The Pastor’s Rights And Responsibilities In His Parish: Exercising The Office Of The Keys – Both Of Them – Essay for the 2015 Conference of The Augustana Ministerium
What is the Office of the Keys? The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.
Where is this written? This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter 20: “The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, ‘If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”
What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.
All confessional Lutherans should know those words by heart, along with the rest of Luther’s Small Catechism. All confessional Lutherans should make those words part of their very cell structure. As we all know, the Small Catechism, in spite of its brevity, is probably the most concise and exact presentation of Christian doctrine known to mankind. It answers virtually every one of the most important questions in the area of Christianity: The Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, Office of the Keys and Confession, The Lord’s Supper, Table of Duties, Daily Prayers and Christian Questions with their Answers.
The above questions and answers from the Fifth Chief Part of the Catechism with which this essay began are a microcosmic summary of the vast teachings from Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions on the topic of The Office of the Keys.
Every Lutheran pastor worth his salt will know not only what the Office of the Keys is – for he is under orders by Christ through the Church to exercise that Office – but he will also know how to exercise that Office by virtue of the correct, biblical and confessional knowledge, understanding and use of the Keys.
Keys, as we know, are used simply to lock and to unlock, to captivate and to set free, to bind and to loose. And since they do those things, the man who holds or exercises the Office of the Keys has great authority and power – not his own authority or power, to be sure, but the authority and power which comes from Christ Himself, an authority and power to be used precisely as Christ would have it.
Therefore the Lutheran pastor, even though he indeed answers to his own congregation, answers also and ultimately to Christ for how he exercises this holy Office. If that realization does not cause him any level of concern, then he ought not hold that Office. For when the rubber hits the road, so to speak, the pastor, bearing and using the Keys, is dealing with the spiritual welfare of his parishioners; and that is always a matter of eternal life and death.
Those are the stakes in this matter; that is the degree of risk and importance involved in this particular aspect of a pastor’s ministry to the people who have called him to preach Christ and to serve Christ’s gifts to them.
So, on what basis does Luther say what he does in the Small Catechism about the Office of the Keys? Most certainly we want to examine the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.
In many Lutheran congregations there will always be someone – or, if you are extra-blessed many someones – who question the authority of the pastor when it comes to forgiving and retaining sins. For example, in one parish I formerly served, a woman blatantly declared that her pastor did not forgive sins: “I know I’m forgiven by God; I don’t need a pastor to do that. I go directly to God!” Of course, when the opportunity arises, the good Lutheran pastor will invite this particular type of parishioner to study the Scriptures and Confessions with him on the topic. And, of course, the odds that this parishioner will accept the invitation are slim.
Nonetheless, it is true from Scripture that our Lord Jesus Himself has authority to forgive sins. Matthew 9:1-6:
So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” (NKJV)
The same words from verse 6 are recorded in Mark 2:10 and Luke 5:24. Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God – God Himself in the flesh – has divine authority and power to forgive sins.
Following our Lord’s resurrection and just prior to His ascension He gathered His disciples and gave them the following charge in John 20:21-23:
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (NKJV)
One of the key phrases in this section of John’s Gospel is, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” The apostles – the sent ones, in essence, the first New Testament pastors – are sent first and foremost by Christ Himself who gives them their “marching orders,” so to speak. They are sent out into the world with a very specific task, and that task is backed with the full authority of the Sender: they are given orders to forgive and retain sins, to loose and to bind, to unlock and to lock.
Recalling again the words of the Catechism which are based uncompromisingly on Holy Scripture, the authority to forgive and retain sins lies in the “ministers of Christ” who “deal with us by [Christ’s] divine command.” In John 20:21-23 Christ bestows His own authority on His disciples to do exactly that – to forgive and retain sins. Pastors are given the Office of the Keys to bind and loose sins, to lock and unlock heaven, to forgive and withhold forgiveness; and they do it in Christ’s stead and by His command. It doesn’t get any more clear or authoritative than that.
And not only are pastors to do this upon Christ’s authority and by the power of the Holy Spirit, but when they forgive and retain sins, what they say and declare is already said and done in heaven. The Greek is literally, “If you forgive the sins of any, they have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
That is a similar Greek tense which is found in Matthew 18:18: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be having been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be having been loosed in heaven.” In other words, what the disciples declare regarding either the binding or loosing of sins is already done and trueand accomplished in heaven. The disciples are merely declaring what God has already declared and accomplished.
Following Peter’s God-given confession of Christ as the Son of the living God in Matthew 16, Jesus tells him that He will build His church on that confession. And then Jesus says, with the same Greek as the above verses, “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” Peter and the apostles with him are given the full authority of the keys which they are to use to bind and loose, to lock up and set free, to retain and forgive.
Further we hear Jesus say to His disciples in Luke 10:16, “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” When the disciples speak and act with the express authority and sent-ness of Christ, they are simply delivering Jesus’ words and work to their hearers. Of themselves the disciples have no authority or power. All they have – what they have been given and tasked to do – is what has been given to them in their sending.
Even though the following passages do not specifically address the loosing and binding keys, they do round out the duties and responsibilities of the pastoral office. From the Small Catechism Table of Duties, we do well to heed Luther’s purpose of citing these passages for, as he says, they are “Certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” Here the following passages are cited under the heading, “What Hearers Owe Their Pastors:”
- I Corinthians 9:14 – The Lord has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel.
- Galatians 6:6-7 – Anyone who receives instruction in the Word must share all good things with his instructor.  Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
- I Timothy 5:17-18 – The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.  For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘the worker deserves his wages.’
- I Thessalonians 5:12-13 – We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
- Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.
So, rather than use the terms of the title of this essay which refer to the pastor’s “rights and responsibilities,” we specifically and more correctly speak in the way of the pastor’s “authority and responsibilities” which are given to him by Christ through His Church to use the keys of his Office according to Christ’s own authority and power. It is simply Christ Himself then who is forgiving and retaining sins with the humble realization on the part of the pastor that he is Christ’s ears and mouth and hands.
Perhaps one of the finest and most concise examples of the loosing key in the Old Testament is the infamous story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12. There we recall that King David, having lusted after and taken a married woman to his bed and planted his seed in her, also arranged for her husband’s death. Blinded by his lust for pleasure and abuse of his God-given authority, David ignored many opportunities to do the right thing.
Instead of turning his gaze and walking away immediately after seeing Bathsheba bathing on a nearby roof, David lusted after her. Instead of honoring the marriage bed after being told that Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite who was also one of his own loyal soldiers, David took her to his own bed and impregnated her. Instead of manning up and confessing his adultery, David tried to arrange for Uriah to get drunk and spend time with his wife so that Uriah would believe the child conceived in Bathsheba’s womb was his own.
Instead of acknowledging that God was thwarting his pitiful cover-up scheme, David then arranged for Uriah to deliver a letter to Joab, a letter which, unbeknownst to Uriah, contained his own death-sentence. The letter gave instructions that Uriah was to be placed in the hottest part of the battle, after which the rest of the soldiers were to pull back and simply let Uriah be killed. And upon hearing of the completion of Uriah’s death, David sloughed it off by saying in 2 Samuel 11:25: “Thus you shall say to Joab: ‘Do not let this thing displease you, for the sword devours one as well as another. Strengthen your attack against the city, and overthrow it.’ Davis says, in essence, “Hey, no big deal, this is war and people die. Go on with the battle and defeat the enemy!”
David’s arrogance and blindness then caused him to take Bathsheba, now a war widow, into his own home and make her his wife in hopes that the people of his kingdom would see what a magnanimous leader he was. Perhaps now the plot in David’s mind would simply disappear and the people would praise David for being such a caring and wonderful king. However, there remained the ominous sound of the final verse of 2 Samuel 11: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” (v. 27). Cue the music from “JAWS.”
2 Samuel 12 begins with God sending Nathan the prophet to David to tell him about himself. After David heard Nathan’s story of an extremely unjust and cruel man who forcibly took a poor man’s only ewe lamb and prepared it for a traveler who came to himinstead of using his own animals, David because furious, declaring, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” (2 Sam 12:6). How divinely ironic that David now speaks his own death sentence, just as he himself had sent Uriah with his own death sentence in his hand.
Nathan then launched into David saying to him, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7) and proceeded to level the full weight and terror of the law against him, including all the gory details of David’s adultery, murder plot, and what would happen to David’s family in the years to come.
Sparing the details of Nathan’s sermon for another time, we now come to the climax of the story which is 2 Samuel 12:13 where David, after being crushed and killed by Nathan’s stinging proclamation of law, declares in faith, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin.” This is pure gold; it is a concise example of Confession and Absolution in that not only does David confess his sins – in essence saying the same thing God said about him – but he is then immediately absolved.
In the Small Catechism there is the question, “What Is Confession?” The answer is, “Confession has two parts; first, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”
As to David’s situation, “Confession has two parts; first, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and second, “The Lord has put away your sin;” confession followed by an immediate absolution, the application by Father Confessor Nathan to penitent David of the loosing key. God had spoken through Pastor Nathan, delivering the crushing and condemning verdict of the Law, and then delivering the sweet word of forgiveness and absolution into the ears of a hurting, broken and crushed sinner.
Augsburg Confession Apology XII: 56 says it this way: “So David is reproved by Nathan, and, terrified, he says, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ This is contrition. Afterward he hears the absolution: ‘The Lord also hath put away your sin; you shall not die.’ This voice encourages David, and by faith sustains, justifies, and quickens him.”
Even though David will live out his life in the shadow of and with constant reminders of his actions, he will do so as a forgiven and redeemed child of God; for that is the only way we can possibly live – under the forgiveness and grace of God, under the freedom of sins loosed, forgiven, removed, by the pastor as from God Himself, through the proper use of the Office of the Keys.
There is at least one example of the binding key in the New Testament, albeit from a distance; it is a two-part story that begins with binding and ends with loosing.
I Corinthians 5:1-5: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (NKJV)
Even though Paul did not speak directly to the offending party in the Corinthian congregation, it is clear that he is acting as that congregation’s pastor and has already judged that the offender needed to be chastised. Clearly the man who has his father’s wife is unrepentant. So Paul, in essence, “binds” his sin to him with the words, “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”
To be sure, Paul also severely chastises the congregation for being “puffed up” (Greek: “prideful”) that this event has happened and is being tolerated in their midst. Instead of being crushed, saddened, and horrified by the blatant adultery among them, the congregation does not mourn the man, but seems wholly unconcerned not only for his eternal welfare but the looming threat to their own as well. Paul’s trepidation and harsh words are precipitated by the fact that this Christian congregation is embracing open and unrepentant sin by not dealing with it, therefore giving a terrible example to the outside world that this adulterous and pornographic situation is not only not a big deal, but rather acceptable.
Paul also makes it clear in the following verses that the “leaven” of the man’s sin and the congregation’s acceptance of it is negatively affecting the whole group, and he exhorts them not only to “deliver such a one to Satan” but also to “purge out the old leaven” lest the whole congregation be led into unbelief.
Notice, if you will, that in spite of the seemingly harsh judgment Paul exacts upon the offending man and his displeasure with the congregation’s lack of interest in rectifying the situation, the reason the man should be delivered over to Satan is for the “destruction of the flesh.” The word Paul uses refers to destruction and death often in connection with God’s judgment against sin. Paul is, in essence, “binding” that man’s sin to him in order that it may “kill” him, meaning the crushing condemnation of his sinful nature; and Paul does so in the sincere hope that there may be an opportunity for the man to be brought to repentance, come to his senses, and be restored to God’s favor and back into the congregation’s fellowship.
It appears that this saga comes to a happy conclusion in 2 Corinthians 2:3-11.
Paul writes: And I wrote this very thing to you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow over those from whom I ought to have joy, having confidence in you all that my joy is the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears, not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you. But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.
Again, from a distance, Paul now praises the congregation in Corinth for the “punishment which was inflicted by the majority.” It would appear that they indeed repented of their previous acceptance of the man who had his father’s wife, acted on Paul’s exhortation from I Corinthians 5, and now are being instructed by Paul to comfort the man and reaffirm their love for him. It would appear also that the man himself has suffered the destruction of his flesh, repented, and sought reintegration back into the fellowship of Christ’s church. Paul then exercises the loosing key by declaring his own forgiveness for the man and points out the power of the absolution which has become a bulwark against Satan’s attempt to take advantage of the saints. The man has been absolved and forgiven; let no one bring it against him again.
As stated earlier, we know from Scripture that Christ Himself has sent His preachers into the world with His own authority and the pastoral responsibility to forgive and retain sins. Let us now turn to the Lutheran Confessions and examine how the authority and responsibilities of the called and ordained servant of the Word are taught and addressed.
Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII – Church Authority. Paragraph 5 states: “Our teachers’ position is this: the authority of the Keys (Matthew 16:19), or the authority of the bishops – according to the Gospel – is a power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the Sacraments.” Paragraph 8 of the same article states: “This authority is exercised only by teaching or preaching of the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, either to many or to individuals.”
Paragraphs 20-23 of the same article teach thus: “Therefore, when a question arises about the bishop’s jurisdiction, civil authority must be distinguished from the Church’s jurisdiction. Again, the only authority that belongs to the bishops is what they have according to the Gospel, or by divine right, as they say. For they have been given the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. They have no other authority according to the Gospel than the authority to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked people, whose wickedness is known. They cannot exclude people with human force, but simply by the Word. According to this Gospel authority, as a matter of necessity, by divine right, congregations must obey them, for Luke 10:16 says, ‘The one who hears you hears Me.’ But when they teach or establish anything against the Gospel, then the congregations are forbidden by God’s command to obey them.”
Turning to the Apology we read in Article XXVIII, Church Authority, paragraphs 12-13: “Besides, we have declared in the Confession what kind of power the Gospel assigns to bishops. Those who are now bishops do not perform the duties of bishops according to the Gospel. Indeed, they may be bishops according to canonical polity, which we do not condemn. But we are speaking of a bishop according to the Gospel. We are pleased with the ancient division of power into (a) power of the order and (b) power of jurisdiction. Therefore the bishop has the power of the order, that is, the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. He also has the power of jurisdiction. This means the authority to excommunicate those guilty of open crimes and again to absolve them if they are converted and seek absolution.”
In Philip Melanchthon’s Treatise on The Power and Primacy of the Pope we have further clarification of the pastor’s authority and responsibility. In Paragraphs 60-61 we read: “The Gospel assigns those who preside over Churches the command to teach the Gospel [Matthew 28:19], to forgive sins [John 20:23], to administer the Sacraments, and also to exercise jurisdiction (i.e., the command to excommunicate those whose crimes are known and to absolve those who repent). Everyone confesses, even our adversaries, that this power is common to all who preside over churches by divine right, whether they are called pastors, elders, or bishops.”
Later in paragraph 74 of the Treatise, Melanchton writes, “Certainly, the common jurisdiction of excommunicating those guilty of clear crimes belongs to all pastors.”
In the Smalcald Articles, article IX entitled “Excommunication,” we read: “The greater excommunication, as the Pope calls it, we regard only as a civil penalty, and it does not concern us ministers of the Church. But the lesser, that is, the true Christian excommunication, consists in this, that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin. And ministers ought not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment, or excommunication.”
To whom, then, do the Scriptures and the Confessions – on behalf of the congregation – attribute the authority, responsibility and power of the keys? To whom is it given – on behalf of the congregation – to bind and loose, to withhold forgiveness and speak absolution, to lock and unlock? To the sent and called and ordained and installed ministers of God’s Word.
By way of a brief recap of the aforementioned citations from the Confessions, we can say with boldness and confidence that all confessional Lutheran pastors have, by divine right, the power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the Sacraments. All confessional Lutheran pastors have, by divine right, been given the ministry of the Word and Sacraments and have no other authority according to the Gospel than the authority to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked people, whose wickedness is known. All confessional Lutheran pastors have, by divine right, the authority to excommunicate those guilty of open crimes and again to absolve them if they are converted and seek absolution. All confessional Lutheran pastors have, by divine right, the command to teach the Gospel [Matthew 28:19], to forgive sins [John 20:23], to administer the Sacraments, and also to exercise jurisdiction (i.e., the command to excommunicate).
However, if you have been a Lutheran pastor for any length of time, you probably have experienced at least some level of resistance to your divinely-given, Scriptural and Confessional authority to exercise the Office of the keys, particularly the binding key which includes preventing someone from communing to his or her detriment because of unrepentant sin. Or if you yourself haven’t experienced that resistance, you certainly know of a pastor who has.
The problem with congregations not understanding or accepting their pastor’s God-given, Scriptural and Confessional authority is, to be sure, a matter of sin and painful manifestations of the sinful nature. But that sinful lack of respect for the Office of the Holy Ministry has plenty of encouragement and support, especially if you are a pastor serving in a church body that publicly and emphatically espouses an erroneous understanding of the office of the keys.
I am referring, of course, to the intensely unfortunate presentation of the Fifth Chief Part of the Catechism in Concordia Publishing House’s Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. That publication, along with a few other members of an enthusiastic supporting cast (and by that I mean a bit of Walther and a few bits of classically and fatally flawed CTCR documents), has caused no end of grief to many a good Lutheran pastor specifically because of those sources’ blatant disregard for all of the aforementioned and crystal clear Scriptural and Confessional citations. I referenced these glaring problems in my paper to this conference three years ago in Chicago, and I would like briefly to revisit those references now.
In the 1991 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, there is a sad continuation of the misunderstandings and erroneous teachings about the office of the Keys which can ultimately be traced back to the 1912 edition. I commend to you that work of examining how the “explanation” section has schwaffled over those many years; and upon request, I will be happy to give you a copy of my 2012 paper that traced this unfortunate trail.
We begin with Question 277 in the Explanation: “How does the church publicly exercise the Office of the Keys? The Christian congregation by the command of Christ calls pastors to carry out the Office of the keys publicly in His name and on behalf of the congregation. The pastoral office is a divine institution.” So far, so good.
Questions 278 and 279 then correctly teach that well-qualified men are to be considered for the office of pastor and that great care should be taken in dealing with openly unrepentant sinners.
But then there is a jerking of the ecclesiastical head with the following three questions:
- Question 280: “What must the congregation finally do with openly unrepentant sinners?” Answer: “The Christian congregation must exclude openly unrepentant sinners (excommunication).
- Question 281: “By what authority does the congregation excommunicate openly unrepentant sinners?” Answer: “Excommunication is authorized by Christ and is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”
- Question 282: “What is the duty of the called minister of Christ when the congregation has excommunicated a sinner?” Answer: “The called minister of Christ must carry out the resolution of the congregation, that is, he must exclude the excommunicated person from the rights and privileges of a Christian.”
Thank you very much, C.F.W. Walther and the collective ignorance of the CTCR for trashing and disposing of the many Scriptural and Confessional citations which clearly teach otherwise.
The sad result of these fallacious sources and quotes that are taken quite seriously within much of Lutheranism today is that the pastor is only understood as an agent of the congregation who must have the congregation’s resolution and permission before he can act on what God has given him authority to do.
Further, not only is this a clear and violent shift away from how our Lutheran Confessions speak, but, as a consequence of that shift, it is also a further and quite noticeable movement away from Christ and His gifts. Now, instead of the words and actions of the pastor who is the called minister of Christ who deals with us by Christ’s divine command when he excludes openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolves those who repent of their sins and want to do better, and instead of that word and work being valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself, it is the congregation which excommunicates, and it is the actions of the congregation which are just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself. To the pastor is left the mere task of announcing what the congregation has done. As my father, who turned 90 years old two weeks ago today, would say, “That’s just plain bass-ackward.”
It is confusing at best to have any version of Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation confess with one hand the authority of the pastor – authority from Christ Himself – as speaking and acting in Christ’s stead and by His divine command, but with the other hand to rip that authority away with what amounts to a quatenas subscription to the Confessions. This, of course, not only dismisses the Scriptures and the Confessions, but it also dismisses the authority of the Office of the Holy Ministry, and thereby dismisses Christ; plain and simple.
Sadly, upon examination of the Catechism explanation, the suspected inspiration for the explanation, and the seemingly willful neglect and disregard for the clear statements and teachings of both the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, it is not hard to understand how some Lutheran congregations arrange and govern themselves in such a way as to restrict and ultimately remove the pastor’s Scriptural and Confessional authority and responsibility to forgive and retain sins as a called minister of Christ by His divine command and in his stead. If you take that away you are left with only a hollow shell of what Christ intends His pastors to be. And then the poor pastor ends up being a mere hireling with a minimalistic job description. Additionally and quite sadly, the congregation is therefore left with its own confession, its own erroneous interpretation of God’s Word, and its own ungodly discipline which is really no divine discipline at all.
The problem with the catechism’s explanation of the Office of the Keys is certainly bad enough and, as mentioned earlier, has caused many a good Lutheran pastor no end of grief, persecution and, in many cases, dismissal from the congregation. But, as I mentioned before, the Catechism Explanation section has its partners in crime.
In the November 1985 CTCR document entitled “Church Discipline in the Christian Congregation” section B is entitled “Church Discipline in the Lutheran Confessions.” This section correctly presents the difference between the minor and major ban, outlines reasons a person may be put under the ban, and presents the same Confessional quotes cited earlier in this essay, namely Treatise 60, AP XXVIII:13-14, and Treatise 74.
But following those citations there is this ominous statement: “We ought not interpret these confessional statements regarding the power of bishops and pastors as teaching that those who have been given authority over the churches thereby have the right to excommunicate unilaterally.” And, of course, the “unilateral” aspect of excommunication refers to the fact that only the pastor has the authority and responsibility to carry it out. The document does not merely suggest but quite emphatically states that no pastor should be a “lone wolf” and excommunicate unrepentant sinners on his own.
And, as some of you may know, there is another document called, “Request for Opinion on ‘Unilateral Excommunication” which was adopted relatively recently by the CTCR on April 23, 2010. This muddleheaded work begins with the same citations from the Confessions as does the first CTCR Report. But then this statement glaringly appears: “Because of the relationship between church and state in Reformation-era Germany, statements describing the excommunication by bishops/pastors must be understood in their historical context as descriptive rather than prescriptive.”
Furthermore, this second CTCR document quotes at some length from C.F.W. Walther’s Church and Ministry, Thesis IX as follows: “It is certain that the office of the keys in a more narrow sense, namely, the power publicly to loose and bind, is also entrusted to the incumbents of the ministry of the Word. Nevertheless, it does not lie within the power of the minister to excommunicate a sinner without his having first informed the congregation… Therefore, although the public enforcement of excommunication belongs to and must remain with the incumbents of the ministry of the Word, according to the Lord’s command and sacred institution, nevertheless, it must be carried out according to the Lord’s express command and order only after the whole congregation (that is the minister and hearer) has considered and made the final decision on the matter.”
That second document closes with these words of Walther: ‘Here Christ gives the supreme jurisdiction to the church or congregations…’ Thus it is the responsibility of the holder of the office of the public ministry to ensure that church discipline is carried out on behalf of the congregation, but any excommunication is valid and legitimate only if it is accomplished with the knowledge and consent of the church members…’ The opinion, therefore, of the CTCR remains this: ‘We ought not interpret these confessional statements regarding the power of bishops and pastors as teaching that those who have been given authority over the churches thereby have the right to excommunicate unilaterally.’”
As one can see clearly in the erroneous verbiage above, neither the Scriptures nor the Confessions say a word about the pastor having to acquire the congregation’s vote of approval to excommunicate and restrict access to the altar any more than he has to have their approval to admit someone to the altar. It is, however, what an institution says, an institution that needs publicly and emphatically to repent of this gross error which has resulted in untold abuse of those who are called, ordained and installed into the Office of the Holy Ministry and who, frankly deserve better.
The CTCR’s 1985 document “Church Discipline in the Christian Congregation,” its 2010 document “Request for an Opinion on ‘Unilateral Excommunication,” Walther’s Thesis IX of Church and Ministry, and the LCMS Catechism explanation section on The Office of the Keys and Excommunication are therefore clearly guilty of embracing a quatenas and therefore erroneous subscription to the Confessions. On that basis alone they must be publicly and unequivocally rejected and, yes, in the spirit of the Formula, condemned.
It is my understanding that the Small catechism with Explanation is currently under review and in the process of being updated. I sincerely hope that the section on the Office of the Keys with its accompanying questions regarding excommunication are finally brought into full accord with the Scriptures and the Confessions. If not, well, it will be a much sadder day and can only provide more ammunition for congregations to attack their pastors.
But even if those changes are not made, and even if those erroneous CTCR documents live on, and even if Walther continues to be quoted, revered and worshipped on the topic, nevertheless every single confessional Lutheran pastor worth his salt will preach, teach and act in accordance with the Scriptures and the Confessions; he has no other God-pleasing choice. He must act in accordance with the Scriptures and the Confessions; and, for the sake of the souls entrusted to his care, he must do so in clear opposition and defiance of the aforementioned documents.
Otherwise, what is the purpose of sticking a pastor up at the altar on his ordination or installation day and requiring him to confess, as the opening words of the Epitome state, “that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged”? And what is the purpose of requiring those same pastors to pledge fidelity to the Lutheran Confessions and make them their own “because they are a correct exposition of Scripture?”
In an ideal Lutheran world certainly one would think it unnecessary for a pastor even to entertain the idea that the congregation into which he has been placed might not know what the Scriptures and Confessions say about the pastoral Office. Truth be told, it is the foolish pastor who will without question assume that his congregation knows, agrees, and acts in accordance with the true and correct confession of the Office of the Keys. I know I made that mistake several years ago; perhaps some of you have as well.
But, as we all-too-painfully know, we do not live in an ideal Lutheran world; no Lutheran synod or diocese or ministerium or other organization does. There is no ideal, at least not this side of the grave. Therefore it is incumbent upon the men called and placed into the pastoral Office to know and understand completely and absolutely what the Scriptures and Confessions say and teach. I dare say that before a man accepts a Call into a congregation, he needs to make those sources literally part of his cell structure, so much so that each and every time he subsequently preaches, teaches and carries out the duties of his Office that those sources come pouring out clearly, emphatically, and absolutely without reservation.
As Dr. Kenneth Korby used to say, “Don’t teach *for* something, teach *from* something. In other words, with apologies to the Nike corporation, “just do it.” Or as Dr, Norman Nagel has said probably thousands of times in his teaching career, “Do what you’ve been given to do.”
Therefore, in the spirit of St. Paul in the Corinthian congregation and our Lord Jesus Himself, pastors must call sin what it is. Pastors must lovingly yet uncompromisingly use the binding key for unrepentant sinners, not only for their sake but for the sake of the congregation, and even for the sake of the clear witness of Christ in the community. Yes it will be painful; yes, it will be difficult; and yes, it will be challenging. Using the binding key is an unsettling and frightening experience; no pastor relishes or enjoys this part of his authority and responsibility, nor should he. Clearly, too many well-meaning but weak pastors have let things slide in the hopes of avoiding a confrontation. Either they have done so out of the weakness that comes from being beaten down, dragged out, and left for dead (all thanks to the reasons stated earlier in this essay), or they may just think it better to let things go and see where they lead. But neither of these options do the Church or the individual sinner much good; and neither of these options honor Christ, the Overseer of our souls.
To be sure, when the pastor does what he is authorized and commanded to do as he carries out the duties of his Office, he will pay for it. But it is most certainly a worthy price to pay for doing the Godly and right thing, because ultimately he knows he is being used by God to try to keep a soul from entering into eternal damnation.
When, in the mercy and grace of God, the binding key does what it has been given to do, particularly in bringing the unrepentant sinner to repentance, then let the absolution and restoration of the repentant be given and made known so that the church may also rejoice with him. And, as an added benefit, the public restoration of the sinner serves also as a teachable moment to the congregation not only of what the power of the Keys is and how they are most beneficial, but also the congregation should be put on notice that since this individual has been absolved, set free, and restored, they themselves must not bring this sin against the person again, lest condemnation be on their heads for not forgiving what God has forgiven.
Indeed, Lutheran congregations need to be taught what the Scriptures and the Confessions say about the Office of the Holy Ministry. And not only must they be taught, but they must constantly be reminded of how wondrously and marvelously God works for them through their pastors – giving them Jesus in all the ways He wants His people to have Him, and leading them to verdant pastures from which they may happily and freely feed and be nourished.
God grant that He may continue to use us, His sinful yet redeemed pastors, and give us His Spirit to do the right things for all the right reasons.
And, may God grant to more and more faithful pastors congregations that lovingly receive and respect him, and with joy, serve in the Lord’s kingdom until we are all called to the life of the world to come.
To God alone be the glory.