The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod on the Ministry


(Excerpts from “The Revised This We Believe of the WELS on the Ministry,” Logia, Vol. X, No. 3 [Holy Trinity 2001].)

Here one is faced immediately with the issue of the word minister. It is fair to say that the use of this word has broadened in general WELS usage in recent years. At one time, the word minister was in most cases a synonym for “pastor.” Now the word is freely used for forms of the public ministry other than the pastoral office. ... Laypeople are sometimes also said to be “ministers” in that they are to serve other people by sharing the gospel with them. This does not mean that laypeople are in the public ministry, however, or that the priesthood of believers and the public ministry are now blended into one. It does not mean that all forms of the public ministry are identical. ...the WELS teaches the divine institution and importance of both the royal priesthood and the public ministry. The WELS looks on the pastoral ministry as a distinct form of the public ministry with special responsibilities. There have also been cautions expressed in the WELS that we be sure to communicate clearly about our use of the word minister so there is no misunderstanding. (p. 31)

Over the years the WELS has sometimes been accused of denying the divine institution of the public ministry. The WELS has been accused of following Höfling by teaching that the public ministry is just a human innovation designed out of expediency. Attention in this regard focuses on the Wauwatosa theologians (J. P. Koehler, August Pieper, and John Schaller) who restudied the issue of church and ministry in the early twentieth century. It is true that the Wauwatosa theologians stressed the divine institution of the one gospel ministry given to all believers in the church. Yet they also insisted that all forms of the public ministry are established by God in that the church develops the forms under the providence of God and the forms carry out the divinely established work of spreading the gospel. In addition, August Pieper stated, “Not only the one species, the local pastorate, but the public ministry of the Word in genere is a divine institution.” [August Pieper, “Luther’s Doctrine of Church and Ministry,” The Wauwatosa Theology (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 3:200.] Further study could be done on exactly what the Wauwatosa theologians meant when they talked about divine institution. But certainly they would have denied that the public ministry is a strictly human creation. Subsequent WELS writing has made clear that the WELS does teach the divine institution of the public ministry. ... The 1969 WELS Theses [on the Church and Ministry] state: “This public ministry...constitutes a special God-ordained way of practicing the one ministry of the Gospel. ... It would be wrong to trace the origin of this public ministry to mere expediency (Hoefling).” [Doctrinal Statements of the WELS (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 49-50.] ... In short, the WELS teaches that the public ministry is not optional. Wherever Christians are, God wants there to be servants who shepherd them with the means of grace as representatives of Christ. (pp. 32-33)

What is the relationship between the royal priesthood and the public ministry? The WELS would say that both have the same overall commission and goal. It is “proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament” for “the edification of the Church.” [Doctrinal Statements of the WELS, 48-49.] Both are driven by a desire to save lost sinners by guiding them to faith in the crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ. Yet the royal priesthood and the public ministry are not equated. The WELS defines “public ministry” as ministry that is not done at the initiative of the individual Christian. It is ministry done because a group of Christians have called a person to do it on their behalf. The WELS recognizes that not every believer serves in the public ministry, but only those called by the church to use the means of grace. “Christians are not all equally qualified to perform publicly the functions of the ministry,” and “no one may assume the functions of the public ministry except through a legitimate call.” [Doctrinal Statements of the WELS, 49.] Some Christians are called by the church to full-time positions of public ministry. Some are called to part-time positions of public ministry, such as Sunday school teaching. But in all cases, the royal priesthood and the public ministry are kept distinct. Believers are to carry out the tasks that have been assigned to the public ministry only when they have been called to do so. For example, when a layperson is asked to make elder calls on behalf of the congregation or assist in the distribution of the Lord’s Supper, the WELS would say he is functioning in a limited form of the public ministry. He is doing this work on behalf of the congregation because he is “called” to do it. When a layperson witnesses about Christ at the work place, however, he is functioning in his capacity as a royal priest. It would be wrong for a layperson to perform the functions of the public ministry without being called to do so. A layperson should not set up a Bible study in his home and invite members of the church without the commission and call of the church. A layperson should not baptize his own children or conduct his own Lord’s Supper services at home. The royal priesthood and the public ministry are not blended together. Public ministry is to be performed only by those properly called. In addition, it would be misleading to say that the public ministry is derived from the royal priesthood. The origin of the public ministry is with God himself. God has brought it into existence. The public ministry is not a human innovation, created by people to fulfill a need. We would agree with John Johnson when he says, “Lutheranism keeps the universal and special priesthood in dialectical tension, avoiding the temptation of deriving one from the other.” [John Johnson, “The Office of the Pastoral Ministry: Scriptural and Confessional Considerations,” in Church and Ministry: The Collected Papers of The 150th Anniversary Theological Convocation of The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod (St. Louis: LCMS Office of the President, 1998), 89.] Yet it is true that the church fills the offices of the public ministry by calling individuals into the public ministry. As John Johnson also states, “The divine gift of the Office has been given to the church and demands filling. The church, the Priesthood of all Believers, has the authority to fill the Office and to regulate it.” [91. Dr. Johnson has some very sensible things to say about the words “function” and “office” in regard to the public ministry. The way some people describe the “functional” view, it would not fit with the WELS.] Perhaps the best way to describe the public ministry, then, is Walther’s axiom “by Christ through the church.” When a person serves in the public ministry, he is a “servant of Christ” first and foremost. He has authority from Christ as Christ’s representative. But he also is serving on behalf of the Christians who called him. One could say he is both a representative of Christ and a representative of the calling body of Christians. (p. 33)

The WELS teaches that the church has freedom to establish different “forms” or positions or offices of public ministry. The WELS Yearbook has three categories of full-time public ministers who may circulate from one congregation to another: pastors, men and women teachers, and staff ministers. The term “staff ministry” has come to be used as a catchall category for individuals who are part of a church staff, but are not pastors or teachers. In the “staff ministry” category are ministers of evangelism, ministers of family and youth, ministers of administration, deaconesses, gift planning counselors, and numerous other offices. The reason why the WELS allows for a variety of “forms” of the public ministry is that the New Testament manifests a variety of “forms” and nowhere dictates that only pastors are in the public ministry. Ephesians 4:11 says that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” This implies different offices or different job descriptions for different people. In 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 Paul says: “In the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?” In 1 Timothy 3:1-13 Paul gives qualifications for overseers, deacons, and possibly deaconesses (or else deacons’ wives). It is not just WELS writers who have taken note of this variety of forms in the New Testament. Chytraeus and Chemnitz have been quoted in support of various “grades” or forms of the public ministry. [David Chytraeus, On Sacrifice (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1962), 98-102; Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 2:682-688] ... In neither the New Testament nor the Confessions is there an effort to limit the public ministry of the church to one form. Luther also is commonly quoted as allowing various forms in the public ministry. In his “Sermon on Keeping Children in School” of 1530 he said: “The estate I am thinking of is rather one which has the office of preaching and the service of the word and sacraments and which imparts the Spirit and salvation, blessings that cannot be attained by any amount of pomp and pageantry. It includes the work of pastors, teachers, preachers, lectors, priests (whom men call chaplains), sacristans, schoolmasters, and whatever other work belongs to these offices and persons.” [AE 46:220. Similar thoughts are found in AE 37:364.] To maintain that only pastors are in the public ministry, some assume that these various titles were different names for the same office, the “pastoral ministry.” Or, they assume that these positions were different “grades” of the pastoral ministry, much in the way that we have head pastors and assistant pastors. In this connection, some say that the deacons in the New Testament were equivalent to pastors. ... Certainly the title “elder” was interchangeable with “overseer” in the New Testament, and both referred to a position of oversight similar in many ways to our pastors (Ac 20:17,28; Tit 1:6,7; 1 Pe 5:1,2). But there is nothing clearly indicating in the New Testament that all the other positions were different titles for the same office, or different “grades” in the same office. The office of deacon especially seems to be a separate office (Php 1:1). The fact that the office of deacon has qualifications listed side-by-side with the office of overseer implies that it was distinctly different (1 Ti 3:8-13). Otherwise why would there be two lists? It has also been assumed that some of these New Testament positions were not really in the public ministry. Some say that to be in the public ministry, one has to be entrusted with the full use of the means of grace. ... If a person is in the public ministry, he must have all the functions of the ministry. If a person hasn’t been entrusted with all the functions, then he is not in the public ministry. In keeping with this argument, some would say that the deacons were not really in the office of the public ministry but in an auxiliary office, because they weren’t entrusted with the full use of the means of grace. ... The WELS would say that it is at least a possibility that the deacons were public ministers who were helpers in some way to the elders or overseers in a subordinate office of the public ministry of the Word that didn’t include the full use of the keys. This is how the office of deacon often showed itself in church history. If this were granted, it seems a small step to make a comparison with the school teachers or staff ministers of our modern congregations. Here then is a form of public ministry distinct from the office of overseer that helps in the gospel ministry of the congregation. (pp. 34-35)

God wants there to be public ministers of the gospel. Each public minister should be received as a servant of Christ who has been put into authority by God. Each public minister serves in the divinely instituted public ministry of the church. Yet no one form or position is mandated, and the forms may vary in scope of work. How wide then is the public ministry? Can there be public ministers of the church who do not minister with the means of grace, but only support the ministry of the church in other ways? Here some WELS writers have been willing hypothetically to allow the possibility of some sort of “public ministry” without any direct use of the keys on the basis of the “Seven” in Acts 6 who were called to a “ministry” of food distribution. Without a doubt the work of the Seven supported the preaching of the gospel because it permitted the apostles to devote themselves to the “ministry of the word.” Yet it could be argued that a different title should be given to service of this sort, since the term “public ministry” has historically been used to refer to the ministry of the gospel itself. In practice, the WELS thinks of the public ministry only in terms of those who minister directly with the means of grace. ... I recently was at a meeting of ELS and WELS leaders where ELS leaders asked the president of WELS and the WELS seminary president if there are any positions of public ministry in the WELS that do not involve direct ministry with the means of grace. The answer was a clear “no.” All of the 100 or so staff ministers in the Yearbook minister in some way with the Word of God. The “minister of administration” at the church I attend, for example, writes articles for the church newsletter giving Bible encouragement. He has opened meetings with Scripture reading and prayer. He has given stewardship training to the congregation and conducted Bible classes. We consider our schoolteachers on all levels to be in the public ministry, because they serve young people with the Word. They serve on behalf of the church and not just on behalf of the parents of the children. Often they serve children of mission prospects whose parents are not even members of the church. Even the physical education professors at Martin Luther College are called into the public ministry, because they are expected to use the Word of God with students. As coaches, they may lead their teams in prayer. As faculty advisors for students, they are expected to counsel students with God’s Word. Customarily when a decision is being made in the WELS whether some office in the church should be a “called” position of public ministry or a “hired” position, the decision is made on the basis of whether or not the individual will be using the Word of God to instruct, train, and counsel. Whenever a group of Christians calls a person to use the Word of God on their behalf, we consider that individual to be in the public ministry. Though none of the individual forms are directly commanded by God, yet the individuals who serve in each of the forms know they are serving in a divine calling. Each form is a concrete manifestation of the public ministry that is established by God. As stated by August Pieper: “It would be false, however, if one would declare the distinctive pastoral office to be a human arrangement. What is human in every species of the public ministry is only the form, the outward arrangement. The content, the command, the commission, the power directed to the Church to preach the Gospel through capable men as also to dispense the Sacraments in an orderly way is and remains divine.” [“Luther’s Doctrine of Church and Ministry,” 248. Similar thoughts are found in Carl Lawrenz, “An Evaluation of Walther’s Theses on the Church and Ministry,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 79, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 127.] (pp. 35-36)

...the WELS is sometimes accused of having too low a view of the pastoral ministry. Some say that in the WELS the pastoral ministry is just one form on an equal level with many others, and that the pastoral ministry is therefore basically expendable or superfluous. ... In reality, the WELS has a high view of the pastoral office. This is the one form of the public ministry that is universally found. Every WELS member belongs to a local congregation; every congregation has a pastor or pastors who shepherd it. The training program for pastors in the WELS continues to be thorough, with a minimum of four years of college at Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota, and four years of seminary at Mequon, Wisconsin, for most students. ... In the WELS if a group of Christians has only one form of the public ministry, it inevitably is a pastor. Every single one of the approximately 1250 congregations of the WELS has a pastor (or vacancy pastor) to shepherd it. ... All WELS members find themselves under the oversight of a local pastor. Every congregation has a pastor. This is the one form that is universal and in a sense required, in the way that we operate. Yet theoretically, we would say that if a congregation somewhere wanted to structure itself differently, this would not necessarily be sinful because the New Testament doesn’t give regulations about church polity and forms of ministry. If a group of Christians had a committee of elders who took turns preaching and conducting services or divided up the public ministry duties in some other way, we couldn’t say necessarily that this arrangement is contrary to God’s Word. Actually the situation in Corinth according to 1 Corinthians 14 may have been more like this than our usual arrangement. ... The pastoral ministry is the most basic form in that it is the one that will always be put in place first among us. If a congregation has only one form, it will be a pastor. ... Without a doubt, I sometimes say to pastoral students that I think more good can be done for the kingdom of God by a pastor than any other position on earth. Pastors shepherd congregations and preach God’s Word week in and week out. Tremendous good can come to the kingdom through this office. August Pieper was bold enough to state, “The parish ministry in the form familiar to us is the chief species, the most complete, most important, and most necessary species of the ecclesiastical ministry.” [August Pieper, “Zur Verständigung in der gegenwärtigen Diskussion über Kirche und Amt,” Theologische Quartalschrift 9, no. 3 (Juli 1912): 204-205.] The apostle Paul himself called some offices greater than others because of their usefulness in edifying the church (1 Co 12:28,31; 14:5). (p. 36)

The way the pastoral ministry has been designed among us and among Christians generally, is as an office that involves the general spiritual oversight of congregations. It is wide-ranging and broad in scope. The ministry of teachers is limited to one activity and often to a selected age of students. Staff ministers are not trained and called to lead worship or preach. Pastors, however, are trained as general practitioners who serve as the overall shepherds of all the members of the congregation. We would say that the pastoral office is the one office that is not limited by its nature in the use of the means of grace. It is not from the beginning circumscribed in the way that teachers and staff ministers are. Certainly not every pastor uses all of the means of grace in every way possible. C. F. W. Walther once said it is impossible for any one person anywhere to carry out all of the possible functions of the keys. [C. F. W. Walther, “Sermon at the Installation of Two College Professors,” Lutheran Sentinel 32 (March 28, 1949): 85.] For example, parish pastors usually don’t train their own successors. Yet the pastoral ministry is the “most comprehensive” form. It could be said that the pastoral ministry includes the possibility for using the keys in every way imaginable. This puts one in a position to understand the relationship between the pastoral office and other forms of ministry in the WELS. All forms are received as gifts of God. Individuals in all forms are to respect each other and work together in love and harmony. Yet according to the way the forms have been designed, the pastoral office has overall leadership responsibilities. The following was written in 1992 when the WELS staff ministry program was coming into existence: “Those called to staff ministry positions are not called to supplant the pastor, to whom a congregation assigns oversight of the entire ministry of the gospel. Rather, working hand in hand with the pastor and under his leadership, those serving in staff ministry positions will see themselves as assisting the pastor in the congregation’s ministry in accordance with their gifts and the scope of their call. Unless extraordinary circumstances prevent it, the norm for the spiritual leadership of our congregations certainly should continue to be that they are served by one who has both the thorough theological training and the gifts that enable him to oversee the whole spiritual ministry of the congregation. Staff ministers, whose training will be relatively narrow in scope, can hardly qualify as a replacement for the pastor, no more than can a teacher in one of our elementary schools.” [David J. Valleskey, “Coworking of Pastors, Teachers, Staff, and Member Ministers,” WELS Ministry Compendium (Milwaukee: WELS Parish Services, 1992), 2:815.] The pastoral office is also the form of ministry in the WELS specially trained and called for worship leading, preaching, and the administration of the sacraments. It has been said that the “WELS allows its teachers as ministers to preach and celebrate the sacrament.” [David P. Scaer, “The Clergy as the New Testament Ministers with a Proposal for Parochial School Teachers,” Issues in Christian Education 27, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 9.] This is too broadly stated. In 45 years as a WELS worshipper, I have never witnessed a teacher preach in a congregational worship service or celebrate the sacrament. That is not to say it hasn’t happened or couldn’t happen. Certainly in cases of a pastoral vacancy or absence, a congregation could call a teacher, staff minister, or lay elder to conduct services, and some WELS congregations may do this regularly. In high school and college chapel services teachers will often take their turn in leading devotions, but this is natural in a setting where they have been called as spiritual leaders for the students. Yet teachers and staff ministers are not trained for congregational worship leading, preaching, or the administration of the sacraments. It is our regular practice to call individuals to carry out the functions for which they are trained and qualified, and pastors are trained for these three functions. So if someone says that all forms of public ministry in the WELS are equal and on the same level, that isn’t a fair and complete statement. If someone says that pastors in the WELS are expendable, that isn’t an accurate representation of our position or our practice. All forms pursue the same goal through the means of grace. Yet the different forms of ministry have different duties. The pastoral ministry is unique and special as the “most comprehensive” form for general spiritual oversight. It is the form that is universally found in our congregations. It has been called the “primary form which the ministry will usually take.” [Harold E. Wicke, “Is the Pastorate in the Congregation the Only God-ordained Office in the Church?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 68, no. 2 (April 1971): 120.] (pp. 36-37)

I suspect that when one reads about this relationship between pastors and other offices in the WELS, one may conclude that it sounds very similar to the “Missouri” position. It is likely that the way church life operates in everyday practice according to the “Wisconsin” view is probably not much different in most cases than according to the “Missouri” view. Pastors are called for general spiritual oversight. Other offices may or may not exist to help with the work in the congregation. These other forms work under the leadership of the pastor. To a certain extent one may even conclude that the differences between the “Wisconsin” view and “Missouri” view are a matter of terminology. Certainly the term “public ministry” has to a degree been understood differently. This term, of course, is not found in the Bible, and it therefore necessarily receives ecclesiastical definition. ... If the difference is only a matter of terminology without a difference in substance, the difference should be tolerated. (pp. 37-38)

Some say that women should not be in the public ministry at all. ... Others say women should serve in all forms of the public ministry, including the pastoral office. The WELS says women may be in the public ministry in positions that do not involve authority over men. Presently the WELS has over 1600 women active in the full-time teaching ministry. There are a growing number of deaconesses listed in the staff ministry section of the Yearbook who minister in some way to women and children. But there are no women pastors, and women do not vote in the decision-making assemblies of the church. To defend the practice of calling women into some forms of the public ministry, the WELS appeals primarily to the variety of forms in the New Testament and the freedom given to the church to establish the forms necessary to carry out its work. It is certainly true that there were many women involved in the work of the early church (Ro 16). There may have been an embryonic deaconess office already at Paul’s time. When Phoebe is called a diavkono (Ro 16:1), many assume this is a technical term for “deaconess.” The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:11 may well be for such deaconesses. Without a doubt the church made use of deaconesses in many locations in its subsequent history... It is no novelty for the WELS to involve women in the work of the church. To defend its limitation of women to roles that do not involve authority over men, the WELS again appeals to the New Testament. First of all, women in the New Testament were not selected to be apostles, and women are never associated with the office of elder or overseer. But even more importantly, there are clear prescriptive passages based on God’s creation order that place limitations on the service of women. Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Ti 2:12-13). In a section concerned about preaching at the worship services, Paul says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says” (1 Co 14:34). This is the same argument presented by Jobst Schöne in a Logia article: “Women have been given a specific position according to creation which places them into a specific relationship to men. The New Testament does not cancel this created order; rather the Holy Spirit affirms this order explicitly through apostolic instruction. There are clear passages of Scripture which support this position: Eph 5:21-33; 1 Cor 14:33-38; 1 Tim 2:11-15.” [Jobst Schöne, “Church & Ministry: Part II: Systematic Formulation,” Logia 2, no. 2 (Eastertide 1993): 40.] (p. 39)

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