Scripture backs WELS on ministry: Gifts to proclaim the gospel

According to Scripture, different believers were called to perform different functions of the ministry of the keys of the kingdom, applying law (the “binding key”) and the gospel (the “loosing key”) as authorized by Christ (Matthew 16:19; 18:17-20). The ministry of the keys took different forms, in the words of Thesis D6 in the ministry statement of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

This is seen first in the presiding office, the office of teaching the word of God publicly, which means on behalf of the church. While apostles, parish pastors, and evangelists all had divine calls to the presiding office (Ephesians 4:7-11) and were charged with administering the sacraments and with public teaching (Matthew 28:19-20), not all had exactly the same function. For example, apostles were called to testify in ways that parish pastors are not, which is why they had to meet additional requirements (contrast Acts 1:21-22 with 1 Timothy 3:1-7).

In the office of the keys, the power to choose such ministers is given to the believers, as the Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) confesses on the basis of Christ’s words (Matthew 16:19; 18:17-20; John 20:21-23). There is no divine command to choose local pastors (as opposed to apostles and evangelists), neither implicit in any of those binding/loosing texts nor explicit in some other passage.

The best candidate for a clear passage of Scripture as a divine mandate for parish pastors is Titus 1:5, which calls presiding officers “elders,” transliterated as “presbyters.” However, the reasoning needed for that conclusion would also find a divine mandate for Sunday collections in 1 Corinthians 16:2, which contradicts Romans 14:5. Further, Titus 1:5 may refer not only to local pastors but also to other presiding officers (see below on 1 Timothy 5:17). Therefore, there is no divine mandate for parish pastors as opposed to other forms of the presiding office.

Thesis D6 expresses that conclusion somewhat vaguely in its Antithesis:
“We hold 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.”

In explicitly affirming the divine mandate of the presiding office as well as the more general public ministry of the keys, the statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) is clearer than the WELS statement. The ELS statement avoids two extremes:
1. Denying the necessity of the presiding office
2. Limiting the presiding office to the parish (local congregation)

The WELS and ELS statements both cite Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts that include not only functions of the presiding office but also other gifts from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:6-8). Indeed, Paul did not make our sharp distinction between a spiritual gift and a called office. Rather, some gifts in those passages had a one-to-one correspondence to certain offices. In fact, the Holy Spirit imparted a “gift” (we would say “office”) by the laying on of Paul’s hands (2 Timothy 1:6).

Since, as seen above and in 1 Peter 1:9, the keys of the kingdom have been committed to the church, believers may appoint presiding officers (Titus 1:5-9) to use the keys publicly without appointing them to what the ELS statement calls “the full use of the keys,” the power to the presiding office to teach, exhort, lead, and administer the sacraments. Accordingly, some holding the presiding office in the first century led the church but did not teach and proclaim the good news in the same sense that others did (1 Timothy 5:17).

The statement calls an official exercise of law and gospel a “limited public use of the keys” when the called individual is not a presiding officer (see Romans 12:7-8). Teachers of Christian schools fall in that category if they are charged with teaching the gospel to children on behalf of the church. No one should assume such a role without a proper call.

Finally, there is a “private use of the keys,” as explained in Article I of the same statement. This is the unofficial use of law and gospel by individual believers, all of whom are priests offering proclamations of what God has done to bring them from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9). The private use of the keys is essential to Christian parenting, bringing up children in the training and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4).

In short, Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to believers so they would herald the gospel to the whole world by taking advantage of all available means, including different forms of the ministry. They do that in a variety of ways, taking advantage of every opportunity by announcing the gospel privately (1 Peter 2:9), choosing pastors and others to announce the gospel on their behalf (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 12:7-8; 1 Timothy 5:17), and administering discipline to bring about repentance and forgiveness (Matthew 18:15-18).

For more information, see Spiritual Fathers: A Treatise on the Lutheran Doctrine of the Ministry, with Special Reference to Luther’s Large Catechism (by David Jay Webber).

30 June 2014. Revised 1 November 2014. Hyperlink on 1 Timothy 5:17 added 30 November 2015.

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