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. This is clarified in the latest version of “Which church has the keys of God’s kingdom? What are its marks?”.
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.
Unlike leaders of the Swiss Reformation, those in fellowship with Luther did not object to the episcopal polity but rather to its abuse in attacking the gospel and in usurping the authority of the state (Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today, T. J. Wengert, 2008, Fortress Press). Lutheranism has flourished in various church structures, as Sasse emphasized.
What the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) teaches about the forms of the church, the flock of sheep listening to the Good Shepherd, is explained in Thesis D4 of its statement on the church. A careful examination of the Scriptures cited, especially Matt. 18:17-20, demonstrates that the teaching is grounded in the word of God. (Note: The point about “church” in the singular in Acts 9:31 relies on a debated manuscript tradition and is not necessary for proving the thesis.) The conclusion of the thesis is summarized as this Antithesis:
We hold it to be untenable to say that the local congregation is specifically instituted by God in contrast to other groupings of believers in Jesus’ name; that the public ministry of the keys has been given exclusively to the local congregations.
This thesis has implications on the ministry since Jesus gave the power of the keys to the church according to Matt. 18:17-20, as the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the Tractate) confesses. The promise is not to a highly organized body, which would be anachronistic, but simply to two or three gathered in Jesus’ name. In the context of Thesis D4, Thesis D3 is not limited to the local congregation but includes other assemblies bearing, to a greater or lesser degree, the marks of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
That means a large group of baptized Christians from different geographic locations assembling in his name wields the keys (Matt. 18:17-18). Therefore, it may call a missionary pastor to start churches, preach, absolve, baptize, and administer the sacrament of the altar in other locations. Since the body in question assembles in order “to receive [the gospel’s] blessings and to bring them to others” (Thesis D3), that is, in Christ’s name, it may choose one of its members to open its meetings with devotions and with communion (Matt. 18:17-20). If that assembly is a synod consisting of representatives of local congregations, it may call one of its members to supervise pastors with discipline in agreement with the above passage and with the consent of the local congregations. Such discipline, when proceeding to its final stage, could involve the synod as the visible manifestation of the invisible church, depending on the procedures adopted for the sake of order.
To sum up, the office of the keys is given to the believers, as the Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) confesses on the basis of Matt. 18:17-20 and John 20:21-23. Neither of those binding/loosing texts restricts the use of the keys to the local congregation as opposed to other assembles agreeing in Jesus’ name. In conclusion, WELS Theses D3 and D4 on the church faithfully echo the teaching of Scripture.
Revised 5 July 2014.
What is Coke? The soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe of the Coca-Cola company. How can I find some? Look for its marks: it is found in cans and bottles with red and white labels that read in distinctive cursive, “Coca-Cola.” Does that mean Coke is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. Coke, by definition, is the soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe.
What is a church? A communion of believers in Christ. How can I find one? Look for its marks: it is found where the gospel is taught in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command. Does that mean a church is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. A church, by definition, is a communion of believers.
The difference is crucial since in looking for the marks, many have forgotten what they were looking for. For example, some teach that churches in the strict, literal sense include unbelievers. Forgetting that a church is a communion of believers was addressed by the Reformers:
Although, therefore, hypocrites and wicked men are members of this true Church according to outward rites [titles and offices], yet when the Church is defined, it is necessary to define that which is the living body of Christ, and which is in name and in fact the Church [which is called the body of Christ, and has fellowship not alone in outward signs, but has gifts in the heart, namely, the Holy Ghost and faith]. And for this there are many reasons. For it is necessary to understand what it is that principally makes us members, and that, living members, of the Church. If we will define the Church only as an outward polity of the good and wicked, men will not understand that the kingdom of Christ is righteousness of heart and the gift of the Holy Ghost [that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, as nevertheless it is; that therein Christ inwardly rules, strengthens, and comforts hearts, and imparts the Holy Ghost and various spiritual gifts], but they will judge that it is only the outward observance of certain forms of worship and rites.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Articles VII and VIII, paragraphs 12-13, emphasis added
A failure to distinguish the marks for identifying the church from the definition of the church is a root of all kinds of confusion. The holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the congregation of saints, the flock hearing and believing the Good Shepherd’s voice, as Luther explained. A church by definition is a communion of saints; this is the the narrow, literal sense of the word “church” (A. Pieper, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline,” p. 10). F. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (III, pp. 419-420) makes it clear that even local churches, strictly speaking, have no unbelieving members:
When we speak of a Christian congregation, or local church, we always mean only the Christians or believers in the visible communion. The congregations, too, consist only of believers. As the wicked and hypocrites do not belong to the church universal, so they are no part of the congregation either. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.
Indeed, churches are hidden in the sense that unbelievers posing as believers may be in the midst of the believers. They are the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Hypocrites do not really belong to the churches they pretend to join (1 John 2:19).
At the same time, the communion of saints is known by its marks, especially the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the administration of Christ’s sacraments according to his command. To the extent that visible gatherings have those marks, we may call them churches in a figurative or wide sense because they manifest hidden churches, the communions of saints within them. Such visible gatherings are primarily among believers living in the same region (1 Corinthians 16:1), but other gatherings, such as synods (Acts 15:6-29), and even what Walther called “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” also display the marks of the flock to varying degrees.
A church by definition is a communion of believers. Some communions have more believers than others: they vary in size from “two or three” believers to all believers worldwide (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:15-18). This is forgotten once we leave those words of Christ to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers.
For example, some Lutherans have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism and because administering the sacraments according to Christ’s command is an essential mark of the church. Were they consistent, they would have to conclude by the same reasoning that local congregations among the elderly that do not have occasion to administer baptism cannot be churches and that the local congregations among the Reformed cannot be churches because they do not really have the sacrament of the altar. These Lutherans reason that since synods are not churches, they do not have the keys of the kingdom and therefore cannot call ministers or administer church discipline. That at first sounds convincing since the marks of the church are easily mistaken as the definition of the church, but what do the clear passages of Scripture say? Jesus did not give the keys and priesthood of the kingdom to any organization bearing the marks of the church but rather to the church, that is, to the believers, as seen in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9, which are addressed to believers without the word “church.” The local and synodical churches the believers form for the use of the keys are distinguished from congregations of unbelievers by the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the correct administration of the sacraments. In that way, the marks of the church play their proper role, that of distinguishing Christian congregations from non-Christian congregations. The marks of the church are not for distinguishing local Christian congregations from synodical Christian congregations. Since a church is simply a communion of believers, to deny that a synodical congregation is a church is to imply that it is a congregation of unbelievers (see Psalm 50:16-23). Thus, Lutherans who assert that synodical communions of believers are not churches thereby admit to holding that a church is something other than a communion of believers. That is the source of the confusion.
The keys and priesthood of the kingdom belong only to the sheep hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 20:21-23), not to any organization with a constitution, rules of order, corporate legal status, etc. While the sheep are to do everything in good order, they have wide freedom in how to best organize themselves for announcing the saving deeds of the Shepherd who called them from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9).
Organization is especially important for public discipline since the due process required by the Eighth Commandment requires some fair procedure. In the early days of the Reformation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church carried out its work of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments for some time before courts could be organized to hear cases (Walther’s Pastorale: American Lutheran Pastoral Theology, 1995, Lutheran News: New Haven, pp. 234-235). Unlike Calvinists and others among the Reformed, Lutherans do not consider discipline to be a mark of the church.
That is because the Evangelical Lutheran Church takes her stand on the bare Scriptures. The flock uses the keys when Christ is present with two or three sheep according to his promise in Matthew 18:18-20. Jesus made the promise to the church against which the gates of hell would not stand before there was a local congregation in any organized sense (Matthew 16:16-19). In using the keys, the sheep proclaim the gospel privately (1 Peter 2:9), choose pastors to proclaim the gospel in word and sacrament (Matthew 28:19-20), and administer discipline subject to the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 18:15-18). Jesus cannot lie or deceive. He is there “in the midst of them.”
“Pass the Coke,” she requested. He snapped, “Coke is all over the world! ‘Pass the Coke?’ You never defined a local Coke!” Looking at the bottle on the table with the usual red and white label, she repeated, “Pass the Coke.”
“But that can’t be Coke! The bottle is open. It’s not even full! Coke comes in closed, full bottles. That’s what you told me when you sent me to Walmart!”
Assessing the situation, she smiled and rose to pour more Coke for her guests and herself.
Created 26 June 2014. Revised 7 July 2014.
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.