The Office and the Sacrament

—Prof. John T. Pless

The practice of licensing laymen to preach and administer the sacraments by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at its convention in Wichita in 1989 is widely recognized as theologically problematic. Attempts to address the so-called “Wichita Amendment” to the Augsburg Confession, as the late Richard John Neuhaus called it, have been diverse and have, in some incidences, created additional and ongoing difficulties of both a doctrinal and practical nature. Sometimes the debates surrounding the office and the attempt to correct Wichita overlook the fundamental unity of the office.

The office is inseparable from the means of grace that it is instituted to serve (cf. Matthew 28:16–20; Mark 16:14–16; Luke 24:44–49; John 20:19–23; AC V).

In the view of the New Testament there is but one office which derives its right to existence from the founding will of Christ Himself, namely the *ministerium verbi*, the ’ministry of reconciliation,’ administered by persons bearing varying titles. For practical reasons, it may also, according to the discretion of its incumbents, create special sub-agents for itself. However, titles and sub-divisions are human regulations. The *jus divinum* is confined to the *ministerium verbi*, because it was bestowed on this office, and on this office alone, by the one materially indivisible commission of Christ.[1]

The “ministry of reconciliation” of which the apostle writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18 is singular even as there is one Gospel announcing that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Those placed in this one office are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) making Christ’s own appeal to be reconciled to God. As Elert points out, the nomenclature of the New Testament may vary as the officeholder is identified as evangelist, teacher, elder, overseer, and so forth, but these are not divinely established grades or ranks but ways of speaking of the singular office instituted by Christ for the sake of the Gospel. “For there is only one office of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.”[2]

AC XIV tells how men are put into this office in the way of the *rite vocatus* without which no one is to preach or administer the sacraments. Preaching and administering the sacraments go hand in hand. There is not one office for preaching and another for the administration of the sacraments. The linkage of proclamation and administering the sacraments demonstrates what Elert has identified as the coordination of word and sacrament. Problems come when word and sacraments are split off from each other so that preaching becomes a verbal abstraction or the sacraments become wordless rituals.

The coordination of word and sacraments is expressed in the fact that the one office of preaching has responsibility for the administration of both. The office bearer is entrusted with the stewardship of the mysteries of God according to the apostle: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2). The preaching of God’s word both calls to the sacrament of the altar and governs its use.

One person must bear the responsibility for the conduct of this concrete worship. If this is to be orderly and really edify the congregation. Its course dare not be determined by opposing or clashing wills. All other wills must cooperate with and merge in the will of one man. The administration of the sacrament of the altar in particular demands one man, who is responsible for the admission to it. Thus every administration of the Holy Communion also includes an act of church government. Therefore the chief form of worship cannot be executed properly without a man, who as shepherd of the congregation, administers the main worship service.[3]

Writing during World War II, Hermann Sasse makes the case for the unity of word and sacrament:

The office of preaching the Gospel is also the office which baptizes and celebrates the Supper. It is also the office of the keys, whether or not this is reckoned among the sacraments, as in the Augustana, or viewed as a special case of proclamation of the Gospel, as happed later in the Lutheran Church. At all costs it is the office of the administration of *the* means of grace, not only of *one* means of grace. And the Lord who left behind these means of grace for his church is also the Lord who instituted the office of the ministry.[4]

More recently Dorothea Wendebourg:

The ministry is one. It is one because its task, the public proclamation of the gospel in twofold manifestation, preaching and the administration of the sacraments is one.[5]

The role of the pastor cannot be viewed in a reductionist way that only applies to the speaking of the words of consecration; the pastor is also responsible for admission/distribution. The practice of having the pastor speak the words of consecration and then have vicars, deacons, or lay persons distribute the sacrament at another time or place cannot be defended on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions.[6] If a layman assists in the distribution in the Divine Service, he should do so by serving the Lord’s blood as the pastor admits to the altar with the administration of the Lord’s body. But it should be recognized that the practice of laymen assisting with the distribution is relatively recent in American Lutheranism and is not known in some areas of the Lutheran world, Madagascar, for example.[7]

The apostolic exhortation for self-examination (1 Corinthians 11:27) does not relieve the pastor of his responsibility as a steward of the mysteries of God (see 1 Corinthians 4:1–2). Also see AC XXIV: “Chrysostom says that the priest stands daily at the altar, inviting some to Communion and keeping others away” (AC XXIV:36, Kolb-Wengert, 71). Nor can the pastor hand this responsibility off to others; it belongs to the nature of his office as overseer. Again Sasse:

The *ministerium ecclesasticum* may also be unburdened of peripheral tasks through the establishment of new offices. That happened already in the ancient church through the creation of the diaconate, or in more recent times by the creation of the office of church counselor, church elder [*Kirchenvorsteher*, *Kirchenältesten*], or whatever else those who lead the congregation may be called. The essence of the *ministerium ecclesiasticum* is in no way impinged upon by these offices. Preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments belong neither to the deacons nor to him whom we today call the presbyter. The former have the work of love and caring for the poor. The latter has the duty of helping in the administration of the parish. According to Lutheran doctrine, they do not have a part in church government [*Kirchenregiment*]. For Luther and with him the confessions of our church (AC XIV and XXVIII) mean by church government the exercise of the functions peculiar to the office of the ministry: ‘an authority and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to dispense and administer the Sacraments’[AC XXVIII:5].[8]

The suggestion of the “Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Task Force” that perhaps the Synod establish an “ordained diaconate” where “perhaps they (the ordained deacons) could preach and baptize but not consecrate the elements” (Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures 2013, 417) splits apart what the Lord has joined together in the one, divinely instituted office. It amounts to attempting to fix one problem (laymen functioning as pastors) by creating another. A more careful solution is needed for which Lutheran theology has the resources.

Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

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  1. Werner Elert, The Christian Faith, 264.  ↩
  2. Edmund Schlink, The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, 230.  ↩
  3. Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, 237.  ↩
  4. Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way Volume II: 1941–1976, 128.  ↩
  5. D. Wendebourg, “The Ministry and Ministries” Lutheran Quarterly XV (Autumn 2001), 139.  ↩
  6. Here see, Roland F. Ziegler, “Should Lutherans Reserve the Consecrated Elements for the Communion of the Sick?" Concordia Theological Quarterly (April 2003), 131–147.  ↩
  7. See “Administration, Not Presidency” in Reclaiming the Lutheran Liturgical Heritage by Oliver K. Olson, 36–39.  ↩
  8. Sasse, The Lonely Way Volume II:1941–1976, 128–129.  ↩