Luther, Church Offices, + Swan’s & White’s Ignorance

Luther, Church Offices, + Swan’s & White’s Ignorance June 11, 2024

Photo credit: Portrait of Martin Luther (1525), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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James Swan’s words will be in blue, Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White’s in green, and Martin Luther’s in purple.



My debate with anti-Catholics over Protestants’ and Luther’s view of church offices (made farcical by their replies) goes back a long ways. In my 2007 book, The One-Minute Apologist, I made the statement:

A Protestant Might Further Object:

. . . The Bible teaches that bishops, elders, and deacons are all synonymous terms for the same office: roughly that of a pastor today. It doesn’t indicate that bishops are higher than these other offices. (p. 17)

The format of that book was vaguely like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. It included hypothetical objections in every two-page section. That’s what this was. I wasn’t maintaining that all Protestants held this view (of course they don’t!), or even most. Bishop James White had a field day in one of his critiques of my book (dated 6-13-07):

Just who believes this, I wonder? I have never read any work by any Protestant theologian of any note who has ever made this argument. So, is Armstrong just ignorant of Protestant ecclesiology, or, has he run into some tiny sect someplace that has come up with some new wacky viewpoint? Given that he was once non-Catholic, it is hard to believe he could be so ignorant of the reality regarding the fact that bishop and elder refer to the same office and are used interchangeably in the New Testament, but that this office is clearly distinguished from that of the deacon.

I made one concession as a result in my first reply of 6-14-07:

This is a case of a poor choice of one word (minor point) in the midst of a perfectly valid overall argument (major point); . . . It is true that this was an unwise use of “deacon”. If I had left out that word, the argument, coming from the hypothetical Protestant, would have been virtually identical to White’s own ecclesiology, since we see above that he equates elder and bishop (and has done so before, notably in this quote):

I am an elder in the church: hence, I am a bishop, overseer, pastor, of a local body of believers. (10 January 2001)

In fact, this utterance is the reason why I have taken to calling White “Bishop White.” He said it; I am simply following his own protocol.

The real fun began in my second reply, entitled, “James White Deacons-Elders-Bishops Controversy” (6-16-24). The most humorous aspect of it was my discovery of a prominent Lutheran (C. F. W. Walther [1811-1887]: the first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod [LCMS] and its most influential theologian), who did indeed hold a view identical to my hypothetical one. He wrote in 1867:

. . . a Bishop set over the other ministers of the church was really nothing other than a presbyter (Elder), a pastor, who only for the sake of church order was set over the other ministers of the church and who had the additional authority given to him merely by human right.

. . . since there is no distinction between such offices according to divine right, so likewise between them and a Lutheran Deacon, to whom the office of the Word is commended. For the call to preach God’s Word publicly is truly the essence of the preaching office. To preach is the highest office (function) in the church, alone on account of which all other functions are necessary. It is also the judge of all other offices. Therefore the office of Lutheran Deacon is no helping office as is, for example, the office of caring for alms, the office of Church Father or Lay Elder. Rather it is the one true office which is specially instituted and established by Christ Himself. . . .

. . . A Deacon in the biblical sense is a man who only has a helping office to the ministry of the Word according to human arrangement. But a Deacon who is called to the preaching of the Word of God, as happens in the Lutheran Church, does not attend a helping office, but rather the highest office in Christendom. He is nothing else and nothing less than what the Scripture calls a pastor, Presbyter (elder), or Bishop. He has the same authority and rank of office and the same jurisdiction and the deacons in the biblical sense are also their servants.

. . . in the Lutheran Church the deacons who are called for the preaching of the Word of God and for the Administration of the Sacraments are seen as entirely equal to the pastors . . . [my bolding and italics]

Therefore, a major figure in a major Protestant denomination held the view that I proposed as a hypothetical one in my book. James White called me “ignorant” and this position a “wacky viewpoint.” It turns out that this position in fact existed in some high Protestant circles (hence, no need to revise my book). Needless to say, Bishop White offered no reply. He has run from me since 1995 and our first debate by regular mail, so that was nothing new. He has ignored me since 2010, after having replied to me (mostly with mere mockery) scores of times from 1996 onwards.

Enter James Swan at this point. He wrote a reply two days later (6-18-07) on “Dr.” [???] White’s own blog, entitled, “Deacons, Elders, Armstrong, and…Luther.” His particular (typical) goal was to criticize a supposedly inapplicable citation from Luther that I included in my second reply:

On this account I think it follows that we neither can nor ought to give the name priest to those who are in charge of Word and sacrament among the people. The reason they have been called priests is either because of the custom of heathen people or as a vestige of the Jewish nation. The result is greatly injurious to the church. According to the New Testament Scriptures better names would be ministers, deacons, bishops, stewards, presbyters (a name often used and indicating the older members). For thus Paul writes in I Cor. 4 [:1], “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” He does not say, “as priests of Christ,” because he knew that the name and office of priest belonged to all. Paul’s frequent use of the word “stewardship” or “household,” “ministry,” “minister,” “servant,” “one serving the gospel,” etc., emphasizes that it is not the estate, or order, or any authority or dignity that he wants to uphold, but only the office and the function. The authority and the dignity of the priesthood resided in the community of believers. (Concerning the Ministry, 1523, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 40: Church and Ministry II, edited by Conrad Bergendoff, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958, p. 35; translated by Conrad Bergendoff; my bolding and italics)

Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong has been attempting to justify his recent blunder in his new book, The One Minute Apologist. . . . If this were simply one of his blog entries or web pages, it wouldn’t be that big of deal for him. He would simply change his blatant error (If you visit DA’s blog, you know his entries can appear, disappear, or change hour to hour). Problem solved. Unfortunately for him, the error is in a published book. He will have to wait for his second edition to fix it. Thus, we’ve been subjected to long blog entries, as Dave tries to put forth anything possible to smooth over his error.

Right. Of course, like any thinker should, — and any honest one who can admit his mistakes –, I made a concession, one day after White’s criticism-article. I revise materials when I have learned new things and/or changed my mind. I used one word in an unwise way. Guilty as charged! Swan, in his seething anti-Catholic contempt, caricatures this approach as my supposedly constantly changing my blog articles, hoping no one would notice (i.e., equivocating, being deceitful, and not admitting mistakes). He gave me no credit whatsoever for my concession. He would probably think it was insincere.

This is nothing new, coming from him. He’s treated me in this fashion for 22 years now. He didn’t grapple with the argument that I actually made. His agenda is always simply to try to make a fool of me and prove that I am a dishonest, incompetent buffoon and miserable example of an apologist. He’s a one-note tune. And here, as always, he will fail in his nefarious goal. I didn’t answer at the time because I thought I already had adequately answered in my second reply to White. But now I will, and my case will be all the stronger.

Well, before we thank Mr. Armstrong for such an invincible argument, perhaps we should make sure Luther holds what Armstrong says he does. If he doesn’t, then certain conclusions follow as to the value of Dave’s research. Before we delve into the Luther quote Armstrong utilized, let’s take a quick survey of Luther’s writings.

Sometime between 1527 and 1528, Luther lectured on 1 Timothy. This Biblical book sets forth detailed information about elders and deacons. Hence, whatever Luther says here specifically has importance as to his view. When one reads through the lectures, it is not simply a passing comment from Luther on elders and deacons. Rather, one finds long discussions as to what these offices mean. Luther clearly distinguishes between the office of elder and deacon: . . . 

If you’ve read my blog or any of my Luther papers, I have stated often that Dave Armstrong has trouble with Luther. The quote he uses once again proves he does not carefully consider his information before hitting “publish” on his blog. . . . Dave’s blog is often now you see it, now you don’t. I have demonstrated once again, Dave Armstrong struggles with context. In this instance, he has Luther’s Works Volume 40, so there is no excuse.

Swan cited several instances of Luther making distinctions between Church offices. They come from pages 283-301 of Luther’s Lectures on the First Epistle to Timothy, from vol. 40 of Luther’s Works. One would think — if one only read Swan’s side of things — that this settled the issue. But not so fast. Swan’s fundamental mistake was that he failed to consider that Luther’s thought often developed, changed, contradicted itself,  vacillated, or strongly emphasized certain things in specific situations. And that is the case here.

Many have noted the stark difference between Luther’s writings before 1525 and the Peasants’ Revolt, and those afterwards. Before that horrible affair, he was a revolutionary, “fire-breathing” radical, and a sort of loose cannon (at least from the Catholic perspective). He made wild claims about himself and about received Catholic teaching and practice. After the experience of that war and internal dissensions of Protestantism and concerns about many things, he tempered his rhetoric quite a bit, and — as I have documented — even made some remarkably “Catholic” statements. See:

Martin Luther’s Remarkably “Pro-Tradition” Strain of Thought [1-18-08]

The “Catholic-Sounding” Luther: 25 Examples [6-16-08]

Top Ten Remarkable “Catholic” Beliefs of Martin Luther [1-19-15]

In 2014 I even compiled an entire book of such statements from him: The “Catholic” Luther : An Ecumenical Collection of His “Traditional” Utterances, (see the Introduction).

I contend that that Luther’s evolving views influenced his conception and understanding of the function of Church offices. Mark Ellingsen (b. 1949), a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and scholar, wrote an article entitled, “Luther’s Concept of the Ministry: The Creative Tension” (Word & World, 1981, 338-346):

Recent scholarship has generally agreed that two lines of thought about the ordained ministry coexist in tension in Luther’s writings. One finds him speaking of the ordained ministry as derived from the priesthood of all believers; yet in other places he speaks of the office as divinely instituted. That such a tension is present is not surprising. Luther’s theology is characterized by tensions on many doctrinal loci. . . . he spoke about every doctrine in a variety of ways, depending upon the particular context/concern he was addressing. (p. 339)

The present issue, Luther’s view of the ordained ministry, can function as a test case for further demonstrating Luther’s pastoral approach to theology. We shall see that the two lines of thought in Luther about the ordained ministry are not peculiar to any particular period in his career. Rather both lines of thought are present throughout his career. (p. 340)

Carried to its logical conclusion this view of the ministry’s authority derived “from below” implies the model of minister as facilitator of the congregation — the non-directive kind of leadership style about which we have spoken. Yet one also finds the Reformer speaking of the office as divinely instituted, its authority derived “from above.” This line of thought distinguishes pastor and laity and implies that the pastor is in charge. We now need to identify the presence of these lines of thought in Luther . . .

When most Lutherans reflect on Luther’s view of the ordained ministry the notion of the universal priesthood usually comes to mind. The crucial text is 1 Peter 2:9,”You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into marvelous light. Luther appeals to this text in several places. . . . All that the ordained ministry does, it does in the name of the universal priesthood on behalf of the Church.

This theme appears frequently in Luther, particularly in his earliest writings. In his Treatise to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) he argues that ordination takes place only through the authority of the universal priesthood, not through the bishop’s authority to ordain. Likewise, in his 1523 treatise Concerning the Ministry, and in several other treatises [he lists three written in 1521 and 1523], this view of the ordained ministry appears. (p. 341)

The second strand in Luther’s view of the ordained ministry predominates later in his career. Instead of talking about the authority of the office as derived from the universal priesthood, Luther argues that the ministry’s authority is given directly by God. It is instituted by Christ Himself [he cites two of Luther’s treatises from 1528 and 1530]. This fact sets the minister apart from the universal priesthood. As such, Luther is quite clear at some points in distinguishing clergy from laity [he cites three works from 1529, 1530, and 1532]. His attributing sacramental status to ordination further indicates that the Reformer embraced this second view of the ministry. (p. 343)

. . . the emergence of this second view of the ordained ministry as instituted by Christ is merely the product of a development in Luther’s thought. Its dominance in the later stages of Luther’s life seems to be related to the different pastoral concerns which dominated in this period. His new emphasis seems to be connected with the turmoil in Wittenberg (1521) which ensued as a result
of the Reformation, the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1526), and the horrible condition of the local parishes which the Saxon Visitation (1527-1528) revealed. In short, Luther articulated his view of the ministry as divinely instituted in situations when it became apparent that the common life of the church was not proceeding smoothly. The idea of the universal priesthood carried to extremes was not maintaining the office of ministry or keeping the church’s order. In response Luther began to speak of the ministry’s authority as an office distinct from the universal priesthood. (p. 344)

Ellingsen’s thesis (which was one aspect of the topic of his dissertation) corresponds well with my understanding expressed above, and makes perfect sense of the difference between what I cited from Luther and what Swan cited. Swan simply contended — as he always droningly and boorishly does in his attacks against my work — that I distorted Luther’s meaning, and that he got it right. The truth of the matter is far more nuanced and complex, and was expressed, I think, correctly by Dr. Ellingsen.

Early Luther (before 1525) had a much more fluid and revolutionary ecclesiology. After 1525 he became more traditional. So, sure enough, my citation was from the early period (1523) and Swan’s were from the later more conservative period (1527-1528). This explains the difference. It wasn’t my alleged distortions and ignorance. It was Luther’s complexity and changes according to situation and in reaction to horrible personal experiences.

Note that Ellingsen observed that Luther didn’t even give “sacramental status to ordination” until after 1528. He adopted a more traditional view. His best friend and successor Philip Melanchthon eventually became quite distraught regarding Luther’s earlier “anti-bishop” views. He longed, after 1530, for the return of the bishops that he and Luther had replaced with (not particularly virtuous) German princes.

I had linked to this article, by the way, already in my second reply to Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White on the subject (6-16-07). So Swan was already effectively refuted two days before he even wrote his attack-piece. I’ve simply strengthened that argument all the more in this reply (keep reading).

Lowell C. Green’s article, “Change in Luther’s Doctrine of the Ministry” (The Lutheran Quarterly 18 [1966] ) offers further corroboration of Ellingsen’s thesis:

[I]f we study Luther’s writings on the ministry and the priesthood of believers from 1520-25, isolated from his thought in other periods, we can find a strong case . . . that in the early years of the Reformation Luther apparently established the power of the congregation at the expense of the office of the ministry. The congregation appeared to have won, and the ministerial office seemed doomed to extinction in the reformation church. But a reversal set in during the second half of the 1520’s, and the office of the ministry was preserved to the developing Lutheran Church.

It is unfortunate that some scholars have limited their findings to a certain period in Luther’s career. They thereby subject themselves to the danger of rejecting in advance the possibility that Luther might have altered his position through the benefit of added experience. But this is, in fact, what took place. Prior to the Leipzig Debate of 1519, there is little indication that Luther’s view of the ministry or priesthood differed radically from that of the medieval church. In the reform treatises of 1520, however, Luther made tremendous changes. The doctrine of the general priesthood of believers emerged in protest to the outward, clerical priesthood of the papal system. The layman needed no priestly intermediary, Luther pointed out on the basis of I Peter 2:9, but through the atonement of Christ had become his own priest before the mercy seat of God. But from here on, the relation of the priesthood of believers and the office of the ministry became a problem. During the next five years Luther tended to subordinate the ministry to the priesthood. Then a change set in. Various causes for the transition might be cited. The lingering consequences of the Wittenberg anarchy of 1521-22, the peasants’ revolt, the emergence of the enthusiasts and fanatics, and the breakdown of the church that was revealed in the Saxon Visitation, must all have left their mark on Luther’s doctrine of the ministry. This becomes most noticeable after the so-called Large Catechism began to take shape, as early as 1528. The ministry was given greater authority . . . in studying Luther’s position we must be exact and clear in our thinking, and avoid constructing theories based solely on his formative writings from 1520-25.

When some folks — who can’t find anything constructive to do — set out to try to belittle, mock, and trash various of my writings and refuse to interact with them in a true dialogical fashion, it never ends well (at least in cases where I catch wind of it and have enough God-granted patience to respond).

And so, as always, it didn’t end well once again for the inimitable James Swan. He’ll ignore this (as he has all my refutations of his incessant logic- and fact-challenged nonsense for about 14 years now). But he can’t and won’t refute it. No skin off of my back. If he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, he doesn’t. Only he can change that, with the aid of the Holy Spirit. For my part, I’m here to educate and offer food for thought, in the process of defending my expressed opinion over against unwarranted criticism. Thanks for reading!


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Photo credit: Portrait of Martin Luther (1525), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: Martin Luther’s view of Church offices and clergy changed after 1525. Earlier, he had a radical egalitarian view. Then he became more traditional as a result of bad experiences.

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