The Doctrine of Church Government
By Francis Pieper
What is the church? The believers, or, what is the same thing: the Christians, the Children of God are the church. The church consists of those persons whom Christ by the Gospel has called out of this world, whom He has justified by faith and endowed with all spiritual blessings which He has won. They are the people in whose heart the Holy Spirit, yes, the whole Holy Trinity dwells, who in faith cling to Christ as their spiritual Head and are His spiritual body. These people – and none others – are the Christian church. If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His. The believers and only believers are the church.
B. Its Governing Means :
Therefore the governing means for the Christian church are not external power and external coercion, not commandments of men, not human wisdom, prudence, skill, esteem, etc., but only the Word of God. The Christians, the children of God should be ruled with nothing else than the Word of their Savior, the Word of God. Luther says briefly and tersely: “You simply cannot govern the Christians except alone with the Word of God.” St. L., X:406. And somewhat more fully: “This now is called church administration and church government: a government in which you have only the Word of God and rule with it in such a manner that no force is used, no hands are applied, nor any power or high rank is sought over others. Why this? Because God will preserve and govern His church alone through His Word and not by human power.” St. L., XIII: 1239. Men can come into consideration in governing the church only insofar as they proclaim and use Christ’s Word. Luther says of the “priests and bishops”: “Their governing is nothing else than the use of God’s Word with which they lead the Christians and overcome error.” St. L. X:406.
The scepter of the Kingdom of Christ does not emanate from Rome, also not from the green tables of the Consistories and other so-called church dignitaries. The scepter of Christ comes forth from Zion, the Holiness of God.
C. Its Master:
The whole question of church government Christ Himself settles when He says: “One is your Master, even Christ; but all ye are brethren.” Matthew 23:8. Here it is stated as clearly as possible and as definitely as possible that in the church there is only one ruling Master. That is Christ. Luther says: “We (Christians) have one Lord; He is Christ, who governs our souls.” St. L., IX:1103. Everything that is not Christ also has no right to rule and command in the church. The church is the most absolute monarchy, that is to say, a Kingdom in which there are not several or many but only One Ruler. “One is your Master, even Christ.”
As far as the relation of Christians to one another is concerned, they are “Brethren”. Among them there is no higher or lower rank. They are rather all of equal rank. They constitute, says the sainted Dr. Walther, one “great holy fraternity” in which there are neither commanders nor subordinates. “Be ye not called Rabbi.” Matthew 23:8. “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be among you.” Matthew 20:25-26.
But the Monarch Christ executes His rule and government through His Word, as He has given it in the Holy Scriptures to His church and as He commanded it to be taught therein unto the end. As He through the Word gathers the church to Himself and constantly fills it with spiritual life, so He also rules it with His Word. And in order that the sole rule stays with Him and no human rule is smuggled in beside it, – since He uses human beings to proclaim His Word – therefore He commands all men who open their mouth to speak in the church, that they proclaim only God’s Word not their own word. “If any man speak, let him speak as of the oracles of God.” 1 Peter 4:11.
Thus Christ remains the only “Master” and the Christians “brethren“.
D. No Human Rulers:
If we grasp this that Christians shall be governed alone with God’s Word out of the clear Scriptures, all hierarchical systems, great and small, which have been introduced into the church, fall to pieces. The whole endless dispute about rank among persons and offices in the church, especially also the dispute whether beside the office of the Word there is a divinely ordained particular ruling office, is thereby brought to an end and made pointless. Accordingly we hold: By right of his person, no man, let him be who he will, has anything to say in the church. When it comes to giving orders, Christ has closed the mouths of all men when He Himself says: “One is your Master, even Christ,” etc. and through the Apostle Peter: “If any man speak, let him speak as of the oracles of God.” This not only knocks the crown off the Pope’s head but also the little caps of “church officials” in the so-called Protestant Church.
E. Human Rules Defined:
The objection is raised: There are things to arrange in the church which the Master, Christ, has not ordained in His Word. Certainly! These are the so-called adiaphora (external, free). for example, time and outward form of the church service, the joining of congregations into Synods, etc. Who is to set up the necessary rules in these matters? This Christ has by His Word “All ye are brethren” already very definitely signified. These things in any case are not to be arranged in such a manner that some impose them on others or issue commands regarding them, be they pastors or Synods. For thereby the fundamental principle of the church “All ye are brethren,” would again be dissolved, and the church would a second time be divided into two classes of people, commanding masters and subjugated servants.
There remains only one way to arrange the adiaphora, which does not contradict the principle of the church. That is the method of free agreement by all concerned.
The Christians of the individual congregations order these things themselves, as it appears most expedient according to time, place, and circumstances. Herein they accept advice, under conditions, much advice. Herein they suffer themselves to be advised especially by their official advisor, the pastor of the congregation. In regard to church usages, they seek as much as possible to preserve outward connections with the old church and also to find suitable uniformity with sister congregations of the present. But all that Christ Himself has not commanded is left entirely up to their Christian pleasure and their decision. If opinions differ in these matters, the minority gives in to the majority, or the majority gives in to the minority, as love may require. Here is a broad field to one another in love, which Scripture so often emphasizes for the Christians. In this manner Christians remain brethren when matters left undecided by God’s Word are arranged among them.
F. Lutheran Testimonies:
That this is nothing else but the teaching of Luther and our church on the arrangement of adiaphora is something that is well known among us. A familiar statement of Luther is: “Neither the Pope, nor a bishop, nor any other person has the power to impose one syllable upon the Christian man, except it be with his will; whatever occurs otherwise is done by a tyrannical spirit.” St. L., XIX:68 The Formula of Concord says: “Therefore we believe, teach and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has according to its circumstances, the good might, power and authority /in matters truly adiaphora/ to change, diminish and to increase them, without thoughtlessness and offense, in an orderly and becoming way, as at any time may be regarded most profitable, most beneficial, and best for preserving good order, maintaining Christian discipline and worthy profession of the Gospel, and edification of the Church.” Triglot 1055:9; Mueller 698f.
G. No Open Questions:
In more recent times it has been said that our Confessions have left the question of church government open, or at least mostly so. Others have expressed themselves this way: In the Lutheran Confessions we find no positive teaching of church government. That is a great error. In our confessions the concept of government in the church is very sharply defined both positively and negatively. It is ever again emphasized that all ruling in the church must be done alone through God’s Word, and all ruling is rejected that commands Christians to believe or do things beyond God’s Word. If these truths remain untouched, then of course our Fathers were ready for the sake of love and peace to submit to every external order of things.
It is known that the papists demand for their bishops the power to make rules in the church. They base their claim on such passages as Luke 10: “He that heareth you heareth Me“. Hebrews 15: “Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves“, etc. Our Confessions reply to this that in these and similar passages of Scripture obedience to pastors is required when and insofar as they teach God’s Word, but not if they give commands according to their own judgment. As it is known, our Confessions say: “For it is certain that the expression Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me, does not speak of traditions (“Menschensatzungen“, laws of men. – Tr.), but is chiefly directed against traditions. For it is not a bestowal of unlimited authority, as they call it, but it is a caution concerning something prescribed, namely concerning the special command, not a free, unlimited order and power, but a limited order, namely, not to preach their own word, but God’s Word and Gospel …. He that heareth you heareth Me. Therefore He wishes His own voice, His own Word, to be heard, not human traditions. Thus a saying which is most especially in our favor, and contains the most important consolation and doctrine, these stupid men pervert to the most trifling matters, the distinction of food, vestments, and the like. They quote also Hebrews 15:17, Obey them that have the rule over you. This passage requires obedience to the Gospel. For it does not establish a dominion for the bishops apart from the Gospel.” Apology, Triglot 449, Mueller 289f. And with regard to Matthew 23:3 – “…Whatsoever they bid you observe that observe”, the Apology comments /in the German version/: “so this passage also does not establish a government outside of the Gospel. Therefore they cannot with the Gospel prove their power, which they have established without the Gospel. For the Gospel does not speak of traditions, but to teach the Word of God.” Triglot 448; Mueller 289f.
So very seriously our Confessions enjoin this divine truth, that no person has the right to give orders to another person in the church, that it even denies the Apostles the right to command anything which Christ did not through them speak and command. We read in the Smalcald Articles: “Hence superiority or lordship over the Church or the rest of the ministers is not ascribed to Peter, in preference to other apostles. For he says thus: All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, for example, let neither the other ministers nor Peter assume for themselves lordship or superiority over the Church; let them (“niemand”, no one. – Tr.) not burden the Church with traditions; let not the authority of any avail more than the Word of God.” Triglot 507; Mueller 330. Chemnitz remarks that the Apostles would in horror have rent their clothes if someone would have ascribed to them the power “to give laws for which they would not have had a command or testimony of the divine Word.” Exame, de bonis operibus, Genevae 1668, page 179.
H. Christians bow to the Rule of God’s Word:
It has been said: Governing the church alone by the Word of God may be all right in theory. But in practice it is shown to be a different matter. Where do you have such people who submit to the Word of God and are willing, in things which God has not commanded, to submit to one another? The Pope, to be sure, will not make such people. Also not kings and emperors. Edicts (decrees) of bishops and synodical resolutions also will not do this. Even Moses is not able to accomplish it. But he to whom the church belongs accomplishes it. Christ the Lord creates such people through His Word and the Holy Spirit. And the Christians – all Christians – are such people. We arrive here again at the right concept of the church, concerning the governing of which we are here treating. He that belongs to Christ will let himself be ruled by the Word of Christ. Christ the Lord says this Himself in the words: “He that is of God heareth God’s words.” John 8:47. They who will not permit themselves to be ruled with God’s Words are the enemies of Christ and His church, as Christ the Lord also immediately adds concerning the Pharisees: “Ye therefore hear them not” – the words of God – “because ye are not of God.” These we let go their way.
Also Luther is his discussion of church government through God’s Word alone again and again comes to this objection that there is a lack of (proper) persons for such government. He makes the preface: “Among Christians there is no superior but only and alone Christ Himself. What rule can there be where all are equal with the same rights, power, property and honor, and where in addition also nobody desires to be superior to others, but where everyone desires to be subject to all others according to the Word? This Word says,
1Peter 5:5: ‘All of you be subject one to another.’ Where there are such people, it would not be possible to establish lordship even if one would desire it because the nature of the case would not suffer lords to exist where no one can or will be lord.”
Then Luther continues: “But where there are no such people, there are also no true Christians…. Christians must be ruled in their faith, not by external works. But faith cannot come by the word of men; it can come only through the Word of God, as St. Paul says Romans 10:17: ‘Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.’ Such, then, who do not believe, are no Christians, they do not belong in the Kingdom of Christ; they are under civil government that they may be coerced and ruled by the sword and external government The Christians naturally and voluntarily do all that is good and have all they need for themselves in the Word of God alone.” St. L., X:406.
Again the objection is raised: But the Christians still have the flesh which sets itself against the rule of God’s Word and never becomes holy. Certainly! But also the commandments of men will surely not be able to make the Old Adam holy. If, however, we continue patiently to teach the Christians with the Word of God and admonish them, then the Christians will constantly crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts and continue to submit themselves to the Word of God. The experiences we have had in this respect in our own Synod will be touched on later, – In this manner it can be done with God’s Word, and with God’s Word alone, and so the church is governed in the right manner.
After what has now been said, we can in a few words summarize wherein true and false government of the church consists. That government is correct which guides the Christian alone with God’s Word and leaves everything which God has not ordained to the liberty and good will of the Christians. Every government is false which commands the Christian – be it much or little – anything beyond the Word of God.
II. HUMAN SYSTEMS VS. DIVINE GOVERNMENT
A false government, as can be learned from history, is the kind that is carried on partly by the State and partly by the church and in their name.
A. Civil State Rule of Church:
Earthly governments have attempted to prescribe for the church what it – the church – should confess as Christian doctrine and how church practice should be arranged. That started soon after the Roman emperors accepted Christianity. That is perpetuated in many places to this very day. But that is basically wrong. Earthly governments rule in earthly things, things which concern civil life. In these things we Christians must be subject to such governments, not only because of force and fear of punishment, but for conscience sake, because God wants it that way. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers“, Romans 13:1. But Christ has not committed, either wholly or in part, to civil government the power to settle matters of church doctrine and life. ThLet every soul be subject unto the higher powere church He will rule Himself through His Word, as He has bequeathed it to the church. Therefore we accept no commands in church matters from earthly governments which nevertheless we obey entirely in civil affairs. We dare not permit civil government to command us in spiritual matters. Except it be that we would fall away from Christ our only Master. Let us beware of every form of a State Church! This warning is also necessary for our country. For even now again a great movement is in progress to recede at least partly from the principle of the separation of church and state, a separation for which we must thank God.
Such false church government emanated still more from the church itself and has been practiced in the name of the church. Individuals in the church or at least a group of individuals have presumed by their own laws to govern the church.
B. The Roman Catholic System:
The greatest of abominations here is the abomination of the Papacy. The Pope claims that Christ Himself has placed him as the overlord over the Christians in such a manner that all Christians in their life and doctrine are made subject to him and that no one can be saved who does not recognize the supremacy of the Pope. Christ himself, so say the Pope’s creatures, has settled only a few important things; most matters He has left for the church, that is, for the Pope to decide. Thus the Pope governs the church with his own commandments. The bishops are only the tools of the Pope wherewith he rules. And no Christian may be so bold as to test the laws of the Pope by Holy Writ, for the Bible, says the Pope, is a dark book for the ordinary Christian, which can be understood and explained only by the church, that is, finally again, by the “infallible” Pope.
This is the abomination of Antichrist, as described in 2 Thessalonians 2, “who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” What the Christian’s position should be towards the Pope and his usurped power, Luther says in the Smalcald Articles, “Therefore we ought not here to kiss his feet, or to say, ‘Thou art my gracious lord,’ but as the angel of Zechariah 3:2 said to Satan, The Lord rebuke thee , O Satan.” Triglot 477; Mueller 309.
But false church government, insofar as is practiced in the name of the church, is not confined to the Papacy.
C. Greek Church Order:
In the place of the Pope the so-called Greek Church has bishops. They suppose “that the Holy Spirit has appointed the bishops … truly as rulers and heads for the individual congregations which are true believers.” All believers should for conscience sake be subject to the government of the bishops.
D. Protestant Church Rule:
A false teaching of church government is taught and practiced in the greater part of the so-called Protestant Christendom. Indeed the stipulation is usually found here, that the church must not establish anything that contradicts God’s Word. So, for example, it is among the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. But among them there is a very great misconception concerning the arrangement of things not commanded in Scripture. To speak of only one thing: they ascribe, for example, to general church conventions the power to decree rules, to which then the Christians must be subject for conscience sake. So it is stated in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterians: “It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word of God, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in His Word.” Chapter XXX-II.
E. Lutheran Lords:
But also into the church called Lutheran false church government has forced its way in various degrees and shades. We here call special attention to the aberration here in America which aimed at power to command and which has its champions in Germany among a part of the free-church Lutherans. They teach a divinely instituted church government beside the office of the Word of God which must prepare rules for the individual congregations or groups of congregations and which for conscience sake must be obeyed by Christians.
This church government, they say, must be accorded divine authority even when it does not apply God’s Words and commandments. Of course the limitation is added that such a government must not prescribe things which are contrary to Scripture. But that does not better the situation. It certainly is already contrary to Scripture to prescribe for Christians things which God has not commanded in His Word.
F. Misuse of the Fourth Commandment:
To prove that Christians ought to obey pastors and church officers in adiaphora, the Fourth Commandment has been used, both in America and Germany. Parents can command their children to do things which are not commanded in God’s Word, as long as such things do not go against God’s Word. But pastors and other elected church officials, they say, belong to the spiritual fathers. So they claim we also owe them obedience, by divine order, in all things which God’s Word has not commanded as long as that Word has not forbidden them. This argument has deceived many sensible and wise people. Nevertheless it is altogether wrong and is very easily refuted.
What then is the situation? Parents can indeed command their children in things that go beyond the Word of God because God has given the parents lawgiving authority, when, for example, Colossians 3:20 says: “Children obey your parents in all things.” According to God’s order, children are under the parents. But has not provided the church, or rather individual persons in the church, with law-giving authority over the Christians. Here one must say: “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” For children, of course, parents are in God’s stead in respect to those things which God has not commanded. But officials in the church are not in this manner in God’s stead over Christians. All Christians are directly under God alone without having church officials as intermediate masters. Only one is their Master, Christ; they all are brethren on the same plane (coordinated). Christ has left no representatives on earth who in His stead should give commands to the Christians in things which He has left unregulated (ungeboten). Whatever poses as such a substitute for Christ interferes with Christ’s government.
G. Reasons for Defending Christian Liberty:
It has been asked: Does it really matter that the Christians do not permit themselves to be commanded by men in the so-called adiaphora? What great harm is done if it is made a conscience matter for Christians to subject themselves to human ordinances which are set up with the best of intentions? More than once we have been censured for spending so much time and effort in defending Christian freedom.
Objectors Lack Knowledge of Scripture.
Those who raise this objection show that they have a meager understanding of spiritual things. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul admonishes the Christians with many words to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free. Galatians 5. And Luther as a faithful pupil of St. Paul says, as is known, that every Christian should rather sacrifice his life than to become subject to man-made laws in the church. Let us briefly examine for ourselves the reasons for this position.
1. Going Beyond the Word Dethrones Christ.
Whoever in the church goes beyond the Word of Christ to give laws interferes with the government of Christ and offends His Majesty. Christ is the Owner of the church, having purchased it with His own blood, so that He is her Master, her only Lord and Commander. Now whoever beside Christ would also command the church, be it much or little, he thereby forces himself into Christ’s position of Savior and Ruler. He acts as though he also had died and was buried and rose again for the Christians.
2. The Glory of the Christian is Marred by Commandments of Men.
Furthermore: Whoever in the church goes beyond the Word of Christ to give laws mars the glory of the Christian with which Christ has crowned them. All who by faith in Christ have obtained forgiveness of sins and sonship of God have therewith also gained the privilege to be subject in all spiritual things only to Christ and His Word and to be free from all man-made laws. That is the glorious liberty of the children of God which has been purchased, not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, and has been given to them in justification. Now when men claim the right to govern the Christians with their – men’s – commandments, they therewith make of God’s free children servants of men and actually expect of them that they should fall away from Christ. “Dear friend,” says Luther, “Let it not be a small matter to you to forbid where Christ has not forbidden, to destroy Christian freedom which cost Christ His blood, to burden consciences with sin where there is none. He who does that and may do it, may also do all evil, yes, he thereby already rejects everything that God is, teaches and does, including His Christ.” St. Louis, XX:207 (Against the Heavenly Prophets.)
3. Man-made Rules Cause Disorder in the Church.
Furthermore: Whoever in the church would issue commands not found in God’s Word thereby causes the greatest disorder in the church. The issuing of human laws beyond God’s Word is defended with the good intention thereby to serve good order in the church and to protect it from otherwise threatening disorder. Concerning this alleged threatening disorder if human rules are not resorted to, some few words later. Here first of all we would hold to this much: Every ordering of things according to which Christians are commanded beyond the Word of God is from the start an abominable disorder, a total perversion of the house rules in the church of Christ. The first and all-ruling paragraph in this house order reads: “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.”
Whoever in the church would give commands beyond the Word of God is a revolutionary in the church. He desires to overthrow the rightfully established order, namely the exclusive government of Christ. Luther calls the arrangement of the papacy, according to which the Pope and the bishops should have the power to make conscience- binding laws along side of Scripture, and arrangement “against God,” yes, “the devil’s arrangement”. St. L., XIX:704. He (Luther) desires “that all Christians ever bless themselves with all crosses against the belief that the Pope’s government is based on right.” We also characterize as disorder every government in the church whereby Christians are commanded anything beyond the Word of God, irrespective of whether such commands come from pastors, Synods, colleges of church officials, consisteries, presiding bishop or any such source.
4. Man-made Rules Displace God’s Word, Cause Harm to the Church.
Finally, harm is done to the church by all church government that beyond God’s Word imposes on Christians the laws of men. Luther says of the papacy: “How the Pope has ruled in the church after he gained this” – the rule over Christians – “is manifest to us.” St. L., XIII:1242. Yes, verily, it is manifest. Let us be warned! If it is once admitted that besides Christ men can give orders in the church, then gate and door are open for all false doctrine and practice.
Whoever dares to command Christians in the so-called adiaphora will also not shrink back from giving orders out of his own head in true matters of faith. Yes, he has already struck at the heart of the Christians faith by binding their consciences to something different than the Word of God.
Where statutes of men arise, God’s Word ceases to rule. That lies in the nature of the case. Where you allow men to give commands, the true Christian conscience is lost. Then no longer a sharp distinction is made between God’s Word and the word of man, then consciences degenerate, the consciousness for pure doctrine is lost.
The history of these matters surely speaks plainly enough. What has happened under the papacy? “This,” says Luther, “that the Word of God is lost, that the church is turned into an earthly government, new services to God have been established, and everything has been sought and invented to get the money out of the people and to increase the splendor of the priests (Pfaffenpracht)”. St. L., XIII:1239f. What has happened in the State Churches? In them people have become careless over against God’s Word but so much the more strict about the ordinances of the State Churches. In consequence also a strange way of speaking has been developed. When in State Churches they speak of things from “above”, the Word of God and God are as a rule not meant, but the earthly government and the church officials. That is characteristic of the situation. Man’s word has crowded out God’s Word. That is the terrible curse of the perversion of God’s order in the church.
How important it is therefore to hold to the right doctrine of church government, to ascribe conscience-binding power only to God’s Word and not to human and church ordinances.
(“Every government is false which commands the Christian anything – be it much or little – beyond the Word of God.”)
III. GOVERNMENT OF THE WORD ALONE IN PRACTICE
Now what shape will government in the church take in actual practice when the church is ruled alone by God’s Word?
In a Local Christian Congregation
Let us consider first the only divinely founded external fellowship, the Christian local congregation, in which there is the proper order. The pastor of the congregation by right of office applies the Word naturally also by that right he rules the congregation with the Word. He rules whenever he publicly from the pulpit sets forth what in general and in particular is God-pleasing doctrine and God-pleasing life. When in his dealings with individual persons he makes known God’s Word and will and maintains them, he governs likewise. He governs, not personally, not because of greater gifts, learning or esteem, but because officially it is his business to apply God’s Word and to the extent that he does this.
Thus Luther ascribes to all pastors in their congregations the right of spiritual governing. He writes, in opposition to the Roman delusion, which ascribes governing powers to Pope and bishops: “Thus every pastor or spiritual ruler shall be a bishop, that is a supervisor, a watchman, so that in his community and among his people the Gospel and faith in Christ be established and upheld against all enemies, Satan, and heresies.” St. L., XVIII:1283. And our Confessions say: “Therefore the Church can never be better governed and preserved than if we all live under one Head. Christ, and all the bishops (pastors) equal in office (although they be unequal in gifts), be diligently joined in the unity of doctrine, faith, Sacraments, prayer, and works of love, etc.” – Triglot 473; Mueller page 308, Smalcald Articles, Part II.
In a Local Voters Assembly
In order to handle its business the local congregation has its congregation meeting, according to the example of the Apostolic congregations. Who rules in such congregation meetings? Naturally the minister by right of office must maintain the authority of the Word of God also in the congregation meeting. Also here he rules with the Word of God. But in such meetings the members speak, too. And it happens not infrequently that a member of the congregation or several of them cite the Word of God or the words of God which throw clear light on and decide the matters in hand. In this case these particular laymembers govern. Of course, again not by their own person, but because they applied the Word of God which governs and decides all. Christ rules in His congregation through them.
Permit me the privilege in this connection to point to a personal experience. Previous to all theological study, my first instruction about governing in the church I received from an ordinary Christian. One Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin a group of members from a given congregation were gathered in a farmhouse. A number of students from a pre-theological school were also present. The conversation there turned to church government and especially to the question as to who rules in the congregation meeting. One plain Christian then expressed his surprise that in the church there could be any dispute about church government. Said he: “It is clear that he rules in the church who has the Word of God. In the congregation meeting they rule to whom God has given the grace to cite the right Word of God which decides the matter.” Thus in their last meeting a number of members had ruled because they quoted the Word of God which convinced all the others.
This then will be the pattern of government in the congregation in such matters as are decided in God’s Word How the arrangement of adiaphora is decided by mutual agreement has already been set forth. Here we refer only to one more thing. The congregation may establish also assisting offices for the public ministry, for example, the office of elder. Doubtless all of our congregations have this church arrangement. The only concern here is that also to the elders no power is given that goes beyond the Word of God. In Synodical Unions
But what is the form of the government of the church when the local congregations have joined together in larger church bodies, for instance, Synods? It may be objected: If the church is to be governed only with the Word of God, what sense is there to your whole synodical arrangement, which as you yourself always emphasize, is not commanded in God’s Word? You have the union of congregations in Synods in which the congregations consult with and watch over one another. Besides the divinely ordained office of the ministry, you have in your midst established other offices not ordained of God. You have Visitors, District Presidents, a General President and other synodical officials. If God’s Word is sufficient to rule the church, what meaning is there to these human arrangements?
We answer: Truly the meaning is not that the Word of God is not sufficient to rule the church and that the poor forsaken church must be helped out with a number of human arrangements. Our whole synodical arrangement has the opposite purpose. Through it we desire to serve one another, so that the Word of God and nothing else shall rule among us. The Visitors observe whether or not in the Circuit laid out for them the congregations follow the Word of God. The District Presidents have the same office in the whole District, and the General President with certain limitations in the whole Synod. Therefore we elect as Visitors and Presidents not perhaps such people who are handy with synodical documents (“die sich gut auf acten verstehen“) and who more than others are well acquainted with the Synodical Handbook, but who are wellgrounded in God’s Word (thoroughly experienced) and who have more ability than others clearly to set forth and to apply the Word to given situations. The supervising offices which are established in our synodical association, among other things, it is stated in our Synodical Handbook: “Keeping and promoting the unity of pure Confession” “Watching over the unity and purity of doctrine.” Kap.4,1 old Constitution, 1873 Handbook.) It is not the purpose of Synod to bind the congregations beyond the Word of God with synodical resolutions. Concerning this subject our Constitution rather says very expressly: “The Synod is in respect to the self-government of the individual congregation only an advisory body….If a congregation finds the resolution (of the Synod) as not in agreement with the Word of God or not suited to the congregation’s conditions, it has the right to ignore the resolution or, according to the circumstances, to reject it.” (Kap. 4,9, p.7, 1873 Handbook.)
By the church arrangement of a Synod no ruling power should be established besides and beyond the Word of God, but the whole arrangement should serve the absolute rule of the Word of God. Romans 12:8 – “He that ruleth…”
Also Luther speaks of offices that are established as assisting offices to the office of the Word in the church. These are the offices “which should supervise all offices” and “see to it that all offices are exercised properly”. He also calls the supervising offices established in Christian liberty beside the preaching office a ruling office. But at the same time he emphasizes most emphatically that such a “ruling office” is to be given no dominant position. He calls it a “servant” of the preaching office, which should “arouse and awaken, just as a servant may awake his master from sleep and otherwise admonish him in his office.” Preachers, even though they have the highest office in Christendom, should indeed on their part be ready always in sincere humility to accept reminders and admonition from their “rulers”. Let us here quote a longer, precious exposition by Luther.
Luther writes in his Church Postil about the words of Romans 12:18: “He that ruleth, with diligence,” in part as follows: “How does St. Paul now change the order? that he does not place the ruling at the top and first, but lets prophecy precede it; thereafter serving, teaching, exhorting, giving; and he places ruling way at the end among the common offices, namely in sixth place. Without doubt the Spirit did that because of the future abomination of the devil who would establish in Christendom a pure tyranny and earthly power. As it also is today: To rule others is accepted as the most important job, and everything in Christendom must conform to its tyranny and wantonness, and all prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting and giving must sooner give way than that this tyranny would suffer loss by permitting itself to be guided according to prophecy, teaching and other offices. But we should realize that nothing is higher than the Word of God, which office is over every office. Therefore the ruling office is its servant who shall arouse and awaken it, just as a servant awakens his master from sleep or otherwise reminds him of his duties, in order that it be maintained what Christ says in Luke 22:26: ‘Whosoever will be the greatest among you, shall be your servant; and the first shall be last.’ On the other hand, teachers and prophets should obey the ruler and follow him, and humble themselves, that thus every Christian work and office may serve the other. Then also shall be maintained what Paul teaches in this Epistle, that no one may regard himself as the best on exalting himself above others, thinking of himself more highly than he ought to think. They will then let one office and gift be more precious than others, and yet each one therewith serve and be subject to the other (personally). In this way the ruling office is the most humble, and yet the others are all subject to it, and it in turn serves all others with its care and supervision. Again, prophecy is the highest, and still it follows the ruler.” St. L., XII:339.
But – the further objection is raised – if there is in the church no rule of one person over others, how can the special gift of ruling be exercised? Among other gifts, Christ bestows also the special gift of ruling His Church. Among the various gifts with which Christ equips His church, Scripture names expressly also the gift of ruling, Romans 12:6,; 1 Corinthians 12:28. Certainly. But as none of the many gifts in the church establish a power to dominate, so also not the gift of ruling.
Individuals in the church have received, for example, especially the gift of teaching. They are able more exactly and more clearly than others to show what is true and what is false doctrine. But therewith they are personally not in the least made rulers in the church. The special gift of teaching should manifest itself especially in this way that the imparted teaching does not appear as one’s personal doctrine, but that it is recognized as the doctrine of God’s Word.
Individuals in the church are favored above others with the gift of explaining the Scriptures. They are able better than others to bring the sense of Scripture to light. But therewith again they are not given any kind of power to dominate in the church. The special gift of explaining appear as one’s personal explanation but are recognized as the explanation given by the Holy Bible itself.
The same holds true also of the gift of ruling. It is true that certain individuals in the church better than others are able to judge and regulate matters that come before it. They have a special gift to rule. But how should this gift be exercised? Thus, that it places itself altogether in the service of the Word of God, that it is employed to rule the congregation of God with God’s Word. They who are blessed with this ability should direct their gift in such a manner that all things that are decided by God’s Word will then also be settled according to the clear Word of God, and that all things left free by Scripture will be left to Christian liberty, to be settled by way of Christian mutual agreement.
Reference was made earlier to the point that when the Christian congregation establishes the so-called office of elder to assist the preaching office, it dare on no account give to this office the power to dominate. It is an altogether disgraceful misuse of the gift of God when someone uses it to rule the congregation of God according to his own head.
Luther exhorts the pastors constantly to study the Scriptures diligently, and in particular the Pastoral Letters: that they may be able to rule the Christians with the Word of God and that “there be no need to rule the Christians by their own human notions.” (Preface to 1 Timothy.)
The most abominable example of such misrule in the church – namely ruling the Christians “by their own human notions” – we have in the papacy. But every pastor, yes, every Christian, has cause to let himself be warned in this matter. He should beware that he does not, because he has natural talent to rule, rule in the church according to his own head and so claim a lordship for himself in the church. Luther says in reference to this point in connection with the listing of offices and gifts in the church, Ephesians 4:11: “These are the various offices, and therefore we must distinguish between the gifts. But because of such distinction of gifts and offices, no man should ascribe to himself earthly power, desiring to rule in an earthly manner. They are, everyone of them, bound to the Gospel, so that they must abide by it and not do anything contrary to it. This is the right system which should be and remain in the church. And it is a far better system than that of the Pope who has made an arrangement not on account of offices but on account of external power, contrary to the command of Christ.” St. L., XIII:1241.
Synod has no Legislative Power Over Congregations
Here yet a few words about the to-be-feared disorder if in the church no Christian can command another and if even a Synod does not have legislative power.
Human reason thinks that power must be given to one or more persons in the church to give commands beyond the Word of God. Otherwise confusion will follow. Luther already busied himself with this objection. He writes: “But now someone may ask and say: What kind of a government is it, and how can it stand, where there is no head and if those who are in office are all equal, and if nobody has more power or authority than the other? For reason considers such equality as a deformity and harmful thing. Again, where there is a head to whom others must look and by which they can be guided, reason considers such an arrangement useful and from this draws the conclusion: It must also be so if things are to go well in the church; else there will be utter confusion and disorder.” “And this is the reason,” Luther adds, “which still holds captive many sensible and wise people.”
Luther reports that in his time there were people who did not want indeed the dominion of the Pope because it is “a manifestly indisputable offense”. But at the same time they held it to be necessary that in the church there should be an arrangement “as in earthly government where (among the servants in the church) one should be higher, have more rights to command and have more power than the other,” for the purpose – you should know it, for the purpose of avoiding disorder. That is the position even today of “many sensible and wise people.”
Even in our day the sects and the Romanizing Lutherans still operate with such reasoning. But let us listen to Luther in respect to this objection –
He says: “True it is, reason considers it a deformity and harmful error, that all who have a church office should be equal, and that one should have the same right to command, the same power and the same authority as the other …. But we have here an express command of our dear Lord Christ. He has ordained that in His Kingdom, which is a spiritual kingdom, things should go on differently than in an earthly kingdom: so that all may learn how in the Kingdom of Christ not human power or great esteem, but alone the Word of God shall count and rule.” St. L., XIII:1240. That Christians actually bow before God’s Word we have seen earlier.
50 Year Success of the Rule of the Word Alone in the Missouri Synod
Let us look at ourselves. Our Synod has now  gone through a 50 year experience of church government alone by the Word of God. The “nothing but confusion” and “disorder,” which the whole world fears under such a government, has not come to pass among us. That was also prophesied for us both here and on the other side of the ocean. The sentence, that the Synod over against its congregations has only “advisory” and not legislative power, has been called the “real heart of anarchy.” The church which does not enjoy a government with legislative power is, it was said, “a little plant without a supporting stake.” Confusion would soon rule with such a Constitution as ours.
Nothing of all this has come to pass. Also as far as outward order is concerned, we in our Synod have experienced perhaps the most peaceful period which the church has ever enjoyed. We must say: Government of the church by God’s Word alone has proved itself among us in fifty years of practice. Indeed, the flesh of the Christians has made itself felt also among us. It has not always submitted at once to God’s Word. Here and there long discussions, much teaching and continued exhortation were necessary. But God’s Word has kept the upper hand. Also in seemingly hopeless cases it has manifested its ruling and all governing power. Government by the Word of God alone has bound us and held us together so firmly that outsiders thought and still think that we have a high church government. Only lately an English church paper wrote that the Missourians are the “High Church Party” in the Lutheran Church.
I repeat it once more: The governing of the church alone with the Word of God and the leaving free of everything that God’s Word has not commanded has proved itself among us.
We have experienced it in our synodical life that the church of God prospers best when it remains with God’s order. May this never be changed!
Your Old Adam Seeks to Rule Others
In this matter also there is need for spiritual vigilance. That fact that false government is so general in the church points to the soil still found in all Christians which harbors this perversion of God’s order. That is the evil flesh: the evil flesh which is to be found also in everyone of us.
According to the flesh, the one desires to be higher than the other and not merely a servant who serves his brother or his brethren with the Word of God. According to the evil flesh the Christians desires not only to serve the Word with His gifts, but to misuse his gifts for dominance. Here is need for watching and prayer! Furthermore: The flesh of the Christian does not see the glory of the teaching of Justification and consequently also not the Freedom of the Christian man.
The flesh of the Christian does not understand the spiritual nature of the church of Christ, but desires always to confuse it (interchange it) with the kingdoms of this world. It does not believe in the power of the Word of God, but considers the Word a weak thing. Insofar as we give ear to the flesh, we look around for a stronger government, to a government whose arm is to be strengthened by granting to it more power than that of the Word of God.
In this matter it is as in the doctrine of Justification. All spiritually blind people believe that every door is opened for a life of sin when it is taught that justification and salvation are obtained by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, without works. Therefore we have the attempts of the whole row of heterodox bodies – from Pope-sect through all sects down to the synergistic Lutherans – to mix the works of man into the doctrine of justification and attainment of salvation. They believe that only in this way will Christian living be promoted.
Even so in the matter of church government. All who judge according to the flesh believe that God’s Word alone is not sufficient for governing the church. If the church should not because of disorder fall into ruin, it is necessary to have Boards with legislative power. Therefore we have that long line of false church governments starting with the papacy and ending with American Synods endowed with law-giving authority. But that, as said, is the judgment of man’s blind reason. St. Paul says concerning the relation of sanctification to justification: “Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the Law, but under grace.” Romans 6:14 Analagous to this, it should be said concerning church government: The church will not fall into disorder, but will be governed well if it is not ruled by human statutes but alone by the Word of her Master.
The Devil has made a Fool of that Church which adds Human Rules to God’s Word to Rule the Church
Let us by God’s grace adhere to this form of governing. Every temptation to depart from it is to be recognized and rejected as a temptation of the devil. The devil makes a fool of the church when he persuades it to believe that it must have in its midst a power and authority that goes beyond the Word of God. In that moment the church becomes weak when it begins to look about for human supporting rules with the idea that God’s Word is not sufficient as a ruling and sustaining power. In this way it takes flesh for its arm and departs with its heart from the only Lord of the church.
Yes, we must say: The church surrenders itself as church and adopts the manner of earthly kingdoms just as soon as it is no more satisfied with the Word of God as the means whereby it should be governed.
How glorious in contrast is not the church government which is carried on alone through the Word of God! How can we find words enough fitly to describe the glory of this church government! Christ’s honor thus remains inviolate; He remains – as He should – the only Master. The Christians’ glory remains inviolate. They enjoy their high, dearly bought privilege: To stand, without the mediation of men, directly under their Savior’s dominion and government. All gifts conferred by Christ upon His church are used rightly; they serve only to glorify Christ, not for self-glorification.
And the church is strong under this government, no matter how weak it may appear before the eyes of men. Whatever is brought together and held together through God’s Word no power on earth, also not the fear of death, not even death itself can drive apart. That we as a church body enjoy this wonderful, unspeakably glorious government is so great a grace that we should daily praise and glorify God because of it. And how zealous we should be to spread the Kingdom in which Christ rules alone through His Word! How willing we should be to place all goods and gifts into the services of this Kingdom! How easy we should be able to forget all personal insults caused among us since we as brethren stand together in such a glorious Kingdom!
Oh, may God open our eyes to the glory of the church government alone through Christ’s Word! Under this government we desire by God’s grace to remain until with our eyes we see Him who has led us by His Word. Amen.