A Church Cannot Remain Lutheran Without Visitation

Found on Mercy Journeys with Pastor Harrison:


Furthermore, a synod that is “faithful to the Confessions,” must also “c. supervise the confessional faithfulness of its members.”

It is therefore not enough that a synod, so to speak, have only the official Lutheran statement “A synod true to the Confessions, adhering without reservation to all the Symbols [confessional statements].” It is not even enough that it receive only such pastors and teachers as prove themselves faithful to the Confessions. It must also see to it that they remain that way; for only he that is “faithful to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22, Luther Bibel).

But it is impossible for a sizable church body to remain in the true faith if there isn’t a constant check to see that everything still is as it was in the beginning, when the pastor came to the congregation. Without visitation it is probably impossible for a church to remain in unity of faith and confession. Therefore it is a terrible line of talk that the so-called “confessionally faithful” [Bekenntnistreue] are spreading in Germany: ”[All that’s necessary is] that the pure doctrine be public doctrine (doctrina publica), that is, the authentic, authoritatively established doctrine that everyone is required to profess, so that every false doctrine is actually without authoritative standing!” Therefore, [they say,] provided the pure doctrine is the authoritatively established one, the Church may be ever so corrupt, yet it is a true Lutheran [church]. If the pledge of loyalty to the Confessions has not yet been rescinded but is still valid, though not a single pastor proclaims it, then the Church is still sound.

That is no different than if an organization is formed for a good purpose, and finally the members agree to do something rascally but they retain their constitution as a benevolent organization. Then they cannot say: “We are indeed committing a dirty trick, but because, according to our constitution, we should really do good, therefore we are nevertheless an honest, honorable organization, since it says so in our constitution, which we still have!” That is what those so-called “confessionally faithful” ones in Germany say: “You see, the constitution says, ‘The Lutheran doctrine is public doctrine (doctrina publica)!'”

But it is not enough that it is on paper; nor is it enough that all pastors and teachers are pledged to it when they enter office. No, this Confession must also be faithfully practiced [im Schwangegehen].

That is why Luther, in his treatise “On the Councils and the Church” [1539], writes:

First, the holy Christian people can be recognized by their possession of the Holy Word of God. . . . But we are speaking of the outward Word, orally proclaimed by people like you and me. For this is what Christ left behind as an outward sign, by which we can recognize His church, or His holy Christian people in the world.13

It is not enough to have a Bible lying in the vestry, but it must be proclaimed from the pulpit. Moreover, a church may have a thousand oaths sworn to be faithful to the Augsburg Confession and yet be a vile sect; and that is true of the state churches [in Germany]. In the best cases there are still good pledges of allegiance to the Confessions, but very few preach accordingly from the pulpit. One is reformed, another is Methodist; rationalistic, yes, even atheistic, i.e., there are some who do not believe in a living God and still have solemnly sworn allegiance to the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. They simply say, “That is an old tradition, which it would be dangerous to discontinue because of the common people, who still cling to the old faith. But our superintendent, who put us under oath, knows very well what we mean; after all, he himself doesn’t accept the Confessions in their entirety either. But because the regional bishop has so ordered it, therefore we continue it.”

But such people are not Lutheran pastors. The confession of the Church must sound forth from the pulpit. And a congregation may be part of a large Lutheran church: If it has a false pastor and he constantly preaches false doctrine and it likes his preaching very much and definitely wants to keep him—that is not a Lutheran congregation either, even if the right official confessional statement is inscribed over the entrance. The [Augsburg] Confession must be proclaimed, and it dare not just say in a book somewhere that it really should be preached.

One must say: Churches that indeed teach false doctrine but have not sworn to uphold pure doctrine are not as bad (as those who have sworn to uphold pure doctrine but do not do so). They are better because the people are not so deceived by them. So when a church says “Here Lutheran doctrine is doctrina publica!” and you don’t hear it proclaimed, that church is a miserable sect, regardless of what it claims to be.

God had a purpose in letting us be called “Lutheran”—a name we really don’t care for (as everyone knows, the romanists gave us that name as an expression of contempt)—for that name now proclaims: “This is the Church that proclaims the faith that Luther had and preached.” If we were not called “Lutheran” but perhaps “biblical” or “Christian” or “pure,” then one person would think, “Pure means this,” and another would think, “Pure means something else.” But now we can prove which Church is the orthodox one; that is to say, it must have the Lutheran Confessions.

Luther has a beautiful statement on the need for church visitation:

Both the Old and the New testament14 clearly show us what a godly, wholesome work it is to have understanding, capable people visit the pastors and Christian congregations, for we read in Acts 9:32 that St. Peter traveled here and there in the land of the Jews and that Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36) also revisited all the places where they had preached. And in all of his letters [Paul] shows how concerned he is about all the congregations and pastors. He writes letters, sends his followers, even goes in person. Similarly when the apostles (Acts 8:14) heard that Samaria had accepted the Word, they sent Peter and John to them. We read also in the Old testament that Samuel traveled here and there, to rama, to Nob, to Gilgal, and so on, not because he enjoyed walking, but out of love and a sense of his official duty and because of the dire need of the people, even as also Elijah and Elisha did, as we read in 1 and 2 Kings. Christ Himself also did the same thing even more diligently than all, with the result that for this reason He had no place on earth to lay His head, a place He could call His own (Matthew 8:20).

Also the ancient fathers, the saintly bishops, used to follow these examples. For this work led to the origin of bishops and archbishops; accordingly each one was required to make many or fewer visits and visitations. “Bishop” really means supervisor or visitor. And “archbishop” [means] one who is over those who supervise their teaching and life. And the archbishop should visit such bishops, look after their needs, and supervise their teaching. [That continued] until finally this office became such a worldly, pompous rulership [Herrschaft] that the bishops made themselves princes and lords and delegated the function of Visitor perchance to a provost, Vicar, or dean [Dechant].

Later, when the provosts and deans and canons [Domherrn] had also become lazy aristocrats [Junkern], this was delegated to ecclesiastical officials, who pestered people with loading tickets [Ladezeddeln] in money matters and visited no one. . . . But no one gave any thought to doctrine, faith, love, how to live a Christian life, how to care for the poor,15 how to comfort the weak, how to punish the unruly, and whatever else is included in such an office. . . . So this office, just like all the sacred, Christian, ancient doctrines and regulations, became the object of Satan’s and Antichrist’s mockery and ridicule [Gaukelwerk] resulting in horrible, appalling perdition of souls.

Who can express how useful and necessary this office is in Christendom? One may perceive it in the damage that resulted since the time when it fell [into disuse] and was perverted. Not even one doctrine or position has remained right or pure, but, on the contrary, a great many abominable cults and sects have arisen, such as the convents and monasteries are, through which the Christian church was severely suppressed, faith destroyed, love transformed into strife and conflict, and the Gospel put away [unter die Bank gesteckt]; nothing but human works, human doctrines, and human illusions reigned in place of the Gospel. Then the devil certainly had a field day, because he had crippled this office and brought it under his own control and had set up spiritual hypocrites [geistliche Larven] and monkish nitwits [Monchskalber], so that no one opposed him. The task is indeed a very difficult one, even when the office is properly and conscientiously administered, as Paul complains to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians that also the apostles themselves had their hands full in fitting into it.

Accordingly, since the light of the Gospel has now mercifully been restored to us by the superabundant and unspeakable grace of God—or has perhaps first dawned on us—the light by which we have seen how wretchedly Christendom has been confused, scattered, and torn asunder, we also would have gladly seen that true episcopal and supervisory office restored as extremely necessary.

Let no one think that it has not been so among us. We must not despise the importance of the office of Visitor, even if its value is not always immediately apparent. For example, let us say that a dear brother who visited us perhaps gave us some good advice, cheered us up, or lifted our spirits simply by coming. And if he says, “Oh, dear brother, I also have the same problems you have,” and he sees then that others are faring the same as he, then already there is more than a small blessing in such a visitation.

Besides, we must remember: Such offices are especially important for the future. If we fail to set up such offices now, when by God’s grace we are all united, then untold harm can result therefrom. Now is the time for us to hold fast to such established practices, so that they will be there when at some time false spirits have insinuated themselves. For such arrangements are not for the zealous, who are on their knees day and night [in prayer] that they may be found faithful; they are rather for those who get weary and exhausted with teaching, keeping watch, praying, and studying [Forschen]. The devil can again blow out the whole light for us, and unity may turn into such Babylonian confusion that we are appalled. Therefore we must do all [we can] to ward off such danger. Then, if it still doesn’t work, well—we didn’t give birth to the Church, and we can’t preserve it. We must commend it to God and see that we save our souls.

We know how little Luther thought of human ordinances [and] how he hated it that some wanted to make the Church’s welfare dependent on rules and organizational structures. But how highly this same Luther speaks of the office of Visitor! He ascribes the terrible deterioration under the papacy primarily to the deterioration of this institution. Therefore let us cling tightly to it [darob halten]. And also this synod will certainly do it with the help of God.

The Preface to The Book of Concord says:

We likewise purpose to cooperate with one another in the future in the implementation of this effort at concord in our lands, according to our own and each community’s circumstances, through diligent visitation of churches and schools, the supervision of printers, and other salutary means. If the current controversies about our Christian religion should continue or new ones arise, we shall see to it that they are settled and composed in timely fashion before they become dangerously widespread in order that all kinds of scandal might be obviated [Preface to The Book of Concord; tappert, 14].

As soon as the Formula of Concord had been accepted, it was evident that visitations were necessary. Therefore, in the name of their Christian people, the Christian princes said: “We likewise purpose to cooperate with one another in the future in the implementation of this effort at concord in our lands . . . through diligent visitation of churches and schools.” The Church has simply always had the same needs. What our dear forebears felt, that is what we also feel. Therefore we intend to follow in their footsteps and use the means they found trustworthy.


CFW Walther on visitation in “The Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” At Home in the House of My Fathers.

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