Church and Ministry
Early on, we at Intrepid Lutherans had considered prominently placing the ELDoNA in the list on the right-hand column of our blog, under the category of “Links to Synodical Resources,” understanding that there had been some promising dialogue between WELS and the ELDoNA. So we inquired with the WELS Inter-Church Relations Committee. They said, in essence, “Absolutely not.” The context, as I recall (being informed indirectly), was their Doctrine of Church and Ministry.
So I asked when I was at the Colloquium. “Aren't you guys really just Lutheran Episcopalians? You have this 'Episcopal polity' after all... What about the laity and the congregation?” The answer was simple, and reassuring: “The only members of the ELDoNA are the pastors. This is different from WELS and LCMS where both pastors and congregations [as corporate entities] are members of Synod. Laymen are not members of Synod. Nor are they members of the Diocese. So there is no difference there. The difference is that the congregations, as corporate entities, are not members of the ELDoNA either. So the episcopate of the ELDoNA covers only the pastors, and does not extend to the congregations. It has no authority over the congregations. The congregations are independent, and only 'affiliated with the ELDoNA' through their pastor. Thus, congregational governance is not impacted by the Diocese.” Indeed, I was surprised to learn that local polity among congregations affiliated with the ELDoNA spans a spectrum between formal constitutional structures, with voters assemblies, etc., and much more informal “consensus models” of local governance. Whatever it is, the local political structure is up to the local congregation. In other words, the order of “Diocesan polity” does not impact the political order of the local congregation – thus, in the ELDoNA, the congregation is, in a very real sense, autonomous and free. In fact, according to one individual I spoke with at the Colloquium, the non-membership status of the local congregation with the Diocese, makes it easier for the congregation to order itself and to act on its convictions, should those convictions lead it to, say, disaffiliate with ELDoNA, or require it to pursue a course of church discipline against an erring or unrepentant pastor.
I also asked, regarding the Ministry, “Aren't you guys, like, 'hyper-Euros' or something? What is that supposed to mean, anyway? And aren't you 'Loehists' who insist that 'no one but an ordained pastor can ever forgive sins?' How would you compare your Doctrine of the Ministry to that of WELS?” The first answer I got went like this, “Huh? I really don't know what 'hyper-Euro' means – I think that is a term invented by Jack Cascione, before he fully investigated his sources. So it could mean anything. Or nothing at all.”
The second answer I got was much more specific, and went something like the following: “Our doctrine of the Ministry is succinctly stated in Article V and Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession [and Apology]. 'The Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments' (AC:V) is clearly one Ministry; the public teaching and administration of such (or 'The Ministry') is clearly defined as 'Ecclesiastical Order' (AC:XIV); and the phrase 'Unless he be regularly called' (AC:XIV) pretty much excludes those without a Divine Call. And what do you do with Article XIII of the Apology? 'We are not unwilling to call ordination a sacrament' (AP:XIII:11)? If we are 'not unwilling to call it a sacrament', what does that say about our confession with respect to it? That it is something to be regularly omitted? No, rather, that ordination is a regular part of the Divine Call, that a regular Lutheran Ecclesiastical Order requires of itself that Ministers of the Word be ordained. This stands in opposition to everything the WELS Doctrine of the Ministry represents, doesn't it?” The latter point may seem to have been a bit of hyperbole, but if there are those among us in WELS who hold a Divine Call which does not include the regular teaching of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments, who are nevertheless defined as “Ministers of the Word,” or if there are those among us who regularly carry out those ministerial functions without a bona fide Divine Call – then such an answer, a Lutheran answer straight from our Confessions, does require some serious reflection. In addition to the sections just cited, a good place to start is the index of the Concordia Triglotta (Sadly, yes, it it true: our own Northwestern Publishing House (NPH) no longer prints the Triglotta, nor do they even make it available in print form. New, it is only available now in paperback from CPH “Print on Demand,” sans Bente's “Historical Introductions”...). Here are some selections from the index:
- AC V: Of the Ministry
- AC XIV: Of Ecclesiastical Order
- AP XIV: Of Ecclesiastical Order
Regarding church polity, there are many Christians (pietists, in particular, though not exclusively) who prefer the display of shared hegemony demonstrated at the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), where all believers clearly stood shoulder to shoulder as equals, without distinctions based on ones “ecclesiastical office,” in the decision-making of the broader Visible Church. This model served the New Testament Church for about the first two centuries, though as early as the late-Apostolic Age it began to give way to an episcopal polity. By the time of Cyprian (A.D. 195-258), however, it was widely recognized that a political structure modeled after the Apostolic Council was insufficient to ward off the withering attacks of the World, which, under the guise of Gnosticism, had by then wormed its way into Christianity as an equal voice, eventually challenging the Church to answer the questions, “What and where is True Christianity?” The Christian answer eventually came to rest, in part, on the ones God has uniquely equipped and Called to stand in the stead of Christ, for the purpose of caring for His sheep and defending against heresy; and so it also came to rest on the visible bishopric that emerged from them: “There is where True Christianity is.” Following from this response later emerged the idea that communion with Christ was only possible through communion with the bishop; thus also emerged the framework for absolute subordination of laity (“the masses”) to clergy (“the chosen ones”). Over time, under the influence of such ideas and in response to the needs of the Church in a changing society, this episcopal polity gave way to a papacy, with a single leader serving as Christ's representative on Earth, by whom all matters of doctrine and practice were ultimately decided.
These political structures, as political structures (without reference to the false doctrines either underlying them or emerging from them), served the Church well in the various circumstances she found herself facing in the tumultuous times of the Early Church. Today, in a church body largely unencumbered by heresy coming from the outside (as in the case of hyper-separatists, perhaps, or perhaps also in very small church bodies where everyone is personally known to each another), a purely collegial and brotherly Apostolic polity, that does not recognize legal distinctions associated with one's “ecclesiastical office” for the purpose of making corporate decisions, may be appropriate. However, when it becomes obvious that serpents have slithered in, exploiting and abusing brotherliness for the sake of their secret heresies, such a political form becomes both impractical and dangerous, as it did in the post-Apostolic era. The situation had changed, so the political structure of the Church changed along with it, in order to more effectively combat the manifest danger. Likewise in the early years of the papacy – the Fall of the Roman Empire and the rapid disintegration of Western society which followed, left the West open to the deleterious impacts of barbarism that soon took the place of civil society (incessant war, crime and disease, pervasive illiteracy, ignorance and poverty, etc.). Strong central leadership equipped the Church to deal with this flood of barbarism which followed the Fall of Rome. It wasn't the political structures themselves so much as the abuse of these structures that became problematic for the Church, and required, by the time of the Reformation, dramatic correction. Nevertheless, rather than endorse a radical break with the catholicity of the Church, our Confessions directly embrace a desire and intention to retain the catholic church polity modeled after the old episcopacy:
- [I]t is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church [old church-regulations and the government of bishops], even though they have been made by human authority... For we know that church discipline was instituted by the Fathers, in the manner laid down in the ancient canons, with a good and useful intention... Furthermore, we wish here again to testify that we will gladly maintain ecclesiastical and canonical government, provided the bishops only cease to rage against our Churches. This our desire will clear us both before God and among all nations to all posterity from the imputation against us that the authority of the bishops is being undermined, when men read and hear that, although protesting against the unrighteous cruelty of the bishops, we could not obtain justice. (AP XIV)
In my discussions with WELS and LCMS Lutherans, the topic of polity often arises in a way that recognizes the insufficiency of 19th Century political structures to respond to the manifold abuses everyone seems to recognize nowadays. The loopholes, weaknesses and inconsistencies of such structures have long been discovered and seem subject to frequent exploitation. WELS pastors have often told me, “In practice, WELS political structure does not even reflect its own doctrine of the Church, but that of LCMS. Same is true of LCMS in reverse – in practice, they reflect more WELS theology.” Some in LCMS have complained to me directly, “What we need is to get rid of lay influence. They are ruining our Synod. We need to have only pastors, a bishopric, making decisions.” In such cases I have responded, “Your episcopate in that case would be only as sound as your bishops. What, then, can the laity do when the bishops are, or become, corrupt?” Likewise in WELS, “These pastors are either heretics or cowards!” Then, variously, “They won't do anything other than go along with sectarian fads!” or “ They won't do anything other than what has been done for 100 years!” Then, unanimously, “We need the laity to rise up and take control!” ...And variously, “We need to run the Synod more like a business! Let's get our successful business guru's to take over where these untrained pastors seem to miserably fail all the time!” or “We need the laity to withhold their offerings until the spend-thrift heretics run out of money, and force them back to orthodoxy!” To which I respond something like the following: “Perhaps. But what happens when the laity, thinking either only pragmatically (as they usually do), or worse, with a hyper-spiritual disregard for biblical Stewardship (as some zealots have been known to do), unwittingly abandon orthodoxy? What happens when they become enamoured with the latest fads and fashion of the sects, or adopt the amoral ideologies of today's business leaders, because, through lack of training and giftedness, they have neither the perspective to recognize the error, nor the ability to articulate it to others? What do you do when the untrained laity make pragmatic decisions which fly in the face of orthodoxy, either because they don't care or because they lack sufficient perspective?”
Indeed, what do we need when both the laity and the clergy of a given church body become corrupt, and when all reasonable attempts to extract that corruption from ecclesiastical leadership fail? Answer: We need a new church body – hopefully with leaders of sufficient orthodoxy and perspective to choose a suitable polity, one that is consistent, Biblically and Confessionally defensible and well-suited to guard against the kind of heresies which attack us in our current age. For my part, I find that the ELDoNA has succeeded in this. As for the layman, in the ELDoNA, the rights of the layman are bound up with his responsibilities (as they should be), not to blindly trust what is handed down to him from ecclesiastical authorities (of which there are none for the layman in the ELDoNA, other than his own pastor), but at all times to diligently search the Scriptures, to affirm the orthodoxy of his pastor and the Diocese with which he is affiliated; and having done so, he, along with his fellow Berean-laymen, has full right and power to act according to the convictions the Scriptures have made him certain of, again without any interference from a higher ecclesiastical authority. That is to say, the “rights of the layman” are not extended to him by ecclesiastical authority, nor do they descend to him through its polity, but are his in proportion to his own Berean diligence. Though his “rights” do not extend beyond the congregation, they don't need to since neither the authority nor the polity of the Diocese extend to the congregation in the first place.
More to come, tomorrow...
Click here to Continue to PART IV