The Christian Office of Judgement and Reproof, by Pr Martin R. Noland

In a recent post at the web-site of “Brothers of John the Steadfast,” I attempted to respond to those who have criticized the theological critique of doctrine and church practice that is frequently found at this site (see Criticism of Theological Critique).

I did not expect the responses from those disagreeing with my posted article, but I am always willing to accept and consider criticism. After a couple of days of reflection, I realized that we, in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have really lost the Lutheran understanding of the Christian office of judgment and reproof. Maybe it has nothing to do with Seminex (I apologize for that reference, since it offended some folks). Maybe we have just forgotten how to be Lutherans!

Those who disagreed with my post cannot be blamed for this, because the neglect of this office precedes their years in ministry. I want to take this opportunity to thank those who responded to my post with their comments, especially those who were critical, and I wish them nothing but the best in their personal lives, careers, and ministries! The following is not directed against them personally, but against the ignorance of this matter that is pervasive everywhere in our church.

What is the Lutheran understanding of the “Christian office of judgment and reproof”? Let’s take this phrase apart first. “Lutheran understanding” means that other churches may have a different understanding. “Christian” means that this office is not unique to Lutherans, since established by Scripture. “Office” means a “role” or “function” which certain people are enabled and authorized to carry out. “Judgment” means reflection and careful weighing of the truth, fairness, and evidence of things. “Reproof” means speaking out against harmful doctrines or church practices, after using such judgment.

Where is the Lutheran understanding of the Christian office of judgment and reproof to be found? It is found, by definition, in Scripture. It is also found, not by explication, but by example throughout the Lutheran Confessions. The Lutheran Confessions are mostly a judgment and reproof, primarily of the Roman Catholic, but also of the Reformed and Anabaptist churches. When Lutherans subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, they agree with those judgments and reproofs.

How could Lutherans in the 16th century, in good conscience, judge, criticize, and reprove the pope, who was the highest and most respected ecclesiastical dignitary in the world? They did so based on the Lutheran understanding of the Christian office of judgment and reproof, as explained by Martin Luther in a number of his writings.

With regard to “judgment,” Luther taught that part of the office, i.e., role or function, of a pastor is to “judge and pass on doctrines.” This is found in his programmatic treatise “Concerning the Ministry,” written for the Bohemian Christians in 1523 (see “Luther’s Works” [LW] Vol. 40, pp. 7-44). The Catholic church had taught that only the clergy could judge doctrine. Luther taught the “priesthood of all believers” and that thus ALL Christians were to judge doctrine (LW 40:31-34). Luther quoted I Corinthians 14:32, “the spirit of prophets are subject to prophets,” to show that Christians accept theological criticism gladly (LW 40:32). Luther concluded his discussion with this statement “So not only do we have the right to recover this function of judging doctrine, . . . but unless we recover it we are denying Christ as a brother. For here we are dealing not with a matter that is optional or permissible, but with a command and necessity” (LW 40:32-33).

With regard to public “reproof,” Luther specifically laid this responsibility upon the Christian clergy, although layman also could be involved. This is found in his programmatic treatise “Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope,” written in response to Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz’s issuing of indulgences in 1522 (see “Luther’s Works” Vol. 39, pp. 247-299). Luther begins with this statement:

“So that some well-meaning hearts do not get the impression that I go too far when I attack the great lords–or that I might create rebellion and unrest, as the tyrants themselves interpret it–I must first present defense and explanation with scriptural proof that it is not only right but also necessary to reprove the high officials [of the church]” (LW 39:249).

Luther’s Scriptural defense of the office of reproof is drawn from Ezekiel 3:17-19, Micah 6:1-2, Jeremiah 1:10, 18-19, and I Timothy 5:20. I wonder why the CTCR document “Public Rebuke of Public Sin” did not cite these Bible passages, or deal with them, when according to Luther these Scripture passages are the sedes doctrinae (i.e., the primary Bible texts proving a doctrine or position). This is one reason I think that the CTCR document is incomplete.

Here are some of the things Luther says about “reproof”:

“Tell me, is this not a severe commandment from the High Majesty, that a preacher must reprove the wicked if he would save his soul? For he speaks here of public reproval, since he commands someone to exercise an office, to preach his word. Why does he command it so severely? Undoubtedly because the preacher would commit the greatest sin against love if he were silent and disregarded the greatest good, the salvation of his neighbor’s soul.” (LW 39:250)

“[In Micah 6:1-2] who are the mountains, the hills, and the enduring foundations of the earth to which one should preach, according to his commandment? Here he commands the proclamation of God’s judgment and punishment to the leaders, not to the people. Finally, the proclamation of all prophets was generally addressed mostly to the high officials such as kings, princes, priests, scribes, and leaders of the people, as all prophetic writings prove abundantly.” (LW 39:250-251).

“[Christ] reproves none but the high priests, the scribes, the religious fanatics, and whoever was of high degree. Thus he certainly gave an example to all preachers to attack the great leaders without hesitation, since both the destruction and health of a people depend most upon the leaders. . . What good would it do to leave the leaders alone and punish only the people? One could never throw out as much with good teaching as the evil leaders throw in. . . . If, then, one builds up the people, one must first oppose the harmful leaders and destroyers.” (LW 39:251).

“Spiritual dominion, whenever it is unholy and does not support God’s word, is like a wolf and murderer of the soul, and it is just as though the devil himself were ruling there. That is why one should beware as much of the bishop who does not teach God’s word as of the devil himself.” (LW 39:252).

So far Luther. Until the CTCR document “Public Rebuke of Public Sin” incorporates these teachings of Luther, it will continue to be an incomplete and faulty document.

Having said all that, what does this mean for the debate and discussion that occurs on this and other websites. Notice that I said “judgment and reproof.” An author and editor needs to exercise “judgment” first, before issuing reproof. Let me repeat: “Judgment” means reflection and careful weighing of the truth, fairness, and evidence of things. “Reproof” means speaking out against harmful doctrines or church practices, after using such judgment. I should add that not ALL reproof of this sort needs to be public; and that much error that needs to be reproved is due to ignorance, not to malice.

I believe and contend that Pastor Rossow has exercised good judgment throughout his two years as editor of BJS blog. Well, yes, he has made some mistakes, but we all do. I will never forget how embarrassed we all were at LOGIA, when we published the article that talked about the pastor embodying Christ. We changed our editorial procedures after that one! I cannot vouch for other websites, because BJS is the only one I read on a somewhat regular basis. I am not on the BJS editorial committee, and I don’t have time to read everything here. But what I have seen is truthful, fair, and has the ability to be verified.

But the critics of BJS accuse it and other Lutheran blogs of “divisive rhetoric,” i.e., “creating rebellion and unrest,” when BJS finds it “that it is not only right but also necessary to reprove the high officials [of the church]” (LW 39:249). Can we not have a gentleman’s discussion about what is good, or bad, for the church and its people without being accused of being rebels and traitors?

That is why Pastor Matthew Harrison is so refreshing. In “It’s Time” he wants the church to have a gentleman’s discussion (ladies included, of course) about what is good, or bad, for the church and its people, based on Scripture and our Confessions! Isn’t that what Paul meant when he said that “the spirit of prophets are subject to prophets” (I Cor. 14:32)? Luther thought so.

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