In my last article I mentioned that the Conference of Presidents (COP) of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) issued a statement that they were now going to work with these six terms regarding the resignation and termination of calls:
1) Personal reasons – financial, family and other non-table of duties matters.
2) Health reasons – physical, mental and emotional.
3) Cause, persistent adherence to false doctrine; scandalous life (not blameless); willful neglect of duty.
4) Inability to serve: established inability to perform the duties of the office.
5) Position eliminated.
6) For the good of the ministry.1
As I said it is a good thing when bishops strive to be clear in their communication, which was undoubtedly the purpose for issuing such a statement. I went on to explain what would be “for the good of the ministry” - preaching to Christ, being faithful stewards of God’s mysteries, and holding on to a quia subscription. Now I wish to focus on this question, what is the Scriptural basis for terminating a minister’s call?
To answer the question correctly demands that we understand the very nature of this Holy Office. When we call a man a “minister” - that is to say, when we acknowledge that he occupies this Office - we are not only describing what he does (functional view) but also what he is (ontological view). Blessed Dr. Luther explains:
Thus we have two kinds of fathers presented in this commandment (4th), fathers in blood and fathers in office, or those to whom belongs the care of the family, and those to whom belongs the care of the country. Besides these there are yet spiritual fathers; not like those in the Papacy, who have indeed had themselves called thus, but have performed no function of the paternal office. For those only are called spiritual fathers who govern and guide us by the Word of God; as St. Paul boasts his fatherhood 1 Cor. 4,15, where he says: In Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel. Now, since they are fathers they are entitled to their honor, even above all others. 2
To hold the office of father is not just a functional matter. In other words, one is not a father just because he provides and protects and teaches a child. Does not a mother also do these things in her office? Indeed, anyone can do these things for a child if he so desires. Yet that in itself does not make him a father. Rather a father describes who this man3 is in relationship to his child. God has placed him in a position of authority to his child. He is the human instrument through which God has given life to his child, and yes, that does mean that God also desires to provide and protect and teach this child through him. Yet whether he carries out the functions of his office or not, he still remains a father to his child by right of birth, a father who may have to answer to God for his unfaithfulness, but a father nonetheless.
So it is with a pastor. He is called to do something; no one should argue that, to preach the Gospel and to administer the holy sacraments (AC V), but not just to do something. He is also called to be something: a spiritual father, which describes both his relationship to Christ, who reveals the Father (John 5:17-23; 14:8-11), and also his relationship to God’s children. For when the minister who stands in the stead of Christ speaks and acts by the authority of Christ, he dispenses the Father’s love and blessings i.e. life in communion with God and all that is needed to sustain it.
Now since this is true, the call of which Article XIV in the Augustana speaks4 cannot just be the call to serve a particular congregation. To see it as such is to have a very limited view of the Holy Ministry. Instead it is much wider than that. Since a minister is what I am and not only what I do, the call into the Holy Ministry and so to be a spiritual father came to me through the rite of Holy Ordination; 5 or to explain this in Dr. Luther’s terminology, because I was ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry, I am a spiritual father to God’s children, even as I am by right of birth a father to my children in blood.
The relationship of a father to his child is a lasting one that is not easily undone. In fact, it dare not be undone under normal circumstances; it is, we can say, a life sentence. So with the Holy Ministry, since he who occupies this Office has been ritely, and so rightly, called to be a spiritual father to God’s children, he is to be, again under normal circumstances, a minister for life. 6
So does this mean that once a minister is “in”, he’s “in” for good and that his call can never be terminated? Of course not. One need only look to Judas for an example.
Concerning him, St. Peter declared, “He was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry” (Acts 1:17). Judas was an Apostle of Jesus Christ, ritely called by Christ to occupy this Holy Office (cf. Matt. 10:1-4). And as with the other Eleven this was to be a life sentence. But the blessed Apostle declared, “Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus… ‘Let his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in it;’ and, ‘Let another take his office’” (Acts 1:16,20). The word e[rhmo", here translated “desolate”, can also mean, “abandoned”, and in Judas’ case I believe that is the preferred translation. He in unbelief abandoned the Office he once occupied. So, St. Peter pointed out, someone else had to be called to occupy it in his place.
Note how Judas’ “place”, his Office as Apostle, still remained even after his “departure” and so had to be “taken” by another. What St. Peter says here is very significant, for if the ministry is only about doing certain things, as some suppose, then the Eleven could have all pitched in and covered the duties, which Judas abandoned. But because this Holy Office goes beyond “doing” and is also about “being” - that is, a spiritual Father to God’s children, it was necessary, and the Apostles knew it, that the Office be occupied by another being, a spiritual Father who turned out to be Matthias.
Of course this begs the question, how does one abandon the Office? The way Judas did, through unbelief, which in the case of a minister often reveals itself in false preaching. Concerning such men our Lord says, “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, ‘I have a dream! I have a dream!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal” (Jer. 23:25-27). “Behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who use their tongues and say, “He says’” (Jer. 23:31). Though they may have once occupied the Office, as was the case with Judas, nevertheless it is clear from the Lord’s condemnation of them that false prophets occupy the Office no longer but have abandoned it to their own “destruction” (cf. 2 Peter 2).
Then there are those guilty of a scandalous life. Though they may never have preached against Christ in the way of the false prophet, neither are they “blameless” (1 Timothy 3:2). Therefore their call must be terminated, even if they repent, for they can no longer be an icon of Christ but rather are an offense to Christ and to the Office of the Holy Ministry.
So we do grant our “bishops’” (COP) point 3, that “persistent adherence to false doctrine; scandalous life (not blameless); willful neglect of duty” are legitimate and Scriptural reasons for terminating a pastor’s call, since those who are guilty of such things have, in effect, abandoned the Office themselves. 7
To be sure, things can happen that might limit or even prevent a minister from carrying out the functions of his Office in his present situation, whether they be “personal reasons” or “health reasons”. But does that mean he ceases to be a minister? Does a father cease to be a father just because he has taken ill and is no longer able to work and support his family? Does he even leave his office when he becomes old and his child must now care for him? By no means! Remember a father is a father for life, though how he functions in his office will often depend on the circumstances.
So if the circumstances no longer permit a pastor to serve where he presently is, he does not for that reason cease to be a spiritual father to God’s children. Instead he continues to serve where and in the ways that he is able, and here is where his spiritual father, the bishop, can serve him, by finding such a place for him to continue in the ministry. If he is not able to serve a large congregation, place him in a smaller one. If his family needs a service that is not readily available in a rural setting, send him to an urban area where the required service is more readily available. If he cannot serve a congregation on his own, perhaps he can serve as an associate pastor, and so on.
But what if he retires? Quite honestly, the Scriptures know of no such thing. Spiritual fathers are spiritual fathers for life. That was true of the Prophets and of the Apostles, and it is true of Christ’s ministers today. That is not to say that age won’t catch up with them and they slow down, even to the point where they are no longer able to serve full time. Yet we still address them as “reverend” or “pastor” and rightly so, because they remain in the Office, into which they were ordained, and therefore still have the authority to preach from the pulpit and to consecrate and distribute the elements of the Blessed Sacrament. (Indeed, here we commend our Synod for making more use of her elderly ministers who, while no longer able to serve fulltime, are being asked to serve in “interim situations” e.g. smaller congregations that are not able to support a fulltime minister. By this they are agreeing with, no, more than that, actually embracing and proclaiming the Scriptural truth that is herein espoused: a minister is a minister not just until retirement, but for life.)
By all means let us be careful that we do not put burdens on these men, which God does not and which we ourselves, if judged, could not even bear. I am speaking now of point 4: “Established inability to perform the duties of the Office.” Granted, in certain, extreme cases perhaps this is a cause for terminating a call, but I emphasize “extreme”, and therefore it is to be a very rare exception indeed. What this must never become is an easy way to rid a complaining congregation of her minister because he lacks all the gifts they feel is required to serve them. A father is a father whether he is extremely gifted or limited, and all God requires of him is that he use his gifts, whatever they may be, faithfully.
In his 1st letter to the Corinthians St. Paul writes, “Let a man so consider us as servants (ministers) of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (4:1). I find this more than a little interesting. We hear about “stewardship” incessantly, it seems, and whenever we do, the message is inevitably that our members are to give more of their time, talents and treasures to the Church. But when God speaks of stewardship - and as far as I can determine this is the only place he actually calls someone a steward - he is speaking to his ministers, not to his flock, and he instructs them to be good stewards of his mysteries, which is the Greek word for “sacraments”.
“Moreover,” the blessed Apostle continues, “it is required of a steward that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2), which is to say, that the minister of Christ is to administer these mysteries according to their institution in Christ, trusting that “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 did not St. Paul also say that it is required of a bishop that he be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2)? Indeed, he did, but contrary to how this is often taken, the Apostle did not mean by this that a pastor must be able to hold my rapt attention for twenty minutes. Some do not have the gift of being able to write and preach the best of sermons. Does that mean that their call should be terminated, especially when they may have other gifts that do serve them well in the ministry? Blessed Dr. Luther did not get rid of all those ministers in his day that were unable to write fitting sermons. Instead he wrote sermons for them to read from the pulpit - hence the publication of his Postils. What is of greater importance, then, is not how one preaches, but what he preaches: the one holy catholic and apostolic Faith. Finally, that is what St. Paul meant by “able to teach”, that the minister of Christ use whatever gifts he has to preach Christ faithfully, even as he administers the mysteries of God faithfully, for this is what is required of a steward. As for those who refuse to do so, they are the ones who are not ‘able to teach” and consequently their calls should be terminated, as we have all ready said, since they have, in fact, abandoned the Holy Office themselves.
Out of the six terms regarding the termination and resignation of calls, this one, point 6: “For the good of the ministry”, seems to raise the most questions among those in the WELS ministerium. What only adds fuel to the fire is that the answers which are given in response to the questions are mostly anecdotal. However this much our bishops have said that they base termination “for the good of the ministry” on Paul’s words, “We give no offense in anything that our ministry may not be blamed” (2 Corinthians 6:3).
Would that all ministers showed the same concern as did the blessed Apostle, who was determined not to do or to say even the slightest thing that might hinder the Gospel and so cause offense.8 But does this passage support a bishop’s right to terminate a call “for the good of the ministry”, as is claimed?
When one hears the anecdotal evidence that is given in this regard, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that this terminology was again an easy way to rid the complaining congregation of their pastor who for whatever reason does not quite “fit in”. Here as much as anywhere, we see the bad influence Church Growth Theology has had on some of our churches. Because “we grow the Church” – or so it is mistakenly believed by these people - a minister today must be a salesman, first of all, who has the imagination and energy to “sell” the church to others, as well as an entertainer who has the style and charisma to grab and hold the attention of both member and visitor, young and old, from all walks of life. He must also be the congregation’s CEO, an administrator who can motivate and equip his people to get out and “bring them in” for Jesus. Of course none of this has anything to do either with the functions of this Holy Office or the faith that simply trusts the Holy Spirit to use the Gospel in his way and in his time. Indeed, this “Confessionalism” flies directly in the face of those who espouse the foolishness of “Church Growth” Theology, often causing friction and division between minister and misguided members. So “for the good of the ministry” – after all, these stubborn, impatient and ungrateful people are not going to listen to a word he has to say and may even leave the congregation if he stays - let’s kick him out.
But I ask, can a grandfather say to his son, you can’t be the father to my grandchildren anymore? This does happen on occasion, but again only under the most extreme and difficult of circumstances. Even so, no bishop has the right to take a congregation away from a faithful pastor, certainly not because the congregation despises his Confessionalism, and not even if they simply dislike his personality. Should they do the former, they would be guilty of false teaching. In the case of the latter, the bishop is stealing the cross away from both the congregation and the pastor. For it is a cross for a congregation to bear a “difficult” pastor, as it is for a pastor to bear a “difficult” congregation. While it is the nature of the sinner to shun the cross for the glory, we must never forget what the Scriptures say: first the cross, then the glory.
Of all people the faithful minister and spiritual father for God’s children needs to grasp this Theology of the Cross. For when he who in his concern not to give offense so that the ministry may not be blamed, preaches Christ as an ambassador of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and administers the Sacraments as a faithful steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), great offense is exactly what he will give, because Christ is offensive (Mark 6:3; 1 Cor. 1:23). So it is no surprise that immediately after the passage about not giving offense “for the good of the ministry”, the blessed Apostle speaks of the suffering that he and his fellow Apostles have had to endure because of the offense they have given to others by preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 6:4-10; also 2 Cor. 11:23-35).
Nothing has changed in this regard today. The minister of Christ knows this. Because he represents Christ to his people, his life will quite naturally take on the form of Christ’s life. He knows that he may be despised and rejected by men, because Christ was despised and rejected by men, that he may be mocked and ridiculed, threatened and abused. He knows that in some way he will have to carry his cross, even as Christ carried the cross for him and for all men.
Yet he does not for this reason quit or run away to a place where he perceives it might be easier for him. Instead, through it all, he is by God’s grace still able to confess with the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). So he preaches the Gospel, suffers for the Gospel, and if God’s will, he is given the strength even to die for the Gospel that he gives no offense in anything and that the ministry be not blamed. §
The Reverend James A. Frey is the called pastor of St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.
1 1 These six points are from the resolution adopted by the COP at their meeting in October of 1996.
2 Triglotta, LC, 158, p. 627. Reading the blessed reformer one wonders how one can take offense when one addresses his minister as “father”? Romanism? Though Luther had disavowed the Church of Rome by the time he wrote the Large Catechism, he therein clearly explains why pastors are “spiritual fathers” and quotes St. Paul in defense of this. Now a father cares for his children, and a pastor cares for his sheep. If ministers are “pastors” (shepherds) because they care for the sheep of the Good Shepherd, are they not also “fathers” in that they care for the children of God? Both Dr. Luther and St. Paul answer, “Yes!”
3 For there is no such thing as a “female” father, whether that be a father in blood or a spiritual father.
4 “Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly (rite) called.”
5 This is what AC, Art. XIV means when it states that a minister must be rite vocatus, ritely called, or called through the rite. Indeed, Melancthon conceded that Ordination can be called a Sacrament since the Office God bestows upon an individual through it is not without promises (Trig. Ap., Art. VII, 11-13, p. 311).
6 One never quits such a calling. As the immediate call in Apostolic times was for life (until God called the person to a new place), so it is with the mediate call. It is permanent and irrevocable, unless God Himself intervenes. The Doctrine of the Call in the Confession and Lutheran Orthodoxy, Dr. Robert Preus, Luther Academy, pp. 32-33.
7 Though perhaps it is appropriate to point out that while false preaching and scandalous living are legitimate causes for the removal of a minister from his Office, nevertheless these things do NOT in themselves negate the efficacy of his pastoral acts. In speaking against the Donatists, Melancthon states: “Neither does the fact that the sacraments are administered by the unworthy detract from their efficacy, because, on account of the call of the Church, they represent the person of Christ, and do not represent their own persons, as Christ testifies, Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth me. (Thus even Judas was sent to preach.) When they offer the Word of God, when they offer the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and in the place of Christ. Those words of Christ teach us not to be offended by the unworthiness of the ministers” (AP, VII VIII, 28, pg. 237).
8 Rather than the more commonly used and harsher skavndalon Paul uses a milder word for “offense” here: proskophv to show that even the tiniest offense is to be avoided.