Believers have the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom

The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the Tractate) concisely summarizes what Lutherans “believe, teach, and confess” about the keys and priesthood of the kingdom. This doctrine conflicts with recent attempts to limit the divine call to the public ministry to the pastorate of a local congregation.

The office of the keys of the kingdom is given to the believers according to Matthew 18:17-20 and John 20:21-23 because they constitute the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). The Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) brings that out:

John 20:21. Christ sends forth His disciples on an equality, without any distinction [so that no one of them was to have more or less power than any other], when He says: As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you… the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18:19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling [ministers]… Here belong the statements of Christ which testify that the keys have been given to the Church, and not merely to certain persons, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together in My name, etc. Lastly, the statement of Peter also confirms this, 1 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.

The Tractate’s adherence to the bare words of 1 Peter 2:9 followed Luther when it appealed to the priesthood as proof that the church may choose her ministers. Luther read that verse to say all believers as priests could administer the sacraments—while holding that it is best for the sake of order to choose a minister to do so.

By contrast, a paper claiming that the local congregation is the only form of the visible church defends its claim by interpreting the priests in terms of hearing (pp. 15-17). Since they need a preacher that they might hear the gospel, they have the right to call one. A tacit but questionable premise needed for the validity of the argument is that if you need something God wants you to have, then you have the right to obtain it for yourself.

1 Pet. 2:5-12, however, favors Luther on this by presenting the priests as speaking or singing rather than listening. The function of a priest is to offer sacrifices. Peter had in mind the sacrifice of proclaiming the saving works of the living God. With the background of the Psalms, Jewish members of Peter’s audience may have envisioned singing in the hearing of the pagan nations. Those called to offer such sacrifices may choose a minister to do so publicly, that is, on their behalf.

The root problem of the paper is its disagreement with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s holding “it to be untenable to say that the pastorate of the local congregation (Pfarramt) as a specific form of the public ministry is specifically instituted by the Lord in contrast to other forms of the public ministry” (see pp. 12ff). Page 12 implies that every individual who holds the presiding office should do everything in the Great Commission. In that case, why didn’t Paul, who undoubtedly held the presiding office, baptize any of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:14)? How is it possible for every pastor, as an individual, to bring the gospel to all nations? It appears that the Great Commission is read somewhat selectively on that page.

The paper points out that schoolteachers are not commanded to administer the sacraments publicly, as the apostles and other elders are. That agrees with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s statement on the ministry, which clearly brings out what Scripture teaches about the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom and which clearly defines “publicly” as “on the church’s behalf.”

In conclusion, the gospel’s “office or service, the ministry of the keys, has been given to the Church, i.e., to the believers individually and collectively. Mt 16:19; 10:32; 18:18; 1 Pe 2:9.” For further reading:

25 June 2014. Revised 7 November 2014; 25 November 2014.

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