Understanding “The Public Ministry of the Word”

An important key to understanding the ELS statement on “The Public Ministry of the Word” is a recognition of the fact that the term “office” – as used in the PMW and in the Lutheran theological tradition as a whole – has more than one meaning. Sometimes this term refers to a work, duty, activity, or function. At other times it refers to a position of responsibility to which a certain work, duty, activity, or function is entrusted. The particular meaning that is intended in any given case needs to be determined from the context. Much of the confusion about the meaning of the PMW will be overcome if this fact is taken into account. Perhaps the authors of the PMW could have avoided this problem if they had used the term “office” in a more consistent way, according to only one of its meanings. But if the Confessions themselves switch back and forth between the two meanings – on one occasion even within a single paragraph (SA III, X:1-3) – we should not fault the authors of the PMW too severely for doing the same thing. We should simply read the PMW carefully and contextually. And when we do read it carefully and contextually, we can discern these basic points:

1. With the term “office” being defined as “work, duty, activity, or function,” these phrases in the PMW are synonymous in meaning: “public use of the keys,” “Public Ministry of the Word,” “office of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments,” and “preaching and teaching office.” The public work, duty, activity, or function to which these phrases refer is instituted by God. When this Public Ministry of the Word (or public use of the keys) is exercised to the full extent, this is a full carrying out of a divinely-instituted work, duty, activity, or function. When this Public Ministry of the Word (or public use of the keys) is exercised to a limited extent, this is a limited carrying out of a divinely-instituted work, duty, activity, or function. The work or duty of teaching God’s Word is always a divinely-instituted work or duty. When this work or duty is done on a limited scale or to a limited degree, it does not thereby become a humanly-instituted work or duty.

2. With the term “office” being defined as “position of responsibility,” these phrases in the PMW are synonymous in meaning: “presiding office” and “pastoral office in its various manifestations.” The position of responsibility to which these phrases refer exists by virtue of a divine command, since “God commands that properly called men publicly preach, teach, administer the sacraments, forgive and retain sins, and have oversight of doctrine in the name of Christ and the church.” By “divine right” this position of responsibility involves the “exercise of spiritual oversight” and requires competency for a “full use of the keys.” This position of responsibility, in its various manifestations, is “indispensable for the church.”

3. Again, with the term “office” being defined as “position of responsibility,” these phrases in the PMW are synonymous in meaning: “office[s] having a limited public use of the keys” and “limited office[s].” The positions of responsibility to which these phrases refer are established by the church “in her freedom,” and not on the basis of a divine command. They therefore exist by “human right,” if and when they do exist, and not by divine right. Such positions of responsibility have “authorization to exercise a limited part of the Public Ministry of the Word” and a “limited public use of the keys.” They do not have authorization to exercise all parts of the Public Ministry of the Word or the full public use of the keys. The “exercise of spiritual oversight” is not entrusted to such positions of responsibility, and such positions of responsibility are therefore not “equivalent to the pastoral office.”

4. In the usage and vocabulary of the church, the phrase “Public Ministry of the Word” includes two “senses” or meanings. The “Public Ministry of the Word” always refers to the public or “official” use of the keys – that is, to a use of the keys that is exercised from within an “office” or position of responsibility. The “Public Ministry of the Word” in its narrower meaning pertains to the public use of the keys as exercised to the full extent, and therefore refers or applies to that position of responsibility – the pastoral office – to which the full public use of the keys is entrusted. The “Public Ministry of the Word” in its wider meaning pertains to the public use of the keys as exercised either to the full extent (by pastors) or to a limited extent (by other ecclesiastical office-holders), and therefore refers or applies to the whole range of positions of responsibility to which the public use of the keys, in one form or another, is entrusted.

David Jay Webber
April 13, 2007





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“The Public Ministry of the Word” Restated in Thetical Format

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