I listened to a lecture for class yesterday by Dr. Walter Sundberg that included some great quotes that give a hint of Luther’s ecclesiology. The radicalness of his vision for the church, especially considering the authoritarian hierarchy of the day, is remarkable. Does the ELCA want some suggestions for a way forward, a way of changing the trend of decades of declining membership? Perhaps it should look back to Luther.
The local church may call and ordain who it wills, whether or not they done their “Lutheran year” at an ELCA seminary or not even gone to seminary at all, as long as the pastor has been properly examined:
Neither Titus nor Timothy nor Paul ever instituted a priest without the congregation’s election and call. This is clearly proven by the sayings in Titus 1 [:7] and Timothy 3 [:10], “A bishop or priest should be blameless,” and, “Let the deacon be tested first.” Now Titus could not have known which ones were blameless; such a report must come from the congregation, which must name the man.
Again, we even read in Acts 4 [6:1-6] regarding an even lesser office, that the apostles were not permitted to institute persons as deacons without the knowledge and consent of the congregation. Rather, the congregation elected and called the seven deacons, and the apostles confirmed them. If, then, the apostles were not permitted to institute, on their own authority, an office having to do only with the distribution of temporal food, how could they have dared to impose the highest office of preaching on anyone by their own power without the knowledge, will, and call of the congregation? (LW 39, 312)
To ordain is not to consecrate. Therefore if we know a pious man, we bring him forward, and by the power of the Word which we have, we give him authority to preach the Word and to give the sacraments. This is to ordain. . .On the basis of ordination it is established as a result of election that, for the sake of order, not everyone should have the desire to preach. Thus they have the obligation to perform their ministry, but not perpetually. Today we can commit it to him, tomorrow we can take it away. (Sermon from 1524 in WA 15, 721 (3) Quoted in Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, p. 347, note 13)
Anyone may preside over communion, baptize, and administer pastoral care according to the will and call of the local congregation:
. . .whoever has the office of preaching imposed on him has the highest office in Christendom imposed on him. Afterward he may also baptize, celebrate mass, and exercise all pastoral care; or, if he does not wish to do so, he may confine himself to preaching and leave baptizing and other lower offices to others—as Christ and all the apostles in Acts 4 [6.4]. (LW, 39, 314)
On small groups, house churches, and cell churches:
a truly evangelical order [that] should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18 [:15-17]. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given. . .Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set up a neat and brief order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on Word, prayer, and love. (LW 53, 63-64)
The local church may allow anyone to preach:
St. Paul gives every Christian the power to teach among Christians if there is a need, saying, `You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be admonished’ [I Cor. 14:31]. Again, `You should earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order’ [I Cor. 14: 39-40].
Let this passage be your sure foundation, because it gives such an overwhelming power to the Christian congregation to preach, to permit preaching, and to call. (LW 39, 311)
And if the ELCA continues to require structures that are hindrances to the gospel, the quote below gives direction for churches:
[W]herever there is a Christian congregation in possession of the gospel, it not only has the right and power but also the duty—on pain of losing the salvation of its souls and in accordance with the promise made to Christ in baptism—to avoid, to flee, to depose and to withdraw from the authority that our bishops, abbots, monasteries, religious foundations, and the like are now exercising. For it is clearly evident that they teach and rule contrary to God and his word. (LW 39, 308)
Why do I think the above guidelines for congregations are helpful? Because I believe they will locate authority in local congregations, which will in turn make them more nimble, allow them to be more contextual, empower the laity, and free the church for mission. Many of the current structures hinder these things. It’s time to quit doing everything for the sake of order and to start doing things for the sake of the gospel.