Part II of Martin Noland’s Essay on Laymens’ Rights – The Pre Reformation History of the Matter

(Editor’s Note: for an introduction to this essay and for Part I  click here.)

Before we look at contemporary challenges to laymen’s rights in Lutheran congregations, I would like to take you on a historical tour of the idea.   We will start with the origins of the idea of laymen’s rights in the church, follow its development in the Lutheran church, and then look at several places where it is being challenged today in the LCMS at the synodical and congregational levels.

II. The Origin of Laymen’s Rights in the Christian Church

                      Probably the earliest evidence of a layman serving in some official capacity in the Christian church was that of a laywoman.   That was the mother of John Mark, who offered her home for use by the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:12).   Since the book of Acts says that the church was meeting in her home, it means that she was still using it, had legal control of it, was paying for its maintenance, and I am sure had unilateral say in its appointments.   I can’t imagine that Saint Peter would have told John Mark’s mother to change the color of the Persian carpet in the house to fit the liturgical season.   Peter and all the rest were guests in her house, and I am sure they exhibited Christian courtesy in the use of that house.

                      Many biblical scholars believe that John Mark and his mother were wealthy and that she had a large house.   There is good evidence for this and it supports the general rule that in the early Christian church, the rich and the noblemen were benefactors and leaders of the Christian church.   This was a natural outgrowth of their similar role in the secular Roman society.   This means that the ministers of the Gospel worked cooperatively with lay leaders in the very earliest days of the Christian church.

By the time of Pope Gregory the Great, which was the beginning of the seventh century, many things had changed in the church.   By that time, bishops had significant administrative control over properties, farms, buildings, industries, employees, and many other business affairs.   Pope Gregory was so powerful that the raiding Germanic tribes concluded peace with him, instead of the petty officers of the secular state.   Led by the example in Rome, the Western church saw a gradual, but significant decrease in lay authority in the church.

This decline in lay authority climaxed with the Investiture Controversy in the eleventh century, which concluded with Emperor Henry IV begging for mercy on his knees to the pope’s legate at Canossa in January 1077.   Henry was the most powerful man in the world, but it was obvious at Canossa that the pope was even more powerful.   The conclusion made by all was that every priest was superior, in every way, to every layman, and that in church affairs laymen had no rights whatsoever.

                      At this point in the story, you might expect to hear the sound of a hammer on the Wittenberg church door.   Actually Martin Luther was not the first reformer to address the issue of laymen’s rights in the Christian church.   Luther’s greatest insights were theological, particularly in the matters of justification and the sacraments.   But in the issue of church polity, Luther followed the lead of an Englishman named John Wycliffe, professor of theology at Oxford University in the fourteenth century, who lived one hundred and fifty years before Luther.[i]

                      In 1374 Wycliffe was asked by the English kings to review the theological justification for the pope’s annual tax on England.   This was during England’s Hundred Year’s War with France.   The English kings had discovered that the annual tax they were sending to the pope was paying for the French armies against whom they were fighting.   This was because the pope was French and lived on French soil, i.e., at Avignon.   English-speaking people have been skeptical of the French and the popes every since.

                      Wycliffe not only proved that the pope could not impose a tax on any country, he also proved from Scripture that the ministers of the church were called to exercise their office faithfully, and if they did not, the lay leaders of society were obligated to depose them and replace them with faithful leaders.   This meant that the English king could depose the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Holy Roman Emperor could depose the pope.   What was most upsetting to the pope, the monks, and the wealthy clergy was that Wycliffe agreed with the Franciscans that church-workers should not be wealthy, and that the extensive holdings of the church in real estate should be “secularized” by the king.

Wycliffe’s view of the relationship between clergy and laymen made him an arch-heretic in the pope’s court.   Pope Gregory IX issued a bull of heresy against Wycliffe on May 22, 1377. The English king was not willing to fight the pope, so Wycliffe was put under house arrest, put on trial, and eventually was removed from office as professor at Oxford.   He died soon after being exiled from Oxford.   Wycliffe’s followers were known as Lollards.   Their work spilled over into Bohemia, where they influenced John Hus.   The Hussite view of the church eventually spilled over to neighboring Saxony, where Martin Luther took up a similar call for reform of the papacy.

Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences in October 1517 was not original to him.   Many theologians in the church, including Wycliffe and Hus, had criticized indulgences.   What was new in Luther’s criticism was his call for reform of the sacrament of confession.   Luther criticized indulgences on the theological ground that they undermined repentance among the faithful.   Wycliffe and others had criticized indulgences on ethical grounds, i.e., that they were sold in order to enrich the clergy and the monks who sold them.   Both criticisms were true, but Luther’s criticism demonstrated that indulgences endangered the souls of the faithful, not just the souls of the clergy.

I think that Luther was surprised to find that his criticisms were not welcome by the papists at Rome.   He really was a true believer in Christ and the papists in Rome were utterly corrupt.   Luther also found few friends or allies among the clergy or bishops, who were too afraid for their livelihood to really care about the effect of indulgences on the laymen under their pastoral care.   So Luther turned to the powerful laymen of his day, the German princes, in a famous treatise titled To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.[ii]

                      In To the Christian Nobility, Luther not only demolished the entire medieval political system, he also enunciated for the first time the Lutheran doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”   We should note that other Protestants have a doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” but that it is not the same as Luther’s.   Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” did not assert, “Everyone is a minister.”   That was the view of the Anabaptists of his day and perhaps some in the Lutheran church today.   Luther’s view was much more complex, but was also entirely faithful to the New Testament view of the relationship between clergy and laity.

                      Luther’s treatise is as fresh and as relevant as when he wrote it almost five hundred years ago.   Here is the paragraph where he got down to business:

The Romanists have very cleverly built three walls around themselves.   Hitherto they have protected themselves by these walls in such a way that no one has been able to reform them.   As a result, the whole of Christendom has fallen abominably.

                      In the first place, when pressed by the temporal power they have made decrees and declared that the temporal power had no jurisdiction over them, but that, on the contrary, the spiritual power is above the temporal.   In the second place, when the attempt is made to reprove them with the Scriptures, they raise the objection that only the pope may interpret the Scriptures.   In the third place, if threatened with a council, their story is that no one may summon a council but the pope.[iii]

These were all things that reformers of the church had learned since the days of Wycliffe; they were not things that just cropped up in Luther’s day.

                      These three walls are dangers to any Christian church when malicious or corrupt leaders take over from the inside.   They are not problems exclusive to Rome, but are characteristic of the papal system invented by Rome.   Defenders of this system were technically known as “papists.”   A papist was not just someone who gave allegiance to the pope, but who firmly defended these three principles of papal church polity.

                      Luther’s attack on the “first wall” is the most important for our purposes, so I quote it here at length.   It is the most significant passage in church history addressing the issue of laymen’s rights in the Christian church:

It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, craftsmen, and farmers are called the temporal estate.   This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy.   Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason:   all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office.   Paul says in I Corinthians 12 [:12-13] that we are all one body, yet every member has its own work by which it serves the others.   This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people.

                      The pope or bishop anoints, shaves heads, ordains, consecrates, and prescribes garb different from that of the laity, but he can never make a man into a Christian or into a spiritual man by doing so.   He might well make a man into a hypocrite or a humbug or a blockhead, but never a Christian or spiritual man.   As far as that goes, we are all consecrated priests through baptism, as Saint Peter says in I Peter 2 [:9]: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm.”   The book of Revelation [5:9-10] says, “Thou hast made us to be priests and kings by your blood.”   The consecration by pope or bishop would never make a priest, and if we had no higher consecration than that which pope or bishop gives, no one could say mass or preach a sermon or give absolution.

                      Therefore, when a bishop consecrates it is nothing else than that in the place and stead of the whole community, all of whom have like power, he takes a person and charges him to exercise this power on behalf of others.   It is like ten brothers, all king’s sons and equal heirs, choosing one of themselves to rule the inheritance in the interests of all.   In one sense, they are all kings and of equal power, and yet one of them is charged with the responsibility of ruling.   To put it still more clearly:   suppose a group of earnest Christian laymen were taken prisoner and set down in a desert without an episcopally ordained priest among them.   And suppose they were to come to a common mind there and then in the desert and elect one of their number, whether he were married or not, and charge him to baptize, say mass, pronounce absolution, and preach the gospel.   Such a man would be as truly a priest as though he had been ordained by all the bishops and popes in the world.   That is why in cases of necessity anyone can baptize and give absolution.   This would be impossible if we were not all priests. . . .

                      Since those who exercise secular authority have been baptized with the same baptism, and have the same faith and the same gospel as the rest of us, we must admit that they are priests and bishops and we must regard their office as one which has a proper and useful place in the Christian community.   For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody should exercise such office.   Because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and take it upon himself, without our consent and election, to do that for which we all have equal authority.   For no one dare take what is common to all without the authority and consent of the whole community.   And should it happen that a person chosen for such office were deposed for abuse of trust, he would then be exactly what he was before.   Therefore a priest in Christendom is nothing else but an officeholder . . .

                      It follows from this argument that there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes, and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status.   They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes.   But they do not all have the same work to do.[iv]

So far Luther.

                      Not only does this key passage establish the divine right of lay leaders to govern the church, it also establishes a principle of egalitarianism with these words:

Because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and take it upon himself, without our consent and election, to do that for which we all have equal authority.   For no one dare take what is common to all without the authority and consent of the whole community.

Here then is the basic principle of Lutheran structure and governance, established by Luther himself in one of his most important polemical treatises.   The Book of Concord established this and similar polemical treatises from Luther as a tertiary authority in the Lutheran church, after the primary authority of Scriptures and secondary authority of the Confessions.[v]

                      We should note here that the idea of laymen’s rights in Christian congregations had its origins in England, but found its theological fruit in the Lutheran church.   This means that the English-speaking peoples and Lutherans have a great affinity for each other.   When the English church went through its Reformation, under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, it asserted the right of the king to govern the church and depose the bishops, if necessary.   This was a right first stated by Wycliffe.   Later forms of English Protestantism expanded the rights of laymen and to whom those rights applied.   The Presbyterians gave a group of lay elders rights over their own congregation.   The Congregationalists gave the entire congregation rights over their own affairs.   Most of the American Protestants derived their ideas of church government from these variations, but all agreed on laymen’s rights.


[i]   For an excellent introduction to Wycliffe’s life and thought, see Stephen E. Lahey, John Wycliffe, in Great Medieval Thinkers (Oxford:   Oxford University Press, 2008).

[ii]   See Luther’s Works (hereafter AE), eds. Pelikan and Lehmann (Saint Louis and Philadelphia:   Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press), 44:115-217.

[iii]   AE 44:126.

[iv]   AE 44:127-129.

[v]   FC SD, Rule and Norm, 9; see Tappert, p. 505.

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