“Forms” of the Public Ministry


The Church in its communion with God and in its winning of souls, is bound to the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments. Therefore a ministry of the Gospel is necessary. Moreover, the Church manifests its faith in manifold activities for its own upbuilding and for the welfare of mankind. All this makes it necessary for the Church to organize itself in some form of polity. But all orders and ranks of the ministry and all regulations for organization are human ordinances.
No form of ministry or church polity is prescribed in the New Testament. The apostolic office is an apparent exception to this statement. But it is not prescribed that the apostolic office should continue in the Church. It could not be perpetuated. The name apostle was used in the early Church for any preacher who carried the Gospel from place to place in the name of the Lord. Instances of this loose use of the name are found in the New Testament also. Cf. II Cor. 11:5,13; 12:11; Rev. 2:2; Acts 14:14; I Thess. 2:6. But in the strict sense of the name, the office was singular. The apostles were appointed before the founding of the Church and for its founding. The permanent element in the apostleship was not the office itself, but the preaching of the Gospel. No form of ministry is prescribed in the New Testament, although a diversity of forms is exemplified in it. A comparison of earlier and later epistles, for instance [I] Corinthians with the pastoral epistles, shows a development in the forms of the ministry in apostolic times. ... A beginning is made at Jerusalem with deacons for the care of the poor, Acts 6:5. Soon we read of elders at Jerusalem, possibly on the synagogue model, Acts 11:30. Then we read of elders also in missionary churches, Acts 14:23. These are identical with bishops, Acts 20:17,28. In the pastoral epistles the offices of bishops or elders and deacons are fully developed. The ministry of the Word did not belong exclusively to the elders, perhaps it was not their principal function at all. But there were elders who taught the Word, I Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9. ...
The ministry of the Church is the office of the means of grace. This ministry is of divine institution, but it was committed by the Lord to no class in the Church, but to the Church itself. The Church itself, according to the wisdom given to it, designates those who shall exercise this ministry for it. The preaching of the Gospel is the preaching of the Church, not a private power or prerogative of a minister. Baptism and Communion are sacraments of the Church, not individual operations of a privileged person. In the work of administering the Word of God according to arising needs and circumstances the Church appoints ministers for different functions, one a pastor, another a missionary, another a teacher, and it may be [that the Church] assigns to them different degrees of jurisdiction and authority, for instance a president of a synod or a superintendent, whom it may call bishop. But that which is common and essential in all such offices and ranks is the one office of the means of grace. This is the divinely appointed element; the other features are variable. In this sense there is parity of ministers of the Gospel. ... But besides the direct dispensation of Word and sacrament the Church engages in manifold activities for its own upbuilding and for the welfare of its members and of mankind. The ultimate aim of all this activity is the spiritual good of men. For these activities it makes such provision of official appointment as the needs of the work and its own wisdom dictate. So, for example, the ministry of mercy has gained recognition along with the ministry of the Word. (Between God and Man: An Outline of Dogmatics [Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1926], pp. 208-11)


As in many other respects, so also in regard to the Christian Ministry, the New Testament lays down certain principles of universal and permanent validity, and refers the details of their application to the future determination of the Church, according to circumstances of time and place. Care must be taken to distinguish: A. between what is essential and what is accidental to the Ministry; and B. among accidentals, between those which are important and under certain circumstances, obligatory, and those which are unimportant and at all times free. The New Testament prescribes no completely established and fully developed form of Church organization, as the model and rule for all succeeding ages of the Church. The permanent functions of the Church are to preach the Gospel in its purity, and to administer the sacraments in accordance with their institution. The Church is charged with providing a ministry that, according to circumstances of time and place, shall, as its executive, discharge these functions. In the New Testament, we can trace the gradual development of Church institutions, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The chief passages in the New Testament bearing on the Ministry, are: A. in general: Matth. 10:40, 1 Cor. 4:1, Eph. 4:11, 1 Cor. 12:4,7,27,28; B. Apostles: Matth. 10, 1 Cor. 9:1, Acts 1:22, Rev. 21:14; C. Bishops: Acts 20:17,28, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:5-9 (cf. Rev. 2:1); D. Elders: Acts 14:23, 15:2-6,22,23, 16:4, 20:27, 1 Tim. 5:17, Tit. 1:5, James 5:14, 1 Pet. 10:1; E. Rulers: Rom. 12:8, 1 Thess. 5:12, 1 Tim. 5:17, Heb. 13:7; F. Deacons: Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:8-12; Rom. 16:1; G. The Seven: Acts 6:6. The continuance of this process of development in later periods of the Church is justified only insofar as it is characterized by fidelity to the pure preaching of the Word and the incorrupt administration of the sacraments. ...
Advocates of various theories of Church Government in later periods of the Church are in error when they claim that they can find in the New Testament the completely developed form of government which they advocate. The New Testament always places unity in faith and doctrine above union in organization. The one faith and doctrine, extending throughout all time and intended for all men, reaches its end through a plasticity and flexibility of organization adapted to the varying circumstances, history and degrees of culture of those to whom it comes. Identity in form and regulations for the ministry, except as purity of Word and sacrament be affected, are secondary considerations. (“Theses on the Ministry and Ordination,” Lutheran Church Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 1 [January 1908], pp. 91-92)


The followers of Jesus were a band of learners whom He was training to become the church. From among them He selected twelve to be His apostles (Mark iii. 13-19; Luke vi. 13-17). These twelve were His daily companions. During His whole public ministry He had them in training. Day after day He instructed, developed, and moulded them. Thus He fitted them to be His witnesses and to carry on His work (John xv. 27). ... Their office was in some respects peculiar and extraordinary. They had been chosen and trained directly by Christ. They were witnesses of His resurrection (Acts i. 22 and ii. 32; 1 John i. 1-3; 2 Peter i. 16). These founders of the church were endowed with special gifts and powers and had a general commission to preach and labor everywhere. In these respects they have had and can have no successors. But in as far as they were Christ’s ministers of the Word they were the predecessors of all true ministers, and all such are their successors.
All the New Testament offices of the church have grown out of the apostolate or are modifications of it. What are these New Testament offices? They are all a ministry. There are two forms of this ministry. One is the ministry of the Word, the other is the ministry of mercy. The former is set forth in the New Testament under a number of names, forms, and activities. Part of these pertain to the ordinary ministry and part to the extraordinary. The former are permanent and are in the church to-day. The latter are temporary and were needed for the church in its infancy. (See 1 Cor. xii. 28; Eph. iv. 11.)
We have already seen that the apostolic office was in many respects extraordinary. The same is true of the New Testament prophets. These were men needed, like the apostles, for that age of founding and forming the church when as yet there were no New Testament writings. They were men, like the apostles, directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. ... To this class belonged Judas and Silas (Acts xv. 32), Agabus (Acts xi. 28 and xxi. 10-12), the daughters of Philip (Acts xxi. 9), and others. ... In like manner we find as an extraordinary New Testament office, that of the evangelists. We find only Philip, who was also one of the seven deacons (Acts xxi. 8), and Timothy (2 Tim. iv. 5), thus designated. Others, however, were in the same work and calling. The evangelist, like the apostle, was a missionary. ... Apostles, prophets, and evangelists, then, had the extraordinary forms of the New Testament ministry. The last two are closely related to the first. All could claim divine authority for their office and work; all were ministers of the Word; all exercised their office through the Word.
Passing now from the temporary and extraordinary ministry of the Word we come to the permanent and ordinary. For this we find many names, but it is one office. The bearer of this office is sometimes called pastor, at other times teacher, then presbyter or elder, and again episcopos or bishop. These are different names for the same office. ... These elders were the pastors of the congregations. They were over the churches, ruled them with the Word and by a godly example, in the spirit of love (Acts xx. 28; 1 Thes. v. 12; 1 Tim. v. 17; Heb. xiii. 7,17). They were to shepherd their flocks – i.e., to feed, to guard, to lead, to heal (Acts xx. 28; 1 Cor. ix. 7; 1 Pet. v. 2; 1 Thes. v. 12; 1 Tim. iii. 1-11; Tit. i. 7-10; Jas. v. 14). ... To look after and minister to the poor was the work of a deacon. ... The office was a noble one. It was instituted by the apostles. It took a part of their work upon itself. It was one of the church’s vital “helps.” It ministered to Christ’s poor in His name. ... The first deacons were men. But as the work of mercy among women was often unsuited to men, pious women assisted the deacons. Ere long we find women deacons. ... We see, then, that the female diaconate grew out of the male diaconate, and this again was instituted by the apostles, and assumed a part of their work.
The ministry of the Word, then, comes directly from the apostolate, which comes directly from Christ. The ministry of mercy comes also from the apostles, and likewise continues a work of Christ. It is clear, therefore, that the Lord Jesus instituted the office of the New Testament ministry, even as He Himself was its first bearer. The office comes not from man, but from Christ. The church has never been without it. ... The important passage, Eph. iv. 11, shows clearly that not only the apostolate, but also the branches that grow from it are a gift of the glorified Christ. (The Lutheran Pastor [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1902], pp. 27-32,34-36)


Through the history of the Jewish race there rise before us constantly prophecies of a kingdom of God to be established by the Messiah on earth, destined to embrace all mankind. The series of promises was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He established a kingdom not of worldly glory, but a kingdom of the life of God in the soul of man – a kingdom which comes not with observation, not with outward show or glory, but is within men, Luke 17:20. The means of grace which our Lord gave to the world and the commission under which He sent forth his Apostles, clearly demonstrate, however, that the internal fellowship of His kingdom was to have a corresponding outward expression. His Apostles were to teach; to make disciples of all nations: to baptize them into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and Christ was to abide with the Apostles in their work always, even to the end of the world, all the days, to the consummation of the era. Matt. 28:19,20. ... After the ascension of our Lord, the Apostles waited for the promise of the Father, and when the day of Pentecost was fully come, the disciples were filled with the Holy Ghost and Peter uttered his witness for the crucified and arisen Saviour. “They that gladly received his word were baptized, and they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and in the fellowship and in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers” [Acts 2:41-42]. This power of the Word, which from the first drew men into the fellowship, gathered believers into the congregations. The Apostles were missionaries, not merely under the necessity of the case, but, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit gave security to the work and wrought and made a basis for its extension by organizing congregations in which the life of the disciple found its home and sphere of labor.
With the establishment of these congregations, and as an essential part of their organization was connected the institution of the congregational pastorate, the vocation which was to superintend and spiritually rule the congregations, to conduct the public services, to administer the sacraments, to labor in the word and in doctrine and to watch for souls to the conversion of sinners and the building up of saints. The pastorate was the determination to a distinct office of so much of the Apostolate as pertained to the single congregation. The institution of the Apostolate was the general institution of the entire ministry, whose specific forms, especially the Presbyterate-episcopate, and the diaconate, were but concrete classifications of particular functions involved in the total idea of the ministry. The specific ministries are but distributions of the Apostolate in its ordinary and permanent functions. ...
St. Paul gives us a list of officers and functions, transient and permanent, in 1 Cor. 12:28: “God hath set (put, appointed, constituted) in the Church some” (for even in the highest affluence of spiritual gifts in the early Church there was official distinction), “first Apostles, second, prophets, third, teachers, after that miracles” (which Luther, substituting the concrete for the abstract, renders “Wunderthäter,” doers of miracles), “then gifts of healing, helps” (Luther, for the same reason as before, Helfer, helpers), “governments” (Luther Regierer, governors), “diversities of tongues.” The verses following, 29,30, repeat “Apostles,” prophets, teachers, miracles, healings, diversities of tongues; omit helps and government, and add interpreters (expounders). In this enumeration the clearly transient are the prophets, (the workers of) miracles, gifts of healing and diversities of tongues, with the correlative interpreter. It is disputed, but not on tenable grounds, whether the Apostles also belong to the extraordinary officers of the Church. The helps and governments seem not to point to separate officials but simply to special functions of particular persons and hence are not referred to again in verses 29,30. “The teachers” are permanent, and to them the helps and governments are elsewhere assigned. ... In Eph. 4:11,12, we have another Apostolic list, “He gave some Apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints; for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” ... Compared with 1 Cor. 12:28-30 we find that it repeats Apostles, prophets, teachers; omits miracles, healings, diversities of tongues, helps, governments and interpreters, and adds evangelists and pastors. The omissions are in part accounted for by the difference of his [Paul’s] object in Ephesians which causes him to dwell exclusively on the ministry as a teaching body. The pastors and teachers are two names for the same office. ... The introduction of the “evangelists” in this passage appears to point to the existence of an office not specified in the former list, but an evangelist seems not to have been a distinct office in the Church but a preacher with a special work, probably that of a travelling missionary, within prescribed limits. Philip, the evangelist, is mentioned, Acts 21:8, and Timothy is charged, 2 Tim. 4:5, to do the work of an evangelist, to do pastoral work, when there were not yet congregations organized, and to bring about an organization as early as possible. ... The title of the pastoral office, which covers its teaching and preaching and oversight, is that of Eldership and the Bishop’s office. The Elders or Bishops are those to whom was committed the headships of congregations. These two names, presbyters or elders and bishops, are entirely coordinate. A New Testament bishop is an elder and a New Testament elder is a bishop. ...
Acts 6. A careful study of this passage shows: 1. That the functions to which deacons were elected, were functions which had been exercised by the apostles; hence the deacons’ duties are not lay duties, but are official. 2. They were chosen as aids to the apostles, in order that the whole time and strength of the apostles might be devoted to the more difficult and important part of this work. The apostles were to give themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. 3. The fundamental idea of the diaconate, therefore, was not the serving of tables, or the performing of secular duties within the church. That was but the specific determination of the general idea at that particular time. The generic idea of the diaconate is that it is an office designed to relieve the ministry of some of its relative, incidental and yet more distracting duties, in order to leave it free for others. Hence the broader and truer conception of the deacon is that he is the minister’s aid. This fact accounts for it, that the apostles looked to the deacons for something more than a mechanical performance of the ministration of the provision made by the church for the widows. The seven men were to be full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom. Stephen, who was chosen, and is first in the list, was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. And we see that he devoted himself to other duties than merely those of the daily ministrations of the widows. Out of this truer conception of the nature of the diaconate, arises the fact that in the epistles we see that the deacons had larger functions than those which would be naturally assigned them, on the current misconstruction of the nature of their office. 1 Tim. iii. 8-13, gives a description of the necessary characteristics of deacons, which shows that they were in a larger sense aids in the general work of the ministry. This view of the nature of the diaconate alone explains the fact that from the earliest, post-apostolic antiquity, and indeed in the time of the apostolic fathers, the deacons were permanent officials in the church, with a range of functions of increasing importance, making them more and more efficient aids in part of the work of the ministry. (“Church Polity,” Lutheran Church Review, Vol. II, Whole No. 8 [Oct. 1883], pp. 316-19 [Part I]; Vol. III, Whole No. 10 [April 1884], pp. 139-40 [Part II])


Luther...recognized a threefold preaching office. He did not simply equate the office of bishop with that of pastor; instead, he allowed the higher office of oversight (antistites) to continue. Its incumbents are “to oversee all offices, so that the teachers exercise their office and do not neglect it, the deacons distribute goods properly and do not become weary; to punish sinners and invoke the ban promptly so that every office is conducted rightly.” In the cities pastors are assisted by preachers. Luther wanted four or five in Wittenberg, related to the quarters of the city; in each case several deacons are also to be assigned. Luther’s renewal of the diaconate is little known and did not last long. The reason doubtless lies in the fact that CA 14 [Augsburg Confession, Article 14] does not mention this office or a call to it. ... He himself had a clear picture of the ancient church’s practice: the deacon is, as servant of the bishop, likewise servant of the congregation. He registers and cares for the poor, visits the sick, and manages church property. Thus the administrative functions receive particular emphasis. The fact that deacons were also called upon for preaching, as in the case of Stephen, hastened the demise of poor relief – a gap which was filled by the hospitalers. Deacons need not harbor feelings of inferiority or jealousy; all officeholders stand equal before God. Occasional statements of Luther, then, indicate that he adopted the traditional threefold division of the pastoral office [i.e. bishops, presbyters/preachers, and deacons], but that cannot be considered a contradiction to CA 14 unless one ties the call to the office [as required in CA 14] with the particular legal forms (examination, installation, etc.) that were subsequently introduced in the evangelical territories. ... One thing is clear: these offices derived from the pastoral office – the bishop on a higher level and the preacher on a lower one – serve the truth and the effectiveness of the gospel. That also applies to diaconal service and to the office of schoolmaster, “which next to the office of preaching, is the most useful, greatest, and best.” In its loving service in the world, the office of the Word takes on various forms, depending on practical needs and possibilities. The orders that it sets up do not constitute this office; they just provide its historically conditioned characteristics. This is true not only of the persons who lead worship in the congregation but also of the times and places of worship – “so that it will be preached outwardly and will be visible in time, place, and persons.” ... For the honor that God confers upon the service of the Word and sacraments applies not only to the pastoral office but to the entire spiritual estate, together with all that pertains to it. (Luther lists “pastors, teachers, preachers, lectors, priests [whom men call chaplains], sacristans, schoolmasters, and whatever other work belongs to these offices and persons.”) ... Pastors need helpers for pastoral care in the larger congregations, for education of the youth, and for care of the needy. The office of proclaiming the Word branches out. In addition to rite vocatus [cf. CA 14] in its proper sense – pastors and preachers belong together in this category – there are congregational members who combine a civil office with particular ecclesiastical tasks and who are called to that service. Finally, this whole structure of proclamation, education, and social welfare requires a financial base. (Wilhelm Maurer, Historical Commentary on the Augsburg Confession [translated by H. George Anderson] [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986], pp. 194-95,197)

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