Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation

Whoever stands on Scripture no longer needs any man as interpreter; he has enough in the Holy Spirit, even if he is a simple child. If that is not established as fact, then the witness of Scripture about its own clarity and efficacy falls down. If we necessarily use the fathers to acquire the correct understanding of Scripture, then it is no longer true that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet, that it makes wise the simple, and makes us more learned than all our teachers; then consistency demands that we become Catholic and take the pope as our sole infallible interpreter of Scripture.

—August Pieper

Christ’s teaching about the sacrament of the altar would be too complicated for most Christians to know whether they were eating his true body, at least if all the disagreements over the issue were any indication. Reformed theologians have sown the confusion with myriads of arguments against the plain meaning of Christ’s simple words, “Take, eat; this is my body.” The problem is not that the words are so unclear that an interpreter is needed. The problem is an unwillingness to listen to a clear word from God.

Similarly, the doctrine of church and ministry appears very confusing, with various arguments about how to interpret the Lutheran confessions and other writings of influential Lutheran fathers. For example, some look to the confessions to shed light on the Scriptures instead of first attending to what the clear Scriptures say and then using that doctrine to ask whether the confessions agree. Since the Lutheran confessions were written in the latter spirit, that is the best way to interpret them. The word of God really is the only lamp needed for our feet.

That does not mean all passages of Scripture are equally clear. Indeed, some passages require an infallible interpreter to be understood. The clear passages of Scripture play that role by illuminating many of those that are less clear.

For another example of confusion arising from appeals to the traditions of the elders, although some claim that Walther’s understanding contradicts the teaching of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), theologians of that fellowship have seen him in essential agreement. Does believing what the Scriptures say about church and ministry require the Christian to sort out those issues by specializing in historical Lutheran dogmatics, or does Scripture ever speak clearly on the subject?

What Scripture teaches about church and ministry is actually much simpler than it first appears. That is because completely clear passages of the New Testament say that Jesus gave the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom to believers, not to any organization or corporate entity (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-20; John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9), as will now be seen from the texts themselves.

The gift of the keys, the authority to condemn and forgive sinners in the name of Christ, is given to each individual believer with the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, the communion of believers (Matthew 16:16-19). Christ gave the same authority to every communion of two or three believers joining for worship in his name (Matthew 18:17-20). That church of two or three is not an external organization to which the authority is given but rather a communion of believers possessing the keys, consistent with Matthew 16:16-19. When two or three believers gather somewhere to pray in Christ’s name, they constitute the church in that location, and Christ is there in the midst of them.

Jesus’ concept of a church as a communion of believers this contrasts sharply with attempts to view churches as visible gatherings that include unbelievers. The Reformed see churches as visible organizations, complete with legal status and property. Such organizations, including unbelievers as well as believers, are only churches in a figurative sense. In the literal sense, the only sense in which the word is used in the New Testament, a church is a communion of believers. It cannot be a visible organization since it does not include unbelievers. That the New Testament uses the word “church” to mean “communion of believers” is confirmed by comparing the above passages with clear passages teaching that, without using the words “keys” or “church,” the keys of the kingdom are given to the believers (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9).

The fact that the “you” is plural in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9 entails that the keys and priesthood of the kingdom are given to believers, not to any organization. The plural “you” must be heard as in usual language, not as somehow implying an organization that can only act as a unit. Ordinary usage is readily understood: just as you husbands are to love your wives (Ephesians 5:25), those of you receiving the Holy Spirit are to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21-23) and proclaim the saving works of the God who called you out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9). There is no more an idea of an organization consisting of recipients of the Holy Spirit than there is an organization consisting of husbands.

There are many opportunities for believers to announce God’s excellencies privately and publicly, with degrees of organization varying with the circumstances. Since Scripture nowhere specifies rigid church structures or rules of order for using the keys and the priesthood, believers are free to organize themselves however is most expedient in their current environment for the proclamation of the gospel. The Spirit leads believers to come together in Christ’s name not only as local churches but also as synodical churches in some cases (Acts 15).

These churches, as communions of believers, are not the organizations that they correspond to since such organizations also include unbelievers. On the basis of the way the New Testament uses the word for “church,” Pieper teaches that in the strict, literal sense, a church, whether local or synodical, being a community of believers, contains no unbelievers. However, the visible gatherings of a church include unbelievers who hypocritically claim to be believers. Pieper explains that Lutherans call such visible gatherings “churches,” not in the literal sense but only by synecdoche.

Just as the local churches must not be confused with local organizations, synodical churches must not be confused with synodical organizations. The churches, whether local or synodical, are communions of believers, but the corresponding organizations also include unbelievers. Believers retain the freedom and responsibility to use the keys and the priesthood regardless of how they come together as local or synodical churches.

Anyone who would impose restrictions on how believers use the binding key of the law and the freeing key of the gospel has the burden to prove the restrictions are clearly required by Scripture. Piling up historical arguments and quotations of the Lutheran fathers falls far short of that. For instance, to prove that a synodical church may not choose seminary professors to publicly teach the gospel or district presidents to publicly supervise pastors, what would be needed is a passage of Scripture that clearly forbids believers from joining together as a synodical church for calling ministers to retain and forgive sins on their behalf.

Teaching on church and ministry becomes hopelessly complicated once we leave the words of the above passages to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers. For example, some Lutherans outside of the WELS fellowship have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism. In asserting that synodical communions of believers are not churches, they reveal that their concept of a church differs from that of the New Testament. That is because the  strict, New Testament definition of a church as a communion of believers rules out the possibility of unbelievers in synodical churches in exactly the same way that it rules out the possibility of unbelievers in local churches. Baptism and other marks of the church help us distinguish churches from congregations of unbelievers but do not define what the church is.

Other errors about church and ministry are also corrected by the passages of Scripture clearly stating that the keys and priesthood of the kingdom are given to the church (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-20), in other words, to the believers (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9). Indeed, “As long as we keep the truth that the Church is the communion of saints in mind, everything that Scripture tells us about the Church will fall into its proper place and can be readily understood. At the same time all the false notions which men have entertained and still entertain concerning the Church are readily exposed” (WELS statement on church and ministry).

21 August 2014. Missing link added 13 November 2014.