Sermons and Papers

C.F.W. Walther

Theologian for the Layman

by Pastor Robin D. Fish


C.F.W. Walther was many things, particularly to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (as the Missouri Synod was once known). He was a pastor, a teacher, a president, an ambassador, a seminal theologian, and the greatest Lutheran Theologian of American Lutheranism, but he may quite properly also be called the "Theologian of the Layman". He put the laymen back into the church as full participants -- not above nor below, but along side of the clergy.

He was not always so. He once held to episcopal ideas, a system of thought which placed the clergy on top and the laity below. But a controversy resulting from the early failure of the intended episcopacy of the immigrants who together ultimately shared in the formation of the Synod challenged his thinking. The failure of the first and only bishop, Martin Stephan, gave rise to a swift reaction. Carl Eduard Vehse, a layman, challenged the episcopal notions of the early clergy of their group with a set of theses which made the of ministers little more than employees-at-will of the congregations. Vehse returned to Germany, but the controversy raged on, and his bother in law, Adolph Marbach, carried the torch for the profound congregationalism of Vehse. Walther met Marbach for a disputation at what is called the Altenburg Debate. It was in preparation for this disputation that Walther studied Luther and the Confessions and came to his understanding of how the church ought to conduct itself in a country where the church and state were strictly separated -- and laid the groundwork for the polity of the original Synod. Much has changed in our Synod since those days, but everyone likes to claim their piece of Walther as their authority.

Walther became the greatest theologian in America by surrendering any power, and working only from the foundation of legitimate authority. The Missouri Synod was established on the principle of the authority of the Word of God and the power of convincing, period. Walther never held much formal power after that, nor did he seem to want to. His congregation insisted on carefully reviewing everything he did and approving plans, constitutions, and projects. Stories are told, possibly apocryphal, of Walther being seated in his office during voters' meetings, only coming out when specifically requested to appear, and to say a closing prayer.1

Whatever the truth of the many stories may be, Walther found the authority of the ministry in that golden phrase, the authority of the Word of God and the power of convincing. With it he surrendered all earthly vestiges of power, and assumed a greater authority, because nothing depended on the man -- only on the Word of God.

Walther is the Theologian for the Layman chiefly because he held to the absolute truth of the Word of God without swerving to the right or to the left, and without accommodations advanced with the aim that things might be more palatable for clergy or laity. He held to the truth for the sake of salvation and joy and peace -- his and the members of his congregation and of the Synod. He confidently trusted the power of the Word to change men's hearts, and to guide the course of the church, and to persuade the child of God without human contrivance or authority.

And it worked. It worked with unimaginable success and scope. It worked as long as it was trusted and exercised. Many of our problems and conflicts today come not from the failure of the Word of God, or of Walther's theology, but from the failure of trust in the Word of God and desertion of the principles which governed Walther and the Synod of his day. It is that failure of trust (denied and disguised) and that desertion of the principles -- particularly the principle of the authority of the Word of God and the power of convincing -- which serves as the foundation of the most caustic and heated debate in our circles in these recent months.

Walther stood the watch for the rights and freedoms of the laity. For example, Walther taught that the authority of the keys belongs to the congregation, and the exercise of that authority belongs to the pastors. He was clear that the pastors were also part of that congregation, but he did not allow them to appropriate the keys to themselves, and thereby disenfranchise the laity. Listen to Walther:

"Nevertheless, it does not lie within the power of the minister to excommunicate a sinner without his having first informed the congregation. Otherwise the congregation would have to obey the minister blindly, even in matters pertaining to salvation. Here he deals not merely with a clear doctrine of the divine Word but with a judgment of a person's spiritual condition. And this judgment is of such a nature that it closes heaven to the person in question and forbids him brotherly fellowship with Christians, and vice versa. 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 judicial decision on the matter."2

On the first question of power, Walther says no. He points to the authority of the office of the Keys, and to those to whom the keys have been granted; the church. Not any part of the church before or after another, above or below the other, but the church as the body of Christ, works with one will -- the will of God. And she works with one authority, the authority of God, and does not permit anyone to trespass and set themselves up as supreme.

In fact, that is one of the themes of Walther - the theme that no one sets themselves up as ruler where Christ alone may rule. Since the ministry by its unique and God-given office often exercises the common possessions of the church on her behalf and at the behest of Christ, it is easy to understand why the temptation often occurs for clergy to take control and rule. Walther would have none of that. The pastor may not, that is he has no authority, to introduce new laws or arbitrarily to establish adiaphora or ceremonies.

"From these passages [Matt. 20:25-26; Matt. 23:8; and John 18:36] we learn that the church of Jesus Christ is not a kingdom of rulers and subjects but one large, holy brotherhood, in which no one may rule or exercise authority.. . . However the equality of believers is abrogated and the church is changed into a secular organization if a minister demands obedience not only to the word of Christ, his own Lord and Head and that of all Christians, but also to what his own insight and experience regards as good a suitable."3

Mind you, Walther did nothing, and said nothing to diminish the authority of the office of preaching and teaching the Word of God. He held it in great esteem -- and he served in that office. But he recognized the limits of the office, and the nature of the office. In his essay to the 25th Western District Convention held at Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg, Missouri, beginning October 10, 1883, Walther said, p. 262 ". . . The office of a pastor is the highest and most prestigious among all offices on earth; but nevertheless, it is precisely an office that means, as stated in the original Greek of the New Testament, only a diakonia, a service."4

In Walther's vision, the Church worked together -- pastors and laity. Neither was lord, for she has but one Lord. Each element of the church was integral, and each shared a common possession, the Gospel. Pastors were charged with the spiritual authority of teaching the Word of God in all of its truth and purity. But while they were charged, they were not simply trusted. They were held responsible to the laity to be true to their charge. Therefore, the power to judge doctrine is reserved for the laity as well. Walther makes that point by quoting Luther:

"Accordingly we believe as an incontrovertible truth that the right to recognize, judge, or test doctrines is ours and not that of the councils, popes, fathers, and teachers. . . . but to us belongs the right to recognize, prove, and judge His [God's] Law and Word and to separate that from all other enactments.

. . . So you see how wonderfully human arrogance can counsel with its decrees in spiritual matters. Therefore, we must find another way for the unity of the Church, and that is none other than what Christ mentions: "They shall all be taught by God. Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me." (John 6:45). The inward Spirit alone causes us to dwell together in a house with one accord. He teaches us to believe the same thing, to judge the same thing, to confess the same thing, and to follow the same thing. Where He is lacking, unity cannot exist. Where there is any other kind of unity, it is only outward and whitewashed."5

The unity of which Luther wrote is the unity built on the Word of God alone. We come back to that authority of the word of God and the power of convincing. By this teaching and understanding, Walther never intended to dim the authority of the minister, but to strengthen it, while holding in check the fleshly ambitions of the man who holds the office. He knew the hearts of men, since he, too, had once held episcopal notions. For Walther the greatest power we have is the authority of the Word, but it is an authority which is muted by admixture with human opinions. He was very clear that it was to be the Word alone and not mere human opinions or prejudices that held sway in the Lutheran church. But he held the authority of the pastor in the highest regard. Listen to Walther, and, as he quotes him, Martin Chemnitz, often called the second Martin of the Reformation:

"But ought not the ecclesiastical ministry have reverence and authority? By all means! However, not in such a way that they have rule in the church, either absolute or with some limitation, but that they have the ministry. Therefore they bring the doctrine, the voice and Word of God, then we render obedience, not to men but to God Himself. But when they lay something upon the conscience outside of, over and above, or contrary to the Word of God, then our Baptism reminds us of our obligation to render obedience to the divine Word; It reminds us also of our freedom from the commandments, doctrines, and traditions of men." (Examination of the Council of Trent, [Kramer translation, vol. II, 151-152; emphases Walther's])"6

Walther was responding to a spirit in his age not unlike the one in ours in which some have presumed that our learning and pious intentions fit the clergy for predominance and leadership beyond that which the Word of God provides of itself.

"That this teaching does not set aside a genuine true obedience owed to pastors according to Heb. 13:17 (Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.), in contrast to a hypocritical obedience, is well stated in the following by Martin Chemnitz:

"In 2 Cor. 1:24 Paul states: "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy." If we, the apostle wishes to say, would make ourselves rulers over your faith, we would surely be perpetrators of your slavish fear. No pastor dare play this role. Rather, he would help generate the joy which flows out of the Gospel. Certainly the apostle does not hereby deny that a pastor can insist upon faith in the message given to his hearers based on Holy Scripture. What he does reject rather is that a pastor can demand that someone believe something and accept it as right or wrong simply because he says it, commands it, or forbids it."7

But listen to how Walther cautions concerning the pastor's ministry even in things that are not what we would consider adiaphora today. These are specific cases of casuistry, but not at all unlike the issues confronted by pastors throughout our Synod today.

Concerning the issue of whether communion ought properly to be received in the mouth or into the hand, one pastor wrestled with a congregation which was accustomed to receiving it in their hands and did not yield to the guidance of their pastor in this.

"Therefore you can see that you should not give up your congregation but yield to it concerning the manner of distributing the consecrated elements. The people are insisting on it because of habit, weakness, and ignorance. One should therefore give in to them, until they come to a clearer understanding."8

Again, dealing with the issue of dancing (who hears of that today? Although when I was in college it was a scandal that the college permitted a dance on the campus), Walther had the following advice. It is clear how Walther, himself, felt about dancing, but it is also clear how the pastor was to proceed, and from where his true authority was to come.

"As far as your question is concerned, my advice is that you by no means do anything direct against dancing right now. Such vanities cease by themselves when the members learn to know and to love Jesus. Until they know Him, preaching against such vanities is for them something that they do not yet understand. In this way they only develop a hatred for the Gospel. Such matters can be handled directly from the start when the whole congregation has come somewhat further in understanding, when the Word has already accomplished so much that the young people would do such things only with a troubled conscience, and if the pastor, whenever he deals with this matter more seriously, then has the congregation behind him. From the start one must show diligently how good one has it with Jesus, if one surrenders himself completely, and how vain are the joys of the world. They do not bring peace of heart but create wounds, which only leave behind that much greater grief. Don't worry yourself if you and your congregation cannot see eye-to-eye so soon. Preach the Word with vigorous courage, and then let God attend to it. In spite of the most disgusting abscesses of the soul, let nothing deprive you of your joy and love for your congregation."9

Would it be fair to say that Walther placed the congregation above the pastor here? No. He simply placed them both under the Word of God, and charged the pastor with the use of the authority of the Word of God and the power of convincing. And he encouraged the pastor not to despair, but to maintain his true joy in the confidence of that Word of God to train and shape the people of God. He would not budge an inch, even when it came to the usages of the church, ceremonies and ordinances and such. In fact, Walther cautioned the pastor that he exercise wisdom lest he alienated his flock by doing what he was convinced was the right thing to do:

"A pastor should act with the greatest wisdom lest he through ordinances arouse disorder or a disgust towards the church and her pure teachings. I believe for that matter that the opponents of the so-called Old Lutherans are not completely wrong in their recent charges that the latter place far too great an emphasis on the ordinances, usages, and ceremonies of our fathers."10

The authority remains with the Word of God. Pure doctrine was the goal and the ultimate value. Nothing, not even the liturgical traditions of our fathers was more important. Walther counted pure doctrine as paramount, and so he demanded that doctrine be examined and critiqued, and even judged by the church. This wasn't simply an option, but a necessity if the church was to remain faithful. In his address to the first convention of the Iowa District in 1879, speaking on the duties of an evangelical synod, Walther made it this clear, "The most important freedom and the most important right of a congregation is its right to judge and evaluate their pastor's doctrine."11

And to preserve that precious right, he would even say, "In 1 Cor. 3:4-8 Paul places ministers on an equal and teaches that the church is above the ministers . . . For he says, "All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas" (1 Cor. 3:21-22). This is to say that neither Peter nor the other ministers should assume lordship or authority over the church."

Now, Walther's aim was not to make the ministers hirelings, or place them under the authority of the laity. There is but one authority in the church, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church, through His holy Word. But, as he made clear in his explanation above, the point of this statement was to prevent pastors from assuming lordship over the congregations either. That was a temptation for pastors in his day, and it is a temptation for pastors in ours.

Walther was and is still today the theologian for the Layman. He protected the laity from those among the clergy who would dominate them for the purposes of their own sinful flesh. But he also protected the layman from his own flesh. He did not set congregations utterly free or absolutely above all influence. He expected clergy and laity to work together. It is clear from his many comments and instructions in his writings. For example, Walther staunchly held forward the right of the congregation to call its own pastor. That is the title of one of his books, in fact. He maintained that the Christian congregation had the right to call whomever it wished and chose to be its pastor, although the congregation surrenders willingly portions of that right in choosing Synodical membership. In other words, the congregation is free to choose anyone, but not as a member of Synod. If she should choose to ignore the Synod and her covenant with the Synod in selecting a pastor, she does so with the knowledge that exercising that freedom also excludes her from membership in the Synod.

Walther never wanted to limit or deny a congregation its freedom or rights, but he recognized that the congregation could also freely choose to exercise its liberty by limiting itself, disciplining itself to the covenant of membership in a Synod. There were good reasons to do so -- for the common work of missions, and for the training of pastors and teachers, and for protection from false doctrine and unscrupulous pastors. But such self-limiting was also freedom.

"The statement: "Where there is a right, there is also the ability to exercise that right," must absolutely be rejected. A one-day-old infant that has been baptized has the same right as every adult Christian, but certainly not the ability to exercise it. Similarly, a woman has the right and power to vote, but through St. Paul God has expressly forbidden her to exercise that right."12

And Walther expected congregations to be wise enough to seek and use the counsel of pastors -- even, and especially, in exercising that most basic and important right, the right of the Christian congregation to call her own pastor. He appealed on basis of Scripture, and apostolic practice, noting that, "The apostle is very careful to avoid infringing on the congregation's right; he does not command, but he pleads and admonishes. But not once do we read of a congregation choosing someone without having consulted a bishop."13

As you can imagine, some people saw the encouragement to seek pastoral counsel -- particularly the counsel of a District President -- as sinister and manipulative, a veiled episcopal notion, if you will, Stephanism! Walther rejected such ideas and defended the wisdom of using the counsel of pastors and District Presidents on the basis of the congregation's need for help in such an important task.

"It is a dubious wisdom when congregations consider themselves so wise and knowledgeable that they try to carry out such an important task as the calling of a pastor all by themselves. When we direct congregations to pastors already in office, especially to the District President, for good counsel, we most certainly do not thereby want to say, "God helps His children; how much more must He not help the pastors and especially the president of Synod!" God forbid! Faithful officials of a Synod, presidents and professors would have to spit on themselves if they thought that as such they were endowed with wisdom and they knew how to do everything right. If such thought gained ground within them, they would have to fear that they had fallen from grace. The thought that as wise and learned men they must certainly know what is good for the ignorant people in the congregations is the last thing that would enter their minds and is totally repugnant to them. They worry night and day about weighty matters on which they are asked for advice. They often fall on their knees in fervent prayer when they are greatly troubled. They pour over ancient books, searching for the wisdom of the fathers. When they meet with their colleagues, they immediately ask them for advice; and when they attend conferences, they immediately burden their brethren with their concerns. In short, they consult with all possible advisers, asking for counsel and help, so that, at all costs, God's will may be recognized and done.

"That is how all true Christians deal with important and difficult matters, and that is also how good congregations should proceed when calling pastors. Woe to us if it were our goal to hamper or deprive congregations of their holy, precious right of choice!"14

So neither the congregations are independent of the pastors, nor the pastors of the congregations in the theology of Dr. Walther. Neither lords it over the other, since the church has but one Lord -- Jesus Christ Himself. And Christ rules by the authority of the Word of God and the power of convincing. But unlike many of those in his day, Grabau and Loehe as popular examples, Walther stood for the rights of the Christian and of the congregation in order to limit the secular and this-worldly ambitions of many among the clergy. He left pastors with no power to steer, just faith in God, the same thing the church live on in every age. But Walther attempted to protect the laity, the congregation by standing firmly on the Word of God, whether it was popular or pragmatic or seemed foolhardy -- as it did to many a century and a half ago, and as it seems to many today. Walther simply trusted God, and trusted God would work through His Word among His people, just as He promised He would. Imagine that, faith! Among Christians! And it was stubbornly standing on the Word, and in the truth that made Walther the theologian for the Laymen.

As I close, let me quote in abbreviated form Walther's theses on earthly authorities. They probably say as much as this entire paper, and it would be a pity if they were not visited publicly at least one more time in this generation. For those who would contend against what these theses say, their opposition says more about them than it does about Walther or about these simple, remarkable, biblical principles.

Theses on Earthly Authorities

  1. The Lutheran church believes, teaches, and confesses in harmony with God's Word that no creature in heaven or on earth except God alone, the Lord Himself, has the right and power to rule over the faith and conscience of Christians (James 4:12; 1 Cor. 7:23; Matt. 15:19; Gal. 5:1; John 8:36)
  2. Not even the entire Church
  3. No ecclesiastical government, whether it be called pope, bishop, superintendent, deacon, president, or council, consistory, synod, or otherwise.
  4. Also no single congregation, much less a majority of its members.
  5. also no executive council of a single congregation . . .
  6. Also no pastor.
    A.  He is not a master, but rather a servant of the congregation
    B.  He must allow his doctrine to be proved and judged by the congregation
    C.  He dare not command what Christ has not commanded
    D.  He has no authority to establish or arbitrarily initiate matters which are rightfully the concern of the entire congregation.15

Finally, for the sake of the laymen, and the pastors, I would like to come down on the debate raging in our day on church polity. I do not wish to settle the debate, but to quote Walther to bring some clarity, and hopefully some perspective, to the discussion. Walther wrote the following, and I believe it is directly to the point:

"God's Word has given no explicit mandate on the necessary structure of parish affairs. How these are to be regulated we can indeed assuredly deduce from God's Word, but only analogously (Titus 1:5) and from the general Biblical principle that everything be done to the glory of God, to the welfare of the church, and to the salvation of each individual (1 Cor. 12:7, 10:31, 14:40)."16

May God be gracious to us in these days and raise up men of faith like Walther, -- pastors and laymen!

A note about Endnotes

The endnotes used in this work are linked from the note number in the text to the endnote at the bottom of the page, and vice versa.  In addition, where a note uses "ibid." or "op. cit.", it is linked to the appropriate parent endnote information.
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1.  The Use of Authority and the Abuse of Power in the Missouri Synod, a paper presented by Robin D. Fish at the 10th Annual Lutheran Free Conference, St. Cloud, MN, 1997, p. 6.

2.  Church and Ministry (Kirche und Amt), Witnesses of the Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Question of Church and the Ministry, by C. F. W. Walther, trans. by J.T. Mueller, 1987, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO., p. 321-322.

3.  Ibid., p. 312.

4.  Essays for the Church, Vol. II, by C.F.W. Walther, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1992, p. 262.

5.  Church and Ministry, p. 335

6.  Essays for the Church, Vol. II, p. 263.

7.  Ibid., p. 262.

8.  Walther Speaks to the Church, Selected Letters by C.F.W. Walther, edited by Carl S. Meyer, Concordia Publishing House, 1973, p. 66.

9.  Ibid., p. 75, item #57.

10.  Ibid. p. 69.

11.  Essays for the Church, Vol. II, p. 38.

12.  Essays for the Church, Vol. I, by C.F.W. Walther, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1992, p. 73.

13.  Ibid., p. 73.

14.  Ibid., p. 73.

15.  Essays for the Church, Vol. II, p. 245.

16.  Walther Speaks to the Church, pp. 70-71.

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