A Fourth Improvement for the PMW

Here’s another improvement about which I’d expect some strong opinions
and brotherly discussion.

First, a bit of explanation. In my mind, a doctrinal statement should
be explicit in what it says, not implicit. That is, it should not
merely imply anything important, leaving the reader to draw the
implication out as something taught by the doctrinal statement.
Instead, it should say what it means at every point. To skim over some
points, leaving them merely implied, is to make the doctrinal statement
less useful by introducing confusion and uncertainty. In fact, it could
be harmful. I don’t claim that this part is necessarily harmful, but in
the wrong hands, or set in the wrong context, it could be. The wrong
context is not even hard to imagine when we survey the state of
“Lutheranism” in America.

Currently, the PMW says:

Christians also use the keys publicly or officially when scripturally
qualified individuals, who have been called by Christ through the
church, forgive and retain sins on behalf of Christ and His church
(Romans 10:14–17, Acts 14:23, Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the
Pope, 67).

Understood correctly, this sentence notes that because
ministers perform the office of the keys, the Christians through whom
God calls them to their office also use the keys, acting to call them on
behalf of Christ.

There are several possible sources of confusion.

  1. “Christians” might be identified with “individuals,” which would be a
    form of an ancient false doctrine called Donatism. See the link above
    for a fuller explanation of this. The distinction between
    “Christians” and “individuals” is implied, but not actually stated.

  2. The word “Christians” does not actually tell us whether it means
    individual Christians or a body of Christians, i.e., the Church.

  3. A small point, but the PMW’s peculiar equation of “public” with
    “official” results in an odd combination again here, that individual
    Christians (without the office) are using the keys “officially.”

  4. The word choice “individuals” is a deviation from the way a number of
    our synod’s publications have described this teaching in the last few
    decades. Customarily (but not universally), we have seen a word like
    “men” or “males” instead. The change here is an attempt to
    generalize our conceptions of the call, the office of the keys, and
    the ministry, so that women may be regarded as called to teach the
    Gospel in the same way that pastors are called to teach the Gospel.
    I don’t think it’s a conscious attempt to work toward women
    pastors, but it is a conscious attempt to establish or promote a certain
    conception of women ministers. Some in the ELS and our fellowship
    have had such a conception for a long time already (without
    fellowship consequences), and the change here reflects their
    understanding. It is also reflected in part II.B. of the PMW.

    The problem is that this change does not account for some confusing
    factors that could possibly cause offense. First, pastors (for example) have from their calls the
    authority only to teach and preach the Gospel, and to administer the
    Sacraments, yet women (and men) called to be Christian Day School
    teachers (for example) receive from their calls the authority to
    do more than use the keys. Someone might conclude that the the Church’s possession
    of the keys gives it the authority to call someone to do just about anything, as long as
    part of their work involves forgiving and retaining sins!
    Second, while “forgive and retain sins”
    is a great summary of the work of “a presiding office,” it’s
    not nearly complete in describing the churchly offices in which God
    places women, and can even be misleading. Someone might conclude that
    the act of teaching human knowledge is itself a use of the keys! Third, as a consequence,
    readers of the PMW might naturally conclude that this sentence speaks
    of the office which preaches and administers the sacraments to the
    public assembly of the external church. (What else could it be?) Fourth, the words
    “scripturally qualified” are explained most obviously in the parts of
    scripture that address the ministerial office, and they do not permit
    women to hold it. Fifth, there are prominent teachers within
    Lutheranism who have been using changes in wording like this for many
    years in an attempt to change the doctrine so that women are
    permitted to teach the church with the call and authority of pastors.
    I’m sure that there are other confusing factors, too.

The wording I suggest addresses these problems, and it also

  1. Explicitly states that the the body of Christians who call a minister
    are doing so by the authority of God.

  2. Says that there is a command from Christ that makes the authority of
    such ministers official, a command that
    defines and limits the ministers’ forgiving and retaining of sins.

  3. More clearly states the main point of this sentence: that
    Christians use the keys when they act as a body to call ministers.
    This is a use of the keys because the ministers are called and
    authorized by Christ for the ministry of the keys.

Here is the wording I suggest.

Christians use the keys publicly when, as the Church of Christ, and by
the authority of God, they call scripturally qualified men to forgive
and retain sins in the place and at the command of the Lord Jesus
Christ. (Romans 10:14–17, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5-9, Treatise 67)

I admit that there remains to be addressed the churchly offices in which God places
women and men who are called to perform duties outside the scope of the
keys. As I mentioned, some in the ELS and our fellowship have had a
strong conception of women as ministers of the Gospel for a long time already, and
though others might prefer a narrower use of the language, it
has not caused a division in fellowship (until the PMW, anyway).
It would seem most prudent and
least divisive to confine the PMW’s discussion of that to part II.B,
allowing the Christian assembly’s use of the keys to be expressed here without
the extra complication.

This would not contradict a Christian school-teacher’s (for
example) authority to speak words of rebuke or forgiveness in the least,
nor the authority to teach biblical truth alongside subjects of human
knowledge and skill. It also does not remove the teacher from the
doctrinal oversight of his or her superiors in school and congregation.
Neither does it reduce the necessity that teachers should be trained in
the proper application of Law and Gospel. (Indeed, every parent should
have the same training!) It’s only natural that Law and Gospel should be constant companions
in the Christian schoolroom, and that the teacher should apply them appropriately.
The way human knowledge is taught in the public school system without the benefit
of Law and Gospel is unnatural and artificial. By no means should that be the baseline,
as though we need a theological justification — in this sentence of the PMW —
for expecting Christian school teachers to use Law and Gospel.

My interest here is not to say anything in particular about Christian school teachers. Rather,
I’d like to strengthen, clarify, and make consistent our
understanding of the Keys, as it is expressed in the PMW. Later, there
will be more to say about “the teaching ministry,” to strengthen our
understanding of that.

2 thoughts on “A Fourth Improvement for the PMW

  1. Jesse,

    First, I find your suggested rewording of the paragraph concerning public use of the keys (A Fourth Improvement for the PMW) to read, “Christians use the keys publicly when, as the Church of Christ, and by the authority of God, they call scripturally qualified men to forgive and retain sins in the place and at the command of the Lord Jesus,” to be acceptable and a vast improvement theologically.

    However, it changes the theology of the PMW as it is now written.

    Actually, a similar change (regarding changing “individuals” to “men” in that paragraph of the PMW) was suggested to the floor doctrine committee at the 2005 convention. The response from the committee was that if that change were made, the meaning of entire the document would be changed, and the whole thing would have to be rewritten.

    Regarding reconciliation, as one of the “separated brethren” I don’t know of anyone who is opposed to Christian reconciliation. However, it cannot be reconciliation simply for reconciliation’s sake given what has transpired. The theological points that you and others have raised must be addressed and openly discussed. Also, there must be a change in attitude on the part of the “powers that be” in the ELS. A number of us find the attitude that says once a doctinal statement has been adopted (whether it be 60% for and 40% against, or by whatever other margin) all pastors of the synod are required to unconditionally subscribe to it to be problematic. Equally problematic is placing a congregation in the position where they have to choose between synodical membership and deposing their pastor when he has not so much as been charged with teaching false doctrine, living an ungodly life, or neglect of pastoral duties. Also equally problematic is the attitude that would rather cut brethren out of fellowship than to go the extra mile in serious theological debate. I know that some of these are old topics and that they dredge up the past, but any serious attempt at reconciliation would have to include a serious commitment to address these attitudes and concerns.

    The Lord be with you, Jesse, and bless your ministry and your congregations as we enter Holy Week.


  2. Thank you for your comment, Les. As always, I appreciate your straightforward candor.

    Would anyone else reading this like to chime in on whether or not the improvement I suggested is really a doctrinal change in the PMW? I see it as a beneficial change of focus, but not a change in doctrine.

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