The Elastic Lutheran Polity

John Hannah

In the early 1960s the ecumenical vanguard was the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). It involved Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in an effort to bring together their quite diverse and mutually exclusive understandings of ministry and church polity. American Lutherans were not involved, but we are evolving slowly but surely toward restoration of the three-fold office of ministry (bishop, pastor and deacon). I think that is good thing and, judging from widespread acceptance, most all concerned believe so too. It is not that someone with a sinister ecumenical scheme is plotting against us to change the sacrosanct. It is not that having deacons and bishops in addition to pastors is necessary as though we must “add” these two offices so that we can fix something that is lacking in our essence. It just seems to be happening so that we may serve better as God’s people in the church.


Keeping Ordination

Most all can agree that the single pastoral office has worked well through the centuries. It is something that Lutherans can build upon as we face change and decay in considering the ordination of deacons and bishops sometime in the future. God knows there is precious little that we are able to agree about, but it does seem that mostly we like having pastors, especially when they are good. Even while so much has gone awry since 1530, the pastoral office has provided an enduring and stabilizing component that has prevented total collapse.

The strength of the pastoral office is from God and his goodness proven in Christ’s victory. That power is authenticated by the Holy Spirit in the assembly with prayer and the laying on of hands. We call this form or rite “ordination.” Lutherans retain ordination and grant that it may be numbered as a sacrament since “the ministry of the Word has the command of God and has magnificent promises like Romans 1:”[16 and Isaiah 55:11] (Apology XIII, 7-13). There is more. Our founders and their confessions were not opposed to having bishops. We were more than willing to perpetuate the medieval form but were prevented by the cruelty of the papal bishops who denied ordination for our pastors (Apology XIV, 1-5).

Luther was then forced to have pastors ordain new pastors because the bishops refused to ordain anyone who accepted the Augsburg Confession. The image of a defiant Luther resolving to establish “a new church” is simply not accurate. It was rather that we were forced to go our own way in Germany and nearby areas where Roman bishops would not cooperate. In other parts of the world, like Scandinavia and the Baltics, bishops simply joined the Reformation and continued employing the old forms. Here in America we were dominated by German-Americans and therefore adopted the single office of pastor succeeding pastor. Nonetheless, we agree with AC XXVIII that an evangelical episcopacy would be our preferred polity.

It is important to remember what ordination is not. Arthur Carl Piepkorn, in explaining our understanding and practice to Roman Catholics, says it well, “The sacred ministry is a form of service (ministerium: diakonia), not a source of privilege, prestige and power” (L/RC IV, p. 104). There was a time when pastors and bishops were yoked closely to the monarchs of Europe. That time is long gone! We have replaced those monarchs here in America, so there is no reason to fear that a pastor or even a bishop can bring them back. The monarchs are locked safely away in fantasyland to be brought out only for fairy tales (like Cinderella). It is safe now to bring back bishops.


The Return of Bishops

The root meaning of “bishop” in the New Testament is “overseer” (Greek, episkope). Over the past fifty years our district presidents (later to be called bishops in the ELCA) have been forced to accept more pastoral responsibility for congregations. We have found that it is useful and sometimes even necessary to have someone with a view broader than an individual congregation. Because of our very mobile society congregations and their neighborhoods have become less homogeneous ethnically and culturally. It has been helpful to bring broader experience and wider responsibility to bear so that they may adjust to changing circumstances. The only measure left would be to elect these bishops or presidents for tenure and ordain them just as we have always done with our pastors. They will strengthen pastors and congregations.

Pastors are no longer hitched to kings and queens, but we have tied ourselves to an educated clergy. Bishops (presidents) are in the forefront helping the church to adapt to a new situation. Now we have to adjust our academic requirements for those pastors who could serve well in small congregations but who cannot take out eight years for college and seminary. Ordination is not the completion of a four-year academic curriculum. It is the affirmation of God’s call by the church. Likewise, in the future many congregations will have to depend on pastors who are not full time and therefore not compensated as full time. Ordination is not initiation into union membership. In other words, the pastor may be a building contractor Monday to Friday. These new kind of pastors will need help. We will have to find new ways to form such pastors. Obviously the traditional avenues through seminary will not do. District presidents (bishops) will inevitably take the lead.


The Return of Deacons

The role of deacon was lost long before the Reformation. (The word is from the New Testament, diakonos, which means “servant.”) Many churches, including Lutherans, have brought back deacons as an ordained (or consecrated) ministry of service. In many synods (of the ELCA) and districts (of the LCMS) diaconal ministry is rapidly arising to help the churches. Deacons, designated by “commissioning” or “consecration” to roles of service, are multiplying the work that pastors and congregations can do. Most often deacons take care of the material things. These deacons usually serve without compensation while they make their livelihoods elsewhere. Deacons can be helpful to shrinking congregations unable to afford a pastor. Always they work under the supervision of a pastor. There really is no reason we cannot set them apart and call it ordination. Wherever deacons have reappeared, they are flourishing.


The Twenty-First Century

As Lutheran congregations are challenged by “change and decay all around,” we are adapting by reaching into our distant past. Since World War II we have been restoring the office of bishop and strengthening it to meet fresh challenges. More recently deacons are giving congregations new energy and a many examples of service.

Beyond enhancing our service as the church, the return to the three-fold ministry will provide for an ecumenical convergence with the vast majority of Christians throughout the world. So if the opportunity should ever arise, American Lutherans will be more ready.

The teaching function of bishops may or may not come back into American Lutheranism. It seems to conflict with the independence of pastors, who have had now 500 years of being bishops on their own. Yet, one senses in the political clamor both from the left and from the right that many pastors want questions settled not by democratic vote but by a legitimate churchly teaching office (often called a magisterium). Whether we could ever devise such a Lutheran magisterium that would be broadly accepted remains to be seen. Some recent decisions point toward greater episcopal authority. The LCMS now requires its heresy hunters to deal only through district presidents. That move seriously reduced the number of allegations. ELCA bishops have been asked by the latest churchwide assembly to define how they will discipline pastors (at least in cases of homosexuality). It is still be too early to know if such moves portend ascribing greater teaching authority to Lutheran bishops. We will have to wait and see. We may have to await further ecumenical developments.

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