The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) comprise the vast majority of conservative Lutherans in America. These two Lutheran bodies were in fellowship with each other in the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries. The Wisconsin Synod broke fellowship with the Missouri Synod in 1961. Several doctrinal issues occasioned the break, the most prominent being differences between them on the practice of church fellowship.
There were other issues as well, one of them being the doctrine of Church and ministry. This topic was an issue sixty years ago when the Wisconsin Synod broke fellowship with the Missouri Synod, but it was not the main reason for the break. It has assumed greater importance in recent years. If we want to work toward overcoming the differences between Missouri and Wisconsin, we need to address the doctrine of Church and ministry.
As to what the church and ministry are, Missouri and Wisconsin never disagreed. The Church is all Christians. It is the Communion of Saints. It is all believers in Christ who are justified through faith alone. The ministry of the Word, by which the Church is born and sustained in the true faith, is the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. The Church, properly speaking, is invisible. She is identifiable by her marks, which are the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments, which are the functions of the public ministry of the Word. On these matters Missouri and Wisconsin have not disagreed.
Their disagreement has been on the form of the visible church and her ministry. Does Christ’s visible Church on earth have a divinely fixed form? Does the Church’s ministry have a divinely fixed form? Wisconsin said no. Missouri said yes. Missouri said that the divinely fixed form of the visible Church is the local Christian congregation and the divinely fixed form of the public ministry of the Church is the pastorate of the local Christian congregation. Wisconsin argued that there was no New Testament ceremonial law that would empower the means of grace. They were inherently efficacious. The Holy Spirit establishes His Church through the means of grace regardless of what form the gathering of Christians takes or what form the ministry of the Word takes. The means of grace give authority to the ministry. The ministry does not give authority to the means of grace.
The Missouri Synod argued that the Church is not just any gathering of Christians, but the gathering of Christians among whom the gospel is purely preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered. Where is this done? In the local Christian congregation. Who does it? The pastor of the congregation. The form of both church and ministry are not determined by an arbitrary or legalistic decree about form, but by the very nature of the Church and ministry.
So, who is right and who is wrong? They are both right. If we want to overcome our differences, we need to be able to identify where those with whom we disagree are indubitably right. If a Missourian begins his evaluation of the Wisconsin position by showing where Wisconsin is wrong and a Wisconsinite begins his evaluation of the Missouri position by showing where Missouri is wrong, it is unlikely that we will overcome any differences.
Here is how the argument about “no divinely fixed form” goes. The Missourian tries to refute the “no divinely fixed form” argument by appealing to the divine institution of the pastoral office. He will point out that our Lord Jesus Christ himself established the form of the office when he instituted it. The Wisconsinite will ask the Missourian where in the New Testament Jesus instituted the pastoral office. The Missourian will point to Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16, and John 20:21-23. Here is where the argument will quickly get bogged down in confusion. The Missourian knows that the Church has historically appealed to these texts as establishing the pastoral office. The Wisconsinite knows that these texts have been used in the LCMS and the WELS to teach that Jesus gave the ministry to all Christians. This is how they are applied, for example, in the Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. When a Missourian appeals to these texts to prove that Jesus established the pastoral office, the Wisconsinite may conclude that the Missourian does not believe that Jesus gave the ministry to all Christians. The Wisconsinite may be confirmed in his opinion that insisting on a divinely fixed form of the office is a legalistic stricture that militates against the gospel.
For the Missourian, the WELS argument against any divinely fixed form is an attack on the pastoral office. It is not so for the Wisconsinite. His opposition to a divinely fixed form is not a criticism of the pastoral office, but an affirmation of the inherent efficacy of the Word. You cannot bind God’s Word to a particular form. You cannot impose legalistic requirements on gospel proclamation. Here is where Missourians must respond to WELS with a hearty Amen!
We must say when those with whom we disagree are indubitably right. The WELS is right. God’s Word cannot be bound. The ministry of the Word is given to all Christians, male and female, young and old. The gospel and sacraments are efficacious because of their inherent power, not because of who administers them. The ministry doesn’t empower the means of grace; the means of grace empower the ministry. Wisconsin is right when she says that Christ gave the office to the whole Church and to every individual member of the Church. Wisconsin is right when she says that the efficacy of the Word is not dependent on who preaches it, but on the Word itself. Wisconsin is right, and Missouri should say so.
Missouri is right. Missouri is right when she says that Jesus personally instituted the pastoral office. It was Jesus who established this office when he put the first Christian pastors into it. This is the clear meaning of the words of Matthew 28, Mark 16, and John 20. These words teach the dominical institution of the pastoral office. Jesus did not establish this office in and for His Church to put the means of grace into a straitjacket. He did so in order that His sheep would be fed with the wholesome spiritual food they need. The gospel may not be truncated. We Lutherans teach a full gospel, and the full gospel is the gospel and the sacraments. It is written. It is read. It is preached. It makes the water a washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit. It makes bread and wine the very body and blood of Jesus. We Christians need the full gospel. This is why our Lord Jesus instituted the full office. This fully formed office does not come to us as a legal requirement. It is given to us as an evangelical gift.
Both Wisconsin and Missouri have evangelical motivations for what they teach. The WELS argument against a divinely fixed form is an argument for the inherent efficacy of the gospel. The gospel does not need pastors. It can be delivered by any Christian to any troubled soul. This is true: the gospel does not need pastors; but we Christians do! We need the full gospel. If Wisconsinites and Missourians can agree on this, perhaps we are on our way to overcoming our differences.