It is a good thing when bishops strive to be clear in their communication, as was undoubtedly the case when the Conference of Presidents (COP) of the Wisconsin Synod issued a statement in October of 1996 that they were now going to work with these six terms regarding the resignation or termination of calls:
- Personal reasons – financial, family and other non-table of duties matters.
- Health reasons – physical, mental and emotional.
- Cause – persistent adherence to false doctrine; scandalous life (not blameless); willful neglect of duty.
- Inability to serve: established inability to perform the duties of the office.
- Position eliminated.
- For the good of the ministry.
So why is this statement still raising questions among many in the WELS ministerium? As far as I can gather, it is the sixth term” “for the good of the ministry” that is at the center of the controversy. While the other terms are explained or are self-explanatory, “for the good of the ministry” is, quite honestly, far too ambiguous. To use the Lutheran question, Was ist das?1 What adds fuel to the fire is that when asked for more specifics about this term, what the bishops give us is mostly anecdotal. 2 However, this much they have said, it was based on St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “We give no offense in anything that our ministry may not be blamed” (2 Cor. 6:3).
Would that all ministers today showed the same concern as the blessed Apostle, who was determined not to do or to say the slightest thing that might hinder the Gospel and so cause offense3. Then perhaps we would be more concerned about how we conduct ourselves in God’s Service, not slinking around with a tight black gown with stole askew, which says, “not important,” nor by putting on shows with our clever catchphrases, our wanderings all over the nave and our insipid visual aids, which say, “It’s all about me!” but rather by conducting ourselves in a reverent, humble and dignified manner that says, “We are beggars” in the presence of Christ. If we had the same concern for not causing offense as did Saint Paul, then surely we would be our own worst critics constantly critiquing our sermons and our catechesis to make sure not only that they are Scriptural, but that by them we are preaching Christ clearly and succinctly.
Now here is the irony. When the minister of Christ, who in his concern not to give offense so that the ministry may not be blamed, preaches Christ in all that he says and all that he does, great offense is exactly what he will give, because Christ is an offense (Mk. 6:3; 1 Cor. 1:23)4, thus the warning Jesus gave to the Twelve after he had called them to be his Apostles (Mt. 10:16-26).
Let’s face it, it offends the people of this world when the minister proceeds to the chancel behind a cross with the body of Christ on it, when he genuflects before the Altar of Christ, and when he elevates the Body and Blood of Christ. But most perturbing and disturbing by far is when the minister preaches Christ and then celebrates the Supper of Christ5 every Lord’s Day and holy day, and whenever it is requested. Indeed, this goes to the very heart of the problem I have with Church Growth theology and methodology, it is man-centered so as not to offend, “user-friendly” I believe is the PC way of saying it, and so it is diametrically opposed to Christ.
Which brings me back now to the concern that some in the WELS ministerium have over the term “for the good of the ministry”. In a Synod which has embraced far too much Church Growth methodology so that people are inclined to equate a minister’s faithfulness and ability with his congregation’s “growth”, which has even been known to classify her ministers in terms such as “on the cutting edge” or “left in the dust”6, where the lack of tangible results often leads to branding the poor man a “maintenance minister”, in a Synod that also has little tolerance for ministers who observe the Christological rites and ceremonies of the Church in accordance with the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, that sees this as encroaching Romanism, that has professors and pastors who imply that an every Sunday celebration of the Sacrament is “legalism”, one cannot help but wonder; who is going to protect such a minister, say, from a congregation that wants to get rid of him for no other reason than that they’re not numerically growing? We have been assured that the circuit pastor and district president will. But who’s to protect him from them?7 Now I suppose at this time someone is asking himself, “Is he actually accusing our circuit pastors and district presidents of doing this?” To that I answer with a question of my own, Are you saying that this has never happened in the history of the Church? Whether our present leaders would do something like this or not is not the point. I simply contend that because the term “for the good of the ministry” is so ambiguous, it leaves room for abuse. The fact that just about everything we hear in this regard is anecdotal does little to alleviate concerns.
But now having said that, let me assure you that I too share Saint Paul’s concerns that we ministers give no offense in anything that our ministry may not be blamed. So I would like to use the rest of this paper to speak on three points that truly are “for the good of the ministry”.
Preach the Gospel!
This is what Jesus commanded his ministers to do (Mark 16:15) and to remind future ministers of this, those very words are printed in Greek over the chancel of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary chapel. What these seminarians need to learn, however, what all of Christ’s ministers need to know for that matter, is that to preach the Gospel is to preach Christ and therefore is to preach the people to Christ in the Sacrament. For whether the Supper (see endnote 5) is specifically mentioned or not,8 when the minister preaches about the blood-bought forgiveness of Christ, he is, in effect, inviting the communicants to the meal where the Sacrifice of Calvary is given sacramentally. Of course, if one is going to preach the communicants to Christ in the Sacrament, it only follows that he celebrate the Sacrament, that those who hunger can be fed and so satisfied. 9
It is truly for the good of the ministry then that we not view the celebration of the Lord’s Supper through the eyes of Calvin, who saw this as nothing more than obedience to a divine requirement.10 How much does that really differ from those who in their disgust for an every Sunday celebration of the Mass argue, “But Jesus never said how often we are to do this”? Calvin would be proud of those who are so careful to follow the letter of the law. I imagine the Pharisees would be too.
There’s just one problem with this logic. The Sacrament isn’t law. It is, as Dr. Luther testified, pure Gospel and therefore pure gift. It is Christ giving his Body and his Blood to you as a seal that he is giving you exactly what he has promised to give you in the Sacrament, the forgiveness of sins. Because this is gift, the faithful minister of Christ simply offers it to the communicants even as he offers the Lord’s Absolution11, without legalistically regulating the number of times it is to be celebrated (i.e. 1st Sunday of month, 1st & 3rd Sunday’s of month, alternating between the early and the late Service).12 This he does NOT demanding that his people come but TRUSTING that the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel will lead some to come and so to receive the life-giving, life-sustaining food for which they hunger.
The blessed Apostle writes: “Let a man so consider us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). Now “mysteries” is the Greek word for “sacraments”, and it fits. I cannot explain how Holy Baptism is a washing in the Blood of Christ that cleanses us of all unrighteousness. Nor can I explain how Christ’s Body and Blood can be sacramentally united to simple bread and wine. Indeed, any attempt on my part to do so will only be disastrous.13 These things are unexplainable. They defy human logic. They are miracles and so “mysteries” in the true sense of the word. Because they are mysteries that are to be embraced by faith rather than understood, the minister of Christ is to simply teach and administer them according to their institution, prompting Saint Paul to write, “it is required of a steward that one be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2).
Be faithful! Could the Holy Spirit have said it any more clearly? Be faithful, and preach the Gospel, which in itself is a mystery, in its truth. Be faithful, and administer the Sacraments according to their institution in Christ. Be faithful, and do what Christ has commanded you to do in the way he has commanded you to do it.
Do you notice what is missing here? Results. Nothing is said of them and for good reason. They are in God’s realm and not the minister’s, as St. Paul so clearly says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Our Lutheran Confessions express the same thought this way: “For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith when and where it pleases God in them that hear the Gospel” (AC, V).
But what if the minister puts no effort into his preaching. Some argue, won’t that hinder the Gospel’s effectiveness? Remember God once spoke through an ass, and rest assured, he can still do so today. So be careful that you do not limit his ability to carry out his good and gracious will, even if it be through a most unwilling and incompetent instrument, which in no way excuses his incompetence. For finally no minister has the power within himself to make the Gospel more effective. Indeed, to think so is to play God, and it is not a good thing to play God. It will lead either to arrogance, as the minister boasts, “By my power and the strength of my hands I have accomplished all this growth,” or to frustration and despair, maybe even to resignation, as the minister realizes how humanly impossible all this truly is.
Therefore for the good of the ministry, let us be good stewards of the mysteries of God, let us preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in the faith that God will use them as he in his infinite wisdom and love sees fit.
A brief explanation is in order for those who may not know. “Quia” is a Latin word that means “because.” 14 Thus those ministers who at their ordination made a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions swore on oath to uphold and teach them because (quia) they are a clear and correct explanation of the Holy Scriptures (norma normans), by which they have been judged (norma normata). In contrast is a quatenus (in so far as) subscription. Those who make this kind of subscription to the Lutheran Confessions vow that they will uphold and teach them only in so far as they are a clear and correct explanation of the Holy Scriptures, which means they must now determine what in the Confession is true to Scripture and so is to be taught and believed and what is not.
Now all WELS ministers have publicly made a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions15. This is good for the Confessions keep us from, as one of my members put it, “reinventing the wheel.” They are our guard and discipline that keep us firmly anchored in the truth of the Scriptures, and so prevent us from wandering away into a subjective Biblicism. 16
That is why it disturbs me, indeed, red flags pop up all over in my mind, anytime I hear a Lutheran minister, who professes to have made a quia subscription, “but” himself dangerously close to a quatenus subscription, as in, “The Confessions may say that, but what does the Bible say?” To be sure, it sounds so pious. “My faith relies not on manmade writings but on God’s holy, inspired Word, (If we are allowed so as not to be charged with elitism, it is ok to use Latin?) that is, sola Scriptura.
But when we teach from the Lutheran Confessions (e.g. Luther’s Small Catechism), are we not in fact observing the “sola Scriptura” principle? To answer those who proudly ask, “But what does the Bible say? I reply, “What the Confessions say, that’s what,” because that is what a quia subscription implies. Indeed, no Lutheran should ever tolerate a statement such as this, a statement that I heard a Lutheran minister actually made, “The Confessions are not reliable, because they teach that the sun revolves around the earth.” Whoever said that the Book of Concord was a science book? It is a theological book, whose analogies, even ones that are scientifically wrong, still teach what is true and correct according to the Scriptures. Therefore, let us hold to the quia subscription that we made to the Lutheran Confessions at our ordination and not “but” our way into a quatenus subscription. For this is the good of the ministry.
While I question the legitimacy of terminating a call “for the good of the ministry” when this terminology is so ambiguous, I agree with Saint Paul that the minister of Christ is to strive with all his might not to give offense to the Gospel he is sent to proclaim, “that the ministry may not be blamed.” Therefore, I strongly encourage every minister of Christ to preach the Gospel, which is to preach to Christ in the Sacrament, to be faithful stewards of the mysteries, and let the Holy Spirit do with as he pleases, and to hold on to the quia subscription he made to the Lutheran Confessions at his ordination. §
The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan. This article was originally published in January 2004.
1 “What does this mean?” See, we can and do use more than just Latin phrases (we were charged as being macaronic megalomaniacs).
2 This explains why most of the paper will deal with what I feel is good for the ministry. There’s just not all that much down on record to which one can point.
3 Rather than the more commonly used and harsher skavndalon Paul uses a milder word for “offense” here: proskophvn to show that even the tiniest offense is to be avoided.
4 Read the verses that immediately follow 2 Corinthians 6:3, and see how Paul and his peers fared in their ministry.
5 Contrary to a comment that was made at the recent symposium on Holy Communion at the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, it is the “Lord’s” Supper, not the “people’s” supper.
6 From a form once to be used “by circuit pastors for update and district presidents for call list information in his database.”
7 One cannot help but wonder how well Jesus would have fared today. Here was a minister who after one sermon preached his congregation down from around 10,000 to 12 and one of them was a devil (John 6:66). In three years time he managed to offend the church’s leaders to the point where they terminated his call by terminating him. They too believed that this was for the good of the ministry (John 11:45-53, esp. 49 & 50).
8 And I believe it is a good thing if it is.
9 To just talk about the forgiveness of sins, which Christ won for all at Calvary, does not go far enough. Christ has called his ministers to be the human instruments through which he gives his forgiveness to his people.
10 I agree with Dr. Luther that one should go to the Sacrament simply because Christ commands us to do so. But of course faith moves us to go for a much different reason.
11 Yes, Absolution is also the Lord’s and not the people’s. Confer endnote 5.
12 Indeed, to regulate the number of times communicants can come to the Sacrament by limiting the number of times it is celebrated is the epitome of legalism.
13 Now you know why we have receptionists, consecrationists, transubstatiationists, consubstatiationists, representationists, and who can really count all the “ists” who have attempted and failed to explain the Sacrament?
14 Again to our detractors, “Sorry, but sometimes Latin is unavoidable. Mea culpa! Oops! See….
15 The call form in use in the WELS, a confessionally sound one, states: “In extending this call to you we solemnly charge you to preach the Gospel of our Lord among us in its truth and purity, to administer the sacraments in accordance with the inspired Word of God and the Confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church as incorporated in the Book of Concord of 1580, and to establish and maintain sound Lutheran practice at all times.”
16 Pardon my redundancy, but I must answer the comment that inevitably will be made: “No, I am not putting the Lutheran Confessions on the same level as the Holy Scriptures! But having been judged by the Scriptures to be theologically correct in everything they teach and confess, I am saying this that when I quote or teach from any of the Confessions, I am in effect quoting and teaching what God’s Word says.