The Arrogation of Powers by Missouri Synod Clergy, by Martin R. Noland

I believe that the LCMS is divided on the issue of the powers of the clergy.  This does not refer to the authority that pastors have to preach and teach the Word of God, to administer the sacraments, to forgive and retain sins, to have authority over doctrine (I Timothy 1:3), and to “correct, rebuke, and encourage” (II Timothy 4:2).  It refers to the arrogated powers of pastors to change congregational practices, rules, or bylaws on their own “authority.”

The traditional view is set forth unambiguously by Walther’s Church and Ministry in Ministry Thesis IX.B (see C.F.W. Walther, Church and Ministry, ed. & tr. J. T. Mueller [Saint Louis:  CPH, 1987], pp. 311-321).  Ministry Thesis IX.B states “The minister must not tyrannize the church.  He has no authority to introduce new laws or arbitrarily to establish adiaphora or ceremonies.”  Walther explains:

“[The] required equality among Christians [including both laymen and clergy] is not abrogated by the obedience that the hearers render to their ministers who teach them the Word of Jesus Christ; for in that case they obey not the ministers of Christ by Christ Himself.  However, this equality of believers is abrogated and the church is changed into a secular organization if a minister demands obedience not only to the Word of Christ, his own Lord and Head and that of all Christians, but also to what his own insight and experience regards as good and suitable.  As soon, therefore, as adiaphora or things indifferent, that is, things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, come in question in the church, a minister may never demand absolute obedience to what merely appears to him to be best.  On the contrary, it is rather the concern of the whole congregation, of the minister as well as the hearers, to decide on what should be accepted or rejected.” (ibid., p. 312).

This statement regarding the powers of LCMS clergy was accepted by the synod, with the rest of the book, at its Milwaukee convention in 1851 “in our name and as our unanimous confession.” (ibid., p. 9).  It was reaffirmed by the LCMS at its 2001 convention.  This is the position that I teach and practice.

On this web-site, in October and November 2009, I published an article in five parts titled “Laymen’s Rights in Lutheran Congregations:  Origins, Developments, and Contemporary Challenges”.  In part five of that series, I attempted to show how and where “the equality of believers” was being abrogated in the Missouri Synod.  I looked briefly at the “Transforming Congregations Network” (TCN), the church-growth movement, and the “high priest” idea.

In the TCN program of the LCMS, the “equality of believers” is abrogated by its “Accountable Leadership Model” and by its process of clergy selection of congregational officers.  This is almost an exact replica of the ideas found in the book Direct Hit by Paul Borden (see book review by W. I. Strieter, in Logia 19 #4 (Reformation 2010): 47-48).  TCN was under the auspices of the LCMS Mission department, and has been adopted for use by many LCMS districts.  Were the LCMS Mission executives and District Presidents who adopted TCN ignorant of how it abrogated the equality of believers and violated Ministry Thesis IX.B?  I don’t know.  Ask your district president, if your district did adopt TCN.  Thankfully, not all districts have adopted TCN!

In the church-growth movement in the LCMS, one of the characteristics is its “empowerment” of the clergy.  Sometimes this is termed “pastor as CEO,” but it simply means that the pastor becomes the boss for everything that is done at church.  This practice, no matter how it is described, also abrogates the equality of believers and violates Ministry Thesis IX.B.

Regarding the “high priest” idea, I pointed to Arthur Carl Piepkorn as the originator of that idea in the LCMS.  I pointed to him, because I could find no one in a position of influence in the LCMS prior to him that taught his positions on the power of the clergy.

I now think that the term “high priest” in my article was not a good term, and if anyone is upset by the term, I retract it here.  My intent, however, was to describe how this idea sees some members of the “priesthood of all believers” as higher than others.  I still think Piepkorn was the originator; and I recently found the citations to prove it.  This is significant, because it means that these ideas have been circulating, and put into practice in the LCMS, since Piepkorn started teaching at the seminary in 1951.

In “The Sacred Ministry and Holy Ordination in the Symbolic Books of the Lutheran Churches,” in Concordia Theological Monthly 40 (1969), Piepkorn presented a position that arrogates to the clergy powers that belong to all the members of a congregation.  This is significant, because Piepkorn was reviving one of the positions of Johannes Grabau and the Buffalo Synod, which the theses and the book Church and Ministry were intended to refute. (on Grabau and Buffalo, see:  Walter A. Baepler, A Century of Grace, Missouri Synod 1847-1947 [St Louis:  CPH, 1947], pp. 137-142).

Piepkorn’s article has been reprinted in:  Arthur Carl Piepkorn, The Church:  Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn , ed. Plekon and Wiecher (Delhi, NY:  American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2006).  Page references are to the book, since it is still available.  It is for sale here:

The passage in question, where Piepkorn buried Walther and resurrected Grabau, is on page 68.  Section 17 states “The authority of bishops. Bishops have the right to establish regulations for the government of the church and for worship in the interest of good order, and the congregations and subordinate clergy are bound in charity to obey such canons.” (Piepkorn, p. 68).  This references Augsburg Confession XXVIII, 53-55, which states “Bishops or pastors may make regulations so that everything in the churches is done in good order . . . it is proper for the Christian assemblies to keep such ordinances for the sake of love and peace.” (Tappert, p. 90).

What is the difference?  Piepkorn converted “Bishops or pastors may make regulations” into “Bishops [or pastors] have the right . . .” Piepkorn also converted “it is proper for the Christian assemblies to keep “ into “[they] are bound in charity to obey.”  Piepkorn converted a friendly and cooperative (i.e., Gospel-based) relationship into a relationship of Law and authority.

The Augsburg Confession accepts the clerical powers existing in the medieval church, with certain provisions, as permissible.   The Augustana does not say that bishops or pastors make regulations by right!  This was a major difference between Lutherans and Catholics.  Catholics saw the administrative powers of priests and bishops as their right, as a matter of divine and canon law, which no one could abrogate.

In Augsburg Confession XXVIII, Lutherans saw these things not as a matter of divine right, but as a matter of concession (i.e., “they may”) for the sake of trying to get along with the papal party.  By the time of the Smalcald Articles and Treatise, Lutherans gave up trying to make concessions.  Then they set forth their own position on the powers of clergy, which is expounded in the Treatise on the Powers and Primacy of the Pope, and which is the basis for the LCMS position on clergy powers.

Piepkorn erred in this matter not just in this one section.  In section 12 of his article, he downplayed the importance of the “universal priesthood of believers” (Piepkorn, pp. 65-66).  In section 13, he used the term “parish children” to describe parishioners, with the “fatherhood of clergy” as the correlative (Piepkorn, p. 66).  The result of this position would be a patronizing and paternalistic attitude among clergy.  In section 16, he argued that church polity is an adiaphoron (Piepkorn, p. 68), which we recently heard as a mantra from synodical officials in preparation for the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synodical Structure and Governance.

When I point out these “errors” in Piepkorn, I am not accusing him of being a heretic or any such thing.  Who knows how or why he said, taught, and wrote these things?  Piepkorn himself is not the issue for me.

The issue for me is that the Missouri Synod’s pastors who graduated from the seminary in Saint Louis, starting in the early 1950s and going through the mid 1970s, were under the influence of Piepkorn.  Many of them saw him as a mentor.  Many of them, some to a greater, others to a lesser degree, have propagated his position on the powers of clergy, which was not significantly different from that of Johannes Grabau and the Buffalo Synod.  It also needs to be said that these same pastors, of an older generation, seem to have found common cause with younger pastors enchanted by the church-growth movement and by the idea that the pastor is a Chief Executive Officer.  The affinity between these two generations, both of which believe that pastors should have more authority in congregations, may explain some of the politics in the Missouri Synod in recent years.

I hope that the synod’s new Koinonia Project will take up this issue, i.e., Ministry Thesis IX.B and the powers of clergy, because I think it is one of the causes of the division in our ranks today and it may be an underlying cause for LCMS membership loss since the 1960s!

Pastor Dr. Martin R. Noland
Trinity Lutheran Church
Evansville, IN

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