By Robert Schmidt

               At its recent convention, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod resolved to deal with the question of licensed deacons. The President is to create a task force to develop a plan “to resolve questions about individuals who are not rightly called (prepared, examined, called and ordained) serving congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.” The task force will include members from the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, the Council of Presidents, the Presidium and seminary faculties. The resolution quotes Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession: “Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call.”

By “rightly ordered”  the resolution interprets article XIV through the lens and laws of the LCMS. Thus, if licensed deacons were not ordained, did not attend a seminary or were not examined (by a seminary faculty) and approved for a call, they would not be “rightly called.”  This interpretation of Article XIV does a terrible injustice to the history of the Reformation, to the Scriptures, and to contemporary mission practices.

Reformation Context

          The Reformation context of Article XIV is very instructive. Between 1537 and 1569, nearly two thousand persons were ordained into the ministry of the Lutheran Church at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg. Only a minority were university graduates. In the case of over 1,000 of these pastors we know the vocations in which they were engaged before they entered the ministry. Forty-four are described as “citizens” and ninety-two were artisans.[1]

In the Reformation context “rightly called” did not depend upon education. As a premier teacher of the Lutheran Confessions, Arthur Carl Piepkorn concluded, “It is not necessary for a clergyman to have seminary training…. Again, it is not necessary for a clergyman to be engaged full-time in the sacred ministry.”[2]

Many of those who were “rightly called” were emergency pastors. These were consecrated lay people who were selected by the people and sometimes authorized by visitors to the congregations. Theological qualifications were sometimes determined by superintendents.  Candidates needed to be familiar with fundamental Lutheran teaching and how it differed from Roman Catholic teaching. In the new Lutheran churches the pastors became the leader of self-governing, independent congregations.[3]

The Scriptures

          The resolution does even more injustice to the Scriptures. There are no seminaries mentioned in the New Testament nor does one find evidence for their existence in the first three hundred years of the church. The first ministers of word and sacrament were elders of the church who were also called overseers or bishops.[4] These came from within the small congregations and were appointed by Paul and blessed for their ministries (Acts 14: 23). Contrary to the translation in the King James Version, there was no “ordination” in the modern sense of the word.

The  qualifications of such elders or bishops (those who taught and celebrated the Lord’s Supper) were largely moral rather than academic. For example, in First Timothy 3 there are fifteen qualifications for bishops and of those Roland Allen has identified eleven as moral qualifications, one as moral-intellectual (“apt to teach”), one relating to experience, and  two concerned with reputation. In the second list recorded in Titus 1:6-9 only one was a moral-intellectual qualification, “holding to the faithful word.”[5]

Nowhere has the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (and other denominations) strayed more from the example of the Scriptures than it has by its qualifications for ministry. By insisting on the professionalization of the ministry, to be “rightly called” as someone educated at seminary, our church body will be forced to close small congregations which cannot afford a full-time seminary-trained pastor. Worse, new congregations that cannot afford a pastor will never be started. Instead of the rapid growth of the New Testament church, ours continues as a dying denomination. With our present man-made constriction of the ministry we cannot even consider mission outreach without an appeal for funds. It was not that way in the New Testament church, nor should it be that way today.

Contemporary Mission Outreach

          Stories continue to be told in Africa and other mission regions about the rapid growth of the church, where no seminary-trained clergy are available. Pastor Nelson Unwene of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria relates the story of that church body during the Nigerian-Biafran war. As conflict broke out, missionaries were called home and the teachers who read prepared sermon papers returned to their villages. Then the elders of the congregations stepped forward and said that only God could keep them through the devastations that followed. Church services continued and a word and sacrament ministry was maintained.[6] Before the war the Nigerian Church numbered around 33,000. When the missionaries returned, the church had more than doubled to over 88,000.

Closer to home, a group of former missionaries, Dr. E.P. Weber of Concordia University, Portland, and Dr. Chris Reinke of Alaska, worked together to establish a Lay Assistant Program in the Northwest District of the LCMS. The program helped to certify over sixty lay assistants, [now over 100] later named “licensed deacons” for word and  sacrament ministries.[7] Through the work of these licensed deacons, most of whom have served without remuneration,  many small communities in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon have been blessed immeasurably through their service.

A Question of Names

          Are “licensed deacons” doing word and sacrament ministries really “pastors?” In his article on “Deacon Ordination,” Arthur Carl Piepkorn argued on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions that when an individual is selected and called to preach the word and to administer the sacraments, regardless of their education, they are indeed pastors and ought not be called deacons.[8]

However,  if  “licensed deacons,” who have a limited theological education, are called “pastors,” how would they be differentiated from pastors who have a fuller theological education? While this might create a temporary problem for the traditions and the bylaws of the LCMS, it probably will not do so for congregations. Even now, congregations differentiate between the education and the skill sets of those whom they wish to call. With a wider range of available “pastors,” including dedicated elders of their own congregations, they can continue to do so in the future.

The whole discussion of “licensed deacons/pastors” may be opening up the church to a new, exciting vision of  the church’s ministry and mission. What if the church’s seminaries, instead of fighting the notion of licensed deacons, would applaud a wider variety of paths to the pastoral ministry? Then they might concentrate their efforts on preparing apostolic ministers like Paul, Timothy, and Titus to open up new congregations, to equip and educate local pastors, and to watch over a number of congregations in their care. Then the church could begin more congregations in neglected rural areas, inner cities, campus ministries, and retirement centers—all without appeals for more funds. Christ greatly blessed such efforts in the past and he can be counted on to bless them again in the future.


[1] Hans Lietzmann (ed.) Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, herausgegeben in Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930, 5th ed. by Ernst Wolf [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 1931], p. 501, n.1) quoted in A.C. Piepkorn, “Deacon Ordination” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 38 No. 1 (January, 1967), 58, 59.

[2] A.C. Piepkorn in Ibid.

[3] E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 620-625.

[4] See 1 Tim. 3: 1-7 where the leader is  referred to as episkopos (bishop) and in Titus1:5 where the same qualifications are given for presbyterous,(elder).

[5] Roland Allen, “The Case for Voluntary Clergy,” in the Ministry of the Spirit (Eerdman’s Publ. Co., 1962), 139.

[6] Interview with Nelson Unwene, (later to become the President of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria) at Concordia Seminary St. Louis, Spring, 1974.

[7] Hans Spalteholz, Dwaine Brandt, and Matthew Becker, eds., God Opens Doors (Portland: Northwest District of the LCMS, 2000) , 73,74.

 [8]Piepkorn, “Deacon Ordination” op. cit., pp. 54-59.


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2 thoughts on “Deacons/Pastors?

  1. I have believed, and written, that AC XIV is good and purposeful as it relates to pastors. They are to be “regularly called.” However, under theirs and congregational directive, the functioning in Word and Sacrament ministry can be very meaningful to members of churches who are large and need help, and small congregations which cannot afford a pastor. In Michigan, over 25 men are either now at a seminary or are serving as pastors who once where deacons. Synod needs to revamp its program for raising up pastors, not attack the deacon program which is being so effective.

  2. As Deacon at Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Clair, Michigan, I have ministered with the Word and Sacrament in the Pastor’s absence, as well as visit shut-ins and give communion on regular basis. I have also done some funerals in the absence of our Pastor. I definitely feel I am called by my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ to be his disciple in many ways. I don’t want a pat on the back, I just want to continue to be a servant for our Lord and to serve Immanuel under our Pastor’s guidance. I order to serve properly, deacons need to have certain authorities to properly do God’s work.
    Dave DuBois
    Deacon @ Immanuel

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