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Our teachers have been falsely accused of forbidding good works. AC, Article XX[1]

One of the charges that is often made against traditional Lutherans is that they are opposed to efforts on the part of Christians to work for peace and justice. This charge is made because traditional Lutherans criticize the emphasis on political advocacy in the ELCA. This is inaccurate. We no more forbid our fellow Christians from working for peace and justice than the Lutheran reformers forbid the doing of good works. Rather, like the reformers, we are concerned about the blurring of the distinction between Law and Gospel, Faith and Works, Justification and Vocation, and the like.

One way to get at this distinction is to focus on the concept of Vocation. The Augsburg Confession says,

It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call. (Article XIV)[2]

What does this mean? It means that although we believe that all Christians are equal in Christ, that in Holy Baptism all are filled with the Holy Spirit, and that all are called to bear witness to Christ through word and deed, no one has the right to take it upon himself to walk into the pulpit and begin preaching. No one has the right to take it upon herself to walk up to the table and preside at the Lord’s Supper. That is reserved for the person who has been called and ordained into the Office of Ministry.

Called by God

What is not as well known is that Lutherans believe there are other offices to which people are called by God. Those other offices include mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, sister, brother, and neighbor. These center around the home. In regard to the workplace, people are called into the office of employer and employee, buyer and seller, merchant and customer. People are called into various professions. As Christians, we believe that each office we hold represents an opportunity for faith to be active in love through service to our neighbor. This is what Lutherans call the doctrine of Vocation. (From the Latin word for “calling”.)

The doctrine of Vocation helps clear up the confusion that often arises around the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers. The Priesthood of All Believers does not mean that at any moment a Christian may assume any office he or she chooses. It does not mean that anyone can walk into the pulpit and preach. It doesn’t mean that anyone who feels moved at the moment can preside at the Lord’s Supper. That is reserved for persons called into the proper office.

At the same time, however, it does not mean that I as a pastor can walk into your home and assume the role of father. I cannot walk into your place of business and assume the role of owner or manager. I cannot decide that today I want to practice law and that tomorrow I want to practice medicine. My call is not yours, but in the same way your call is not mine. You serve as priest in your home, office, or place of work.

Confusion and Politics

This confusion of priesthood and vocation is most evident today in the realm of politics. When a person becomes a member of a congregation through Affirmation of Baptism, they promise among other things to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” Indeed, the Lutheran Church affirms that striving for justice and peace is the calling of every Christian in baptism. The confusion arises when we think that it is the calling of the pastor or congregation to do this for the individual Christian.

Christians in the United States hold many offices that pertain to justice and peace. The most important office in this regard is the office of citizen. As a citizen, you vote for those who will hold public office and have the power to set policy and administer and enforce laws. The office of citizen is one to which you have been called and for which you are accountable to God. Other offices include elected official, civil servant, judge, juror, police officer, etc.… As Christians, we are to work for peace and justice in every office to which we have been called.

Presuming to Speak

Is the Church called to strive for justice and peace? Yes. It does so through the various vocations that its members have. The problem arises when the ELCA believes that it is the primary work of the Church to do this for its members. More and more, it seems that the ELCA believes the work of justice and peace must be done by synod and churchwide office and assemblies, and through congregations led by their pastors. In effect the church has attempted to usurp the offices and callings of its members, by presuming to speak for them and by using their contributions to fund that effort.

Meanwhile, the proper office of the ministry and the congregation is neglected. While the church attempts to promulgate and administer laws, it forgets to proclaim God’s Word and administer the Sacraments. Rather than being a place of reconciliation, where people with honest disagreements about public policy are united as forgiven sinners at the Lord’s Table, the Church becomes a place of political strife, judgment, and condemnation.

The irony of this is that no one cares what I, as an ELCA pastor, have to say about public policy. I can ascend the pulpit Sunday after Sunday to lecture the governor and president, state and federal legislators, judges, and juries about how things ought to be done, but it will have little effect. They don’t really care about what I think.

Things only get worse if I lack expertise on a subject but presume to give policy speeches anyway. The teachers in my congregation know more than I do about education. The doctors and nurses in my congregation know more than me about medicine.  Engineers know more about engineering. The active and retired military people know more than I do about national defense and foreign policy.  They don’t come to worship to hear my opinion on matters about which they know more.

Called to Be Their Pastor

Instead, they expect me to use my theological education and parish experience to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. I have been called to be their pastor. They want to hear the Law that convicts them of sin, and the Gospel that sets them free. They want to receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. They want me to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit so that they, their children, and their grandchildren may receive the salvation that God has promised. That is my office. They expect me to fulfill that calling to the best of my ability with God’s help. The ELCA is in danger of neglecting the one thing that only the Church can do, namely, preaching the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. We run the risk of being ashamed of the Gospel, thinking that our political advocacy will accomplish more. That would be a fatal error. As Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1:16, NRSV)

[1] Theodore G. Tappert. Augsburg Confession (Kindle Location 141). Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, (Kindle Location 109).

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • James HOEFER says:

    A clear and valuable contribution. I have long grieved over the loss of understanding of vocation and priesthood of all believers in our church.

  • Richard Johnson says:

    I left ELCA after their last convention. Protested the ICE facility,worried about us questioning other religions, parade of liberals. Forrgot what was important in churches. Once the compromises start, there is no end. Gospel was unimportant to them.

  • Pastor says:

    Thank you so much. The A C tie-in is perfectly clear Ordained in1959 in the ELC I have noted this error creeping ever forward–ever deeper, until it became more systemic in the ELCA, and I felt the need to move on to a new home–LCMC. This pervasive mistake is a walk away from Scripture and undermines the WITNESS of the Faith in the world. . The Pres of the ELC, Dr. Fredric Schiotz, visited our Sr. class with comment and counsel as we were ready to go to our first assignments……….forever in my mind is his admonition to us all…”be ware the Social Gospel”. Yes indeed !.

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