Church and Ministry


Points in which there is agreement among us:

1. We are agreed that there is One Holy Christian Church, the Communion of saints, consisting of all believers throughout the whole world. This church has been created and is sustained by the Means of Grace, the Gospel and the Sacraments. These Means of Grace are the marks of the church. The church is present there where these Means of Grace are in use. The church is invisible to our eyes. But “The Lord knoweth them that are His.” 2 Tim. 2, 19.

2. We are agreed that those gathered about the Means of Grace are church only by reason of the believers there. Hypocrites are not members of the church in the real sense. It is by the authority of the true believers that the work of the church is carried on.

3. We are agreed that bodies of believers should gather around the Word and make the preaching of that Word their chief concern, that this is according to the will and order of God. We all see in the gathering of Christian congregations a creative act of the Holy Spirit, and we recognize the full implication of the Biblical warning not to forsake these assemblies. Heb. 10, 25.

4. When we speak of the Holy Ministry we all teach that this office exists within the Church according to the will and order of God. We all reject the thought that this sacred office might be a human arrangement, a matter of mere human expediency. The Lord has given instructions concerning the qualifications for this office. The office is carried on in behalf of those who issue the call.

5. We are all agreed that the only Lord of the Church is Jesus Christ. He is our one Master and all of us are brethren under Him. He rules His church by His Word. Therefore, no man dare set himself up as ruler over the church, nor dare any larger gathering of Christians, like a synod, assume the right to rule over other gatherings of Christians, like congregations. A synod or a gathering together of synods, like the former Synodical Conference, is not a super-church with authority over smaller groups or congregations. However, the Word of God has authority, and all are to bow to the Word. In matters outside of the Word of God church bodies have only advisory powers.

Since we are agreed in all of these things, we can truthfully say that we are agreed in the doctrine of the church and the ministry. A difference, however, does appear, when we come to the application of these teachings.

The differences:

1. Some restrict the concept of a divinely instituted church to the local congregation. They consider all bodies of Christians beyond the local congregation, such as synods, conferences, etc., a purely human arrangement. Others refrain from restricting this concept of the church in this manner. They find in the name of “church” (ekklesia: they who are called out) a term which applies with equal propriety to the various groupings into which the Holy Spirit has gathered His believers, local congregations as well as larger groups.

2. In the matter of the ministry, some restrict the idea of a divinely instituted ministry to the pastorate of local congregations. All other offices, such as of Christian teachers, professors, synodical executive officers, etc., they consider as being branched off from this basic office, without a specific command of God. Others refrain from restricting this concept of the ministry in this manner. They see in “ministry” a comprehensive term which covers the various special offices with which the ascended Lord has endowed His Church. Eph. 4:11-12.

There are these differences in the application of the doctrine. However, let it be said immediately that there is no difference between the two groups as regards the practice. We hear no one objecting to the fact that we celebrate Holy Communion at our Pastoral Conference here, which can hardly be said to be meeting under the auspices of one certain congregation. Likewise, no one objects to the celebrating of Communion at Synod conventions, no matter where the Convention is held, within or outside of a local congregation.

The Call of this writer to Bethesda Lutheran Home to be chaplain there back in 1953 was not a Call issued by any congregation nor group of congregations. The Call simply starts out in this manner:

“Having called upon the Lord, our God, for guidance, and in the exercise of the authority with which He has vested His Church on earth, we THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF BETHESDA LUTHERAN HOME OF WATERTOWN, WISCONSIN, in lawful meeting assembled on the 21st day of April, 1953, have decided to call a pastor who is to serve as Chaplain and who is to see to the spiritual welfare of the souls of the patients of Bethesda Lutheran Home. We have elected to this office .... (Name).”

The Call is signed by the President and the Secretary of the Board of Directors of Bethesda Lutheran Home. We have never heard of anyone calling into question the validity of this Call. We have never heard it stated that anyone, LC-MS, ELS, WELS, has refused to have the writer appear in their midst during the 17 years he was chaplain there because they did not consider his Call valid. But it has to be said that the Board of Directors of Bethesda Home both acted like a Church when they issued the Call and they expressly say that they did it in the exercise of the authority with which God has vested His Church on earth. Were they overstepping their authority? We trow not. But where were the objections of those who held that this group was not a Church?

Those of us who hold to the wider application of the term Church and the term ministry hold that this alone expresses the full richness of these New Testament terms. However, this is not a mere arbitrary preference on our part. If there is some clear word of Scripture that we have overlooked, one that teaches a special divine institution of the local congregation as against the formation and occurrence of other bodies of believers, or one that teaches a special divine institution for the pastorate of the local congregation, thus setting it apart from other forms of the ministerial office, then we shall be glad to restrict our application of these terms to these two limited forms, the local congregation and its pastorate. But so far no such words of special institution have been shown.

The writer of these lines was once just as insistent as any are today in the narrower application of the term church and ministry. Much to his regret now, he even became belligerent over toward certain revered and learned theologians of our synod who held to the other, wider application of these terms. He is persuaded now that these terms cannot rightfully and Scripturally be limited according to the manner indicated above. It cannot definitely and finally be nailed down from Scripture that the term “church” applies only either to the universal church or to the local congregation. There is the passage in Acts 9, 31, where the term ekklesia, singular in the Nestle text, is applied to the church in all of Judea, Galilee and Samaria. True, the King James version has the plural. There is a variant reading here. However, the singular evidently has good authority. And there are other passages in the New Testament where it would be difficult to nail it down that the word ekklesia means just one local group or congregation. In Acts 20, 17, who can stand up and say for sure that the elders whom Paul called from Ephesus to Miletus were elders of just one ekklesia there? May the Christians not have been gathered together into several congregations in Ephesus? And yet they are called elders of the ekklesia (singular).

And those who want to limit the term of pastors and teachers only to the pastorate of a local congregation, Eph. 4, 11, are forced to say that the omission of “tous de” before “didaskalous” nails this down without a shadow of doubt. It is true that the Expositor’s Greek Testament asserts this. Other Greek scholars speak differently, as the writer has experienced.

There must be a definite Word of God to establish a doctrine. That which cannot be established by clear Scripture as a teaching of the Bible should not be made into a doctrine to which all must bow.

One of the fathers of our ELS has been singled out and quoted for the narrower view of the church and ministry. It is understandable how this father came to assert this. However, this should not be elevated to the position of general acceptance by all the fathers of the ELS. Others of the fathers did not teach this. And we have proof for this.

Interestingly enough, the writer of these lines, in searching through the files of the first president of the reorganized Synod, came upon a letter of the then president to one of the older pastors of the Synod who was retired at the time. The letter and the answer to same are both dated in the month of May in the year 1921. The question was: Could the retired pastor refer the president to a Biblical treatise of this subject that the congregation is a divine institution while the Synod is a human institution. Being faced with this matter, the president had been unable to find any treatise on this subject. In reply, the older pastor wrote that he had many times said that the congregation is a divine institution and the Synod human. But he could not refer to any Bible passage to prove it. (The two parties referred to here are Rev. B. Harstad, first president of the reorganized Synod, and the Rev. M. Fr. Wiese.)

All teachings of God’s Word are precious, and we must be careful not to lose any of them. But also, we must be careful not to elevate to the position of a doctrine something which cannot be proved to be such. We must all take our reason captive under obedience to Christ and His Word.

Evangelical Lutheran Synod General Pastoral Conference
January 1972

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