Q&A — Lay Ministry Biblical References

Another question came in using our “Ask a Pastor” button on the top of the sidebar. We are getting several questions coming in using that method, and we hope it helps other readers who may have similar questions. It may also be good for discussion.

What are good bible references that speak against lay ministry programs? If there is someone who thinks the lay ministry program should be reinstated I’d like some good theological help on how to speak against it for scriptural reasons. Article 14 of the Augsburg Confession I know is good but I want as much help as I can get.

The LCMS has two official documents on the divine call into the pastoral office that you can read here:

Theology and Practice of “the Divine Call” [2003]

The Ministry: Offices, Procedures, and Nomenclature [1981]

Both of these documents contain the relevant Bible passages, which are the basis for the Lutheran teaching on the call, ordination, and the rejection of “lay ministry.” Some of the commentary on those documents is vague and not helpful, but overall the documents are correct and useful.

The most complete discussion of the matter is:

Johann Gerhard, “Theological Commonplaces: On the ecclesiastical ministry, part one“, tr. Richard Dinda, ed. Ben Mayes (Saint Louis: CPH, 2011). Gerhard was the theologian that C.F.W. Walther quoted most frequently when he tried to answer theological questions in detail.

The main issue re. lay ministers is whether they need to be ordained as pastors in order to do the work of pastors. Let me quote just a portion of Gerhard:

“We say that the rite of ordination [into the pastoral office] should by no means be omitted; rather, outside a case of necessity, it should always be used in establishing the ecclesiastical ministry. This we say because of the ancient custom of the apostolic church and of the church nearest to the time of the apostles, in which the presbytery would, through prayer and the imposition of hands, ordain ministers selected by the church and would “consecrate” them to God, so to speak (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6), as well as because of the salutary purposes we listed a little earlier . .. [then Gerhard points to Acts 9:17 and 13:3 as examples] . . . Nevertheless we deny that ordination is necessary by reason of a particular divine precept, which cannot be demonstrated; or by reason of the sort of effect that the Papists attribue to it . . . or by reason of an absolute and simple necessity, as if a man legitimately called by a church could not perform the ministry before being ordained and consecrated, not even at a time when the rite of ordination cannot be had, such as in time of siege, plague, etc, for nothing can be set forth from the Scriptures about such an absolute necessity.” (Gerhard, pp. 209-210).

This is the position of the orthodox Lutheran church wherever it has been found in the world and in history. “Necessity” is not understood as “there is a need,” because “there is a need” for pastors everywhere. Nor is “necessity” understood as a situation where no one is willing to pay a full-time pastor. Rather the “case of necessity”, where ordination and consecration into the pastoral office is not necessary, is during the time of siege, plague, etc., where the general society is in chaos, yet people still need to be baptized, hear the Word, etc., and the normal procedures cannot be followed for induction into office. Luther also mentions the case of complete isolation, e.g., being marooned on an island.

The second issue re. lay ministers is their competence to serve. That issue is addressed also by Gerhard, pages 71-100, 168-179, 241-247, and 262-278, with countless Bible passages. It would be better for you to read the book yourself in this matter, than to try to summarize it. It is a sad thing to say, but many men became “lay ministers” only because they would not pass the competency requirements that Gerhard quotes from Scriptures.

You can obtain free electronic copies of older issues of LOGIA, some of which have articles on this subject. One article I remember is E.W. Kahler, “Does a Congregation Ordinarily Have the Right . . .”. You can download that whole issue here.

I hope this is of some assistance.

Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland
Pastor at Trinity, Evansville, IN


Q&A — Lay Ministry Biblical References — 19 Comments

  1. Pastor Noland – how do you square this teaching with Mark 9:38 and 39?

    It seems a very common attitude with members of the most “confessional” Lutheran circles that only recipients of a M-Div through a residency program at one of the two LCMS seminaries are qualified to do anything. It seems like everyone else must know their role, sit down and shut up and be happy to be told what they believe.

    It seems to be flirting with the edge of making the clergy the church and everyone else something less – which makes the whole reformation pointless.

  2. @Joe #2

    Dear Joe,

    Thanks for your excellent question!

    The Lutheran church has always made a distinction between the “immediate call” and the “mediate call.” This can be seen, for example, in Martin Chemnitz’s Ministry, Word, and Sacraments (St Louis: CPH, 1981), pp. 30-32 (questions 13-21). This can also be seen in the same work I quoted above, in Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces, pp. 100-160. You can see that with sixty pages on the subject, Gerhard discusses the matter quite thoroughly. I can hardly summarize the Scriptural proofs he gives there.

    Here is Gerhard’s definition of the distinction: “God, who has the right to call and send ministers of the church, calls them in two ways: sometimes He calls them–those to whom He wants the public office of teaching in the church to be committed–by Himself immediately, but sometimes He calls them mediately through the church. Examples of the prior kind of call occur in the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. These examples show that the immediate call took place in both Old and New Testaments. Examples of the latter kind of call occur in all other teachers in the church.” (p. 102).

    Gerhard notes that the “immediate call” is often claimed by Anabaptists and enthusiasts (p. 107; modern equivalents would be Pentecostals and charismatics), so then the question comes whether or not they truly speak for God in that case. Gerhard’s test of their immediate call, based on Scripture, is 1st) the harmony and congruity of their teaching with what God has already revealed in Scripture and 2nd) the gift of miracles or other special testimonies of the Spirit which confirm their calling (pp. 108-109).

    It seems to me that Mark 9:38-39 records a case of a “mighty work”, i.e., miracle in Jesus’ name. So this would seem to be a case of an “immediate call,” as Lutherans have understood it. I am not sure what Lutheran exegetes have made of this particular incident in Mark, but that is how I interpret it.

    It does not follow that because Jesus commended those who cast out demons in His name, that therefore he has given permission for anyone to take up the duties and functions of the pastor-with-a-mediate-call without adequate training, probation, examination, and public-approval-by-the-church.

    I hope this helps a little bit. Please read Chemnitz or Gerhard, if you can, to see what I am talking about. They base their ideas on Luther’s treatises that are found in Luther’s Works, volumes 39-41. You can read Luther too, but you will have to read a whole lot more to find answers to your questions.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  3. @Joe #2
    I wouldn’t say it is confessionals who do this. Look at the SMPP program. Those men are not allowed to hold office, must remain under the supervision of an M.Div. pastor (unless they themselves obtain an M.Div.) and so on. The same is true and even perhaps more-so with Lay Ministers. The LCMS, not just confessionals, put those things in place. Now if we create a Lay Ministery or SMPP program that in effect relegates these men to a sort of “second class” pastor position, A. How is that Scriptural? and B. How is that in any way confessionals fault? Are we not creating classes of pastors whether we like it or not?
    We as a synod are at odds with ourselves on this. On the one hand we obviously create the impression that education and an M.Div. are good and should be sought after and the norm, but on the other hand we create a second class for what reason? Just in case? Is there a plague going on? Are we under seige? So the LCMS, not just confessionals, need to get their act together. Either it is acceptable for anyone to be an SMPP pastor or Lay Minister and we give them the full rights there-in (as your Mark reference would imply) or it is not acceptable for anyone and we offer the M.Div. as the only acceptable route. Confessionals are by and large simply saying, the M.Div. should be that route precisely because second class, unordained or quasi-ordained pastors are not Biblical.

  4. @Martin R. Noland #3

    Thanks for the answer. Would you think a person would have to satisfy both points to “pass muster” so to speak as an immediate call or just the first? I’m asking because I would think the first would be sufficient – though also performing a miracle would be phenominal! Isn’t it no less a miracle that a person who would by nature hate God has been taught by the Holy Spirit through the Word and can teach this to others?

    Isn’t it God who calls teachers and leaders by revealing His Word to them and teaching them? The Church then recognizes the work the Lord has done in these men and calls those who meet the scriptural qualifications to serve. I agree completely that this happens almost always through study, and training. Examination can’t be excluded for either mediate or immediate calls. I’ve noticed people who have a proclivity towards being able to understand and articulate the Faith and theology – which I credit to God working in them.

    I’m not supporting that anyone and/or everyone in the congregation take their turn in the pulpit any given Sunday. If the Church hasn’t called you, then you haven’t been called. I was thinking more along the lines of Sunday school or Bible study teachers. I don’t think it is appropriate to expect an M-div out of these people, but they should certainly be examined. I’ve also learned more from some of them than several pastors I’ve had. It would seem a waste to silence them, especially when many pastors are swamped.

    @Rev. McCall #4

    Rev. McCall – I was trying to get at the “confessionalist” camp being charicatured as the “restrictive right” as they’ve been called by critics. It does seem sometimes that many of the most conservative Lutherans continually repeat “Nope…can’t do that” almost like one of those drinking bird toys. While there is also often times very good reasons for this disagreement – it would seem to me that people who openly hold to the supremacy of Scripture as being the source and norm for all theology, confessional Lutherans would first applaud the pure Word being taught clearly and correctly before checking credentials. And that seems to me to be exactly what Pastor Noland, Gerhard, and Chemnitz are also saying.

    I was thinking about Sunday school and Bible class teachers – that is what I primarily think of when I think of lay-ministers – which is somewhat off topic but still related.

  5. Please also note the specific way Gerhard is using the term “ordination” – for the rite of laying on hands and praying. He says that a man could, in a case of necessity, serve as pastor if a congregation called him to the ministry but could not hold this ceremony for some reason. Neither Gerhard nor any other orthodox Lutheran could countenance what happens in the LCMS today: men who are uncalled to the office of the ministry acting like pastors.


  6. Also, note, that CFW Walther said that only a person who is a sectarian would omit the rite of ordination. And at no point is there any possible justification to be found in Walther’s theological writings for the practice of laymen exercising the office of pastor. Just can’t be done.

    Years ago a Synodical official was known frequently to say that the Wichita actions of The LCMS were entirely in line with Walther’s theology and practice. I had the chance to demand from that official any shred of evidence for his assertion. He could not, and never did, produce it.

    By the way, Heath, the new Gerhard volume is truly awesome. You and Mayes did a stupendously excellent job taming that wild and wooly English translation and even a guy like me can understand Gerhard.

  7. Can our esteemed theologians (and I do mean that and with utmost respect) tell me why a congregation cannot call just any man into the office of pastor, assuming that man also feels the call, but only those who have received an M. Div and been approved by the Synod?

    Don’t get me wrong–our well trained clergy are normally the most educated ministers in the communities they find themselves in. All the better to counter the world.

  8. @mikeb #8
    “why a congregation cannot call just any man into the office of pastor, assuming that man also feels the call, but only those who have received an M. Div and been approved by the Synod?”

    Actually, the “supreme” voters’ assembly can call anyone they want, but they will forfeit membership in the LCMS by violating the rules they agreed upon when they chose to join.

    Concerning “assuming that man also feels the call,” we speak that way, but should be very cautious. We can never be sure a “feeling” is from the Holy Spirit — or the Father of Lies. Our Confessions say when we hear the Holy Spirit outside of the Word of God, it’s always the latter.

    A valid call is from the Holy Spirit, working through a congregation.

  9. @Joe #5

    Dear Joe,

    I have a busy day today, so have to be brief.

    You may not realize, but the LCMS had a specific program called “Lay Ministry”, going back many years ago at Concordia, Milwaukee. I believe the students obtained a B.A. and were accredited to assist congregations in many things, but not specifically pastoral duties.

    Then in 1989 at Wichita, the LCMS said that “Lay Ministers,” could be authorized by the District President to do specifically pastoral duties. Then more recently, that authorization was revoked.

    So when you use the term “Lay Minister” in an LCMS context, you could be referring to one of three things:

    1) the old Milwakee program non-pastor church assistants;
    2) the 1989 Wichita resolution non-ordained, non-M.Div. pastors;
    3) anyone in the congregation who helps in some official capacity (maybe that is how you are using the term).

    Is this confusing? Yes. As a result, I am not sure what you mean by “lay minister.”

    Laymen have never been excluded from teaching “Sunday School” in the LCMS. Maybe in some congregations, but not officially by the LCMS.

    There has been some discussion on this blog about laymen teaching adult Bible classes, on Sunday, or other times. There is some disagreement on this subject, and I don’t want to get into that.

    My main concern are real situations, that I have witnessed, where a layman teaches Bible Class on Sunday and undermines the pastor’s class–it becomes a place where people unhappy with the pastor can vent their opinions about him or his actions; or where heterodox opinions can be voiced without constructive criticism. So I see the problem as not the use of laymen teaching adult Bible Classes, but the abuse of the same. And it is a real problem, not a theoretical one, as many pastors can testify.

    I may comment later today if I have time.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  10. @mikeb #8
    To further develop what Pastor Crandall said:
    Precisely in order to guard the *common* Confession of the churches of the LCMS, each LCMS church agrees only to *call* (the mediate divine Call) men who have been *certified* by the proper entity to whom that authority has been given (in most cases, one of the 2 sems) and *rostered* (which is our synod’s way of recognizing and publicizing the “confessional bona fides” of the particular man).
    Each local church/congregation is the Church Catholic in that place, but we are *also* tied by common Confession to other local Churches. The LCMS is *not*, in the *first* place, an earthly institution with bureaucracies and offices and such (though such things are not “bad” in and of themselves–they can serve a good ministerial purpose–as opposed to a “majesterial” purpose); rather, we are *1st* a “Communion”–altar and pulpit koinonia–which is based on and an expression of that common Confession.
    And *this* is why the *doctrinal* disunity we have in Synod is so serious, btw. This is also one reason why there has been so much consternation regarding the SMP and “lay ministry” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) programs–there is a “balkanization” of the process for assuring our *whole* Communion Fellowship that *each* pastor is truly Confessionally Lutheran, and deeply-enough trained in doctrine to guard his flock.

    I became involved in a situation once where a congregation had a humble, Godly, even doctrinally sound man whom they wished to call as their pastor, *without* him passing through the processes the LCMS had/has set up for the sake of the whole synod’s assurance. In the *absolute*, they did indeed have the right and authority to call him, and he would indeed be their *pastor*. But by doing so, they would have been declaring themselves outside the Communion/Fellowship of the LCMS, which they had no intention of doing. Once this whole issue was explained to him and the congregation that wanted to call him, they backed off, he finished his studies (I believe he did do a full M.Div.), the district president made sure that congregation was still served in the meantime, and then that man was called by that congregation and ordained joyfully into the Ministry.

  11. Mikeeb, any congregation can call any man they want, but if they wish to be and remain a member of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod they can only call men who have been declared fit to be a pastor by the standards established by the Synod, for the good of the Church.

    “Feeling a call” is a purely subjective emotion. If and when a man receives the necessary preparation and God working through His Church then calls that man, that is the objective basis on which a man knows he is “called” to be a pastor.

  12. @mikeb #8
    To steal an illustration from my pastor, would you let a man cut out your diseased appendix because he “feels the call” to surgery, or let a man fly you to Europe because he “feels the call” to commercial aviation? How about letting a man teach your kids geometry because he “feels the call” to mathematics?

    I’d turn your question around: why would a congregation call just any man into the office of pastor, when there are numerous willing candidates who HAVE received an M. Div and been approved by the Synod? It says something about our culture’s lack of respect for the office of the ministry that we don’t treat theologians w/ the same respect that we accord to other professionals.

  13. @Martin R. Noland #10

    Dr. Noland,

    It would appear this makes a tentative case for a robust re-establishment of the diaconate among Lutheran churches. Such a thing could establish a proper role for support of congregations and pastors, without diluting the pastoral office itself.

    We have a deaconess program… why not one for deacons?


  14. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    In comment #10 above, I wrote: “in 1989 at Wichita, the LCMS said that “Lay Ministers,” could be authorized by the District President to do specifically pastoral duties. Then more recently, that authorization was revoked.”

    This statement of mine is in error, because the 1989 authorization has NOT been revoked. Sorry for the confusion, but I was not a delegate at the 2010 convention where this matter was discussed. Checking my synod reports this afternoon provided the facts on what happened in 2010.

    For the record on this, see 2010 Convention Workbook, pp. 98-102 and 2010 Convention Proceedings, pp. 132-133. The action that was contemplated was Resolution 5-03A “To Address Lay Deacons.”

    I think the proposed action was very reasonable, all things considered, but the convention referred it back to committee and it was not brought back for action. So I don’t know where it stands today, except that the 1989 resolution is still standing as the rule.

    For those interested in the topics of the status of the 1989 Wichita resolution, Lay Ministry, and Lay Deacons, I highly recommend reading the report of the “Resolution 5-02 Task Force” in 2010 Convention Workbook, pp. 98-102. It will answer most of your questions about this matter, and present facts, not opinions.

    My personal thanks to all members of the Resolution 5-02 Committee, including Rev. Steven Briel, Rev. Thomas Krause, Dr. Glen Thomas (BPE exec.), Rev. Ken Lampe (Mid-South DP), Rev. John Wille (S. Wisconsin DP), Dr. Charles Arand (Saint Louis sem), Dr. Robert Hartwell, Steven Henderson, David Schilling, Dr. Joel Lehenbauer (CTCR exec.), Dr. Cameron Mackenzie (Ft Wayne sem), Lucky Pugh, and William Storm. I hope their work will not be forgotten, since it seems to me to provide the best possible answer to the problems posed.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  15. @mikeb #8
    “assuming that man also feels the call”

    Perhaps what you really meant was not so much a feeling but an aspiration to what Dr. Barry used to call the “Noble Task”:

    “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” (1 Timothy 3:1-3)

    [BTW, Marie, a wise Texan once remarked, “I’ll support the ordination of women as soon as someone can explain to me how a woman can be the husband of one wife.”]

  16. @Joe #5

    Dear Joe,

    You said: “Would you think a person would have to satisfy both points to “pass muster” so to speak as an immediate call or just the first? I’m asking because I would think the first would be sufficient – though also performing a miracle would be phenominal! Isn’t it no less a miracle that a person who would by nature hate God has been taught by the Holy Spirit through the Word and can teach this to others? Isn’t it God who calls teachers and leaders by revealing His Word to them and teaching them? The Church then recognizes the work the Lord has done in these men and calls those who meet the scriptural qualifications to serve.”

    Gerhard’s two criteria of “signs and miracles” and “orthodoxy” require that BOTH be fulfilled in order for the community of faith to recognize an immediate call by God. Gerhard bases this requirement on biblical criteria, i.e., Deuteronomy 13:1-18 and Deuteronomy 18:15-22. Gerhard plumbs all the biblical and patristic sources, so what I have given here is just the “tip of the iceberg.”

    Gerhard also says that an immediate call accompanied by signs and miracles is not to be expected today, and gives many reasons for that. Eusebius noted that there were still signs and miracles in the Christian church at the time of Irenaeus, but rarely thereafter, and there is no reliable evidence of the same after Constantine made Christianity the state religion.

    In any event, the use of laymen in various teaching capacities in a church is not a matter of the immediate call.

    If a pastor chooses to use a layman for teaching adults or children, it is under the authority of that pastor’s mediate call through the congregation. This is the point that CFW Walther makes about auxiliary offices in his “Church and Ministry.” By the way, CPH just has issued a fresh translation of that key book, retranslated by Matthew Harrison. Go to http://www.cph.org to order your copy.

    Back to your questions, here are two situations to think about:

    1) a pastor comes to a new call and finds a layman teaching adult Bible class on a regular basis. The layman does not resign when the pastor appears. The pastor, if he is smart, will realize that this could be a problem, because many lay “servants” of the church are highly offended if you take away a privilege they have. Teaching adults is always a privilege.

    If the pastor tells the layman to stand down, so the pastor can do his job of teaching Bible and theology, he risks alienating both that layman and many of his friends. That is a very bad way to start out a call. Laymen who want to teach, because they like the prestige of being a “leader,” can be a destabilizing force in a congregation and source of conflict. Other laymen should tell this teacher to resign, for the sake of the new pastor and peace in the parish.

    2) a pastor finds that he has a gifted man in his congregation. The man has these qualities: concern for individuals, keen sense for the centrality of the Gospel of justification by faith alone, good Bible knowledge, humility, and ability to teach. The pastor asks this man to consider teaching adult Bible classes, and the layman eventually concurs–with the proviso that the pastor can step in any time to audit the course, and if the pastor has any suspicions or receive complaints, that the pastor can stop the course, no questions asked. The layman reports regularly on the progress of the class and what he himself is learning.

    Situation one is fraught with peril for all involved. Situation two is potentially a win-win. It all depends on the character of the layman involved here.

    Any teacher of adults within a congregation is a potential “second authority” that can compete with the pastor’s call, and lead to factions, unless the layman is acutely aware of that problem. In a similar way, multi-pastor parishes only work if the Associate or Assistant pastors scrupulously defer to the Senior Pastor, without complaint.

    Saint Paul pulls no punches on this point. He rejects any man who does not have the proper qualities with these words: “Not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil” (I Timothy 3:6).

    The final thought for the day thus comes from Saint Paul: Being a pastor, or a theological teacher of adults, is dangerous business–it is easy to be damned due to spiritual pride (I Timothy 3:6) if you don’t watch yourself and beat down the old Adam every day (I Corinthians 9:26-27).

    I hope this answers most of your concerns

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  17. @Martin R. Noland #17
    The final thought for the day thus comes from Saint Paul: Being a pastor, or a theological teacher of adults, is dangerous business–it is easy to be damned due to spiritual pride (I Timothy 3:6) if you don’t watch yourself and beat down the old Adam every day (I Corinthians 9:26-27).

    (worth repeating)

  18. @Martin R. Noland #10

    @Martin R. Noland #17

    Pastor Noland,

    Thank you very much for your detailed and informative responses. I agree with you completely about lay Sunday school teachers being potential second authorities that can cause factions. If a Sunday School teacher isn’t teaching the Word – they need to be corrected, and removed if necessary. I would add that teaching is a privilege – plain and simple. Children and youth aren’t excluded and in many ways are much more important precisely because they are impressionable. Not too many church splits occur because of the 3 year old Sunday School teacher, but I still remember a first grade Sunday School teacher (in a Baptist Church) correcting me that Jesus was not God, but God’s Son.

    Sometimes the stuff we learn first sticks the longest.

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