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On the Duties of Ministers of the Church – a review

The Lord be with you

The Preface of the booklet “On the Duties of Minister of the Church,” was written by Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. He does an excellent job in introducing both who the author is and the reason the LC-MS has made it available on-line (see link below). I’ve decided to simply reproduce it here. Following his preface I’ll add just a few comments.

“Ministers of the church should not think that what is related to the care of the poor is foreign to them.” This brief statement by Johann Gerhard is rather provocative. It is our sincere desire that this little publication, taken from Locus 23 of Gerhard’s great Theological Commonplaces, will provide provocation, especially for those clergymen and laypersons who treasure voices from the great period of 17th century Lutheran Orthodoxy.

Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) was, after Luther and Chemnitz, “the third after which there is no fourth.” His Loci or Theological Commonplaces, while often forcing doctrinal topics into categories of Aristotelian logic, still breathe with Scripture and the writings of the church fathers. Gerhard was known both for his erudite orthodoxy and his deep piety. His Sacred Meditations are the greatest devotional literature ever produced. For all of these reasons, we have sought to give voice to Gerhard, especially with respect to pastoral concern for the poor and ill.

As the reader will discover, Gerhard finds evidence that care for the poor and sick is a matter of pastoral concern, based upon Christology and apostolic practice (Acts 6). It is our deep conviction that orthodox Lutheran pastors and parishes will concern themselves with right preaching and administration of the Sacraments and all that this involves. For from Gospel and Sacraments our life in Christ flows. And where such concern for, and belief in, the precious Gospel in Word and Sacrament resides, there cannot but also be concern for those who are in need.

Such was the conviction of Luther. The Reformer defined the Lord’s Supper, in 1519, as the “sacrament of love,” and drew important ethical conclusions from it for the life of the congregation. He retained these views throughout his life:

There your heart must go out in love and devotion and learn that this sacrament is a sacrament of love, and that love and service are given you and you again must render love and service to Christ and His needy ones … . You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in His holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is ever filled to overflowing; you must fight, work, pray, and if you cannot do more, have heartfelt sympathy … (Treatise on the Blessed Sacrament, Luther’s Works, Phil. Ed. Vol 35, p 54).

While love for the needy is no “mark” of the church as are Word and Sacraments (Augustana VII), nevertheless, where Word and Sacraments are received in faith, love flows to the neighbor. It was Gerhard’s conviction that the clergy have a part in demonstrating and organizing this concern for the needy in the life of the congregation. We trust this entire treatise will be a blessing to the reader, though this “seventh duty of ministers — care of the poor and visitation of the sick” — occupies only a small portion of the work. Moreover, we pray that Gerhard’s work may provide the impetus for pastors and congregations to consider their own lives of mercy toward those in need.

Thanks to Dr. Richard Dinda for providing this translation gratis, and to Concordia Publishing House for granting permission for its publication in this form.

My comments:

When Matthew Harrison says “short,” he is writing in comparison to Gerhard’s overall work that this essay is taken from. This pamphlet is 75 pages long so many of the pamphlets in this “Mercy Essays” series, found on the LC-MS web page, are noticeably shorter.

The “seventh duty of ministers,” which refers to the minister visiting the sick, can be found beginning on page 66 of the pamphlet.

Many modern readers might find the symbolic interpretation of some passages a bit strained. This is fairly common when one reads books and sermons from earlier generations. What makes symbolic sense in 1900 AD might seem strained in 2000 AD. A simple example of this can be found in a book I read in the 1970s which interpreted the “grasshoppers” in Revelation 9 as Apache attack helicopters. While I never thought the author was correct, many did. Gerhard does follow the “rule of faith” in his interpretations (which the book I just mentioned didn’t) which means that the doctrine expressed in his symbolic interpretations is always faithful, even if you question whether or not the image actually conveys that specific doctrine.

It was important to theologians in Gerhard’s day to establish that their teaching was not novel. Therefore they not only copiously quote scripture but often add many quotes from the Church Fathers. You will find many such quotes in this pamphlet. This can make the modern reader feel like Gerhard is “beating a dead horse.”

The descriptions of a ministers duties are clearly expressed in reference to the day and age Gerhard lives. He speaks of how a minister might address his prince when the prince needs to have a sin rebuked. He speaks of whether or not a minister can brew and sell beer. For these topics to have current value the reader must translate the principles into a modern context.

The target audience of this booklet is ministers. So why would a layman read it? To understand what a minister is called to do. Today there are many expectations of a pastor that are actually not part of his calling. These have been pressed in by our culture. Such expectations are often not bad, in and of themselves. But if they get in the way of the minister performing his actual calling, then they are stumbling blocks that need to be either delegated or removed entirely. If the congregation is unaware of this difference, then they might be very disappointed with their pastor who is faithfully fulfilling his calling but not spending much time on the side-issues.

On the Duties of Ministers of the Church

Blessings in Christ

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