Our mother, the church, is suffering an existential crisis. This is arguably due to our postmodern context where the questions, “What is the church” and, “Who is the pastor” are perhaps gravely important questions to answer than at any other point in history. Postmodernity has popularised the dogma of relativism, whether cultural or moral. Under this guise, morality and truth are no longer absolute; they are only relative according to the vast, amalgamated kaleidoscope of subjectivity. Unfortunately, this way of thinking has distorted the way some Lutherans—and Christians everywhere—think about church and the pastoral office.
The church has become relative to each person’s individual needs, perhaps most explicit in the prevalent moralistic therapeutic deism—”I’ll only go to church when I need God to make me feel better about myself” (i.e. make me feel good about committing my favourite sins). And, of course, the two-timer churchgoers (church is just the thing you do on Easter and Christmas).
The pastoral office has become relative to gender and “social justice,” that is, the cultural norms and mores of society in its specific time and place. That straight men alone occupy the pastoral office is now considered antiquated and outdated, even sexist. Thus, the office is now open to women, homosexuals, transgenders, and other aberrations from God’s created order. Worse still is the even more relative notion that the pastoral office is open to anyone who can fill the seat regardless of theological training and discipline and even faithfulness to the Lord.
The pastoral office has ceased to be Christ’s authoritative gift to the church and has become a simple career option tagged with a job description that any person with a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and a modicum of ecclesiastical experience can apply for. Postmodernity’s relativism robs us of the certainty of forgiveness and salvation given to us in Christ’s gift of church and ministry (pastoral office).
Hence the vitality of exalting our Confessions that are faithful to the Scriptures in our postmodern age. What Lutheran pastors vow to believe, teach, and confess upon their ordination vows spits in the face of postmodern relativism. Rather than some wishy-washy, don’t-want-to-offend-anybody etherealness of church and ministry, the Confessions provide a concrete, biblical concession of church and ministry faithful to our Lord Christ.
Before we explore the church’s existentialism, we first need a proper understanding of her ontology, that is, what constitutes the church. Simply put, the Confessions define the church as such, “It is the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII, 1). There it is, a simple understanding of what the church is: the place where God’s people gather to receive Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of their sins.
Yet there is also the question of the “invisible” and “visible” church that needs answering. All too often, Christians will take the Platonic approach to this question, such as the Reformed. From the Platonist perspective, there is the little c church here and now on earth, which is visible; but there is also the big C Church consisting of all believers, especially the dead, which is not only the invisible Church but also the true Church. The church here on earth is merely a shadow of something more real. The problem with this platonic thinking is that it segments the church as the Body of Christ.
Christ’s body is not segmented; He is not a worm. His body is one. The Apostle Paul wrote extensively on this issue to the Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). This is why we can properly speak of the church as Christ’s actual body, rooted in His anointing at His Baptism in the Jordan through which we become participants in our own baptisms.
Thus, St. Augustine writes, “Not only has our Head been anointed, but we ourselves too, who are his body… We are all the body of Christ because we all share in the anointing and, in him, we are all Christ’s and Christ, since in a certain way the whole Christ consists in both Head and body” (Cantalamessa, 16). (It is difficult to speak of the existentialism and ontology of the church without also speaking on Jesus’ anointing at His Baptism in the Jordan, of which the two are specially linked. The space provided does not allow for a longer explication on the subject.)
The church is one, both visible and invisible. As Marquart succinctly puts it, “The one church is invisible in respect of the ‘who,’ and visible in respect of the where'” (Marquart, Loc 621). In other words, the proper sense of the church (invisible) are those who believe in Christ on earth and in heaven since the faith of the heart cannot be seen via physical means. The wide sense of the church (visible) are the believers gathered around the means of grace. Both of these are one and the same church.
Apology VII and VIII, 1-5 reaffirms AC VII that states “the church is the assembly of saints” (visible/wide sense) and it further explicates the church is also “principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons” (invisible/proper sense).
The Office of Holy Ministry (Pastoral Office)
With the ontology of the church clarified as her being one church while simultaneously being visible and invisible, now we can speak on her existential nature, that is, why does she exist? However, it is impossible to shed light on the purpose of her being without also bringing the purpose of the pastoral office into the discussion, for the purpose of the church (priesthood of believers) and the pastoral office is mutually symbiotic.
The structure of the Augsburg Confession is apropos of the confession of our faith, as it helps tell God’s story. It opens with the Trinitarian God as the protagonist of the story just as our Holy Bible does the same in Genesis (article I). Then the antagonist enters, us, who bring the problem of sin into God’s story (article II). Next, it brings in the protagonist and hero who rescues us damsels in distress from the Devil (article III) and who resolves our problem of sin through His gracious act of justification because of what He has done and for the sake of who He is (article IV).
Yet what is the means by which we receive this gift? The Confessions continue, “To obtain such faith [justification by faith, article IV] God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments” (AC V, 1). Such faith cannot help but “yield good fruit and good works” (article VI), and so God’s people gather as “one, holy Christian church” around the means of grace in order to receive God’s gift of justification by faith (article VII).
To summarise it simply: Christ came to save us from our problem of sin, death, and the Devil. He does this by justifying us through His gift of faith. In order to give this to us, He established the office of the pastor to distribute this gift through His means of grace (Word and Sacrament). Therefore, the people gather around this single locatedness for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of their sins.
To put it another way: Jesus came for the purpose to forgive sins and give salvation; therefore, to receive the purpose for which Jesus came, He gathers His people in His body, the church, to give them the gifts of His purpose, forgiveness of sins and salvation. The church exists because Christ gathers her together to fulfil His purpose for them. This was most publicly declared at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, which, for Irenaeus, “has to do with the fullness and perfection of salvation offered to humankind in the Church” (McDonnell, 120).
The church gathers to receive the gifts of Christ’s purpose, which is given to them via the pastor who exists to distribute Christ’s gifts. Nagel has said it beautifully, “A pastor is good for nothing but the deliver of the forgiveness of sins. Attention is not directed to him but to what he is there for, as servant and instrumentality, the Gospel and the Sacraments. It is God who does the verbs” (Nagel, 288). In this way, the purpose and relationship between pastor and church are mutually symbiotic.
The Relationship between Pastor and Congregation
While the relationship between the two are mutually symbiotic, too much time has been squandered on laying out a difference between these two gifts. On the one hand, many in our synod hold to the congregationalist view that the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) establishes the pastoral office and, therefore, the pastoral office is subservient to the royal priesthood (e.g. the voters’ assembly). On the other hand, the smaller side holds to the clerical view, which is the antithesis. At question is who has the authority in the church. Specifically, to whom is the Office of the Keys given?
Congregationalists contend the Keys are given to the royal priesthood (the church), who then hand it to the pastor; on the other side, clericalists contend the Keys are given to the pastor, who then hands it to the priesthood. However, both are wrong. While congregationalists trivialise the pastoral office and undermine the oneness of the church, clericalists—in the authentic effort to restore a high view of the pastoral office—end up deposing the royal priesthood as a result of their efforts, and the pastor’s head becomes too big for his shoulders to hold.
Against both views, Christ has given the authority of the Keys both to the royal priesthood and the pastoral office. No single vocation hands the Keys to the other; they both receive the Keys from Christ. In other words, the authority is Christ—not the pastor, not the priesthood, but solus Christus. Of course, congregationalists love to unsheathe their Walther’s Church & Ministry (especially thesis IV) to strike a fatal blow against the clericalist upholding of the pastoral office and against the bold notion that Christ gives the Keys immediately (directly) to the pastor instead of that authority coming mediately from the priesthood.
To call Walther a strict congregationalist results from a dishonest and ignorant reading of his Church & Ministry. As with all theological writers, we must consider their historical context—or, as we would say in exegesis, the locutionary force of the writer, that is, what has taken place that gives its meaning to their utterances. Because of the events surrounding Martin Stephan’s perfidy, Lutherans in Perry County were wondering if they were still the church without a bishop. Thus, Walther sought to comfort their minds and hearts by showing them with ample evidence from the Scriptures, Confessions, and patristics that the ontology of the church comes from Christ Himself rather than being solely dependent on a bishop.
Luther also made similar attempts because of his own historical context against Rome, which is why the reader finds a lot of quotations leaning toward a congregationalist view because both Walther and Luther desired to satiate their peoples’ consciences that they are, indeed, the church because of Christ. However, we see instances of Walther’s high view of the pastoral office as well.
He quotes Luther, “‘The Keys are given alone to St. Peter, as is the case in Matthew 16:19. [However, in] Matthew 18:18 Christ gives them to the whole Church‘” (emphasis mine). As we see, both receive the keys immediately (directly) from Christ. After this, Walther gives quotes from Luther that have the appearance of the congregationalist view, but these are subsequent to his high (clerical) view of the pastoral office. We see it still in another Luther quote, “‘It is true that the Keys were given to St. Peter, yet not for his own sake, but personally [on behalf] of the Christian Church'” (Walther, 42).
This appears to be a congregationalist saying, but Luther is not saying the Keys in the pastoral office are from the church but for the church. Although the church may place a man in the office, it is done by Christ’s authority, not man’s.
So, is there any difference between the priesthood and the pastoral office? Though there is a distinction, there is no difference. As Nagel formidably says:
It is not the way of faith/Gospel to cut into pieces and attempt to prove what pieces can be done without. We are invited to rejoice in the many ways the Lord has given for the giving of His gifts. This excludes the logic which concludes that since the forgiveness given a fellow Christian by a royal priest is no other forgiveness than given by a pastor in Holy Absolution, royal priest and pastor are the same or differ only in degree. To measure degrees and quantify is the way of the Law and turns from the way of the Gospel and the gift given. Each gift is each its own precious gift gladly to be received and not to be measured or diminished by its likeness or unlikeness to another gift.Concordia Journal, July 1988, 295
In other words, stop trying to divide the Lord’s gifts like the Law but accept the fullness of the Gospel given to you as a free gift! Do you want the Lord’s forgiveness? He dumps the whole cart on you! We receive each gift for which it is and we don’t try to figure out which one we can do without. The Lord dumps the whole cart of grace upon you. Stop trying to figure out which one you can throw away!
Therefore, we must have not a high view of either the royal priesthood or the pastoral office, but a high view of both, each according to their distinct vocations (pastor, husband, wife, friend, brother/sister in Christ, etc.). Both receive the power of the Keys from Christ Himself according to their baptismal identity in the Lord.
The whole reason for the existence of the pastoral office is to ensure the Gospel is delivered. What is the Gospel? Justification by faith (AC IV). How does God ensure His gifts are delivered? Through the pastor (AC V). Where does the royal priest go when she wonders if she’s forgiven and has salvation? Not to a closet where she prays and hopes she gets some warm, fuzzy feelings in her heart or gut that turns out to be gas and heart burn. Rather, she goes to Absolution Man (many thanks to Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann for this term) whom Christ Himself instituted to distribute His forgiveness to you. You go to this man whom Christ has called and appointed from whom you hear, taste, and are bathed in God’s forgiveness.
The pastor places his hand upon you and says, “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (LSB Divine Service Setting One; emphasis mine). These words enter your “earholes” and become real and true (Nagel, 286). There, you’ve heard it spoken to you and done for you by the words of Christ Himself.
You take in your mouth the true body and blood of Christ, swallowing His very body and blood to digest His forgiveness. There, you’ve literally tasted His sweet forgiveness.
You have been bathed—washed, cleansed—by His efficacious Word in the waters of Baptism. Through these waters, His Word has made you clean, sanctified.
Nothing gets more real than these. Nothing is more certain than what Christ does for you through your pastor.
While you can receive any of these from any brethren in Christ (any royal priest), the Lord has also appointed for you an Absolution Man in a specific located place to preach and to do for you what our Saviour has promised to do, that way whenever you need and desire Christ’s good gifts, you know exactly where to go. When a church calls a pastor, she is simply saying, “This brother from the midst of us is whom we trust to give us Your good gifts, O Lord.”
It is that simple. No need to muddy it up with infantile attempts for power grabs like a bloody game of king of the hill. Thanks be to God.
Cantalamessa, Raniero. The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.
The Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Lutheran Service Book. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.
Marquart, Kurt E. Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance. Ed. Robert Preus. Kindle edition. Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2015.
McDonnell, Kilian. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996.
Nagel, Norman E. “The Office of the Holy Ministry in the Confessions.” Concordia Journal (July 1988): 201-328.
Walther, C. F. W. The Church & the Office of the Ministry. Ed. Matthew C. Harrison. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012.