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.”


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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Doctrinal differences between LCMS & WELS: A concise comparison

What happened to the Arians in that trope by which they made Christ into a merely nominal God? What has happened in our own time to these new prophets regarding the words of Christ, “This is my body,” where one finds a trope in the pronoun “this,” another in the verb “is,” another in the noun “body”? What I have observed is this, that all heresies and errors in connection with the Scriptures have arisen, not from the simplicity of the words, as is almost universally stated, but from neglect of the simplicity of the words, and from tropes or inferences hatched out of men’s own heads.

—Martin Luther
Bondage of the Will, J. J. Pelikan, Oswald, H. C., Lehmann, H. T., ed.;
Luther’s Works, Vol. 33: Career of the Reformer III; Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1999, p. 163

Major differences between Missouri and Wisconsin

Doctrinal divisions between the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) include two long-standing differences in official statements:

Other possible differences are either more recent or less clear.

Church and ministry

For an example of what may be another long-standing difference between the two synods, many within the LCMS hold the WELS doctrine of doctrine of church and ministry to be in conflict with the position adopted by the LCMS. The differences between their interpretation and the WELS doctrine of church and ministry arise from different ways to understand a few passages of Scripture.

Acknowledgement: Much of the material of the posts on church and ministry arose from discussions with Daniel Gorman, Paul Jecklin, Rolf Preus, and David Jay Webber. The opinions expressed are my own.


As Luther observed, doctrinal divisions do not arise from ambiguity in Scripture but rather from insufficient regard for the passages that teach on the topics of controversy. Every article of the faith is directly derived from perfectly clear passages of Scripture. That is why the history of theology is only helpful to the extent that it points back to the word of God.

It does not follow that no preparation is needed. In evaluating doctrinal differences, prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, and the cross are essential.

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

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

—August Pieper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 August 2014. Missing link added 13 November 2014.

Churches as communions of believers as opposed to visible gatherings

A communion of believers is a church by definition

In his paper arguing that a synodical congregation is a church, August Pieper demonstrates that the New Testament only uses the word “church” to mean “communion of believers,” never “visible organization” (1929, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline”). The importance of this lies in its exposing attempts of organizations claiming to be churches to usurp the authority to proclaim the gospel from believers. This “trouble” is summarized in the Pieper’s citation of Luther on p. 7:

Luther remarks in Concerning Councils and Churches: “The holy Christian Church is a people that is Christian and holy, or as one is wont to say, holy Christendom, yes, all Christendom. In the Old Testament it is called God’s people. And if in the children’s creed such words had been used: ‘I believe that there is one Christian holy people,’ all trouble could easily have been avoided that has resulted from the blind, unclear word ‘church.’ For the word Christian holy people would clearly and mightily have brought with it both the understanding and the judgment as to what is or is not Church.

Traditional uses of the word “church” obscure the meaning of Scripture, leading to various errors that have the effect of giving the keys to organizations such as visible gatherings, whether or not that is the intent. That is why Luther, Walther, Pieper, and the authors of the WELS theses on the church emphasized the importance of returning to the New Testament definition of the church as the communion of saints. On pages 7-8, Pieper quotes Walther, with his citations of proof texts, and Luther to demonstrate their agreement that hypocrites claiming church membership are really not members of the church.

Even when the New Testament refers to local churches, it never means visible organizations that include unbelievers but only communions of believers. These churches are sometimes called “invisible” because exactly who is and who is not a believer as opposed to an unbeliever in disguise remains hidden. Any communion of believers is a church in the New Testament sense, consisting of any number from “two or three” believers to all believers worldwide. Churches are hidden since unbelievers posing as believers may be in the midst of the believers. They are the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Hypocrites do not really belong to the churches they pretend to join (1 John 2:19).

A visible gathering in Christ’s name is a church by synecdoche

If a church is simply a communion of believers, why do we use the word “church” for organizations or not-for-profit corporations such as St. Mark Lutheran Church (UAC)? These visible organizations, containing unbelievers as well as hidden believers, are not churches in the literal sense but are only called churches by synecdoche, as Pieper points out. Wilbert Garish explains in Section 2 of his essay on church and ministry,

This use of the word is a figure of speech called synecdoche or part for the whole. For example, when you go to the garden center to buy a bag of lawn seed, only if you read the fine print on the package will you know that you have received not just grass seed but also a small percentage of weed seeds and inert material. Nevertheless, by synecdoche the package is labeled lawn seed. The other contents are disregarded. In the broader use of the word church the whole group gets its name from the most important part, the believers. The hypocrites who may be present are disregarded.

Thus, local and synodical organizations are only figuratively called “churches” because they include not just believers but also unbelievers who hypocritically claim to be believers. Lutheran theologians have used the word “church” in that figurative sense by applying it to visible bodies, as when Walther described “the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” On the other hand, local, synodical, and worldwide communions of believers are churches in the literal, New Testament sense. Having no unbelievers, local and synodical churches are hidden within their visible organizations.

Corroborating passages of Scripture

That the New Testament speaks of churches only as communions of believers is corroborated by the fact that “church” in Matthew 18:15-17, to be intelligible to the disciples, had to carry the same meaning that it does in 16:16-19. Does this fail to distinguish the “two or three” witnesses from the church of “two or three” believers (Matthew 18:15-17)? No, “tell it to the communion of saints” in context cannot mean to tell it to the ones involved in the previous step of the procedure. They are not qualified to represent the communion in that case. As witnesses, they cannot serve as the jury. Context, as always, is crucial. The point is that the process should be orderly and in accordance with the Eighth Commandment.

Jesus referred the last step of discipline to the local church in the literal sense because it consists of believers, those who have received the keys of the kingdom (18:18-20), not to the local church in the figurative sense of a congregation that includes unbelievers, as if the keys were given to a visible gathering (pages 12-13). The one in error is regarded as a Christian brother in need of loving admonishment (page 21). Of course, if all admonishment is refused, he can no longer be regarded as a brother, that is, as a member of the church in the strict sense.

Matthew 18:15-20 is such a clear passage of Scripture that its definition of the church as an assembly of two or three believers was recognized by the first Lutherans:

In addition to this, it is necessary to acknowledge that the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18, 19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. [For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc., and indicates to whom He has given the keys, namely, to the Church: Where two or three are gathered together in My name. Likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church, when He says: Tell it unto the Church.] . . . Here belong the statements of Christ which testify that the keys have been given to the Church, and not merely to certain persons, Matt. 18, 20: Where two or three are gathered together in My name, etc. Lastly, the statement of Peter also confirms this, 1 Pet. 2, 9: Ye are a royal priesthood. These words pertain to the true Church, which certainly has the right to elect and ordain ministers since it alone has the priesthood.

Under “Thesis I,” Pieper provides additional exegetical support for the observation that the New Testament never uses the Greek word for “church” in the figurative sense but only in the literal sense. On pages 5-6, he argues that epistles that Paul wrote to churches were only addressed to believers, even when he mentions their dangerous errors in doctrine. Paul addressed them as believers retaining their faith in the gospel, having been misled only temporarily. For example, Pieper understands Galatians 1:6 and 5:4 in light of 5:10, which sharply distinguishes between the false teachers misleading the church, who will bear their penalty, from those misled only until receiving Paul’s admonition. That demonstrates how clear passages shed light on those that are less clear. In that way, Scripture is the infallible interpreter of Scripture. In terms of Matthew 18:15-17, Paul was still admonishing the Galatians in brotherly love, confident that they would repent of entertaining false doctrine (5:10) before it became necessary to regard them as sinners and tax collectors.

Synodical churches

This has implications for the role of synods. The catholic church is the communion of all believers everywhere. That a local church is a local communion of believers, as August Pieper maintained, is confessed even by those thought to overemphasize that form of the church (see this Christian Dogmatics quote). In exactly the same way, a synodical church is a communion of believers representing their local communions. Pieper argued this in detail under “Thesis IV” (pages 15-17), demonstrating that a synodical congregation bears the marks of a communion of believers as appropriate for its purpose of joint church work.

There, he answered the objection that since synods do not have the marks of the church as clearly as local congregations, according to the marks of the church listed in the Lutheran confessions, they cannot be churches. The Lutheran confessions are best understood by remembering they were never intended as interpreters of the Scriptures (as if God’s word were dark!) but rather to expose error to the light of God’s word. For the purpose of reporting defiant unrepentance “to the church,” Christ said it could be identified wherever two or three gather to worship in his name, and that they have the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 18:15-20). Clear enough. The presence of a pastor administering the sacraments does not qualify anyone, much less an organization, to use the keys. On the contrary, two or three believers, having the keys, authorize someone to teach the gospel and administer the sacraments on their behalf.

Does that mean we must reject the confession’s statement that teaching the gospel in its purity and the accordingly administering the sacraments are the marks of the church? No, not if that language is understood in terms of normal usage of the word “marks.” The marks of a duck are that it quacks, waddles, swims, looks like a duck, etc. It does not follow that no one can identify a duck until hearing it quack or that a duck waddles when in the water or swims when on land. In conclusion, some marks may be sufficient but not absolutely necessary for an identification, depending on the setting.

The whole point of the confession’s statement on the marks of the church was to refute the criticism that understanding the church as the communion of saints as opposed to an organization implied that such a church was a theoretical idea that could not be identified in practice. They did not have our distinctions between local and synodical communions in mind.

Walther knew how to understand the confessions. That is why he could identify the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a visible church, a church in the figurative sense as opposed to a church in the strict sense of a communion of believers only.


It is important to understand what Scripture teaches about the communion of believers because some have speciously argued that their jurisdiction in the public ministry is restricted to the local church. The fact that those arguments fall short of proof from clear passages of Scripture means their restrictions must be resisted.

Indeed, since all believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9), they take them wherever they assemble in Jesus’ name, especially when they gather as a synodical church. In this way, the Holy Spirit empowers them to choose missionaries and seminary professors to proclaim the good news on their behalf and, as necessary, to administer discipline in obedience to Matthew 18:15-20.


Modified 3 August 2014.

Christ did not legislate on church and ministry

As Christ did not come bringing law but rather grace and truth (John 1:17), expositions of New Testament teaching should never sound like legal arguments (see August Pieper’s “Are There Legal Regulations in the New Testament?”). Unfortunately, New Testament injunctions are routinely interpreted practically as if they were new laws.

This is seen in attempts of some Lutherans to demonstrate the presence of words of institution for the pastoral office in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20 and parallel passages). This paper by Pastor Preus will serve as an example. The paper does have some interesting history, and its negative assessment of the traditional argument for restricting public ministry to that office is quite revealing. While that argument is presented by some members of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, its agreement with Walther is questionable. In fact, on examination, the Scriptural foundation of that argument is surprisingly weak.

Since the similarly restrictive position expressed in the paper and in the one reviewed earlier is not supported by any clear Scripture, it is at best a human opinion. For that reason alone, Christians must firmly resist all restrictions it imposes on divine calls to the public ministry, the service of proclaiming the gospel on behalf of the church. For example, believers remain free to appoint non-pastors to teach the word of God on their behalf. The church is free to regard them as called by God, for they are Christ’s gifts to people as surely as pastors are.

In the same way, there is no need to find Scripture with examples of worshiping on Wednesday instead of Saturday or Sunday to know that Sabbatarian is a human opinion at best. It is convenient that we have Colossians 2:16, but the recipients of the letter should have refused to have had their conscience bound as a matter of the principle that doctrine is determined by the light of God’s word without mixtures of human opinion.

If specific counterexamples can be found against a human opinion, so much the better, but they are really not necessary for seeing that none carries any legitimate authority to interpret God’s word. In the case of restrictive opinions on the ministry, there are several counterexamples, as will be seen in the 2005 ministry statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), a church in full doctrinal agreement with Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

The position of the Preus paper is particularly susceptible to a counterexample that the more traditional restrictive position is not. What makes Preus’s position unique if not novel is its basis on the assumption that Jesus instituted the pastoral office after his resurrection—the office that Scripture says was held by both Judas and his replacement. The office held by the apostles was theirs to use in their previous commissions to give peace by proclaiming the nearness of “the kingdom of God” (e.g., Luke 10:1-12). According to the Synoptic Gospels, “the gospel of the kingdom” of God was announced even before the apostles understood that Jesus must die and rise again.

The institution of the sacraments did not create the pastoral office. Rather, since the sacraments are visual proclamations of the gospel of the kingdom, those already commissioned to proclaim that gospel were commanded to administer the sacraments as they were instituted. While they did receive the words instituting Trinitarian baptism in the Great Commission, they had baptized earlier (John 4:2) and had heard the words instituting the Lord’s Supper.

A decisive refutation of the idea that Jesus instituted the pastoral office in the Great Commission is that the office was already held by the apostles before the words were spoken. The office conferred on Judas prior to the Great Commission was filled by Matthias after the Great Commission—the very same office (Acts 1:20, 25). Since Matthias held the pastoral office, Judas did, too. It could not possibly have been instituted by words spoken after his death.

In short, the opinion expressed in the Preus paper restricts the church, the royal priesthood of believers, in ways that Scripture does not. Worse, its regulations are based on the reconstructed account that Jesus instituted the pastoral office after his resurrection, a narrative exposed as fictional by Scripture’s saying that the office held by Judas was filled by his successor.

Then what words instituted the pastoral office? The question presupposes that, since it is of divine origin, the office have been clearly instituted by recorded words of Jesus, in analogy with the sacraments, words in some passage regulating the pastoral office beyond the divine call described in Mark 3:13-19. However, what we actually find in Scripture is that “The divine institution of this preaching and teaching office is not located in just one particular passage. Rather, throughout the New Testament, a divine ordering, establishment, and institution of the preaching and teaching office is indicated and presupposed (John 20:21-23, John 21:15ff, Matthew 28:18-20 [NKJV], Matthew 9:36-38, Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 4:1; see also Treatise 10)” (The Public Ministry of the Word, ELS).

Why is there no passage with the Ten Commandments of church and ministry? Simply because Jesus did not come to burden us with new laws but rather to redeem us from the curse of the law. The redeemed do not break the Second Commandment by misusing God’s name but rather proclaim the only name by which we may be saved (Acts 4:12).

While the good news of the Savior’s deeds to rescue us from the darkness is pure gospel, the command to proclaim those deeds (1 Peter 2:9), that is, to openly use God’s name to “pray, praise, and give thanks,” is pure law. To confuse the two can be disastrous for anyone who has not fully complied with the Second Commandment.

Since believers often fail to proclaim the deeds of the Savior who called out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9), passages scattered across the New Testament command them to do so as appropriate in their various circumstances. Those commands are exhortations to keep the Second Commandment in specific settings, not absolute, universal laws added to the Ten Commandments. For the example of the diverse forms of the pastoral office, “The church is commanded to appoint ministers who will preside over the churches (2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5, …)” (The Public Ministry of the Word, ELS).

That is the public ministry in the narrow sense. In the wide sense, “Authorization to exercise a limited part of the Public Ministry of the Word does not imply authorization to exercise all or other parts of it (1 Corinthians 12:5, 28, Romans 12:6-8, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8, 5:17)” (The Public Ministry of the Word, ELS). The ELS cited those passages as counterexamples to the opinion that believers may not authorize anyone but pastors of local churches to proclaim the gospel on their behalf. Not stated by any clear passages of Scripture, restrictions of this kind must not be allowed to hinder the proclamation of the gospel. The church militant does not have to fight Satan with one arm tied behind its back. No, believers are free to authorize professors and lay teachers to announce the good news on their behalf. “The word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:9).

The sporadic distribution of passages on church and ministry confirms that none is intended as the institution of the ministry and that none adds new law to the Ten Commandments. Accordingly, the ministry has been long known in its seed form of telling the Gentile nations what God has done to save his people (1 Peter 2:9):

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! (Psa. 105:1-2, ESV)

And with joy you will draw water out of the springs of salvation. And you will say in that day: Sing hymns to the Lord; call his name out loud; declare his glorious deeds among the nations; remember them, because his name has been exalted. Sing hymns to the name of the Lord, for he has done exalted things; declare these things in all the earth. (Is. 12:3-5, NETS)

Set free from sin, believers must carry out the Second Commandment with wisdom, in accordance with the revealed will of God and unhindered by human regulations taught as doctrines. After all, believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom—like the gifts from the Spirit—for the good of their neighbors, not themselves.

26 July 2014. Revised on 7 November 2014. Link to  August Pieper’s “Are There Legal Regulations in the New Testament?” updated on 3 July 2016.

Divine calls of pastors and other church workers

The statement on the public ministry of the gospel by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) differentiates the pastoral office from other forms of the ministry. In support of the ELS statement’s teaching that the pastoral office was instituted directly by Christ, the apostles obviously held it, being authorized with “the full use of the keys,” and it is equally obvious that their office was no invention of the church.

In addition, the ELS statement more broadly defines the public ministry in terms of proclaiming the gospel on behalf of the church as opposed to private ministry on one’s own initiative. Under this definition, to say pastors are the only ones in the public ministry is to deny believers the right to appoint others to teach the word of God on their behalf.

Since Christ gave the Holy Spirit and the keys of his kingdom to all believers (John 20:21-23), they may authorize lay schoolteachers to proclaim the Gospel to their students. Anyone imposing restrictions on their use has the burden to prove the restrictions from Scripture. Those who restrict believers without scriptural warrant teach their own opinions as if they were divine commands.

Some, while recognizing that right of believers to appoint lay teachers of the gospel, do not want to say they have been called by God because they do not find those offices explicitly mentioned in Scripture. The tacit assumption is that any class of Christian workers not explicitly mentioned in Scripture is not a gift of Christ to people, as are the evangelists and pastors of Ephesians 4:8-11. This resembles what the old Presbyterians called “the regulative principle”: any form of worship not explicitly commanded in the Scriptures is strictly prohibited, practically limiting them to Psalms a capella for music in worship. The burden of proof is misplaced. Since those restrictions cannot be found in the Scriptures, they cannot bind consciences, and “the word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:9).

Pastor David Jay Webber noted that Lutherans have always recognized that pastors are not the only ones with divine callings, citing the German version of Augsburg Confession XXVII:13, which in English reads,

Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism, and that the monastic life was more meritorious than that of magistrates, than the life of pastors, and such like, who serve their calling in accordance with God’s commands, without any man-made services.

There, pastors are listed alongside magistrates as having divine calls, God-given vocations. We could add lay teachers authorized to proclaim the word of God on behalf of believers. Faithful teachers obey the biblical commands to diligently and conscientiously carry out their work for the good of their neighbors.

Why not reason that since that sacraments have explicit divine commands, the pastoral ministry must have explicit divine commands that imply that only pastors are called by God to teach the gospel? The commands to “do this in remembrance of me” and to baptize do not impose new regulations but rather institute the sacraments as means of grace. By contrast, the pastoral office is not a means of grace but rather a form in which believers keep the Second Commandment, using their Savior’s name in word and sacrament to proclaim his deeds before the nations (1 Peter 2:9; Psa. 104:1-2; Is. 12:3-5).

To deny the divine calling of all non-pastors confuses Scriptural establishment of an office with a divine call to an office. Whether believers authorize someone to the pastoral office established by Scripture or to another office of teaching the word of God on their behalf, they do so with the same authority. Since a faithful schoolteacher authorized to proclaim the gospel is without question a gift of Christ to his people, his calling to his Spirit-created office is just as divine as a pastor’s call to his Scripturally established office.

Indeed, since a faithful schoolteacher appropriately authorized to proclaim the gospel to Christian students is without question a gift of Christ to his people, the arrangement did not come from the flesh or from Satan but rather from the Holy Spirit moving his people to proclaim the gospel. (It is in exactly this sense that a synod would be seen to be a divinely instituted form of the church even if there were no Acts 15. In his paper arguing that a synodical congregation is a church, August Pieper explained that a synod can be seen to be a divinely instituted form of the church from the obvious fact that the arrangement did not come from the flesh or from Satan but rather from the Holy Spirit moving his people to proclaim the gospel (1929, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline”).) In fact, any good works believers do have been prompted by the Holy Spirit.

When believers proclaim the deeds of the one who called them out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9), they do so as moved by the Spirit (John 20:21-23, Romans 8:16, etc.). The Spirit moves them to authorize pastors and others to proclaim the gospel on their behalf. Christ still gives gifts to people, and he is not limited by our principles. Christ gave people school teachers to teach the gospel.

Seeing that not only pastors but also the laity engaged in beneficial work are called by God, why have Lutherans generally reserved the term “divine call” for pastors as opposed to farmers, government officials, physicians, etc.? Is it that everyone is called, but some are more called than others? No, the difference is not that pastors are more called than others engaged in legitimate occupations. All vocations, secular and ecclesiastical, have divine calls. Rather, the difference lies in what they are called to do. Those in purely secular occupations are called to perform their duties in order to help their neighbors in this life. By contrast, pastors are called to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments for the life to come. Other occupations, such as teachers in Christian schools, are neither purely secular nor purely ecclesiastical. While believers are free to authorize a school teacher to teach the gospel on their behalf, that authorization is to a much lesser extent than that of a pastor. The authorization of a schoolteacher does not extend beyond the classroom to teaching the congregation, so it is obviously not to the same degree as the authorization of a pastor. That explains why “divine call” usually refers to the call of a pastor. More generally, the call to announce the gospel on behalf of the church is a matter of degree, as the ELS statement recognizes.

Every legitimate occupation is a vocation through which God brings us his blessings. May we give thanks for pastors and schoolteachers who faithfully proclaim the gospel since they really are Christ’s gifts to people.

26 July 2014. Revised 7 November 2014.

Scripture backs WELS on ministry: Gifts to proclaim the gospel

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

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

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

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

Thesis D6 expresses that conclusion somewhat vaguely in its Antithesis:
“We hold it to be untenable to say that the pastorate of the local congregation (Pfarramt) as a specific form of the public ministry is specifically instituted by the Lord in contrast to other forms of the public ministry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The church is wherever 2-3 agree in Jesus’ name

Unlike leaders of the Swiss Reformation, those in fellowship with Luther did not object to the episcopal polity but rather to its abuse in attacking the gospel and in usurping the authority of the state (Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today, T. J. Wengert, 2008, Fortress Press). Lutheranism has flourished in various church structures, as Sasse emphasized.

What the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) teaches about the forms of the church, the flock of sheep listening to the Good Shepherd, is explained in Thesis D4 of its statement on the church. A careful examination of the Scriptures cited, especially Matt. 18:17-20, demonstrates that the teaching is grounded in the word of God. (Note: The point about “church” in the singular in Acts 9:31 relies on a debated manuscript tradition and is not necessary for proving the thesis.) The conclusion of the thesis is summarized as this Antithesis:

We hold it to be untenable to say that the local congregation is specifically instituted by God in contrast to other groupings of believers in Jesus’ name; that the public ministry of the keys has been given exclusively to the local congregations.

This thesis has implications on the ministry since Jesus gave the power of the keys to the church according to Matt. 18:17-20, as the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the Tractate) confesses. The promise is not to a highly organized body, which would be anachronistic, but simply to two or three gathered in Jesus’ name. In the context of Thesis D4, Thesis D3 is not limited to the local congregation but includes other assemblies bearing, to a greater or lesser degree, the marks of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

That means a large group of baptized Christians from different geographic locations assembling in his name wields the keys (Matt. 18:17-18). Therefore, it may call a missionary pastor to start churches, preach, absolve, baptize, and administer the sacrament of the altar in other locations. Since the body in question assembles in order “to receive [the gospel’s] blessings and to bring them to others” (Thesis D3), that is, in Christ’s name, it may choose one of its members to open its meetings with devotions and with communion (Matt. 18:17-20). If that assembly is a synod consisting of representatives of local congregations, it may call one of its members to supervise pastors with discipline in agreement with the above passage and with the consent of the local congregations. Such discipline, when proceeding to its final stage, could involve the synod as the visible manifestation of the invisible church, depending on the procedures adopted for the sake of order.

To sum up, the office of the keys is given to the believers, as the Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) confesses on the basis of Matt. 18:17-20 and John 20:21-23. Neither of those binding/loosing texts restricts the use of the keys to the local congregation as opposed to other assembles agreeing in Jesus’ name. In conclusion, WELS Theses D3 and D4 on the church faithfully echo the teaching of Scripture.

Revised 5 July 2014.

Which church has the keys of God’s kingdom? What are its marks?

What is Coke? The soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe of the Coca-Cola company. How can I find some? Look for its marks: it is found in cans and bottles with red and white labels that read in distinctive cursive, “Coca-Cola.” Does that mean Coke is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. Coke, by definition, is the soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe.

What is a church? A communion of believers in Christ. How can I find one? Look for its marks: it is found where the gospel is taught in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command. Does that mean a church is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. A church, by definition, is a communion of believers.

The difference is crucial since in looking for the marks, many have forgotten what they were looking for. For example, some teach that churches in the strict, literal sense include unbelievers. Forgetting that a church is a communion of believers was addressed by the Reformers:

Although, therefore, hypocrites and wicked men are members of this true Church according to outward rites [titles and offices], yet when the Church is defined, it is necessary to define that which is the living body of Christ, and which is in name and in fact the Church [which is called the body of Christ, and has fellowship not alone in outward signs, but has gifts in the heart, namely, the Holy Ghost and faith]. And for this there are many reasons. For it is necessary to understand what it is that principally makes us members, and that, living members, of the Church. If we will define the Church only as an outward polity of the good and wicked, men will not understand that the kingdom of Christ is righteousness of heart and the gift of the Holy Ghost [that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, as nevertheless it is; that therein Christ inwardly rules, strengthens, and comforts hearts, and imparts the Holy Ghost and various spiritual gifts], but they will judge that it is only the outward observance of certain forms of worship and rites.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Articles VII and VIII, paragraphs 12-13, emphasis added

A failure to distinguish the marks for identifying the church from the definition of the church is a root of all kinds of confusion. The holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the congregation of saints, the flock hearing and believing the Good Shepherd’s voice, as Luther explained. A church by definition is a communion of saints;  this is the the narrow, literal sense of the word “church” (A. Pieper, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline,” p. 10). F. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (III, pp. 419-420) makes it clear that even local churches, strictly speaking, have no unbelieving members:

When we speak of a Christian congregation, or local church, we always mean only the Christians or believers in the visible communion. The congregations, too, consist only of believers. As the wicked and hypocrites do not belong to the church universal, so they are no part of the congregation either. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.

Indeed, churches are hidden in the sense that unbelievers posing as believers may be in the midst of the believers. They are the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Hypocrites do not really belong to the churches they pretend to join (1 John 2:19).

At the same time, the communion of saints is known by its marks, especially the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the administration of Christ’s sacraments according to his command. To the extent that visible gatherings have those marks, we may call them churches in a figurative or wide sense because they manifest hidden churches, the communions of saints within them. Such visible gatherings are primarily among believers living in the same region (1 Corinthians 16:1), but other gatherings, such as synods (Acts 15:6-29), and even what Walther called “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” also display the marks of the flock to varying degrees.

A church by definition is a communion of believers. Some communions have more believers than others: they vary in size from “two or three” believers to all believers worldwide (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:15-18). This is forgotten once we leave those words of Christ to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers.

For example, some Lutherans have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism and because administering the sacraments according to Christ’s command is an essential mark of the church. Were they consistent, they would have to conclude by the same reasoning that local congregations among the elderly that do not have occasion to administer baptism cannot be churches and that the local congregations among the Reformed cannot be churches because they do not really have the sacrament of the altar. These Lutherans reason that since synods are not churches, they do not have the keys of the kingdom and therefore cannot call ministers or administer church discipline. That at first sounds convincing since the marks of the church are easily mistaken as the definition of the church, but what do the clear passages of Scripture say? Jesus did not give the keys and priesthood of the kingdom to any organization bearing the marks of the church but rather to the church, that is, to the believers, as seen in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9, which are addressed to believers without the word “church.” The local and synodical churches the believers form for the use of the keys are distinguished from congregations of unbelievers by the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the correct administration of the sacraments. In that way, the marks of the church play their proper role, that of distinguishing Christian congregations from non-Christian congregations. The marks of the church are not for distinguishing local Christian congregations from synodical Christian congregations. Since a church is simply a communion of believers, to deny that a synodical congregation is a church is to imply that it is a congregation of unbelievers (see Psalm 50:16-23). Thus, Lutherans who assert that synodical communions of believers are not churches thereby admit to holding that a church is something other than a communion of believers. That is the source of the confusion.

The keys and priesthood of the kingdom belong only to the sheep hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 20:21-23), not to any organization with a constitution, rules of order, corporate legal status, etc. While the sheep are to do everything in good order, they have wide freedom in how to best organize themselves for announcing the saving deeds of the Shepherd who called them from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9).

Organization is especially important for public discipline since the due process required by the Eighth Commandment requires some fair procedure. In the early days of the Reformation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church carried out its work of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments for some time before courts could be organized to hear cases (Walther’s Pastorale: American Lutheran Pastoral Theology, 1995, Lutheran News: New Haven, pp. 234-235). Unlike Calvinists and others among the Reformed, Lutherans do not consider discipline to be a mark of the church.

That is because the Evangelical Lutheran Church takes her stand on the bare Scriptures. The flock uses the keys when Christ is present with two or three sheep according to his promise in Matthew 18:18-20. Jesus made the promise to the church against which the gates of hell would not stand before there was a local congregation in any organized sense (Matthew 16:16-19). In using the keys, the sheep proclaim the gospel privately (1 Peter 2:9), choose pastors to proclaim the gospel in word and sacrament (Matthew 28:19-20), and administer discipline subject to the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 18:15-18). Jesus cannot lie or deceive. He is there “in the midst of them.”


“Pass the Coke,” she requested. He snapped, “Coke is all over the world! ‘Pass the Coke?’ You never defined a local Coke!” Looking at the bottle on the table with the usual red and white label, she repeated, “Pass the Coke.”

“But that can’t be Coke! The bottle is open. It’s not even full! Coke comes in closed, full bottles. That’s what you told me when you sent me to Walmart!”

Assessing the situation, she smiled and rose to pour more Coke for her guests and herself.

Created 26 June 2014. Revised 7 July 2014.