At Home in the House of Pfotenhauer: Building the Church the Right Way (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)

This is the last in a series of excerpts from the writings of the first five presidents of the Missouri Synod–Walther, Wyneken, Schwan, Pieper, and Pfotenhauer–all included in a very interesting book compiled and largely translated by Pastor Matthew Harrison, “At Home in the House of My Fathers” (available through Friends, I highly recommend this book! In reading through it, I felt like I got to know these men, and I found their pastoral wisdom and insights to be very helpful–and very timely, applicable to the situation in our synod today!

These are the five entries in this series:

At Home in the House of Walther: No Power But the Word
At Home in the House of Wyneken: Put Doctrine into Practice
At Home in the House of Schwan: On Church Fellowship
At Home in the House of Pieper: Now is the Moment for “Ecumenical Lutheranism”
At Home in the House of Pfotenhauer: Building the Church the Right Way

In several addresses and sermons over the course of his ministry, Friedrich Pfotenhauer takes up the topic of building the church the right way, that is, through the Word, through God’s appointed Means of Grace, rather than pursuing a “church growth” that relies on man-centered techniques.

First, from Pfotenhauer’s 1900 address, “We Are God’s Fellow Workers”:

God gives us the work. And he shows to our congregations, pastors, and teachers not only what the work is, but also gives us the tools and describes the manner in which we are to do our work. The only tools that a worker is to have in hand for his work are the Means of Grace, Word and Sacrament. The Word is to be proclaimed continually in church and school, at home and abroad. What we cannot accomplish through the Word, that we must leave undone. A congregation that uses other means does not build on the foundation that has been laid, namely, Jesus Christ. . . . That preacher or missionary who claims the Gospel is not enough to build the Church, and therefore one must employ all manner of “new methods,” is an unfaithful servant. . . . (pp. 722-23)

Next, from a 1916 sermon, “Building the Christian Church”:

My brothers, if we are precisely aware that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, where Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, then we will continue to be protected from foolishness in our churchly work. Today people want to help out the Church with all sorts of other means–societies, entertainment, ostentatious church buildings, and the like. But through such means, the Church cannot be built. In the best case, these may assist a little in bringing the children of men into contact with the Word of God. In many cases, they threaten to cast the proclamation of the Word in the background and do damage to the building of the Church. (p. 755)

Finally, from Pfotenhauer’s 1936 address, “The Word Is the Only Remedy”:

What can we do to elevate the spiritual life of our Synod? . . .

First, we must guard against trying to elevate this spiritual life with means that cannot accomplish what we seek. An attempt has been made to elevate spiritual life in the home congregation by rousing the Church to missions and directing her sight to the misery of the churchless and especially the poor non-Christians. To be sure, the work of mission is a glorious and invaluable thing. But to speak and act as though it were through participation in the work of mission that the Word of God must be made living and powerful is simply wrong. . . .

Others would heal Joseph’s wounds with tighter church governance. They say, if our presidents, visitors, and commissions had more authority, if they could prescribe things to congregations and the congregations had to obey, then life would be brought to these dead bones. Without question, if such a yoke were laid upon the necks of the children, many external works would be produced. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be that difficult to get the money to begin flowing. But that would in no way elevate spiritual life. In fact, it would suffer a retrogression. The Gospel tolerates no hierarchy. . . .

When it comes to the elevation of spiritual life in our midst, let us therefore, dear brothers, completely forsake the above-mentioned means and steadfastly maintain that the Word of God alone can elevate spiritual life. . . .

Spiritual life comes about, and will be maintained, through faith in Jesus Christ, through confidence in the declaration of justification, which God has created through the redemptive work of Christ and proclaimed in the Gospel. . . .

God grant that we not think that we can solve the many problems that we see in our midst by forcing all sorts of activity. That won’t do it. . . . The more faith in Jesus Christ grows, the more lively faith recognizes the love of God in Christ, all the richer will be the harvest of faith in every sort of good work, also precisely in the great works that our Synod performs. (pp. 795-96, 798)

Pastor Harrison comments:

Pfotenhauer noted a decline in the spiritual life of the Church. How is such a situation to be remedied? Missions? Pfotenhauer was a great advocate of mission work, but “missions” is not of itself the answer. . . . Others would assert that the bureaucracy needs more power. Pfotenhauer rejects that too. . . . The answer? Simply, only, always, the Word of God. In all things, all leaders of the Synod must seek in every way for the Word of God to have free course. . . . To the Word! (p. 794)

I will simply add: I could not agree with Harrison and Pfotenhauer more! The right way to build the church is through the means God has appointed, the Word and the Sacraments. Do we trust the Gospel to do the job?

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