The 2013 convention of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) resolved that the president of the Synod establish a task force to resolve questions about the service of licensed deacons serving congregations of the Synod with the word and sacraments of Christ. The task force recently issued a report in response to the convention’s resolution.
The report has sought to balance the practical needs of smaller congregations and mission outreach for word and sacrament ministry with the “deep concern for fidelity to our biblical and confessional commitments” (Task Force Report on Resolution 4-06). While acknowledging the challenges to small congregations and mission outreach, the report clearly does away with the existing practice of licensing deacons for word and sacrament ministries in favor of what it considers to be the biblical and confessional teachings on the public ministry. The problem with the report, however, is that it views the biblical and confessional material it quotes, not through the historical context in which in these teachings originated, but through the lens of the LCMS denominational protocols and customs. When seen in the historical situation of the early church and the Reformation it is quite clear that the task force’s recommendations are not biblical, not confessional, not historical, not constitutional, not missional, and not practical.
The public ministry in the first congregations was done by elders whom Paul appointed with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). They had had no seminary training. They had not been approved of by the church in Jerusalem nor Antioch. Theirs was a public ministry because they had been put forth as leaders by their congregations and blessed by Paul and Barnabas representing the wider church (Acts 14: 23).
Contrary to the task force’s assertion that ordination is the declaration of the whole confessional fellowship (Task Force Report, p. 10), Paul’s appointment of elders did not have the approval of a church body with its rules and protocols. Rather, it was the recognition of several missionaries who had been set aside by the Holy Spirit for the work to which God had called them. Paul never visited the Colossian congregation, yet elders there were also appointed and blessed. They would normally celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as they did in other congregations.
The elders were members of the same congregations they were expected to serve. For such elders, later called bishops or overseers, Paul laid out a list of qualifications (cf. I Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1: 6-11). Roland Allen, a serious student of Paul’s mission methods said that of the fifteen items in I Tim. 3: 2-7, he saw eleven moral qualifications, one moral-intellectual, one dealing with experience, and two concerned with reputation. Titus 1:6-9 lists fifteen that are virtually identical to the other list, but adds at the end what Allen saw as a second moral-intellectual qualification, “holding to the faithful word” (Allen, 1962, p. 139).
Nothing in the Bible remotely calls for a seminary education before one can lead in worship and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Nor can it be maintained that the appointment and blessing of elders (ordination?) requires the approval of a whole church body. These are clearly man-made rules which are not supported in the Scriptures. This does not mean that the rigorous learning of the disciples with Jesus, the instruction of Timothy and Titus with Paul, and contemporary seminary education is not necessary. It is vitally necessary for teachers and missionaries who will then educate, appoint, and bless others for word and sacrament ministry. But, as we can see from the Scriptures, a seminary education is not necessary to speak the word of God, baptize, or celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a public ministry.
The task force quotes Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession, which states that no one should teach publicly without a proper [public] call (Task Force Report, p. 8). The report goes on to properly distinguish between the universal priesthood of all believers and the office of the public ministry which is divinely commanded. The report implies that when licensed deacons preach and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, that practice confuses the ministry that all Christians have and the ministry of those who have a public call to carry out these ministries. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the 1980 convention of the Northwest District, a commission on lay ministry was established. A preliminary paper was presented to a regional convocation on the “Theology of Lay Ministry.” While encouraging the ministry of all lay people, the paper also calls on some to be “set apart” for word and sacrament ministries. First of all, the “public call” of these ministers would involve the designation of a specific ministry to be carried out. Such a ministry would be that of the church and not just that of the individual. Secondly, since the ministry was that of a congregation or a church agency, it should provide the education necessary for them to perform their service. Thirdly, since the ministry is that of the church, the church should officially call and commission the minister for service. At such a commissioning service the entire congregation and community sets the minister aside for a special ministry (Schmidt, p. 19).
Shortly thereafter, some lay people were invited, educated, called, and publicly commissioned as lay assistants. While some of them served as teachers, musicians, and evangelists in their congregations, others were called for a word and sacrament ministry in places without a seminary-trained pastor. Even without a seminary training, theirs was a public ministry well in line with the “rite vocatus” spelled out in Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession. It was welcomed by the congregations and mission stations they served and by the church at large within the Northwest District. As the Lay Assistant Program of the NW District became known, and similar programs were begun in other districts, those doing word and sacrament ministry were called “licensed deacons” (God Opens Doors, pp. 73, 74).
Understandably, tensions rose concerning the office of the ministry. Those completing a lengthy college and seminary training questioned whether such licensed deacons with limited theological education were qualified, even though there was ample biblical precedent for it and nothing in the Lutheran Confessions to forbid it.
The ministry of licensed deacons has clearly been a tremendous blessing to small congregations and has the potential of greatly magnifying mission outreach. Yet, it does challenge the traditions of the LCMS with regard to the public ministry. In addressing a similar situation at the time of the Reformation, Phillip Melanchthon in the Lutheran Confessions defended the right of congregations to ordain their own pastors. In the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope he writes, “When the regular bishops become enemies of the gospel or are unwilling to ordain, the churches retain their right to do so. For wherever the church exists, there also is the right to administer the gospel. Therefore, it is necessary for the church to retain the right to call, choose, and ordain ministers” (Treatise, pp. 340, 341).
In correspondence with Clifford Horn, a missionary to Japan, Arthur Carl Piepkorn—a true authority on the Lutheran Confessions—advised Pastor Horn on the question of a non-seminary-trained Japanese person who was needed to serve an isolated congregation. Though called a deacon by Pastor Horn, Piepkorn said of the commissioning that Pastor Horn should indeed ordain Mr. Taguchi as a pastor of the Nihon Lutheran Church affiliated with the Missouri Synod. Piepkorn noted that according to the Treatise, “. . . an ordination performed by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right.” He adds that the official German translation is even more explicit: “It is beyond doubt that when the rector of a parish (Pfarrherr) ordains a number of qualified persons to the offices of the church, such an ordination is right and valid according to the divine laws” (Piepkorn, p. 58).
Should the Synod at the 2016 convention prohibit licensed deacons from publicly preaching the gospel and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, real “Confessional Lutherans” will continue to commission, bless, and ordain such licensed deacons as pastors of congregations and missionaries to new groups of people.
The history of the LCMS is intertwined with seminary training in Perry County, later at St. Louis, and then the practical seminary at Springfield. An earlier history of Lutheranism, however, shows another pattern. Piepkorn writes, “Between 1537 and 1560, roughly a quarter of a century, 1,979 persons were ordained into the sacred ministry of the Lutheran Church in St. Mary’s Church, Wittenberg, the parish church (Stadtkirche) of that university city. A minority were university graduates. In the case of 1,025 of these clergymen we know the vocations in which they were engaged before they entered the sacred ministry. Forty-four are described in the record merely as ‘citizens’ (Bürger) without indication of their vocation and 92 as artisans.” (Piepkorn, pp. 58, 59).
The LCMS is rightfully proud of its seminaries and their significance in the growth of the church body and its outreach. In the early years their graduates were buoyed up with growing churches and success in outreach. Seminary graduates today, however, face another reality, one of declining congregations, the virtual loss of the millennial generation to the organized church, and a waning of the joy that normally comes in the ministry. Seminaries will not be helped by the prohibition of licensed deacons or locally educated and ordained pastors. Instead, seminaries that do allow for such students will find a new life and mission in orienting their graduates to calling, educating and ordaining elders, deacons, pastors, or, whatever people wish to call them, to serve smaller congregations, ethnic ministries, inner city, campus ministries, or gatherings of young people searching for a divine affirmation of their lives. This was the ministry of Paul, Timothy, Apollos, and the other disciples. It was also the ministry of early Lutherans who went back to the Bible to find a pattern of ministry to serve their new congregations.
Should the Synod at the 2016 Milwaukee convention endorse the task force’s recommendation to prohibit licensed deacons from preaching and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, it will not only go against the example of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, it will also seek to exercise legislative and coercive powers over the Christian freedom of congregations to spread the Gospel.
The founders of the Synod sought to prevent such an abuse of power when as a salient part of the Constitution they put in Article VII. It states that the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government but is rather an advisory body. As a result, “no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned” (Handbook, p. 16).
When Article VII was challenged by the Synod in a court of law with regard to Grace Church in River Forest, IL, the court ruled indeed that the Synod was only advisory to the congregation and had no coercive power over it. Should the task force’s recommendations be passed by the Synod, it will only invite more congregations to exercise their freedom to minister. Should the Synod seek to enforce its prohibition in sanctions against individuals and congregations, it will only invite more legal action against the Synod and its leaders.
Compared to the 1950s and 1960s new congregational mission-starts by the Synod and its districts in the United States have declined alarmingly. Instead of growth there have been drastic cutbacks in campus ministries, inner-city ministries, institutional work, and other specialized ministries. Only some ethnic ministries have thrived, and this is due largely to the innovative training for the ministry that allows for more local education and encourages graduates to engage in some secular work for their support.
With the continued and even enhanced use of licensed deacons, the Synod might again continue the vibrant mission work of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The proposal to equip professors at secular schools as deacons with theological training can once again provide a university-oriented word and sacrament ministry that will be much appreciated by students. Other deacons can bring a sacramental ministry to retirement homes and hospice care. Still other deacons can continue to bring a full Gospel-ministry to remote communities in Alaska and other unreached people in rural areas. Even now, deacons are being trained on Indian reservations and in inner-city settings for ministries that will never be able to afford a seminary-trained and paid pastor.
In the aging and dwindling LCMS the greatest challenge facing the church body is the mission to the Millennial Generation. This generation is notable for rejecting the organized church. For many the church is perceived as being anti-science, anti-women, too political, and more concerned with its own institutional well-being than the real concerns of young people. Though many are still attracted by Jesus and his message, they have little patience with endless appeals for funds, for new members, and for boring church services.
Might this generation be approached as an unreached “people group” with its own culture, communications, and understanding of spiritual realities? If so, might not the best people to reach them be others in that generation? Do we not train young men at our seminaries so that they may reach their peers? The problem in this case may be the seminary education. In advocating a more biblical pattern of equipping people for ministry, Roland Allen contrasted Jesus’ training with that of seminary education. He writes, “Jesus trained His leaders in the midst of their own people so that the intimacy of their relation to their own people was not marred and they could move freely among them as one of themselves; we train our leaders in a hot house and their intimacy with their own people is so marred that they can never thereafter live as one of them” (Allen, 1962, pp. 20-21).
The real role of a seminary-educated “Millennial” could well be the equipping of other Millennials as deacons who are able to move within their communities on- and off-line to share the Gospel in a way which will be received as real good news to them and their concerns. Then in a quiet time with these “church avoiders” a meal is shared with Christ present in bread and wine, like it was long ago in the house of Nympha (Colossians 4:15).
The Task Force Report concludes with eight recommendations. The most weight is given to how existing licensed deacons can apply for a colloquy into the ministerium of the LCMS. The application process, colloquy interview, expanded theological preparation, and limitations on such colloquized clergy are truly daunting and are really a turn-off to those busy deacons already holding a full time job, caring for their families, and already sacrificing time and energy to minister to their small and struggling congregations. What a contrast there is between the simple blessing of Paul to the elders in Acts 14: 23 and the five-page list of hoops that the Report says these deacons need to jump through to qualify for the ministry they are already doing.
A second recommendation is to provide more financial aid to utilize the SMP program. When seminaries are already struggling for financial viability, will extra money be available? Will licensed deacons do all the extra academic work for what will be considered a “second-class” clergy limited to a single parish that still might not be able to pay a living wage? This simply does not make any economic sense for the seminaries or the potential students.
The report also recommends a vigorous establishment of multi-point parishes where a seminary trained pastor might serve a number of congregations. Not only is this often resisted by members who have had their own pastor, it also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for regular Sunday morning worship, when three or more parishes need to be served. Even if live streaming of a sermon is being used, Holy Communion, always available in the New Testament churches, would be denied when the pastor was serving elsewhere.
Might retired pastors be encouraged to serve smaller congregations as the task force recommends? Many are already doing that, which is truly commendable. However, others simply cannot make the move to more remote congregations. There is little doubt that without the services of retired pastors the problems of smaller congregations would be much worse than they are now. However, in the wider scheme of things they will neither be able to serve all the congregations that need a word and sacrament ministry, nor will they be able to start the new congregations and specialized ministries needed for our time.
It is quite clear that the Task Force Report is much more interested in protecting the LCMS’s pattern of the ministry than it is in serving the people in congregations and the unreached people of our society. It promotes a pattern of ministry that, while traditional, is also extremely expensive, both in the training and the support of a professional clergy. The existing licensed deacon program, supported by congregations and districts, is far closer to the biblical and confessional pattern than is the one proposed by the task force. The task force’s recommendations are not in accord with the examples of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions. As such, they should be rejected, either by the Synod in convention or by congregations holding to Article VII of Synod’s constitution, that the Synod is but advisory to its members.
Robert Schmidt taught at the Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria and was called to serve ten parishes. He served as director of the Lay Assistant Program in the Northwest District and has lectured on the biblical pattern of the ministry in Germany, Japan, China, Kazakstan, and India. He has recently written the introduction to a soon-to-be-published new book by the late missiologist, Roland Allen, entitled The Ministry of Expansion.
Allen, Roland. “The Case for Voluntary Clergy,” in The Ministry of the Spirit, edited by David Paton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962.
Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder it. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962.
Constitution, Bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, Handbook of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. St. Louis: The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 2013.
Kolb, Robert and Timothy Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Piepkorn, Arthur, “Deacon Ordination,” The Concordia Theological Monthly 38, 1 (January, 1967).
Task Force Report to the Synod on 2013 [Convention] Resolution 4-06A http://www.lcms.org/convention/task-force-updates/resolution-4-06A
Schmidt, Robert. “A Theology of Lay Ministry,” Produced by the Commission On Lay Ministry, Northwest District, Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Oct. 1, 1981.
Spalteholz, Hans, Matthew Becker and Dwaine Brandt, eds. God Opens Doors: A Centennial Celebration of the Northwest District of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Portland: Northwest District, 2000.