Presbyter Ordination

Hi All,
I met with a Lutheran (LCMS) Pastor friend of mine today, and we discussed a variety of things. It was an excellent time and I really appreciate good dialogue!

One thing I am struggling with, is the Lutheran view of ordination. I understand the Catholic objections to this, and I don’t want to start a debate about it. All I am asking is if a Lutheran LCMS could explain a bit to me.

Basically, does your denomination believe in Presbyter Apostolic Succession? In other words, can you trace a succession of Pastors back to the Apostles? Do you believe that only one who has been ordained can administer valid sacraments, or is it possible for a lay person to consecrate the Eucharist?

The Lutheran Pastor I met with brought up this quote from The Book of Concord: “For wherever the Church is, there is the authority [command] to administer the Gospel. Therefore it is necessary for the Church to retain the authority to call, elect, and ordain ministers. And this authority is a gift which in reality is given to the Church, which no human power can wrest from the Church, as Paul also testifies to the Ephesians when he says, Eph 4:8: He ascended, He gave gifts to men. And he enumerates among the gifts specially belonging to the Church pastors and teachers, and adds that such are given for the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Hence, wherever there is a true church, the right to elect and ordain ministers necessarily exists. Just as in a case of necessity even a layman absolves, and becomes the minister and pastor of another; as Augustine narrates the story of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the catechumen, who after Baptism then absolved the baptizer.”

Does anyone know if this allusion to Augustine is correct? And, Lutherans, can anyone be a pastor in your view, even if he hasn’t been ordained?


From an LCMS point of view, the confessions (as well as scripture and the history of the Church) limit ordination to men. From the Augsburg Confession:

Article XIV: Of Ecclesiastical Order.

Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless** he **be regularly called.

The example given in the Book of Concord would be an extraordinary one. Regular ecclesiastical order requires that, in order to preach or administer the sacraments (baptize, absolve, consecrate) one must be regularly called and ordained. And I would not consider it extraordinary circumstances if the pastor is sick, so the head elder decides to hold Divine Service.


I would just like to add that ordination, at least in Confessional Lutheran bodies like the LCMS, is not bestowed on any ol’ male who “feels” called. Before our Pastors can even receive a call to serve a local manifestation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, they typically must earn a masters of divinity from one of our seminaries - which are difficult to get into. Would-be seminarians must pass entrance exams in Hebrew and Greek (most take summer “crash courses” just to meet the entrance standards), and demonstrate a solid understanding of Lutheran doctrine. Most earn bachelors degrees in theology or biblical languages before pursuing their graduate studies. So, they often spend 8 years preparing for ordination.

You are correct, Don. I had a pastor years ago who said a Bible and an experience isn’t qualification enough. :smiley:


Thanks for your reply! Basically then, could a layman consecrate and administer a valid Eucharist in the Lutheran understanding?

It isn’t a matter of could or couldn’t, but should or shouldn’t. A layman should not, as that is what the confessions tell us. My personal belief goes the step further to can’t. It would have to be dramatically extraordinary circumstances for me to even stay in the nave if someone not ordained attempted to hold mass.


I have always been taught that “can’t” is the appropriate word here. The church holds the power of the keys and the responsibility to administer the Sacraments; this power is vested in the teaching Office of Public Ministry - no lay Lutheran could consecrate the Eucharist.

In that hypothetical circumstance where Christians are trapped on a desert island with no clergy to administer among them, the one who is called by that local manifestation of the church to administer the Sacraments ceases to be ‘lay’ but called to ministry. The same concept of Presbyter ordination has been accepted even in he Roman Catholic Church at times in history.

Maybe I’m not understanding properly, but ISTM that the Christian precedent more than supports you ‘personal’ view. I thought this was simply te correct view. :shrug:

Ah…I see now. Basically it comes down to this: a layman should not try to hold mass, and we don’t need to have a intellectual reason for everything. God understands the how and the logic: all we must do is obey. It is not right for a layman to try to consecrate the Eucharist: as to whether in extraordinary circumstances he could, God knows but we don’t need to. Do I summarize your position correctly?

So, would you agree with me that Lutherans have a kind of Apostolic Succession, i.e., a succession of Presbyters? If every Lutheran ordination requires an already ordained Pastor to be present, couldn’t you trace your “succession” back to the Reformation and from there back to the Apostles? Or do the Lutherans not view the office of the Presbyter as something that is Sacramental?

No, only someone ordained is allowed to consecrate in a Lutheran Mass. Most Lutherans follow the episcopal ordering [deacon, priest, bishop] so ordinations are always presided by a bishop in apostolic succession.

Sacramental, sure. A sacrament in and of itself that specifically offers God’s saving Grace to all Christians in the same way Baptism, The Lord’s Supper or Holy Absolution do? I haven’t met a Lutheran who numbers it so.

I suppose every Lutheran body could hypothetically find a line of unbroken succession all the way back to the Apostles - we do practice the laying on of hands at our ordinations, after all. But it wouldn’t matter either way; a presbyter ordination is valid because it confirms the teaching of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, not because of who tagged whom.

Yes, I was taught “can’t” also, and that is what I believe. The “shouldn’t” part comes from the extraordinary circumstances.

Thanks, Don, for making the position more clear than I did.:thumbsup:


Ok, that makes matters clearer. Thanks!

I just wonder, and again I don’t want to start an argument: I just sincerely want to know—how do you explain the numerous references to Apostolic Succession in the early Church fathers? Specifically, Clement of Rome, Irenaeus (Against Heresies Book 3), and Tertullian (the Prescription Against Heretics). If one or more of you could give me any specific evidence that the Early Church did not believe in a Sacramental Apostolic Succession of priests, I would be appreciative!


There’s wonderful information on how Luther/ Lutherans delayed ordination by several decades in Germany, trying to get Catholic bishops to preside. But the Holy Roman Empire meant these bishops were also in charge of armies. In Scandinavia, the kings declared Lutheranism as the church so bishops went right along,

Hi MP,
Article XIV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession says;

The Fourteenth Article, in which we say that in the Church the administration of the Sacraments and Word ought to be allowed no one unless he be rightly called, they receive, but with the proviso that we employ canonical ordination.** Concerning this subject we have frequently testified in this assembly that it is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church [old church-regulations and the government of bishops], even though they have been made by human authority [provided the bishops allow our doctrine and receive our priests]. For we know that church discipline was instituted by the Fathers**, in the manner laid down in the ancient canons, with a good and useful intention.

Here is a specific reference to the Fathers. We are not opposed to AS.


Thanks for the quotation.

I’m just wondering, based on your previous comments about the unnecessary nature of apostolic succession, how you interpret the Fathers’ words? It seems from the Augsburg Confession that Apostolic Succession (even if it is Presbyter Succession) is viewed as a desirable thing, but not one which is essential for the life of the Church. However, in my reading of the the second and third century fathers, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that they thought otherwise.

Whereas the Augsburg Confession says that an Apostolic Bishop is beneficial only if he agrees with the Confessional Doctrines, it seems to me that the Early Fathers taught that an alleged doctrine was beneficial only if it lined up with the teaching of the Collective Apostolic Churches. In other words, Apostolic Succession of the Whole Church was one the test of Orthodoxy.

How does the LCMS Church explain Tertullian and Irenaeus and Clement’s words, that I alluded to earlier?


I’m not sure Apostolic Succession is, under all circumstances, even required within the Roman Communion (I am open to correction if I have misunderstood). There have been -albeit very, very rare- exceptions throughout history where Rome has recognized an ordination as valid (I can’t remember the name of the group of monks!!). I suppose the Lutheran reasons for accepting Presbyter ordinations would be nearly identical to the Roman Catholic reason for accepting Presbyter ordinations (however rarely they may occur in that communion).

I think it is also important to keep in mind the Lutheran understanding of ordination. Similar to the early church, Lutheranism does not divide the teaching office of Public Ministry into a tiered hierarchy (at least, not in a theological sense); a pastor effectively is the local bishop. Our bishops (or presidents as we usually call them), in turn, are simply pastors to pastors, who are granted greater authority by human right for the sake of unity in the church. If you’re familiar with Melanchthon’s addendum to the Smalcald Articles, this is the teaching by which he admits that Lutherans could be open to Papal rule - assuming the Pope understands he holds that position by human and not divine right, of course. But I’m veering off your topic… :o

Unfortunately, I do not happen to own either of the works you mentioned. I have several books that quote them, but not on this specific topic. Would you happen to have any links? In the meantime, I’ll ask around some Lutheran circles for more specific answers.

It is so refreshing to discuss theology with someone who is willing to not just throw around cliches!

Here are the links:

Clement: (chapters 40-44)



What do you think?

I do read the ECF’s. But your statement illustrates one of the reasons why I personally feel the need for a living Magisterium. In the early Church, the Magisterium ruled out 90% of the potential scriptures when the NT canon was developed. They also ruled out over 90% of the potential Christian traditions, and many, perhaps most ancient Christian scholars, as unreliable. What we now call the “Early Church Fathers” would be that fraction of early scholars that the Magisterium declared to be “orthodox”. Others were, and still are, ruled out, even though they claimed apostolic teaching. You may say that we know “X” was not an ECF because he taught heresy about ordination, for instance; but who made that determination?

In weighing issues as presbyter ordination today, and the guidance of the early Church Fathers, it’s hard not to “read them out of context” when modern scholars with doctoral degrees have totally different views on what the context should be. Who decides which modern scholars are reliable, interpreting the witness of the early Church?

Good points; however, is it any different today? In other words, if Tertullian and Irenaeus could validly say back then that the only way to have the correct interpretation of Scripture was by appealing to the Apostolic Sees, why do we think that merely the written words of the Bible are sufficient today? Without any antagonism, it seems to me that the Protestant Churches seem to have a lot of alleged doctrine that was “hidden” from the Church throughout most of history, and the Catholic Apostolic Sees that still remain contradict this theology. If Irenaeus could correctly appeal to the Church for the only true interpretation of Scripture, why is it any different today?

You are right that the ECF were combating the Gnostics, but remember this: as a cradle fundamentalist I think speak without animosity—the Gnostics and the Protestants have similarities, since both appeal to the Bible as opposed to the Apostolic Sees. They arrive at differing doctrines, but the principle is the same.

At least, this is how it appears to me based on my studies. And believe me, I didn’t used to think this way!

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