Dr Luther on the Office of the Ministry

“This much is sure: Whoever despises the office of the ministry will not think very highly of the Gospel.” [Martin Luther, The Sermon on the Mount, LW 21:226]

Dr. Luther wrote these words in the early 1530s.  He preached on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29) from late 1530 to 1532 at various times at the church in Wittenberg.  This period corresponds to the publication of the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531).

In their first public confessions of faith and practice, Lutheran theologians and lay leaders stated that God established the office of preaching (or the office of ministry) to give the gospel and sacraments so that the Holy Spirit may work faith in those who hear the gospel.  They also condemned those theologians who taught that the Holy Spirit came to believers without external means. [Augsburg Confession, art. 5]

These same Lutherans wrote that those who publicly preach and administer the sacraments in the church must have a proper call. [Augsburg Confession, art. 14]

In order to understand the meaning of these documents it is instructive to examine Dr. Luther’s writings from the same time. Therefore, in the following short article we will examine some of Luther’s significant writings on the topic of the Office of the Ministry.  In the early 1530s Luther examined the nature of this ministry and the call of pastors in various writings.  He specifically rejected wandering, secret preachers and affirmed the pastoral office when he stated, “For to the pastor is committed the pulpit, baptism, the sacrament [of the altar], and he is charged with the care of souls.”  He then instructed faithful Christians to report these sneaky, uncalled preachers to their pastors.  If these infiltrators did not have a call to preach, then Luther instructed them to be silent because they did not have a call to the pastoral office. [Luther, Infiltrating and Clandestine Preachers, LW 40:384-87. (Quote on p. 384)]

Dr. Luther included a lengthy discussion of the doctrine of the call in his lectures on Galatians in 1531 (published in 1535).  He stated that every minister must be certain that his call is from God.  While Christ called the apostles without means, God continues to call pastors through human means.   In the sixteenth century, city officials or princes often called pastors to certain parishes.  (In twenty-first century America, Christian congregations normally call pastors.)  However, this call was no less divine than the apostles’ call.  He concluded, “Therefore we who are in the ministry of the Word have this comfort, that we have a heavenly and holy office; being legitimately called to this, we prevail over all the gates of hell.”  It was necessary for a minister to boast in his call to glorify God, give him divine confidence in his ministry, and to give assurance to his congregation.  Instead of puffing the pastor up this knowledge should humble him. [Luther, “Lectures on Galatians (1535),” LW 26:19-21 (Quote on p. 20). {Emphasis added}]

What about Luther’s teaching of the priesthood of all believers?  Doesn’t this doctrine grant all believers the right to participate in the church’s public ministry?  Luther addressed this topic often.

Since 1520 Luther had distinguished between baptized priests and the office of ministry.  At that time Luther contrasted the Office of the Holy Ministry (Predigtamt, ministerium) with the papal priesthood.  Additionally, Luther argued against the papal bishops’ claim that they alone had the authority to ordain pastors.  Thereby, he rejected the Roman sacrament of ordination and the notion that pastors possessed an “indelible character” as a result of their Roman episcopal ordination. [Norman Nagel, “Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers,” CTQ 61 (1997): 284-285, 289]   Luther explained this idea in the following manner, “…we are all priests, as many of us are Christians. But the priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us.  All they do is done in our name; the priesthood is nothing but a ministry.  This we learn from I. Cor. 4 [:1]: ‘This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.’ ” [Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, LW 36:112-13].

Dr. Luther’s basic understanding of the difference between pastors as servants of the Word and the laity as baptized priests never changed.  In 1530 he reiterated that while all Christians are priests, all Christians do not hold the office of holy ministry.  A pastor has a an office that he received through a divine call and command.  A layman may be well educated, but that alone does not give him the right to teach publicly. [Luther, Commentary on Psalm 82:4, LW 13:65]

Luther continued to emphasize this teaching in his later sermons and lectures.  His sermon series on Psalm 110, published in 1539, contains an extended discussion of the Christian’s priestly office.  While preaching on Ps. 110:4, he explained how Christ shares his priestly office with believers.  This priesthood is the common possession of all Christians.  As he did in 1520, Dr. Luther distinguished between baptized priests and those called to be pastors.  The latter actually occupy an office by which they serve their fellow priests through preaching and teaching. [Luther, Commentary on Psalm 110:4, LW 13:330-332.]  He had made a similar argument in 1533 when he wrote,

For none of us is born as apostle, preacher, teacher, pastor through baptism, but we are all born simply as priests and clerics.  Afterward, some are taken from the ranks of such born clerics and called or elected to these which they are to discharge on behalf of all of us. [Luther, The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests, LW 38:189.]

This teaching has remained a central part of Lutheran theology.  For instance, Martin Chemnitz, generally considered the most significant Lutheran theologian of the second generation of Reformers, reaffirmed Luther’s teaching on the distinction between Christians as baptized priests and called pastors.  He wrote that all Christians may teach God’s Word at home, but “not everyone ought to take and arrogate to himself the public ministry of Word and sacrament.”   [Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent Part II, Chemnitz’s Works 2:678.]

Additionally, I would point you toward the most recent English translation of C.F.W. Walther’s Church and Ministry for many citations of primary sources.  Walther made his position very clear when he stated succinctly, “The holy preaching office [Predigtamt] or pastoral office [Pfarramt] is an office distinct from the office of priest [Priesteramt], which all believers have.” [C.F.W. Walther, The Church and the Office of the Holy Ministry, trans. J.T. Mueller, revised, edited, and annotated by Matthew C. Harrison (St Louis, 2012), p. 151.]




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