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Reclaiming Walther

August 22nd, 2007
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A post from a week or so ago about church polity elicited two interesting reactions: One, I heard from those who regard the historic episcopate to be the "magic bullet" fix to all woes and ills facing the Lutheran Church here in America. They are wrong, of course. Second, I heard from a person who claimed I had, with my post, fallen from the one, true faith because I denied that "Supreme Voters’ Assemblies" were divinely mandated. And he was wrong, of course.

It is always a dangerous thing to read Walther selectively. In his first presidential address CFW Walther makes the point that there is no one divinely instituted way for a congregation, or church, to choose to govern itself. In such things, there is freedom. He make it clear that there are times and circumstances in which a church, or congregation, may choose, in Christian freedom, to hand governance of the church over to representatives. Read it for yourself and than ask yourself how it is that anyone who has spent time reading Walther could ever conclude that Walther regarded so-called "Supreme Voters’ Assemblies" to be the one and only and truly divine mandated form of church governance. I have no problem with voters’ assemblies. They are fine. They have worked well and can work well. They are however no more "divinely mandated" than any other form of congregational organization and governance. There were no "voters’ assembly" as we have them today during the Reformation era. Luther’s congregation in Wittenberg had no "voters’ assembly." It was governed by a small council of educated townsmen with the clergy.

Walther’s whole point is that there is FREEDOM in such issues and no congregation can claim, over against another,

‘We know how you need to organize yourselves and unless you do it this way, you are not Lutheran."

The key is the Word. Only faithfulness to the Word, not even Supreme Voters’ Assembly, can assure the orthodoxy of a church body or congregation.  It is tragic to notice the extent to which misinformed individuals are now even making an argument that it is the voters’ assembly that establishes the Real Presence in the Sacrament.  We must reclaim Walther from those who misrepresent him. Walther said:

"Undoubtedly our congregations were free to follow this example and to invest the synod
  meeting in their name with a power beside the power of the Word; but it is a different question whether it would have been wise if they had done so. I say no, because under the prevailing circumstances we can confidently hope for auspicious success of our work, or rather of God’s work which we are promoting, if we use only the power of God. This is the
  second reason why we should and can carry on our work with joy, although we have no power but the power of the Word.

"Perhaps there are times and conditions when it is profitable for the church to place
  the supreme deciding and regulating power into the hands of representatives.
Who, for
  instance, would deny that at one time the consistories
in our German fatherland were an
  inestimable blessing, especially when the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled in the
  German Lutheran Church: "And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy
  nursing mothers" (ch. 49, v.23)? Which person acquainted a bit with history would
  deny that the Swedish church grew splendidly under its episcopal constitution, especially
  so long as men like Laurentius Petri, the famous Swedish translator of the Bible and
  student of Luther, bore the episcopal dignity, and so long as men like the two Gustavuses
  wore the royal crown of Sweden? If, however, we glance at the conditions in which the
  church finds itself here, we can hardly consider any other constitution as the most
  salutary except one under which the congregations are free to govern themselves
but enter
  into a Synodical organization such as the one existing among us with the help of God, for
  enjoying fraternal consultation, supervision, and aid to spread the kingdom of God jointly
  and to make possible and accomplish the aims of the church in general.

It is true, if our congregations had granted us full power to decide and decree in
  their name, it apparently would have been easy for us to give all of the congregations of
  our territory the form of truly Lutheran congregations, whereas with our present
  constitution our hands appear to be tied. But this only seems to be the case. Even though
  some congregations may use the liberty they possess of rejecting our recommendations even
  if they are salutary; thereby they indeed deprive themselves of a blessing. But what would
  be the result if such congregations by their entrance into our organization had obligated
  themselves to submit to all of our orders? The exercise of our power would have laid the
  foundation for constant dissatisfaction, for constantly reviving fear of hierarchical
  efforts, and thus for endless friction. In a republic, as the United States of America is,
  where the feeling of being free and independent of man is nourished so strongly from
  childhood, the inevitable result would be that any restriction beyond the limits drawn by
  God Himself would be empty shells, and our apparent growth would often be nothing but a
  process of becoming stiff and dying in a great mass of lifeless forms. Our chief battle
  would soon center about the execution of manufactured, external human ordinances and
  institutions and would swallow up the true blessed battle for the real treasure of the
  church, for the purity and unity of doctrine. In a word, we would lose sight of our
  beautiful aim of building the true church, which is not an external scaffold, but the
  kingdom of God in the heart of men and at best ourselves bring about our early
  dissolution. To be sure, there are religious organizations in this republic which in spite
  of their strictly representative form of government are being built without antagonism and
  are prospering in their manner, but why? Because the congregations are not permitted to
  come to a knowledge of their liberty and their consciences are bound in favor of their
  form of government by false doctrine. In our Evangelical Lutheran Church, however, we must
  preach to our congregations that the choice of the form of government for a church is an
  inalienable part of their Christian liberty and that Christians as members of the church
  are subject to no power in the world except the clear Word of the living God.
There the
  above mentioned disastrous results are certainly to be feared from any restriction of the
  liberty of the congregations, especially in a republic such as ours is."



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Categories: CFW Walther
  1. Jeff
    August 24th, 2007 at 08:32 | #1

    Do Lutherans not from the MS tradition claim Walther? Is he read by a wider audience of Lutherans?
    McCain: Oh, we gladly “claim” Walther, it is just that due to some unfortunately misuse of Walther, it is necessary to “reclaim” him from the hands of those who would misquote him to advance their mistaken understandings about a so-called divinely instituted and mandated “Supreme Voters’ Assembly.”

  2. Rev. James Roemke
    August 24th, 2007 at 17:58 | #2

    I think he was asking if other (non-LCMS) Lutherans look to Walther for guidance.
    McCain: I’m sure some do, particularly Walther’s masterful book: “The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel”

  3. August 25th, 2007 at 14:52 | #3

    Is Walther talking here about congregational or synodical government?
    McCain: Walther makes it clear there is no divinely mandated form of church governance, either in the congregation or in any larger grouping of congregations. Those who claim that a voters’ assembly is divinely mandated are teaching falsely, and attempts to rope Walther into this are simply nonsensical. The hysterical accusations that are made when this fact is pointed out are all ridiculous red herrings.

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