Laymen’s Rights in Lutheran Congregations: Origins, Developments, and Contemporary Challenges, by Martin Noland

Church historian and regular contributor to BJS Pastor Martin Noland has written a timely review of the significance of laymen’s rights in the church. His point is to place into a helpful historical context the current challenges to congregational autonomy such as the Blue Ribbon proposals, the Church Growth Movement and other threats. Since we have serialized the paper and will be posting it in five or six segments, here are a few upcoming quotes to whet your appetite for this important topic.

One conclusion that you can draw from this is that, just because a church is big, does not mean they are smarter than small churches in the matter of growth.  

This statement [of the Blue Ribbon Proposals] directly undermines the letter and intent of Article VII, which is that synod is only an advisory body to the local congregation.  

Points 3, 4, 5, and 6 in Walther’s plan would be altered under what we have seen in the Blue Ribbon proposals so far.  



By Martin R. Noland – September, 2009[i]

I. Introduction

                      At the beginning of this year, Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, Indiana[ii] invited me to speak on the proposals of the Blue Ribbon Task Force for Synodical Structure and Governance (hereafter Blue Ribbon Task Force).   The synodical president convened the task force in June 2005.   The task force intends to recommend some major changes to the polity, i.e., the structure and governance, of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS) at its 2010 convention.   We won’t know until sometime in mid-October 2009 what the proposals will be.[iii]   It is therefore still too early to offer any definite criticism of those specific proposals, but it is never too early to discuss the general principles that inform the polity of our Missouri Synod.   With a firm grounding in the general principles, we should all be better prepared to discuss and evaluate any changes to our church-body and congregations.

You don’t have the time, and I don’t have the energy, to talk about all the general principles of Missouri Synod polity.   That would be a graduate level course at one of our seminaries, under the title “Church and Ministry,” or something like that.   What we need to talk about today is what principles may be at risk in our Missouri Synod today.   Based on several years of observation of current trends and practices in our church, I believe that the most endangered principle is “laymen’s rights.”     From a theological standpoint, this refers to the Lutheran doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”

I suspect that there are a number of pastors here who would strongly disagree with me.   Some pastors believe that, in their congregation, laymen have asserted their “rights” over against the pastor, to the point that the pastor has had no effective authority.   Or at least that is how the pastor views the problem.   We would be getting ahead of ourselves if we made any judgment about whose “rights” have been usurped.   You would also misunderstand me if you think that I am using the term “rights” in the modern sense of the term, i.e., legal rights established by government.   I am using the term “rights” in the classical sense, that is, natural rights given by the creator, or in this case, baptismal rights given by your Redeemer.   In any event, my purpose here is not to pit pastor against layman, but to help both understand the rights of laymen in the church and how that is challenged today.

(Coming in future posts: a historical review of laymen’s rights in the church, the unique development of this matter in Lutheranism and current challenges to laymen’s rights including the Blue Ribbon proposals, TCN, the Church Growth Movement and other challenges.)

[i]   I apologize to any and all readers who are seeking extensive footnotes.   I had to prepare this essay without access to my own professional library, or that of any significant theological library, because my family and I moved to Evansville, Indiana in the month preceding the writing of this essay.

[ii]I gave this essay at three conferences. On September 11, 2009, I gave the essay to Texas Confessional Lutherans meeting at Grace Lutheran Church, Brenham, Texas.   On September 26, 2009, I gave the essay for the Lutheran Heritage Series at Grace Lutheran Church, Columbus, Indiana.   On October 17, 2009, I gave the essay to the Minnesota Confessional Lutherans meeting at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Saint Cloud, Minnesota.   Many thanks to the conference organizers and hosts who helped along the way!

[iii]Current information indicates that the proposals will be available at the synodical web-site on October 16, 2009.   See in the section on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synodical Structure and Governance.


Laymen’s Rights in Lutheran Congregations: Origins, Developments, and Contemporary Challenges, by Martin Noland — 11 Comments

  1. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!!!!

    Oh, that we (b. 1/2 & I) would have had this series in January of this year!!!! Laity is vital, pick any denom, it is the first priority of any church, Pastors & the denom. exist to feed His SHEEP, His sheep 1st, outside next! I am not speaking of rules of order, goverance, nor checks & balances, they have their place. But, oh, that laity knew their position, responsiblity to both themselves (we are called to test everything we see & hear, no matter what or who, in love & Christian respect) view our local church & Synod, as our “safe house”, where & when the world & it’s relavence are not requested nor required, (when did He ever do so?) and our welcomed place in our respective congregations. In Synod, I was not a member of Synod, but was a member, at the same time, how in the world does that work for pew sitters like me? What am I expected to say to those who question me on these matters? Ahhhhh….got nothin’ for ya, in the same boat, ask, write or email St Louis? Is that really what I should be expected or required to say?! Look folks, if ya need a doctorate to understand the church you are a member of, it’s governance, political climate, & to understand my/our duty & place, and to understand what actions & hearsets we are to enact or support or refrain from, that is our first problem!!! Masters or grad courses are required to BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND, for all, who just want to be fed & watered, ….really?

    For members to begin to understand, in a synod, hello… did we forget our first charges?… that be problem nummero uno! Didn’t Christ Himself, thank the Father from hiding these things from the learned & the wise, & for revealing them to simple (your average joe or jane member, or have we been truly forsaken & forgotten)? That was me, your run of the mill, average member. However… lest we ever forget nor take for granted, it is those who come to be shepherded, fed & watered weekly, which are the first & foremost priority! Read this in Luther’s sermons & writings many a time, where is this now…nowhere. When did people like me stop being of value to my church? Oh…not with the CGM heresies, I, me & mine and those such as me, no longer matter, to my church, District, nor Synod, to which I was a member of, we were meant to be called to, fed & watered FIRST, we know our name is in the Book of the Lamb, we were passed over, thrown over, and forgotten…for what? Sociological & cultural relevance. As the wretch I am, I thought I was supposed to be worth more than that to my church, what I am worth now? $$$ & tushies warming a pew. Thank our Lord, to Him, I am worth so much more, for doing so much less! We, pew sitters, may not be schooled in doctrine, goverance, nor unaltered Concord, but that by that…should by no means should imply WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE NEED TO SEE, HEAR, NOR EXPECT when we come & sit down on any given Sunday!

    I so do look forward to this series, I have many who depend on what I find & read here at BJS, and at other sites, & I know many who begged to know & hear, & know what to do or act on, this very thing. Again…praise God from Whom all blessings flow…

  2. Sorry R.L,
    My brand new dog was sitting on my lap, here at the computer, and it was a bit difficult to abide my grammar rules!!! Yes, I did take a breath, & intended to make breaks, but my arms may be long, but they aren’t that long! Glad you liked what you read, grammatical errors, notwithstanding.

  3. Rev. Dr. Martin Noland: “Based on several years of observation of current trends and practices in our church, I believe that the most endangered principle is ‘laymen’s rights’…. I suspect that there are a number of pastors here who would strongly disagree with me.


    But I wonder if anyone else has ever written to protest for laymen’s rights, say ten of them (to pick an utterly random number), supported by 55 additional statements (just another randomly picked number), or with whose writings Lutheran pastors of his day strongly disagreed, although one pastor later used those writings to win a famous debate and then incorporated those rights into a book, which the Missouri Synod affirmed and has reaffirmed as “the definitive statement under Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions of the Synod’s understanding of the doctrine of church and ministry.”

    Just wondering.

  4. As I approach the 81st year of my life, I feel that my life experiences give me an insight into “laymen’s rights”, I was fortunate to be taught my Catechism by a group of true Lutheran Pastors. Luther’s Small Catechism, page 181, “The Office of the Keys”, read this, digest this and then realize how far we have left this premise. Preach the Word and administer the Sacrements. What could be simpler. The Pastor does not have to be an entertainer, fund raiser or CEO. With today’s emphasis on Mega Church’s and “Contemporary vs Traditional”, it is not wonder we have confused Congregations.

  5. @Carl Vehse #4

    No, that’s not possible. No way. That must be some other Lutherans.

    My take on this whole business is the lack of sound catechesis going back about 40-45 years. Let’s see–that would be the mid-60’s. I think that’s about right. I would venture a guess that there is a distinct correlation between the teaching at the Seminary in those days and the state of the laity today. But, I’m just a layman, whose catechism classes go back to the late 40’s. Mr. Juech has also given us some valuable insights.

    As one very smart observer has observed, “We don’t know who we are anymore.”

  6. Mr. Juech,
    How true & right you are & are deserving of so much respect. Thank you so much for what you wrote. It is also what I was taught, (know page 181, go figure). Both the Office & those who sit opposite, have lost sight & not been taught their respective places, duties, responsiblities & accountability. Remember when our Pastor ate, sat on our couch, said goodnight to us kids, and just chatted, but knew or strengths & weakness, when they encouraged us, all without survey or church health check? Remember, when we had no cause to doubt, let alone not trust our undershepherd in our care, nor his trust in us his members, why would we ever consider such? I remember when reverence for the office was earned, not demanded, but lovingly given & those under it, submitted & obeyed, because they were KNOWN, and loved and cared for as little children. You have seen so much more than I, (only 40) but I remember those things too. Ya can’t miss what ya never had, & I miss them, oh so very much. I so do miss being truly known, not just known of. I miss our Grandfather’s church & those who made it so….men just like you. Thanks bunches & blessings to you.

  7. Forgive me for my naivete and confusion. I don’t understand the debate. Is the concern that laity is getting too assertive, or too dominated by the pastorate? And, how do the Blue Ribbon Proposals fit into this? Will they accentuate the problem or diminish it, assuming there is a problem? I’m coming into this scenario w/o the benefit of history in the LCMS, having only recently come in, although a life long Lutheran. I’d sure appreciate someone’s brief orientation. Thank you!

  8. Bruce,

    The best way to get up to speed on the Blue Ribbon proposals is to go the Interested Laymen’s site where they put up the proposals with the Task Force’s rationale and what no one else had done, and this is the most important thing, a set of con statements that give the down side of each proposal.

    You can find their website, and even take their poll on the proposals here:

    If you look on the right hand bar on this page and click on Blue Ribbon proposals, (just above the “It’s Time” box) you will see a couple more links to good articles on this subject.


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