The apostolic nation called to herald the gospel of the kingdom

Starting with a remnant of the assembly of Israel, Jesus built a new assembly on the confession that he is the long-awaited Messiah (Matthew 16:18). Not only Peter but all the apostles represented that “little flock” (Luke 12:31-34). The Twelve represented the new Israel (Matthew 19:28 = Luke 22:30), the nation rendering the fruits of the kingdom that the old Israel did not (Matthew 21:43). That is how the judgement of the nations according to how they treated Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 25:31-46) will fulfill the prophecy that the Gentiles would be judged according to how they treated Israel (Joel 3:1-12).

The call of the Twelve, including Judas, is the call of the new holy nation to proclaim the glad tidings of the kingdom (Matthew 4:19). The end will not come until that good news, the same gospel committed to Judas, is preached to all nations (Matthew 24:14; see Mark 14:9). In these last days, the church continues the same apostolic ministry of the new covenant in the Messiah’s blood (Luke 22:20). That continuity means every believer does both the works he did—healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead—and greater works (John 14:12).

The call of the Twelve to the public, representative ministry anticipated their taking the place of the priests and prophets, the public ministers of the old covenant. The breaking dawn of the new kingdom in the proclamation of peace by the Messiah and his ambassadors was nightfall for the temple-centered ministry of the word. That ministry of types and shadows gave way to the apostolic ministry as the light of the world filfilled one Messianic prophecy after another. John the Baptist, the greatest minister of the law and the prophets, gladly decreased as Jesus increased. Even he, the greatest of the old covenant, ranked under everyone in the new kingdom (Matthew 11:11).

In conclusion, there is no ministry of the word other than the ministry committed to the Twelve to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, the good news of righteousness from God. That continuity of the public ministry of the New Covenant is acknowledged in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. Jesus did not commit the ministry to them by giving it originally to Peter but rather in his calling of all twelve apostles (Treatise 10, German translation). As the ministry was thus originally given to the new Israel, that holy nation retains the authority to appoint public ministers of the gospel (see John F. Brug’s “The ministry of the apostles and our ministry”).

Resources on what the WELS and ELS teach about the ministry

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

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

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

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

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

A wealth of additional information is readily available from

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

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

Forms of presbyterial oversight in the New Testament

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

1 Tim. 5:17–19 (ESV)


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

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

What was an elder in the New Testament?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elders mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

What does the Greek word for “labor” mean?

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

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

What did the elders do?

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

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

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

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

Pastoral care for pastors

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

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

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

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

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

Confessional Lutheran orthodoxy

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

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

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

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.

Believers have the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom

The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the Tractate) concisely summarizes what Lutherans “believe, teach, and confess” about the keys and priesthood of the kingdom. This doctrine conflicts with recent attempts to limit the divine call to the public ministry to the pastorate of a local congregation.

The office of the keys of the kingdom is given to the believers according to Matthew 18:17-20 and John 20:21-23 because they constitute the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). The Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) brings that out:

John 20:21. Christ sends forth His disciples on an equality, without any distinction [so that no one of them was to have more or less power than any other], when He says: As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you… 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 [ministers]… 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.

The Tractate’s adherence to the bare words of 1 Peter 2:9 followed Luther when it appealed to the priesthood as proof that the church may choose her ministers. Luther read that verse to say all believers as priests could administer the sacraments—while holding that it is best for the sake of order to choose a minister to do so.

By contrast, a paper claiming that the local congregation is the only form of the visible church defends its claim by interpreting the priests in terms of hearing (pp. 15-17). Since they need a preacher that they might hear the gospel, they have the right to call one. A tacit but questionable premise needed for the validity of the argument is that if you need something God wants you to have, then you have the right to obtain it for yourself.

1 Pet. 2:5-12, however, favors Luther on this by presenting the priests as speaking or singing rather than listening. The function of a priest is to offer sacrifices. Peter had in mind the sacrifice of proclaiming the saving works of the living God. With the background of the Psalms, Jewish members of Peter’s audience may have envisioned singing in the hearing of the pagan nations. Those called to offer such sacrifices may choose a minister to do so publicly, that is, on their behalf.

The root problem of the paper is its disagreement with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s holding “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” (see pp. 12ff). Page 12 implies that every individual who holds the presiding office should do everything in the Great Commission. In that case, why didn’t Paul, who undoubtedly held the presiding office, baptize any of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:14)? How is it possible for every pastor, as an individual, to bring the gospel to all nations? It appears that the Great Commission is read somewhat selectively on that page.

The paper points out that schoolteachers are not commanded to administer the sacraments publicly, as the apostles and other elders are. That agrees with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s statement on the ministry, which clearly brings out what Scripture teaches about the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom and which clearly defines “publicly” as “on the church’s behalf.”

In conclusion, the gospel’s “office or service, the ministry of the keys, has been given to the Church, i.e., to the believers individually and collectively. Mt 16:19; 10:32; 18:18; 1 Pe 2:9.” For further reading:

25 June 2014. Revised 7 November 2014; 25 November 2014.