Church and Ministry

Theses on the Church and Ministry

Introduction to the Theses
The Theses on the Church and Ministry in their present form were adopted by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1969. They were the distillation of nearly a century of study, discussion, and debate.

In the late 1870s the Christian day school teachers of the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods in Wisconsin began to discuss the nature of their call. Where did their work in the church fit in the New Testament delineation of the public ministry? Was it a branch of the work of a pastor, who was to shepherd all the flock of which the Holy Spirit had made him an overseer (Ac 20:28)? Or was it an extension of parents’ responsibility to bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4)?

Both pastors and teachers of the two sister synods in the Manitowoc, Wisconsin, area discussed the question in the mid-1880s. It was agreed that the teachers’ work was divinely instituted since it involved the teaching of God’s Word. But could it be identified with any of the offices in Ephesians 4:11 where pastors and teachers are mentioned? More study was needed.

At a pastors’ conference in 1892, Wisconsin Synod Seminary Director Adolf Hoenecke, noting that the work of a Christian day school teacher is not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures, derived the teacher’s call from the pastor’s. In the discussion it was suggested that, since the teacher is called by the congregation, the teacher’s work falls directly under the shepherding spoken of in Acts 20:28 and need not be considered an offshoot of the pastor’s call to establish its divine nature.

In the following years the seminary faculty intensively studied the pertinent Scripture passages to answer the question: Is the office of pastor, apart from the apostolate, the only divinely instituted office in the church? Closely related was the question: Is the local congregation the only divinely instituted form of the church? Practical situations made the answer to these questions imperative.

Especially difficult was the so-called Cincinnati case. This involved some excommunications in a Missouri Synod congregation. When the district criticized the excommunications and upheld the district president’s suspension of the pastors of the congregation, the congregation and its pastors applied for membership in the Wisconsin Synod. So Wisconsin was drawn into the case and had to consider: What happens when a synod’s action conflicts with a congregation’s excommunication? Which is supreme, a congregation or a synod?

The Missouri Synod’s St. Louis seminary faculty entered the debate, objecting to articles published in Wisconsin’s theological journal. These articles pointed out that God has prescribed no legal regulations for the New Testament church. Hence, as Acts 6:1-6 shows, the church is free to establish whatever forms of public ministry it in Christian wisdom and in keeping with good order and love considers useful. Likewise, in Christian liberty it can organize itself in whatever ways it chooses in accordance with these principles. The articles recognized that the pastorate of a congregation as we know it today cannot be equated with any office of the public ministry mentioned in the New Testament.

In the articles, it was noted that there is no passage in the New Testament which establishes the pastorate of a local congregation as the one divinely instituted form of the public ministry, nor is there a passage which establishes the local congregation as the one divinely instituted form of the church. Various kinds of public servants of the Word are Christ’s gift to his church, as is clear from Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:28, and other passages, and the gathering of Christians into various groups is the work of the Holy Spirit, as Luther’s Explanation of the Third Article states.

The St. Louis faculty, on the other hand, argued that the local congregation is the one divinely instituted form of the church and that a synod is a purely human organization. Likewise, it held that the office of pastor of a local congregation is the only divinely instituted form of the public ministry and all other forms are auxiliary to it.

Although, for convenience’s sake, the one position was spoken of as the Missouri and the other as the Wisconsin position, in fact there were supporters of both positions in both synods. Representatives of the St. Louis faculty met with the Thiensville faculty in 1932 and drew up the “Thiensville Theses” as a preliminary step toward a settlement of the controversy. No further steps were taken, however. In 1946 the Synodical Conference established an Interim Committee to address these issues, but the question remained unsettled.

In the late 1950s new committees were appointed to attempt to settle doctrinal questions that were disturbing the unity in the Synodical Conference. The Wisconsin committee drew up the statement on church and ministry for these deliberations. The differences in the doctrine of church fellowship took center stage, however, and the issue of church and ministry never came before the group.

The theses do not address the question of whether women may serve in the public ministry. At the time of writing the issue of women pastors had not yet come to the fore. Because of the fact that for decades women had served in the public ministry as Christian day school and Sunday school teachers, it was taken for granted that they may serve in positions that do not involve exercising authority over men. The statement on “Scriptural Principles of Man and Woman Roles” adopted in 1993 specifically addresses this issue.

Theses on the Church and Ministry

I. The Church

A. The Church is the communion of saints, the entire number of those whom the Holy Spirit has brought to faith in Christ as their Savior and whom through this gracious gift of a common faith He has most intimately joined together to form one “congregation” (Augsburg Confession VII, VIII), one body, one blessed fellowship.

As long as we keep the truth that the Church is the communion of saints in mind, everything that Scripture tells us about the Church will fall into its proper place and can be readily understood. At the same time all the false notions which men have entertained and still entertain concerning the Church are readily exposed.

Mt 16:16-18: Through his God-given faith in Jesus as his divine Redeemer Simon had become Peter, a building block laid on Christ the foundation rock to form a part of the growing edifice of Christ’s Church.

Eph 2:19-22; Jn 10:16; 1 Co 1:2; 2 Co 1:1; 1 Th 1:1; Ac 2:47.

B. The Church, just because it is the communion of saints, the congregation of all true believers, is of necessity invisible, that is, it can be apprehended only by faith.

Ro 10:10; 1 Sa 16:7; 2 Ti 2:19. Since faith in Christ, which alone makes sinful human beings members of the Church, is a matter of the heart, God alone can discern all those who are really His.

We can judge others only on the basis of the profession of faith that they make in word and deed. Such a profession may be false and hypocritical. Hence the church cannot be equated with any individual church organization whose members can be determined and tabulated by men on the basis of their outward profession. Just as little is it to be equated with the sum total of all such outward churches.

C. The Church of believers, though invisible, is a blessed reality. It is not a mere platonic idea.

1. It is the object of God’s gracious thoughts from all eternity. Jn 17:2,6,9,11,12; 13:18; Eph 1:4.

2. Everything that happens and that will happen is bound up with the gathering and completion of the Church. Eph 1:20-23.

3. It is a reality that is to be of great comfort and concern for us. Eph 2:18-22; 4:1-16; 1 Co 12.

D. The Church, the communion of saints, is present there where the means of grace are in use, where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered (Marks of the Church).

1. It is through the Gospel (in Word or Sacrament) that the Church has received its life. All of its members have been born again by the incorruptible seed of the Word of God. Through the Gospel the spiritual life of all its members is sustained. Through the Gospel the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. Jn 6:63; 3:5,6; 1 Pe 1:23-25; Ro 1:16; Tit 3:5; 1 Co 10:17; Jn 17:17,20.

2. Not all, of course, who hear the Gospel believe. Mt 23:37; Ac 7:51; Heb 4:2; Augsburg Confession Art V. Yet the promise of the Lord stands that His word will not return to Him void, without accomplishing that which He pleases. Isa 55:10,11; Mt 28:18-20; 2 Co 2:14-16.

3. Hence Scripture bids us to look for the Church there where the Gospel is in use, where people are gathered together both to receive its blessings and to bring them to others. Mt 18:20. Scripture designates such gatherings of people who profess faith in Christ and manifest it in the use of Word and Sacrament as churches. It does so, however, because of the believers found in their midst. Ac 4:32; 8:1; 5:1-11. Hypocrites are like chaff among the wheat, outwardly adhering to the company of believers but not a part of them. Until God exposes them, they, too, will be the outward recipients of the expressions of fellowship of the believers. 1 Co 5:13. Hence, when the New Testament speaks of the Church or of churches, the reference is either to such as are known to God as believers (ecclesia stricte dicta, the communion of saints or a part of it present at any locality) or to such as are to be acknowledged as believers by us on the basis of their confession (ecclesia late dicta, the empirical church as we encounter it).

4. The specific forms in which believers group themselves together for the fellowship and work of the Church, the specific forms in which they arrange for the use of the means of grace in public worship, the specific forms in which they establish the public ministry, have not been prescribed by the Lord to His New Testament Church.

a. It is the Holy Spirit who through the gift of their common faith leads the believers to establish the adequate and wholesome forms which fit every circumstance, situation, and need. 1 Co 3:21; 14:33,40. God in His word merely bids them to gather together (Heb 10:25) and through their faith prompts them to do so. Since believers ordinarily live at some local place, where they will desire to nourish their faith regularly through the means of grace, the local congregation will usually be the primary grouping of Christians.

b. It is likewise the Holy Spirit who through the same bond of a common faith draws Christians together in Jesus’ name in other groupings, and draws Christian congregations together in larger groupings, such as a synod, that they may share their mutual gifts and gain strength for certain phases of the great task of the Church, such as the training of pastors and teachers, the establishment and maintenance of mission fields. Ac 15; 1 Th 4:9,10; Ac 9:31 (the Greek text: the church in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria); 1 Co 16:1 (the churches of Galatia); 2 Co 9:2 (Macedonia and Achaia); 2 Co 8:18,19 (Macedonian churches had a common worker and jointly elected a traveling companion for Paul); Ac 16:1,2 (Timothy’s work praised by Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium).

c. In essence the various groupings in Jesus’ name for the proclamation of His Gospel all lie on the same plane. They are all Church in one and the same sense, namely in this sense that on the basis of the marks of the Church the Lord lets us apprehend the presence of the una sancta (the Holy Christian Church) in each such grouping of people, and thus enables us to acknowledge them as gatherings of believers possessing the ministry of the keys with the right of exercising this ministry in accordance with the considerations of love and order. Here we need to distinguish between the possession of a right and the God-pleasing exercise of that right.

As the Holy Spirit leads Christians to group themselves together in Jesus’ name (Jesus’ name is His Gospel revelation), He always constrains them to do so in an orderly manner (1 Co 14:33,40) and in the spirit of love (1 Co 16:14). The Holy Spirit never leads Christians to group themselves together in Jesus’ name for a competitive purpose so as to duplicate, hinder, or disturb that scope of the ministry of the keys which is already effectively provided for by a previously established grouping of Christians. Every added grouping of Christians in Jesus’ name, as effected by the Holy Spirit, will be for the purpose of assisting the primary groupings in exercising certain phases of the ministry of the keys more fully and more efficiently in keeping with the great commission of the Lord (e.g. in mission work, in Christian education, in the training of public servants of the Word, in Christian charity, in the supervision of doctrine and practice) or for the purpose of providing needed strengthening through Word and Sacrament which, because of special circumstances, is not adequately offered or cannot well be offered through already existing groupings (e.g. worship services at conferences and synodical conventions, ministry to students, to the handicapped, to the institutionalized, etc.).

The more fully also the secondary groupings of Christians remain conscious of their essential character as Church, the more keenly will they feel their responsibility of functioning in accordance with love and good order and thus carefully restrict themselves to those phases of the ministry of the keys which would otherwise fail to receive the attention that they deserve.

5. The right use of Word and Sacrament are the true marks of the Church, the marks by which the Lord points us to those with whom He would have us express the fellowship that we have in the communion of saints. Jn 8:31,32.

a. The Lord in His Word admonishes us to withdraw our church fellowship from those who persistently teach, spread, condone error and demand recognition for it. Ro 16:17,18; 2 Ti 2:17-19; 2 Jn 9-11; Gal 1:8,9.

b. Yet we rejoice in the fact that God in His grace and mercy can and does awaken, sustain, and preserve believers also in the midst of erring congregations and church bodies. 1 Ki 19:18. We remember, however, that He does so not through the errors that are taught and condoned there, but only through the true Gospel message that is still heard in these erring churches. We are therefore incited to proclaim the pure Word of God with great zeal and faithfulness and also with meekness and love at every God-given opportunity, so that our testimony may perchance be heard also by those who are God’s children in erring churches and help them in overcoming the errors with which they are surrounded.


We hold it to be untenable to say that the local congregation is specifically instituted by God in contrast to other groupings of believers in Jesus’ name; that the public ministry of the keys has been given exclusively to the local congregations.

II. The Ministry

A. Christ instituted one office in His Church, the ministry of the Gospel. It is the task of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16:15; Jn 20:21-23; Ac 1:8; 1 Pe 2:9; Lk 22:19,20. This office or service, the ministry of the keys, has been given to the Church, i.e., to the believers individually and collectively. Mt 16:19; 10:32; 18:18; 1 Pe 2:9.

Augsburg Confession V, 1,2: “That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith, where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel . . .”

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration XII, 30: “That the ministry of the Church, the Word preached and heard . . .”

B. The purpose of this ministry is the edification of the Church, by winning ever further sinners for Christ, and by building up those who are already members in Christian faith and life. Mt 28:18-20; Eph 4:11-14; 1 Co 12:7.

C. From the beginning of the Church there were men especially appointed to discharge publicly (in behalf of a group of Christians) the duties of this one ministry. Ac 13:1-3; 6:1-6.

D. This public ministry is not generically different from that of the common priesthood of all Christians. It constitutes a special God-ordained way of practicing the one ministry of the Gospel.

1. All Christians are equal before God, neither superior nor inferior to one another, and all are equally entrusted with the same ministry of the Gospel. 1 Pe 2:9. Hence no one may assume the functions of the public ministry except through a legitimate call. Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope 67-69: The authority to call (ius vocandi) is implied in the authority to administer the Gospel (ius ministrandi evangelii) given to the Church. Hence, it is proper to speak of the derived right of local congregations to call.

2. God is a God of order; He wants us to conduct all of our affairs orderly (1 Co 14:33,40) and in the spirit of love (1 Co 16:14).

3. Christians are not all equally qualified to perform publicly the functions of the ministry. The Lord sets forth the needed qualifications of those who are to perform publicly the functions of the ministry. 1 Ti 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-11. God gives to the Church men qualified for the various forms of the work required. Eph 4:7-16; Ro 12:6-8; 1 Co 12:4-11,28-31.

4. These gifts should be gratefully received and developed. 1 Co 12:31; 1 Th 5:19,20; 1 Ti 4:14; 2 Ti 1:6-9.

5. Thus these public ministers are appointed by God. Ac 20:28; Eph 4:11; 1 Co 12:28. It would be wrong to trace the origin of this public ministry to mere expediency (Hoefling).

6. There is, however, no direct word of institution for any particular form of the public ministry. The one public ministry of the Gospel may assume various forms, as circumstances demand. Ac 6:1-6. The specific forms in which Christians establish the public ministry have not been prescribed by the Lord to His New Testament Church. It is the Holy Spirit who through the gift of their common faith leads the believers to establish the adequate and wholesome forms which fit every circumstance, situation, and need. Various functions are mentioned in Scripture: 1 Ti 4:13; Eph 4:11; 1 Co 12:28; Ro 12:6-8; 2 Ti 2:2; Jn 21:15-17 (feeding); Ac 20:28 (watching); 1 Ti 3:2; 4:11; 6:2 (teaching); 1 Ti 3:5; 5:17 (ruling). In spite of the great diversity in the external forms of the ministerial work, the ministry is essentially one. The various offices for the public preaching of the Gospel, not only those enumerated above, e.g., in Eph 4:11 and 1 Co 12:28, but also those developed in our day, are all gifts of the exalted Christ to His Church which the Church receives gratefully and with due regard for love and order employs under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit for the upbuilding of the spiritual body of Christ; and all of them are comprehended under the general commission to preach the Gospel given to all believers.


We hold it to be untenable to say that the pastorate of the local congregation (Pfarramt) as a specific form of the public ministry is specifically instituted by the Lord in contrast to other forms of the public ministry.