Priests and ministers

More radicalism from Luther in The Babylonian Captivity, this time on ordination, as he attacks the way in which the medieval church’s concept of ordination had set up a “detestable tyranny of the clergy over the laity”. Luther responds with his famous teaching usually summarised as “the priesthood of all believers”:

If they were forced to grant that all of us that have been baptized are equally priests, as indeed we are, and that only the ministry was committed to them, yet with our common consent, they would know that they have no right to rule over us except insofar as we freely concede it. For thus it is written in 1 Peter 2:9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a priestly royalty.” Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.

So what then is the role of those usually referred to at that time as “priests” (what we would call pastors or ministers)? It is as “ministers”, chosen from among the people of God to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments:

[T]he priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us. All that they do is done in our name; the priesthood is nothing but a ministry. This we learn from 1 Corinthians 4:1: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (pp.243f.)

At the time Luther was writing, most priests were ordained “only to read the canonical hours and to offer masses”, with little or no preaching required from them. Luther dismissed such priests as “papal priests, but not Christian priests”, and insisted that:

The duty of a priest is to preach, and if he does not preach he is as much a priest as a picture of a man is a man. … It is the ministry of the Word that makes the priest and the bishop. (p.247)

So Luther reiterates that all Christians are priests, and specifically have the power to preach the gospel, baptize, absolve and administer the Lord’s Supper:

Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests, that is to say, we have the same power in respect to the Word and the sacraments. (p.248)

However, this doesn’t mean that we should all take it upon ourselves to preach or administer the sacraments at our own initiative. As Luther writes:

However, no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior. (For what is the common property of all, no individual may arrogate to himself, unless he is called.) (p.248)

In other words, reserving these tasks to the ministry is not a denial of the priesthood of all believers, but an expression of it. It is precisely because the Christian priesthood belongs to all of us that none of us should try to grab it for ourselves alone.

That said, I wonder if we have become too nervous of what Luther is saying here, and have turned the pastorate into a new priesthood. The congregation’s call is not seen as what makes a man a minister of word and sacrament. Rather, the call is (in practice) simply the means by which someone who has already been given that ministry by other means – a seminary education, synodical approval, the laying on of hands by other pastors – is appointed to exercise that ministry in a particular place.

I’m not saying that that education, approval and ordination are bad things. However, they should be seen as means by which the priesthood of all believers in the congregation is assisted in its task of calling men to the ministry; and as a voluntary ceding, for the purposes of good order, of the congregation’s fundamental right to call whomever it will to exercise that ministry.

And there may be times when it is appropriate for congregations to take back that right and exercise it in other ways. For example, it may be appropriate for a congregation faced with a long vacancy, whether due to lack of funds or lack of suitable candidates, to call a suitable member of the congregation to exercise the ministry of word and sacrament on a temporary, unpaid basis. The extreme unlikelihood of this happening in practice probably tells us all we need to know about how well Luther’s arguments on ordination in The Babylonian Captivity have fared within the Lutheran church.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should set aside the way in which we currently train and call our pastors. Just that we should do so in the spirit of “joyous liberty” that Luther describes, never forgetting that:

…he who is a Christian has Christ; and that he who has Christ has all things that are Christ’s, and can do all things (Philippians 4:13).

This entry was posted in Anarchy and Christianity, Gospel and Sacrament, Luther and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Priests and ministers

  1. Phil Walker says:

    The congregation’s call is not seen as what makes a man a minister of word and sacrament.

    As you’ll probably recall, one of the great heresies among evangelicals is to say you don’t believe in “the Call”, if by “Call” we’re talking about a mystical, inner certainty that one is required to have in order to be a valid minister.

    And then we complain that we don’t have enough men in pastoral ministry. We erected unbiblical hoops and taught our young men that they need to jump through them to be ministers: what did we think would happen?

  2. CPA says:

    Well, the scenario you’ve described IS done in the LCMS, but it’s quite controversial. I myself have always seen it as valid, with ONE proviso: that the pastors of other orthodox (yeah, I know that word raises a host of issues here) congregations accept this chosen person as a colleague (this is usually done by their participation in laying on of hands in ordination). It is one thing for a congregation to chose man X to be their pastor. But since each congregation is only an incarnation of the body of Christ in a locality, that congregation must be in communion with other congregations; and that means they must recognize the pastor as well. As long as those two elements are present (acknowledgment by the congregation he serves and acknowledgment by sister congregations) then he is rightly called. Lack of either one means no such right calling.

    Luther’s thought on ecclesiology under much development after 1521 as he confronted the practical issues of organizing evagelical congregations into a church. His later writings emphasize ordination more.

  3. Kyle says:

    Thanks for my daily dose of Luther. He’s somebody I always want to read, but some how never do so of my own volition.

    I have to wonder, though, what Luther’s opinion was on the sort of preaching that happens neighbor to neighbor, vs. pulpit preaching. Does the line about “no one may make use of this power except by… consent” imply that he would be opposed to ordinary lay evangelism?

  4. Kyle says:

    PS. Can I have a “follow comments via email” checkbox?

  5. John H says:

    CPA: good point about the need for congregations to stand in communion with other congregations, and hence to choose a pastor who is acceptable to his fellow-pastors in other congregations.

    I still think though that the “ordination” aspect of the ministry has come to overshadow and dominate the “calling” aspect. As I said in my post, “calling” now seems to be in effect a synonym for “appointment”: the man is a pastor by virtue of his ordination by other pastors, and all the congregation is doing is deciding they want him as their pastor. It would be healthy to restore more of a sense of the pastor’s role being delegated to him by the congregation.

    But again, not to exaggerate the situation. Our ministry is still (by and large) genuinely a ministry of word and sacrament, in contrast to the situation in Luther’s day. And I now begin to see why the elders of the congregation are seen as having primary responsibility for the congregation’s spiritual health, with responsibility for overseeing the pastor’s ministry.

    And at least we still preserve some notion of the call being an external call by the people of God, not an internal call felt within the individual’s heart (“I feel called to the ministry”), as described by Phil.

    Kyle: Luther is talking specifically about the public ministry of word and sacrament over a congregation, and is not remotely prohibiting individual Christians sharing the gospel with others (indeed, in the Captivity he says that lay Christians can, and should, absolve one another).

    Dan has an excellent analogy over at his blog, in which he points out that the fact there is such an office as “physics teacher” does not mean that he (as a non-teacher) is prohibited from talking about physics or helping his fellow students as best. But equally that does not mean he (or anyone else) could just take it upon themselves to walk into a classroom and start exercising the “ministry” of teaching physics.

    As for “follow comments by email”, I’ll see what I can do, but no promises. I don’t think that functionality is built in to this version of WordPress, and I’m reluctant to add in new modules before a likely upgrade later this year. In the meantime, you could try using the “Track with co.mments” link on each post.

  6. John,

    I use a WordPress plugin, Subscribe to comments, that lets users check whether they want comments emailed to them. It’s pretty simple to install if you run your own server.

  7. Chris Jones says:

    [T]he priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us. All that they do is done in our name … we are all equally priests, that is to say, we have the same power in respect to the Word and the sacraments … However, no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior.

    Luther was wrong on this as well, and it is noteworthy that this radical expression of “the priesthood of all believers” is, by and large, not reflected in the Confessions.

    First of all, what the priest does is not done in our name, but in Christ’s name. And he who would dare to speak and act in Christ’s name can do so only by Christ’s call, not by our consent. And if the priest does not stand in the place of Christ, then we are left with the detestable Protestant notion that the rites and sacraments of the Church are our works, not Christ’s mighty works among us.

    Also, when Luther says by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior, I have to ask, which is it: the community, or a superior? and what does he mean by “a superior,” since the Lutheran Reformation (rightly or wrongly) did away with ecclesiastical hierarchy?

    The priesthood of all believers does not mean that all have the “power” to minister Word and Sacrament. The office of the holy ministry is not a power, it is an office. The promises of Christ do not attach to the man as a power, but to the office, so that the faithful may rely upon those promises when they are delivered by one who is rightly called to the office. If the ministry is seen as a power delegated by the congregation, to a representative of the congregation, on the authority of the congregation, then that overthrows the pastorate as the office instituted by Christ, to deliver the promises of Christ, by the authority of Christ.

    It is not about us, folks. It is about Him.

  8. John H says:

    Chris: yes, the minister indeed speaks and acts in the place of Christ. But how is Christ’s call of that minister to be discerned and expressed? The only options would seem to be: by other ministers (with or without a hierarchy); by the congregation; by the individual himself (which is the modern evangelical approach). Luther’s position would seem to be you need both the first two options.

    There is also a distinction to be made between ability and propriety. In an emergency, you or I are entitled to baptize someone. That is, we are able to do so at any time, but it is only proper for us to do so in an emergency.

    Similarly, Luther would I think say – and you may take issue with this – that any Christian is able to pronounce absolution to a fellow-believer, and indeed that there are times when it is proper to do so (to soothe a troubled conscience in the context of private conversation, doing so in a way which makes no presumption of being an exercise of the called ministry). However, it is not proper for a Christian to pronounce absolution publicly without being called to do so.

    Finally, the Lord’s Supper. If I were to officiate at a celebration of the Lord’s Supper without being duly called, that would be monstrously presumptious and improper. But I’m not sure we can assert that the Lord’s body and blood would be absent from the bread and wine. (You’ll notice I’m being quite cautious on this one!)

    ISTM the reason that Luther would give for saying it is never proper for a lay Christian to officiate at the Lord’s Supper is not that a layperson is incapable of doing so, but rather that it is never essential for the Supper to take place. By contrast, it may be essential to conduct an emergency baptism or assure a troubled believer of God’s forgiveness for them right now.

    Luther’s own “thought experiment” about believers marooned on a desert island is, I think, helpful. If they called someone from among their number to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, then I think it is hard to say that this was improper behaviour on their part, or that the Lord’s body and blood would be absent from their altar when they celebrated the Supper.

  9. Chris Jones says:


    … how is Christ’s call of that minister to be discerned and expressed?

    That is a good question, but it is not the same question as that of what the nature of the priestly office is. The Church has answered that question in various ways in different times and different places, and in some times and places (for example, at the present time in my own Church body in the United States) the answer has been “the call is discerned and expressed by a vote of the local congregation.” While that is one acceptable answer, I don’t find it given in Holy Writ as the only acceptable answer.

    And in any case the fact that the local congregation “discerns and expresses” Christ’s call does not mean that the congregation is “delegating” the royal priesthood of all believers to “its representative.” That is not the model given in the New Testament, nor is it envisaged by the earliest witnesses such as St Clement or St Ignatius. St Clement tells us, for example, that the Apostles named and ordained their own successors and instructed them to ordain further successors as needed. There is no suggestion that local congregations nominated their own pastors, nor certainly that pastors held their office by delegation from the congregation. As early ordination rites (such as that in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus) show, the pastor’s call and authority were understood to be directly from God (however that call may have been “discerned and expressed”).

    As to the Lord’s Supper, I should not say that we can assert that the Lord’s body and blood are not present at a lay celebration; but I certainly should not say, either, that we can rely upon it that His body and blood are present at a lay celebration. Because where the sacraments are not “rightly administered,” the conditions for the Lord’s promise have not been met and there is therefore no divine promise on which to rely. If someone baptizes in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” can we say that a baptism has actually taken place? Of course not, because the Lord’s command has not been followed. It is the same with the Supper. It is precisely those who are rightly called to the Apostolic ministry who are the stewards of the mysteries of God; those to whom that stewardship has not been committed not only should not, but cannot, dispense those sacred mysteries. Because that which is done apart from the authority of God cannot bear the promise of God.

    I’m familiar with Luther’s “thought experiment,” and I am sympathetic to Luther’s intent. But actual history trumps a thought experiment, and when the Church has faced circumstances analogous to Luther’s experiment, she has not followed the procedure Luther though proper. When the martyrs were imprisoned awaiting their martyrdom, deacons risked their lives to sneak into the prison bearing the blessed sacrament so that the prisoners could receive the medicine of immortality before going to their deaths. Why would that be necessary if the prisoners could simply choose one of their number to act as presbyter and celebrate the Supper?

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