What it means to be truly Lutheran: Public ministers of the gospel are called to serve

Joel D. Otto

Priests in the Middle Ages had two primary tasks: Correctly perform the sacraments of the church to earn God’s grace on behalf of the people and listen to confession. The people were required to confess all their sins to the priest at least once a year. Priests had to learn how to cajole people into remembering all their sins. They also had to investigate and probe the circumstances and motives of those sins to know what earthly punishments the person had to perform. The priests had to be spiritual detectives. And they knew everyone’s secrets. 

This wasn’t the only problem among clergy at the time of Luther. Some of the more radical reform movements had self-proclaimed, self-appointed preachers. They took on the duties of spiritual leadership without being properly called to do so. 

Truly Lutheran public ministers of the gospel are called to serve God’s people with the gospel. First, they are properly called to do this work. Individually, every Christian has the right and privilege to “declare God’s praises” (1 Peter 2:9,10) and every Christian can forgive sins (John 20:19-23). But when Christians gather together around the Word and sacraments, someone who is gifted and trained needs to be called to serve the group with the Word and sacraments. Otherwise, disorder could result (1 Corinthians 14:33,40). The Augsburg Confession stated the point succinctly and clearly. “It is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call” (Article XIV). The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is calling public ministers of the gospel through the church’s call (Acts 20:28). 

Second, truly Lutheran public ministers are called to proclaim the Word faithfully and administer the sacraments rightly. Pastors and other public ministers of the gospel are not spiritual detectives, entertainers, or corporate executives. They are not to act as dictators in the church (1 Peter 5:1-3). They are simply servants of Christ whose name they proclaim, and servants of Christ’s people whose blood purchased them as his people. That’s why the qualifications Paul listed for public spiritual leadership emphasize a Christian character that won’t be an obstacle to the gospel. He wrote that a spiritual leader should “be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable . . . not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2,3). These qualified public ministers are called to use the Word and sacraments for the spiritual benefit of those whom they are called to serve. So they also need to be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2).  

Truly Lutheran public ministers of the gospel need to know the Word and know how to communicate the Word. That’s why Luther encouraged, “Pray diligently, as Christ Himself commands us to pray (Matt. 9:38), that God may grant us faithful laborers and pastors who are sincere and adhere to the Word” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 28, p. 62). 

Questions to consider 

  1. Read 1 Peter 2:9,10. Explain how this passage relates to the public ministry.

Every Christian is a royal priest, God’s special possession, part of the people of God, by faith in Jesus. Every Christian has received mercy. Every Christian, therefore, has the right, privilege, and duty to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” In other words, every Christian is to proclaim the gospel. But when two or more Christians get together to proclaim the gospel, or when a group of royal priests desires to proclaim the gospel in places where they cannot go, then one of those “royal priests” has to serve as a leader; one of those royal priests has to serve in those other areas of ministry. For the sake of order and so that the gospel will be proclaimed faithfully, someone has to be chosen, trained, and called to serve the group with the gospel or serve on behalf of the group.

2. Describe how the teaching of the divine call is comforting to both called workers and congregation members.

Called workers can have the confidence and comfort that, even in challenging situations, they are serving where the Lord has called them to serve at this time. Likewise, for the congregation members, they can be sure that the called workers who are serving at this time and place are those whom the Lord has placed among them. The Lord has worked through the church to place his workers where he wants them to serve at this time (see Acts 20:28).

3. How does the Lutheran view of the public ministry affect the way that we educate future called workers (especially pastors)?

Since those who serve in the public ministry are called to proclaim the Word to and on behalf of the church, public ministers need to be taught the Word. Since those public ministers need to have the ability to teach the Word, those gifts need to be developed and cultivated. Therefore, the education of public ministers, especially pastors, emphasizes the tools needed to study the Word in depth, including the languages in which the Bible was written. The education of public ministers will also focus on learning how to communicate the Word. Therefore, classes in education, preaching, evangelism, and counseling are important. Since public ministers are serving the church and reaching out to the lost, they also have to understand people and the world in which we live. Therefore, classes in psychology and history are also part of training called workers.


Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

 This is the last article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through the Reformation.  Find this article and answers online after Nov. 5 at wels.net/forwardinchrist. 


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 11
Issue: November 2017

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