The 2001 adoption of Walther’s Church and Ministry by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) may be an important step toward its recovering unity in Scripture’s teaching on the ministry of God’s word. The synod’s continuing need for a movement back to Walther is explained by John Brug.
Would official adoption of Walther’s Church and Ministry also have been advisable for other former members of the Synodical Conference? In the discussions of the twentieth century Synodical Conference, the meaning of Walther’s theses taken in isolation was controversial, with some participants even concluding from them that the parish pastorate was the only divinely instituted form of the office. In that setting, it would not have brought clarity for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) to simply affirm Church and Ministry without affirming other writings by Walther, including those regarding school teachers. It better served expository purposes for the WELS to formulate its own Waltherian theses.
Similarly, the fact that the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) formulated its own ministry theses rather than adopting those of the WELS does not indicate doctrinal disagreement within the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. To be sure, there are definite differences between the WELS and ELS statements on the ministry. Judging solely on the basis of the texts as opposed to their historical origin, they have different concerns and perspectives, somewhat like the First Gospel compared to the Fourth Gospel or like Luther compared to Chemnitz.
Roughly speaking, the WELS statement is more concerned with what is true everywhere, at all times, and under all circumstances. As Brug’s ministry book points out, the gospel ministry could be authorized in the multiple-teacher form found at Corinth as opposed to the parish-pastor form that is more effective today.
By contrast, the ELS statement, with its focus on apostolic directives, is more concerned with the settings in which the directives apply. The ELS can correctly say that such directives must be obeyed whenever they are applicable, for they are correct applications of the Decalogue, and the WELS can correctly assert Christian freedom in other settings. Each synod thereby emphasizes an essential aspect of Sola Scriptura.
This sketch does require some qualification. For more on the ELS statement and on the need to distinguish doctrinal differences from those of wording and emphasis, see David Jay Webber’s “Small Contribution to the Ongoing Discussion concerning the ELS Ministry Statement,” his “Walking Together in Faith and Worship: Exploring the Relationship between Doctrinal Unity and Liturgical Unity in the Lutheran Church,” and his book Spiritual Fathers.
When WELS theologians affirm what the 1932 Brief Statement says about the ministry, they affirm the Waltherian theology it reflects, not the above misunderstanding of Waltherian theology, which was held by some in the LCMS in 1932. The distinctives of that misunderstanding were not held universally in the LCMS, nor were they specified in the Brief Statement. Otherwise, the WELS theologians would not have affirmed the Brief Statement’s section on the ministry.
The ministry of the word (Augsburg Confession V) is the same ministry of all pastors, including, but not limited to, the form it takes in the parish pastorate. That is how WELS theologians read the Brief Statement. It is genuinely Waltherian, not Walther-lite.
When believers leave the new LCMS fellowship to join the WELS fellowship for doctrinal reasons, they thereby join the fellowship of the old Synodical Conference because its teachings are those of Scripture. Indeed, even non-historians with the simple word of Scripture can judge doctrine, even concerning church and ministry.
Discussions with Rolf Preus are gratefully acknowledged.