The frequent reappearance of questions surrounding the divinely instituted Office of the Holy Ministry are worth considering. They are intimately connected to the chief article of justification by grace through faith alone. The Augsburg Confession lays this out clearly in articles IV (Justification) and V (The Office of the Ministry). “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive the forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5. (Article IV). To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is provided the Gospel and the sacraments.” (Article V).
I had an opportunity to sit down with Rev. Dr. Martin Chemnitz, compiler of the Book of Concord and co-author of the Formula of Concord, to get his take on some of these questions.
Rev. McKinley: Dr. Chemnitz, what is the nature of the Office of the Holy Ministry?
Rev. Dr. Chemnitz: It is a spiritual, or ecclesiastical, office, instituted and ordained by God Himself for discharging and performing necessary functions of the church, so that the pastors, or preachers, are and ought to be ministers of God and of the church in the kingdom of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
McKinley: Where does the Bible say that?
Chemnitz: I Corinthians 4:1, Colossians 1:25, and II Corinthians 4:5.
McKinley: I’m intrigued by your use of the term “functions.” What if someone believes he is endowed with certain spiritual gifts, say, those listed in I Timothy 3:2-7. Should he undertake and claim for himself the office of teaching in the church, even if he doesn’t have a call? Or, at the very least, can he exercise some of those functions you mentioned?
Chemnitz: By no means. St. Paul asks in Romans 10, “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” The Lord says through the Prophet Jeremiah, “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 21:23). The author of Hebrews also adds, “No one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (5:4).
McKinley: God’s Word seems pretty clear on that. What if, though, there is a teacher who faithfully teaches according to the Word of God, and does not deviate from it at all? Can he be heard by the church, even though he doesn’t have a legitimate call?
Chemnitz: No. Recall what I just cited from St. Paul in Romans 10. Jeremiah also speaks of the false prophets in his day. Of them, God says, “I have not sent them, declares the Lord, but they are prophesying falsely in my name, with the result that I will drive you out and you will perish, you and the prophets who are prophesying to you” (27:15). For this reason the prophets and apostles so earnestly emphasize the prerogatives of their call at the beginning of their writings. And experience shows that they who thrust themselves into ecclesiastical functions without a legitimate and regular call experience little blessing of God and contribute little to the upbuilding of the church.
McKinley: That seems to indicate danger on the part of both the teacher and the hearer. But St. Paul says, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1). Is it really necessary for a person who is theologically sound to wait until he is called to teach?
Chemnitz: To desire the office of overseer, or as you have put it, the Office of the Holy Ministry, is not to thrust oneself into ecclesiastical functions without a legitimate call; but if one has learned and understands the fundamentals of Christian doctrine and is somewhat endowed with the gift of teaching—when he offers his service to God and the church, he thereby seeks nothing else than that God would declare through a legitimate, or regular, call whether He wants to use his service in His church. And he ought to be so minded, that, if a call does not follow his request, he does not cunningly work his way in.
McKinley: But all believers are called priests in Revelation 1:6, Revelation 5:10, and I Peter 2:9. Doesn’t everybody have a general call to the ministry?
Chemnitz: All we who believe are indeed spiritual priests, but we are not all teachers. Look at what St. Paul says in I Corinthians 12:29-30: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” He also adds in Ephesians 4:11-12, “And Christ gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” And Peter explains himself: All Christians are priests—not that all should function without difference in the ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments, without a special call, but that they should offer spiritual sacrifices, as Paul describes in Romans 12:1 and the Apostle in Hebrews 13:15-16.
McKinley: But all Christians have a general call to proclaim the Gospel! St. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you our of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). Fathers are especially called to teach those in their households by Moses in Deuteronomy 6:7. Why can’t a man with sound theology and a gift for teaching use those things without a call?
Chemnitz: It is true that all Christians have a general call to proclaim the Gospel of God. St. Paul writes in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Christians are also called to speak the Word of God among themselves (Ephesians 5:19), to admonish each other from the Word of God (Colossians 3:16), to reprove (Ephesians 5:11), and to comfort (I Thessalonians 4:18). And family heads are enjoined to do this with the special command that they give their households the instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). But the public ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments in the church is not entrusted to all Christians in general, as we have already shown from I Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:12. For a special or particular call is required for this, as St. Paul says in Romans 10:15, “How are they to preach unless they are sent?”
McKinley: But why does a man have to have a legitimate call to do these things? Aren’t these rules man-made?
Chemnitz: One must not think that this is done by human arrangement or only for the sake of order; but there are many weighty reasons, consideration of which teaches many things and is vey necessary for every minister of the church.
McKinley: Such as?
Chemnitz: Because God Himself deals with us in the church through the ministry as through the ordinary means and instrument. For it is He Himself that speaks, exhorts, absolves, baptizes, etc. in the ministry and through the ministry (Luke 1:70 and Hebrews 1:1). Also, the assurance of a divine call stirs up ministers of the Word, so that each one, in his station, in the fear of God, performs his functions with greater diligence, faith, and eagerness, without weariness. And he does not let himself be drawn or frightened away from his office by fear of any peril or of persecution, since he is sure that he is called by God and that the office has been divinely entrusted to him. Because of this, hearers are stirred up to true reverence and obedience toward ministry, namely since they are taught from the Word of God that God, present through this means, wants to deal with us in the church and work effectively among us.
McKinley: You make a good case. Let me ask one more question: Who has the right or power to send and call ministers of the Word and of the Sacraments? Who gets to decide who is a teacher of the church?
Chemnitz: At all times there have been great, often also bloody, controversies regarding the right to call; but speaking properly and on the basis of Scripture, the right to call and to send laborers into the harvest belongs to Him who is the Lord of the harvest, and it is good to note in Scripture that the right and administration of this call are ascribed expressly to the individual persons of the Trinity (the Father: Matthew 9:38, the Son: Ephesians 4:8-12, and the Holy Spirit: Acts 13:2-4 and Acts 20:28). Therefore also God does not recognize as true pastors those who have not been sent by Him, even if they have been called and appointed by kings or by a political magistrate.
I’d like to say a very special thank you to Rev. Dr. Chemnitz for this great opportunity. It’s beneficial to be able to hear from one of the chief reformers how we should understand Lutheran theology today. Another special thank you goes to the late Rev. Luther Poellet, without whom this interview could not have taken place. For more information, see Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion by Martin Chemnitz, edited by Luther Poellet, and published by Concordia Publishing House. A more complete form of the interview may be found in that work on pp. 26-30).