thereby relinquishes or forfeits his right to that Office or his duties thereunder, but executes them as participant in the joint venture in which he thus engages with his brethren.
THE OFFICE OF THE PUBLIC MINISTRY IS NOT LIMITED TO ANY DIVINELY FIXED FORM AS SUCH, FOR EXAMPLE, THE OUTWARD FORM OF THE 'PFARRAMT' OR PASTORAL OFFICE. IN CHRISTIAN LIBERTY, AS CIRCUMSTANCES REQUIRE AND AS THE LORD SUPPLIES DIVERSITY OF GIFTS, OPERATIONS AND MINISTRIES. ( I Cor. 12:4-6, 'Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.' 12:28, 'And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, and after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities.') THE CHURCH MAY SEPARATE THE VARIOUS FUNCTIONS OF THE PUBLIC MINISTRY OF THE WORD AND APPORTION THEM TO WHATEVER NUMBER OF QUALIFIED PERSONS IT MAY CHOOSE TO CALL. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT EACH CALL THUS EXTENDED SHALL SPECIFY THE AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY AND THE TYPE OF DUTY THEREBY ASSIGNED, AND THAT EACH LABORER ABIDE BY THE TERMS IF HIS CALL. Acts 6:1-4; Phil. 1:1 ( Cf Thesis 4 and 5 of "On the Relation of Synod and Local Congregation to the Holy Christian Church."
As the spiritual priesthood of the believer and the preaching of the Gospel are correlative concepts, so likewise are the terms congregation and public ministry. For where an association of Christians exists, there will also be a public administration of the Means of Grace with all that such function entails. We further recognize the fact that, of all associations in which Christians will seek to exercise their priestly calling, the most natural and immediate form is that of a local congregation. Within this form the office of the Public Ministry has come to exist in what we call the pastoral office. Hereof Dr. F. Pieper has written in part:
"It is not a human, but a divine command that Christians perform the works of their spiritual priesthood; accordingly, preach the Gospel not merely in their homes, but also in their intercourse with the brethren and with the world. Likewise it is not merely a human, but a divine regulation that Christians who live at one place fellowship with one another, form a congregation, and appoint men equipped with the necessary teaching ability to preach God's Word in the name of the congregation both publicly (in the public assembly) and privately (to individual Christians)," (Dogmatics, 3, p.443)
A congregation calls a qualified man (or men) and places him (or them) in charge of the administration of the Keys. This office is therefore frequently referred to simply as the public ministry, and the incumbents are called "ministers of the Gospel." Under the influence of tradition and popular as well as theological custom this narrow use of the term "public ministry" has tended to become an exclusive use; and the resultant identification of "public ministry" with the pastoral office has not been without disturbing consequences. It has contributed to a widespread impression that only pastors are public ministers of the Gospel in the strict scriptural sense; and indeed it has encouraged the erroneous belief that God instituted the pastorate precisely in the form in which it is prevalent among us today. This belief in turn has led some to the conclusion that all other offices in the Church having to do with the administration of the Gospel are subsidiary offices which exist only as branches of the actual ministerial office.
We affirm, to the contrary, that apart from the general directive addressed to children of God urging them to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel we look in vain in Scripture for words that constitute a divine institution of a public office of the ministry in any specific form, aside from the Old Testament priesthood. The New Testament records the fact that certain forms of the public ministry were in use in apostolic times. Men were employed as gifts of God for certain phases of the work, and their several offices are given specific names appropriate to the duties thereof. We cannot be certain that the functions of any one of these corresponded in all respects to those prescribed in the Call of a presentday pastor in the Church, although certainly the work and responsibilities represented by such a Call have been discharged by the Public Ministry of the New Testament Church since its inception.
We cannot point to a formal institution even of the office known as the Apostolate. God did not command that there be Apostles in the Church; He simply created them when He needed them. And to this day the Lord Jesus Christ creates forms of office, old and new, in His Church, through the Church supplying her with the needed gifts for the occasion. The Gospel, working in the hearts of those who believe it, leads them to the establishment of the public administration of the Means of Grace in their midst. Whether in any given instance this work is to be done by one man, whether he is to have the entire supervision and the entire complex of duties in his hands, or whether there shall be two or more among whom it is shared....these matters lie in the freedom and discretion of the spiritual priests of God. Whatever they need, the Lord will supply; and they will use His gifts to the best advantage of the Church.
We deplore and reject any doctrine of the Public Ministry which interprets Scripture as teaching a divine institution of outward form and thus infringes upon the dearly bought liberty of the sons of God. We hold that in Christian liberty the Church may and does exercise the functions of the Public Ministry when it calls qualified persons into the pastorate, unto the work of Christian Day-school teaching, into a professorship at its High Schools and Colleges, or as elders and deacons who are to assist pastors and teachers in their ministry. We believe that each and all of these offices are administrations of the Public Ministry, that their duties are such as are prescribed by the Lord for the Gospel ministry, and that their respective form is governed, not by divine decree but by the terms of the Call as issued by the Church.