First, it is necessary to know where and what the Christian congregation is, so that men do not engage in human affairs (as the non-Christians were accustomed to do) in the name of the Christian congregation. The sure mark by which the Christian congregation can be recognized is that the pure gospel is preached there. For just as the banner of an army is the sure sign by which one can know what kind of lord and army have taken to the field, so, too, the gospel is the sure sign by which one knows where Christ and his army are encamped. We have the sure promise of this from God in Isaiah 55[:10–11], "My word" (says God) "that goes forth from my mouth shall not return empty to me; rather, as the rain falls from heaven to earth, making it fruitful, so shall my word also accomplish everything for which I sent it." Thus we are certain that there must be Christians wherever the gospel is, no matter how few and how sinful and weak they may be. Likewise, where the gospel is absent and human teachings rule, there no Christians live but only pagans, no matter how numerous they are and how holy and upright their life may be.
Thus it undeniably follows that bishops, religious foundations, monasteries, and all who are associated with them have long since ceased to be Christians or Christian congregations, even though they have claimed they are more entitled to this name than anyone else. For whoever recognizes the gospel sees, hears, and understands that even today they insist on their human teachings, have driven the gospel far away from themselves, and are still driving it away. That is why one should consider pagan and worldly what these people do and pretend.
Second, in this matter of judging teachings and appointing or dismissing teachers or pastors, one should not care at all about human statutes, law, old precedent, usage, custom, etc., even if they were instituted by pope or emperor, prince or bishop, if one half or the whole world accepted them, or if they lasted one year or a thousand years. For the soul of man is something eternal, and more important than every temporal thing. That is why it must be ruled and seized only by the eternal word; for it is very disgraceful to rule consciences before God with human law and old custom. That is why this matter must be dealt with according to Scripture and God’s word; for God’s word and human teaching inevitably oppose each other when the latter tries to rule the soul. This we shall prove clearly with regard to our present discussion, in this manner:
Human words and teaching instituted and decreed that only bishops, scholars, and councils should be allowed to judge doctrine. Whatever they decided should be regarded as correct and as articles of faith by the whole world, as is sufficiently proven by their daily boasting about the pope’s spiritual law. One hears almost nothing from them but such boasting that they have the power and right to judge what is Christian or what is heretical. The ordinary Christian is supposed to await their judgment and obey it. Do you see how shamelessly and foolishly this boasting, with which they intimidated the whole world and which is their highest stronghold and defense, rages against God’s law and word?
Christ institutes the very opposite. He takes both the right and the power to judge teaching from the bishops, scholars, and councils and gives them to everyone and to all Christians equally when he says, John 10[:4], "My sheep know my voice." Again, "My sheep do not follow strangers, but flee from them, for they do not know the voice of strangers" [John 10:5]. Again, "No matter how many of them have come, they are thieves and murderers. But the sheep did not listen to them" [John 10:8].
Here you see clearly who has the right to judge doctrine: bishops, popes, scholars, and everyone else have the power to teach, but it is the sheep who are to judge whether they teach the voice [i.e., the words] of Christ or the voice of strangers. My dear, what can these water bubbles say against it, with their feet scraping, "Councils, councils! One must listen to the scholars, the bishops, the crowd; one must look at the old usage and custom"? Do you think the word of God should yield to your old usage, custom, and bishops? Never! That is why we let bishops and councils decide and institute whatever they please; when God’s word is on our side we—and not they—shall judge what is right or wrong and they will have to yield to us and obey our word.
Here I think you can indeed see clearly enough how much trust should be placed in those who deal with souls by means of human words. Who cannot see that all bishops, religious foundations, monasteries, universities, and everything belonging to them rage against this clear word of Christ? They shamelessly take away the judgment of teaching from the sheep and annex it to themselves through their own law and blasphemy. That is why they should certainly be regarded as murderers and thieves, as wolves and apostate Christians, for they are openly convicted here not only of denying God’s word but also of opposing and acting against it. Such action was quite appropriate for the Antichrist and his kingdom, according to the prophecy of St. Paul, II Thessalonians 2[:3–4].
Christ says again, Matthew 7[:15], "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly ravenous wolves." You see, here Christ does not give the judgment to prophets and teachers but to pupils or sheep. For how could one beware of false prophets if one did not consider and judge their teaching? Thus there cannot be a false prophet among the listeners, only among the teachers. That is why all teachers and their teaching should and must be subject to the judgment of the listeners.
Again, the third passage is from St. Paul, I Thessalonians 5[:21], "Test everything but hold fast to that which is good." You see, here he does not want to have any teaching or decree obeyed unless it is examined and recognized as good by the congregation hearing it. Indeed, this examination is not the concern of the teachers; rather, the teachers must first state what is to be examined. Thus here too the judgment is taken from the teachers and given to the Christian pupils. There is a radical difference between Christians and the world: in the world the rulers command whatever they please and their subjects accept it. "But among you," says Christ, "it should not be so." Instead, among Christians each person is the judge of the other person; on the other hand, he is also subject to the other person. However, the spiritual tyrants have made a worldly power out of Christendom.
The fourth passage is again from Christ, Matthew 24[:4–5], "Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray." To sum up, do we really need to quote any more sayings? All of St. Paul’s warnings, Romans 16[:17–18], I Corinthians 10[:14], Galatians 3, 4, and 5, Colossians 2[:8], and elsewhere, and all the sayings of the prophets in which they teach us to avoid human teaching, do nothing but take the right and power to judge all doctrine away from the teachers and with a stern decree impose it on the listeners instead, on pain of losing their soul. Accordingly, they not only have the power and the right to judge everything that is preached, they also have the duty to judge, on pain of [incurring] the disfavor of Divine Majesty. Thus we see in what an un-Christian way the tyrants treated us when they took this right and obligation from us and made it their own. For this alone they richly deserve to be driven out of Christendom and to be chased away as wolves, thieves, and murderers who rule over us and teach us things contrary to God’s word and will.
Thus we conclude that wherever there is a Christian congregation in possession of the gospel, it not only has the right and power but also the duty—on pain of losing the salvation of its souls and in accordance with the promise made to Christ in baptism—to avoid, to flee, to depose, and to withdraw from the authority that our bishops, abbots, monasteries, religious foundations, and the like are now exercising. For it is clearly evident that they teach and rule contrary to God and his word. This first point is established certainly and firmly enough, and one should depend upon it, that it is a divine right and a necessity for the salvation of souls to depose or to avoid such bishops, abbots, monasteries, and whatever is of their government.
Second, since a Christian congregation neither should nor could exist without God’s word, it clearly follows from the previous [argument] that it nevertheless must have teachers and preachers who administer the word. And since in these last accursed times the bishops and the false spiritual government neither are nor wish to be teachers—moreover, they want neither to provide nor to tolerate any, and God should not be tempted to send new preachers from heaven—we must act according to Scripture and call and institute from among ourselves those who are found to be qualified and whom God has enlightened with reason and endowed with gifts to do so.
For no one can deny that every Christian possesses the word of God and is taught and anointed by God to be priest, as Christ says, John 6[:45], "They shall all be taught by God," and Psalm 45[:7], "God has anointed you with the oil of gladness on account of your fellows." These fellows are the Christians, Christ’s brethren, who with him are consecrated priests, as Peter says too, 1 Peter 2[:9], "You are a royal priesthood so that you may declare the virtue of him who called you into his marvelous light."
But if it is true that they have God’s word and are anointed by him, then it is their duty to confess, to teach, and to spread [his word], as Paul says, 1 Corinthians 4 [II Cor. 4:13], "Since we have the same spirit of faith, so we speak," and the prophet says in Psalm 116[:10], "I came to believe, therefore I speak." And in Psalm 51[:13], he [God] says of all Christians, "I will teach the ungodly your ways, and sinners will return to you." Here again it is certain that a Christian not only has the right and power to teach God’s word but has the duty to do so on pain of losing his soul and of God’s disfavor.
If you say, "How can this be? If he is not called to do so he may indeed not preach, as you yourself have frequently taught," I answer that here you should put the Christian into two places. First, if he is in a place where there are no Christians he needs no other call than to be a Christian, called and anointed by God from within. Here it is his duty to preach and to teach the gospel to erring heathen or non-Christians, because of the duty of brotherly love, even though no man calls him to do so. This is what Stephen did, Acts 6–7, even though he had not been ordered into any office by the apostles. Yet he still preached and did great signs among the people. Again, Philip, the deacon and Stephen’s comrade, Acts 8[:5], did the same thing even though the office of preaching was not commanded to him either. Again, Apollos did so too, Acts 18[:25]. In such a case a Christian looks with brotherly love at the need of the poor and perishing souls and does not wait until he is given a command or letter from a prince or bishop. For need breaks all laws and has none. Thus it is the duty of love to help if there is no one else who could or should help.
Second, if he is at a place where there are Christians who have the same power and right as he, he should not draw attention to himself. Instead, he should let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others.11 Indeed, a Christian has so much power that he may and even should make an appearance and teach among Christians—without a call from men—when he becomes aware that there is a lack of teachers, provided he does it in a decent and becoming manner. This was clearly described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14[:30], when he says, "If something is revealed to someone else sitting by, let the first be silent." Do you see what St. Paul does here? He tells the teacher to be silent and withdraw from the midst of the Christians; and he lets the listener appear, even without a call. All this is done because need knows no command.
If then St. Paul says here that anyone from the midst of the Christians may come forward if there is a need and calls him through such a word of God, and tells the other to withdraw and deposes him by the power of his word, how much more right does a whole congregation have to call someone into this office when there is a need, as there always is, especially now! For in the same passage St. Paul gives every Christian the power to teach among Christians if there is a need, saying, "You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be admonished" [1 Cor. 14:31]. Again, "You should earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order" [1 Cor. 14:39–40].
Let this passage be your sure foundation, because it gives such an overwhelming power to the Christian congregation to preach, to permit preaching, and to call. Especially if there is a need, it [this passage] calls everyone with a special call—without a call from men—so that we should have no doubt that the congregation which has the gospel may and should elect and call from among its members someone to teach the word in its place.
But if you say, "Did not St. Paul command Timothy and Titus to institute priests [I Tim. 4:13; Titus 1:5], and do we not read, Acts 14[:23], that Paul and Barnabas instituted priests among the congregations? (Therefore, the congregation cannot call anyone, nor can anyone draw attention to himself and preach among Christians; rather, one must have permission and authorization from bishops, abbots, or other prelates who represent the apostles)" I answer that if our bishops, abbots, etc., did represent the apostles, as they boast, one opinion would certainly be to let them do what Titus, Timothy, Paul, and Barnabas did when they instituted priests, etc. But since they represent the devil and are wolves who neither want to teach the gospel nor suffer it to be taught, they are as little concerned with instituting the office of preaching or pastoral care among Christians as the Turks or the Jews are. They should drive asses and lead dogs.
Moreover, if they were really decent bishops who wanted to have the gospel and wanted to institute decent preachers, they still could not and should not do so without the will, the election, and the call of the congregation—except in those cases where need made it necessary so that souls would not perish for lack of the divine word. For in such a need, as you have heard, not only may anyone procure a preacher, be it through pleas or the power of worldly authority, but he should also hurry to the scene himself and make an appearance and teach if he can—for need is need and has no limits—just as everyone should hurry to the scene of a fire in town and not wait until asked to come.
Otherwise, if there is no such need and if there are those who have the right, power, and grace to teach, no bishop should institute anyone without the election, will, and call of the congregation. Rather, he should confirm the one whom the congregation chose and called; if he does not do it, he [the elected man] is confirmed anyway by virtue of the congregation’s call. Neither Titus nor Timothy nor Paul ever instituted a priest without the congregation’s election and call. This is clearly proven by the sayings in Titus 1[:7] and 1 Timothy 3[:10], "A bishop or priest should be blameless," and, "Let the deacon be tested first." Now Titus could not have known which ones were blameless; such a report must come from the congregation, which must name the man.
Again, we even read in Acts 4 [6:1–6] regarding an even lesser office, that the apostles were not permitted to institute persons as deacons without the knowledge and consent of the congregation. Rather, the congregation elected and called the seven deacons, and the apostles confirmed them. If, then, the apostles were not permitted to institute, on their own authority, an office having to do only with the distribution of temporal food, how could they have dared to impose the highest office of preaching on anyone by their own power without the knowledge, will, and call of the congregation?
But since in our times there is the need, but no bishop, to provide evangelical preachers, the examples from Titus and Timothy are invalid. Instead, one must call [a preacher] from among the congregation, regardless of whether or not he is confirmed by Titus. For those under Titus’ care would and should have done the same thing if Titus had not wanted to confirm him, or if there had been no one else to institute preachers. That is why this time is very different from the time of Titus when the apostles ruled and wanted to have true preachers. Now our tyrants only want to have wolves and thieves.
Why do these raging tyrants condemn us for such electing and calling? They themselves do and must do the same thing. Not one of them is ever instituted pope or bishop by the power of someone; rather, he is elected and called by his chapter and then confirmed by others—the bishops by the pope as their supreme head, and he, the pope himself, by the cardinal of Ostia as by his inferior. And even if one of them were not confirmed, he would still be bishop and pope. Thus I ask the dear tyrants: if bishops are made by the election and call of their own congregation, and if the pope is pope without confirmation by any other authority and by election alone, why should not a Christian congregation, too, make a preacher by its call alone? For they [the tyrants] regard the episcopal and papal estate as higher than the office of preaching! Who gave them this right and took it from us, especially since our calling has Scripture on its side, but their calling is nothing but a mere human trifle without Scripture, with which they rob us of our rights? They are tyrants and knaves who deal with us just as the devil’s apostles should.
That is why there is still a custom in some places of having worldly authorities such as councilmen and princes institute and pay preachers themselves in their towns and castles, just as they please and without the permission or authorization of the bishops and popes. And no one interfered, even though (I fear) they did not do it out of a [correct] understanding of their Christian rights. Rather, they did it because the spiritual tyrants despised and underestimated the office of preaching and made a great separation between it and the spiritual government, even though it is the highest office, on which all others depend and from which they follow. On the other hand, where there is no office of preaching, none of the others can follow. For John says, John 4[:2], that Jesus did not baptize, he only preached. And Paul boasts, 1 Corinthians 1[:17], that he was not sent to baptize but to preach.
Therefore, whoever has the office of preaching imposed on him has the highest office in Christendom imposed on him. Afterward he may also baptize, celebrate mass, and exercise all pastoral care; or, if he does not wish to do so, he may confine himself to preaching and leave baptizing and other lower offices to others—as Christ and all the apostles did, Acts 4 [6:4]. Thus it becomes evident that our present-day bishops are spiritual idols and not bishops. For they leave the highest office of the word, which should be their own, in the hands of the very lowest [orders], namely, chaplains, monks, and mendicants. They also leave the lower offices such as baptizing and other pastoral care to them. In the meantime, however, they administer confirmation, consecrate bells, altars, and churches which are neither Christian nor episcopal duties and which they themselves invented. They are perverted and blind masks and true child-bishops.
Luther wrote this treatise at the request of the small town of Leisnig, located in electoral Saxony. on the river Mulde. (Source)
The treatise was written in such a way that everyone, not just the people of Leisnig, could obtain directives for a proper understanding of congregational authority. Luther clearly emphasized the word as the basis for ministry: since the congregation shares in the authority of the word on the basis of baptism, it may call its own preachers. Everyone who is baptized may exercise the office of the word, which belongs to the individual Christian as well as to the Christian community. In the later development of the Reformation, congregationalism, so strongly emphasized by Luther here, had to give way to the state church. But Luther emphasized in the treatise and throughout his life that the doctrine of the common priesthood of all believers should be the theological basis for a proper understanding of the role and authority of the pastor who is called to be the “priest of priests” [Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 39: Luther's works, vol. 39 : Church and Ministry I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (39:304). Philadelphia: Fortress Press]. (Hat tip: James Swan)
(Originally found here.)