Emergency Cases and the Preaching Office


Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?

The will of God, which he has made plain to us in the Scriptures, is that He would have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). He desires that none perish in their wickedness, but that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11). Yet, despite all man’s great wealth of scientific and historical research this knowledge is hidden from men (2 Tim. 3:7), and they have no way, either to learn of God’s good and gracious will (1 Cor. 2:14), nor any way to be converted, and turned from their sin, to God (John 3:5). Therefore God has given his Word as a revelation of His will to men, for the express purpose that some might be saved (Rom. 1:16).

God has instituted His Church on earth for the express purpose of proclaiming His Word in the world, both to Christians and unbelievers alike (Matt. 5:13,15). His Word, and also its visible form, the Sacraments, are the sole means which God has established to bring about the conversion of men, and also their sanctification and preservation (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1; John 17:20; Gal. 1:8,9). But though the preaching of the Word of God is given to the Church on earth as a whole, along with it’s essential power, to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21–23; 1 Cor. 3:21b), He has not given the public administration of these means of grace to every Christian, but only to some, so that in the Christian church on earth, there is a distinction between preachers and hearers (Rom. 10:14,15). God has ordained this means, not to create social classes in the church (Gal. 3:27,28), but for the benefit of the souls of the flock (Heb. 13:17). To enter the office of preaching, a man must be called by God, and sent to perform this task (Rom. 10:15). And in taking this office, they do not become the lord and master over the flock, but serve them in their spiritual needs (Mat. 23:10; 1 Pe. 5:1–3), even when they must condemn the sinner (1 Cor. 5:5). It certainly is true that a pastor, according to Scripture, is the ruler and overseer of the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17), but his rule is spiritual, ruling with and through the word of God. So therefore, the incumbent in the pastoral office is nothing else than a man to whom God has given the administration of the Gospel to sinners (2 Cor. 5:19,20), and as such he becomes a steward of God’s mysteries, revealing them to men for the benefit of all (1 Cor. 4:1). These are the ordinances of God for His Church on earth.


By “ordinances” we mean the order which God has established for His Church on earth, through the Apostles, and through Christ Himself. We use the term ordinances to distinguish them from laws. God’s moral Law, as summarized by the Ten Commandments, never has any exceptions, for it is perfect. Ordinances, however, are not part of the moral Law, but are given to men to govern their affairs so that the Law and the Gospel can have free course. Thus the Apostle Paul declares: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

The distinction between ordinances and the divine Law may also be understood in this way: Divine ordinances were established by God to govern the life of the Church on earth, whereas in heaven they would serve no further purpose. The Law, on the contrary, is just as true and just as applicable in heaven, as it is here on earth.

It is also necessary to distinguish between divine ordinances, and ordinances of men. God has expressly ordained and established certain ordinances in the Church. For example: “Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14). And likewise: “For I suffer not a woman to preach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12).

In other cases, God has left the order up to the churches themselves to decide, as seems best to them. Thus, for example, we have the selection of deacons in Acts chapter 6, for the distribution of food to the widows. We see from many other examples in the Epistles other occupations and services which the church established in its midst for the maintenance of good order. Thus we can divide ordinances in the church between divine ordinances which God Himself has established, and human ordinances which men have established.

When God has established an ordinance in the church, we may not simply lay that ordinance aside on a whim, because we feel it is too inconvenient to keep. The ordinances of man, however, may be laid aside as a congregation sees fit, so long as such is done decently and in order, and in keeping with the Law of Love, which governs all that we do.

Auxiliary offices fall into the category of human ordinances. The office of the ministry, however, is a divine ordinance. Just as we must be careful to distinguish between the human and divine ordinances, so also we should be careful in the utmost to distinguish between the divine office of the ministry, and the human auxiliary offices. At no time do we want to elevate an auxiliary office, or a human ordinance to the status of divine, or else we would be “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Likewise we must be very careful not to demote the one office which God has established in the church, namely the office of the ministry, so that it is merely a human institution which men may define or establish in any manner that they see fit, else we would be guilty of “making the Word of God of none effect” (Mark 7:13).

Exceptions to the ordinances of God

Just as we are to obey such ordinances of God as we go about the normal life of the Church, we also know that such ordinances must give way to the law of love in emergency circumstances, so that when the pastoral office in any given place is not being filled at all, or is filled with a grossly negligent or inept man, or is filled with false teachers, any Christian can and must step forward to minister to souls who otherwise would languish for lack of the Word of God, and be lost. These are exceptions to the normal order which God has established, or as they are often called by theologians, exceptional or emergency cases.

Just as the purpose of the preaching office is the salvation and sanctification of the sinner, so also are the exceptions. Thus the following principle can be formulated: If the normal order for the preaching office can be followed, this we must do, for God Himself has ordained this office as the best means to convert, strengthen, comfort, and preserve the Christian in the one true faith (Titus 1:1–3; 2 Tim. 3:16,16). If we were to offer up something in place of the pastoral office, as superior to it, when the pastoral office is already established in a place, this would be going against God’s ordinance (Mat. 15:9; Mark 7:13; 1 Pet. 1:18), and as such would therefore be harming souls rather than helping them, however it may be justified by those who participate in it. If, on the other hand, for the very lack of this office, souls would be in danger, another Christian must step in. But note, that this is a case of a Christian taking up the functions of the vacant office, not because he is despising the office, or offering up something “better” but because the office itself is unavailable or vacant, either in reality or in effect due to ineptitude. Such a state creates a danger to those souls for whom the shepherd would exert his care. Far from proving that the normal order of the pastoral office may be set aside on a whim, or with little thought, the emergency cases show just how critical this office is in the Church, and how highly we must regard it, and not lay it aside, or violate the normal order, except with careful thought and the utmost care.

This high regard for the office which God Himself has established in the church is codified in the 14th article of the Augsburg confession, which states:Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach or preach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” Thus is in keeping with Romans 10:15, “How shall they preach, except they be sent?” Therefore we confess that the call of the Church is necessary for anyone to exercise the office of the keys in a public manner, for the Church is that body on earth which has been given the rights and powers of the Gospel, and along with that power, the right to choose and ordain ministers of the Gospel (Eph. 4:8, 11, 12). Thus no one may make himself a preacher of the Word by his own authority, but must be properly called by that body which the Lord has entrusted with the power on earth to open and close heaven (Matt. 18:17), namely the local congregation, or as defined, that body which gathers regularly around the Word and the Sacraments in a specific locality, for where the Word of God regularly is taught, and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution, there is the promise of God that the true Church may be found, the invisible body of all they who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Isaiah 55:11, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it”).

However, we likewise confess that in emergency cases, any Christian can and should step forward and take up the functions of the office, lest souls be lost. Thus in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (¶ 67, Triglot p. 523), we join these ideas together and confess: “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 {emphasis added}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.”

Any Christian has the ability to do this by virtue of the fact that the power of the Keys is entrusted first to the Church, who then bestows the public exercise of the Keys upon the incumbent in the Office of the Ministry. By such bestowal, no Christian looses the power of the Keys, but since he is first and foremost the possessor of those Keys which the Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted to him (1 Cor. 3:21; Eph 4:8; Matt. 18:19–20), they remain his also when he is a member of a Christian congregation in which the preaching office is occupied by one or more ministers. He may not use them in a public manner if he has not been sent, as we noted above, but in emergency circumstances, which the quotation above calls “cases of necessity”, the normal divinely established order must be laid aside for the sake of love.

Thesis and scriptural proof

The Lutheran Church has long accepted the following definition: An emergency case exists whenever souls are in danger of being lost. Thus, for example, when a congregation has no pastor, and has no means to acquire the services of another pastor in the fellowship on a regular basis, someone in the congregation must step forward to preach and administer Baptism. Likewise, when a child is born to Christian parents, and might die before the pastor can arrive to baptize the child, any Christian can and should step forward and baptize the child.

As a concise summary, this paper proposes the following thesis:

An emergency case is defined as any circumstance where the law of love demands that divine ordinances be laid aside, lest a soul be lost, for the law of love is greater than any ordinance, whether of God or man.

How can we demonstrate from the Scriptures that the law of love allows us to override the normal order for public preaching in the Church? This we can prove from the following:

1. Love is the fulfillment of the Law.

That love is the fulfillment of the Law is plain from the testimony of our Lord Jesus:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36–40).

From this we learn that it is not enough to keep the law in a bare external manner, but to truly keep the law, one must love both God and neighbor perfectly. So likewise, the heart of the law is love. While Christians no longer are under the bondage of the Law, but are under grace, the Law, in its pure form, remains our guide, so that we, with the help of the Holy Spirit, strive to love God and our neighbor in every way. Our motivation for this is not the Law itself, nor any merit attained by doing so, nor any threat of punishment if we do not, but love, the love of God which now dwells within our hearts by faith (1 John 4:15–17).

Thus the Law of love governs all our relations with our neighbor: “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). And to this we can add the admonition of the Apostle: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, but especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

If it so be that love is the fulfilling of the Law, it is also true that love is the heart of the Gospel. Thus writes John: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Therefore the preaching of the Gospel has as its purpose to bring God’s love, as manifested in His Son, Jesus Christ, to men, for the salvation of their souls.

2. Ordinances exist for the sake of man, not man for the sake of ordinances.

It is just such a motive which governed also the life of the Old Testament Church. The Sabbath day ordinances were not laws unto themselves, but were ordinances which were designed to facilitate the preaching of the Word to sinners, and their justification before God. The purpose of these ordinances was to bring God’s love to men, and to give men opportunity to show their love toward God. This we can see from an exchange between Christ and the Pharisees:

And it came to pass, that he went through s the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. 24 And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? 25 And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? 26 How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? 27 And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: 28 Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (Mark 2:23–28).

Jesus cites the example of King David (1 Sam. 21) and his men. When they were fleeing from Saul for their lives, they lacked bread. When they asked for bread at the temple, the only bread to be had was the sanctified shewbread. The Old Testament ordinance concerning the shewbread was such that it was to be set before the Lord for 6 days, and on the 7th day it was to be eaten by the priests (Lev. 24:6–9). To give this bread to others would have broken this ordinance of God. Yet King David rightly asked for it because of the needs of he and his men, for there was no other bread available in the temple at the time.

Regarding this, Jesus concludes: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Notice how Jesus applies the Sabbath ordinance also to the shewbread. From this we see the general application of the principle. The many ordinances which God instituted for the worship of the church above and beyond the moral Law do not exist for their own sakes, but for the sake of men, for God would have men to be saved by the preaching of the Gospel. Love, therefore, overrules the ordinance when to keep the ordinance would require us to ignore the needs of our brother, and thus show him no love.

When one forgets that love is the fulfillment of the Law, he can neither keep, nor teach the Law, but instead, all that he maintains is vain, even if he be ever so faithful to the letter of the Law. This is the spirit of Pharisaism, which is so rampant even today:

Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: 6 From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; 7 Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm (1 Tim. 1:5–7).

Thus if we do not keep in mind that the end result of the commandment for the Christian is love working by faith, we keep God’s law in vain. How much more then is it nothing but vanity to keep the ordinances of God concerning worship, but forget their purpose, which is love.

3. There is ample evidence that ordinances must give way to love.

Jesus gives us many examples that even these divine ordinances must yield to the greater Law of Love.

And it came to pass also on another sabbath, that he entered into the synagogue and taught: and there was a man whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and Pharisees watched him, whether he would heal on the sabbath day; that they might find an accusation against him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and said to the man which had the withered hand, Rise up, and stand forth in the midst. And he arose and stood forth. 9 Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it? 10 And looking round about upon them all, he said unto the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he did so: and his hand was restored whole as the other (Luke 6:6–10).

Here, as on other occasions also, Jesus heals on the Sabbath day, thus breaking the ordinances which declared: “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work” (Exo. 20:9,10). But this ordinance, given for the sake of men, loses its meaning and purpose if obeying it would mean harming our brother. Thus when a man is sick and needs help, it is certainly lawful to help him, for the Law of Love demands it, even if an ordinance of God says that work is not to be performed on such an such a day.

In a similar case, Jesus makes a more extreme comparison yet:

And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? 4 And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; 5 And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? 6 And they could not answer him again to these things (Luke 14:1–6).

Thus even if one’s livestock were in danger on the sabbath day, a man is justified in breaking the ordinance to free the animal and protect its life, and thus the property and livelihood of the farmer.

From these examples it is plain, that if the divine ordinance is justly yielded in favor of the physical needs of the body (as in the case of the shewbread, and the instances when Jesus healed on the sabbath), or even in favor of one’s property and livelihood (livestock falling into a pit), much more then are we justified in yielding the ordinance for the ministry when a brother’s soul is in danger, that we may help him in his spiritual need.

Indeed so much the greater in the case of our brother’s soul, for as we noted before, the purpose of ministering the Word to our brother in his need is the same as the reason that God has established the office of the ministry in the Church: for the salvation of sinners.

Witnesses from the church fathers

That this is not a novel definition, but has long been the doctrine of our fellowship, may be shown by a few quotations.

In 1862, the Norwegian Synod had a controversy regarding lay preaching. We acknowledge this body to have been an orthodox body at the time. Later, they were part of the Synodical Conference, of which the Missouri Synod was also a member. They adopted the following theses, which they arrived at with the assistance of C. F. W. Walther, to resolve the controversy:

1. God has instituted the public ministerial office for the public edification of the Christians unto salvation by the Word of God.

2. God has not instituted any other office for the public edification of the Christians to be used along-side of the public ministerial office.

3. When a man assumes the direction of the public edification of the Christians by the Word, he thereby assumes and exercises the public ministerial office.

4. It is a sin when a person assumes this (office) without a call or without need.

5. It is both a right and a duty in case of actual need for anyone who is capable of doing so to exercise the public ministerial office in a Christian and orderly manner.

6. The only correct definition of “need” is that there exists a need when a pastor is not at hand and cannot be secured; or when, if there is a pastor, he either does not serve the people properly but teaches false doctrine, or cannot serve them adequately but only so rarely that the people cannot thereby be brought to faith or be kept in it and be defended against errors, so that the Christian must faint for lack of care.

7. When such need exists, efforts should be made to relieve it by definite and proper arrangements according as circumstances will permit.

Luther writes (”How One Should Choose and Ordain Pastors,” Letter to the council and the congregation of the city of Prauge, 1523, St. L. Ed., 10:1588ff, as quoted on p. 274 of Walther’s Church and Ministry, CPH, 1987, p. 274):

“Take this right on yourself and put it into practice if no other has received the same right. But it is demanded by the right of the congregation that one, or as many as the congregation may be pleased to elect and receive, should publicly administer these offices in the place and name of all those who have the same rights, in order that dreadful disorder might not arise among the people of God and the church be turned into a Babylon; for in it all things should be done decently and in order, as the apostle has taught us (1 Cor. 14:40). These two things are entirely different: if someone exercises the common right by command of the congregation, or if anyone uses the same right in an emergency. In a congregation in which everyone possesses the right, no one should arrogate it to himself without the consent [Willen] and election of the whole congregation; but in an emergency everyone may use it as he desires.”

The Lutheran theologian Heshusius writes (as quoted in Walther’s Church and Ministry, p. 281):

There can be no doubt that in an emergency, when no duly called pastor can be obtained, every Christian has the power and is permitted, according to God’s Word and out of Christian love, to attend to the ministry of the Word by preaching the divine Word and administering the sacraments. … But here we speak of what a Christian may do in an emergency when no godly and sincere minister of the church may be obtained, for example, when some Christians are in a place where no appointed pastor is to be had; or when some Christians, for the sake of the truth, are held captive or are in peril on the sea; or when some Christians are among the Turks or in the papacy, where there is no true pastor; or when some Christians are among Calvinists, Schwenckfelders, Adiaphorists, or Majorists, whom they must avoid as false teachers; or when some Christians have pastors or ministers who publicly exercise tyranny and cruelly persecute the sincere confessors of the truth and thus clearly show that they are not members of the true church, for which reason conscientious [gotsellige] Christians must refrain from fellowshiping [sic] with them so as not to strengthen their tyranny and help condemn innocent Christians.

In such and similar emergencies, which indeed have often occurred, when sincere pastors whose teaching and confession are sound and in agreement with God’s Word cannot be secured, individual laymen and believing Christians may absolve penitent sinners, comfort the weak with god’s Word, baptize infants, and administer Holy Communion. In such emergencies a Christian should not be troubled about being a busybody in another’s business, but he should know that he is performing a true and due call of God and that his ministry is just as efficacious as if it were ratified by the laying on of hands for the office of the ministry in the whole church.

However, the existence of emergency cases does not change the normal order which God has ordained for His Word to be preached in the world. When an emergency does not exist, no one has the right to usurp the Office of the Ministry for himself. Heshusius continues:

This does not mean that two or three Christians should separate themselves from the true church, avoid the regular called ministers, and cause factions, but I say this of emergency cases when either there are no pastors or those who exist spread false doctrine and so must be avoided. In addition there is also the emergency that the use of the sacraments cannot be found in other places. In such cases, every Christian, with the consent of two or three, is authorized and justified to administer the sacraments and strengthen the weak in the peril of death.

Specific questions

So then we must turn to more specific questions. Does the absence of the paster for one or two Sundays constitute an emergency case, such that whenever such an absence occurs, an elder is justified in stepping into the pastor’s shoes, if only for a Sunday, and preaching? To give a hard and fast answer to this question is not possible, for the very nature of the question depends upon the circumstances which are present at the time in any given congregation, and the individuals who are present.

However, one must not make the argument that anypastoral absence must be considered an emergency case. Were that true, then it must also be true that every soul’s salvation hinges upon whether or not they appear in Church on any given Sunday. Yet we do not turn Sunday into a new Sabbath, such as was observed among the Jews. What the Apostle states regarding Sabbath observance must also apply to Sunday observance: “Let no man therefore judge you . . .” (Col. 2:16), for we are not under a divine ordinance even to meet once every week, much less on a specific day.

Rather we are commanded to continue in fellowship, to hear the Word of God, and to receive the Sacraments, not of compulsion or obligation, but because we love the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hebrews 10:25, rather, is our guide in this matter: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.” It is, therefore, the regular meeting around the Word and Sacraments, that is enjoined upon all Christians. We do not despise preaching and the Word of God for the lack of a Sunday. We do however despise it, when we no longer seek to assemble regularly.

Therefore, no one sins merely by taking a vacation, nor by being sick on a particular Sunday. However, it is certainly true that every household is encouraged strongly to worship God at home for the lack of a divine service to attend. Indeed it is very common in our fellowship, that our congregations have outlying members who, because of distance and cost, cannot attend church every Sunday, but sometimes can come but once a month, or less perhaps. However, in these circumstances, these families are encouraged to worship at home, using such orthodox materials and sermons as are available.

This question is by no means new, but was faced by our church fathers as well. Walther, in his excellent work, The Form of a Christian Congregation, (CPH, 1961, p. 61) deals with the case where a parish is without its pastor by quoting the Saxon General Articles:

In affiliate charges, whenever the minister conducts the early morning service in one of the parishes and the people in another parish cannot hear the minister’s sermon, the rural schoolmaster should read the Epistles and Gospels of the Sunday with the exposition of Dr. Luther and the Chief Parts of the Catechism without the explanation [of Luther], and he should in addition sing some Christian German hymns.”

Of note here is this: in deference to the office of the ministry, Walther advises not to give the administration of the liturgy and the preaching of the sermon to another, but rather to sing hymns, hear the Gospel and Epistle of the day, and parts from Luther’s small catechism. In other words, this is not a divine service at all, for there is no liturgy and no preaching, but at least people are participating in Christian fellowship. If Walther would advise this in his day, we would do well to consider the possibility of taking his advice.

[Author’s note: It appears my judgment on this quote was wrong in that a sermon was indeed being read — that of Luther, and thus the reference to the “exposition of Dr. Luther”, which can only be referring to Luther's house and church postilles. The answer to this is the fact that in Saxony, it was usually the case that the schoolmaster was ordained clergy, and was therefore considered to be an associate of the pastor in that regard. That being the case, this quote does not apply to the subject matter at hand.]

None of this is to say that there are no cases where, for lack of a regular Sunday divine service, it may be determined that souls are at risk. However, the circumstances when this will be true must certainly be rare enough that for a congregation to make this determination, they must do so very consciously. If instead the practice becomes established that, no matter the circumstances, a congregation will lay aside the regular order, and allow an elder or other male to step into the pulpit, no good can come of it, for God has not established his ordinances for the office of the ministry: “How shall they preach except they be sent?” without reason or purpose, but expressly for the salvation of souls.

When the regard for the pastoral office and the ordinance of God concerning it is present in the hearts of the congregation, so too will be present a love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and a desire to see that the preaching of the Word be not harmed, for just as the Word must be preached in emergency cases by whomever can, so also the office of the ministry must be respected and revered, and both these things for the same reason: love for the brethren, and the salvation of their souls.


Soli Deo Gloria