Should New Testament commands be obeyed as new laws?

Since everything a Christian is required to do is already in the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments and as revealed at least to some extent in natural law, the New Testament issues no new laws, ceremonial or otherwise. The New Testament instead proclaims freedom from the law as a tyrant without abrogating the moral law, which it applies to specific cases.

Christ’s commands are not legal in character. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ pointed out that the ancient prohibitions of murder and adultery had always condemned hatred and lust. Rather than issuing new laws, he commanded the oral and visible proclamation of the gospel and freely gave apostles, evangelists, pastors, prophets, etc. (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11).

Nor can legal regulations be found among the numerous directives in the Pauline epistles. The fact that Paul gave specific instructions on the qualifications of deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13), on head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), on appointing presbyters (Titus 1:5), and on Sunday collections (1 Corinthians 16:2) does not mean those instructions are new rules binding in all circumstances (on 1 Timothy 3, see A. Pieper, “Are There Legal Regulations in the New Testament?,” pp. 7-8). Rather, they are inspired applications of timeless wisdom to the current church setting.

Similarly, Paul did not give any new regulation when writing to Timothy about the role of women but rather appealed to the order of creation. Any conclusions drawn from what Paul said are only binding if they can be found in the moral law. For Paul did not appeal to his own authority in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 or any new regulation but instead to the creation account of Genesis 2-3. For example, 1 Timothy 2:14 is readily understood as an application of Genesis 3:17 (M. Braun (1981) “An Exegesis Of I Timothy 2:11-15 And Its Relation To The CHE Statement: ‘The Role Of Man And Woman According To Holy Scripture,’” p. 11).

In fact, Timothy could have learned from the Pentateuch not only what Paul said about the role of women but also what he said about paying elders who govern well (1 Timothy 5:17-19). The cases are similar in that the specific instructions are relevant applications of the will of God already revealed. Any interpretations of those instructions that do not follow from the Pentateuch go beyond what Paul actually argued.

For example, the contention that it is not fitting that females speak on behalf of a male Christ (W. C. Weinrich, “‘It is not Given to Women to Teach’: A Lex in Search of a Ratio,” Concordia Theological Seminary Press, Ft. Wayne, 1993) has absolutely no support from Paul. Rather, it reflects a papal form of the ancient Eros piety and conflicts with what the New Testament says about church and ministry. Recognizing the non-legislative nature of the New Testament can prevent such extreme positions on the ministry of the word.

3 January 2015. Hyperlink updated 6 July 2016.

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

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

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

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

brug

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

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

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

The Gospels say Christ commissioned all believers

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

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

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

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

Nominally Lutheran interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

The church’s mission according to other Scriptures

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

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

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

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

Forms of presbyterial oversight in the New Testament

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

1 Tim. 5:17–19 (ESV)

Introduction

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

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

What was an elder in the New Testament?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elders mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

What does the Greek word for “labor” mean?

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

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

What did the elders do?

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

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

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

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

Pastoral care for pastors

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

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

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

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

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

Confessional Lutheran orthodoxy

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

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

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

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.

Stand on Scripture, not on an interpretation of Scripture

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

Psalm 119:9-16 (ESV)

Was the original purpose of the Lutheran confessions to serve as the lens through which the Scriptures must be understood? Are the Scriptures so ambiguous that they require authoritative human interpretation? No, the Lutheran confessions were derived directly from the light of the Scriptures, not from previous confessions or from quotations of church fathers. In fact, the Lutheran confessions do not offer yet another interpretation of Scripture, as Franz Pieper pointed out (Christian Dogmatics, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 1950, Vol. 1, p. 367):

The thought common in our day that all church bodies stand on Scripture and differ only in their interpretation of it is not in accordance with the facts. The Roman Catholic Church does not stand on Scripture, but on the papal interpretation of Scripture. The Reformed Churches, as far as they differ from the Lutheran Church, do not stand on Scripture, but on Zwingli’s, Calvin’s, etc. interpretation of Scripture. The Lutheran Church, however, does not stand on interpretation of Scripture, but on Scripture itself. This is not a mere assertion. It can be proved by induction in the face of universal contradiction.

The reason no human interpretation is needed is that Scripture interprets itself (ibid., pp. 363-364):

Luther is unalterably convinced that God gave Holy Scripture such a form that the entire Christian doctrine is revealed and submitted in passages which need no ‘exegesis’ (exegesis in the sense of removing obscurities). He who would determine the meaning of the clear passages through still other passages engages in a work of interminable adjustments, makes the entire Scriptures uncertain and obscure, and converts them into an inextricable chaos. Yes, there is the rule: ‘One passage must be explained by another,’ but, as Luther adds immediately: ‘Namely, a doubtful and obscure passage… must be explained by means of a clear and certain passage.

An author of the Formula of Concord similarly explained what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture (Chemnitz, M., J. A. O. Preus, trans., The Lord’s Supper, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 1979, pp. 68-69):

For Scripture, especially when it treats of dogmas, because it is not of private interpretation, interprets itself either in the same passage or in other passages were the same dogma is touched on. Because of this, the same dogma is fully treated and repeated in various passages of Scripture in such a way that no one can dream up his own personal interpretation but must derive it from Scripture itself. For the same dogma is repeated on the basis of either the same or similar words which have the same meaning and set forth the same teaching, so that the simple, proper, and natural meaning of the passage may be confirmed… Or if something in one passage is too brief or obscure because of the puzzling nature of the figures of speech, Scripture will explain and interpret it in other passages where the same doctrine is repeated more fully, clearly, and openly, using proper, clear, natural, and commonly understood words.

With confessions derived from the word of God alone, it might be thought that Lutherans would not cite human authorities as proof texts instead of clear passages of Scripture. However, these words of August Pieper are as true today as they were in the beginning of the twentieth century (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, p. 24 of this Charis article):

This caused people to think that the point that was presented or discussed was sufficiently established by the quotations from Luther and the fathers without a study of Scripture itself.  It even led to this that later one did not stop with quoting Luther and the old fathers, but now one also quoted Walther and other celebrities for proof of the correct doctrine. The subject of study for new essays became not so much Scripture as the essays in the old synodical reports, and quotations from them were frequently used instead of proof from Scripture.

As August Pieper warned, implicit trust in any human authority for the correct interpretation of Scripture is idolatry leading to additional errors (ibid., p. 25):

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.

For extreme examples of inappropriate appeals to human authority, some say the Lutheran confessions require believing in the Perpetual Virginity and practicing communion weekly even though they cannot provide anything resembling Scriptural proof. They believe aspects of the confessions that are not expositions of any Scripture, on the direct authority of the confessions. That indicates severe misunderstanding of the historical context and purpose of the confessions as solemn affirmations of Scriptural teaching. A proper response is, “Where does the Bible say that?”

A less extreme but more common example is assuming the Lutheran fathers must have based their teaching about some topic on Scripture instead of carefully examining what the Scriptures actually say on the topic. Taking Luther’s or the synod’s word for it is never acceptable when it comes to doctrine, not even on a busy day.

The fathers should not be cited as final authorities, saying something like, “August Pieper said so, so you should believe it, too.” At the same time, they can be cited profitably, for instance, “See August Pieper for the exegetical details” or “I realized this thanks to Chemnitz’s insistence on the clear meaning of those Scriptures, which I had somehow overlooked.”

In discussions with other Lutherans, there is a time to appeal to the confessions as secondary authorities: when there is mutual agreement about their meaning. When there is not, it is usually counterproductive to spend much time arguing about what they really say, especially since we have no promise about their perspicuity. It is then time to say, “Look, the Teacher himself said so in clear language, so it’s not really up for interpretation.” He promises to enlighten us with his own words.

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.

Conclusion

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.