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The Rev. Curtis E. Leins, Ph.D.

Though the Christian Church is almost 2,000 years old, questions of ecclesiology (structure of the church) and polity (form of church government) are more pressing today than they have been for many centuries. What authority and power belong to the pastor? What roles and responsibilities are appropriate for the laity? Can we clearly define the expectations of pastors and congregational members in the governance of the Church?

Unlike many Protestant denominations, the Lutheran Church has an historic and well-defined understanding of the Office of the Pastor, and the role and responsibility of the laity. Because of our changing times and because of a growing desire expressed by both pastors and laity, it may be helpful to review some cardinal teachings of the Scriptures and of the Lutheran Confessions regarding the nature of the Church and the Office of the Holy Ministry.

The Church consists of those who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord (Matthew 16: 16-18). They have heard the Word of God, and by its power have come to faith (Romans 10: 17). Christ has given eternal benefits to those who believe in Him. The Augsburg Confession explains:

[I]t is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us (AC IV).

The Church is called the body of Christ (Romans 12: 5, I Corinthians 12: 12), and the priesthood of all believers (I Peter 2: 4-5, 9-10).

What does it mean to be a priest in the Church? Though Luther did not use the exact phrase, “priesthood of all believers,” he laid the groundwork for it in his 1520 publication, Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Luther maintained that all baptized Christians are priests to God. Not only do they have immediate access to God through faith in Jesus Christ, but every Christian is able to present his or her body, “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12: 1). Each Christian, regardless of occupation, is called by God to offer his or her vocation as a sacrifice of worship. God delights in this and actually works through the life of each Christian. In this way, every believer shares the Christian faith in word and deed throughout his or her life. As Luther declares in a treatise of 1523:

For no one can deny that every Christian possesses the word of God and is taught and anointed by God to be a priest, as Christ says, John 6:45, “They shall all be taught by God,” and Psalm 45:7, “God has anointed you with the oil of gladness on account of your fellows.” These fellows are the Christians, Christ’s brethren, who with him are consecrated priests, as Peter says too, I Peter 2:9, “You are a royal priesthood so that you may declare the virtue of him who called you into his marvelous light.” But if it is true that they have God’s word and are anointed by him, then it is their duty to confess, to teach, and to spread [his word], as Paul says, I Corinthians 4 [II Cor. 4: 13], “Since we have the same spirit of faith, so we speak…”[1]

The Office of the Priest, in which every believer stands, includes the obligation to share the Gospel. Similarly, every Christian is called to forgive sins, though the pastor declares forgiveness publicly for the sake of all.[2] As C.F.W. Walther writes, quoting Johann Brenz:

Although, every pious person may privately forgive another his sins when he explains to him the Gospel…nevertheless for the public assembly of the church the Holy Spirit has established His order so that nothing may be done improperly and dishonorably.[3]

How is this Christian faith obtained? The Augsburg Confession declares that God has established a specific Office for that purpose:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he will, in those who hear the gospel (AC V).

Article V has introduced an important concept. Christian faith exists by means of “the office of preaching.” Through this Holy Office, the Word is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are rightly administered. Through the Word and Sacraments, “as through means” the Holy Spirit produces faith. The Office of Preaching was not established by human beings; it was instituted by God as Scripture clearly declares (Acts 14: 21-23, Acts 20: 28, Ephesians 4: 11, I Corinthians 12: 28-31).

Therefore, the Church includes two Holy Offices: the Office of Priests and the Office of Preaching. All Christians belong to the Office of Priests, from them some are Called to the Office of Preaching. These Offices are not in opposition to one another, but work in concert. In fact, Christ has given churchly authority to the entire congregation. By the leading of the Holy Spirit, the congregation Calls, Ordains, and confers upon some the authority of public ministry for the sake of all.

The person who is Called into the Office of Preaching must meet specific qualifications (I Corinthians 4: 1-2, I Timothy 3: 2-3, 2 Timothy 2: 1-2 and 24-26, Titus 1: 7-9). He must be faithful in life and doctrine, an example both to believers and un-believers, and he must be apt to teach sound doctrine and to refute heretical doctrine. The pastor speaks as a representative of Christ, declaring the Word of Christ to His congregation. (“When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ” Ap VII and VIII, 28.) When the pastor functions in this way, he should receive the obedience and submission of his flock as one who is accountable before God for the souls in his care (Hebrews 13: 17). It should be clear that the pastor is no hireling and his relationship with a congregation is no “business arrangement.” His is a divine Calling whose sacred importance should be recognized by all.

Historic Lutheran confessional and theological documents use several titles to describe the Office of the Holy Ministry: Office of Preaching (Predigtamt), Pastoral Office (Pfarramt), Office of Word and Sacrament, and Office of the Pastor. We understand that the man who is in the Office is no more or less holy than any other baptized Christian. However, the Office itself is holy because it conveys to us the very Word of God through preaching, teaching, sacraments, and absolution. Luther writes of the conversation between one confessing sins and his pastor in The Small Catechism, Confession and Absolution: “Do you also believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” [Answer:] “Yes, dear sir.”

It is for these reasons that the Lutheran Church, throughout its history, has been extremely careful to establish a faithful and orderly procedure for Ordination. This process recognizes that it is God Himself Who Calls to the Office of the Holy Ministry. At the same time, the Church has a role and responsibility in the process of Holy Calling as outlined by Scripture and our Lutheran polity. The process includes preparation, education, examination, certification, Call by a congregation, and finally Ordination.

Furthermore, the Augsburg Confession (Article XIV) explicitly declares:

Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper call (rite vocatus).

In an effort to maintain this careful and responsible directive, the General Council in 1875 at Galesburg, Illinois adopted what has come to be known as The Galesburg Rule: The rule is, “Lutheran pulpits are for Lutheran ministers only; Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants only.” This rule was included in the Minneapolis Theses of November, 1925 (See III. Church Fellowship, #2). The Minneapolis Theses are a product of the Minneapolis Colloquy that included representatives of the Ohio, Iowa, Buffalo, and Norwegian Synods whose purpose was to achieve a doctrinal agreement between German and Norwegian Lutherans.

The AALC acknowledges the importance of The Galesburg Rule in its own Declaration of Faith: Policy and Position Statements of The AALC (1987), XII Inter-Church Cooperation:

We do affirm the Lutheran position of “Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran Pastors.” We also recognize that while we use sound judgment with regard to Scriptural and doctrinal integrity, it will be appropriate at times to allow the witness of others in our pulpits. We will cooperate with reformed Pastors in community events such as ministerial meetings, graduations and other celebrations.

In short, the AALC has reaped the benefits of almost 500 years of strong and faithful Lutheran theology and polity. It is the history and practice of the Lutheran Church to recognize the divine establishment of the Office of Priests and the Office of Preachers. The Office of Priests includes all of the body of Christ, and requires every believer to live and share his or her faith and to forgive others for the sake of Christ. The Office of the Preacher is a public office. It was established by God and is attested by Holy Scripture as the instrument by which the Word and Sacraments are provided for the establishment and nourishment of the Church.

The Office of the Preacher (Pastoral Office) exists by virtue of biblical command, theological necessity, and practical advantage for the body of Christ. Though The AALC represents a diverse background of synods, councils, and churches, and includes traditions with greater and lesser pastoral authority and responsibility in the congregation, among us the local pastor serves as the representative of Christ, theologian in residence, and guardian of sound versus heretical doctrine. He is responsible before God for what is said from the pulpit, taught in the congregation, and how the sacraments are administered.


1. Luther’s Works: American Edition. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), volume 39: 309.
2. Walther provides a very helpful explanation of the rights and responsibilities of every believer regarding Word and Sacrament. He explains, “Although every Christian of himself has the right, the exercise of the right has been limited by God Himself through the institution of the public preaching office, as long as the Church exists on earth…The very right of the ordinary Christian in an emergency [to exercise] the office of the Word shows where the right exists essentially.” (C.F.W. Walther, The Church & The Office of The Ministry. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012), p. 268.)
3. Ibid., 275.
4. Ibid., 151 and 262ff.