Ordination an “adiaphorous practice”? I think not…

The Ordination of Pr. Roy Axel Coats.

The Ordination of Fr. Roy Axel Coats.

I am convinced and compelled by the teaching of my fathers in the faith to regard the topic of ordination as one of Dr. Franz Pieper’s weak points. In Vol. 3 of his Dogmatik he goes a bridge too far when he speaks of the rite of ordination as merely the ratification of the mediate call:

Ordination to the ministry by the laying on of hands and prayers is not a divine ordinance, but a church custom or ceremony, for, although it is mentioned in Holy Writ, it is not commanded (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:6; Acts 6:6; 8:17). Hence it belongs to the adiaphorous practices. A candidate for the ministry becomes a pastor not by his ordination, but by his call and its acceptance.” (Pieper, F., Christian Dogmatics, 1953 [electronic ed., Vol. 3, p. 454]) (emphasis mine)

The statement in bold errs by suggesting that the Keys are possessed and conferred by the congregation alone to the exclusion of the clergy when in fact it is the whole Church, laity and clergy together, which possesses and confers the Keys. Pieper commits the opposite error of the Roman Catholics: they vest the keys solely in the episcopacy, and he vests them solely in the laity. Both drive a wedge of bifurcation where there ought not be one.

Far be it from me to gainsay the venerable Pieper here; however, it is not simply I, a lone seminarist, that disagrees. That is to say, these are not simply my autonomously-derived opinions. I defer to the authority of the Confessions against Dr. Pieper here, and suggest that a better gloss of the relevant texts is given by the Rev’d Dr. A. C. Piepkorn, the aforementioned Fr. Charles L. McClean, and Fr. Heath R. Curtis.

The text in question is The Tractatus, 63-70; I quote here from the Triglotta:

Jerome therefore teaches that the distinction between the grades of bishop and presbyter (or pastor) is by human authority. The fact itself bears witness to this, for the power is the same, as I have already stated. Afterwards one thing made a distinction between bishops and pastors, and this was ordination, for it was decided that one bishop should ordain the ministers in a number of churches. But since the distinction between bishop and pastor is not by divine right, it is manifest that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right. Consequently, when the regular bishops become enemies of the Gospel and are unwilling to administer ordination, the churches retain the right to ordain for themselves. For wherever the church exists, the right to administer the Gospel also exists. Wherefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right of calling, electing, and ordaining ministers.


This right is a gift given exclusively to the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church. It is as Paul testifies to the Ephesians when he says, “When he ascended on high he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8, 11, 12). He enumerates pastors and teachers among the gifts belonging exclusively to the church, and he adds that they are given for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ. Where the true church is, therefore, the right of electing and ordaining ministers must of necessity also be. So in an emergency even a layman absolves and becomes the minister and pastor of another. It is like the example which Augustine relates of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the other (a catechumen), and the latter, after his Baptism, absolved the former. Here the words of Christ apply which testify that the keys were given to the church and not merely to certain individuals: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).


Finally, this is confirmed by the declaration of Peter, “You are a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). These words apply to the true church which, since it alone possesses the priesthood, certainly has the right of electing and ordaining ministers. The most common custom of the church also bears witness to this, for there was a time when the people elected pastors and bishops. Afterwards a bishop, either of that church or of a neighboring church, was brought in to confirm the election with the laying on of hands; nor was ordination anything more than such confirmation [comprobatio]. (emphasis mine)

To wit, Fr. Heath Curtis writes:

The Church is neither just the laity nor just the clergy: it is the clergy and the laity, the whole people of God. As [Hermann] Sasse…writes, ‘It is therefore in fact impossible in the New Testament to separate ministry and congregation’ (“Ministry and Congregation, July 1949; We Confess the Church, p. 78). Luther concurs, ‘Now wherever you find these offices or officers, you may be assured that the holy Christian people are there; for the church cannot be without these bishops, pastors, preachers, priests; and conversely, they cannot be without the church. Both must be together’ (On the Councils and the Church, Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1966; LW 41:164). Thus, when the Church is said to retain the power to ordain, this means that the laity and the clergy both have roles to play in placing a man into the Office of the Ministry, as the overall context of Tr. 63-72 makes clear.


Much has been made of Augustine’s famous thought experiment about the two men in the boat. It is interesting that it is often used in an attempt to show that everyone is a minister while Melanchthon uses it to show that the Church has the right to put men who are not ministers into the ministry. Furthermore, we might add an additional thought experiment: imagine if a number of laymen broke off from a local congregation and elect one of their number as their pastor – a man whom the clergy of the church unanimously say is unfit for the ministry and thus refuse to agree (grant their comprobatio, Tr. 70) to his call to ministry. If the newly formed, breakaway congregation then insisted and installed the man in office without the comprobatio of any clergyman whatever, would the man actually be in the Office of the Ministry? Likewise with a group of clergymen who identify a man they want in the Office of the Ministry and proceed to place him in office without any involvement of the rest of the Church, that is, the laity – would a man so placed actually be in the Office of the Ministry? The overall context of Tr. 63-72, and certainly the history of the Lutheran Church, urges the negative answer in both situations. The people of God as a whole, laity and clergy, place a man into the Office. If one acts without the other, at the very least there would be great doubt about the validity of such a placing in Office. (emphasis mine)

With that said, I could only assent to the following, highly modified, version of the foregoing boldfaced statement of Pieper:

A candidate for the ministry becomes a pastor not merely ex opere operato of the adiaphorous “rite of ordination”, but by his being called, his acceptance of the call, and his placement into the office by a presbyter-bishop.

Election and ordination are never to be separated. One can imagine circumstances in which true necessity might prevent ordination from taking place for a time, but these would be exceptions which proved the rule.