500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation! It began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther started calling the church to return to these teachings of the Scriptures:

More information:

Celebrating in Ottawa at 3:30 pm on Sunday, November 5:

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.


Continue reading

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)


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