The Church and Its Pastors

The Christian Church properly speaking is the Body of Christ, all true believers from all time.   The Church is recognized by the assembly of Christians around the preached Word of God and the delivery of Christ’s sacraments to his people: baptism and communion.[1]  This assemblage of the Church is implied from the Greek word ἐκκλησία which the early Church chose to use to identify itself.  This is also the word that Christ himself used to speak of his people in Matthew 16:18. The word did not have a sacred origin when Christ used it, but a secular and political one.  In the Greco-Roman world, an ἐκκλησία was “a regularly summoned legislative body, assembly.”[2]  The word literally denotes a people who are called out – separated from society in some form or fashion – think of those in Congress.  Christians by being called Christ’s ἐκκλησία are “called out ones,” called out from this wicked world as they are the holy citizens of God’s eternal kingdom and members of his family.

The following is Christ’s usage of ἐκκλησία found in Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church [ἐκκλησίαν], and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This verse reveals seven key traits of the Church.  First, the Church is Christ’s.  It is his and all authority in it belongs to him. It is not Peter’s Church nor your Church nor mine.  Secondly, Jesus is the one who builds his Church.  He builds it as he sees fit, as he desires.  Third, Jesus builds his Church on himself.  In the context of this verse, the rock upon which Christ builds his Church is the confession made by Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the living Son of God.  Jesus’ true nature and personhood is the confession and as such Jesus is the foundation upon which the Church is built.  Fourth, there is only one Church.  Christ is not building multiple churches.  Fifth, the Church is growing.  The future active indicative verb οἰκοδομήσω can be translated to say that Jesus “will be building” his Church.  Our current historical context lets us know that this is a proper translation, since Jesus did not build his Church in a once and done action – even to this day more people are being placed into this building as living stones.[3]  Sixth, when Jesus says that the gates of hell shall not overcome the Church, he indicates that the Church is advancing against Satan and his realm, rescuing souls from sin, death, and the Devil.  Seventh, if “gates of hell” is meant to refer to the realm of the dead[4] and not particularly to hell, then the promise Jesus gives is that his Church has eternal life.  Based on point five, we know that point six is true, even if Jesus meant point seven with his use of “gates of hell.”  Regardless of Jesus’ intended usage, we also know from Scripture that point seven is most certainly true.

The Nicene Creed further clarifies Jesus’ teaching that there is only one Church in its confession, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  Holy is clarifying that the true Church is saints – believers.  Catholic refers to the universality of the Church in its geographic scope and apostolic refers to the Church’s confession of the paradosis – the teachings delivered by the apostles to the Church.  Hermann Sasse explains how catholic and apostolic are synonymous and work together to modify the oneness of the Church:

The word “catholic” tells of the universality of the church spread spatially over the face of the earth. The word “apostolic” tells of the identity of the church of all times with the church of the beginning. To catholicity belong “all nations” (Matt. 28:19) and “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8); to apostolicity belongs “always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).[5]

The Nicene Creed follows its confession of the oneness of Christ’s Church with a confession on baptism: “I acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  This too elaborates on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 – how is the Church to be built, how are people to be engrafted into Christ’s Church?  Through baptism, because it is in baptism that believers are united with Christ, being buried with him in his death and raised with him to new life, which also explains why the next line of the creed is: “and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”[6]    Along with baptism we know from Scripture that the forgiveness of sins is also promised in the proclamation of the Gospel and the Lord’s Supper.  These are the means by which Christ has promised to save souls from hell and place people into his Church as “called out ones.”  As such, as previously stated, the Church is recognized visibly on the third rock from the sun by the assembly of Christians around the preached Word of God and the delivery of Christ’s sacraments to his people. The Church therefore in addition to being the people of God, the Body of Christ, is the place where God has located his grace – his salvation of mankind.

This leads to speaking of how God’s grace is located and delivered within the Church.  The permission and authorization to forgive sins or to not forgive sins has been given to the whole Church by Jesus Christ himself and is called the Office of the Keys.  To demonstrate the Scriptural teaching of this doctrine, Luther’s Small Catechism states the following: “This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter twenty: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22–23)[7] Even though the Keys have been given to all Christians by Christ, Christ has called and designated certain men to hold a unique office within his Church for the public proclamation of the Word of God and the distribution of the sacraments.[8]  This office is called the Office of the Public Ministry.  The German name for this office is predigtamt – the office of preaching.  In Protestant circles, the man who holds this office within our congregations is typically called a pastor. Since the means by which salvation comes to humanity are located in the Church, God has placed men into this office to ensure that the delivery of grace is not left to chance.  This eliminates any wishful hoping that the Word of God will be rightly proclaimed and the sacraments distributed in God’s holy Church.  The men in the predigtamt have been placed there to ensure that the grace that brings salvation is delivered to God’s people in the Church.  This ultimately means that all church congregations have a pastor… or they are not recognized as being part of the Church.

It has already been stated that God places men into the predigtamt.  This office is not a human institution.  It was divinely created by Christ.  Men are called into this office by God.  This call happens mediately through the congregation of God’s people in a specific geographic location.  Though the congregation has been used by God to call a pastor to publicly exercise the Keys on their behalf, the congregation still possesses the Keys themselves.  The individual Christians of the congregation have not relinquished their authorization from Christ to forgive sins when they called a pastor to speak in Christ’s stead for them.  And through their calling of a pastor, they have not given the Keys to the pastor – no – the pastor received his authority and the Keys from Christ.  To emphasize this point, I’ll reiterate – the call into the predigtamt came mediately through the congregation.  This means that God himself has called the pastor to publicly preach the Word and distribute the sacraments to his people in a particular congregation – he has just worked this call through the congregation, who he has also given the authority of the Keys.

God has put this organizational structure in place to nail down where his grace is located – to ensure that it is delivered faithfully and rightfully.  Just as God delivers his grace through more than one means (the Gospel and the sacraments), so too absolution from the Gospel is delivered through more than one means.  Absolution can come to us through more than one office (or vocation).  Sometimes the nature of an individual relationship might lead a person to confess sins to a friend before going to a pastor.  That friend who has the Keys and the authority of Christ to forgive sins can forgive his friend’s sins in the stead of Christ just as the pastor does.  But just because that friend might proclaim absolution to his amigo, it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for him to then take the pulpit and publicly preach.  That would not be his office – that’s reserved for the man called into the predigt amt, the man called to be the congregation’s Absolution Man.    To make things more personal, my wife in her office as my wife can forgive my sins and due to her office as my wife that forgiveness has a special quality to it due to the nature of our relationship.  When my pastor in his office forgives my sins, reminding me that he is called and ordained by God to be God’s mouthpiece to me and that he is speaking in the stead of Christ himself when he says, “I forgive you of all your sins” – yeah, that has something special to it.

The Keys and the authority to forgive sins being given by Christ to the congregation and to the predigtamt – the Church – is not by chance or mistake.  The Church is Christ’s, it’s built on him, and this authority to forgive sins by both the congregation and the predigtamt is by his order and design.  Respect it, and stick to the order he has given to his Church to ensure that the Gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly distributed in good order.

[1] Absolution can also be included depending on how sacrament is being defined. (AAC Article XIII)

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 303). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Borrowed language from 1 Peter 2:4-5: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (ESV – Emphasis added.)

[4] πύλαι ᾅδου – Hades as place of the dead; Ibd.

[5] Sasse, Hermann. Jesus Christ, translated by Norman Nagel, Volume 1, St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1984, pp. 94-95.

[6] Romans 6:1-5 – “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (ESV)

[7] – Luther likely did not write this section of the catechism.

[8] Romans 10:15, Jeremiah 23:21; Acts 14:23; 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6; 2:2; and Titus 1:5.

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Andy Wrasman

I live in Lilburn, GA, with my wife and two young kids. I am a pastor at Oak Road Lutheran Church. I've written a book called, Contradict - They Can't All Be True. Be sure to visit my other website:

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