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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther on the Church and Its Ministry

Summary and Keywords

Any study of Luther’s ecclesiology faces apparent consistencies or contradictions in Luther’s view of the church, which have been variously explained by scholars in terms of a development in Luther’s thought or as reflecting different genres in which he wrote. An understanding that begins with the Word of God, and the church as the creature of the Word, offers a helpful starting point. Luther’s view of the church and its ministry are both grounded in the Word of God, the promise of the gospel. The church exists wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, and the church is a spiritual community oriented to and shaped by this Word in its life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The distinctions in Luther’s ecclesiology, such as visible versus invisible, are hermeneutical rather than ontological. Luther’s later ecclesiological writings also reflect his Spirit and letter hermeneutic, even as he engages new battle fronts, so that the gospel remains at the center of the church’s proclamation and life. For God’s Word to continue to be preached, God has instituted the office of ministry to which specific persons are called, who are entrusted with this great treasure. Luther’s view of the office of ministry should be interpreted in light of, but not as opposed to, his view of the royal priesthood, which he develops as an ecclesiological concept. Bishops are a specific instance of the public office of ministry, at the heart of which is the preaching of the gospel and overseeing its right preaching for the sake of God’s people.

Keywords: Martin Luther, ecclesiology, Word of God, Spirit and letter hermeneutic, Jerome Emser, priesthood, Marks of the Church, ordination, Office of the Ministry, bishops

Luther’s Understanding of the Church

Apart from the fact that Luther never wrote a comprehensive treatise on the doctrine of the church, scholars have long pointed out the difficulty inherent in any study of Luther’s ecclesiology, that is, the apparent inconsistencies in his various ecclesiological writings, especially regarding the nature of the church. In some he emphasized the “invisible” or hidden nature of the church as an assembly of hearts in faith,1 leading Hermann Preus to propose that Luther “only knows one church, the invisible, spiritual church, which is the communion of believers. He does not admit the distinction between a visible and an invisible church, nor does he permit the statement that the church is visible.”2 Other scholars, such as Bernard Lohse, point out that even in his most bitter attacks on the Roman papacy, Luther recognized that the “one single church of Christ in the world” Christians confess in the creed cannot exist apart from visible congregations, even Roman ones.3 As Luther states, “The reason is this: wherever there is a church, anywhere in the whole world, it still has no other gospel and Scripture, no other baptism and communion, no other faith and Spirit, no other Christ and God, no other Lord’s Prayer and prayer, no other hope and eternal life than we have here in our church in Wittenberg.”4

The Polemical Context of Luther’s Ecclesiology

Most scholars point to the historical development of Luther’s thought as explaining these seemingly contradictory statements. For example, Erwin Iserloh and Markus Wriedt both argue that Luther’s views shifted on the basis of the different controversies and opponents he faced.5 Wriedt suggests at least three different battle lines: the indulgence crisis (1517–1520); his debate with spiritualistic radicals like Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer (beginning in 1520); and later disputes within the group of Wittenberg Reformers themselves. This is why, as Bernard Lohse states, “It is all too easy to give to Luther’s statements [on the church] a significance that they cannot possibly have. This is because all of them were developed in the context of Luther’s numerous controversies. These statements tell us more about Luther’s increasingly sharp criticism of the papacy and of the hierarchy of the church in general.”6

David Yeago argues that by letting his opponents set the terms of the debate in his early polemical writings, such as “On the Papacy in Rome (1520),” Luther is forced to deny the identification of the church with its institutional structure and in particular the papacy, leaving him with the universal company of the faithful, “and since the faith of the faithful is inward, spiritual and invisible, that leaves Luther with a spiritual invisible church.”7 This goes against Luther’s own theological logic, whereby the “inward follows the outward, that spiritual grace is inseparable from and dependent for its presence on the bodily and sacramental,” and which should lead Luther to “a primary identification of the church as the concrete worshipping community, whose inward unity in faith and the Spirit is constituted precisely in and through its public sacramental practice.”8

Jared Wicks agrees that the ecclesiology presented in Luther’s polemical works of 1520–1521 is driven by his prevailing concern with the accentuated role of the papacy central to the ecclesiastical definitions of his first opponents, which leads Luther to answer “one extreme view of the church with another extreme conception.”9 However, Luther not only wrote polemically about the church; he also addressed the doctrine of the church in his catechisms. Wicks believes that any study of Luther’s ecclesiology needs to take into account his catechetical works because they offer much-needed balance to the one-sided image of the church as an invisible assembly of hearts found in his more polemical works of the same time period.10

The Church as a Spiritual Community

In either case, and whether considering “early or later” Luther or “catechetical or polemic” Luther, the reformer is consistent in his pastoral concern that the church too often neglected its proper calling, which was to proclaim the gospel of justification to comfort afflicted consciences. Even before he protested the sale of indulgences, Luther would frequently remind priests of their responsibility to distribute “spiritual things” to the believer and to leave temporal needs to other authorities.11 Luther’s battles with the papacy is best understood in light of this pastoral concern and the “crisis of pastoral care which plagued the Western church at the end of the Middle Ages.” 12

The question underlying Luther’s reform is related to his pastoral concern: “Who or what has the final authority that assures me I am in God’s grace?”13 For Luther, it could not be the church in any form (even redefined as a “pure remnant”) but solely the Word of God, the promise of the gospel. This emphasis is developed most systematically in “Concerning the Ministry” (1523), which culminates in Luther’s statement that “since the Church owes its birth to the Word, is nourished, aided and strengthened by it, it is obvious that it cannot be without the Word. If it is without the Word it ceases to be a Church.”14 The church is, therefore, a creature of the Word.15

This emphasis can be found in his early lectures on the Psalms (1513–1515), wherein he speaks of the Word of God as “the food which sustains the believers, that it is the foundation upon which the Church has been founded.”16 Scholars such as Scott Hendrix and Heiko A. Oberman argue further that Luther’s ecclesiological views are found in these lectures and are not simply a direct response to his battle with the papacy and ex-communication.17 The view that Luther’s “basic theological views” did not include a doctrine of the church (attributed to 19th-century theologian, Theodosius Harnack) is erroneous, according to Oberman: “Luther’s exegesis of the Holy Scriptures was inseparably linked with a ‘doctrine of the church’ from the very beginning.”18 Specifically, his Spirit and letter hermeneutic, which developed out of his early lectures on the psalms, offers the interpreter a key for understanding the distinctions commonly applied to his ecclesiology—inward versus outward, visible versus invisible, spiritual versus bodily.

Luther is often credited with challenging medieval ecclesiology by asserting the invisible nature of the truly faithful because one cannot discern whether Christ is present in the life of a believer. Scott Hendrix has shown that, in fact, Luther shares this idea with medieval theology; Luther’s departure is in regard to the basis for Christ’s presence: faith, not caritas.19 Luther makes this shift from caritas to fides following his definition of “spiritual.” In early his work on the Psalms, Luther defines “spiritual” in terms of the believer’s orientation: whereas the carnal person is oriented toward and puts trust in worldly things, the spiritual person is oriented toward spiritual, invisible things.20 Unlike caritas, which requires sacramental grace administered by priests, faith does not rely on a particular, external structure of the church. As long as faith is nurtured through the Word or promise of God, the faithful can exist in any community. Hendrix adds, however, that “although Luther rejects the vertically-directed caritas as the mark of the true fideles, there is evidence in the Dictata that he retains the horizontal dimension of caritas as the mark of unity among the fideles.”21 Thus, the hiddenness of the church “does not apply so much to the persons of the ‘faithful’ themselves as to their orientation in faith and the spirit, which are intangible entities, and yet whose possession leads to a way of life that is actually quite visible. This orientation, this life in faith and the spirit directed toward invisible, spiritual goods, is the mark of the true [faithful].”22

In “On the Papacy in Rome” (1520), Luther applies his understanding of “spiritual” to his debate with Augustine of Alveld on the nature of the papacy. Luther attacks the argument put forth by Aveld that “every community on earth, if it is not to disintegrate, must have a physical head under Christ the true head. Since all of Christendom is a single community on earth, it must have a single head who is the pope.” Not only is this an inconsistent analogy, Luther retorts, it is not scriptural. Scripture speaks of Christendom as “an assembly of all people on earth who believe in Christ. The essence, life and nature of Christendom is not a physical assembly, but an assembly of hearts in one faith.”23 George Forell helpfully points out, “although Luther did not want to make the Church dependent on a definite place or a definite time and a definite person, he did not say that the church exists apart from place and time and that persons do not belong to the church. He merely said that the Church as the Communion of Saints exists because of the gospel and not because of any of her members.”24

Luther’s Spirit and Letter Hermeneutic

Luther articulated this insight in hermeneutical terms in his 1521 debate with Jerome Emser. The debate was sparked by “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520),” when Luther charged that it is “pure invention” to call the popes, bishops, and priests the “spiritual estate” on the one hand, and on the other, to call the princes, lords, and farmers the “temporal estate.” On the contrary: “All Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate,’ and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12.” Baptism, not ordination, makes one “spiritual” and a Christian and consecrates one to the “royal priesthood” and the “priestly kingdom.”25

Peter is addressing all Christians in 1 Peter 2:9, Luther states, not only those ordained into holy orders.26 The term “priesthood” applies to all Christians on the basis of their election and calling by God and not on that of their office. The New Testament never uses the word “priesthood” to refer to Emser’s churchly priests but uses terms like elder, bishop, and servants. It is unbiblical and wrong that the terms “‘church,’ ‘priest’ and ‘spiritual’ and the like were taken away from the community and applied only to the smallest group, which we now call the spiritual and priestly estate and whose affairs we now call the affairs of the church. Yet all of us are in a common church; we are all spiritual and priests, to the extent that we believe in Christ.”27 As discussed in the following section, Luther still views the office of the ministry as necessary for the public proclamation of the gospel; however, those called to public ministry should not be called “priests,” but rather, servants and officials of the common priesthood.

Emser understood Paul’s distinction in 1 Corinthians 3:6 (“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”) to mean that that each passage of scripture has two senses: a literal, which kills, and a spiritual (allegorical), which gives life. Luther argued that there is only one simple meaning of scripture, the historical–grammatical meaning. Paul is referring to two kinds of preaching; the “letter” is the preaching of the law; the Spirit is the preaching of grace in Christ.28 The spiritual priesthood are those who have heard and believed in the good news and receive grace and the Holy Spirit, which “grants strength and power to the heart,” creating in each a new person “who takes pleasure in [obeying] God’s commandments and who does everything he should with joy.”29 The one spiritual priesthood is created by and oriented to the Word.

In his final treatise against Emser, Luther places this discussion back into an ecclesiological framework. He attacks Emser’s claim that the Christian church cannot exist without a specific location and earthly head. Citing John 3:6, “. . . that which is born of the Spirit is spirit . . . ‘by stating that the church is’ neither here nor there, but a Spirit within us.”30 In other words, the Christian church is not bound to any one city, person, or time; rather, it is a “spiritual standing in the Spirit, invisibly built upon the rock of Christ.”31

While Luther’s Spirit and letter hermeneutic has been interpreted primarily in individual and existential terms,32 in his debate with Emser, Luther’s hermeneutic has clear ecclesiological implications. Luther’s insight that the church is “spiritual” is not a claim for the “invisibility” of the church in a Platonic sense; it is not a claim against the church’s visibility, its communal existence in time and space, with structure and order. It is a claim that the church, as a creature of the Word, receives its orientation and identity not from orders or structure, but from what is spiritual and cannot be seen—the Word of God given through the Spirit in proclamation, which empowers the church to live as God’s people.

“The Spiritual Community” in Luther’s Catechisms

The “spiritual community” for Luther is not a priestly estate set apart by ordination (as Emser and others argued), nor it is an “invisible church” of hearts united in faith (as is often taken to be his position), or the Spirit speaking apart from the Word (as he charged the enthusiasts with teaching). It is a visible community oriented toward the Word of God; Luther describes this community in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Large Catechism as those whom the Spirit draws to Christ, and it makes them holy until the resurrection of the dead.

Jared Wicks points to Luther’s catechetical works as a rich but untapped resource for understanding Luther’s ecclesiology. Although the individual believers is “called through the gospel” and receives the gift of faith, this only happens through a visible assembly of believers. As Luther writes, “The Spirit first leads us into his holy community, placing us in the church’s lap, where he preaches to us and brings us to Christ.”33 In this way, the church is the “mother” who begets each Christian through the proclamation of the Word. As believers are brought to faith, they also are incorporated into the holy community as “a part and member, a participant and co-partner in all the blessings it possesses.”34

These blessings include the forgiveness of sins (which Luther understands as the basis of the church’s holiness), not only experienced inwardly by the individual believer but also communally and relationally with other believers in what Luther calls the “full forgiveness of sins,” that is, “both in that God forgives us and that we forgive, bear with and aid one another.”35 The holy community receives these blessings not only for its own benefit but also so that it may “grow and become strong in the faith and in its fruits, which the Spirit produces,” for the sake of those who have not yet heard.36 The Holy Spirit “speaks and does all of his work” through the church. For the Spirit has not yet gathered all into this spiritual community, nor has the Spirit “completed the granting of forgiveness.”37

The Marks of the “Spiritual Community”

In his treatise, “On the Councils and the Church (1539),” often cited as an example of the “later Luther,” he continues to describe the church as “a holy Christian people” because of its possession of the Holy Word. 38 Against the spiritualists, Luther stresses that the Word comes to God’s people externally, through proclamation.39 The Spirit brings individual believers to faith and makes them into a holy community, “in whom Christ lives, works and rules, per redemptionem, ‘through the grace and remission of sin,’ and the Holy Spirit, per vivicationem et sanctificationem, ‘through daily purging of sin and renewal of life,’ so that we do not remain in sin but are enabled and obliged to lead a new life.”40

Luther again distinguishes between letter and Spirit, misunderstood this time not by Emser, but Thomas Müntzer. The spiritualists attacked all externalities as useless because these, unlike the Spirit, cannot save—water, bread, outward human speech, order of ministry, the written Bible itself. Luther responds, “The ecclesia, the ‘holy Christian people,’ does not have mere external words, sacraments or offices”; it has the promise of God to work through these means of grace.41 While the church must not orient itself to anything external for its salvation and life, God has nonetheless given us external means through which God has promised to save and forgive.

The first great mark of the church, which alone constitutes the church’s being, is the Word of God. The rest of the marks reflect and follow this mark: the sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of the altar, the office of the keys exercised publicly, the office of the ministry, prayer, public praise of and thanksgiving to God, and the holy possession of the sacred cross, that is, persecution and suffering for the sake of the gospel. Through these means, “the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification and vivification in Christ, according to the first table of Moses.”42 In addition to these seven marks, there are other outward signs that identify the Christian church and through which the Holy Spirit sanctifies the holy community according to the second table of the Mosaic Law, specifically the conduct of Christians with one another, whereby Christians forgive, help, and counsel one another. The Decalogue can guide the church in discerning how far the Holy Spirit has “advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ.”43 At the same time, because non-Christians also practice good works and can at times even appear holier than Christians, Luther cautions that these signs cannot be reliable indicators of the work of the Holy Spirit in the holy community.

In one of his most polemical works, “Against Hanswurst (1541),” Luther returns to the issue of the “marks of the church” in response to the charge that the only true church is the Roman Catholic Church. This brings Luther full circle, back to the question of late medieval ecclesiology, that of last or final authority of the church. The papists say that they are the true church, that one must listen to this church or else be lost. Luther agrees that the church must be listened to, but “we are concerned ‘not with the name’ of the church, but with its essence.” 44 The essence of the church is nothing more or less than the Word of God, the promise of the gospel that makes it God’s “holy people” and “spiritual community.” The true church is therefore identified, not by its name, but by the gospel. It is the Papists, not the Evangelicals, have who fallen away from the ancient church, and Luther lists nine marks that the Reformation churches share with the ancient church, proving that they are indeed the true church. In addition to the evangelical marks listed in “On the Councils and the Church” (Baptism, the sacrament of the altar, the keys, the preaching office and Word of God, and prayer, and the cross (persecution)), Luther adds the Apostles’ Creed, obedience to temporal authority, and honoring of marriage as a divine institution.45

In contrast, the so-called marks of the Roman Catholic Church are invented externalities like holy water and pilgrimages, which are traditions invented without God’s Word.46 Luther accuses the pope and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church of giving these externally derived rituals equal authority to God’s Word. The pope and his leaders think that “God’s word is a reed bent by the wind [Matt 11:7] over which they have power.”47 Luther’s goal in writing this treatise is “to show that the church must teach God’s word alone, and must be sure of it.”48

Luther’s Understanding of the Church’s Ministry

The church is not defined or marked by its “name,” or by specific ecclesial structures, especially the papacy, but solely by the Word of God, the promise of the gospel, given through proclamation and sacrament. Although Luther lists the “office of the ministry” in his list of visible marks of the church, this must be understood in light of the one great mark of the church, the Word of God. He distinguishes between the person holding the office and the office itself: “what he (sic) says or does is not his, but Christ, your Lord, and the Holy Spirit, say and do everything in so far as he adheres to the correct doctrine and practice.”49 Like the church, the office of the ministry is defined by the Word of God; it exists for the Word of God. In “Concerning the Ministry,” he writes that the public ministry of the Word “ought to be established by holy ordination as the highest and greatest of the functions of the church, on which the whole power of the church depends, since the church is nothing without the Word and everything in it exists by virtue of the Word alone.”50 Luther’s pastoral concern is also evident in his writings on the ministry. The primary purpose of the office of ministry is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ that comforts afflicted consciences and nourishes souls.

John Reumann points out that it makes a “considerable difference” in summarizing Luther’s views on the church’s ministry “whether one begins with and emphasizes statements from his voluminous writings about the universal priesthood.”51 As we saw in his correspondence with Emser, Luther’s assertion that all Christians are “consecrated priests” on account of baptism and faith is an ecclesiological claim, not a ministerial one. Luther’s claim is that there is only one “spiritual estate,” not two; he made no distinction between the spiritual status of clergy and lay people. He opposed the idea that ordination consecrated people into a different spiritual estate, not the setting apart certain people for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Luther’s understanding of the “common priesthood” is, however, related to his understanding of the office of ministry. For Luther, what defines the office of the ministry is the Word, not an indelible character given at ordination.

The Common Priesthood and the Office of Ministry

The relationship between these two concepts—the common priesthood and the office of ministry—has largely been explored in terms of how Luther related the common priesthood to the special ministry. The debate lines were drawn in the 19th century between J. W. F. Höfling and others who said that for Luther, the special ministry was derived or “transferred” from the common priesthood, and F. J. Stahl and others, who said he viewed the office of ministry as being instituted directly from God.52 Scholars continue to debate the issue along these lines, some arguing that these two views reflect a historical development in Luther and others that there is an “irreducible tension between the two theories” in Luther’s writings.53

Other scholars find this inquiry to be unhelpful and the idea that Luther held two theories about the ministry to be illegitimate and “spurious.”54 Indeed, Robert Fischer has shown that the presumption underlying this question is faulty; the common priesthood is not one view of ministry and the ordained ministry another. As his correspondence with Emser illustrates, the common priesthood is an ecclesiological concept that is related to Luther’s view of the ministry, but it is not a competing concept of the ministry. The common priesthood refers not to the laity but to the church as a whole. As Fischer states, “The church is a priesthood; it has an ordained ministry.”55 The “early Luther” showed no intention of abolishing the office of ministry, as seen in his 1520 treatise, “To the Christian Nobility.” In his debate with Emser, Luther makes a clear distinction between the common priesthood and an ordained ministry and defends against accusations that he taught that all Christians should exercise the office of word and sacrament.56 He writes, “I never wanted more than that all Christians should be priests; yet not all should be consecrated by bishops, not all should preach, celebrate mass and exercise the priestly office unless they have been appointed and called to do so.”57

Other scholars have echoed the concern that Luther’s concept of the royal priesthood not be played off against his concept of the office of pubic ministry. Robert Kolb attributes this to a failure to understand the vertical and horizontal relationships in the life of the Christian, as well as Luther’s “concept of mutual service in and through God’s word.”58 Ralph F. Smith agrees that the distinction between function and order may not be supportable by the liturgical evidence and that there is continuity as well as discontinuity between medieval and Reformation ordination rites. The discontinuity relates to the sacrificial and sacerdotal language surrounding medieval understandings of ordination (including indelible character).59 Timothy J. Wengert addresses these issues comprehensively in a recent monograph, showing clearly that that Luther’s concept of the royal priesthood was not about the office of ministry, but rather, the spiritual estate of all Christians.60 He asserts that while Luther did not defend an ontological change in the ordinand, “to reduce service and office to ‘mere’ functions, the authority of which is derived by the priesthood of all believers, is to miss Luther’s point entirely.”61

Ordering the Ministry of the Word

If we return to the ideas that the church is a creature of the Word and that the church is founded on and exists for the proclamation of the gospel, we can see more clearly the relationship between Luther’s concept of the common priesthood and his view of the office of ministry. He makes this case clearly in his 1523 treatise, “That a Christian Assembly has the Right and Power to Judge all Teaching, and to Call, Appoint and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture,” when he writes, “Because a Christian congregation cannot exist without God’s word, it must have teachers and preachers who administer this Word.”62 While all Christians possess the Word of God and are “consecrated priests,” congregants must “act according to scripture and call and institute from among ourselves those who are found to be qualified and whom God has enlightened with reason and endowed with gifts to do so.”63 The highest office to which one can be called is the office of preaching, so that God’s people may be served by the ministry of the Word, the gospel of justification.64

Luther’s 1523 treatise, “Concerning the Ministry,” has been cited in support of the transfer theory of ordination, wherein Luther seems to give all “priestly” duties to the whole of the Christian priesthood, including the sacrament of the altar and the office of the keys.65 However, Luther’s central point in this treatise is to speak against the idea that God’s power comes from the indelible character of a special caste of people, that is, priests; rather, it comes from God’s mighty Word, that belongs to all people. He does not argue against the existence of a public office of ministry; in fact, he states clearly that ordination is “instituted by the authority of the Scriptures” and sets in place “ministers of the Word among the people,” a “public ministry of the Word, by which the mysteries of God are dispensed.”66 The public versus private distinction is also important to note. As Fischer states, “The foremost function of the spiritual priesthood is the ministry of the Word, which is to proclaim God’s wonderful deeds. This office, common to all Christians . . . is fulfilled privately and publicly in due order: privately under certain circumstances by any layman (sic), e.g., “mutual consolation,” but in a special sense, with public responsibility, by the ordained clergy.”67 Ordination was the means of setting apart persons for the public ministry of the Word. The primary tasks of this office include foremost the proclamation of the Word and administration of the sacraments, but also teaching, care of souls, and leadership.

Although specific persons are appointed to the public office of ministry, it is because God’s Word belongs to all people that care must be taken that the pure gospel, and not a false gospel, is preached. This helps explain Luther’s insistence upon proper order in the church, that pastors should not preach without a proper call, and his equal insistence that the lay members of a congregation should rise up if their appointed pastor neglects the gospel. For example, in “Infiltrating Preachers” (1532), Luther calls upon temporal authorities to address a situation in which Anabaptist preachers are preaching without proper authorization, arguing that “one cannot hold an office without a commission or call,” and only those who have been authorized may preach and teach publically.68 While the words may seem harsh, his pastoral concern for the pure preaching of the gospel is what drives his call for order. It is not simply that chaos would ensue if no one is appointed to preach the gospel, we would not have the other “marks” of the church were it not for the ordained minister, whom the Holy Spirit chooses for the public office of ministry. As he writes in “On the Councils and the Church” (1539), “there must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things or holy possessions [the Holy Word of God, baptism, the sacrament of the altar, and the keys] in the behalf of and in the name of the church.”69

Because the one called to the public office of ministry is not only authorized but also entrusted by God to serve God’s people with that Word, it follows for Luther that if a minister is unfaithful to this calling, he may be disposed by the congregation.70 The pastor has been given the responsibility and authority to preach the gospel, but the congregation has the responsibility and authority to hold them accountable to that task. As he states in “Concerning the Ministry”: “A Christian congregation has the right to judge teaching, call pastors – bishops and others have the power to teach, but the congregation has the power to judge whether they are teaching the gospel.”71

The Ministry of Bishops

In his correspondence with Emser, Luther lists “episcopate” along with “ministry,” “servitude,” “presbyter,” etc., as proper terms to use for those who are called to preach and spiritually lead people, reserving the term “priesthood” and “priests” for all Christians. He goes on to explain that the word “bishop” stems from the Greek word episcopus, in Latin called “speculator” and “guardian or watchman on the tower” in German. He writes, “This is exactly what one calls someone who lives in a tower to watch and to look over that town so that fire or foe do not harm it.” In a similar way, a bishop is to be “an overseer, or watchman, so that in his town and among his people the gospel and faith in Christ are built up and win out over foe, devil, and heresy.”72 Thus, a bishop is one who is called to be an overseer of God’s church; the one who is “the most learned and most godly” should be elected to be “their servant, official, caretaker and guardian in regard to the gospel and the sacraments.”73

In the following year, 1522, Luther reiterates his distinction between priests and those called to serve the priesthood in the treatise, “Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So Called.”74 Once again, he defines the ministry of bishops and other preachers in terms of God’s word. Spiritual dominion that does not support God’s Word “is like a wolf and murderer of the soul, and it is just as though the devil himself were ruling there. That is why one should beware as much of the bishop who does not teach God’s word as of the devil himself.”75 Luther’s critique was not aimed at the office of bishop itself but toward those who held the office in his day. These bishops did not deserve the honorable title because they were “wolves and murderers of souls” who hindered the Word of God by preaching papal bulls instead of God’s word and who sold indulgences, which offered the forgiveness of sins for sale.76 In some places, Luther seems to equate bishops with presbyters, but in other places he refers to pastors and bishops as two distinctive roles in the church. In either case, he stresses that the bishop is first and foremost an elder, one who teaches, and this makes all bishops and presbyters “equals.” He stresses that one called to the episcopate should strive not to be domineering but should strive instead, like Paul, to “be a fellow elder” who “wants all pastors and preachers to be his equals and to be equals among themselves.”77

In the same treatise, Luther notes that it is the bishop’s duty to “create learned men (if he himself is not gifted) who will preach the gospel clearly and purely in his stead all over the diocese. Moreover, he should watch over them and should stake everything on the gospel that Christ teaches us to stake on it.”78 However, because some bishops were not exercising their office with respect to the Word of God and because the church must have teachers and preachers who administer the Word, Luther argued, in his treatise “That A Christian Assembly Has the Right to Judge (1523),” for the right of a Christian assembly to call (and dismiss) preachers and teachers.79 He adds that even if there were bishops who supported the Word of God and wanted to institute preachers of God’s Word, “they still could not and should not do so without the will, the election, and the call of the congregation—except in those cases where need made it necessary so that souls would not perish for lack of the divine word.”80 Luther here affirms both the authority of the bishop to ordain and appoint a pastor and the congregation’s authority to call a pastor in order to make the word of God available for the people of God.

As no German bishops joined the Reformation, Luther turned to secular authorities when the need arose for oversight of parishes and to assess their economic and religious needs. This contradicts Bernard Lohse’s statement that Luther did not “make any specific proposals for a new evangelical Church organization.”81 Luther acknowledges the desire for the Reformers to see “the true episcopal office and practice of visitation re-established because of the pressing need” in his 1528 treatise, “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors,” in which he also explains why they have turned to the princes to appoint “emergency bishops” for this task.82

In the Smalcald Articles (1537), Luther affirms both the right of the bishop to ordain as well as the right of the congregation to ordain suitable persons if the bishop will not.83 As with his ecclesiology and doctrine of the ministry, Luther’s pastoral concern for the God’s people is apparent and of utmost concern in his writings about the ministry of bishops. It is the task of the church and its ministry to serve the gospel for the sake of all for whom Christ died and rose again.

In Luther’s later writings, such as “On the Councils and the Church,” he lists bishops alongside pastors and preachers when he addresses the fifth mark by which the church may be recognized: “that it calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer.”84 In his most polemical treatise, “Against the Roman Papacy, An Institution of the Devil” (1545), he argues against the divine institution of the papacy, and he interprets Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21 (“Feed my lambs”) to mean “the great service of preaching, the gospel and the faith, or seriously seeing to it that it is preached, and thus building the church on the rock, Matthew 16:[18], of helping souls with baptism and the sacrament, admonishing and punishing the unruly.”85 This is the kind of shepherd the Lord wants. Luther stresses again that all who preach the gospel, whether pastors or bishops, are equals and that bishops are not set apart to rule over others. The highest office is that of the preacher or bishop.86

Luther did not condemn the office of the bishop as he did the papacy, but the question of how he understood bishops in relation to pastors remains. Some scholars, such as Joseph Burgess, suggest that Luther used the words completely interchangeably and did not understand a bishop to be any different than a pastor except that he may be the pastor of a larger city congregation instead of a small country parish.87 Bernard Lohse claimed that for Luther, the office of the bishop “merely represented a particular instance of the ministerial office,”88 albeit one whose responsibility included additional “special duties,” such as visitation, oversight of preaching, and appointment of pastors to other congregations.89 Timothy Wengert summarizes this debate in a helpful overview of recent scholarship on Luther’s view of bishops,90 concluding that for Luther and the Reformers, “the only difference between pastors and bishops is their specific calling, not their office.”91 Wengert points out that while Luther understood bishops to be preachers and teachers of the Word, he also distinguished their work from that of the pastor, particularly regarding the tasks of oversight and visitation.

Further Reading

Beyer, Michael. “Luthers Ekklesiologie.” In Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526–1546. Edited by Helmar Junghans, 93–117, 755–765. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983.Find this resource:

Brecht, Martin, ed. Martin Luther und das Bishofsamt. Berlin: Calwer Verlag, 1990.Find this resource:

Daniel, David P. “Luther on the Church.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomír Batka, 333–352. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Fischer, Robert H. “Another Look at Luther’s Doctrine of the Ministry.” Lutheran Quarterly 18.3 (1966): 260–271.Find this resource:

Hendrix, Scott H.Ecclesia in Via: Ecclesiological Developments in the Medieval Psalm Exegesis and the “Dictata Super Psalterium” (1513–1515) of Martin Luther. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1974.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. “Ministry in Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions.” In Called & Ordained: Lutheran Perspectives on the Office of the Ministry. Edited by Todd Nichol, and Marc Kolden, 49–66. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Peterson, Cheryl M.Who is the Church? An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Schwöbel, Christoph. “The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers.” In On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community. Edited by Colin E. Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy, 110–155. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989.Find this resource:

Smith, Ralph F.Luther, Ministry, and Ordination Rites in the Early Reformation Church. vol. 15, Renaissance and Baroque: Studies and Texts. Edited by Eckhard Bernstein. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.Find this resource:

Wengert, Timothy J.Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Wicks, Jared. “Holy Spirit-Church-Sanctification: Insights from Luther’s Instructions on the Faith.” Pro Ecclesia 2.2 (1993): 150–172.Find this resource:

Wriedt, Markus. “Luther on Call and Ordination: A Look at Luther and the Ministry,” Concordia Journal 28.3 (2002): 254–269.Find this resource:

Yeago, David S. “‘A Christian, Holy People:’ Martin Luther on Salvation and the Church.” Modern Theology 13.1 (1997): 101–120.Find this resource:


(1.) For example, “On the Papacy in Rome Against the Most Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig,” Gritsch, LW 39:65.

(2.) Herman A. Preus, The Communion of Saints: A Study of the Origin and Development of Luther’s Doctrine of the Church, Augsburg Publishing House Lectureships, 2 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1948), 87.

(3.) Bernard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 179.

(4.) Luther, “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, 1545,” trans. Eric W. Gritsch; and LW 41:358.

(5.) See Edwin Iserloh, History of the Church, 5, ed. H. Jedin (New York: Seabury, 1980), 64–71, 213–225, 253–265; and Markus Wriedt, “Luther on Call and Ordination: A Look at Luther and the Ministry,” Concordia Journal 28.3 (2002): 257.

(6.) Lohse, 174–175.

(7.) See David S. Yeago, “‘A Christian, Holy People:’ Martin Luther on Salvation and the Church,” Modern Theology 13.1 (1997): 106–108.

(8.) Ibid. Yeago sees this principle come to fruition in “On the Councils and the Church” (1539).

(9.) Jared Wicks, “Holy Spirit—Church—Sanctification: Insights from Luther’s Instructions on the Faith,” Pro Ecclesia 2.2 (1993): 153.

(10.) Jared Wicks, “Holy Spirit-Church-Sanctification: Insights from Luther’s Instructions on the Faith,” in Luther’s Reform: Studies on Conversion and the Church, Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Europaische Geschichte Mainz Abteilung Religionsgeschichte, Beiheft 35 (Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1992), 200.

(11.) See for example, Luther’s Gloss on Psalm 104:14, trans. Herbert J. A. Bouman, LW 11: 332.

(12.) See Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981); and Robert Kolb, “The Doctrine of Ministry in Luther and the Lutheran Confessions,” in Called and Ordained: Lutheran Perspectives on the Office of Ministry, eds. Todd Nichol and Marc Kolden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 49.

(13.) Markus Wriedt, “Luther on Call and Ordination: A Look at Luther and the Ministry,” Concordia Journal 28.3 (2002): 254–269. Kurt-Victor Selge first made this argument in his unpublished habilitation, “Normen der Christenheit im Streit um Ablaß und Kirchenautorität 1518–21, Teil I: das Jahr 1518,” PhD diss., University of Heidelberg, 1969.

(14.) LW 40:37, cited in Christoph Schwöbel, “The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers,” in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community, eds. Colin E. Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 122.

(15.) Luther explicitly called the church a creature of the Word in “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” in LW 36:107.

(16.) George W. Forell, The Reality of the Church as the Communion of Saints: A Study of Luther’s Doctrine of the Church (Wenonah, NJ: pub. by author, 1943), 78.

(17.) Karl Holl was the first to advance this argument. See “Die Entstehung von Luthers Kirchenbegriff (1915),” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte, Vol. I: Luther, 7th ed. (Tübingen, Germany, 1948), 288–325.

(18.) See Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 247, 252.

(19.) Scott Hendrix, Ecclesia in Via: Ecclesiological Developments in the Medieval Psalm Exegesis and the “Dictata Super Psalterium” (1513–1515) of Martin Luther (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1974), 85, 88.

(20.) See, for example, Luther’s gloss to Psalm 32[33]:7, in LW 10:156–157. Hendrix calls this scholion decisive for Luther’s new understanding of the faithful.

(21.) See Luther’s gloss to Psalm 47:13 and Psalm 20:4, cited in Hendrix, Ecclesia in Via, 214.

(22.) Hendrix, Ecclesia in Via, 162.

(23.) See LW 39:62, 65.

(24.) Forell, 67–68.

(25.) Citing 1 Peter 2 in “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility,” trans. Charles M. Jacob in Three Treatises of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 14 (author’s emphasis).

(26.) “Answer to the Hyperchristian, Hyperspiritual and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser in Leipzig—including some thoughts regarding his companion, the Fool Murner” (1521), in LW 39:139–224.

(27.) LW 39:159 (author’s emphasis).

(28.) LW 39:182–183.

(29.) LW 39:182.

(30.) LW 39:218 (author’s emphasis).

(31.) LW 39:222.

(32.) For example, see Gerhard Forde, “Law and Gospel in Luther’s Hermeneutic,” Interpretation 37 (1983): 240–252.

(33.) Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans. Charles Arand, et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 438. Hereafter BC.

(34.) BC 438.

(35.) BC 438.

(36.) BC 438.

(37.) BC 438 (emphasis added).

(38.) Part III of “On the Councils and the Church (1539),” trans. Charles M. Jacobs and rev. Eric W. Gritsch in LW 41:143–178.

(39.) LW 41:149.

(40.) LW 41:144.

(41.) LW 41:171.

(42.) LW 41:166.

(43.) LW 41:166.

(44.) “Against Hanswurst (1541),” trans. Eric W. Gritsch and W. P. Stephens, in LW 41:194.

(45.) LW 41:194–198.

(46.) LW 41:215.

(47.) LW 41:212.

(48.) LW 41:217.

(49.) “On the Councils and the Church,” LW 41:156.

(50.) LW 40:11.

(51.) Reumann, “Ordained Minister and Layman in Lutheranism,” in Eucharist and Ministry: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IV, eds. Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1979), 230.

(52.) See discussed in Bernard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 286–287; and Ralph F. Smith, Luther, Ministry, and Ordination Rites in the Early Reformation Church, Renaissance and Baroque: Studies and Texts, vol. 15, ed. Eckhard Bernstein (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 9–10.

(53.) See respectively, Lowell Green, “Change in Luther’s Doctrine of the Ministry,” Lutheran Quarterly 18 (1966): 173–183; and Brian Gerrish, “Luther on Priesthood and Ministry,” Church History 34 (1965): 404–422.

(54.) Robert H. Fischer, “Another Look at Luther’s Doctrine of the Ministry,” Lutheran Quarterly 18 (1966): 261; and Reumann, 231.

(55.) Fischer, 270.

(56.) This is how Luther’s concept of the “priesthood of all believers” is still understood by many people today.

(57.) “Dr. Luther’s Retraction of the Error Force Upon Him by the Most Highly Learned Priest of God, Sir Jerome Emser, Vicar in Meissen” (1521), in LW 39:233.

(58.) Kolb, 52.

(59.) Smith, 10.

(60.) Timothy J. Wengert, Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

(61.) Wengert, 7.

(62.) Trans. Eric W. and Ruth C. Gristch, in LW 39:309.

(63.) Ibid., 309.

(64.) Ibid., 314.

(65.) LW 40:24–26.

(66.) Ibid., 11.

(67.) Fischer, 270.

(68.) “Infiltrating and Clandestine Preachers” (1532), trans. Conrad Bergendoff, in LW 40: 386.

(69.) LW 41:154.

(70.) LW 40:35.

(71.) LW 39:307.

(72.) LW 39:154–155. See also LW 39:282–283.

(73.) LW 39:155.

(74.) LW 39:247–299.

(75.) Ibid., 252.

(76.) Ibid., 269, 270–277.

(77.) Ibid., 284.

(78.) Ibid., 295.

(79.) LW 39:306–309; 312.

(80.) Ibid., 312.

(81.) Bernard Lohse, “The Development of the Offices of Leadership in the German Lutheran Churches 1517–1918,” in Episcopacy in the Lutheran Church? Studies in the Development and Definition of the Office of Church Leadership, eds. Ivar Asheim and Victor R. Gold (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970).

(82.) Trans. Conrad Bergendoff, LW 40:271.

(83.) BC 324.

(84.) LW 41:154.

(85.) LW 41:353.

(86.) Ibid., 359.

(87.) Joseph Burgess, “What is a Bishop?” Lutheran Quarterly 1.3 (1987): 313.

(88.) Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 295.

(89.) Lohse, “The Development of the Offices of Leadership,” 53.

(90.) Wengert, 56–62.

(91.) Wengert, 75.