Unlike leaders of the Swiss Reformation, those in fellowship with Luther did not object to the episcopal polity but rather to its abuse in attacking the gospel and in usurping the authority of the state (Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today, T. J. Wengert, 2008, Fortress Press). Lutheranism has flourished in various church structures, as Sasse emphasized.
What the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) teaches about the forms of the church, the flock of sheep listening to the Good Shepherd, is explained in Thesis D4 of its statement on the church. A careful examination of the Scriptures cited, especially Matt. 18:17-20, demonstrates that the teaching is grounded in the word of God. (Note: The point about “church” in the singular in Acts 9:31 relies on a debated manuscript tradition and is not necessary for proving the thesis.) The conclusion of the thesis is summarized as this Antithesis:
We hold it to be untenable to say that the local congregation is specifically instituted by God in contrast to other groupings of believers in Jesus’ name; that the public ministry of the keys has been given exclusively to the local congregations.
This thesis has implications on the ministry since Jesus gave the power of the keys to the church according to Matt. 18:17-20, as the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the Tractate) confesses. The promise is not to a highly organized body, which would be anachronistic, but simply to two or three gathered in Jesus’ name. In the context of Thesis D4, Thesis D3 is not limited to the local congregation but includes other assemblies bearing, to a greater or lesser degree, the marks of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
That means a large group of baptized Christians from different geographic locations assembling in his name wields the keys (Matt. 18:17-18). Therefore, it may call a missionary pastor to start churches, preach, absolve, baptize, and administer the sacrament of the altar in other locations. Since the body in question assembles in order “to receive [the gospel’s] blessings and to bring them to others” (Thesis D3), that is, in Christ’s name, it may choose one of its members to open its meetings with devotions and with communion (Matt. 18:17-20). If that assembly is a synod consisting of representatives of local congregations, it may call one of its members to supervise pastors with discipline in agreement with the above passage and with the consent of the local congregations. Such discipline, when proceeding to its final stage, could involve the synod as the visible manifestation of the invisible church, depending on the procedures adopted for the sake of order.
To sum up, the office of the keys is given to the believers, as the Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) confesses on the basis of Matt. 18:17-20 and John 20:21-23. Neither of those binding/loosing texts restricts the use of the keys to the local congregation as opposed to other assembles agreeing in Jesus’ name. In conclusion, WELS Theses D3 and D4 on the church faithfully echo the teaching of Scripture.
Revised 5 July 2014.