How I understand the ELS Ministry Statement

For the moment, I can live with The Public Ministry of the Word, the doctrinal statement adopted by the ELS last June. It has some serious flaws, but it can be understood in a way that accords with the Bible and the Lutheran confessions. My hope is that we can continue to study the doctrine and this statement, and either improve or replace it as we are able.

In the meantime, I’ll post below a summary of my understanding of this document. You can find the same summary here, and a longer supporting document here.

Summary of the Chief Points of Interpretation of the ELS Doctrinal Statement “The Public Ministry of the Word”

Rev. Jesse Jacobsen

Last Modified: (Wed May 24 11:43:06 2006)

  1. When the statement speaks of a “narrow” and a “wider” sense of Public Ministry, it is not speaking of two things that exist concretely, but rather two ways of using the term “Public Ministry” that have been prevalent in recent years.

  2. Neither usage is, in itself, required by holy scripture.

  3. The narrow sense refers to the office of ministry that was established by Jesus when He called and sent His apostles by command and promise, an office characterized by the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and perpetuated today in those stations collectively known as the “pastoral office.”

  4. The wider sense refers to the Church’s God-given freedom to establish other offices that carry some of the responsibilities which belong both to the Church as a whole and to the pastoral office. It may be considered “divinely instituted” insofar as we recognize that God wishes these duties to be performed. This is not the same kind of divine institution as we find in the narrow sense.

  5. When the statement uses the term “keys,” it means the application of God’s mercy or judgment to a sinner.

  6. When the statement speaks of an “office of the keys,” it refers sometimes to the office of ministry in the narrow sense (the pastoral office), which belongs to the Church, and through which the Church exercises the keys. Other times, it refers to the authority Jesus gave both to His apostles and to His Church to bind and loose the sins of sinners.

  7. When the statement speaks of a “limited public use of the Keys,” the part that is limited is the term “public,” which is meant to show the official, representative nature of the public ministry. When “public” is not limited, a public minister acts fully in the name and stead of Christ and on behalf of the Church by virtue of the specific divine institution of the office of ministry (in the narrow sense). When “public” is limited, a public minister acts directly on behalf of the Church, and indirectly on behalf of Christ, since the minister occupies an office that the Church established with the authority given by our Lord.

  8. When the statement speaks of the “church,” it means the Holy Christian Church on earth, of which visible congregations are the primary manifestation because of the believers who are part of those congregations. However, since faith is invisible, the only sure marks of the Church are God’s Word and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, each of which is a means of grace. When applied to sinners, these marks are the ministry of the Keys.

  9. “Unofficial or private use of the keys” describes those times when individual Christians speak for Christ, giving His forgiveness to sinners without having received a regular call to do so. Though it is called “unofficial” or “private,” such an act is really public in the sense that Jesus has given Christians the authority to do this in times of special need. In effect, the individual Christian is acting as the pastor of the one being forgiven.

    Christians, on their own part, may also forgive others the sins committed directly against them. While this is only possible because of the keys, it is not in itself a use of the keys. This may be considered a “private” use of the keys, but it is not what is meant by the statement.

  10. When the statement speaks of an individual retaining or binding sins privately or unofficially, it does not mean that the individual is bespeaking a sinner to be cut off from heaven in the manner of an excommunication from the Church. Rather, the statement refers to an individual’s authority to repeat the judgments of God upon sin, and so admonish other sinners.

  11. When the statement speaks of Christians using the keys to judge the teachings of their pastors and teachers, it only means those pastors and teachers still living on earth, and only those times when the Christian confronts the pastor/teacher with the sin of teaching false doctrine. The Christian’s duty to test the spirits is not an exercise of the keys.

  12. When the statement includes the titles “professor of theology” and “synod president” in a list of those which fall into the pastoral office, it assumes that such vocations are defined in accordance with AC articles V, XIV, and XXVIII, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. That is, the duties of these vocations are primarily the administration of the external means of grace, and any distinction between them and other titles for the pastoral office is purely by human arrangement, not from God’s Word. If such a title is found to be defined in conflict with these principles, then the doctrinal statement’s categorization does not apply: it is not part of the pastoral office.

  13. When the statement says, “Extending calls to teachers who have spiritual care of children in Christian schools is not merely a laudable custom, but is in accordance with Romans 10:14-17 and Augsburg Confession XIV,” it does not mean that Romans 10:14-17 or AC XIV apply directly to the circumstance of teachers in Christian schools. Instead, it means that these citations establish the principle that anyone who teaches God’s Word on behalf of the Church must be authorized by the Church to do this. That authorization is what the statement means by a “call.”

  14. When the statement uses the word “call” in connection with the wider sense of public ministry, it does not mean the outward arrangement of a formal call, which we are accustomed to use for the pastoral office. While that arrangement may be used for teachers, the statement means only that an orderly, outward authorization must be given by the Church before the minister can carry out any ministerial duties in its name. This authorization recognizes that Christ has empowered the Church to create and fill such offices.

For an elaboration of these chief points, and an explanation of other points in the doctrinal statement, including the passages cited, please read “The Public Ministry of the Word”: What Does This Mean?.

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