Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lay Preachers?

"Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called." -Augsburg Confession XIV

Why do I see and hear about lay preachers and teachers in the church when our Confessions agree with Scripture in stating that the practice is not correct? Why do laymen teach the Bible class on Sunday mornings? Who called them to do that? Why do students in high school through seminary teach and preach without a call and ordination? There are many situations that I could share, but allow me to share my own.

When I was a senior in high school at Luther Preparatory School (WELS' worker training prep school), the male, senior students could volunteer to preach during an evening chapel service in the Spring semester. We were given a Scripture text and assigned a tutor (dorm supervisors who were either ordained pastors or are just school teachers [perhaps more on that subject in a different post]). I chose a pastor to help me with mine rather than the school teacher on my floor. So we met with these tutors and they helped us figure out what to preach about concerning the text - then we would go write it. My text was Isaiah 52:7-9. After I brought my draft to the tutor, he said it was good to go (surprisingly, because I was expecting some revisions like everyone else). I went to the library and checked out a Prayers and Collects book so I could actually have a structured prayer rather than freestylin' it. The day I had to preach was very nerve racking; after that afternoon, it got even worse when I was told that I wouldn't just be preaching to the student body, but to a multitude of grade school students and their chaperones. I eventually preached it of course, a nervous wreck with my voice cracking and nailing the lectern microphone with my hand while making the sign of the cross in blessing over the congregation. I got compliments from some tutors and the dean (maybe out of pity haha) and all was well.*  Overall, it was a great experience, especially having the chapel so filled.  And the next day the sun did in fact rise, to my great surprise.

But if I admit that lay preaching is a fantastic experience for those considering or preparing for the ministry, then what's my beef with this type of stuff? After reading the Lutheran Confessions I was awakened to a lot of doctrine and practice that I was comfortable with, but which the Confessions indicate are not correct. What gave me the right to stand up there and preach? What gave me the right to make the sign of the cross and bless the congregation? Could the justification have been my "desire" to serve in the public ministry? I think that could be fitted to Martin Luther College (WELS' college level ministerial training school) and the Seminary even more so -- a desire and some training in theology. Or perhaps it's more that we are a royal priesthood: all believers are to share the Gospel with all nations, even in a pulpit without a call. But are these theologically correct and valid explanations? Allow me to conclude with a lengthy quote from Father Chemnitz who, aside from the Scriptures and Confessions, can help answer and explain some of these questions:

But they [C.S. - the Sacramentarians] object (1) that Paul in 1 Tim. 3:1 very strongly praises the man who desires the office of an overseer. The reply: To desire the office of overseer does not mean that one injects himself without a lawful call into ecclesiastical functions. But he who understands the fundamentals of heavenly doctrine and has been equipped with the gift for teaching well, when he offers his work to God and the church, seeks nothing else than that God through some lawful call would declare whether, when, and where God wills to use his service in His church... 
They also object (2): But Christ has made all the faithful [to be] priests, Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 1 Peter 2:9. But the work of the priests, among other things was to teach the church, Lev. 10:10-11; Mal. 2:7. I reply: Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:7-9 and 29 expressly writes that God did not give to all the gifts of explaining the Scriptures, but He bestows the gifts of His Spirit variously for the benefit and upbuilding of the church (cf. Eph. 4:11-12). And Peter explains himself: All Christians are priests -- not that all should carry out the function of the ministry promiscuously  without a particular call, but that they should "offer up spiritual sacrifices" [1 Peter 2:5], which are described in Rom. 12:1; He. 13:15-16. 
They object (3): Peter says that all the faithful are priests because they are to "proclaim the virtues of God," 1 Peter 2:9. And the heads of households have the general charge to instruct the members of their families, Deut. 6:20ff.; 1 Cor. 14:35. I reply: This is indeed a general call, common to all Christians, to speak among themselves about the Word of God, Eph. 5:19, to comfort one another with the Word of God, 1 Thess. 4:18, and to confess the Gospel, Rom. 10:9, and this is enjoined on heads of households by individual command. But to administer those things which pertain to the public ministry of the Word and the sacraments is not commanded to all Christians in general, as the two passages from 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4, cited above, teach clearly enough. Nor does the general calling which all receive in Baptism suffice to give a person the office of the ministry, but there is required a special call, as has been shown in the preceding testimonies, cf. James 3:1. (Chemnitz, Loci Theologici, p. 1313-1314)

*Although when I re-read it a year or two later, I noticed that I was very heavy on the Law: "go evangelize, why aren't we evangelizing?";  "why aren't we going out there and converting people?"; etc., etc. I'm disappointed that I wasn't corrected on that.

This post deals specifically with the WELS because that has been my experience for the past 20 years. I have heard stories of the same sort of things happening in the LCMS, but haven't experienced it (they tend to have a much better grasp on the Ministry). I don't know about the ELS, but I'm pretty sure the pre-Sem students at Bethany Lutheran College (or any student) don't preach at chapel. I can't confirm though.


  1. Teaching children during the Sunday School hour is a function of the parental office and not the preaching office. It may be performed by any knowledgeable layman who acts as a surrogate father.

    The teaching of adult men during the Sunday School hour is not a function of the parental office. This office may not ordinarily be performed by laymen.

    Laymen may not teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments. Pastors err when they assign laymen or deacons to the office of lector or communion distributor. Assigning a woman to any public office is never acceptable even in a case of necessity when no pastor is available.

    Daniel Gorman

  2. I agree with you on some of your points. I would, however, like to speculate about the possibility of a congregation issuing a limited call to laymen to perform certain duties. In some sense, this is similar to church council members and elders. They are "called" by the congregation to serve in that role.

    If the pastor just picks someone, you are correct, that is not ok. However, if it is an actual act of the congregation, I think it is ok.

    For example, at a voters' meeting (or even the church council, acting on behalf of a congregation), it is asked if a layman, who meets the qualifications for public ministry, can take over the bible class for a pastor with a health issue (or an aging pastor) - I would say this is ok, as long as the layman is indeed qualified (perhaps himself a retired church worker, or someone who has received more than just a basic BIC, if this is a short term thing) and is held to the same standard of a called servant. I would also add that the individual be made clear of his duties and responsibilities. His call would be for that congregation only, and only for as long as specified. He would not be able to be on call lists, serve in that capacity at a district or synod convention, etc.

  3. "His call would be for that congregation only, and only for as long as specified. He would not be able to be on call lists, serve in that capacity at a district or synod convention, etc."

    Why is that? The Synod isn't prescribed by God. It is a man-made institution. If the call places a man into the Office in one congregation of the saints, why would it be invalid in another.

    Frankly, I think all of this misses the main point: ordination. IMHO, the Confessions do not understand the call outside of ordination. Consider the Blessed Reformer:

    "Because this ordination was instituted by the authority of the Scriptures and then by the example and decrees of the Apostles for this purpose, namely, that it would set in place ministers of the Word, by which the mysteries of God are dispensed, ought to be instituted through sacred ordination, or the reality which of all things in the Church is the highest and greatest, in which the entire power of the Ecclesiastical power consists, since without the Word nothing exists in the Church and through the Word all things exist."

    Likewise, in the Confessions, the Apology tells us that ordination - even the laying on of hands - may be considered a sacrament. How can that which is not required be considered a sacrament? No, I think ordination and the call go hand-in-hand.

  4. For no one can deny that every Christian possesses the word of God and is taught and anointed by God to be priest, as Christ says, John 6[:45], “They shall all be taught by God,” and Psalm 45[:7], “God has anointed you with the oil of gladness on account of your fellows.” These fellows are the Christians, Christ’s brethren, who with him are consecrated priests, as Peter says too, 1 Peter 2[:9], “You are a royal priesthood so that you may declare the virtue of him who called you into his marvelous light.”

    But if it is true that they have God’s word and are anointed by him, then it is their duty to confess, to teach, and to spread [his word], as Paul says, 1 Corinthians 4 [II Cor. 4:13], “Since we have the same spirit of faith, so we speak,” and the prophet says in Psalm 116[:10], “I came to believe, therefore I speak.” And in Psalm 51[:13], he [God] says of all Christians, “I will teach the ungodly your ways, and sinners will return to you.” Here again it is certain that a Christian not only has the right and power to teach God’s word but has the duty to do so on pain of losing his soul and of God’s disfavor.

    If you say, “How can this be? If he is not called to do so he may indeed not preach, as you yourself have frequently taught,” I answer that here you should put the Christian into two places. First, if he is in a place where there are no Christians he needs no other call than to be a Christian, called and anointed by God from within. Here it is his duty to preach and to teach the gospel to erring heathen or non-Christians, because of the duty of brotherly love, even though no man calls him to do so. This is what Stephen did, Acts 6–7, even though he had not been ordered into any office by the apostles. Yet he still preached and did great signs among the people. Again, Philip, the deacon and Stephen’s comrade, Acts 8[:5], did the same thing even though the office of preaching was not commanded to him either. Again, Apollos did so too, Acts 18[:25]. In such a case a Christian looks with brotherly love at the need of the poor and perishing souls and does not wait until he is given a command or letter from a prince or bishop. For need breaks all laws and has none. Thus it is the duty of love to help if there is no one else who could or should help.


  5. Part 2:

    Second, if he is at a place where there are Christians who have the same power and right as he, he should not draw attention to himself. Instead, he should let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others. Indeed, a Christian has so much power that he may and even should make an appearance and teach among Christians—without a call from men—when he becomes aware that there is a lack of teachers, provided he does it in a decent and becoming manner. This was clearly described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14[:30], when he says, “If something is revealed to someone else sitting by, let the first be silent.” Do you see what St. Paul does here? He tells the teacher to be silent and withdraw from the midst of the Christians; and he lets the listener appear, even without a call. All this is done because need knows no command.

    If then St. Paul says here that anyone from the midst of the Christians may come forward if there is a need and calls him through such a word of God, and tells the other to withdraw and deposes him by the power of his word, how much more right does a whole congregation have to call someone into this office when there is a need, as there always is, especially now! For in the same passage St. Paul gives every Christian the power to teach among Christians if there is a need, saying, “You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be admonished” [1 Cor. 14:31]. Again, “You should earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order” [1 Cor. 14:39–40].

    Let this passage be your sure foundation, because it gives such an overwhelming power to the Christian congregation to preach, to permit preaching, and to call. Especially if there is a need, it [this passage] calls everyone with a special call—without a call from men—so that we should have no doubt that the congregation which has the gospel may and should elect and call from among its members someone to teach the word in its place.

    Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 39 : Church and Ministry I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1970). 39:309-311.

  6. Now, we need to set out the definition of ordination. According to what I read in Luther's works, ordination consists no more than an examination and a public confession service. Pastors, teachers, and church officers go through this kind of thing when they are installed (if they follow the rules). Do I think that a pastor or teacher need a bit more examination than a council president, yes. As I said in my post before, someone assuming duties through some type of limited call needs to be qualified to do so.