Laymen’s Rights in Lutheran Congregations: Origins, Developments, and Contemporary Challenges, by Martin Noland

Church historian and regular contributor to BJS Pastor Martin Noland has written a timely review of the significance of laymen’s rights in the church. His point is to place into a helpful historical context the current challenges to congregational autonomy such as the Blue Ribbon proposals, the Church Growth Movement and other threats. Since we have serialized the paper and will be posting it in five or six segments, here are a few upcoming quotes to whet your appetite for this important topic.

One conclusion that you can draw from this is that, just because a church is big, does not mean they are smarter than small churches in the matter of growth.  

This statement [of the Blue Ribbon Proposals] directly undermines the letter and intent of Article VII, which is that synod is only an advisory body to the local congregation.  

Points 3, 4, 5, and 6 in Walther’s plan would be altered under what we have seen in the Blue Ribbon proposals so far.  



By Martin R. Noland – September, 2009[i]

I. Introduction

                      At the beginning of this year, Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, Indiana[ii] invited me to speak on the proposals of the Blue Ribbon Task Force for Synodical Structure and Governance (hereafter Blue Ribbon Task Force).   The synodical president convened the task force in June 2005.   The task force intends to recommend some major changes to the polity, i.e., the structure and governance, of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS) at its 2010 convention.   We won’t know until sometime in mid-October 2009 what the proposals will be.[iii]   It is therefore still too early to offer any definite criticism of those specific proposals, but it is never too early to discuss the general principles that inform the polity of our Missouri Synod.   With a firm grounding in the general principles, we should all be better prepared to discuss and evaluate any changes to our church-body and congregations.

You don’t have the time, and I don’t have the energy, to talk about all the general principles of Missouri Synod polity.   That would be a graduate level course at one of our seminaries, under the title “Church and Ministry,” or something like that.   What we need to talk about today is what principles may be at risk in our Missouri Synod today.   Based on several years of observation of current trends and practices in our church, I believe that the most endangered principle is “laymen’s rights.”     From a theological standpoint, this refers to the Lutheran doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”

I suspect that there are a number of pastors here who would strongly disagree with me.   Some pastors believe that, in their congregation, laymen have asserted their “rights” over against the pastor, to the point that the pastor has had no effective authority.   Or at least that is how the pastor views the problem.   We would be getting ahead of ourselves if we made any judgment about whose “rights” have been usurped.   You would also misunderstand me if you think that I am using the term “rights” in the modern sense of the term, i.e., legal rights established by government.   I am using the term “rights” in the classical sense, that is, natural rights given by the creator, or in this case, baptismal rights given by your Redeemer.   In any event, my purpose here is not to pit pastor against layman, but to help both understand the rights of laymen in the church and how that is challenged today.

(Coming in future posts: a historical review of laymen’s rights in the church, the unique development of this matter in Lutheranism and current challenges to laymen’s rights including the Blue Ribbon proposals, TCN, the Church Growth Movement and other challenges.)

[i]   I apologize to any and all readers who are seeking extensive footnotes.   I had to prepare this essay without access to my own professional library, or that of any significant theological library, because my family and I moved to Evansville, Indiana in the month preceding the writing of this essay.

[ii]I gave this essay at three conferences. On September 11, 2009, I gave the essay to Texas Confessional Lutherans meeting at Grace Lutheran Church, Brenham, Texas.   On September 26, 2009, I gave the essay for the Lutheran Heritage Series at Grace Lutheran Church, Columbus, Indiana.   On October 17, 2009, I gave the essay to the Minnesota Confessional Lutherans meeting at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Saint Cloud, Minnesota.   Many thanks to the conference organizers and hosts who helped along the way!

[iii]Current information indicates that the proposals will be available at the synodical web-site on October 16, 2009.   See in the section on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synodical Structure and Governance.

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