With Special Reference to the Church Polity of the Lutheran Church in the Netherlands
in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
DAVID JAY WEBBER
The authority of civil government has its origin in God and in God’s will for the temporal welfare of the human race. Therefore we
should honor the State as an institution of God for the regulation of the outward affairs of men, that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives here upon earth. God has given us this institution “for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well” [1 Peter 2:14]. And for the execution of this purpose God has bestowed upon it the sword. The State has authority from God to employ force where this is necessary for the accomplishment of its ends.1
The authority of spiritual government has its origin in God and in God’s will for the eternal welfare of the human race. This means that
The Church also is a Divine institution, but its realm is quite different from that of the State. It is limited to spiritual affairs. It touches matters which the State cannot reach – religion, conscience, the thoughts and intents of the heart. God has entrusted it with the means of grace and has laid upon it the obligation to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. The Church’s work is in a word evangelization. The Church has no sword but the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. She employs no force, but uses only the persuasive power of the Word. Church and State observing their appropriate spheres should dwell together in harmony.2
But the coexistence of Church and State in this world has often not been as harmonious as the divine originator of each would have wanted. At various times in history one or both of them have failed to heed the guidance that the Lord himself has given. As followers of Christ, however, we believe that
The relation of Church and State is to be determined on the basis of Christ’s command to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s (Matt. 22:21). The sphere of the Church and that of the State are different. Neither must interfere with the affairs of the other. Since the Church possesses an external organization, it is in temporal matters subject to the laws of the State; but in spiritual matters, in those which concern the sphere of the Church as such, the State has nothing to say. On the other hand the Church has no right to interfere in the affairs of the State. She has no right as an organization to take any part in politics. In all her activities she must aim at spiritual results and use spiritual means. Her one fundamental duty is that of administering the Means of Grace. She has no call officially as a Church, therefore, to enter into any purely humanitarian enterprises, to organize plans for social uplift, to take sides in industrial disputes, to line up with a particular political party, or to push political measures of any kind through legislatures or congress. Her members as individual Christian citizens may and often should do many of these things. They have political rights and duties which they are to assert and fulfill in a Christian and conscientious manner. But the Church as a Church should confine herself to that work which belongs to her; namely, the work of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of enunciating the principles of love and righteousness which should guide men in their social and political relations.3
Basically, “The State is concerned with the temporal welfare of men and the maintenance of outward law and order; while the Church is concerned with the spiritual welfare of men and the maintenance of genuine religion and morality in the heart.”4
These principles are stated clearly in the Augsburg Confession, the fundamental confession of the sixteenth-century Lutheran Reformation. There had been a lot of confusion on these points, and on the proper roles of those who held ecclesiastical and political offices. In addressing these problems, Philip Melanchthon writes that Lutheran teachers
have been compelled, for the sake of instructing consciences, to show the difference between the power of the church and the power of the sword. They have taught that because of the command of God both are to be devoutly respected and honored as the highest blessings of God on earth. However, they believe that, according to the gospel, the power of the keys or the power of the bishops is the power of God’s mandate to preach the gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the sacraments. For Christ sent out the apostles with this command [John 20:21-23]: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. … Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And Mark 16[:15]: “Go…and proclaim the good news to the whole creation….” This power is exercised only by teaching or preaching the gospel and by administering the sacraments either to many or to individuals, depending on one’s calling. For not bodily things but eternal things, eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit, eternal life, are being given. These things cannot come about except through the ministry of Word and sacraments, as Paul says [Rom. 1:16]: “The gospel…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” And Psalm 119[:50]: “Your promise gives me life.” Therefore, since this power of the church bestows eternal things and is exercised only through the ministry of the Word, it interferes with civil government as little as the art of singing interferes with it. For civil government is concerned with things other than the gospel. For the magistrate protects not minds but bodies and goods from manifest harm and constrains people with the sword and physical penalties. The gospel protects minds from ungodly ideas, the devil, and eternal death. Consequently, the powers of church and civil government must not be mixed.5
Martin Luther also accentuates these principles very strongly. According to their spiritual office, the church’s pastors and preachers do not have authority in matters that are strictly economic or political. Instead, according to Luther,
Here you have the spiritual rule (Regiment), which one should be sure to separate as far from temporal rule as heaven and earth are apart. Now the men who have charge of this spiritual rule are real kings, real princes, real masters; and it is their duty to govern. Note here, however, and learn how this rule is limited and how far it extends. It extends (as the words clearly say) over the entire world; and yet it is to deal only with sins. Neither with money nor goods, neither with the means of subsistence nor with anything pertaining to them, is it to concern itself. With these, emperors and kings, princes and lords, are to deal; they are to arrange and to do everything in a manner most serviceable to the general interest and peace. But this spiritual rule is directed only at sins. Where sin begins, this rule is to begin too, and not elsewhere. One should be careful not to mix and mingle these two jurisdictions…6
Involvement of the Princes
It might therefore be surprising for us to hear Melanchthon, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, say something like this to the Emperor:
You have the responsibility above all to God: to preserve sound doctrine, to propagate it for posterity, and to defend those who teach rightly. For God demands this when he honors kings with his own name and calls them gods [Ps. 82:6], “I say, ‘You are gods,’” so that they may take care in preserving and propagating on earth “divine matters,” that is, Christ’s gospel, and as vicars of God that they may defend the life and welfare of the innocent.7
In the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, Melanchthon expands this obligation to other kings and princes:
It is especially necessary for the most eminent members of the church, the kings and princes, to attend to the church and take care that errors are removed and consciences restored to health, just as God expressly exhorts them: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth” [Ps. 2:10]. The first concern of kings should be to promote the glory of God. It would, therefore, be most shameful for them to use their authority and power to encourage idolatry and countless other disgraceful acts and to slaughter the saints.8
Especially in regard to the synods and councils of the church, the civil authorities are told that they should see to it that everything is done in an orderly way and according to God’s Word. Melanchthon writes that since “judgments of the councils are judgments of the church, not of the pontiffs, it is wholly appropriate that rulers restrain the wantonness of the pontiffs and ensure that the power to examine and to make judgments according to the Word of God is not snatched away from the church. And as other Christians are obliged to censure the rest of the pope’s errors, so must they rebuke him when he avoids and obstructs the church’s inquiry and true judgment.”9
In order to understand these statements, and to harmonize them with what had been said in the Augsburg Confession, it is necessary to pay strict attention to the fact that these rulers are being called upon to involve themselves in the affairs of the church because they are professing Christians. Just as clergymen who hold an ecclesiastical office do not thereby cease to be citizens of their country, so likewise Christians who hold political office do not thereby cease to be members of the church. They are, in fact, at least by some standards, “the most eminent members of the church.” The advice that the Confessions give to the Emperor, the kings, and the princes is advice that would not be given to non-Christian rulers. These men are being asked to play a role in ecclesiastical affairs because they are baptized members of the church who should be concerned about its problems, and because by divine providence and the circumstances of history they have the “clout” that is needed to reform the church and to suppress the tyranny of the pope and his bishops. Essentially they are being called upon to do what any Christians should do, that is, condemn error and rebuke those who misuse their authority. But for obvious reasons there is an expectation that the political rulers will be more likely to succeed in such efforts, and to achieve practical results.
In fact, “The early Lutherans led by Luther and his co-laborers put the government of the young evangelical church into the hands of the princes. It was intended to be temporary,” and “Luther looked forward to a time when this government could be put into the right hands (‘in die rechten Haende’).”10 But, for the time being at least, such an arrangement was seen as the best that was available. Over time the papacy had insulated itself from the possibility of being reformed from within the church, by separating itself from all ordinary lines of accountability to the church at large. Luther therefore called upon the princes to take extraordinary action.
Certainly this was not an ideal situation. Luther was also realistic about the need to monitor them in this work, and to admonish them if they neglected their duty. Before long he became painfully aware of the fact that “among the nobility there are also some louts and skinflints who declare that they can do without pastors and preachers now because we now have everything in books and can learn it all by ourselves. So they blithely let parishes fall into decay and brazenly allow both pastors and preachers to suffer distress and hunger.”11 But given a choice between ecclesiastical government by the pope’s canonical bishops, who opposed the preaching of the pure Gospel, and ecclesiastical government by pious laymen functioning as “emergency bishops,” who supported the preaching of the pure Gospel, Luther’s preference was unambiguous. He writes: “Now our temporal rulers must be emergency bishops, must protect and help us pastors and preachers – since the pope and his horde will not, but are opposed to it – so that we can preach, serve churches and schools.”12
Specifically in response to the pope’s claims to the contrary, Melanchthon says in the Treatise that “it must be acknowledged” that the keys of the kingdom of heaven
do not belong to one particular person but to the church, as many clear and irrefutable arguments show. For having spoken of the keys in Matthew 18[:18], Christ goes on to say: “Wherever two or three agree on earth…” [Matt. 18:19-20]. Thus he grants the power of the keys principally and without mediation to the church…13
Since the princes were members of the church, and since they therefore shared in the power of the keys (together with all other Christians), the Reformers believed that it was permissible for them, in an emergency situation such as existed in the sixteenth century, to assume certain supervisory duties that otherwise would be carried out by regularly-called bishops. Luther had written in his 1520 address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate that “those who exercise secular authority have been baptized with the same Baptism, and have the same faith and the same Gospel as the rest of us.” For this reason “we must regard their office as one which has a proper and useful place in the Christian community.”14
The State-Church System
Their “proper and useful” role in the reform of the church was eventually facilitated by political developments within the Holy Roman Empire:
In 1526, the Diet of Speyer decreed that each territorial ruler could decide whether to implement the Reformation in his territory until such time as an ecumenical council could settle the religious differences. This provided an opportunity for evangelical princes to reorganize church life in their territories according to evangelical principles, and required, in turn, visitation of parishes to evaluate the conditions of church life and determine what practical reforms were needed. Parochial visitation was a duty of the bishop, but in Electoral Saxony it was undertaken under the authority of the Elector. Luther and Melanchthon prepared Visitation Articles for the visitors. But the visitors went out as electoral officials…15
This provisional method of governing the affairs of the church was put in place “at a time when the princes were generally men of sincere interest in the Church and at a time when they were the best fitted persons for the task. Nevertheless it laid the foundation for a continuing injury to Lutheranism,” from which the Lutheran state churches in Germany and Scandinavia have suffered greatly. What was supposed to be temporary became permanent, and as a result the Lutheranism of the state churches became permanently disfigured. “The time came when the Church had to bear the yoke of the State for definite service. Some of the worst cases may be seen in the forced introduction of the Church Union in Prussia and other parts of Germany.” In general, through the state-church system, “the Church was degraded into a mere factor of civilization, in line with the education through school, theater and press.”16
And the state churches of Europe continue to suffer as a result of this system. In Germany, for example, the “visitation” committees that the secular governments organized at the time of the Reformation, to investigate and supervise the life and work of the congregations,
soon became permanent bureaucracies. Even today, their members represent both the church and the secular government – a reminder of the twofold basis on which they were originally organized. All this has left the Protestant churches in Germany with a still-unresolved problem. In fact, these governmental bureaucracies still make decisions about the life of the church. In so doing, they assume rights and responsibilities that really belong to the congregations. That is true at least of all those tasks that the prince assumed as “chief member” of the church: the selection and the installation of pastors and church officials, the adoption of liturgies for the use in worship, and church discipline – the last is, admittedly, not very energetically administered. Obviously we cannot begin to guess how the situation would have developed if the congregations at the time of the Reformation had retained these responsibilities. The example of all those Protestant congregations who have had to organize themselves under governments who have opposed their very existence demonstrate that the result would not necessarily have been chaos. The fact is, however, that the German Protestant churches have been under the control of the secular government and that, as a result, even today the congregations have hardly any rights and responsibilities. We deceive ourselves if we expect mature congregations to develop under that condition.17
Again, the Reformers had emphasized the point that the governing authorities should assume such duties as “the most eminent members of the church,” and not as “kings and princes.” Nevertheless, “it is very easy to see that this nice distinction might be forgotten and the kings and princes themselves as well as others might come to think that their secular dignity in itself conferred upon them the authority of governing the Church also.”18 By the second half of the seventeenth century there were theologians who were willing to defend and justify this usurpation. John William Baier wrote in 1685 that the duties belonging to the civil magistracy included
The appointing of suitable ministers of the Church; the erection and preservation of schools and houses of worship, as well as the providing for the honorable support of ministers; the appointing of visitations and councils; the framing and maintenance of the laws of the Church, the controlling of the revenues of the Church, and the preservation of Church discipline; the trial of heretical ministers, as also of those of bad character, and all other similar persons belonging to the churches and schools, and the compelling them to appear before a court; providing for the punishment of those convicted of heresies or crimes; and the abrogation of heresies that are manifest and have been condemned by the Church, and of idolatrous forms of worship, so that the Church be cleansed from them.19
“It needs no proof that this is doing what the Augsburg Confession warns against, confounding the civil and the ecclesiastical powers.”20
The Role of Civil Government
Civil rulers, as civil rulers, are to be concerned with matters of external order and discipline in society, and if need be they may use coercive force in preserving such order and discipline. But according to Luther, rulers as rulers are not to be concerned with matters of faith and conscience. “For faith is a free act, to which no one can be forced. Indeed, it is a work of God in the spirit, not something which outward authority should compel or create.”21 There should, therefore, be no laws directed against the holding of heretical opinions. “No ruler ought to prevent anyone from teaching or believing what he pleases, whether it is the gospel or lies. It is enough if he prevents the teaching of sedition and rebellion.”22
However, Luther thought that the proper jurisdiction of the State, with its interest in the preservation of outward societal order, also extended over areas that we would probably not recognize as being within the competency of civil government. He held that those who publicly “teach doctrines contradicting an article of faith clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom” are “not mere heretics but open blasphemers.”23 And blasphemy, because of the public disruption that it causes, should be censured by the civil authorities. Luther would want to reassure everyone that
By this procedure no one is compelled to believe, for he can still believe what he will; but he is forbidden to teach and to blaspheme. For by so doing he would take from God and the Christians their doctrine and word, and he would do them this injury under their own protection and by means of the things all have in common. Let him go someplace where there are no Christians.24
In summary, we can say that in Luther’s view, the State, in matters of faith,
must not permit any compulsion or maintain a reign of terror. Luther thus asserts the right of freedom of faith and of conscience – not only for Christians who have the true faith but also for heretics. True faith and heresy are both matters of the conscience and of the spirit, and the government may not deal with them by using force. God himself works faith in the heart, and we neither can nor may try to compel someone else to believe. This is also why we cannot overcome and eliminate heresy by force. For it too is a spiritual matter. Against heresy, only the word of God is powerful. Using force only increases the inner strength of the persecuted faith or the heresy – and betrays the inner weakness of one’s own position. Using force implies that one is not able to deal with opponents on the basis of God’s word but only by violence. All this, however, clearly presupposes that the other faith or the heresy does not openly oppose the common Christian teaching. When either of these occurs, the state’s toleration has reached its limit and the authorities must intervene. Luther cites Romans 13 as evidence that the government should intervene against public propaganda for anarchism and communism. He also thinks the government should intervene against a public attack on the scriptural and common Christian articles of faith because such a public attack is blasphemy, and the government ought to punish blasphemy. However, Luther still preserves freedom of faith and of conscience. Only public teaching against the Christian faith is forbidden and threatened with punishment. Luther’s position is also influenced by the consideration that it is not good to have contradictory doctrines proclaimed simultaneously. When that is done, division and tensions are created even in secular life. There is, of course, a great difference between Luther’s ideas and our understanding of our situation in a pluralistic society.25
It was not easy for the Reformers of the sixteenth century to conceive of the possibility of a religiously diverse yet harmonious society, in which the civil government would remain neutral in strictly religious questions. From our perspective almost 500 years later, we are able to see that the Reformers’ Biblically-based principles regarding the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority would naturally lead in this direction. At the time, however, they were not able to rise above the limitations of the medieval world view that they had inherited, and to apply these visionary principles in such a visionary way. Such an experiment would have to wait until the founding of the Rhode Island colony in colonial America in 1636.
Martin Luther’s Two Opinions
From within the limitations of his sixteenth-century perspective, Luther offered this opinion in 1530:
If it happens that in a parish, a city, or a principality, the papists and the Lutherans (as they are called) are crying out against one another because of certain matters of belief, and preaching against one another, and both parties claim that the Scriptures are on their side, I would not willingly tolerate such a division. My Lutherans ought to be willing to abdicate and be silent if they observed that they were not gladly heard, as Christ teaches (Matt. 10:14). They ought to have themselves compelled to preach, as I am. For I leave off readily if people do not want to hear me, and all my preaching and writing has been done under force and compulsion. But if neither party is willing to yield or be silent, or if neither can do so because of official position, then let the rulers take a hand. Let them hear the case and command that party to keep silence which does not agree with the Scriptures. This the great emperor Constantine did when he caused Athanasius and Arius to be heard and their case judged by his procurator, Probus. It is not a good thing that contradictory preaching should go out among the people of the same parish. For from this arise divisions, disorders, hatreds, and envyings which extend to temporal affairs also.26
Certainly Lutherans should wish to live at peace with their neighbors, and should not instigate public conflicts with them – religious or otherwise. But Luther’s advice had deeper implications than this. In the volatile setting of sixteenth-century Europe, such advice would have the effect of discouraging the organization of Lutheran congregations in areas where the government and/or the majority of the population remained committed to another confession. In this instance Luther’s concern for the preservation of social order seems to have overridden his concern for the faith of those who had embraced the teachings of the Lutheran Reformation, and who wanted to cling to the pure marks of the church and worship God according to the dictates of their conscience.
At an earlier time, before his idealism had been shattered by the advent of Anabaptist sectarianism and the upheavals of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, Luther had not expressed himself so cautiously. In 1523 he had penned a treatise On the Ministry (De instituendis ministris Ecclesiae) to the Bohemian Utraquists – heirs of the fifteenth-century reformatory efforts of Jan Hus – on the subject of the proper ordering of the Public Ministry of the Gospel among themselves. In this treatise, which emphasized the right of a congregation to elect its own pastor,
Luther dealt positively with the difference between the priesthood of all believers on the basis of baptism and the office of the ministry to which one was called. The tasks of the priest, i.e., of anyone who was baptized, were teaching and preaching, baptizing, consecrating (performing the Eucharist), binding and loosing, praying for others, sacrificing, and judging doctrine and spirits. Luther gave thorough proof of his surprising statement that this was potentially the task of all who were baptized. So remembering Christ in the Eucharist was everyone’s task. By sacrifice, he understood the self-sacrifice of Christians. Judging doctrine was likewise the task of all. However, the public exercise of office was not to be usurped on one’s own authority, but it had rather to be bestowed by all and, if necessary, also revoked. If the papal bishops refused, the church could by itself appoint bishops and ministers (Kirchendiener). In view of the specific circumstances in Bohemia, Luther advocated not only that the congregation choose pastors and preachers, but that it appoint bishops to supervise the church. Wherever this took place with prayer, it was not an innovation contrary to the New Testament. … The Bohemians did not need to doubt that they were the church of God, for wherever the Word of God was, there was the church.27
In one of the key statements of this treatise, Luther explains that
It is of the common rights of Christians that we have been speaking. For since we have proved all of these things to be the common property of all Christians, no one individual can arise by his own authority and arrogate to himself alone what belongs to all. Lay hold then of this right and exercise it, where there is no one else who has the same rights. But the community rights demand that one, or as many as the community chooses, shall be chosen or approved who, in the name of all with these rights, shall perform these functions publicly. Otherwise, there might be shameful confusion among the people of God and a kind of Babylon in the church, in which everything should be done in order, as the Apostle teaches [I Cor. 14:40]. For it is one thing to exercise a right publicly; another to use it in time of emergency. Publicly one may not exercise a right without consent of the whole body or of the church.28
And Luther explicitly states that a Bohemian congregation that wants to take charge of its local affairs in such a manner need not wait for the approval of others. He writes:
It is not necessary, I think, to put this form of election immediately into practice in the Diet of Bohemia as a whole. But if individual cities adopt it for themselves the example of one will soon be followed by another. The Diet might well consider whether this form should be adopted by all of Bohemia, or if one part might accept, and another part postpone decision or even reject it altogether. For none should be forced to believe. We must give freedom and honor to the Holy Spirit that he may move wherever he will. We cannot hope that these things will be acceptable to all, especially right away. The fact that not all agree should not affect you – rather you ought to be moved to the venture when many do not agree with you. It is enough if at first a few set the example. After the use has been established and in the course of time the whole people will be challenged to follow their example. As the venture succeeds, with the help of the Lord, and many cities adopt this method of electing their bishops, then these bishops may wish to come together and elect one or more from their number to be their superiors, who would serve them and hold visitations among them, as Peter visited the churches, according to the account in the Book of Acts [Acts 8:14ff.; 9:32ff.]. Then Bohemia would return again to its rightful and evangelical archbishopric, which would be rich, not in large income and much authority, but in many ministers and visitations of the churches.29
It might be helpful to add here that Luther does not think that the Public Ministry of the Gospel “in the name of all with these rights” is merely a pragmatic humanly-devised arrangement. In his treatise on The Misuse of the Mass, Luther observes that in Titus 1:5-7
Paul says to his disciple Titus: “This is why I left you in Candia, that you might complete what I left unfinished, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you, men who are blameless, the husband of one wife, whose children are believers and not open to the charge of being profligate. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless,” etc. Whoever believes that here in Paul the Spirit of Christ is speaking and commanding will be sure to recognize this as a divine institution and ordinance, that in each city there should be several bishops, or at least one. It is also evident that Paul considers elders and bishops to be one and the same thing, for he says: Elders are to be appointed and installed in all cities, and that a bishop shall be blameless.30
Likewise, in his Sermon on Keeping Children in School Luther states that “the spiritual estate has been established and instituted by God, not with gold or silver but with the precious blood and bitter death of his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ [I Pet. 1:18-19].” He explains what he means by “the spiritual estate” when he then says that Christ
paid dearly that men might everywhere have this office of preaching, baptizing, loosing, binding, giving the Sacrament, comforting, warning, and exhorting with God’s Word, and whatever else belongs to the pastoral office [Amt der Seelsorger]. For this office not only helps to further and sustain this temporal life and all the worldly estates, but it also gives eternal life and delivers from sin and death, which is its proper and chief work. Indeed, it is only because of the spiritual estate that the world stands and abides at all; if it were not for this estate, the world would long since have gone down to destruction. I am not thinking, however, of the spiritual estate as we know it today in the monastic houses and the foundations… They give no heed to God’s Word and the office of preaching – and where the Word is not in use the clergy must be bad. The estate I am thinking of is rather one which has the office of preaching [Predigtamt] and the service of the Word and sacraments and which imparts the Spirit and salvation, blessings that cannot be attained by any amount of pomp and pageantry. It includes the work of pastors [Pfarramt], teachers, preachers, lectors, priests (whom men call chaplains), sacristans, schoolmasters, and whatever other work belongs to these offices and persons. This estate the Scriptures highly exalt and praise. St. Paul calls them God’s stewards and servants [I Cor. 4:1]; bishops [Acts 20:28]; doctors, prophets [I Cor. 12:28]; also God’s ambassadors to reconcile the world to God, II Corinthians 5[:20].31
In this respect Luther would want everyone to remember this important vocational distinction:
It is true that all Christians are priests (sacerdos), but not all are pastors. To be a pastor one must be not only a Christian and a priest but must have an office and a field of work committed to him. This call and command make pastors and preachers.32
It is also important to emphasize that the congregational calling process that Luther recommends does not mean that the voting members of a congregation are the “owners” of the Public Ministry, or that they are permitted to exercise arbitrary control over the pastors whom they have called. Jesus Christ is and remains the sole Lord of his Church, and “The offices of the ministry and sacraments are not our property but belong to Christ. For he provided for these and left them with his church so that they might be used and administered till the end of the world.”33 When a congregation of believers issues a call to an ecclesiastical office, they are acting in the stead of Jesus Christ, who is actually issuing this call through them. They are not functioning as a collection of opinionated individuals with the right to impose their human expectations on the pastor. Rather, in calling ministers they are functioning as the body of Christ, under his divine authority. If a Christian congregation would forget this, and would try to silence a faithful pastor or “manage” his ministry in their own sinful interests, Luther would remind them of the facts:
I certainly hope you will have enough Christian understanding to know that the ministry of the Gospel is neither our property nor the property of any human being, not even of an angel. It belongs to God, our Lord, who has purchased it with His blood, has given and instituted it for our salvation. Therefore He severely condemns those who despise it. He says: “He that despiseth you despiseth Me” (Luke 10:16). … You are not lords over preachers and the ministry; you have not established the office. God’s Son alone has done so. Nor have you contributed anything to it. You have far less right to it than the devil to the kingdom of heaven. You should not lord it over the ministry or give it directions. Nor should you keep it from rebuking. For its rebuke is not of men but of God, who does not want the rebuke hindered. He has commanded it. Tend to your own business, and leave God’s governing unmolested lest He teach you to do so.34
In a similar vein, Luther would admonish his fellow preachers to be conscientious in their calling and attentive to the spiritual needs of their flock, and he would warn them against the temptation to abuse their office in the interest of a love of power or greed for money. He reflects on these dangers in a sermon to his own congregation:
My office, and that of every preacher and minister, does not consist in any sort of lordship but in serving all of you, so that you learn to know God, become baptized, have the true Word of God, and finally are saved. Never do I claim worldly power; princes and lords, mayors and judges, are to establish and provide for that. My office is merely a service which I am to give to everyone freely and gratuitously, nor should I seek from it either money or goods, either honor or anything else. For if I were to preach in order to receive a big salary, to be made a king or an emperor, you could not get me into the pulpit with ten horses. I would not take a thousand florins for every sermon, for I would know that I would go to the devil with them if I sought no more in the ministry than how to become rich. For as soon as I preached for the sake of money, I would preach what the people like to hear in order thereby to get the money. Therefore I am preaching freely, for nothing, and this I must do; nor should I seek either honor or good from it. … But I have been bidden to serve you and whomever I can with teaching, instructing, comforting, and exhorting with the Word of God, that you may be saved, that I do not lord it over you but bring you together with myself under one Lord, who is called Christ. Beyond this service I seek nothing. But, to be sure, if I do you this service, it, in turn, is your duty to support me. For since I am to serve you by my preaching ministry, I cannot at the same time attend to earning my support. Therefore you are obliged to support me, too, entirely for nothing; for he who serves at the altar, says St. Paul, should live from the altar.35
Where the Church Can Be Found
The practical advice that Luther had given to the Bohemians in 1523 was based squarely on one of the chief theological insights of the Reformation, namely that the church of Jesus Christ, with all of its God-given authority and prerogatives, is discernibly present wherever God’s people are gathered around God’s Word. And so, according to Luther, “wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, ‘a Christian holy people’ must be there, even though their number is very small.”36 In contrast to the physical temple of God in Jerusalem during Old Testament times, Luther affirms that
The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found.37
In his address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther had explained that the pastor of a congregation of confessing Christians does not acquire his legitimacy through subjection to an episcopal hierarchy. Rather,
when a bishop consecrates it is nothing else than that in the place and stead of the whole community, all of whom have like power, he takes a person and charges him to exercise this power on behalf of the others. It is like ten brothers, all king’s sons and equal heirs, choosing one of themselves to rule the inheritance in the interests of all. In one sense they are all kings and of equal power, and yet one of them is charged with the responsibility of ruling. To put it still more clearly: suppose a group of earnest Christian laymen were taken prisoner and set down in a desert without an episcopally ordained priest among them. And suppose they were to come to a common mind there and then in the desert and elect one of their number, whether he were married or not, and charge him to baptize, say mass, pronounce absolution, and preach the Gospel. Such a man would be as truly a priest as though he had been ordained by all the bishops and popes in the world. That is why in cases of necessity anyone can baptize and give absolution. … In times gone by Christians used to choose their bishops and priests in this way from among their own number, and they were confirmed in their office by the other bishops without all the fuss that goes on nowadays. St. Augustine, Ambrose, and Cyprian each became [a bishop in this way]. … Because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and take it upon himself, without our consent and election, to do that for which we all have equal authority. For no one dare take upon himself what is common to all without the authority and consent of the community.38
Luther also responds to some of the objections that had been raised against his theology in another treatise from the year 1523, with the self-explanatory title: That A Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture. He writes:
But if you say, “Did not St. Paul command Timothy and Titus to institute priests [I Tim. 4:13; Titus 1:5], and do we not read, Acts 14[:23], that Paul and Barnabas instituted priests among the congregations? (Therefore, the congregation cannot call anyone, nor can anyone draw attention to himself and preach among Christians; rather, one must have permission and authorization from bishops, abbots, or other prelates who represent the apostles)” I answer that if our bishops, abbots, etc., did represent the apostles, as they boast, our opinion would certainly be to let them do what Titus, Timothy, Paul, and Barnabas did when they instituted priests, etc. But since they represent the devil and are wolves who neither want to teach the Gospel nor suffer it to be taught, they are as little concerned with instituting the office of preaching or pastoral care among Christians as the Turks or the Jews are. They should drive asses and lead dogs. Moreover, if they were really decent bishops who wanted to have the Gospel and wanted to institute decent preachers, 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. For in such a need, as you have heard, not only may anyone procure a preacher, be it through pleas or the power of worldly authority, but he should also hurry to the scene himself and make an appearance and teach if he can – for need is need and has no limits – just as everyone should hurry to the scene of a fire in town and not wait until asked to come. Otherwise, if there is no such need and if there are those who have the right, power, and grace to teach, no bishop should institute anyone without the election, will, and call of the congregation. Rather, he should confirm the one whom the congregation chose and called; if he does not do it, he [the elected man] is confirmed anyway by virtue of the congregation’s call. Neither Titus nor Timothy nor Paul ever instituted a priest without the congregation’s election and call. This is clearly proven by the sayings in Titus 1[:7] and I Timothy 3[:10], “A bishop or priest should be blameless,” and, “Let the deacon be tested first.” Now Titus could not have known which ones were blameless; such a report must come from the congregation, which must name the man. Again, we even read in Acts 6[:1-6] regarding an even lesser office, that the apostles were not permitted to institute persons as deacons without the knowledge and consent of the congregation. Rather, the congregation elected and called the seven deacons, and the apostles confirmed them. If, then, the apostles were not permitted to institute, on their own authority, an office having to do only with the distribution of temporal food, how could they have dared to impose the highest office of preaching on anyone by their own power without the knowledge, will, and call of the congregation?39
And finally, among the official Confessions of the church, the Treatise declares that
when the regular bishops become enemies of the Gospel or are unwilling to ordain, the churches retain their right to do so. For wherever the church exists, there also is the right to administer the gospel. Therefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right to call, choose, and ordain ministers. This right is a gift bestowed exclusively on the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church, as Paul testifies to the Ephesians [4:8,11,12] when he says: “When he ascended on high…he gave gifts to his people.” Among those gifts belonging to the church he lists pastors and teachers and adds that such are given for serving and building up the body of Christ. Therefore, where the true church is, there must also be the right of choosing and ordaining ministers, just as in an emergency even a layperson grants absolution and becomes the minister or pastor of another. So Augustine tells the story of two Christians in a boat, one of whom baptized the other (a catechumen) and then the latter, having been baptized, absolved the former. Pertinent here are the words of Christ that assert that the keys were given to the church, not just to particular persons: “For where two or three are gathered in my name…” [Matt. 18:20]. Finally this is also confirmed by Peter’s declaration [1 Peter 2:9]: “You are a…royal priesthood.” These words apply to the true church, which, since it alone possesses the priesthood, certainly has the right of choosing and ordaining ministers. The most common practice of the church also testifies to this, for in times past the people chose pastors and bishops. Then the bishop of either that church or a neighboring one came and confirmed the candidate by the laying on of hands. Ordination was nothing other than such confirmation.40
Reforming and Governing the Church
These basic principles had been articulated by Luther and the other Reformers on many occasions. It therefore does not surprise us that the earliest comprehensive attempt at reorganizing the church in a distinctly Lutheran way was characterized by a desire to implement them:
The first true Reformation church order was prepared for the principality of Hesse in 1526, by the former Franciscan Francis Lambert on the request of Landgrave Philip. The landgrave had already undertaken actions, such as the suppression of cloisters, as his way of fulfilling the edicts of the Diet of Speyer authorizing rulers to settle religious differences in their realms in a way pleasing both to God and to the emperor. This ordinance was adopted by a synod of clergy and laity at Homberg. It provided for a democratic organization in which congregations elected their own pastors, elders, and deacons and sent their pastors and elected representatives to an annual synod or assembly. This synod was charged with overseeing the care of the whole territorial church and providing a superintendent (the Latin term for bishop) for each district. The landgrave was permitted only to take part in deliberations and to vote. When Landgrave Philip showed this church order to Luther, the reformer advised that it was not suited to the needs of Hesse, that some interim step was needed before Hesse could move to a representative or synodical form of church life, and induced the Hessians to adopt the model of the Saxon Visitation instead. The Elector of Saxony had taken up Luther’s request that a visitation of parishes and church institutions be carried out and appointed a number of Visitors.
When he requested his own prince to do this, Luther had clearly explained that
the assistance of the Elector was viewed as a service of love and not as a rightful function of government. The Elector, however, had issued his own “Instructions” as a prince and granted the Visitors “power and authority” from himself. Thus, the Saxon Visitation marked the beginning of the state control of the Lutheran churches in Germany. The model that emerged from Electoral Saxony had the prince as summus episcopus, appointing visitation committees to examine and evaluate church life, consistories to judge doctrine and practices, and superintendents to oversee pastoral care of the parishes. The organization of the Reformation in the cities was often patterned after the organization in Wittenberg. The city council usually designated one of the city pastors to serve as superintendent or senior of the ministerium and made him responsible for the religious life of the entire city.41
Should Luther have had enough foresight to anticipate the way in which this paternalistic arrangement would be misused by a later generation of princes, who ended up not being much more accountable to the church at large than the pope had been? Was he, in fact, betraying the principles of an evangelical church polity that he had so clearly enunciated in the past, when he now advocated the top-down approach of Electoral Saxony, rather than the bottom-up approach that Philip of Hesse had wanted? In fairness we should not accuse Luther of something that serious (although we might see some evidence here of an overreaction to the threat of the Anabaptists and unruly peasants). Just as he had wanted the direct involvement of the princes in church affairs to be a temporary arrangement, so also he did not reject Landgrave Philip’s proposal as inherently mistaken or permanently unworkable. But he did believe that the German people, at that stage in their history, were not ready for something like this.
In principle Luther always believed that the members and pastors of local parishes should govern their own local affairs on the basis of God’s Word. But, he also believed that they should be able to do this before they are asked to do this. In the 1520s Luther had good reason to believe that they were not even close to having this ability. He was aware of the serious problems that existed in many of the parishes of Germany, at first from the reports of others, and later from his own experience as an official visitor in Electoral Saxony and Meissen (in 1528 and 1529). In the Preface to the Small Catechism he describes the “deplorable, wretched deprivation” that he encountered during these visitations:
Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom.42
We can easily sympathize with Luther’s conclusion that it would not be pleasing to God or beneficial to the church for the weighty responsibilities of ecclesiastical government to be entrusted to such people. But in another time and place, where the clergy would be well-educated in theology and ecclesiology, where the laity would be well-catechized in Christian doctrine, and where both would have reached the necessary level of wisdom, maturity, and sophistication, we would expect Luther to think differently.
And now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we would also have to agree that
The ideal of a strictly Christian state, altogether based on the fundamental truths of the Christian religion, without any compulsion and tyranny in religious matters, can be realized only where all the subjects of the State are professing Christians, and is at present realized nowhere. Under the present circumstances, which will hardly ever change for the better, the total separation of Church and State…is the only arrangement that is just and fair to all citizens. … Luther entirely agreed with this principle of total separation between Church and State, but held that circumstances at his time were such that out of love to the Church the civil government had to take hold of the government of the Church also, and hoped the time would come when the correct principle could be carried out fully. This time never came. The princes assumed as right what was given them at first by necessity, and later Lutheran theologians justified this as normal.43
The Local Congregation
The Lutheran state-church system was at its height in the second half of the seventeenth century. But even at that time there were still some people who were able to recognize what the natural contours of Lutheranism would be if its external institutional life could be shaped according to the impulses of its internal theological life, and not according to the constrictions of an authoritarian hierarchy or government-sponsored bureaucracy. Veit Ludwig von Seckendorf, a high-ranking Saxon attorney, was one such person. He did encourage those parishes that were already a part of an established church to conform to its administrative procedures, and to submit to its consistorial oversight. But in his understanding of the deeper ecclesiological issues he demonstrated a sharper acuity than some of the professional theologians in his day. According to Seckendorf, if we want to know, ultimately, where the spiritual authority of Christ’s church can be found, it is
safest to adhere to the principle that Christ Himself has given when He said: “Where two or three (not to speak of a larger congregation) are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). From this it follows that such an assembly or congregation in itself has the power to do and execute all things that are demanded for the exercise of divine worship and for which Christ has promised His gracious presence. Such an assembly, though it has an inward communion with other Christians and the same confession or religion, nevertheless is not of necessity or by obligation directed to anyone else, but it has Christ in its midst by His Word and sacraments, just as have the others. Hence, it must also have the proper and certain right to call persons for worship and ministry; for this belongs to the church or congregation, which has the authority to elect one or several competent persons to serve as presbyters or elders and leaders in doctrine. Now if the congregation already has pastors, they above all, together with the rest, belong to those who are to call and appoint pastors along with the magistrates, and no [e]state should be excluded. Now if today a congregation of converted Christians would be organized, let us say, in India or on an unknown island by a Christian landing there, it follows from what has been said – and the theologians may expatiate on this matter – that such a congregation, according to God’s Word, can establish the ministry and ministerium by its own power; and though thereby it essentially would become a member of the universal church, being united in doctrine, it would not be absolutely bound to send its ministers for ordination or consecration to a bishop or a consistory or ministerium, especially if that would be difficult on account of great distance or peril; nor would it have to be governed in outward church matters by foreign authorities. Yet it would maintain communion with all other Christians by its same doctrine and faith without depending on any church government. However, it would be neither a sin nor a heresy if it would adhere to a certain church and its government, as some separatists in England think who greatly exaggerate the idea of liberty. We have examples of coreligionists [fellow Lutherans] living in distant lands, such as in Moscow, where for hundreds of miles there are no churches of our confession, who maintain congregations and public worship. Similarly, there are many congregations in Hungary under Turkish rule who have pastors and exercitia religionis (exercises of religion). These cannot be asked to become members of the external church in other countries and subject themselves to certain superintendents or consistories, but such congregations have the full right to appoint their own ministerium and ministers. The pastor whom they call does everything in such congregations that is the duty of a bishop or superintendent of a large diocese; for it is not the size or number in itself that determines the increase or decrease of the office. … When we consider that the first church meetings were held, as time and place permitted, in humble private homes, perhaps also in the fields and woods or in caves and caverns, as well as that neither archbishops nor bishops administered the office of a minister or pastor in the way and with such authority as in later times, but very poor and simple persons who during the week, especially in poor congregations, had to support themselves by working on the farms, we can understand much better that the kind of church government that developed in the course of time and still prevails today is not a matter that stems immediately from any divine command or right, or that on this depends the truth of the doctrine or the very essence of the church.44
For Confessional Lutherans it is axiomatic that
matters of church government belong to the adiaphora, to the “rites and ceremonies, instituted by men” (Augsburg Confession VII), concerning which there may and must be freedom in the church. Christ is not the legislator of a human religious fellowship, and the Gospel has in it no law which prescribes the only right way of organization and polity for the church. One must be clear as to what this means. Other churches have “an order by which the Lord wills the church to be governed,” as Calvin put it. This is true of all Catholic churches, both of the East and of the West, and of all Reformed churches. Their differences have to do only with what that order must be – the universal monarchy of the pope, the episcopal-synodical government of the church as in the Eastern churches and Anglicanism, a ruling senate of presbyters among whom there must be no differences of rank, or the autonomy of the individual congregation as in Congregationalism and among the Baptists. These are just a few notable options, all of which claim to represent what the New Testament requires for the polity of the church. Luther’s entire greatness and the boldness of his basic theological principle of the strict separation of Law and Gospel become evident when one sees how[,] beyond all these possibilities[,] he goes his lonesome way: Christ gave his church no such law prescribing one right organization, government, and polity (de constituenda ecclesia). Any way of organizing things may do, so long as the means of grace are going on and are not frustrated.45
This does not mean, however, that Lutherans are not able to recognize the fundamental importance of the local congregation, since
God does indeed command Christians to assemble. This is inherent in the command to teach and preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments. The early Christians recognized this (Acts 2:42). When some withdrew from their assemblies, they were admonished: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). Christians need the encouragement they can give one another. They need to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (v. 24). This requires first of all some kind of local gatherings. Christians must gather at some particular place where they will regularly hear God’s Word and receive the sacraments; where they are encouraged, admonished, and edified; where church discipline can be carried out according to Matthew 18. We call these primary gatherings local congregations.46
Following through on these thoughts, we observe furthermore that
In Matt. 18:18-20, the Power of the Keys is said to exist wherever “two or three are gathered together in my name.” Wherever, then, there is a Christian congregation, there is authority to communicate to penitent and believing individuals the Gospel promise of the gratuitous forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. … The authority delegated by Christ rests ultimately in any congregation of two or three believers. Such assembly, as the Spirit of Christ influences it, will act with reference to the interests of the entire Church, and according to a fixed order. But it is never to be forgotten, that all the power of the Church exists in its smallest congregation, and is not derived by the local assemblies, through larger Particular Churches, and by Particular Churches from the Church Universal, and by the Church Universal from Christ. The New Testament conception of Christ, dwelling in the heart of the believer, and making him a king and priest unto God, does not provide for a long and complicated series of agencies whereby we may reach Christ and Christ may reach us.47
This is in complete accord with the Apology of the Augsburg Confession when it states that
the church is not only an association of external ties and rites like other civic organizations, but it is principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons. It nevertheless has its external marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the gospel of Christ. Moreover, this church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews, sanctifies, and governs by his Spirit…48
The history of Lutheranism in America provides us with a good example of an ecclesiastical polity that acknowledges the centrality and importance of local congregations, where the divinely-instituted marks of the church are most vividly and fully evident. The Lutheran Church in the United States,
unhampered by any union with the state, was able to apply without hindrance the principles of Church government which she believed to be most evangelical and best adapted to the circumstances in which she found herself. At the basis of her organization lies the local congregation, consisting of pastor and laity, which potentially possesses all the rights and duties committed to and enjoined upon the Church. The pastor, chosen by the congregation, is the person charged both with the official administration of the Means of Grace and with the spiritual leadership in the congregation. All the local affairs of the congregation are administered under his leadership. A Church Council…is elected to assist the pastor in the direction of the affairs of the congregation. … For the doing of the work of the Church which lies beyond the local sphere, the congregations are united in synods. The work of education, missions, mercy and other general activities of the Church cannot be performed by individual congregations acting separately, but is performed by the congregations acting together in a synodical organization. The synod derives its powers from the congregations which have united to constitute it… It lawfully possesses and should exercise those powers and those only which the congregations have expressly delegated to it.49
As we have already observed, the Lutheran Church in sixteenth-century Europe was, as a rule, organized in a significantly different way. But there is one example – a vitally important example – of an exception to this rule.
Lutheranism in the Netherlands
Lutheranism entered the Netherlands as early as 1518.50 An early center of Lutheran activity was the city of Antwerp in the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium), where the Lutherans came to be called “Martinists.” The monks of the Augustinian monastery there “had been profoundly influenced by their German brother-member Martin Luther.”51 This monastery “furnished able preachers” for the Lutheran cause,52 and also produced its first two martyrs: Hendrik Vos (Voes) and Johann Esch (van Essen). They were executed in Brussels on July 1, 1523, and died bravely. “These first martyrs of Lutheranism, when fastened to the stake, repeated the Apostles’ Creed, and then, until suffocated by the flames, chanted responsively the Te Deum laudamus.”53
“While separate Lutheran congregations began to be formed, according to V. E. Löscher, as early as 1528 at Utrecht, nevertheless for a long time Lutheranism was the name of a powerful tendency, before it began to organize congregations.”54 This delay in the formal organization of Lutheranism in the Netherlands was due to none other than Luther himself. In the 1540s the “Martinists” in Antwerp had asked him for his advice as to whether or not they should organize congregations, which could meet in homes.55 In keeping with the previously-mentioned opinion that he had expressed in 1530, he answered them in the negative. Luther was concerned about “distinguishing his followers from the Anabaptists,”56 who were very active in the Netherlands, and therefore he was opposed “to any form of secret house church, which competed with the public church.” Lutherans “should either be satisfied with private devotions at home, or be prepared to leave the country” and resettle in an area where the Lutheran Church was permitted by the government. But “such advice took no account of the circumstances in which Dutch dissidents found themselves. Despite Luther clandestine gatherings took place spontaneously because evangelicals who wanted to study the Scripture and the fashionable new theologies were denied an opportunity to do so within the Catholic Church.”57 Out of respect for the Reformer, however, these informal gatherings – at least the distinctly Lutheran ones – were not allowed to develop into anything more permanent or structured. “For twenty years the Martinists waited, unorganized, served occasionally by army chaplains.” By comparison, the growing number of Calvinists in Antwerp had no such scruples. During this same time period, while Roman Catholicism was still the only legally-permitted confession in the Netherlands, “the Calvinists prospered, organized around a semi-secret and vigorous consistory.”58
The situation in Antwerp changed in 1566. In September of that year Prince William of Orange persuaded Archduchess Margaret, who governed the Netherlands as the regent for King Philip II of Spain, “to grant the Protestants religious freedom to worship within the Antwerp city walls.” Roman Catholicism continued to be the established religion of the city, but the so-called “‘September Accords’ made Protestantism legal in the Netherlands for the first time.” According to the provisions of these Accords “Calvinists and Lutherans were allowed each three churches inside the city walls,” and the Calvinist and Lutheran communities would each be governed by a group of six deputies, “responsible to the city council.”59 “Each such group was a kind of state within a state.”60
The religious toleration that was hereby granted was tenuous at best, but when the Accords were issued the Lutherans “decided that the time had come which Luther had told them to wait for.”61 They called pastors62 and started to hold public worship services:
When the Martinists began public worship, their Calvinist neighbors could look in, and they did not like what they saw. They were offended, for one thing, that there were services on Saints’ days. … Although the Calvinists had not yet got around to serving Holy Communion, they were displeased that the Martinists scheduled it every Sunday. They did not like it that the “vleescheters” (flesh-eaters) and “bloetdrinkers” (blood-drinkers), as they called the Lutherans, knelt to receive it. The latter, for their part, hurled back their own epithets, calling the Calvinists swermers (enthusiasts, ravers) and bilderstormers (iconoclasts).63
The Antwerp Martinists also invited six Lutheran theologians to come from Germany to help them in the formal organization of their church.64 Foremost among these was the Croatian-Italian scholar Matthias Flacius Illyricus (Matija Vlačić Ilirik), who had become famous through his vocal opposition to the “Leipzig Interim” of 1548.65 He arrived in Antwerp on October 5. Another well-known Lutheran who spent some time in Antwerp during this period (although he was not one of the six officially-appointed organizers) was Joachim Westphal of Hamburg.
Matthias Flacius Illyricus and the Antwerp Confession
Soon after his arrival Flacius began to work on a church order for the Lutherans, the “Antwerp Confession,” which was published around December 1. It was a pivotal document in the history of the Lutheran Church:
In the discussion leading to the Confession, Joachim Westphal, who visited Antwerp that Fall, advised that they continue following Luther’s advice against a “house church.” If Luther’s own advice had been taken there would have been no organization at all. But, on what is probably the threshold from folk-church to denomination in the midst of pluralism, Flacius quoted Luther’s letter to the Bohemians against Luther’s letter to Antwerp, and made it the basis for a new church order. It was he, “especially, who against Westphal, appealing to the young Luther, held fast to the thought that a congregation has the power to establish its own organization, to elect its own teachers and to call its own preachers.”66
“Here for the first time in history a Lutheran ‘free’ church was founded: it was independent of the government of the country and had its own ecclesiastical administration.”67 The Antwerp Confession was doctrinally conservative, “in the tradition of the Smalcaldic Articles,”68 but in its establishment of a congregational-synodical church polity it was breaking new ground. Today we may take this kind of polity for granted, but in the mid-sixteenth century it was still an untested theory, which Luther had been afraid to implement during his own lifetime.
According to the Antwerp Confession, the “deputies” appointed by the congregation “were to protect the material interest of the congregation” and “to call and supervise ministers. The position of these deputies was more or less derived from the administrative competence that in German Lutheranism was assigned to the sovereign as praecipuum membrum ecclesiae (chief member of the church).”69
The sad story of the capitulation of Antwerp to a Spanish army under the command of the Duke of Alva in 1567, and the consequent dispersing of the Lutheran congregations and the proscription of any non-Catholic religious practice, need not be recounted here. Nevertheless, the influence of the Antwerp Confession outlived the congregations for which it was originally prepared. There were other places in Europe with Lutherans in similar circumstances, and before long the Antwerp model of Lutheran church organization “spread to German congregations in Cologne and Aachen, as well as to Dutch congregations such as Woerden and Amsterdam, in which the Antwerp Lutherans took refuge after the collapse of their city in 1567.”70
The Amsterdam Congregation
Amsterdam now began to play an especially prominent role in the preservation and extension of “free-church” Lutheranism in Europe and beyond. “Amsterdam, as a commercial center, was in constant intercourse with other parts of Europe, especially northern Germany and England, and could not remain isolated from the religious movements that were agitating the countries closely connected with its mercantile enterprises. In 1531 there were both Lutherans and Reformed among its citizens.”71 The Lutherans in Amsterdam had attempted to organize themselves more formally in 1566, following the example of their coreligionists in Antwerp in that same year, but they were hindered in this effort by the Calvinists of the city, who “became alarmed over the prospect of a divided Protestantism at a time when Catholicism was still dominant in the land.”72
Calvinist opposition to an organized Lutheran Church in the Netherlands did not abate, and reached the level of outright persecution after the political independence of the Netherlands from Spain. In 1572 Calvinism was officially adopted by Holland and Zealand. These provinces, “after introducing the Reformed faith as the national religion, declared that the followers of the Augsburg Confession did not need their own church, because the Reformed faith was not at variance with this confession.” In response, “the Amsterdam Lutherans informed the government that the Reformed doctrines were at variance with the Augsburg Confession.”73 By 1583 Calvinism had prevailed in all the United Provinces,74 and its adherents sought every opportunity to suppress the Lutherans:
The persecution reached its climax in 1600, when the South and North Holland Synods appealed to the magistrates of the towns to prohibit Lutheran public worship, which caused considerable agitation for several years. For a brief period the church in Amsterdam was actually closed. The persecution in the city continued until 1604, when the civil authorities insisted upon internal harmony in order to take full advantage of the prosperity arising from the increasing overseas trade. Toleration elsewhere, however, was only partial, for the States General permitted services to be held only in the towns but forbade them in all but two villages. Full toleration came only at the beginning of the nineteenth century.75
And so, “The Lutherans owed it only to the liberal conduct of the Dutch government,” and not to the goodwill of the leaders of the Reformed Church, “that they were able, especially after 1604, to enjoy reasonable freedom, taking into account the intolerant atmosphere that ruled the rest of Europe. With only a few exceptions the government turned a blind eye to their religious practice.”76 The Reformed Church continued to have an antagonistic attitude toward the Lutherans, but
This antagonism proved more annoying than formidable. The ‘states of Holland’ were on the side of tolerance. The rise of Arminianism, just as the seventeenth century was entered, gave Calvinism in Holland an opponent, which, for the time being, was deemed more formidable.77
The form of church government employed by the Dutch Lutherans was determined in part by the requirements of Dutch civil law,
which provided that the congregations of all faiths be governed by a consistory [consistorium], or church council, embracing the pastors and elders. A lower rank of officers, the deacons, were occasionally permitted, in the smaller churches, to become members of the consistory. In the Calvinist congregations the elders were appointed by the magistrates; in the Lutheran congregations they were elected by the church members because there were no Lutheran magistrates.78
In addition, the Lutherans regulated themselves according to constitutions that were adopted by each congregation. “In 1597 the congregation in Amsterdam, which was by far the largest Lutheran church in the Netherlands, prepared a church order, or constitution, to govern itself. With subsequent revisions this was adopted by other congregations in the Netherlands during the early decades of the seventeenth century.”79 This constitution, which bears the title Christliche Ordonnantie, “stands directly in the Antwerp tradition.”80 As revised in 1614, 1644, and 1681, it
binds all preachers to teach according to the rule of the divine Word, as declared in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, and forbids them to depart from either the doctrine or the modes of expression “of our symbolical books, viz., the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, its Apology, the Smalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord, together with the two catechisms of Luther.” All sermons are to be directed to the edification of the congregation, by teaching God’s Word purely, distinguishing between true and false doctrine, and, with all plainness and directness, reproving sin.81
The 1644 version of the constitution demonstrates that the Dutch Lutherans still felt the need to explain and defend their congregational form of church government, and they seem, in fact, to be somewhat apologetic about it:
Although we know and confess that the two regiments, spiritual and secular, must be distinguished, and neither one of them are permitted to interfere in the office of the other, still – because in the Churches of the Augsburg Confession the Christian magistrate[,] as member of the church and her nourisher[,] out of Christian love[,] participates in the government; for Paul, too, says that the Almighty God has set helpers and rulers into his congregation. I Cor. XII. This Christian congregation, because of the lack of such a magistrate, elects four men from the whole congregation each year, which here are called “deputies,” so they are helpers and that everything take place in an orderly fashion for the edification of the congregation of God.82
The local congregation was central in the Dutch Lutheran system, but each congregation also had, and cultivated, a fraternal interest in the welfare of the other congregations. Accordingly, in 1605 (the year after the overt Calvinist persecution was brought to an end), a “fraternity” was formed by six congregations and seven pastors, headed by the church in Amsterdam.83
In general, things were set up among the Lutherans in the Netherlands in the following manner:
Every congregation was governed by a “consistorium,” composed of the pastors and lay elders, or such other persons as were elected by the congregation. The final decision in all doctrinal questions belonged to the pastors. All discussions of the consistorium were secret. Ordinations occurred either in the congregation of which the candidate had been elected pastor, or in the congregation at Amsterdam. The [pastoral] representatives of the three nearest congregations and a representative of the congregation at Amsterdam officiated at such ordinations. Controversies between pastors were not brought before the congregation, but were settled in the consistorium. The congregation was held responsible for the support of the widows and orphans of its pastor.
In regard to the above-mentioned “lay elders,”
The time of their election was fixed as the first Sunday in May, at the time and place of the afternoon service. Ten names were nominated yearly for elders, and twelve for deacons, double the number to be elected. The term of service was two years. No one elected was excused, unless for most clear and weighty reasons. To avoid all offense, a father and son, or two brothers, or two brothers-in-law could not serve in these offices at the same time. They were installed with the laying on of hands, and, at the expiration of their term, they were dismissed from office, according to a very full order, in which they receive the thanks of the congregation for their services, and the benediction of the pastor. They were responsible for the pure preaching of God’s Word, the right administration of the sacraments, the godly life, and the observance of the church regulations by the pastor; and, for this purpose, the presence of at least some of the elders at every public service was deemed necessary. On the dismission of the congregation, they stood by the door with the receptacles for the collections in their hands, in order to receive the contributions of the people for the support of the church and for the poor. In this they were aided by the deacons. They saw to the support of the pastor, and cooperated with him in removing all causes of offense among the members, in reproving sin wherever it occurred, in bringing the erring to repentance, or, where this could not be effected, in the exercise of discipline. The deacons were purely collectors and distributors of alms. In their house-to-house visitations they were charged with the duty of bringing to the church service those who had been negligent in this particular. There was also a special office devoted to the care of the sick [Zieken-trooster, “comforter of the sick”]. This included frequent visitations by one competent to console the sick with God’s Word, who reported to the pastor as his spiritual, or to the deacons as their pecuniary, aid was needed. As parish clerk, the same officer was charged with the duty of putting the hymns on the hymn-board, keeping the register of baptisms and marriages, collecting the requests for the special prayers of the congregation, and reporting all irregularities of those receiving alms to the deacons or consistorium.84
The Lutheran congregation in Amsterdam continued to grow numerically – and in importance – so that by 1698
there were for the one congregation two church buildings, with six ministers, one of whom preached in German, and thirty thousand souls. For many generations it had the distinction of being the largest Lutheran congregation in the world. This large and wealthy congregation had to bear the chief burden of the support of the Lutheran church throughout the entire country; and with this responsibility it gained corresponding influence. … Every five years a synod of all the Lutheran congregations was held at Amsterdam. It was the gradual development of the union, made in 1605, between seven of the Lutheran pastors, whose parishes had previously been isolated and independent, which was followed by the “Fraternity” of 1614. Important matters occurring between the meetings were settled, if possible, by an appeal to the three nearest congregations.85
Amsterdam’s International Influence
The importance and influence of Amsterdam was also felt beyond the Netherlands:
In the first half of the 17th century the Netherlands founded a colony in North America. But the Dutch themselves were not particularly eager to emigrate and recruited foreigners to populate this outpost, among them many Lutherans. In 1649 these Lutherans asked the Amsterdam consistory to send them a pastor. It took eight years before their wish was granted; as formerly in the homeland, so now the opposition of the Reformed colonists was persistent and severe.86
It was so severe, in fact, that the colonial authorities prevented the pastor who had been sent in 1657 (Johannes Ernestus Gutwasser) from exercising his office among the Lutherans in New Netherland. Spurred on by the Reformed clergy, they compelled him to return to Holland instead.87
But the tide turned in 1664, when “The English conquered New Amsterdam, renamed it New York, and granted freedom of religion.”88 The devout Lutherans in New York were delighted by these events. The two congregations that existed at the time – in New York City (New Amsterdam) and Albany (Beverwyck) – had been struggling to survive for almost twenty years. In a more formal way they now
started organizing themselves by appointing elders and governors. In 1669 the minister Jacobus Fabritius, sent by Amsterdam, arrived. He continued the congregational organization by applying the Amsterdam Church Order.89
In New York City, for example, as reported by the new pastor, “twelve men from the congregation, who were found suitable thereto, were, with the general approval and after previous special announcement and the delivery of an election sermon, publicly ordained and elected to the offices of elders, deacons and overseers” [Ouderlingen, diaconen ende voorstanders].90 Also, before long
the office of lay reader [Voorleser] was used, and by the close of the seventeenth century also that of church master [Kerkmeester]. All the officers, together with the Pastor, were members of the Church Council [Kerkeraad]. … All the offices were copied from the Amsterdam Lutheran Church, excepting that of the lay reader. … In the Amsterdam Church there were “school-masters” [School-meesters], whose duties in the absence of the pastor were similar to those of the lay reader…91
The constitution that was adopted by the New York City congregation
provided for a solid core of lay leadership, including elected elders and deacons, and a lay reader and a bell-ringer. The elected officials served on the church council and had responsibility for church funds. In matters of “doctrine, faith, and morals” the elders and the pastor were to decide together. Collection and distribution of alms for the poor were the deacons’ distinctive charge. The lay reader led singing and read from prepared materials when the pastor was absent, likely serving in another congregation. The bell-ringers’ tasks included the obvious one, as well as having water ready for baptisms, sweeping the church, digging graves, and responsibility for the church-key.
This constitution, inspired by the precedent of Amsterdam, successfully “addressed the local situation of a free church with voluntary membership and no church taxes for financial support.”92 “Since Lutheranism in New York had its beginnings in an environment similar to that in The Netherlands, the organization of the Church developed naturally on a congregational basis, in which each congregation was an entity in itself.”93 For this reason the Amsterdam order “was in keeping with the way the Dutch Lutherans in America organized themselves: it was after all based on the principle of self-government.”94
An interesting and perhaps inspiring element of this history is that
the beginning of the Lutheran Church in New York was wholly a laymen’s movement. No Lutheran missionary came to the colony to organize a congregation. The precarious tolerance granted the Lutheran Church in Holland made it impossible for that body even to think of sending a missionary to the colony. The Lutheran Church in the colony, therefore, was organized by laymen, the first services were conducted by laymen, and when the first pastor arrived, he came by virtue of a call extended by the congregation organized by these laymen.95
The Lutheran congregation in Amsterdam also had a significant impact on the Lutherans in London, England, and more precisely on St. Mary’s Lutheran Church in the Savoy, organized in 1694. Like the Lutherans in Holland, the Lutherans in England were a small minority of the population, functioning as a “free church” outside the Anglican religious establishment. They accordingly had a lot in common with their Dutch coreligionists. It does not surprise us, therefore, that the Savoy Church “was closely associated with the Amsterdam congregation, and adopted the church constitution of the latter, ‘in order that our unity might the more clearly appear.’” In the Savoy Church, however, “One important change was made in its government, in the provision for but one order of lay officers, namely, the Overseers [Vorsteher], in place of the elders and deacons as at Amsterdam.”96
But this trajectory of influence does not stop in London. In another sad story that need not be repeated here, the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, Austria, expelled all of his Lutheran subjects in 1731. Some of these refugees passed through London on their way to resettlement in the British colony of Georgia, and as they did they picked up a copy of the constitution of the Savoy Church and brought it with them for use in America.97
Through the converging and expanding influences of the Dutch Lutherans in New York and the Lutheran Salzburgers in Georgia, the Lutherans of Amsterdam – and behind them the “Martinists” of Antwerp – ended up leaving a very significant mark on American Lutheranism. “In this way the substance of the Amsterdam church order spread until its main features were commonly used throughout America.”98 And of course, those Lutheran churches in the world that have come into existence through the work of American Lutheran missionaries, as well as those Lutheran free churches in Europe that have modeled their church government after the example of their New-World sister-churches, also bear the imprint of the Lutheran experiment in the Netherlands in very noticeable ways. Such churches “are governed by a Congregational-Synodical church order, which builds on the ancient tradition according to which congregations could elect their own pastors, the theme of the early Luther’s Letter to the Bohemians.”99 And, on the basis of this kind of order, such churches are governed internally, by their own elected representatives at both the congregational and synodical levels, without the involvement of officials of the civil government.
We can be thankful for Martin Luther, who in the days of his youthful idealism enunciated the evangelical principles that stand behind this way of doing things. But we must also be thankful for Matthias Flacius Illyricus, and for the early Lutherans in the Netherlands, who courageously put these principles into practice, for their own benefit, and ultimately for ours.
January 22, 2002
30. Luther, “The Misuse of the Mass,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], p. 155. In his treatise On the Councils and the Church, Luther also writes that “There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use” the Word of God, Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and the power of the keys “in behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul states in Ephesians 4[:8], ‘He received gifts among men…’ – his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and governors, etc. The people as a whole cannot do these things, but must entrust or have them entrusted to one person. Otherwise, what would happen if everyone wanted to speak or administer, and no one wanted to give way to the other? It must be entrusted to one person, and he alone should be allowed to preach, to baptize, to absolve, and to administer the sacraments. The others should be content with this arrangement and agree to it. Wherever you see this done, be assured that God’s people, the holy Christian people, are present. It is, however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function, but chooses (except in emergencies) only competent males to fill this office, as one reads here and there in the epistles of St. Paul [I Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:6] that a bishop must be pious, able to teach, and the husband of one wife – and in I Corinthians 14[:34] he says, ‘The women should keep silence in the churches.’ In summary, it must be a competent and chosen man. Children, women, and other persons are not qualified for this office, even though they are able to hear God’s Word, to receive Baptism, the Sacrament, absolution, and are also true, holy Christians, as St. Peter says [I Pet. 3:7]. Even nature and God’s creation makes this distinction, implying that women (much less children or fools) cannot and shall not occupy positions of sovereignty, as experience also suggests and as Moses says in Genesis 3[:16], ‘You shall be subject to man.’ The Gospel, however, does not abrogate this natural law, but confirms it as the ordinance and creation of God.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 41 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966], pp. 154-55.)
31. Luther, “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 46 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), pp. 219-21. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says explicitly that “the church has the mandate to appoint ministers, which ought to please us greatly because we know that God approves this ministry and is present in it.” (Apology XIII:12, Kolb/Wengert p. 220.)
39. Luther, “That A Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 39 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp. 311-12. Not everyone would necessarily agree with Luther’s characterization of the seven deacons in Acts 6. Johann Gerhard, for example, “believed that the Seven were ‘not simply excluded’ from the work of teaching, but were ‘principally put in charge of tables.’ Such deacons, ‘conjoined with presbyters, preached the Word together with them, administered the sacraments, visited the sick, etc.,’ and so ‘were made teachers of a lower order in the church … Phil. 1:1 … I Tim. 3:8.’” (Kurt E. Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance [Fort Wayne, Indiana: The International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, corrected edition 1995], pp. 140-41. The quotations are from J. Gerhard, Loci Theologici, XII.XXIV.29.)
41. Senn, p. 329. Senn’s text mistakenly says that the Hessian synod was held in “Hamburg,” rather than in Homberg, which is where it actually occurred. This is corrected in the quotation that appears in this paper.
65. Flacius’s stand in the so-called “Adiaphoristic Controversy” is vindicated in Article X of the Formula of Concord. Unfortunately, Flacius had also become a controversial figure within Lutheranism because of his use of misleading terminology regarding the doctrine of Original Sin. That matter is addressed in Article I of the Formula.
66. Olson, pp. 107-08. The quotation is from Kooiman, “Die Amsterdamer Kirchen Ordnung in ihrer Auswirkung auf die Lutherischen Kirchen-Ordnung in den Vereinigten Staaten Amerikas,” Evangelische Theologie 16 (1956), p. 226.
69. Zwanepol, p. 428. Zwanepol’s imprecise English has been corrected in the quotation that appears in this paper. His “administrational competence” has been rendered as “administrative competence,” and his “prominent member of the church,” as a translation of praecipuum membrum ecclesiae, has been rendered as “chief member of the church.”
85. Jacobs, A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States, pp. 39-40. The present-day Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands is the institutional heir of the “Fraternity,” but it is not a Confessional Lutheran body. Together with two Reformed churches it is a part of the “Uniting Protestant Churches in the Netherlands.”
89. Zwanepol, p. 436. Zwanepol’s text states that Fabritius arrived in New York in 1668. He actually arrived on February 19, 1669. (Kreider, The Beginnings of Lutheranism in New York, p. 50.) According to the “old” Julian calendar, in use at the time in England and its colonies, this would still have been in the year 1668. But to avoid confusion, Zwanepol’s text is altered in the quotation that appears in this paper to read “1669,” in conformity to the reckoning of the “new” Gregorian calendar.
95. Kreider, The Beginnings of Lutheranism in New York, p. 8. The present writer is not ashamed to be a direct descendant of several of these committed Lutheran laymen. His ancestors include Tjerck Claessen De Witt, the lay leader who conducted the first know Lutheran worship service in Beverwyck, New Netherland (Albany, New York), in 1656.
This essay was delivered at the Conference on Church and State, held near Kyiv, Ukraine,
February 27 – March 1, 2002. It was published in Lutheran Synod Quarterly,
Vol. 43, No. 4 (December 2003), pp. 360-400.