Congregational Autonomy and Fellowship Essay

It strikes us as a very important consideration in understanding the nature and the sovereignty of a Christian congregation that the New Testament never applies the term ekklesia to a corporate body acting as a unit, and particularly as a governing organization.”



Essay presented by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann
to the Convention, August 22, 1953


Among the strange developments within the Lutheran churches of the world in the last few decades we note, by way of introduction, that two of these have caused particular difficulties. The first is the uncertainty with regard to the meaning of “doctrine,” the term which is encountered so frequently in Lutheran literature. And, closely connected with this difficulty is that which has wrought such havoc in recent years, namely the assertion that there are doctrines in Holy Writ which are not divisive of church fellowship.

Now as to the first difficulty, the Lutheran Church looks with disfavor upon the use of the term dogma to refer to a Scriptural doctrine, chiefly because the term dogma is used in the Roman Church of a teaching which has been officially adopted and so proclaimed by the Church as such or by the pope in his alleged position as the infallible teacher of Christendom. If we use the term doctrine with reference to a single teaching, and not to the general body, form, or process of presenting Scriptural truths (corpus doctrinae), it means that we present some statement of Holy Writ in the very words of Scripture, or in the form of a conclusion which is in full agreement with the inspired text. Thus we have in our Catechism exposition a definition of justification, of the Trinity, of good works, of the Antichrist, and many others. And, so far as the organic and the dogmatic foundations are concerned, we cannot permit any deviation or aberration from the teaching of Holy Writ, The holy Apostle Paul plainly tells us: “Whatsoever is written aforetime, is written for our learning.” Rom. 15-4. If Christ, as the personal foundation of the Church, receives into membership with Him such people as are deficient in knowledge with regard to doctrines that are not absolutely necessary for salvation, that is His concern. As for us, we are bound by His directions, so frequently expressed in the Bible “Every word of God is pure …. Add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” Prov. 30:5,6.

This point must be urged also against the notion that there are doctrines in Holy Writ which are not divisive of church fellowship. When Jesus directs His apostles to “teach men all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” Matt. 28:20, and again: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed,” John 8:31, He is clearly referring to a unit which cannot be broken, John 10:39, and whose every word has validity.

In our study of the Sacred Volume, therefore, we examine every statement with reverence and trembling, Is. 66:5, 2. Nor do we approach even one word of Holy Writ with preconceived notions, thus becoming guilty of forcing even one statement or expression into a Procrustean bed of our own making. We accept what the Scriptures tell us, by precept and example, and do not attempt to harmonize their teachings with the so-called demands of human reason; we let the mysteries of the Sacred Volume remain mysteries. We remind ourselves also of a fact which is brought out so emphatically by Doctor Walther, when he “emphatically rejected the suggestion that only that is ‘Lutheran doctrine’ upon which our Church expresses itself in her Symbols. No, every true Bible doctrine is Lutheran Church doctrine, even if it is not Lutheran Symbolical doctrine.” (Orthodox Lutheran Theologian, Vol. 1, p. 90.)

On the basis of these preliminary considerations let us now take up the first part of our subject, namely that of congregational autonomy. And here we must become clear on the meaning of the term ekklesia, that is “assembly, church, or congregation,” as used in particular in the New Testament. Here we find that the term ekklesia is employed:

1. Of an assembly of citizens in charge of the affairs of a city, Acts 19:32, 39, 40, and it is interesting to note that the town-clerk, apparently with a full knowledge of group psychology, treated what was, in effect, a mob as though it were a regular assembly, thereby obviating possible evil consequences on the part of the Roman authorities. But the connotation of the term is clearly that of a corporate group in a circumscribed community.

2. Of the una sancta, the communion of saints, the connotation which is commonly considered, especially in the field of Lutheran dogmatics, as the primary or fundamental designation. It means the sum total of all true believers in Christ, the Church which is His body, Eph. 1:22 (cp. 3:10; 3:21; 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32; Col. 1:18, 24; I Tim. 3:15; Heb. 2:12; 12:23.) It is strange that these passages have recently been applied to the so-called visible Church, whereas in each case the context clearly indicates that the invisible fellowship of faith is meant.

3. Of the sum total of professing church members in a province or a larger division of a country, without, however, implying a corporate group. In Acts 9:31 it would seem, according to the reading now generally accepted, that the reference is to all those who were connected with the Church by profession of faith (although it is interesting to note that Paul, in I Thess. 2:14, speaks of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus); just as we today might refer to the Christians or the Christian congregations in Minnesota or some other state or country. Other pertinent passages are I Cor. 12.28; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6. But in all these instances the reference is general, and there is not even a hint of larger corporate groups, as of all the congregations together.

4. Of a corporate group in a circumscribed locality or community, also called a local-ekklesia or individual-ekklesia. The congregations of the Apostolic Age were not merely occasional or casual groups of professing Christians, held together only by the authority and prestige of the apostles. The term ekklesia is used to designate fixed, corporate bodies in by far the greater number of instances, more than twenty times in the Book of Acts alone. And it is clear that in many instances the ekklesia, so called, was not established through the direct efforts of an apostle, as in the case of Rome, of Colosse, of the seven cities of Proconsular Asia, of Crete, and other cities. So it was not necessary for the existence of a congregation that it was established by and remained under the immediate jurisdiction of an apostle. Wherever there was a group or “assembly” of believers, they had the right (and the duty) to establish the means of grace, and their fellowship in the Word and Sacraments sufficed to give them an organization serving the Lord’s purposes, no matter how little or how much machinery was attached to it.

That the congregations of the Apostolic Age were established and functioned essentially as the local congregations of today is shown by the fact that the tern is so very frequently connected with a specific locality, such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Colosse, Thessalonica,, Berea, the seven cities of Proconsular Asia, etc. In this connection we are bound to mark in particular the use of the word in the plural, as having a distributive effect and stressing the idea of local parishes, e.g., Acts 15:41; 16:5; Rom. 16:4, 16; 1 Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33f.; 16-1, 19; 2 Cor. 8-1, 18, 19, 23, 24; 11:8, in more than thirty instances altogether. This factor receives added emphasis when we note the frequent use of such phrases “the church that is in their house,” “in every church,” “in all the churches,” Rom. 15:5; 1 Cor. 4:1.7; 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon, 2, and others. We are bound to conclude, therefore, that the term ekklesia, according to Scriptural precept, example, and analogy, is used to designate an assembly of believers in an area small enough to permit their meeting regularly for the use of the means of grace, as well as for other functions pertaining to the work of the Kingdom. In other words, the local congregation or parish is ordinarily, that is, according to God’s will and order, the functioning unit in the work which has been entrusted to the believers by the Lord of the Church. And a careful comparison of all the pertinent passages indicates that the individual-ekklesia was an autonomous, independent, sovereign group, not subject to any hierarchical authority, but only to the Word of God. Even when the apostles, as personal representatives of their risen and ascended Lord, dealt with the congregations, they did so only by virtue of the power derived from the Word of God, as the representatives of the Lord of the Church. 2 Cor. 1:24; Philemon, 8-10; Rom. 12:1; 2 Cor. 13:10.

These contentions are further borne out by the reference of Holy Writ to specific privileges, duties, and functions given to the individual-ekklesia in apostolic times:

(1) Each ekklesia (assembly or congregation) was regarded as a definite unit under an acknowledged, called spiritual leader, as in the case of Jerusalem (Acts 4:23; 6:2, 5; 15:4, 12; Phil. 2:25, Titus 1:5, etc.

(2) The congregations were referred to as well-defined groups, with a registered membership (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20).

(3) There was a careful checking and screening of membership, and hypocrites who were exposed, as well as unrepentant sinners, were excluded from the Christian congregation (Acts 5:1-10; 1 Cor. 5:9-13).

(4) The meetings of the congregations, with the men acting as voters, were conducted according to the rules of parliamentary procedure (Acts 15:6, 13, 19, 22; 1 Cor. 5:4, 13; 2 Cor. 8:19).

(5) Letters of recommendation and of transfer were addressed to congregations as definite entities (3 John, 9; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 3:1; Acts 15:30,31.)

(6) Cases of discipline, in particular, presuppose a body functioning as a unit for some length of time (1 Cor. 5:4- cp. 2 Cor. 2:6-8; Matt. 18:15-18).

(7) Meetings held for the administration of the means of grace presuppose some form of congregational organization, and the Eucharist in particular is evidently under congregational jurisdiction (Heb. 10:25; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:28ff.).

(8) Although the Apostolic Church had roving evangelists (traveling missionaries), the regular pastors were attached to specific congregations (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 3:5).

(9) Pastors are admonished to take care of their own specific flock or congregation (1 Peter 5:2; Jas. 3:1).

In this connection it strikes us as a very important consideration in understanding the nature and the sovereignty of a Christian congregation that the New Testament never applies the term ekklesia to a corporate body acting as a unit, and particularly as a governing organization. In other words, a synod or conference is not an ekklesia according to the Scriptural use of the term. As we shall presently see, a synod or a similar church body is established, not according to the precept or example of an ekklesia in the Scriptural sense, but on the basis of other considerations, chiefly those of the universal priesthood of believers. To assert that a synod is established on the basis of Matt. 18-19, 20 is to make, e.g., husband and wife a synod, with all its rights and functions. A reference to the Smalcald Articles in this connection (Trigl., P. 510, # 24.68) is not valid, for Luther there, as the context shows, is arguing against the usurpation of power by officials and stresses the power of the keys as a right connected with the universal priesthood. The passages which are occasionally adduced to support the idea of Scriptural precept and example, namely 1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 8:1, 19; Gal. 1:2, 22; Titus 1:5; Acts 9:31; 2 Cor. 9:2; 1 Thess. 4:10, simply do not bear out the contention, and most of them prove the very opposite of what men have thought to find in them. A general reference to other Christians in a province has nothing to do with any kind of corporate body, with representatives of various congregations acting as a governing unit. The definition of a local congregation is not determined by its being a legal corporation, as shown above, but by its joining for the purpose of establishing the means of grace, of calling a pastor, of exercising church discipline, of taking care of sick brethren, etc. (Cp. Walther’s Die rechte Gestalt.)

We conclude, therefore, that the local congregation, the individual-ekklesia is to be established, by God’s will and order, as the functioning unit in the so-called visible Church, and it is the only body which exists by clear Scriptural precept and example. It may not be superfluous to add that all the functions of a Christian congregation are valid before God only by virtue of the true believers in the congregation. Hypocrites indeed, being mingled with the true believers, may take part in the activities of the corporate body, even in the calling of a pastor, in exercising church discipline, etc., but it is only because of the believers in the group that God acknowledges such functioning.

(For the entire discussion we may point. to some very important witnesses, Luther, especially in Vol. X of the St. Louis edition, 1538 ff-; 1548 ff.; 1590; 1592; Vol. XI, 1908 ff.; Vol. XI, 1914, #12; Vol. 111, 720 ff.; Walther, Kirche und Ant and Rechte Gestalt; Hoenecke, Ev. Luth. Dogmatik LV 159 ff-; Pieper, Christliche Dogmatik, III, 460.483 ff.; Lehre und Wehre Vol. 69 (1923), 97 ff.; vol. 73 (1927) 353 ff.; vol. 74 (192353 ff.; Theol. Quartalschrift (Wis. Synod), vol. VI (1901), PP. 7, 10, Conc. Theol. Monthly, II, 886 ff-; XXI, 527 ff.–Theses adopted in Australia).

Having now treated, at some length, the sovereignty or autonomy of a Christian congregation, let us take up the question of fellowship. And this very naturally brings in the question of a synod or conference. We have stated that a synod is not an ekklesia in the Scriptural sense and that it may not function as an ekklesia, since it does not possess the same rights as the local congregation. But here are points which must come under consideration when the question of larger organizations or federations of congregations if broached.

1. The universal priesthood of believers, by virtue of which all true Christians and all those associated with them in visible organizations will naturally want to give expression to their being of the saw mind and of the same judgment. That such associating together is governed by specific directions of Holy Writ, such as 1 Cor. 1:10; Rom. 16:17, 18; John 10:5, and many others, is self-evident.

2. The example of the cooperative efforts in the Apostolic Age. One of the major projects undertaken under the leadership of the Apostle Paul was the great collection for the impoverished brethren in Judea. I Cor. 16: 1-3, 2 Cor. 8:1-15.

3. The expression of doctrinal fellowship which is so strongly in evidence in the apostolic letters and was evidenced in brotherly visitations, without officious pressure. Acts 8:14, 15; 11:1-21. The limitations and restrictions connected with such fellowship have already been referred to.

Now there is no question that a synod, as a corporate body, has and should exercise jurisdiction over its own officials (presidents, visitors, executive secretaries, professors, etc.) But as for the congregations, they should under no circumstances be placed under pressure. The statement: “When a congregation has voluntarily joined a synod (or conference), it should voluntarily submit to its resolutions,” is loaded with dynamite. It is not in agreement with the position taken, according to the Word of God, by leading teachers of the Church. Thus Dr. Walther, at the organization meeting of the Iowa District (in 1879) told the assembly: “Nobody should bind himself under men, but should retain his Christian liberty …. At every moment the congregation has the liberty, if it joins synod today, to step out again tomorrow. No man can make this a matter of conscience.” (P. 59.) In Dr. Koehler’s Summary of Christian Doctrine the situation is described thus “Under Christ the local congregation is a sovereign, self-governing body. It is not subject to the jurisdiction of any other congregation or any higher ecclesiastical body, Such as a synod, a super-church, a pope, or the like.” (P. 222.) In Popular Symbolics we read: “The local congregation is not subject to the jurisdiction of any other local congregation or any other ecclesiastical body. It is a sovereign, self-ruling body.” (P. 116.) Especially important is the testimony of Dr. F. Pieper in his monumental set of books on Christian Dogmatics (III, 492-501). Some of his remarks are worth quoting again and again. For example: “Even into Lutheran groups in America and Germany the Roman leaven has penetrated. They teach that there is a church government instituted by God beside the office of the Word, which jure divino (by divine right) may pass ordinances to which the congregation must be obedient. The restriction is indeed added that the church government should not dictate anything which is against the Word of God. But that is a contradiction in itself. This already is against the Word of God, to command Christians anything that God has not commanded in His Word …. If men claim the right to rule Christians with their commandments, they change free children of God into servants of men and thus actually expect them to apostasize from Christ as their only Lord and Master.” The paragraph at the foot of page 498 and the head of page 499 is especially valuable in this connection.

Now that was (and is) the position of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod to this day, in theory, according to Article VII of the constitution. But in practise the situation is quite different. We could say much about the fact that pressure was brought to bear upon individual congregations in connection with the recent financial drive and that compulsion is practically exerted on pastors and teachers to have them join the synodical insurance plan. And that is not the worst, for several by-laws, recently enacted, have completely vitiated and neutralized the original wording of Article VII of the constitution, especially sections 3.43 and 3.65. The “interpretations” contained in these sections have led to a new era of relationships between synodical officials, on the one hand, and individual congregations (and pastors) on the other hand, namely a change from the earlier congregational polity to a distinct synodical polity, especially since By-law 3.65 states. “The Visitor shall officially visit the congregations, pastors, and teachers of his circuit. If he deems it necessary the Visitor may arrange for a special meeting of the congregation, even if he has not been invited.” This might be said to be still stated with some degree of care, so that it might be put into action by tactful officials without disturbing the fraternal relationship which is supposed to obtain between the individual member congregation (and pastor) and the synodical body. Today we have before us the interesting spectacle that synodical officials of the Missouri Synod have demanded admission to meetings of church councils and of voters’ assemblies and that there have been other interferences in the affairs of a congregation, even to the point of hindering rightful calls and installations. Lawsuits have been brought by representatives of the Missouri Synod, the attempt has been made to take away the property of congregations, pastors have been ousted from their positions as teachers placed by the Holy Ghost through the call of the congregation, sometimes because they felt that they could not, with a good conscience, sign the changed constitution of the Missouri Synod, sometimes because they clearly saw that the Common Confession of the Missouri Synod contradicted, in part, the Word of God and even the BRIEF STATEMENT of the Missouri Synod. In short, the situation in the Missouri Synod is hopeless, partly because of its apostasy from the FULL TRUTH, partly because of the changes in its church polity.

May these facts present a lesson to us members of the Orthodox Lutheran Conference. We definitely believe in banding together according to the reasons stated above. But let it be only with the safeguards as stated in our Confession of Faith and in our Constitution. Every other polity is not in agreement with the Word of God. And we are pledged, whatever may come, to the FULL TRUTH of the Word of God.

P. E. Kretzmann, Minneapolis, Minn.