A Few Thoughts about the Individual Use of the Keys
and the Public Use of the Keys


Within the Evangelical Lutheran Synod it is commonly understood that Christ committed the “office of the keys” to the entire Christian Church and therefore to each Christian. It is furthermore understood among us that the “office of the keys” includes preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, and forgiving or retaining sin. Regarding the exercise of the office of the keys, it is understood among us that believers have the authority to exercise the keys individually and collectively, but also that it is God’s will and command that the office of the keys be administered publicly. And finally, it is understood among us that the public use of the keys is to be exercised only by those who have been properly called, and consequently that it would be both disorderly and contrary to the will of God for someone to administer the means of grace publicly without a proper call. There is no debate in our midst over the essential soundness of these various points.

Sometimes, however, there does seem to be a certain logical gap in our conceptualization and explanation of the interrelatedness of these propositions. There is sometimes a certain incompleteness in the way that we distinguish between the “individual” use of the keys, which all Christians may carry out, and the “public” use of the keys, which Christians may carry out only when they have a proper call. If the idea of the “use of the keys” is a constant, what actually is the difference between the individual use of the keys without a call, which is permitted, and the public use of the keys without a call, which is not permitted?

Most commonly the “public” character of the public use of the keys is explained on the basis of the fact that such a use is being carried out by a Christian on behalf of other believers, by virtue of their call, as compared to the individual use of the keys which a Christian carries out on his own initiative. But this is not an adequate explanation, because it does not allow us to identify any use of the keys as an improperly-carried-out public use (i.e. a public use without a call). For example, if a person on his or her own initiative decides to preach a sermon or administer the Lord’s Supper to someone, he or she can simply claim that this is being done “individually,” for which a call is not necessary. If any Christian is allowed to use the keys “individually,” without needing a call, then it would seem that any use of the keys can be interpreted as a permissible “individual” use. The fact that a certain use of the keys is “without a call” would mean merely that it is an “individual” use and not a “public” use, and nothing more.

What is missing from this equation is a recognition of the fact that some uses of the keys, by their very nature, are always public uses. The public use of the keys, according to a careful and complete definition of that concept, has a “public” character in part because of what is actually being done, and not only because it is being done by virtue of a call from others. It is only on the basis of such a definition that we are able to identify certain activities as public uses of the keys without a call, and to express our disapproval of these activities.

The old Norwegian Synod was brought to a clear understanding of this point as a result of its controversy with the pietistic lay preaching movement. The following Theses on Lay Preaching were adopted by the synod in 1862:

1. God has instituted the public ministerial office for the public edification of the Christians unto salvation by the Word of God.
2. God has not instituted any other office for the public edification of the Christians to be used along-side of the public ministerial office.
3. When a man assumes the direction of the public edification of the Christians by the Word, he thereby assumes and exercises the public ministerial office.
4. It is a sin when a person assumes this (office) without a call or without need.
5. It is both a right and a duty in case of actual need for anyone who is capable of doing so to exercise the public ministerial office in a Christian and orderly manner.
6. The only correct definition of “need” is that there exists a need when a pastor is not at hand and cannot be secured; or when, if there is a pastor, he either does not serve the people properly but teaches false doctrine, or cannot serve them adequately but only so rarely that the people cannot thereby be brought to faith or be kept in it and be defended against errors, so that the Christian must faint for lack of care.
7. When such need exists, efforts should be made to relieve it by definite and proper arrangements according as circumstances will permit. (Grace for Grace [Mankato, Minnesota: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1943], pp. 138-39)

The third thesis states that a man is exercising the public ministerial office (i.e. the public use of the keys) when he in one way or another “assumes the direction of the public edification of the Christians by the Word.” If someone begins to direct the public edification of others with the Word of God by virtue of a proper call to do this, then it is an appropriate public use of the keys. If someone begins to direct the public edification of others with the Word of God without a proper call to do this, then it is an inappropriate public use of the keys. But in either case, such activities involve a public use of the keys. The Norwegian Synod fathers understand that the assumption of such didactic authority over others is always a public ministry, and that by its very nature it is never an instance of the “individual” use of the keys. In a case of need, when an unordained layman temporarily assumes such a responsibility, he is thereby temporarily assuming “the public ministerial office.” Hence the public use of the keys is “public” not only because it is carried out on behalf of others, but also because it is carried out with authority over others.

Herman Amberg Preus elaborates on these principles as he explains the difference between the views of the “Ellingians” (i.e. the advocates of lay preaching) and the views of the Norwegian Synod:

With respect to the fourteenth article of the Augsburg Confession, the Ellingians maintained that every Christian by virtue of his spiritual priesthood has the power and authority to preach publicly and does not therefore require any external call whatsoever. “It is enough that he is called by God,” as it is usually said. In contradistinction to this we teach that all Christians have the right privately to admonish, teach, and pray, and indeed also in public assembly to teach, rebuke, and admonish one another. On the other hand, we believe that whenever a layman steps up in meetings organized for public edification and prays aloud, teaches, and admonishes, then he is, in fact, exercising the public office of the ministry, but according to God’s Word and the fourteenth article of the Augsburg Confession he has no right to this office. Only where an actual emergency prevails is it appropriate to breach this ordinance. Where, for example, there is no pastor, or he propounds false doctrine, or where he is so miserly in serving the congregation that Christians starve for lack of food and supervision, then there is an emergency and every Christian has the right and the duty to execute the pastor’s task in the public assembly. He does not do this by virtue of his spiritual priesthood, but as the congregations’ temporary pastor who must breach God’s ordinance in time of need. (Vivacious Daughter [Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1990], p. 125)

According to Preus, those uses of the keys which by their very nature are the kind of uses that any Christian may carry out, without a call, include private admonition, private teaching, and private prayer. They also include teaching, rebuking, and admonishing fellow Christians “in public assembly,” as the occasion may present itself. In other words, “individual” uses of the keys sometimes occur within the context of the life of the congregation, and perhaps with the acquiescence or formal approval of the other members of the congregation, but they do not thereby lose their character as “individual” uses. We need not categorize every use of the keys that is facilitated by the mutual agreement of the members of a congregation as a “public” use of the keys, especially when the activities that are involved are the kind of activities that a Christian could just as well be doing on his own, as a part of his personal Christian testimony and without his congregation’s involvement. Such a categorization would seem to be necessary only when there is a use of the keys that is “public” according to the nature of what is being done -- i.e. when there is a use of the keys that involves the direction of the public edification of other Christians by the Word of God. An “individual” use of the keys does not become “public” just because it is done “in public assembly.”

Jacob Aall Ottesen, another leader in the old Synod, also recognizes the differences that exist between the public exercise of the ministry, especially as it is carried out in the congregational setting by the pastor, and the private exercise of the ministry, which Ottesen calls “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, Matt. 18:20” (cf. Smalcald Articles III, IV). He clearly states that the differences between these two kinds of activity do not include a difference in the efficacy and authority of God’s Word as it is proclaimed in each case:

When the pastor exercises his teaching responsibility, and exhorts or teaches rightly according to the Word of God, be it away or at home, in house or church, in secret or openly, in discussion form or in public speech (sermon), then he certainly comes only with the same word in the same Lord’s name, as when lay people mutually teach and exhort one another. And in this sense there is an essential unity in both kinds of teaching responsibility. Therefore it can also be said that they both can have essentially the same fruit and work (except always that the Word in every case is taught rightly) for the blessing to those who open their hearts to it, and for judgment and punishment for those who oppose. (Kirkelig Maanedstidende 1859, p. 84)

According to Ottesen, one of the differences that do exist between these two types of activity is that the pastor exhorts on behalf of the entire congregation according to good order, whereas the individual Christian does not have that responsibility. And as epitomized by Charles J. Keeler, Ottesen’s explanation of these differences includes the observation that

There is also a different “form and manner” in which the two would act. When a layman speaks, there needs to be opportunity for discussion and debate lest he present himself over the others. The pastor, however, is called precisely for that reason: to be over the others. The exception to this rule is the emergency situation. (“The Old Norwegian Synod and Its Doctrine and Documents on the Ministry,” unpublished essay, p. 16)

In summary, Christ has entrusted the office of the keys to the church, which is his body and his royal priesthood. Each member of the church therefore has a part in the exercise of this office. A Christian exercises the office of the keys “individually” by testifying of Christ to his neighbor, or by teaching, exhorting, and rebuking fellow Christians in private or interactive settings. According to the very nature of these activities, they are “individual” uses of the keys. A Christian exercises the office of the keys “publicly” by expounding and applying God’s Word in an authoritative manner, or by administering the Sacraments. According to the very nature of these activities, they are “public” uses of the keys. Specialized theological training and competency are ordinarily required for the proper carrying out of such duties. Individual uses of the keys are “individual” because they are the kind of uses that may be carried out by any Christian without a call from the church. Public uses of the keys are “public” because they are the kind of uses that may be carried out only when an orderly call has been issued, or when the extraordinary circumstances of an emergency situation require a Christian to accept a temporary “emergency call” to discharge certain necessary duties of the public ministry.


David Jay Webber

May 24, 2001


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