Morgendämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer theologirt.
Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit id es semper esse puerum.
Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
Homo sum humani nihil a me alienum puto.
Semper idem sed non eodem modo.


Verbum domini manet in aeternum. The word of the Lord endures forever.
1 Peter 1:24-25, quoting Isaiah 40:6,8. Motto of the Lutheran Reformation.

Fayth onely justifieth before God. Robert Barnes, DD The Supplication, fourth essay. London: Daye, 1572.

Lord if Thou straightly mark our iniquity, who is able to abide Thy judgement? Wherefore I trust in no work that I ever did, but only in the death of Jesus Christ. I do not doubt, but through Him to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Robert Barnes, DD, before he was burnt alive for "heresy", 30 July 1540.

What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Martin Luther, Dr. theol. (1522)

For the basics of our faith right here online, or for offline short daily prayer or devotion or study, scroll down to "A Beggar's Daily Portion" on the sidebar. For what that stuff in the banner means, scroll to the bottom of the sidebar.

19 October 2009

Is Not Having Bishops In LCMS A Problem?

Well, let's do what we usually do on this blog, start at the beginning and work our way through. And the beginning is, what the hell is a bishop? Yes we all have an image of somebody in special robes and hats and stuff who's important in a church, but I mean exactly, what is a bishop?

I. What Does The Word "Bishop" Mean?

The English word "bishop" derives from a slang usage in Latin, biscopus -- as is for example the German Bischoff or the Spanish obispo -- which is a corruption of the proper Latin word episcopus, which in turn is a transliteration, a spelling in one alphabet of a word from a language in another alphabet, of the Greek word episkopos. (BTW, "episkopos" is itself a transliteration of the actual Greek letters into the ones my computer has.)

OK then, so what does episkopos mean? It is a compound word: the prefix means "over" and the base word means "seeing" or "looking" or "examining". So, the word literally means one who oversees, who looks in on, who examines. Consequently, translating the word rather than transliterating the letters, one could use the words overseer, supervisor, superintendent, like that.

Thus in English, being as it is, we have the noun for the office of a church superintendent from the Germanic root as bishop, but the adjective relating to it from Latin and Greek as episcopal.

II. What Does The NT Mean By The Word "Bishop"?

So that's what the word itself means, now, what do we mean by it? That's where the fun starts. The word itself is used only five times in the NT: Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:7, and 1 Peter 2:25. The King James and later revisions of it use "bishop" to translate it, but ESV we use, though in the KJV line, uses the more literal "overseer" as does the popular NIV. But, does the office, call it bishop or overseer or whatever, mentioned there correspond with the offices as understood by the various churches that have them now? That's the problem.

In Acts, Paul is speaking to the elders at Ephesus, telling them he will not be with them and they must be overseers, shepherds of Christ's flock, against the false teachers that will arise after he is gone. In Philippians it is simply part of the opening of the letter, addressing the overseers and deacons there, but no explanation of the office. In Timothy he mentions the two offices of overseer and deacon, but describes qualification for those offices rather than the nature of the offices themselves. In Titus he offers similar qualifications for the congregations to select their overseers. And in First Peter the reference is not to the office at all, but to Christ!

Let us note a few things about these five passages. First, one is not about an office filled by a human at all but the function of Christ himself within us. Second, of the remaining four, one is about Paul and the other three are by Paul's authority. Third, the danger primarily cited is false doctrine and the maintenance of true doctrine without which there is nothing to be missional about. Fourth, there is no reference whatever to selection by St Peter or approval by him; rather, selection is by the congregations themselves after the Apostles are gone under the criteria of doctrinal and moral guidelines only.

Therefore, to understand these as establishing a succession of authority based on external criteria such as who consecrated whom is a stretch, to put it mildly, on the basis of Scripture. In its first decades, the organisation of churches became more fully developed, and by 100 years or so after Christ's earthly lifetime all major Christian congregations were headed each by a single overseer or bishop, as distinct from presbyters/priests and deacons attached to him.

Well that's it right there, isn't it -- no bishops, no church, been that way since the Apostles, the writings of the early Fathers show it!

III. What Did We Come To Mean By The Word "Bishop"?

No it isn't. Why not? Well first, we have the same problem with the texts of the early Fathers as we do with the text of Scripture, which is, the same word may be used, but does it mean in the text what it means in the teaching of this or that church? Even in the most vocal of the early Fathers about bishops, Ignatius of Antioch, what is clear is that a bishop-priest-deacon structure existed by his time, but it cannot be maintained without controversy or challenge that he is speaking of these offices as the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches do.

As Christianity spread, what the overseer oversaw spread too. It grew from the congregation itself to new congregations growing out of it and around it, so the overseer came to oversee an area, not a single congregation. These areas and their administration, and consequently the understanding of the power of their administration, followed the civil administration of the Roman Empire. Most notable in that evolution of "bishop" were the civil reorganisations of Diocletian, Emperor from 20 November 284 to 1 May 305.

Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into four quarters which were further subdivided into administrative units he named from the similarity of the word administration, dioecesnis in Latin, a transliteration from Greek, and his own name, Diocletian. In English the word is diocese. Each diocese was led by a vicarius, meaning deputy or representative, the source of our word vicar. Representative of whom? Why, Rome of course. Starting to look familiar? This from the Emperor who also launched the worst persecution of Christianity ever in the Roman Empire, from 303 to 311.

Speaking of looking familiar, even the well-known headdress of the office, the mitre, comes from the camelaucum, or in transliterated Greek kamilaukion, of officials in the Eastern Roman Empire court.

Church administrators ran parallel to civil administrators, and as particularly in the Western Empire the civil administration was falling apart, church administration filled in, the church now being the official state church, consequently bishops were both church and civic administrators. In the Eastern Empire, which would last another 1,000 years or so, the function remained part of the overall hierarchy church or civil. In the West, though the Roman Empire was gone, the political units that emerged retained a structure in which church offices were civil offices too, of established state churches.

This persisted for hundreds of years, in an arrangement which Americans have a hard time grasping because it has never been the case here, in fact is specifically outlawed by an amendment to the Constitution. That amendment is not "separation of church and state" and does not even contain the phrase, but is about "establishment of religion", which means exactly what we have been talking about, where a religion is the official religion of the state, its officers state officers and its buildings state buildings, maintained at state expense.

IV. The Situation.

Another factor is this: even in those churches which claim authenticity based on their bishops, there is not agreement among them about what that authenticity exactly is, or who has it. In the Roman Catholic Church, a concept at the heart of this is "apostolic succession", in which it is believed that each present validly ordained bishop has an authority transmitted to him in a direct line of consecrations going back to the Apostles. Therefore, even a bishop who is at adds with Rome nonetheless by virtue of his office can validly ordain other bishops and priests. So, Eastern Othodox bishops ordain valid bishops, Rome says.

So then does Rome ordain valid bishops according to the East? Well, apostolic succession in the East also considers it a function with the whole church, not just an individual bishop, so a bishop ordaining a bishop apart from the whole church, in a separate body, cannot be said to be ordaining a valid bishop. So, there are various answers from the East about Western bishops as to validity ranging from Yes to No to We Can't Say For Sure.

Furthermore, Western bishops do not recognise each other as valid bishops all the time. Rome considers Anglican bishops to be no bishops at all due to changes in the rite and other doctrines made in the Anglican church. It also does not recognise Lutheran bishops as real bishops due to a break in episcopal consecration. Which also means it does not recognise sacraments other than Baptism and Marriage as valid there either -- Baptism because anyone may baptise, Marriage because the couple marries even if they don't think it's a sacrament..

V. This Is A Solution?

Before we even get to the LCMS, have bishops been an answer to anything, at all, ever, in the church? No. There isn't even agreement as to what a bishop is or how a bishop comes to be, apart from deciding one of the competing claims is right and the rest therefore wrong.

Bishops, in anything like the form and content they have in the Roman and Eastern churches, have no basis whatsoever in the overseers of Scripture. Bishops guarantee nothing. It is claimed they guarantee the true faith against error. But Scripture says the true faith is the guarantee of the bishop. Paul does not say appoint bishops so you will have the true faith, he says keep the true faith so you will appoint true bishops. The relationship goes both ways. Rome and the East make it one way because of the civic nature bishops acquired in the Roman Empire.

The Arians had bishops too, didn't stop them from being Arians. Bishoprics would be bought and sold, as for example we saw with Alberecht of Mainz, who took out a huge loan from Jakob Fugger to buy his way into the office at age 23. Bishops as officers of the state, in the states which had become Lutheran after the Reformation, followed the orders of the state in creating a state ordered union of Reformed and Lutheran worship and belief.


In fact it was just this, the state ordered and enforced through its bishops compromise of true doctrine and worship, which we call Lutheranism, with false doctrine and worship, that caused many to think of leaving for the United States where they would be free to worship and exist according to their beliefs. Accordingly, Pastor Martin Stephan of Dresden began an emigration society for Saxon Lutherans to go from there to St Louis MO. Some 700 to 1,100 people and five ships left in November 1838, one ship was lost at sea, the rest arrived in New Orleans on 5 January 1839. They proceeded up the Mississippi to Perry County MO to begin a community there and around St Louis for which they elected Pastor Stephan bishop.

Did that save them or guarantee anything? No. Before long, Bishop Stephan was embroiled in allegations of embezzlement and sexual misconduct. On 30 May 1839 he was deposed as bishop and excommunicated from the community, which turned to the remaining senior pastor, CFW Walther, for direction. Which brought up not just what to do for a bishop, but how to have a church at all. Did it need to be connected to or even resemble the churches they had known in Germany?

Strong debate was held about this in Altenburg where Walther was pastor at the time. His position, after intensive study of Luther, was no, the church here did not have to be connected to or even resemble the church in Europe. And that prevailed. There were no more bishops. Walther became pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in St Louis in May 1841 and remained so until his death 7 May 1887. Meanwhile, 12 pastors from 15 Lutheran congregations formed a new church body in Chicago 26 April 1847. It was called Die Deutsche Evangelische Lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio, und andern Staaten. Which means, The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and other States, now shortened to Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.


You know what? At that time there were already dozens of Lutheran synods in the United States? Why form another one? Why not just throw in with one of them, maybe get them to throw in with each other too?

Here's why not. At the time, in part due to the experience in the old countries of the state enforced union of Lutheran and Reformed elements into one church body and in part as a reaction to the new circumstances here in the US, these Lutheran bodies were barely recognisable as Lutheran. The idea was, that all that stuff about a Real Presence in the Eucharist, Baptism which actually conferred God's grace, not a personal decision, the focus on such things and liturgies to convey them, all that stuff maybe was fine in the old countries but simply were not communicating here, so to survive and grow in America, Lutheran churches had to get rid of all that old doctrine and liturgy and get more in line with the Reformed nature of American Protestantism generally.

Huh? We talking 1840s? Judas H Priest on a raft, we hear that same stuff now! Our beloved synod, unsere geliebte synode, was founded precisely and exactly to oppose these opportunistic trends, and instead enthusiastically hold out and promote the light of authentic Lutheranism as stated on our Confessions, which in confessing we hold to be Christianity itself! If we do not maintain that, there is nothing to carry forward in mission. Nothing from Christ anyway.

You know what? Those who hold such a view of re-inventing Lutheranism into something that markets well as American Protestantism already had a synod, the General Synod, founded in 1820, whose great leader was Samuel Simon Schmucker, which split apart over the Civil War and theological disputes, came back to-gether in 1918 as the United Lutheran Church in America, which in 1962 joined a new body the Lutheran Church in America, which in turn on 1 January 1988 joined with the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ELCA. Heard of them lately?

And guess what? They got bishops!

VIII. Conclusion.

So we have gone from an office in Scripture whose nature was to shepherd the faithful in the true faith, doctrine and practice in the knowledge that many false ones will appear, whose occupants will be chosen by the congregations based on already being known for their doctrinal and moral orthodoxy, to a system derived in its design and power and even dress from Roman Imperial administration that remained a state office and function for centuries even after Rome East or West disappeared, which while filled here and there by saintly pastors have also been little more than worldly offices bought and sold like a barrel of oil, a guarantee of nothing but confusion, scandal and strife, operative through the power of the state not the Gospel.

Back in Dresden, Saxony (Sachsen) they knew well the curse of the historic bishops and bishoprics and left for the United States which had no such traditions to impede the practice of confessional Lutheranism, yet even once here the centuries-long force of this impediment to the church led them to yet have a "bishop" but not in the old state mode. But God was to show them a better way, his way, which was really what their hopes and dreams yearned for but could not fully grasp.

That was to be free of the whole mess, a church organisation that was not a continuation here of the ancient and European political models from which they came, and not an adoption of American Protestantism with its Reformed basis either. Rather it was to be based on what is confessed in the Lutheran Confessions, the pure faith of Jesus Christ and a church body like what is described in Scripture, where the Christian faith the Confessions confess are the Rock on which the church is built, where its overseers are chosen because of their championship of this rock against which even the gates of hell shall not prevail, not mistaking themselves for the rock in the process but overseeing, with the right of investigation and judgement, as our founding constitution of 1847 says, as to whether pastors care for the congregations they serve with sound doctrine in preaching and sound pratice in liturgy or weaken and compromise the truth of our Confessions with pandering to what plays well, "new measures" as they were called then, exactly the measures some advocate to-day.

Not a bishop in sight -- in the historical sense. But exactly what Scripture intends when it speaks of the overseers of the church, an office to which the term "bishop" became attached. What a magnificent gift of God! And to-day we carry this message not just to German immigrants amid the confusion about Lutheranism, but, and in concert with other confessional Lutheran bodies in the International Lutheran Council, to the whole world amid its confusion about everything!

But where's the guarantee? What happens if the right guys lose? Is truth a matter of a vote at a gathering? We can and should make our efforts, but the guarantee is where it has always been, just as false teachers will appear as they have always done. The guarantee is not in a man, or a group of men, or in an institution, all of which can and have failed, but in the rock which is not revealed by flesh and blood but God the Father in heaven, to which God and his word of grace we are commended which will build us up and give us an inheritance among those who are sanctified.

Men, groups of men, and institutions, even beloved ones, may come and go, and if they go the way of false doctrine and practice, the guarantee was not to them but to the rock of the word of God which will raise up new ones. Which is exactly why the motto of the Lutheran Reformation is not about a church body or its officers but the Word of God:

Verbum domini manet in aeternum: the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.


Fearsome Comrade said...

If empowered bishops preserve the Church from error, there would have been no need for the Reformation.

Kaleb said...

I wonder if those who favor bishops are really seeing them as the solution not to the problem of false doctrine generally, but to the problem of our congregations thinking they can just do whatever they want?

Anonymous said...

The Office of Bishop is a necessary Check & Balance of some abuses that could otherwise take place in the Administration of a Church. A Bishop would be able to instantly defrock Clergy for Misconduct (such a carelessly putting a beer bottle on the Alter, which I have seen done) and Doctrinal Error (the preaching of a Prosperity Theology Sermon which I have also seen, an incident that provoked a Church walkout) . A Bishop can also overrule the abuse of the so-called "Office of the Keys" Doctrine. In my case, a Bishop intervened in my favor when the LCMS absolutely would not lift a finger to aid my transfer to a different Church.