The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s doctrine of church and ministry (1980, 2005)

It is God’s will “that Christians unite in order to preserve the means of grace pure and unadulterated, to use these means of grace for their own edification, to show the unity that exists among them, and to join hands in bringing the good news of salvation in Christ to others. Jeremiah 23:28; John 8:31-32; Acts 2:42; Psalm 133:1; Matthew 28:19-20,” (ELS Catechism question 247, p. 146-47) This normally is done through the external forms of the local congregation, synod and denomination. Although it is God’s will that Christians gather for public worship, these external forms, as such, however, are not divinely instituted. “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation.” (Luke 17:20) Luther correctly says, “there is not a single letter in holy Scripture saying that such a church (i.e. a ‘physical, external Christendom’), where it is by itself, is instituted by God … If they can show me that a single letter of Scripture speaks of it, I will recant my words.” (LW 39, 70) The local congregation is the primary grouping because this is where Christians live and where they can readily and practically carry out the commands of God on a regular basis.

—Doctrine of the Church, Evangelical Lutheran Synod, adopted 1980

The 1980 ELS statement on church and ministry is its 2005 statement in a nutshell. For to deny the exclusive divine institution of the parish is to deny that of the parish pastorate:

Indeed, the word of God nowhere exclusively mandates the parish. Instead, what we find in Scripture is a command to the church—that is, believers—to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments (John 20, Matt. 28, etc.) and the divine bestowal of various forms of the ministry of the word, including but certainly not limited to the apostleship. Pastors, evangelists, apostles, and others called to proclaim the gospel on behalf of the church are gifts from the ascended Christ himself (Eph. 4:11).
Scripture also presents examples of a wide variety of acceptable forms of the church. What we will not find there or anywhere else in Scripture is today’s notion of a parish, let alone the divine institution of the parish as opposed to other forms of the church or the divine institution of the parish pastorate as opposed to other forms of the ministry of the word. Nor will we find legalistic restrictions on the church’s—that is, believers’—divinely conferred authority to proclaim the gospel on their behalf through called servants of the word according to the need of the situation.
For more details and for corroborating references to the confessions, the 1932 Brief Statement of the LCMS, and Walther, see Prof. Brug’s systematic investigation and clear exposition.

Bibliographic note: “LW 39, 70” cites Martin Luther (1520) “On the papacy in Rome against the most celebrated Romanist in Leipzig,” Luther’s Works, vol. 39, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, pp. 55-104 (1970). | Excerpt

Sharing in another’s teachings by expressing Christian unity

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
2 John 10-11, ESV

To express unity of faith with false teachers is to partake in their works—false teachings. In agreement with the Brief Statement once held by the LCMS, the theses on fellowship adopted by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod teaches that “Those who practice church fellowship with persistent errorists are partakers of their evil deeds. 2 Jn 11.”

  • Paul, in unity with John, warned that false teachers arise because they have the support of “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
  • That fellowship is a sharing of deeds is taught not only by the apostles but also by our Lord, who said whoever supports a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, etc. (Matthew 10:41).

In short, partaking in joint expressions of Christian unity by its nature is fellowship—sharing—in one another’s doctrine. A joint confession of faith is necessarily a confession of a joint faith.

The theses continue, “His clear injunction (also flowing out of love) to avoid those who adhere to false doctrine and practice and all who make themselves partakers of their evil deeds.”

  • Those sharing in the evil deed of causing division must be denied fellowship (Romans 16:17-18).

In other words, to condone sharing in that is to become a partaker. What about those who by their offerings, joint communion, church membership, and other expressions of a common faith take their stand with a leader making a common confession with false teachers in their name? They thereby take part in the leader’s work of false teaching:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
2 John 10-11, ESV

Resources on what the WELS and ELS teach about the ministry

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.
Proverbs 18:17, ESV

According to rumors spread both online and by word-of-mouth, false doctrines on the ministry of God’s word are taught by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) and especially the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), two members of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. The misconceptions persist in part because it is more convenient to believe a soundbite than to take the time needed to study and understand what other Lutherans actually teach about the ministry. This post points to resources beyond the synods’ doctrinal statements on the ministry for those who wish to begin such a study.

In The Ministry of the Word, Prof. John Brug ably defends the position that WELS and ELS have preserved the lonely doctrine of Walther’s writings understood in context while the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) now represents a variety of views wide enough to include both some that are too “low” and some that are too “high” to be Scriptural.

Anyone seeking to develop a respectable case against the WELS doctrine of church and ministry must at a minimum interact with the points made in the 80 pages on the LCMS-WELS debates. To refute Prof. Brug would require a thorough exegetical or historical study.

For those preferring to start with a less thorough understanding of the WELS doctrine of the ministry because they cannot yet devote the time to read the book, here are some of Prof. Brug’s online papers that include many quotes from Luther and from some who have abandoned his doctrine for one closer to that of a self-perpetuating ministerium:

A wealth of additional information is readily available from www.wlsessays.net.

From the ELS perspective, Rev. David Jay Webber’s well organized and thorough webpage is well known. His church has several interesting essays on the ministry.

Finally, the president of the ELS wrote a paper with reasons that WELS does not have women communing other women and with valuable study material in the appendices: J. A. Moldstad (2011), “Public Ministry: ELS Perspective,” Lutheran Synod Quarterly 51, pp. 143ff .

Ministry statements of LCMS, WELS & ELS

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.

Which Lutheran synods retain Walther’s view of the ministry? A review of John Brug’s The Ministry of the Word

In The Ministry of the Word, John F. Brug ably defends the position that the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) have preserved the lonely doctrine of Scripture and C. F. W. Walther’s writings understood in context, while the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) now harbors a spectrum wide enough to include errors from both the “minimalist” and “maximalist” opponents of Lutheranism. At the end of 400 pages of exegetical and historical material and just before the 80-page section on the LCMS-WELS debates, he concluded, “Those who reject the WELS position on the ministry should honestly acknowledge that it is the position of Luther (and Walther) which they are rejecting” (p. 397). Those are strong words considering Brug’s careful efforts against overstating his case.

Brug and many others in the WELS believe that when Walther’s theses on the ministry are read in the wider context of his other writings, including those noting that schoolteachers serve in the ministry of the word (pp. 358, 372-380), they are found to agree with the conclusions that the Wauwatosa theologians leading the WELS arrived at exegetically. In fact, the Wauwatosa men affirmed the Waltherian 1932 Brief Statement of the LCMS doctrine, which WELS theologians apparently hold to to the present day (pp. 442-443).

By contrast, theologians in the LCMS fellowship increasingly distance themselves from Walther (pp. 352-359), leading to the corrective adoption of his Church and Ministry in 2001. The widely circulated notion that the LCMS agrees with Walther on the ministry to a greater extent than the WELS and ELS is highly questionable at best. Brug convincingly contends that the opposite is now the case in light of deep divisions between LCMS theologians, and he calls for a movement back to Walther’s doctrine since it is the teaching of Scripture.

brug

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Christ “commissions all believers to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments” (LCMS, 1932)

22. Since it is only through the external means ordained by Him that God has promised to communicate the grace and salvation purchased by Christ, the Christian Church must not remain at home with the means of grace entrusted to it, but go into the whole world with the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15, 16 . . .
30. The Original and True Possessors of All Christian Rights and Privileges — Since the Christians are the Church, it is self-evident that they alone originally possess the spiritual gifts and rights which Christ has gained for, and given to, His Church. Thus St. Paul reminds all believers: “All things are yours,” 1 Cor. 3:21, 22, and Christ Himself commits to all believers the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Matt. 16:13-19, 18:17-20, John 20:22, 23, and commissions all believers to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25. Accordingly, we reject all doctrines by which this spiritual power or any part thereof is adjudged as originally vested in certain individuals or bodies, such as the Pope, or the bishops, or the order of the ministry, or the secular lords, or councils, or synods, etc. The officers of the Church publicly administer their offices only by virtue of delegated powers, and such administration remains under the supervision of the latter, Col. 4:17. Naturally all Christians have also the right and the duty to judge and decide matters of doctrine, not according to their own notions, of course, but according to the Word of God, 1 John 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:11.

The Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
(adopted 1932)

The Gospels say Christ commissioned all believers

The position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1932, as carefully and precisely formulated in the above statement, was that parish pastors have a command to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and absolve sins—as those duties are delegated by the church, that is, by believers. As will be seen from the Gospels, Christ in fact commanded all believers to administer the sacraments even though it would not be orderly for anyone to do so in the congregation without a call from the others. Christ even told all believers that what they bind on earth is bound in heaven and that what they forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven.

That has been demonstrated both from the First Gospel (Matthew 16:16-19—in context, Peter represented each individual who confesses Jesus as the Christ rather than each pastor or each church; 18:17-20) and from the Fourth Gospel (John 20:21-23) in the post entitled, “Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation.” Thus, Jesus says to all believers, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21, ESV).

St. Luke taught exactly the same doctrine of the gospel ministry. According to Luke 24:48-53, the witnesses to whom Jesus promised the Spirit were blessed by him just before the ascension and then waited for the fulfillment. The promise was spoken to the apostles (Acts 1:1-13) as representatives of all believers, not as representatives of all pastors (Acts 1:14-16; 2:3-4; 2:39), in agreement with the First and Fourth Gospels.

That leaves the longer ending of the Second Gospel (Mark 16:9-20) as the last account of the Great Commission for consideration. Assuming it is part of John Mark’s composition of Simon Peter’s sermons, it is best read in light of the latter’s clear description of the functions of the priesthood consisting of all believers. He wrote that all priests offer the sacrifice of praise to God by announcing his redemptive acts (“Believers have the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom”  on 1 Peter 2:5-12). Stressing that teaching function of a priest (Malachi 2:7; B. A. Gerrish (1965), “Priesthood and Ministry in the Theology of Luther,” Church History 34, 404-422), Luther pointed out that, for the sake of order, those commanded to teach the gospel should delegate the duty of congregational teaching to a pastor (F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, 441-443). In Luther’s words, the pastor “should let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others” (C. A. MacKenzie, “The ‘Early’ Luther on Priesthood of All Believers, Office of the Ministry, and Ordination,” p. 11).

Nominally Lutheran interpretations

Since Christ sent all believers to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and declare sins forgiven in all accounts of the Great Commission, it follows that it does not directly say anything to believing pastors that it does not say to all believers. To force such an interpretation upon the texts when it cannot even be proven that believers other than the apostles were excluded from the original audience (J. F. Brug, “The Ministry of the Apostles and Our Ministry,” p. 2) is to deny the clarity of Scripture—that Christian doctrine is explicitly taught in clear passages of Scripture, not built on someone’s assumptions about them. Any doctrine of the ministry requiring the absence of non-apostles from the original audience comes from assumptions about Scripture, not from Scripture itself.

The clarity of Scripture is also denied when one concedes that the Great Commission is addressed to all believers while nonetheless maintaining that it says something else to pastors. For that violates the principle that each Scripture passage has only one literal sense—otherwise, God’s word could not speak for itself (see H. H. Goetzinger, “The Pastor & His Seminary Training: The Pastor as Exegete,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium, 16-17 September 2013 on “Sensus literalis unus est”). The fact that a single prophecy may have multiple fulfillments (T. P. Nass (2011), “Messianic Prophecy and English Translations,” Forward in Christ) does not warrant reading a double meaning into the accounts of the Great Commission, one meaning for pastors and another for all believers.

Why, then, do multiple writers for Logia (T. P. Nass, “The Revised This We Believe of the WELS on the Ministry,”” Logia 10 (3) 31-41) and even some vocal pastors within the LCMS (see J. F. Brug, “The Pastor as the Representative of Christ”) now claim that the Great Commission has direct commands specifically for the clergy, a claim that cannot be supported from any passage in the Gospels? One reason appears to be the impression that certain articles of the Lutheran Confessions make such a claim. The impression vanishes once it is seen that the cited articles do not answer the question of whether the Great Commission was directly addressed to pastors in a way it was not addressed to all believers (cf. J. F. Brug (2009), The Ministry of the Word, NPH, p. 426).

Rather, they answer other questions, such as whether the Holy Spirit saves apart from the means of grace and whether pastors as representatives of the church may wield secular power. The Augsburg Confession answers both negatively. Article V answers the former question in order to refute the attempt to discredit the Lutheran Reformation by associating it with the Radical Reformation. Article XXVIII answers the latter question by reference to the Great Commission, which believers have delegated to their pastors, a delegation of spiritual powers, not temporal powers. Pastors are indeed commanded by Christ to teach the gospel, not because a double meaning should be imposed upon the Great Commission but simply because they do so “in the place of and by the command of the others,” as Luther was quoted above. The Lutheran Church followed his understanding that ministers of the gospel represent the priests who called them, as is evident from the doctrine of church and ministry presented in the Tractate/Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. The Tractate’s adoption of Luther’s simple teaching that pastors are the public representatives of the priests is fully warranted by 1 Peter 2:9 in its context and by other passages of Scripture.

The fact that writings correctly expositing the Scriptures are misused to depart from the words of the Gospels illustrates the danger in regarding any non-canonical writing as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture. That exegetical error is explicitly adopted among those of the Reformed who see it as their only weapon against sectarianism (“Scripture alone but interpreted by tradition?”). That is not how confessional Lutherans approach the Scriptures. To understand God’s “righteousness,” Luther went first to Paul and then later saw Paul confirmed to some extent in Augustine. Had he confined himself to Scripture as interpreted by church councils, there would have been no Lutheran Reformation.

The church’s mission according to other Scriptures

Is it possible that some of those denying the applicability of the Great Commission to every believer err in exegesis but not in doctrine? It does seem possible, provided that other Scriptures that teach the same doctrine are firmly and consistently held.

Such passages include Matthew 16:16-19 and 1 Peter 2:9. In the former, Simon is named Peter (rock) after the rock of his confession that Jesus is the Christ, which came only by divine revelation. Since all believers confess the same gospel, Luther was correct to observe in Matthew 16:16-19 that every believer is a “Peter” with the promise of the keys of the kingdom (F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, pp. 413-415, note 18). The keys of the kingdom signify nothing other than the gospel (p. 453). That is why sins pronounced forgiven by any believer are forgiven in heaven. Every single believer is called as a priest to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving deeds (1 Peter 2:9), which is the promise of forgiveness of sins, and that such a promise spoken by any believer is a promise from Christ himself.

The church may do so in part by appointing pastors to the public ministry of word and sacrament since believers are only restricted by the clear Scriptures in how they proclaim the gospel and since each sacrament is a “visible word” of the gospel. Pastors preach the gospel and administer the sacraments solely by the command of Christ they have received through the communion of believers, just as the LCMS once confessed.

Pastors have no other commission from Christ. Those who misread the Great Commission as recorded in the Gospels and yet affirm that pastors teach the gospel and administer the sacraments as mandated by Christ through the church have not necessarily passed from an exegetical mistake into doctrinal error. Had Christ wanted to commission pastors apart from his body, he surely would have done so with explicit orders, not with hidden double meanings or uncertain implications from apostolic practice. The Good Shepherd did not leave his flock to guess at what he really commanded. Continue reading

Forms of presbyterial oversight in the New Testament

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

1 Tim. 5:17–19 (ESV)

Introduction

In the first-century church, not everyone holding the office of elder labored in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). This is the same office as the office of overseer (Titus 1:5–9), also called the presiding office but better known as the pastoral office. Interestingly, there were those holding the office who did not labor in preaching and teaching.

The Pastoral Epistles say that the elders were overseers devoted to the public ministry of the word of God and fully qualified to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments, unlike the laymen we call “elders” today. New Testament elders had to adhere to the teaching of Scripture firmly enough to use it to encourage the church and expose doctrinal error (Titus 1:5–9). While some of those holding the office of elder labored in teaching and preaching, there is a sense in which others holding the same office did not (1 Timothy 5:17–19). What does that mean?

What was an elder in the New Testament?

The Greek word translated “elder” does not necessarily mean an office but can also mean an older man. As in any clear passage, the meanings of the words are known by the context.

As seen from vv. 17 and 19, substituting “older man” for “elder” does not convey what Paul was writing. Rather, he was using the term to designate the same office he referred to in the beginning of his letter to Titus. Those who labor in preaching and teaching necessarily hold the presiding office but were not necessarily elderly (see v. 17). Accusations tend to be made against leadership, not against the elderly (see v. 19).

Likewise, there was not a council of the elderly but rather a council of those holding the office of presbyter: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14, ESV).

Summing up so far, the context identifies an “elder” in 1 Timothy 5:17–19 as an overseer, not necessarily one of the elderly mentioned in 5:1.

Was an elder a layman or a public minister of the word?

A careful examination of Titus 1:5–9 reveals that “elder” is interchangeable with “bishop-overseer” in the Pastorals. Collins observed that the former term emphasizes position, whereas the latter term emphasizes the function of oversight: “The elder and an overseer are one and the same person. The man’s status is that of elder; his function is that of overseer” (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 322). There is no exegetical reason to say “elders” in 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to a different office.

While oversight in the sense of the Pastorals does not necessarily involve laboring in preaching and teaching in the strict sense (1 Timothy 5:17), the office must be held only by those with the qualifications of Titus 1:5–9. Thus, in New Testament polity, non-teaching elders were not laymen but, as public ministers of the word of God, had to meet exactly the same qualifications as other bishops-overseers. That contrasts with the actual practice of the Presbyterian Church in America and other Reformed churches in which “ruling elders” do not have the same training as pastors, the “teaching elders.” That only the latter are normally paid is another difference from the practice of the first-century church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s (ELS) statement on the ministry calls the position of elder the “presiding office” held by the ministers of the word:

That we may obtain this faith, the office of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted” (AC V). This divinely instituted Public Ministry of the Word includes both a narrower and a wider sense. The narrower sense refers to a presiding office that is indispensable for the church … The church is commanded to appoint ministers who will preside over the churches (2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5, Ap XIII, 12), who must have the scriptural qualifications for a full use of the keys: “The Gospel requires of those who preside over the churches that they preach the Gospel, remit sins, administer the sacraments, and, in addition, exercise jurisdiction, that is, excommunicate those who are guilty of notorious crimes and absolve those who repent.…[T]his power belongs by divine right to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters or bishops” (Treatise 60–61). God commands that properly called men publicly preach, teach, administer the sacraments, forgive and retain sins, and have oversight of doctrine in the name of Christ and the church (1 Timothy 2:11–12). Therefore a presiding office, whether it is called that of pastor, shepherd, bishop, presbyter, elder or by any other name, is indispensable for the church (Luke 10:16, 1 Corinthians 12:27–31, Matthew 28:18–20, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11–12, 1 Peter 5:1–2). . . . The church is free to divide the labors of the pastoral office among qualified men (1 Corinthians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 12:4–6). While every incumbent of this office must be qualified for a full use of the keys, not every incumbent must be responsible for full use of the keys. Missionary, assistant pastor, professor of theology, synod president (who supervises doctrine in the church), and chaplain are some examples of this. . . . We reject the teaching that the Public Ministry of the Word is limited to the ministry of a parish pastor.

Elders mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament

Strikingly close parallels to what the pastoral epistles say about that office of elder-overseer may be found in other New Testament passages. Both Peter and Luke described the function of an elder in terms of oversight and shepherding:

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him … Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
(Acts 20:17, 28, ESV)

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly . . .
(1 Peter 5:1–2, ESV)

The latter passage’s teaching that the apostles were fellow elders underscores the diversity of Christ’s gifts for the oversight of his house by law and gospel (Ephesians 4:11).

What does the Greek word for “labor” mean?

Since the word translated “labor” in 1 Timothy 5:17 can mean “work hard” (BDAG), it may be synonymous with “rule well” in the beginning of the verse. The “especially” in v. 17 then applies to those elders who not only rule well by working hard but who do so preaching (or prophesying) and teaching in a way that other hard-working elders do not. That is clear from how Paul used the key terms and concepts in his other letters:

  1. “The use of a form of the verb kopian for work in the ministry is typical of Paul” (Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, p. 278, citing Romans 16:6, 12; 1 Corinthians 15:10; 16:16; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; Colossians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). He continued, “… the basic responsibility of the others is governing, with other practices engaged according, perhaps, to need or gift” (p. 278).
  2. Not all “who have the ministry of leadership have the gifts of prophecy and teaching” (Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 145, citing 1 Corinthians 12:28–29). Paul chose the word translated “labor” to stress the hard work involved in the ministry (p. 145).

What did the elders do?

As seen above, the Pastorals say that some holding the office of overseer-elder did not labor in preaching and teaching and yet that those holding the office are the ministers of the word. That indicates that there were ministers of the word in the first-century church who did not labor in preaching and teaching in the same sense as others.

There is some tension here since a minister of the word by definition teaches and preaches. The Pastorals have listed “teaching” alongside related duties but sometimes presented it as if it included all the duties of an overseer. The apparent contradiction is that not all ministers of the word labored in preaching and teaching. This is not to be resolved by denying the teaching of any clear text.

For example, some qualification is needed of Kim’s claim that a differentiation between ruling and teaching “is clearly found not only in 1 Tim. 5:17 but also in 1 Tim. 3:2–7. It is seen in Rom. 12:6–8 as well” (Novum Testamentum, Vol. 46, Fasc. 4, 2004, pp. 360–368). While there was a distinction between the two forms of elder or gifts (1 Th. 5:12; 1 Cor. 12:28; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 4:2), all elders (i.e., overseers) were ministers of the word according to the Pastoral Epistles. The ruling or governing carried out by an elder-overseer necessarily involved the judicious application of the word of God, for example, by exhortation, rebuke, and encouragement (Titus 1:5–9, etc.). In short, they were to govern not by force but by the application of law and gospel.

What does that mean? Evidently, some holding the office taught in a different sense than others. Some exercises of pastoral oversight are obviously more didactic than others. Not every public action of binding or loosing sins, although qualifying as teaching and preaching in a broad sense, would constitute teaching and preaching in a narrower sense such as classroom instruction or preaching a sermon to a congregation. Pastoral oversight does not consist in earthly administration but rather in the application of law and gospel, for Christ rules his church through his word. An example of such oversight without teaching a congregation of laymen is that of ecclesiastical supervision.

Pastoral care for pastors

Just as the sacraments should only be administered by those holding the office of pastoral oversight, other exercises of pastoral oversight should only be executed by those holding the office. It is inconsistent to permit a synod to authorize a layman to exercise pastoral oversight of pastors in his district without also permitting a church to authorize a layman to administer the sacraments. As authoritative uses of the keys of God’s kingdom, both activities are specific to the divinely instituted office of pastoral oversight.

How ironic if laymen, not holding the God-given office of overseer, were placed at the highest levels of doctrinal oversight in a church body! How bizarre if parish pastors charged with such oversight were told that it was essentially left-kingdom work, not their real pastoral work! That would encourage oversight by the principles of business administration rather than by law and gospel.

Since believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom (John 20:21–23; 1 Peter 2:9), they are free to choose a district president not only to correct pastors but also to absolve them on behalf of the church. Wouldn’t law without gospel be as harmful in pastoral supervision as it is in disciplining children or any other believers? In fact, Matthew 18:15–18 does not permit withholding absolution from those responding to Christian discipline. No one may absolve as a representative of the church without a proper call.

In any case, there is nothing in the New Testament to rule out the possibility that some ministers of the gospel were teaching and preaching in the familiar sense while other ministers of the gospel labored in church discipline, which would involve teaching in a less formal sense or to a lesser extent. The office of elder-overseer would be the same and does not include laymen.

In conclusion, the tension in Scripture’s teaching that some ministers of the word did not labor in teaching and preaching can be largely alleviated by exploring narrower and wider senses of teaching and preaching.

Confessional Lutheran orthodoxy

The idea that some ministers of the gospel preached and taught while others administered church discipline is not as novel as it might seem at first glance. Chemnitz, an author of the Formula of Concord, taught on on the basis of 1 Timothy 5:17 that some performing the “ministry of the Word” preached and taught while others administered ecclesiastical discipline* (Examination of the Council of Trent II, Kindle location near 12990). That would imply that they exercised church discipline not by secular administration but rather by law and gospel.

That coheres with his more general observation that the “orders” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28–30, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 5:17, and other Scriptures “were free at the time of the apostles and were observed for the sake of good order, decorum, and edification, except that at that time certain special gifts, such as tongues, prophecies, apostolate, and miracles, were bestowed on certain persons by God. These ranks, about which we have spoken until now, were not something beside and beyond the ministry of the Word and sacraments, but the real and true duties of the ministry were distributed among certain ranks for” the welfare and edification of the church (Examination II, Kindle ~13000).

As is well known, the lists of gift in 1 Corinthians 12:28–30 and Ephesians 4:11 are not comprehensive. Bound only by the word of God, believers remain free to distribute the duties of the gospel ministry according to the circumstances. Continue reading

Pointing sinners to the simple word of Scripture

The first and foremost duty of the exegete consists in holding the flighty spirit of man to the simple word of Scripture and, where he has departed from it, to lead him back to the simple word of Scripture.

—F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, 360

The fathers lead Lutherans to rest on Scripture alone

The deep respect of the Wauwatosa theologians for previous Lutheran teachers did not cross the line into the idolatry of interpreting Scripture in light of tradition (Mark Braun, “The Wauwatosa Gospel,” in Lord Jesus Christ, Will You Not Stay: Essays in Honor of Ronald Feuerhahn on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, pp. 131-152, 2002, available from Concordia Publishing House, reprinted in Charis, p. 25):

Offering what amounts to a position statement of the Wauwatosa Gospel, Pieper concluded his 1913 retrospective: “We intend in the future to pursue scriptural study even more faithfully than before. . . . We submit in advance to the least word of Scripture that opposes us, no matter from whom it may come. But we submit to no man, be his name Luther or Walther, Chemnitz or Hoenecke, Gerhard or Stoeckhardt, so long as we have clear Scripture on our side. . . . We esteem the fathers highly, far higher than ourselves as far more learned and more devout than we are. Therefore, we want to use them, particularly Luther, as guides to Scripture, and to test their doctrines a hundred times before we reject them. But authorities equal to Scripture or opposed to Scripture they may never become for us, or we shall be practicing idolatry. . . . We renounce this authority-theology anew. It causes so much damage to the church. It is unfaithfulness to the Lord; slavery to men; it brings errors with it. But it also makes the mind narrow and the heart small. . . . Dogmatic training perhaps makes one orthodox, but it also easily makes one orthodoxist, intolerant, quarrelsome, hateful, and easily causes division in the church. . . . Scripture is at once narrow and broad. The study of it makes the heart narrow to actual false doctrine and heresies, but broad toward various human expressions and presentations. It does not accuse of false doctrine unnecessarily; it teaches us to bear and suffer in love the mistakes of the weak. It keeps the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Therefore we want to entirely do away with this dogmatic authority-theology, and to sink ourselves ever deeper into Scripture and to promote it above all else. We know that in doing so we will best serve the church.”

This approach to Scripture is not at all novel. Here are some excepts from a recent conference paper that traces the history of the essentially Lutheran approach to Scripture from Tertullian to Wauwatosa (H. H. Goetzinger, “The Pastor & His Seminary Training: The Pastor as Exegete,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium, 16-17 September 2013, pp. 2, 7, 15):

The Lutheran church came into existence by God’s grace using the external means of Luther clinging to the Scriptures as the infallible, saving Word of God. Our church’s most striking characteristic is binding itself to the Word, without which our other chief characteristic “By Grace Alone” would be unthinkable. For the Confessional Lutheran church, the Scriptures truly are the living speech of the almighty God. And so, you and I, every time we open our Greek or Hebrew texts, sit in fear of the Word that causes the enormity of our task and the weight of our responsibility to cause our stomach to churn and our skin to shiver. And so it should be. We have been convinced by the Spirit that the Word is the only power of God for salvation. We say along with Luther, “God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and Sacrament.” Woe to us if we adulterate the Word of God. Yes, the work of an exegete is weighty business . . . As admirable and respectful of the Scriptures as it sounds, we do not, because we cannot, approach the Word of God tabula rasa. We come pre-wired with a sinful nature that wants to make all the world bow at our feet and when it doesn’t, we exercise revisionist history and re-write the text so that it reflects us as the king of the universe. We have the same inclination toward Scripture, if it were not for the gift of faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. And so, we approach the Scriptures with a presupposition of faith which the sacred text itself has worked in us: that it is what it claims itself to be, the very Word of God. Our entire hermeneutic is based upon the presumption that the Bible is divinely inspired, as such it is without error, can be trusted in all it says, and is to be taken literally (not literalistically).

. . .

Luther further elaborates on the attitude of the exegete: “That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it pleases God to accomplish something for His glory – not for yours or any other person’s – He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine word exists except the Author of these words, as He says: “They shall all be taught of God” (John 6:46). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit.”

. . .

Koehler, along with Walther and Pieper, Stoeckhardt and Hoenecke, and later Schaller as well, wanted to let Scripture and not human reason be the interpreter of Scripture. Koehler comments, “We say, the assignment of the exegete is simply nothing else than to say: Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Koehler taught hermeneutics while at the Wauwatosa seminary. An outline for his course has been preserved and lends valuable insight into the development of the “Wauwatosa Theology.” Koehler asserts that the rules of biblical exegesis form a “Doctrine of Holy Scripture in its Importance for Exegesis.” His outline can be found as Appendix A. Koehler echoes the principles of Tertullian, Luther, and the “golden age.” It is from a sermon preached for the 1925 seminary school year that we first hear the term Zusammenhängendes Schriftstudium. The term means a connected, or systematic, study of the Scriptures on the basis of the original languages with constant attention to the larger context. This is the exegetical kernel of what we today call the “Wauwatosa Theology.” Keep the whole of a biblical book in mind during the exegesis of the individual phrase and sentence.

Lutheran traditions tested by Scripture

Some have attempted to discredit the WELS statement on the ministry by implying that its Wauwatosa theologians rejected the theology of the fathers and treated them with disrespect. That is a distortion of church history. We have seen that what they actually rejected, while maintaining deep reverence for the fathers, is the practice of relying on them in place of Scripture for proofs of articles of faith. The fathers would surely approve.

Some Lutherans spend considerable amounts of time debating who is really following Sasse, Walther, Luther, or Melanchthon more closely. While somewhat interesting, such questions need not be resolved to understand the clear passages of Scripture. In fact, those questions can only be thoroughly answered by experts and can distract believers from the word of God. Why not concentrate exegetical efforts on the Scriptures rather than on what Walther really meant by some German word? The word of God itself brings clarity to areas of controversy such as that of church and ministry.

No human authority is needed. It really is possible to learn what Scripture says without uncritical submission to what Pieper says Walther says Luther says Scripture says. God grant that we hold his word as highly as they did, putting it above the opinions of all men, “no matter what their names may be.”

It is possible to learn doctrine on the authority of Scripture alone because all doctrine is found in the passages of Scripture that are so clear that they need no interpretation. The unclear passages are interpreted by the clear ones according to the analogy of faith (“Scripture interprets Scripture”).

The analogy of faith

The Lutheran Church is unique in that it believes, teaches, and confesses all clear passages of Scripture even in the face of apparent contradictions. Tensions present in the clear Scriptures are not resolved according to human reasoning but rather are held without wavering. Christ is fully God yet fully man. Christians are justified because God chose them, and yet those who perish do so by their own will.

In fact, several clear Scripture passages appear to contradict others or even themselves. God in Christ reconciled the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), and yet those who do not believe will die in their sins (John 8:24). Answer a fool according to his folly; do not answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4-5). Christians sin and yet do not sin (1 John 1:8; 3:9). God gave an old commandment, not a new commandment, a new commandment, not an old commandment (1 John 2:7-8). Not all those holding the office of pastoral oversight labor in teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-19; Titus 1:5-9). Apparent contradictions between clear passages of Scripture do not license “Reason” to mitigate or otherwise modify the truth taught by any passage in order to remove the appearance of a contradiction.

That mistaken approach to the word of God is often defended by an appeal to “the analogy of faith.” The analogy of faith acknowledges that clear Scripture passages interpret unclear Scripture passages. The analogy of faith does not apply when the passages under consideration are perfectly clear. To make the interpretation of every passage of Scripture subject to revision in light of other passages of Scripture is disastrous, as Franz Pieper explained in his Christian Dogmatics (quoted in footnote ii of my paper entitled, “The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: If the Bible is perfectly clear, why do Protestants still disagree?”).

The analogy of faith is misused when a clear passage of Scripture is not taken for what it says. It is also misused when an unclear passage is reinterpreted in light of a human interpretation of Scripture or, even worse, in light of an interpretation of non-canonical writings.

God is not the author of such confusion. The Holy Spirit speaks so clearly that every article of faith is stated in a “simple word of Scripture.”

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Pastor Rolf Preus for helpful discussions.

Fellowship with weak believers

The old LCMS and current WELS doctrine of fellowship is grounded in Scripture’s teaching that Christians must not worship with anyone who causes divisions contrary to what they have been taught (Romans 16:17). That verse does not forbid an individual Christian from praying with a weak believer who is not causing divisions and who is eager to learn and believe all of Scripture but who is led astray by false teaching. Rather, it refers to those who continue to support false doctrine even after the error is exposed to the light of God’s word.

Professor James Pope, at Martin Luther College, explained:

When Christians are joined together in faith and doctrine, they are able to express their unity by joint prayer and worship, cooperative educational endeavors and shared outreach efforts (Acts 1:14; 2:42; Hebrews 10:24-25; Psalm 78:4-7; 3 John 5-8).

When you and I interact with Christians whose faith differs from ours, we follow Scripture’s instructions and do not engage in those previously mentioned activities (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10; 2 John 10-11).

By not worshiping or praying together with other Christians, you and I are not intending to say that we do not consider such people to be outside the faith. God alone can see what is in the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). We readily and happily acknowledge that the kingdom of God is bigger than our synod. Refraining from prayer and worship with people who are not united with us in faith and doctrine is, as our Catechism points out from Scripture, a matter of showing love for the truth of God’s word (2 Corinthians 13:8), love for our own souls (Galatians 5:9) and love for those who are mixing error with truth (James 5:19-20).

. . .

Praying with family members involves the same principles and application. Then again, you might be dealing with an exceptional situation in which family members belong to a church outside our fellowship, but they are not supportive of their church’s false teachings. In fact, they recognize the errors of their church and are seeking to point others to the truth of God’s word. In a situation like that, their confession of faith may match your confession of faith, and joint prayer in a private setting would not be a cause of offense to others. Exceptional situations like this are spelled out more fully in a book you might find valuable to read: Church Fellowship: Working Together for the Truth . . .”

We rightly join in prayer with Christians who hear God’s word but do not yet understand some teaching of Scripture. On the other hand, it is wrong for a Christian to pray with those who oppose any Scriptural teaching:

If one spouse is a non-Christian, the Christian partner may pray for and in the presence of the non-Christian husband or wife. Obviously, they cannot pray together. If the other spouse is a member of a heterodox church and ridicules or rejects the beliefs of our member, joint prayer is hardly possible. If the other spouse’s membership in a heterodox church is seen as a matter of weakness in understanding, joint prayer may be possible in the privacy of the home.

(Brug, p. 149, as quoted on Pastor David Jay Webber’s Lutheran Theology Web Site)

The principles of church fellowship set forth in the Scriptures do not change. God’s Word always remains the same; however, the manner in which these principles are applied may vary as different circumstances arise. The principles of church fellowship are not legalistic rules but loving directives of the Lord for the good of his church. They must be applied in the spirit of the gracious Savior who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. There will be times when prayer together with other Lutheran Christians or even with Christians of other denominations may be proper, such as when it is apparent that their membership in the false church body is the result of a weak faith which does not fully understand the error of the church body, or it is clear that they actually do not share in the error at all. In such situations one must consider more than the confession of their church membership. There will be times when it will be necessary to attend the worship services of an erring church, such as at the wedding or funeral of a loved one. Here care must be taken so that such attendance is not understood as agreement with the doctrine of the erring church.

The highly individualistic spirit of the times and the abandonment in practice of formal confessions of faith by many church bodies have resulted in many individuals being put in a state of flux regarding their religious convictions and confessions. They do not necessarily hold to the teaching of the church body to which they belong. They may indeed be open to instruction from the Word and may be seeking direction. When such individuals come to us, we cannot always deal with them solely on the basis of their formal confession of faith which they make by their formal church membership. One has to also consider their informal confession of faith. However, this informal confession too must be considered on the basis of the true marks of the church.

(Schmeling, pp. 46-47, as quoted on Pastor David Jay Webber’s Lutheran Theology Web Site)

The article “Prayer fellowship,” by Pastor Nathaniel Biebert, has helpful illustrations and practical applications alongside the supporting passages of Scripture.

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