Public Doctrine

Much fanfare was made when in 2001 when the LCMS in convention affirmed “The book The Voice of our Church on the Question of Church and Ministry, by Dr. C.F.W. Walther…as the definitive statement under Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions of the Synod’s understanding on the subject of church and ministry.”  This is our public doctrine.

Clear enough, right?  So are we bound by Thesis Eight on Ministry from the English translation of the 1851 Milwaukee Synodical convention which reads as follows: “The preaching office earns complete obedience when the preacher demands something according to God’s Word, although the preacher has no lordshipin the church; he has therefore no right to make new laws, arbitrarily establish adiophora and ceremonies in the church, or to impose and exercise the ban alone without the previous acknowledgement by the entire congregation.”

Or are we bound by the translation of this thesis (numbered 9 here) in the “Report of Committee on the Status of the Teacher (Memorial 627) Resolution 1953-01 from the Synod’s 1953 convention held in Houston, Texas?  “Reverence and unconditional obedience is due to the ministry of preaching when the preacher is ministering the Word of God.  However, the preacher may not dominate over the church; he has, accordingly, no right to make new laws, to arrange indifferent matters and ceremonies arbitrarily, to impose and execute excommunication alone, without the previous verdict of the entire congregation.”

Or are we bound the translation found in 1987 publication of Walther’s book?  Here too it’s Thesis IX.  “A. To the ministry there is due respect as well as unconditional obedience when the pastor uses God’s Word.  B.  The minister must not tyrannizethe church.  He has no authority to introduce new laws or arbitrarily to establish adiaphora or ceremonies.  C. The minister has no right to inflict and carry our excommunication without his having first informed the whole congregation.”

Are these saying the same thing?  I don’t think so.  The sainted Dr. Marquart said a critical edition of Walther’s Church and Ministry was needed.  An amendment was offered to the 2001 resolution stating that since “critical questions have been raised concerning the available English translations” this matter should not be voted on till the two seminaries had published a new translation.  That amendment didn’t receive enough votes to be considered. Seven years later we are still without a new translation.

While I can write and even say Kirche und Amt with the best of them, I can’t read German, so whenever I ask questions about Walther’s theses on church and ministry based on Scripture and the Lutheran Confession all someone has to do is say, “That’s not what the German says.”  Case closed.  But based on the three different translations above does anyone really know what the German says?

One person sure did.  Not long after the 2001 convention The Lutheran Witness published an article by Dr. Rosin where he reveals that Walther knew of a fourth reason to remove a pastor.  Aside from false doctrine, an immoral life, or the inability to perform his duties, he could be removed for lording it over his flock.  A pastor definitely can do this, but then my teenage boys thought I was lording it over them when I expected them to cut the grass, clean the garage, or just get up before noon.  And if before I could discipline any one of my five children I had to get the other four to agree my grass would never have gotten cut, my garage cleaned, and some of them would be sleeping still.  So how much discipline would go on if the whole congregation first had to render a verdict?  About as much discipline as is now going on. 

The LCMS knows this too.  So rather than requiring the whole or entire congregatio’s previous verdict or at least acknowledgement as two of the above do, the Synod’s May 2006 “Guidelines for Constitutions and Bylaws of Lutheran Congregations” say this:  “Each case of excommunication or self-exclusion shall be presented to the voters assembly for a decision.  A two-thirds majority vote of the voters assembly shall be required” (p. 7)

Can you square any of the above translations with what we confess in our Lutheran Confessions?

 “The gospel bestows upon those who preside over the churches the commission to proclaim the gospel, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments. In addition, it bestows legal authority, that is, the charge to excommunicate those whose crimes are public knowledge and to absolve those who repent.  It is universally acknowledged, even by our opponents, that this power is shared by divine right by all who preside in the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters, or bishops” (Treatise 60-62, Kolb). 

 “It is certain that the common legal authority to excommunicate those guilty of manifest crimes belongs to all pastors” (Treatise 74, Kolb). 

 “Again, according to the Gospel, or, as they say, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops as bishops, that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no jurisdiction except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked men, whose wickedness is known, and this without human force, simply by the Word (AP, 28,  20-21). 

If Walther’s book is as the 2001 resolution states “under Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions” then we must understand his book in light of them.  This would be preferable to the LCMS “Guidelines” for constitutions which apparently understands his book under Robert’s Rules of Order.  From wherelse could they have gotten the requirement of a two-thirds majority?

You might think I’m arguing for the authority of the pastor.  No, I’m saying as Luther did about Luke 10:16 (“He who hears you hears Me.”).  I’m not interested in establishing the authority of pastors but the authority of believers.  Sheep have the authority to believe “that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself” (Small Catechism, Confession). 

As a father in the home doesn’t have authority for his sake but for the sake of his family, so in the church the pastor.  The shepherd has a staff for the sake of the sheep not for his sake, and if a real sheep could talk I think he would say that he wanted a strong shepherd who isn’t afraid rightly to wield his staff.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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One Response to Public Doctrine

  1. Caleb Harris says:

    Well, this seems like an easy one to get around. If the problem( as is the case with the first two translations) is that the Pastor must first get the approval of the entire congregation to execute excommunication, then simply pull the old LCMS switch-a-roo. Simply create a “new” excommunication and call it by a different name but give it the same function. It can sit in the ranks with serial prayer (aka syncretism), the PRACTICE of closed communion (aka open communion) and synodical resolutions (aka synodical ammendments). Problem solved (aka problem confounded).

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