II. The Doctrine of God’s Word Concerning the Visible Church
Pastor O.M. Gullerud
Translated by Mark DeGarmeaux
1921 Synod Convention Essay
The assignment I have received is to present the doctrine of God’s Word concerning the visible church [kirke], or the local congregation [stedsmenighed]. Yet it is impossible in a short essay to discuss everything that God’s Word teaches about this subject. I will therefore try to limit myself just to what is essential and go into more detail only in what we especially need to remind each other of in this evil time.
Out of His abundant grace God has entrusted to our Synod the pure doctrine, also concerning the church. But thereby He has also given us a great duty and a great responsibility. He wants us to let this light that He has given us shine both for us and for others. He does not desire just that we are blessed, but also that we should be for a blessing. Therefore we should never grow weary of presenting the pure doctrine, yes, letting it sound forth as far as our voice reaches. God grant us grace always to keep standing unshakable, firm on the pure doctrine of God’s Word, never to let ourselves be tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine [Eph. 4:14], but always “speak as the oracles of God” [1 Peter 4:11].
The assembly of people in a certain place who confess the Christian faith and who have joined together in fellowship to use the Word and Sacraments is called in God’s Word a church [kirke] or congregation [menighed].
In Matthew 18:17 we read: “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church [menighed]. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” And 1 Cor. 14:23: “Therefore if the whole church [menighed] comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” In these passages it is not talking about the whole church [kirke], but about local congregations [stedsmenigheder] whose members “came together” for fellowship to hear the Word and administer the Sacraments. (See also Acts 2:41, 47; 1 Cor. 16:19; Phil. 4:15; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2. And other passages.)
When the Apostles traveled around and preached the Word, the assembly of those who believed the Word and came together around the Word were called congregations [menigheder], for example, the congregation in Corinth, in Ephesus, in Thessalonica, etc.
When a congregation is established, when those in a certain place who confess the same Christian faith join together around God’s Word, then this is a congregation of God [en Guds menighed], a congregation which God Himself has gathered.
Concerning the first New Testament congregation it says that “the Lord added to the church [menighed] daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). If it is the Lord Himself who adds to the congregation those who join it, then that church must be a congregation of God. Therefore in God’s Word such congregations are also called congregations of God (See, for example, 1 Thes. 2:14; 1 Tim 3:5, 15; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:41). In Romans 16:16 they are also called “congregations of Christ.”
That such congregations are congregations of God and established by Him still proceeds from the fact that they are called “the flock of God,” (1 Pet. 5:2), and that He Himself give them ministers [servants], as it says in 1 Cor. 12:28: “And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, etc.”
From Matt. 18:17 we learn that the congregation has the right and power to expel the impenitent and deliver them to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). Indeed, if it has such power, then it must be a congregation of God!
O let us still remember that these congregations of ours around [the country] are congregations of God, congregations which God Himself has gathered, congregations which God Himself has provided with ministers, pastors, and teachers. If we remember this, then we will also thereby be led to have all the greater respect for these congregations and the work that is performed there; then we will be led with great conscientiousness to perform the work there whether we are pastors or laypeople. — If we remember that these congregations are congregations of God, then we will also understand that it is a serious matter to separate oneself from them and to stand on one’s own; yes, that it is a serious matter to stay away from the Divine Services of the congregation without valid reason.
A true congregation of God is one where God’s Word is proclaimed in its truth and purity in all points and the Sacraments are administered according to the Lord’s institution.
The glorious benefits that God has bestowed on the congregation are the Word and the Sacraments. The Word shall be proclaimed, the Sacraments administered. That is how it performs its work. But now in many passages in His Word God has strictly laid it upon us to proclaim the Word in its truth and purity, and thus also to administer the Sacraments according to the Lord’s own institution. (For example, Matt. 16:6, 12; 1 Cor. 5:6; 2 Thes. 2:15; 1 Tim. 6:12-14; 2 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 2:1). From this it proceeds clearly and plainly that a true congregation of God is one that does what the Lord has thus prescribed and teaches God’s Word in its truth and purity and administers the Sacraments according to His institution. Therefore the Augsburg Confession Article 7 also says: “But the church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”
Congregations where God’s Word is not preached in its truth and purity in all points, but which do not completely destroy the foundation, which is Christ, are also congregations of God, where souls are saved also.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the congregation in Galatia as to a congregation of God, although they no longer held to the pure doctrine in all points. Already in chapter 1 verse 6 he exclaims: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel.” And 3:1: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” And 4:10-11: “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.”
In 1 Cor. 3:11-15 we read:
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
Christ must be there as the foundation, He must be confessed as Savior, otherwise there is no church of Christ, no church of God, for apart from Christ no one can become a member of His kingdom. If one holds fast to Christ as his only Savior, but out of weakness, unwittingly and unwillingly yields in other points, builds on a foundation with hay and stray, then he is still Christian and is saved. But then one is saved not by the aberrations, but in spite of the aberrations, because one still keeps the foundation, entrusts himself to Christ as his only Savior. — Likewise also a congregation that holds firm to the foundation, but which builds with hay and stray on this foundation unwittingly and unwillingly, is a congregation of God and souls are saved there.
Those who belong to such congregations or church bodies are indeed in great danger of being led further and further away from the truth, so that they finally even destroy the foundation, suffer shipwreck in their faith and are lost. But as long as they, in spite of the errors, hold fast to Jesus Christ as their Savior, they are children of God and are saved if they keep the faith until the end.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in Article 4, 4, says about this:
“And we add the marks: the pure doctrine of the Gospel [the ministry or the Gospel] and the Sacraments. And this Church is properly the pillar of the truth, 1 Tim. 3:15. For it retains the pure Gospel, and, as Paul says, 1 Cor. 3:11 [: ‘Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ’], the foundation, i. e., the true knowledge of Christ and faith. Although among these [in the body which is built upon the true foundation, i. e., upon Christ and faith] there are also many weak persons, who build upon the foundation stubble that will perish, i. e., certain unprofitable opinions [some human thoughts and opinions], which, nevertheless, because they do not overthrow the foundation, are both forgiven them and also corrected. And the writings of the holy Fathers testify that sometimes even they built stubble upon the foundation, but that this did not overthrow their faith.”
Luther also writes thus: “Therefore the church everywhere is holy, even in those places where enthusiasts and factious spirits rule, as far as they only do not completely deny and reject the Word and the Sacraments. For those who totally and completely reject these things are no longer church.” (On Galatians 1:2 in the larger Commentary. VIII 1591)
Those who acknowledge the truth can still, not without danger to their soul, join a congregation or church body where the Word is not proclaimed in its truth and purity.
Here we stand at an extremely important statement. Here a truth is presented that we in our time especially need to take to heart. — For, from the idea that congregations which certainly teach falsely in some points, but who still do not destroy the foundation, are congregations of God, and that souls are saved there, — from that we must not completely conclude that we therefore can join such congregations or church bodies without sinning and without putting ourselves in danger.
That a person can be a Christian and be saved although in certain points he believes in false doctrine or belongs to a church which in certain points teaches falsely while the foundation is not destroyed thereby, that he does not know and acknowledge that he believes in false doctrine. In this way he sins unwillingly and unwittingly. For him it is a sin of weakness. As soon as a true Christian becomes convinced that he believes in false doctrine, he will immediately turn away from it and ask God for forgiveness for this great sin. — If, on the other hand, one who acknowledges the truth and who acknowledges that this or that congregation or church body teaches falsely in certain points nevertheless joins it, then he sins knowingly and willingly, if he knows what God’s Word teaches about such union. And how can one sin knowingly and willingly without suffering harm to his soul?
God has taught us that the greatest and most dangerous sin a person can commit is to believe in false doctrine. Therefore He orders and commands us strictly to leave those who believe in such false doctrine and will not let themselves be persuaded. (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14; Matt. 7:15; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:16-18).
Those who promote false doctrine do what God above all other things has forbidden to us. They sin against the First Table of God’s Commandments, yes, against the First Commandment God gave us. In the First Commandment God says: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Here He forbids idolatry. And an idol is anything that a person worships, fears, loves, or trusts instead of the only true God.
Those who believe in false doctrine in these points trust not in what God says in His Word, but in what other people say or what they themselves think. They commit idolatry, they sin against the First of all God’s Commandments.
Those who teach falsely sin also against the Second Commandment. They take God’s name in vain, misuse God’s name in the most terrible way. Those who teach falsely and palm it off as the doctrine of God’s Word lie in God’s name. To curse and swear by God’s name is a detestable sin against the Second Commandment. Many of the children of the world still acknowledge that. But to lie in God’s name through false doctrine is an even greater, more detestable, and more dangerous sin, for thereby dearly-bought souls are misled.
Our Lord and Savior Himself taught us the “Our Father.” And the very first thing He taught us to pray for in this prayer is that God’s name may be hallowed. And we hallow God’s name when we teach God’s Word in its truth and purity and let it become plainly obvious in our behavior. We profane God’s name when we do not teach God’s Word in its truth and purity, and do not let it become plainly obvious in our behavior. — Also from this we learn clearly that what is more important than all other things is that we hallow God’s name, that is, teach God’s Word in its truth and purity in all points. Not to teach God’s Word in its truth and purity is therefore the greatest and most dangerous sin of all.
And because the greatest and most dangerous sin of all is to turn away from God’s pure doctrine, therefore Paul also commands his spiritual son Timothy most seriously to keep the doctrine pure. He says: “I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing” (1 Tim. 6:13-14). Indeed a serious admonition.
And in his Epistle to the Galatians the same Apostle pronounces the strictest judgment on those who proclaim false doctrine. He says in Gal. 1:8-9: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” And in 5:12 he says: “I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!”
Those now, who join congregations or church bodies which commit this great, terrible, and dangerous sin of believing in false doctrine make themselves participants in their sins. For it says this in 2 John 10-11: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” — Those who join with congregations or church bodies that do not in all points “promote this doctrine,” bid themselves welcome, and in the most emphatic way, namely by their action, and thereby become participants in their sins. — By joining them one gives his consent to their false doctrine. And even if they themselves are not convinced of this, this is still what their action testifies. And it is this that their fellow human beings take note of. — O if only in our evil time one would think about this! First, what terrible, detestable, and dangerous sin all false doctrine is, then that those who join with those who believe in such false doctrine are acting against God’s clear command and become participants in their sins.
About this Dr. Walther says:
“Church bodies with false believers are not just sinful for the reason that it is against God’s clear prescription and one thus sins himself, but also because thereby one makes himself participant in others’ sins.
“All heterodox [falsktroende, false-believing] church bodies have their origin in sin. Even if the founders of heterodox church bodies had continued in the general Christian faith and did not commit a split of the brotherly love so that such a countless factions and sects did not arise within Christianity. Therefore the continuation of these church bodies or sects is nothing other than a continuing and lasting sin against faith and love. Heterodox churches, as such, are groups whom false teachers have assembled in order to support false doctrine and spread it, to close the way to true doctrine and tread it underfoot, to fight against the orthodox church, to divide it, and if possible to destroy it completely. What then are those who join a heterodox church doing? They are making themselves participants in all its sins. They are soldiers recruited by false teachers, and they arrange themselves in rank and file with them; they strengthen those who falsify faith and break the fraternal bond of love; they defend the false doctrine like a fortress, strive against the orthodox church and seek it destruction. What the citizens in a republic commit by letting themselves be recruited by a party man and letting themselves be used to fight against a free-state’s constitution and cause a rebellion and division, — this same thing is what a Christian does in the church who joins a heterodox church body within Christianity. He does not consider that he is better disposed than many members in his sect and that therefore he participates just as little in the sins of his sects, as a member of the orthodox church in their sins. He is in quite a different position. Indeed there are errors and sins in the orthodox church, but there error is regarded as error, and sin as sin; but in the false church its particular error is regarded as truth and its sin of splitting away is regarded as correct. Therefore if a Christian believes better than the sect that he knowingly and willingly joins, it is all the worse for him. Just as one who knowingly and willingly joins rebels is regarded by the authorities as participant in all the robbing and murder that are carried out by the rebellious band, even if he himself neither robbed nor murdered; that is how God regards all errors and sins that are found in a heterodox church body when one knowingly and willingly joins it, even if he himself does not believe in them. Therefore the Apostle St. John, the Apostle of love, with sincere admonition, says in his second Epistle: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” [2 John 1:10-11] ([Walther’s] Sermon on 1 John 2:19).
But those who acknowledge the truth, and still join heterodox churches, transgress not only God’s clear prohibition about separating from such, they do not simply make themselves participants in their great and terrible sins, but they also place themselves in the greatest danger to their souls. They now are in danger of being infected by the errors that are believed there. They are in danger of going farther and farther away from the truth. Yes, they are in danger of completely suffering shipwreck in their faith.
About this Dr. Walther says:
“Everyone who has the least amount of Christian knowledge must admit that it is dangerous and corrupting to the soul for a Christian to join a sect that openly denies God’s Word and all the mysteries of the Christian faith. But when the errors in a sect are not so gross and obvious, then many think there is no great harm in joining it since it has the chief Christian doctrines! Yes, since such heterodox church bodies often have a great appearance of special love, kindness, humility, gentleness, and zeal, many think that in such church bodies they are not just out of danger, but that they find there more blessing and edification, than among orthodox Christians where the truth is often presented in a less tidy attire and where hypocrites are often revealed and cause great offense. But one is simply deceiving himself with this. Why does God’s Word in countless places and with such great seriousness warn against false doctrine? Is it for any other reason than that it is corrupting to the soul? Why does Christ Himself say to the disciples: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6, compare v. 12 and Luke 12:3). Is it for any other reason than that even “a little” hypocritical, false “doctrine” is a leaven, as Paul through the Holy Spirit explains it in Gal. 5:9, a leaven that sours the pure and true dough of the truth, sours and corrupts it? Why does Paul in 2 Tim. 2:17 call false doctrine a “cancer”? Is it for any other reason than that false doctrine like an invisible cancer eats at one, penetrates the innermost part, infects and poisons the soul and inflicts the incurable and fatal wound? Finally, why does Christ call false teachers “ravenous wolves”? Is it for any other reason that that with their false doctrine they tear apart immortal human souls, murder them, and plunge them into spiritual and eternal death? Tell me, must it not thus, even apart from God’s prohibition, be most dangerous to the soul to go to such churches and even be a member of such church bodies where false doctrine is mixed together with the pure doctrine, and poison is mixed with food for the soul?” ([Walther’s] Sermon on 1 John 2:19).
And furthermore: Those who join heterodox congregations and church bodies strengthen the erring in their error, and by their example bring the less confirmed who have held to the pure doctrine to believe that these errors are truth and the true doctrine of God’s Word. How often one can hear now in this our age that the doctrine in the large, united church body must be correct, since this or that person has joined that church body! O if only one would think how by such example one misleads many of his fellow human beings.
About the idea that joining the heterodox strengthens them in their error Dr. Walther says:
“Far from the heterodox being helped by the orthodox joining with them, these and the whole church suffer harm by it; but [the heterodox are helped] as long as the orthodox keep themselves separate from the heterodox, as long as their errors are thoroughly and tangibly rebuked, so that they either must acknowledge them and desist from them, or at least not be able to spread them farther. On the other hand, if the orthodox are mixed with the heterodox, then those become more and more indifferent to the truth, and instead of the truth winning, error wins, and the truth is lost. To one who walks the path of error one shows no love by following him, but by not only warning him of his error, but testifying through action the seriousness by parting from him.” (Sermon on 1 John 2:19).
Finally, then, it is also every orthodox Christian’s duty to hold to those and support those who in spite of persecution faithfully hold firm to the doctrine of God’s Word in all points. God has commanded us to “keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing,” 1 Tim. 6:14. And then ought not those who want to be serious in following this admonition of the Lord stand together, strengthen one another, bear one another’s burdens, hold up each other’s hands? Should not one guard himself from impeding their work by keeping separate from them?
Much, much more could be said about this matter. But this may be enough. And it is my prayer to God that those brethren of ours of old who still want to hold fast to the pure doctrine of God’s Word in all points would seriously consider these truths that are presented here. — And no one must say or think: “I cannot see the matter in this light, therefore it is not a sin for me to stay in relationship with a church body that does not in all points hold fast to the pure doctrine.” You cannot take it easy with that. God Himself requires of you that you should “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10). If you want to do what God here commands you, then you must seriously examine, seek in God’s Word, what God’s will is in this matter. And if, after such examination, you find that what is said here is in agreement with God’s Word, then, if you want to be obedient to God, you cannot continue to stand in union with people who believe differently.
The true and real members of a congregation of God are the true believers. But hypocrites are also mixed in. And we must beware of the erroneous [notion] of the erring that the visible church here on earth will ever be so perfect so as to consist only of true believers.
This is not saying that the visible church consists of true believers and hypocrites, for its true and real members are only the believers. But it is saying that hypocrites are mixed in, and that that will always continue to be so as long as there is a congregation of God on earth, that is, as long as the world stands.
The Augsburg Confession in Article 8 also testifies that hypocrites and wicked people are mixed within the visible church, where it says:
“Although the Church properly is the assembly of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, etc. Matt. 23:2.” [Concordia Triglotta, adapted].
That hypocrites and wicked people are mixed within a congregation of God also proceeds from the situation in the apostolic congregations. The Apostles called them “congregations of God” in spite of hypocrites and ungodly people being mixed among them. (Compare 1 Cor 1:2 with 5:1-2; 6:5-8; 11:18-19; 15:12; 2 Cor. 12:21).
That hypocrites and ungodly people are and always will continue to be mixed together with the true believers in God’s visible church here on earth Jesus teaches us clearly and plainly in the parable about the weeds among the wheat, Matt. 13:24. This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven — God’s church here on earth. Here Jesus says that the good seed, which are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds, which are the children of the wicked, should grow together until the harvest, and the harvest is the end of the world. — (See also the parable about the fishing net, Matt. 13:47-49, and 2 Tim. 2:20-21).
The benefits and blessings which every congregation of God has in its possession are God’s Word and the Sacraments. With them they have everything that Christ has earned with His substitutionary work: Forgiveness of sins, deliverance from Satan and hell, and eternal life and salvation.
When Jesus was on the point of ascending to heaven and leaving the world with His visible presence, then He left behind for His church and congregation an inheritance, an infinitely great gift. And what was this inheritance and gift? It was His Word and Sacraments, and with them the whole fruit of His work as Savior. He said: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). And again: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
From these and other passages we teach that the benefits and blessings that God has bestowed upon His church and congregation are God’s Word and the Sacraments. And that through these means (the Word and Baptism) people are made children of God and heirs of heaven. — Thus by these means people become children of God; and a child of God is a person who by faith in Jesus has received forgiveness for all his sins, who is clothed is Jesus’ righteousness, who thus possesses all Jesus’ merit, who therefore is freed from Satan and hell and who is an heir of eternal life and salvation! And this glory he has received through the Word and Baptism which God has bestowed upon His church and congregation.
O glorious gifts, blessed gifts that God has bestowed upon His congregation! These are gifts and means, yes, the only gifts and means by which a person can be a partaker of Jesus’ merit, by which one is saved from the eternal torments of hell, by which one can enter into God’s blessed paradise! Yes, these benefits, these blessings which God has bestowed upon His congregation are so great, so glorious, that we cannot possibly grasp and comprehend it fully as long as we are here on the earth.
And these glorious benefits and gifts He bestows to each congregation that holds fast to the foundation, the smallest as well as the largest. For He says: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). Thus if there is a congregation that consists of just two or three, if they are gathered in His name, in order humbly and faithfully to hear and consider His Word, then He is in the midst of them with all His salvation, with forgiveness of sins, with deliverance from Satan and hell, with eternal life and salvation. — What blessing they receive who join together in a congregation in Jesus’ name, even if they are few and poor and lowly in the eyes of the world; yes, as Luther says, even if they are merely stableboys.
That the smallest as well as the largest congregation of God possesses these blessings comes also from passages such as, for example, 1 Peter 2:5, 9 and 1 Cor. 3:21-22, where it is taught that every individual Christian possesses these blessings, so the whole congregation also possesses them, whether it is small or large, for the congregation’s true members consist of the individual true Christians.
The congregation’s [church’s] rights and duties consist of:
a) Letting God’s Word dwell richly among them, so that they can be sustained in faith, grow in knowledge, and increase in holiness.
b) Seeing to it that God’s Word is proclaimed in its truth and purity in their midst.
c) Loosing and binding [sins].
d) Calling a pastor to administer the office. Respecting him for the sake of his work. Listening to him as God’s messenger. Providing him with a salary.
e) Removing pastors and teachers when they find: 1. That in spite of warning they continue to present false doctrine. 2. Or lead an ungodly life. 3. Or show obstinate unfaithfulness in the conduct of the office.
f) Doing its part so that God’s Word can be proclaimed to all peoples.
The congregation as congregation has no rights or duties in relationship to the secular state. For church and state are two distinct governments which God wants to be separate from each other. Jesus teaches us this when He says: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). And again: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Furthermore the Apostle Paul says: “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,” etc. (Rom. 14:17). It is therefore not right when the church gets mixed up in the affairs of the state.
A.) But it is the congregation’s [church’s] right and duty, first of all, to let the Word of God dwell richly among them, for God the Lord has commanded it (Col. 3:16). God’s Word and Sacraments are, as we have heard, the great, glorious, precious gifts which God has entrusted to the congregation [menighed, church]. Through them He bestows upon them all of Christ’s merit, all the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. Through them He makes them believing children of God. — But God’s Word is also the spiritual nourishment by which the life of faith is sustained, by which it grows, by which it increases in strength. As it says in 1 Peter 2:2: “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.” — Just as a child that is born into the world must get nourishment often and regularly if it is not to die, so also the child of God who is born of God must often and regularly enjoy the spiritual, pure milk which is God’s pure Word if it is not to lose this [spiritual] life.
But God does not simply want our spiritual life, our life of faith, to be sustained, but to grow, to increase in strength, so that we can become firm in faith, “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Eph. 4:14). And the only means by which our faith can thus be sustained and strengthened is the Word and the Sacraments. Therefore it is necessary for a congregation to let God’s Word to dwell richly among them, to come together for Divine Service as often as possible, to enjoy the Sacrament of the Altar often, to think about their Baptism often.
God still wants Christians to increase in holiness, holiness of life; always more and more to cast off sin, always more and more to serve God by keeping His Commandments. But what gives Christians power to do this is nothing other than Word and the Sacraments.
And so it is the congregation’s holy duty to take care of the Christian instruction of the children. He says to it: “Feed My lambs” (John 21:15). And how can the congregation feed God’s lambs, the congregation’s little ones? In no other way than letting the children be richly instructed in God’s Word.
B.) But the congregation does not simply have the duty of letting God’s Word dwell richly among them, but it also has the duty of seeing to it that this Word of God is proclaimed in its truth and purity. — We have heard that God in many passages in His Word strictly orders Christians to preserve the Word in its truth and purity. In all these passages He also then orders and commands every Christian congregation to see to it that nothing other than the pure Word of God is proclaimed.
But are simple and untaught congregation members to pronounce judgment over what is proclaimed in the congregation? Are they to judge whether what is proclaimed is the pure Word of God or not? Isn’t that something that must be entrusted to the learned? — Yes, it is their duty to judge doctrine; this is not something that either must or should be entrusted to the learned. God requires of the listeners, of the congregation members, that they should judge doctrine. Jesus says this in Matt. 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” Jesus is speaking here to the listeners, is warning them to beware of false prophets. But if they are to beware of false prophets, then they themselves must also judge who are false prophets, for they come in sheep’s clothing, pass themselves off as God’s true prophets. Furthermore we read in 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (See also Matt. 24:4-5; 1 Thes. 5:21; 1 Cor. 2:15).
But is it possible for the simple and untaught to judge doctrine? Is it possible for them to decide what is false doctrine and what is pure doctrine? Isn’t great learning and human wisdom required for that? — God be praised, great human learning, wisdom, and cleverness is not required for judging doctrine. If that were the case, then the simple and untaught would have to rely on the scholars in these things that concern their salvation; they would have to build their faith on the words of men instead of on God’s Word. And how then could they be sure in the matter of their salvation?
About this, Dr. Walter [says] in a sermon on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity:
“Everything that is taught in Christ’s church concerning our soul’s salvation, in these matters no one should trust human beings. No one should base his faith on a human being; everyone shall live according to his own faith and only by his own faith be saved. No human being can die for us, no human being can step into our place before God, no human being can stand before His judgment seat in our place. Everyone will someday be responsible to God for his own faith and life; then he cannot appeal to a human being and say: ‘This person or that person taught me like this, and I believed and followed him.’ No, in matters that touch your soul, you should not look with other people’s eyes, but with your own eyes. If you let yourself be deceived, then you have deceived yourself. The responsibility is yours. God certainly says that He will require of a false teacher’s hands the blood of those led astray by him; but He also says that the one led astray shall die for the sake of his own sin. … You should not let any human being rule over your conscience. One is your master, Christ. Here ‘the majority’ must not be the determining factor.” So far Walther.
Surely there are many, especially in these days of controversy, who, instead of having investigated God’s Word and thereby coming to certainty about the points of doctrine in controversy, have relied on what was said by this or that scholar, in whom they had confidence. Or they trusted that what the great majority of pastors consider true must be correct. But this is to make flesh one’s strength [Jer. 17:5]. This is to commit idolatry. This is to build on human beings in the matter of one’s salvation.
God’s Word, in all those things that are required to know for salvation, is so clear and plain that the simplest person can understand it. Certainly various doctrines are so heavenly, so exalted that we cannot grasp and comprehend them with our reason, yes, many of them seem to go against all human reason. But the words are clear enough. They are so simple, so plain that even a child can understand them. Therefore, if one simply humbles himself and becomes like a child, in all simplicity believes what the words say, without trying to get it to agree with [our] darkened understanding, then, and only then, will one be able to learn what the pure doctrine of God’s Word is.
So we see that, instead of the simple and untaught having to become scholars and wise men in human understanding in order to be able to judge doctrine, the scholars and wise men must become simple, become like children, and in humility bow to God’s Word, taking their own reason and cleverness captive under the obedience of faith, if they shall be able to learn what God teaches us in Holy Scripture. So it says also in 1 Cor. 1:26-29:
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.”
O how we should laud and thank and praise God because He has made it so, that even the simplest people, those “not of age,” can learn the truth for salvation and blessedness! Jesus also exclaims this in praise and thanks to the Father, because He has arranged it this way. He says: “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight” (Matt. 11:25-26).
Surely God has given the congregations pastors and teachers who are to proclaim God’s Word and be guides for them. And it is significant that they have learning in order that they all the better can be in a position to teach others. But God does not want the listeners to believe what they proclaim without further ado, without searching God’s Word as to whether it is so. Not once did the Apostles Paul not want His listeners to believe what He proclaimed before they investigated God’s Word to see if it were so (Acts 17:11).
C.) Every congregation of God still has the right and power to loose and bind. In this way God has given His church and congregation His Word; by this He has also given them the power to loose and bind. To open the doors of heaven to those who repent and believe, and to close them to those who do not repent and do not believe. But Jesus has also expressly told believers that He gives them the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and what they bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matt. 16:15-19; 18:17-20; John 20:22-23.
Think of what right, power, and authority the Christian church has! God has delivered to it the very keys to the kingdom of heaven! It can open the doors to the kingdom of heaven to those who are repentant and believing and deliver to them all the treasures of the kingdom of heaven. It also has power and authority to close the doors to the kingdom of heaven to all who are unrepentant and to deliver them to Satan. 1 Cor. 5:5.
But it is not just the church as a whole which has such right and power, but every single Christian and therefore the smallest as well as the largest local congregation. This is what Luther writes on Matt. 18:19-20:
“Here we hear that even two or three who are gathered in Christ’s name have exactly the same complete power as St. Peter and all the Apostles; for the Lord Himself is present as He also says in John 14:23: ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.’ … To say it briefly: God wants to have a free hand with regard to the amount, the size, the loftiness, the power, and whatever is private in people, but He simply wants to be with those who love His Word and keep it, even if they were merely stableboys. Why would He ask for high, great, mighty lords? He alone is the greatest, highest, and mightiest. … We have here the very Lord above all angels and creatures. He says: They shall all have equal power, keys and office [embede], even two plain and simple Christians alone, when they are gathered in His name.”
That not just the church as a whole or a certain church position possesses the church rights, but that every true Christian has been given all church power, comes also from the fact that true believing children of God are called “kings and priests before God.” Rev. 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5, 9. If every Christian is a king and priest before God in His kingdom on earth, then he must surely possess all church power. — That every true Christian has such right and power comes also from the fact that in God’s Word they are called “anointed,” 1 John 2:27. Concerning this, Johann Gerhard says:
“From this very passage (John 20:22-23), ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive the sins of anyone,’ etc.), it can obviously be concluded — the opponents can say whatever they want about it —, that this power (the power of the keys) belongs to all who are anointed with the Holy Spirit. But now since all true Christians have the Holy Spirit, it follows that all are also equipped with this authority.”
(See also the Smalcald Articles, Appendix §34. Here it says among other things: “Just as in a case of necessity even a layman absolves, and becomes the minister and pastor of another; as Augustine narrates the story of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the catechumen, who after Baptism then absolved the baptizer.” …)
D.) Each Christian congregation has, in addition, the right and power to call a pastor to administer the office. As we have heard, each Christian possesses all church right and power. They have the power of the keys; they are all kings and priests before God. But God does not want each individual Christian to administer this office publicly, but it is His will that the Christians who have joined together in a congregation should choose one in their stead to administer the office. And when one is thus chosen, when a pastor is called and has accepted the call, then they have entrusted their right and power to him, and no one except him then, — except in an emergency situation, — has the right to administer the office publicly without his approval. — “Unless he be regularly called no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments” (Augsburg Confession Article 14).
Since it is the Christians who possess all church power, right, and authority, then it proceeds from this clearly and plainly that it is these same Christians who have joined together to have the office administered in their midst who have the right and authority to choose someone to administer the office. In other words, the congregation, and no one else, has the authority to call a pastor. A church body or call committee has no authority to do it unless they receive authorization from the congregation concerned.
Dr. Walther in “The Free Church” says about this:
“Since in the second appendix to the Smalcald Articles it has been shown that every true church has the right to elect and ordain ministers [kirketjenere] ‘on the basis that the keys are bestowed to the whole church, not to some special persons,’ it says further: ‘You are a royal priesthood.’ These words apply essentially to the true church” (that is, to the believers and saints), “who, since it alone has the priesthood, also must have the power to elect and ordain ministers. Just as in the Old Testament the elect and destined line of priests, selected by God, had the task of choosing and installing those who were to carry out the priestly office, and particularly have concern for the whole essence of the church, so now in the New Testament in which the believers are declared as the royal priesthood, these have the implementation of that whole power.”
When a congregation thus, in a correct and Christian way, has called a pastor, and he has accepted the call, then it is God Himself who through them has placed him into the office. For it says of those whom the congregations have chosen that “the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28); that “God has appointed some in the church [menighed]: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers,” etc. (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11-12): that they are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).
Because it is God Himself who has placed them in the congregation as messengers in His stead, therefore it is the congregation’s duty, as long as they proclaim the pure Word of God, to hear them as God’s own messengers. As Jesus also says, Luke 10:16: “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” — It is therefore also the congregation’s duty to honor them for the sake of their work (1 Tim. 5:12), to give them a salary (1 Tim. 5:13), so that they can “live from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14), and have sufficient means to be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Just as it is the congregation alone and no one else who has the power and authority to call a pastor, so it is the congregation alone, and no one else, who has the power and authority to remove their pastor. And they cannot do that in a Christian manner unless the pastor, in spite of all warning, continues to present false doctrine, or leads an ungodly and offensive life, or shows obstinate unfaithfulness in the execution of the office.
Because it is God Himself who has placed a pastor to be the shepherd for the congregation he serves, therefore it is also God Himself alone who has the right and power to undo the bond between pastor and congregation. If he begins to proclaim false doctrine, and will not desist, or if he begins to lead an ungodly and offensive life, or shows obstinate unfaithfulness in the execution of the office, then he has committed the actual great sin of undoing the bond, for then he will no longer be a servant of God, will no longer carry out God’s command to “speak as the oracles of God” [1 Peter 4:11] and be an “example for the flock” [1 Pet. 5:3] And then it is the congregation’s duty, as the one to whom the church power has been entrusted, to carry out his removal from office.
E.) Finally, it is each Christian congregation’s right and duty to do its part so that God’s Word can be proclaimed to all peoples. In other words, to support the holy work of missions. For when Jesus says: “Go and make disciples of all nations,” He says this to all Christians for all time, for He adds: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So, this is a command that goes out to every Christian congregation.
Since it is the congregation and no one else who possesses all church power and authority within its midst, then it follows from this that no church body or anyone else except the congregation has any authority over it at all. A church body therefore, in matters that concern the various congregations, shall simply be advisory.
We see thus that all papal power, presidential dominion [formandsvælde], and high-church practice that keeps rearing its head in the Lutheran church here in this country, is completely against the doctrine of God’s Word concerning the church. A church body, a president, a church council [of a church body], according to God’s Word, has no power and authority whatsoever over the congregations; they can only be advisory. (See also the appendix to the Smalcald Articles.)
In a congregation of God no one shall be lord except Christ alone. The members are all brothers and sisters. They should treat one another with respect and humbly consider others higher than themselves.
Christ alone is the congregation’s Lord and Head, as it says in Matt. 23:8: “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.” And in Eph. 1:22: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church [menighed].”
No one, therefore, should set himself up as lord in a congregation, for there shall be only one Lord, only one who has the right to command and decide, namely Christ. But all the members of the congregation shall be brothers and sisters, not below or above each other, but completely equal. — In external and earthly things there can be great inequality. One can be lord, another servant; one rich, another poor; one can have great Christian knowledge, another less Christian knowledge, etc. But here, in God’s congregation, they all shall be equal. As Paul also says in Gal. 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
All true members of the congregation have the same benefits. All have the same Savior, all have full forgiveness of all their sins, all are freed from Satan and hell, all are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. Here there is no difference. All are equal (Eph. 4:1-6). Therefore the one should not want to lord it over the other either, but on the contrary set a good example for one another with respect, — and humbly regard others higher than himself. Rom. 12:10; Phil. 2:3. (Certainly in a congregation, for the sake of order, one must choose officers who have certain rights and duties that must be respected, but then it is the congregation itself who has given them these rights and duties.)
And what blessed unity, what united cooperation in that congregation where the fellow members remember these truths.
In a congregation of God women are not allowed to speak in the congregation’s official assembly. Therefore, neither to vote nor to hold offices.
This is a truth that many in our age do not want to hear. Yes, many are offended that this truth is even presented. But those who do not want to hear this truth do not want to submit to God’s Word. And those who are offended at it are offended at the very doctrine of God’s Word. For God’s Word speaks very clearly and decisively about this matter, and in such a way that it proceeds with all desired clarity that this is an arrangement that was valid not just at the time of the Apostles, but that is it an arrangement that is valid for all times.
Thus we read in 1 Tim. 2:12-14: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” And 1 Cor. 14:34-35: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church [menighed].”
Since there is no word of God that commands the congregations to join a church body, then such church bodies are not divinely instituted, but are still a good and useful arrangement.
Much more both could and ought to be said about these things. But I am afraid that this essay has already gotten too long. — So it is my heartfelt prayer to God that He will bless my lowly work both for myself and others. May it contribute a little to the doctrine of God’s Word concerning the church being able to be preserved among us, and that the various congregations around [the country] not just teach correctly about the church, but draw comfort, encouragement, and power from it, so that with joy and renewed strength we continue the work amidst trials and difficult circumstances. — God help us always to live according to what we teach. Amen.
How fair the Church of Christ shall stand,
A beacon-light in all the land,
When love and faith all hearts inspire,
And all unite in one desire
To be as brothers, and agree
To live in peace and unity.
O gracious God, wilt Thou my heart
So fashion in each secret part,
That Thou be sanctified in me,
Till Thee in heaven above I see,
Where holy, holy, holy, Lord,
We sing to Thee with sweet accord.
(Synodens Salmebog, nr. 318)
[Thomas Kingo, ELH 418:1, 7]