Why the Congregation Has Authority Over the Pastor
by Rev. Jack Cascione


This article is written in response to some of the objections to our recently published article "Why the Voters’ Assembly Should be Supreme." The objections come from those who contribute to CAT41’s TableTalk mailing list and its administrator, Rev. Eric Stefanski. The uninitiated reader may not be aware that I have dubbed those who want to return to pre-Waltherian, 18th century, European, Lutheran hierarchy, as Hyper-Euro-Lutherans. The Hyper-Euros also believe that the rite of ordination is a sacrament from God as opposed to the LCMS position that ordination is simply the ratification of a "call" a pastor receives from a congregation.

This writer asked LCMS Pastor, Rev. Stefanski, "Could you send me a copy of what you think is the ideal church constitution for an LCMS congregation?"

Stefanski writes about church constitutions: Quotation removed per author's request.

Stefanski’s response is also typical of those pastors from the Synod’s Church Growth faction typified by the Michigan 102 on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Church Growthers also believe that God gives them the right to determine the style, character, and rubrics of worship, if we can call it that, as required in their contemporary informal entertainment setting. Both the Hyper-Euro-Lutherans and the Church Growthers view their offices as being above the congregation. At best they may be benign dictators, but dictators nevertheless, who resist verifiable accountability to the congregation.

Stefanski is certainly entitled to his view which is hardly representative of C.F.W. Walther and the "Old Missouri." In 1852 the LCMS Convention adopted Walther’s "Church and Ministry" as the official position of the LCMS. This was restated by Pieper, Fritz, and most recently by the President of the LCMS in January 1999. Stefanski’s "never" above is simply to convince the uninformed layman. There may not be an identical constitution required for every congregation but all LCMS congregational constitutions are required to reflect the theological position of Walther’s "Church and Ministry." An LCMS constitution much show that the Voters are supreme.

Lest I be guilty of singling out Pastor Stefanski, he is only speaking publicly on the same position held by members of the LCMS praesidium, professors at both seminaries, and hundreds of LCMS Pastors. He is also inadvertently articulating the false theology used by many District Presidents, officials, and professors to defend the abuses of the Church Growth Movement. Both the Hyper-Euro-Lutherans and the Church Growth advocates of the Michigan 102 claim God’s power to rule the congregation, first similar to the Vatican and second similar to the Board of Directors at General Motors.

It is true that the early church, the Catholic Church, and Luther had no church constitutions. Rather, they had Councils, canon law, civil law, tradition, rubrics, no separation of church and state, etc. They also had the foot of the King and the Pope on the back of their necks. No one had constitutions. Now in America, without European governmental, social, and ecclesiastical structure, any congregation without a constitution offers lay people little more than Stephanism. "Mister layman, do you have a question? I will give you my answer when I have formed an opinion."

The clergy can almost dance to this Hyper-Euro-Lutheran ditty on constitutions. "Don’t have one, don’t need one, don’t want one." They talk as if they are from God. "Mister layman, however, we will have your donations and property and silence as we ‘serve’ you." On the other end of the spectrum the Church Growth-Willow Creek-entertainment now-Leadership Training-Harvard School of Business-Peter Drucker style pastors would describe Stefanski’s position as optimized adjudicatory flexibility enhancement.

Pastor Stefanski supports his hierarchical, Grabauist interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions as follows: Quotation removed per author's request.

With the "proper mind-set" above, Stefanski could defend any position. With the "proper mind-set" Communism, Nazism, Socialism, and dictatorship could all work, but the potential for abuse is so much greater. "…Heb. 13:17: ‘Obey them that have the rule over.’ This passage requires obedience to the Gospel, for it does not reestablish a dominion for bishops apart from the Gospel." (Christian Dogmatics, Pieper Vol. III page 460)

Stefanski’s fear of voter tyranny is a moot point since everything in the congregation belongs to the congregation. They issued the "call" to the pastor and the final administration of the congregation belongs to them.1 Stefanski may as well speak of landlord tyranny or representative-government tyranny. We know that the Voters’ Assembly, being made of 100% sinners, can make the wrong decision, as can an American jury, but this is no argument for pastoral authority or doing away with the American court system.

Stefanski’s limited presentation of Apology XXVIII above by Philip Melanchthon in 1531 skews Melanchthon’s position on the authority of the Congregation which Melanchthon expands in his "Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope" contained in the Lutheran Confessions. Melanchthon state, "In 1 Cor. 3, 6, Paul makes ministers equal, and teaches that the Church is above the ministers."2   I repeat, the church, the local congregation, is above the pastor. Here Melanchthon says the Pope and all pretenders to authority over the congregation should doff their little hat to the congregation. Pieper, affirms this position in his Christian Dogmatics.3   Melanchthon’s Treatise is a veritable Magna Carta for the congregation.

Stefanski disagrees that the Voters’ Assembly is a group that has supremacy even though Christ says in Matt.18:17 "Go tell it to the church." Here Christ is speaking about church discipline. He says "go tell it to the church" that is the local congregation. He doesn’t say "go tell it to the pastor." The congregation, not the pastor, is the final and supreme authority to judge doctrine and the pastor, not the pastor!

Melanchthon’s point about the authority of the pastor in the Apology above is only in relation to the Word of God and only with the agreement of the congregation. Again, in the Treatise, Melanchthon makes it clear that the full authority of the keys belongs to the congregation, hence the authority to administer the word, sacraments, calls, ordination, excommunication, and the affairs of the congregation rest with the congregation.4

Luther and Walther point out that everyone in the congregation is a priest by virtue of their baptism and the pastor is elected to office from out of the priests. Pastors are not special people; they hold a special office. 5 6

The man or group who controls the church roster must control the deed to the church property. Stefanski’s position transfers control of the congregation to the minister. His claim that the pastor is in charge of excommunication based on the Apology XXVIII above is an outrageous usurpation of congregational authority. Melanchthon shows this authority rests with the congregation, "Go tell it to the church." 7

As the administrator of word and sacrament in behalf of the congregation the Smalcald Articles do say that the pastors have jurisdiction in excommunicating those who are guilty of manifest sins but not without due process before the congregation.8

Excommunication may necessarily cast the pastor in the role of prosecutor and the congregation as the jury as Paul speaks to the congregation in 1 Corinthians 5 and as Luther also points out.9 10  If the pastor is correct and the congregation in error the pastor should suffer removal from office rather than serve Communion to a public sinner.11 The Word is supreme over the pastor and congregation.

Every vote on doctrine gives the pastor and the congregation the opportunity to see who agrees with God’s Word. The pastor should not interfere with the process because in judging God’s Word the congregation necessarily judges its own faith as Christ would have it. "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you."(1Cor. 11:19) The final goal in the excommunication is confession of doctrine and salvation of souls. How dare a pastor interfere with a congregation’s right to confess its faith or lack of it in excommunication. Let Judas show himself. Christ told him to do what he was going to do quickly. Peter didn’t get up and tell Judas to sit down.

Luther shows that the congregation issues a call to a pastor and if the called pastor proves incompetent the congregation has the right and duty to remove the pastor. The Voters’ Assembly is supreme in congregational business.12   The pastor serves as a servant of the word and the Congregation is judge and jury of doctrine and all matters in the church.13

Stefanski’s Hyper-Euro-Lutheran interpretation is further rejected by E. J. Otto, the former editor of Affirm. In a lengthy article on excommunication in "The Abiding Word" Otto explains that the Office of the Keys belongs to the congregation. The final decision in excommunication belongs to the congregation, not the pastor.14

Stefanski’s attempt to make the Voters’ Assembly foreign to the Bible transfers the authority of the congregation to the pastor. It is true that the Scriptures do not state there must be a "Voter’s Assembly." However all of the passages quoted in "Why the Voters’ Assembly Should be Supreme" support this position while there are no passages stating that the pastor is supreme! There were hundreds of years of Roman culture predating the New Testament in which people regularly participated in voting.

The case of choosing an Apostle from either Matthias or Barsabas by casting lots is not an argument against the Voters’ Assembly. How could 11 Apostles who were inspired by God vote in such a case? When it came time to chose seven deacons that appear to be more like pastors from the congregation in Acts 6:5, the Apostle’s didn’t say, cast lots. They said, select or chose from among yourselves seven men full of the Holy Ghost. However this polling or selecting process took place the entire congregation did the choosing, selecting, or calling of these men. The Apostles let the congregation be supreme. According to 1 Cor.3:23 all things belong to the congregation and in the following verse, 1 Cor.4:1, the pastors are stewards of the mysteries of God. Luther uses Acts 6:5 in defense of the Bohemians electing their own Bishops in Vol. 40 page 38ff of Luther’s Works.

Walther’s understanding of the supremacy of the Voters’ Assembly representing the congregation is arrived at by a process of elimination. A vote must carry authority. Paul tells us in 1 Cor.14:34 and 1 Tim.2:12 that a woman should not teach or exercise authority over a man in the church. Also, children were not to exercise authority over adults. Hence women and those under 21, were precluded from voting in Walther’s "Church and Ministry" which brings us to the remainder of those eligible to vote. This group came to be called a Congregational Assembly and then Voters’ Assembly acting in service of the entire congregation.

DEAR PASTOR STEFANSKI: Why won’t you say the Voters’ are supreme? The final authority to excommunicate cannot belong to the pastor. It can’t be decided by lots. The pastor and the congregation are not equals. One is Christ’s bride and the other is a steward. If you don’t want to agree with Walther’s "Church and Ministry" why do you remain in the LCMS? A copy of our congregation’s constitution is on our congregation’s website, Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Clair Shores, Michigan at, http://www.redeemerlutheranchurch.org/chconst.htm.   What is the church constitution you agree to or are you your own church?

A note about Endnotes

The endnotes used in this work are linked from the note number in the text to the endnote at the bottom of the page, and vice versa.  In addition, where a note uses "ibid." or "op. cit.", it is linked to the appropriate parent endnote information.
If you use this "ibid." or "op. cit." link, you will need to use the BACK button on your browser to return to the endnote you started with.  From there, you can click on the endnote number to go back to where you were in the text.

1.   "In certain cases, however, the pastor must suspend from Communion. The pastor’s right of suspension has been discussed much in time past and present. However, the discussion has not always been correct (cf. Walther, Pastorale, p. 163.) The thing that must be maintained is that the pastor is personally and directly responsible not only to the congregation, but also to God, with regard to the person he admits to the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, the pastor has both the right and the duty to suspend those whose admission to the Sacrament would be contrary to God’s will and ordinance....
Of course, the suspended person always retains the right of appeal to the congregation from the verdict of the pastor, and this for two reasons: (1) the administration of the Lord’s Supper is entrusted originally to the congregation and the pastor has suspended as the servant of the congregation (minister ecclesaie); (2) the suspension temporarily affects the relation of the suspended to the congregation. But in the meantime the suspension stands. If it should happen that the pastor justly suspended a person, but the congregation condemned and annulled the suspension, and despite proper instruction and a thorough review of the case, perhaps even by Synodical officials, refuses to change its mind, the pastor must nevertheless suffer removal from office than give the Lord’s Supper to a person to whom according to God’s Word, he must deny it." (Christian Dogmatics by Francis Pieper Vol. III page 388-390)

2.   In 1 Cor. 3, 6, Paul makes ministers equal, and teaches that the Church is above the ministers. Hence superiority or lordship over the Church or the rest of the ministers is not ascribed to Peter [in preference to other apostles]. For he says thus: All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, i.e., let neither the other ministers nor Peter assume for themselves lordship or superiority over the Church; let them not burden the Church with traditions; let not the authority of any avail more than the Word [of God]; let not the authority of Cephas be opposed to the authority of the other apostles, as they reasoned at that time: "Cephas, who is an apostle of higher rank, observes this; therefore, both Paul and the rest ought to observe this." Paul removes this pretext from Peter, and denies [Not so, says Paul, and makes Peter doff his little hat, namely, the claim] that his authority is to be preferred to the rest or to the Church. (Treatise, Concordia Triglotta, page 507, par. 11)

3.   "In this sense too, the Smalcald Articles say that the "Church [i.e. local congregation] is above the ministers." Concordia Triglotta 507 "Power and Primacy of the Pope. Par. 11...." (Christian Dogmatics, Pieper, CPH, Vol. III, page 457)

4.   "...the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18, 19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. [For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to everyone who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc., and indicates to whom He has given the keys, namely, to the Church: Where two or three are gathered together in My name. Likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church, when He says: Tell it unto the Church.] Therefore it is necessary that in these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of the apostles, and for this reason they do not accord to Peter any prerogative or superiority, or lordship [which he had, or was to have had, in preference to the other apostles. (Treatise, Concordia Triglotta Page 511 par. 24-25)

5.   "Luther says: In the New Testament the Holy Spirit scrupulously avoids giving the name (sacerdos, ) priest, to any of the Apostles, or any other office, but restricts this name to the baptized or Christian as their birthright and hereditary name from Baptism; for none of us is born in Baptism an Apostle, preacher, teacher, pastor, but solely priest, are all of us born; therefore we take some from among these born priests and call and elect them for these offices that they may perform the functions of such office in the name of all of us." (St. L. XIX:1260.)" (Pieper Vol. III. 457)

6.   "Walther: The public ministry is not a special order, distinct from the holier than common order of Christians, as the priesthood of the Levites was, but is an office of service." (Pieper Vol. III. 457)

7.   Op. cit., (Treatise, Concordia Triglotta Page 511 par. 24-25)

8.   "The Smalcald Articles say: ‘It is, certain that the common jurisdiction of excommunicating those guilty of manifest crimes belongs to all pastors.’ But this is not to be done ‘without due process of law.’ (Concordia Triglotta. 525, Power and Jurisdiction of Bishops, par. 74; page 521, par. 60.) This ‘due process of law’ includes, above all things, the hearing of each case by the congregations and the verdict of the congregation. Luther’s strong term for an excommunication which has been pronounced without investigation and verdict by the congregation is well known. (St.L.XIX: 950 ff.) Hearsay: ‘The congregation which is to treat him as excommunicated should know and be convinced that he has deserved and fallen under the ban, as this text of Christ (Matt. 18:17-18) states; else it may be deceived and accept a lying ban and thus do the neighbor wrong....Here, where the souls are concerned, the congregation, too, should be judge and mistress.’ Loecher correctly states as Lutheran doctrine that the congregation passes judgment and pronounces the excommunication, while the pastor as the public servant of the congregation declares, ore proclaims, the excommunication." (Pieper Vol. III 459.)

9.  Op. cit., (Pieper Vol. III. 457)

10.   Op. cit., (Pieper Vol. III page 388-390)

11.   Ibid.

12.   "...Luther writes of the power of a congregation to dismiss its minister: ‘If, then, all of them are servants, their priestly, indelible mark also disappears, and the perpetuity of their priestly dignity, or that one must always remain a priest, is also pure fiction, for a servant may justly be deposed if he cannot be induced to be faithful. Again, he may be left in office as long as he serves well and it please the congregation, just as anyone in the secular sphere who administers a public office among his equals; yes, there is far more reason to dismiss a servant in the spiritual sphere than in the secular field; for the former when he becomes unfaithful, is much more insufferable than an unfaithful worldly servant, who can damage merely the temporal goods of this life, while the spiritual servant ruins and destroy also the eternal goods.’" (St. L.X:1591) Pieper Vol III page 458.

13.   Op. cit., (Pieper Vol. III page 388-390)

14.   "Church discipline comprises certain essential duties which are enjoined upon every Christian and every Christian congregation by a clear and direct command of God." (The Abiding Word, Edgar J. Otto, CPH 1947, vol. 2, page 538-540.)

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July 5, 1999
Revised September 28, 1999