Rethinking “Ministry and Congregation”
This quarter I’m teaching Galatians, which in addition to its rich Christ-centered teaching is a masterpiece of ancient rhetoric. Read through the letter in one sitting—or better, listen to it in one sitting—and you can’t miss it. How does Paul return the Galatians to Christ? He presents the problem in 1:6-12 (which Gospel is the right Gospel, mine, or the false teachers?), gives a summary of the answer in 2:15-21 (the Gospel that is based on faith, not works of law), and fleshes out this answer in chapters 3-6. Part of the letter, though, we tend to skip over: the “narration” section of 1:13-2:14. We might read it to glean the few bits of Paul’s life story that are found in his extant letters, but that is not their purpose. Rather, Paul goes through this “narration” in order to get the Galatians up to speed on how his Gospel has been proven to the the right (only) Gospel. For this Gospel is not a new invention (1:12), but it has been demonstrated to be true again and again and again — five times, actually, in Arabia, among the churches of the Jews in Christ, in Jerusalem, in Antioch. This, of course, is very effective: Before giving the answer, let’s recall how we got here, let’s rethink these thoughts again, and when it comes time to give a definitive answer, then we and our hearers will be ready.
I find this approach helpful to turn on myself on many occasions, especially when approaching difficult or controversial questions. How did we get here? How have we talked about this in the past? What have other people recognized about the issues that is a blind spot for me?
One of my favorite conversation partners in this task of rethinking what others thought before is Hermann Sasse. Sasse is likely to be familiar to most readers of this page, but a quick summary of why I find it beneficial to think along with him might be helpful to you. First, he was trained as a New Testament scholar, and in fact wrote several articles for “Kittel” (the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). So he can read the Scriptures very well. But he was also a historian, who knew the early church fathers and the Reformation (especially Luther) intimately. And, he was a churchman. He was involved early on in the ecumenical movement, then in resistance to Nazism and the Kirchenkampf, then in the question of the unity of the Lutheran church both in Germany and in Australia. He had a globally and chronologically broad frame of reference, and so he is much less parochial and short-sighted than I tend to be.
One of the controversial questions that has been stirring my church body, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, is the issue of “pastor” and “people.” That is, what is the relationship between a pastor and the congregation? Which has “authority”? Recently, the Lutheran Witness, the popularly-focused newsmagazine of the LCMS published an issue on the topic of “The Lord’s Office” (recent issues are not available online). This created quite a stir, as is evident in the letters to the editor that appeared in the subsequent issue. It also occasioned some conversation among the faculty of Concordia Seminary. The Winter issue of the Concordia Journal will have a couple editorials by faculty members reflecting on these issues. Here, I’d like to offer a resource that might be helpful as we think through the best ways to answer these questions in the ever-changing landscape in which the Church lives.
One essay that was required reading for a systematics class I took with Dr. Nagel back in the day (I can’t recall if the class was Systematics III or “Office of the Holy Ministry”) was a translation that Dr. Nagel had made for the We Confess series of translations of Sasse’s writings. This essay, titled “Ministry and Congregation,” might be a helpful guide as we review where we have been as Lutherans on this topic, what errors we have fallen into, and how we might refocus on Christ and the Word. I strongly encourage “pastor” and “people” alike to read the whole essay carefully; here I’ll quote a few sections, with some highlighting, in order to provide a taste of how he works through this issue.[Page references are to the We Confess the Church paperback edition, published by CPH in 1986. This is now available in the single-volume printing of all of Dr. Nagel’s translations of Sasse as the We Confess Anthology.
That the great freedom of the Reformation is truly the freedom of the Gospel is shown by the fact that the Office of the Keys is given three times in the New Testament: in Matthew 16 to Peter, in John 20 to all the apostles, in Matthew 18 to the whole church. These three bestowals of the office may not be separated. One may not be selected as the chief one, and then played off against the others. To the Twelve Jesus gave the office of preaching the Gospel to every creature and making disciples of all nations by baptizing them. To them He gave the mandate at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Who were the Twelve? They were the first ministers (Amtsträger). From them proceeds “the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments” [AC 5]. But they are at the same time the church, the ekklesia, the representatives of God’s new people of the end time. It is therefore in fact impossible in the New Testament to separate ministry and congregation. What is said to the congregation is also said to the office of the ministry, and vice versa. The office does not stand above the congregation, but always in it. In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas are sent out as missionaries by the congregation in Antioch. They were already sent by the Lord. What more could this congregation give to Paul with the laying on of hands than what he had already received by the direct commissioning of the risen Lord, who appointed him to his work? Nevertheless the sending is quite deliberately repeated with the laying on of hands. Office and congregation belong inseparably together.
Church history confirms this. Only where there is a vital ministerial office working with the full authority of having been sent, only there is a living congregation. And only where there is a living congregation is there a living ministerial office. Of all Lutheran churches there can hardly be another in which the office of the ministry is so highly honored as in the Missouri Synod where the congregation is so much the center of churchly thinking and activity. [p. 78]
Pick your passage? John 20 or Matt 16 or Matt 18? Sasse points out this is the starting point of the problem. If you only take Matt 18, you have church but no pastors; only Matt 16 or John 20 you have pastors but no church. Unfortunately, this is one of the shortcomings of the November, 2012 Lutheran Witness article. The only bestowal of the Office of the Keys cited there is from John 20. Granted, the piece is short, not exhaustive, and aimed at a popular audience. Nevertheless, there is a danger (which the article flirts with) in removing from the church (the baptized) the gift of forgiveness given to all the baptized to share. This insight of Sasse should not be overlooked; it also helps solve an exegetical problem that I’ve heard put out for consideration many times: Is Matt 28 (the “great commission”) give to “pastors” or to “people”? Given that the power to forgive is given to both earlier in Matthew, the answer should be, “Yes.”
Back to Sasse:
. . . the alternative “ministry or congregation?” in the 19th century was falsely put. Löhe himself saw this, by the way, as Hebart has shown in his illuminating book about him. What was lacking was the strength to draw the consequences of this recognition, and instead there was misapprehension in diagnosing what lay behind the other’s position. The position taken by Missouri had nothing to do with the American propensity to do things democratically, as Mundinger has shown in his penetrating study Government in the Missouri Synod. After all, Walther and those like-minded with him were all antidemocrats. And Hebart has shown that no conservative political notions distorted the concept of the church for Löhe, who was never so dominated by nationalistic motives . . . On both sides there was an overemphasis on one aspect of Biblical truths which in the New Testament belong together. This happened because each party took one side of the New Testament passages as the important one, under which the other had to be subordinated. [p. 79]
Here Sasse demonstrates, in the history of the church, what happens when someone picks one passage over and against the others. Notice, “On both sides there was an overemphasis on one aspect of Biblical truths which in the New Testament belong together.” Selective use of the Scriptures, caused by our own blind spots, can be dangerous. Church historians are actually useful! We’ve been there, done that, and it hasn’t turned out very well.
This isn’t exactly on topic, but shows the kind of side observations that Sasse tosses in on occasion that reveal his clarity of insight:
It would also mean the end of the notion that what the Confessions say of church government is fulfilled by having a clever—alas all too clever—central church bureaucracy running things not by the Word but by force (non verbo, sed vi). All of this must pass away and will pass away. . . [p. 82]
Finally, where should a discussion of “Ministry and Congregation” end?? In the entire essay, Sasse does not use the word “authority” (which permeates the Lutheran Witness piece). Rather, he focuses on the Gospel, and the one who gives and is the Gospel, Jesus Christ, the Lord:
This faith in what God is doing does not exclude our responsibility, but rather includes it. This means renouncing everything that is destructive of the genuine holy ministry instituted by Christ and the genuine congregation instituted by Him, everything that makes of what Christ has instituted a place for exercising our lust for power, whether clerical or congregational. The office of the holy ministry is not lord over the congregation (2 Cor. 1:24); the congregation is not lord over the office of the holy ministry (Gal. 1). Both are under Him who alone is Lord; in Him they are one. [p. 83]
“Ministry and Congregation” are not new questions. Where have we been and how did we get here? What have we thought and what needs rethinking? Are we over-reacting in our new settings? Is it enough just to “freshen up” what we’ve always said? Errors have been made before; we will make them also. As we seek answers in our age, it is necessary to return to the text, and those who read the text before we came along. Read, mark, and learn from Sasse. And inwardly digest the Word.