Part III of Martin Noland’s Essay on Laymens’ Rights ““ The Development of Laymen’s Rights in the Lutheran Church

(Editor’s Note: for an introduction to this essay and for Part I  click here. For Part II click here.)

I am surprised that so few church historians have commented on the role of laymen in the reform and later establishment of the Lutheran church.   But there is no doubt that Luther succeeded, in contrast to others such as Wycliffe and Hus, because he had gained the support of the secular princes.   This is seen most clearly in the signatures attached to the Augsburg Confession, which were all made by secular princes or rulers.  There is not one theologian or clergy among them.   The Augsburg Confession is a confession by laymen to laymen, written by the lay humanist Philip Melanchthon.   The Lutheran church was thus established in the beginning as a laymen’s church.

The basic principle of religious law in the Holy Roman Empire after Luther was that subjects were obliged to follow the confession of the secular prince.   This principle was established by the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555.   The Latin for this was:   Ius reformandi: cuius regio, eius religio.   Translated it meant:   “the law of reform is this – whatever your king believes, that is your religion.”   Of course, you and I would object to this principle as prohibiting freedom of religion, but it did establish freedom of religion for kings, with their subjects in tow.   If you didn’t agree with the king, you could in many cases move to another state or kingdom.   Only citizens of imperial cities were free to choose their own religion.   This was a major advance in civilization and good government over the medieval system.    

The kings and princes in Lutheran Europe rarely bothered themselves with religious policy.   They usually hired lawyers to manage church affairs for them.   Some of the Lutheran states had   “superintendents,” who were like our District Presidents. Many of the Lutheran states had “consistories,” which included local clergy, prominent lay leaders, and a lawyer representing the ruler’s interests.   These consistories made significant decisions on a regular basis for all the churches.   They would be similar to our District Board of Directors, in making financial, legal, and administrative decisions for the hundreds of congregations under their care.  

Theological decisions were reserved for the faculty at Wittenberg, which issued official decisions that were used by all pastors and church councils in the Lutheran states.   When significant controversy or other issues arose, the kings and princes would call “synods,” which were similar to our national conventions.   Theologians, clergy, and lay rulers all participated in these Lutheran “synods.”   Their work is recorded in the archives, annals, and histories of the various German, Baltic, and Scandinavian states.

At the time of the “confessional revival” in the early nineteenth century, the Lutheran church structure and government was not really in need of repair.   The term “confessional Lutheran,” incidentally, originated at that time to indicate persons who were products of this revival and were loyal to Luther’s teaching and the Book of Concord.   The problem was not the structure, but the fact that the Prussian king wanted to rule all of Germany with an iron fist, and he wanted to control everyone’s religion.   This meant Lutheran theologians, Lutheran scholars, Lutheran pastors, Lutheran teachers, Lutheran church musicians, Lutheran books, Lutheran hymns, Lutheran liturgy, Lutheran prayers, and even the name “Lutheran” had to be purged from the face of the earth, by order of the king. Those people whose conscience compelled them to retain these aspects of the Lutheran church were the spiritual fathers of our Missouri Synod.   Only some of them immigrated to America.   Others went to Australia and other places.   Others stayed in Germany and stubbornly held on to the “old ways.”

One of the leaders of the “confessional revival” who never left Germany was a theologian named Johann Gottfried Scheibel, pastor and professor at Breslau in Silesia.   “Confessional Lutherans” should never forget Scheibel, because he was the theologian who first developed the principles of lay governance of individual Lutheran congregations.[i]   Scheibel knew that the king of Prussia, the superintendents, and the consistories were all determined to purge the Lutheran church from the land, so he returned to the principles enunciated by Luther.  

On May 16, 1831, Scheibel proposed that lay elders elected by the congregation would govern individual congregations.   He proposed that the properties of each congregation would be owned, maintained, and paid for by that congregation.   He finally proposed that each congregation would make its own decision about whom they would call as their pastor, and they would be responsible for his salary, parsonage, and the care for his family.   This is, of course, the system of congregational governance that members of the LCMS know today.

Scheibel’s proposals were deemed a matter of rebellion and treason against the Prussian king, so he was forced into exile.   For a while he lived in Saxony, where he was in communication by letter with the Saxon founders of the Missouri Synod.   Scheibel completed an important book before his death on the confessional revival that has yet to be translated into English.[ii]

 Scheibel’s principles of church governance were not put into practice until the Saxon immigrants had settled in the state of Missouri and had been outraged at the behavior of their bishop, Martin Stephan.   The story of the development of their church government is told in an important book, now out of print, titled Government in the Missouri Synod, authored by Carl S. Mundinger.[iii]  

The Saxons not only reacted to the excesses of Bishop Martin Stephan, they also had to defend their position against another Lutheran bishop named Johannes Grabau.   Grabau was the bishop of the “Buffalo Synod,” so called because most of its members lived in and around Buffalo, New York.   The members of the Buffalo Synod were also recent immigrants from Germany, had left for religious reasons, and were products of the confessional revival.

After Stephan was demoted, Bishop Grabau wanted the Saxons in Missouri to come under his episcopal supervision.   They refused to submit, asserting the equality of all pastors on the basis of the “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” in the section titled “The Power and Jurisdiction of Bishops.”[iv]   This section also contained a reference to Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.[v]   This section of the Treatise became the Missouri Synod’s justification for laymen’s election of their pastors, and their right of the deposal of the same for due cause.   The battle between the Buffalo Synod and the Missouri Synod was as vicious as any Lutheran battle you have witnessed in your lifetime, if not worse!   Eventually, the Missouri Synod convinced half of the Buffalo Synod that the Missouri Synod was right, resulting in those members joining Missouri.  

The enduring fruit of that battle was a cogently articulated position on church government, whose title is well known by LCMS pastors.   The original title is Kirche und Amt, translated as Church and Ministry.   Its author was C. F. W. Walther, who in 1851 submitted 29 theses on the doctrines of the church and ministry to the Missouri Synod convention at Milwaukee.   The convention approved the theses and his outline for the book, which he published in 1852.[vi]   The theses and book were reaffirmed as the Missouri Synod’s position at its 2001 convention.

The three theses from this book that are most relevant for our topic are Church Theses IV and VII and Ministry Thesis VI.   They state in part:

Church Thesis IV:   [The true church of believers] is the proper and only possessor and bearer of the spiritual, divine, and heavenly gifts, rights, powers, offices, and the like that Christ has procured and are found in his church.

Church Thesis VII:   [Visible congregations also] possess the power that Christ has given to his whole church, on account of the true visible church hidden in them, even if there were only two or three believers.

Ministry Thesis VI:   The ministry of the Word is conferred by God through the congregation as the possessor of all ecclesiastical power, or the power of the keys, by means of its call, which God Himself has prescribed.[vii]

These theses demonstrate that Walther’s position, and thus the Missouri Synod’s position, on laymen’s rights was derived directly from Luther’s position, which position we have examined previously in his treatise To the Christian Nobility.     This position was the “backbone” of Missouri Synod structure and governance for at least its first hundred years.

After World War II, a number of trends in American religion put pressure on Missouri Synod clergy and congregations to abandon their traditional doctrines and polity.   An excellent example of this was recently published in the journal First Things.   In the April 2009 issue, which paid tribute to former LCMS pastor Richard John Neuhaus, his uncle, the Rev. Erwin Prange recounted this event during a fishing trip to Canada:

The fishing trip was only partially successful. . .   [Fifteen year old] Richard [Neuhaus] sat at the feet of two nonconformist theologians. . . . We made fun of Richard’s corny Missouri Synod theology.   “Richard, surely you can’t believe all the things they are teaching,” was our favorite reply to his theological platitudes. . . . Eight months before he died, Richard sent me a letter [stating that] Dr. Backus and I had tried to turn him into a maverick theologian that summer [in Canada]. . . . [He concluded] that we had succeeded.[viii]

It appears that Pastor Prange and many of his peers thought that the Missouri Synod had been run by a bunch of “old fogies” and “conformists.”   The result of Prange and his peer’s corrupting influence on the next generation was not a single theological system, but a number of theologies and trends that ran rampant through the Missouri Synod clergy in those days.   The period of this alteration in Missouri’s doctrine was from about 1950 to 1974.   The Lutheran position on laymen’s rights was one of the things challenged in those days.   It has never been entirely reaffirmed by all the clergy or laymen since that time.


[i]   I need to acknowledge the research of Jobst Schoene, Bishop Emeritus of the SELK, who in his dissertation has stated that Georg Philip Eduard Huschke was more responsible for the structure and governance of the confessional Lutheran churches than Scheibel.   I respect Schoene’s scholarship and have not had a chance to read his dissertation, so I am willing to change my statement here about Scheibel after further research.

[ii]   Johann G. Scheibel, Actenmässige Geschichte der neusten Unternehmung . . .  (Leipzig, 1834).

[iii]   Carl S. Mundinger, Government in the Missouri Synod (Saint Louis:   Concordia Publishing House, 1947).

[iv]   Tr 60-72; see Tappert, 330-332.

[v] Tr 69-71; see Tappert, 331-332.

[vi] The English translation currently in print is:   C.F. W Walther, Church and Ministry, tr. J. T. Mueller (Saint Louis:   Concordia Publishing House, 1987).

[vii]   Walther, 19-22.

[viii]   Erwin E. Prange, “Fisher’s of Men,” First Things No. 192 (April 2009): 46-47.


Comments

Part III of Martin Noland’s Essay on Laymens’ Rights ““ The Development of Laymen’s Rights in the Lutheran Church — 10 Comments

  1. There was once a time, when the blush of youth was off the cheek, that one, such as I, a confessional, was still of value & of great prize for my church. I am, so much to so many, am worth, so little now to the LCMS?

    I & those like me, are to be prized, I/we are to be sent to, the young women (if such you may be) of the church, to be taught & encouraged in the roles they will, in time, bear as I do now. I am, or rather was, in my/our church, was once, a woman of noble character. Christ’s Word, once stated, my price was far that above rubies. Now, I am I drone worker bee, in a headless hive.

    You want me to do what? Abandon all I have been taught by Him & those whom He sent? Who willing gave all to walk in authority of the Divine Office, for what? That which humans weigh of gain? I know I am worth more than that, to Whom bought & purchased me. What is it this “new & improved version of a false Him” offer above Christ Himself or what those who walked before us taught? Nothing. Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, & we, all of us, have no excuse in this. Look at who preceeded us, and give such an answer to them, if you dare, those who gave their lives for the Truth. Those who have accepted this apostasy, have accepted falsehood, and are to be avoided. That is a command, not an elective folks.

    Thank you much Pastor Rossow, for reminded us wee members, we are still of great worth.

  2. Did Scheibel actually call for what we would translate as “elders?” This has been a struggle for me to understand just what exactly an “elder” is. Of course, I can look to the Presbyterians and see that we’ve in essence mimicked that. But I’m interested in what Scheibel called for. What was the bounds in which the “elders” were to operate? Did they exercise authority over the “spiritual affairs” of the congregation and as an assistant to the Pastor? Or was it more of an oversight committee? Having looked at this whole ecclesiology issue in America amongst Lutherans, you get a mixed sense. About the only thing that is consistent between the various confessional Lutheran church bodies in America is a profound mingling of left hand and right hand realm things when it comes to carrying out the administration of the congregation. Grabau and Buffalo probably less so than say Missouri or Augustana.

    Another interesting tangent from this and my research was an observation I had in researching the Walther – Grabau exchange on the office of the ministry. My theory is that Grabau influenced Walther in how he later understood “ritae vocatus” as Walther picks up some of Grabau’s language in his Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation.

  3. “Once upon a time there was a lovely princess…” often signals the start of a children’s fairy tale. The Missouri Synod has developed its own fairy tale about the early years of the Missouri Saxon emigrants prior to the formation of the Missouri Synod. This synodical fairy tale often starts with Martin Stephan as a Saxon ‘Moses’ leading the confessional Lutherans out of the Prussian Union to America, or else with C.F.W. Walther as the ‘Lone Ranger’ rescuing the Missouri Saxons after Stephan’s “excesses”, while the Missouri Synod’s fairy tale denigrates or completely ignores Dr. Carl Eduard Vehse and his contributions to what eventually became the Missouri Synod and its position on church and ministry.

  4. Martin Noland: “The story of the development of their church government is told in an important book, now out of print, titled Government in the Missouri Synod, authored by Carl S. Mundinger.”

    Yes, and according to Carl S. Mundinger (Government in the Missouri Synod, CPH, 1947):

    “While the future Missourians were still in Germany, there was no demand on the part of the pastors or laymen for participation in the government of the Church. In their complaints against the Consistory and the Cultusministerium one looks in vain for a request for lay participation in government…. The demand for lay participation in the government of the Church did not come until September 19, 1839 [the date of the Protestation document]. The demand came from a group of laymen led by Dr. Eduard Vehse… The removal of Martin Stephan on May 30, 1839, and all the misery that followed that event gave the laymen the necessary jolt to press for lay participation in the government of the Church. This misery drove them in to the writings of Luther, and here the laymen found the weapons they needed to win the battle for congregational supremacy from the power-jealous pastors.” (pp.203-205)

    Walther later recognized the value of Vehse’s Protestation document. As Walter Forster (Zion on the Mississippi, CPH, 1954, p.520) noted:

    “It was in these dark days [prior to the Altenburg Debate] that C.F.W. Walther came forward with a series of propositions which were to prove the fundamental factor in saving the colonies. The idea he advanced was by no means a new one, for it was contained in more than an embryonic state in Vehse’s writings. Walther was ready to admit his indebtedness to the Dresden archivist. Keyl and Burger joined in this acknowledgment. Later writers with a less meticulous sense of fairness, however, have given Vehse little credit.”

  5. Martin Noland: “The Saxons not only reacted to the excesses of Bishop Martin Stephan, they also had to defend their position against another Lutheran bishop named Johannes Grabau.”

    And the Missouri Saxons held that position against the excesses of Wilhelm Loehe, a German Lutheran theologian, who in 1853 broke with Walther and the Missouri Synod (including many of his own sendlings. Later in 1859 Loehe conceded that the doctrine of the Missouri Synod was the doctrine of the ministry held by Luther and the Lutheran confessions, while on the other hand Loehe claimed his position held an ‘artless attachment to Holy Scripture and antiquity and (by) greater truth in practice.’”

  6. Martin Noland: “On May 16, 1831, Scheibel proposed that lay elders elected by the congregation would govern individual congregations. He proposed that the properties of each congregation would be owned, maintained, and paid for by that congregation. He finally proposed that each congregation would make its own decision about whom they would call as their pastor, and they would be responsible for his salary, parsonage, and the care for his family. This is, of course, the system of congregational governance that members of the LCMS know today.”

    What occurred on May 16 followed and is provided context by what happened earlier in Breslau, Silesia, annexed by Prussia in the 18th century. In 1830, as pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Breslau, as his father had also been, Rev. Scheibel refused to use the Agenda required by the Prussian Union and was suspended as pastor. A small number of the laymen and another pastor who support Scheibel repeatedly asked the king to recognize the Breslau Church as separate from the Evangelical State Church and reinstate Schiebel as pastor. Those requests were rejected at the end of 1830, but Scheibel and this group contined their (peaceful) protest and continued to advocate what they considered to be their legal rights.

    On May 1, 1831, the Lutheran congregation in Breslau formally petitioned Baron von Altenstein, the Minister of Spiritual Affairs, to be an independent church separate from the Church of Prussia. In part the petition requested that “the congregation elects and maintains the teachers and church officials; it also administers the church property… The congregation watches over the preservation of the doctrine, of the service, and of the constitution.” This petition was also rejected.

    It was then on May 16th that Scheibel proposed not just the independence of the Breslau church, but a similar reorganization of all Lutheran churches on the pattern of the New Testament congregations. This was the demand that got the king’s attention and forced Scheibel to flee to Saxony. Other Lutheran pastors who refused to follow the Agenda were imprisoned, and laity whose homes were used for Lutheran worship were fined or their property confiscated.

    More information and references can be found in “The European Background” (Robert C. Schultz, in Moving Frontiers, Carl S. Meyer Editor, CPH, St. Louis, 1964, pp. 75-78).

  7. Martin Noland: “For a while he [Scheibel] lived in Saxony, where he was in communication by letter with the Saxon founders of the Missouri Synod. Scheibel completed an important book before his death on the confessional revival that has yet to be translated into English.”

    Scheibel fled to Dresden in 1832, but was forced to leave the same year. He then went to Hermsdorf, then in 1836 to Glauchau and finally to Nuremberg.

    Scheibel broke with Stephan and his followers because of Stephan’s “papacy,” and along with Guericke and Rudelbach, Scheibel did not join Stephan’s plan to emigrate. As late as April 27, 1839, Stephan’s assistants in St. Louis were defending their leader in the Anzeiger des Westens against an article from Germany noting in part that Scheibel, the pastor who had resisted the Prussian Union, had declared that he was in no way associated with Stephan:

    “In closing let us just say that we and our bishop know just as little about the faith that Dr. Scheibel, Superintendent Rudelbach and their followers call Lutheran. We have had no interest in them in the past and have no interest in them now.”

    And despite the innuendo of Walther getting his ideas of congregational rights and polity from Scheibel, there is no indication by Mundinger, Forster, or Meyer that Walther and Scheibel communicated on anything related to Missouri Synod polity, either before or after Stephan was deposed. Scheibel died in March, 1843, four years before the Missouri Synod was founded in Chicago.

    In fact, Carl Mundinger notes precisely where Walther got (and read!) such ideas:

    “August 1, 1842, it was resolved that Pastor Walther read the testimonies in Vehse’s book which refer to the rights of a congregation. August 3, 1842, it was decided to continue to hear the testimonies which Dr. Vehse had collected in his book regarding the relationship between the pastor and the congregation. August 10, 1842, the reading of the testimonies which Dr. Vehse had collected was completed.” (p. 139)

  8. The problem was not the structure, but the fact that the Prussian king wanted to rule all of Germany with an iron fist, and he wanted to control everyone’s religion. This meant Lutheran theologians, Lutheran scholars, Lutheran pastors, Lutheran teachers, Lutheran church musicians, Lutheran books, Lutheran hymns, Lutheran liturgy, Lutheran prayers, and even the name “Lutheran” had to be purged from the face of the earth, by order of the king. Those people whose conscience compelled them to retain these aspects of the Lutheran church were the spiritual fathers of our Missouri Synod. Only some of them immigrated to America. Others went to Australia and other places. Others stayed in Germany and stubbornly held on to the “old ways.”.

    I find this bit of history comforting because it reminds me of how Jesus provides for His remnant.

  9. I realize this discussion may be dead now, but for the record I wanted to point out that Grabau did not claim to be a bishop. His title in the Buffalo Synod until 1865 or so was “Senior Ministerii” (i.e., “senior pastor of the ministerium”). Grabau also claimed that bishops were not distinct from pastors by divine right. Perhaps the author of this article could say in the future that he thinks Grabau had a domineering kind of personality, not that he actually was or claimed to be a bishop.

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