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.

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