“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Luke 22:25-27
One would think that with our Lord’s clear words that rule out playing “who’s the boss” among Christians that we would never have to face the question of whether pastor or congregation gets to have the final say-so on matters left undetermined by the Word of God. But alas, the twin sins of clericalism and anti-clericalism continue to rear their ugly heads.
Often to push the matter on the anti-clerical side, some Lutherans appeal to a passage in the Tractatus which, they contend, clearly comes down on the side of the congregation having the final say so. It is usually rendered: “In 1 Cor. 3 Paul regards all ministers as equals and teaches that the church is superior to its ministers.” (Tractatus par. 11)
The church is superior to its ministers. This is the lynchpin of the argument from the Lutheran Symbols for those who assert that the pastors are to submit to the congregations in all matters of adiaphora. But is this really what the Tractatus says?
The Latin of the phrase in question employs the word supra. Thus, “ecclesiam esse supra ministros.” The Latin word supra can indeed mean superior to, above. But that is not the only thing it can mean! It can also carry the meaning “more than.” Hence, “the church is more than the ministers” – the clergy do not equate to the church! If one turns to the German of the Tractatus, we find the self-same phrase is indeed rendered: “die Kirche mehr sei denn die Diener” – that is, the Church is more than the ministers.
Thus, the German shows which meaning of the Latin word “supra” was intended, and this makes great sense in the context of the paragraph and indeed of the entire document. This also solves the difficulty that Melanchthon and the Lutheran Church with him, are here speaking in utter contradiction to the Augsburg Confession. For that symbol clearly grants: “To this our people reply that it is lawful for bishops or pastors to establish ordinances so that things are done in the church in an orderly fashion…. It is fitting for the churches to comply with such ordinances for the sake of love and tranquility and to keep them insofar as they do not offend others.” (AC XXVIII:53, 55)
Is the Church “superior to” the ministers? No. For the ministers remain part of the Church itself, but they are not the whole of the Church. Thus, playing “who’s the boss” with reference to Tractatus 11 is ruled out.