quod pro nobis traditum est

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Polity and the Church's center

Polity is necessary for people to live together. Although forms of polity in society vary the form of polity used is bound by what people accept and follow as common law, that which holds society together. Generally speaking, in society polity is divided into practice on the local, state and national levels.

In Christianity the Church also orders her life together using polity. The Catholic Church follows an hierarchical or episcopal order of polity. The names of some protestant denominations are directly related to their understanding of polity, ie, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational. Schisms in church history have often been related to matters of polity as they have been related to matters of doctrine. The two, in fact, are intertwined, just as in secular government questions of polity are derived from the Constitution. However the Church or protestant denomination or sect understands and follows its polity that is how that group orders her life together.

Lutheranism has historically placed doctrine on a higher level than that of polity. Still, there are unanswered questions of polity that continue to fester and which may be traced back to the time of the reformation (historical developments following the reformation, such as the Enlightenment, have only exacerbated these questions). To the chagrin of Lutherans, they are sometimes characterized by those outside as being followers of "Luther," which, in itself is as much an observation of polity as it is an observation of doctrine. Obviously, Lutheranism is more complex than that as is demonstrated in the Confessio Augustana (Augsburg Confession) and the other symbolical documents of the Book of Concord. The structure of Lutheranism, thankfully so, is not bound to the personality of Luther (or it should not be). He was not the most personable fellow.

I have always found unusual the Lutheran critique of the polity of the Catholic Church. The Lutheran argument says that the structure of the Catholic Church, specifically the papacy, is de iure humano, that is, "of human right" as opposed to de iure divino ("of divine right"). This means that the polity of the Catholic Church is not of divine order but of human order. Meanwhile Lutherans gather in conventions or assemblies every few years to elect their leaders which they call their president. The process is very similar to the corresponding secular process as found in America. After this process, which includes no little amount of politicking, the president is chosen and this is understood and accepted as the work of the Holy Spirit. De iure humano or de iure divino? The Lutheran critique of the papacy is, in some ways, found wanting.

The largest and most liberal Lutheran group, the ELCA, has pretty much given up its polity to follow a template based on "the sexual revolution." Hence, like the rest of mainline protestantism, is quite comfortable with modern secular culture, including whatever sexual directions the culture is taking. The polity (and doctrine) of this declining group seem to go no further back in history than the 1960s (ie, "the sexual revolution"). Obviously, not all pastors and members are following this direction.

The largest conservative, or confessional Lutheran group, is the Missouri Synod. They are clearly distinct from the ELCA in doctrine and practice. The Missouri Synod is meeting this summer in convention and will be considering making major changes in polity through "restructuring", mainly in favor of providing more votes to larger congregations at the expense of smaller congregations (current practice is that each congregation has equal voice). There are many other proposals for changes. All in all, if passed, the Missouri Synod would be structured quite differently meaning, in practice, that its clearly stated doctrinal heritage would be permanently marginalized in favor of an amorphous "mission" (ie, evangelicalism).

Questions of polity are always questions of individuals and their relation to larger groups of people. Individuals, for example, are perturbed when larger groups or those who govern try to legislate their sentiment or tell them how they feel. There is room for mis-communication at all levels and in between levels of government. Those who govern, govern not only individuals but also organized groups of people. Mis-communication or misunderstanding does not necessitate change in structure. Polity is grounded in reason and law and not in sentiment. Sentiment, divorced from reason, can be a dangerous thing. Hence polity is needed for people to live together in a reasonable way.

As having served as a delegate at two conventions of the Missouri Synod I find them intriguing and frustrating. They are intriguing in the gathering of people from around the country and around the world and the dialogue over a variety of issues. They are frustrating in that what happens there is not always what one expects or desires. What will be both intriguing and frustrating to those who are at convention this summer is that they will be considering changing the very structure of the polity that has given them the opportunity to be there in the first place. For some, such changes would mean revoking their own future franchise. On a deeper level such changes would mean permanent change in the direction of the Missouri Synod, much of which would cut the synod from its roots.

On the other hand, cutting oneself from ones roots is a problem of the reformation. Ever since the reformation the countless denominations and sects, being rootless in terms of ministry, are continually forced to restructure or reinvent their polity. A denial of all that transpired in the Church between the time of the Apostles and the time of the reformation leaves protestantism always reacting and never learning, bound only to the last 500 or 50 years or 5 minutes of the Christian experience. One becomes bound by running from the past (ie, "your grandfather's church") and bound to novelty in all things. Evolution becomes the norm and protestantism becomes the religious sentiment of the secular culture. The lines are blurred between protestantism and the secular culture out of which develops a new civil religion. A Church without a polity of its own that can protect itself from the influences of secularism and speak clearly even when the culture objects is bound to forever reflect the polity and values of the culture, for better and for worse.

The life of people in the Church is first and foremost a gathering at the altar of the Holy Eucharist, a sort of heavenly polity. This polity reflects the mystery of the relationship that Christ has with His Bride, the Church (baptized believers). At the altar the crucified, risen and ascended Lord governs His people mercifully on earth, bringing peace between man and God, which was once and for all worked out on the cross and is now delivered to Christ's Bride. The incarnate Lord comes to us in His Body and Blood and sinners participate in the divine nature receiving a foretaste of the feast to come. In the desire for novelty many heirs of the reformation are losing what little is left that roots their life in the life of Christ and His Church, primarily the sacramental life, especially that given and received in the Holy Eucharist.

Related to the order of this life together is the Holy Ministry. In contrast to today's "small groups" (an evangelical phenomena) we find an apostolic ministry tied to Word and Sacraments, ordered and blessed by the Lord Himself. In today's rush to cut roots and forget the past and embrace whatever is new, many Lutherans may have forgotten or may have not even heard these words of the Augsburg Confession:

"Inasmuch as the Mass is such a giving of the sacrament, one common Mass is observed among us on every holy day, and on other days, if any desire the sacrament, it is also administered to those who ask for it. Nor is the custom new in the church . . . Chrysostom says that the priest stands daily at the altar, inviting some to Communion and keeping others away. And it appears from the ancient canons that some one person or other celebrated Mass and the rest of the presbyters and deacons received the body of the Lord from him, for the words of the Nicene canon read, 'In order, after the presbyters, let the deacons receive Holy Communion from the bishop or from a presbyter.'" (Augsburg Confession, Art. XXIV, Latin)

Polity is necessary for people to live together. The Lord provides a heavenly polity for people in the Church. In this polity, the center of the Church is found in the sacrament of the altar. On the one hand, for Lutherans, polity is "adiaphora." On the other hand, when we are enslaved by novelty we lose from the whole, many times, of that which we are not aware. And this brings disorder to our life together.

G.K. Chesterton said, "Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God." Within the life of the Church, if the convention and all its activity replaces the life of Christ given in the Holy Eucharist then earthly government becomes the God. When the Holy Eucharist is set aside, re-structuring or not re-structuring makes little difference for earthly polity has little to do with heavenly polity and only lasts as long as the nation.


Father Hollywood said...

Brilliant, Tim!

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I wonder how much of "polity" developed simply as a way to define who was rightly to be the one to celebrate the Lord's Supper.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

This seems to be a leading statement of some sort. Go on and clarify your position. If this was a development, are you saying that this is positive or negative and why? Thanks!

George and Colleen said...

without trying to make a real point, if you read ignatius (see, for example Smyr 8, Phil 4, Eph 20) that perhaps Rev. Brown was right.

I also sense though that baptism was a central issue in church polity as well, as illustrated by the much later baptismal controversy between Cyprian and Stephen.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Regarding the idea of "development" I see no difficulty, if aligned with divine revelation. For example, polity may have developed although there is no Eucharist without the Holy Ministry and vice versa. This can be traced to the Last Supper (divine choice of ministers is equally apparent in the Old Testament). The Confessions suggest an order (Bishops, presbyters, deacons) that is consistent with both divine choice and development. How this was lost in Lutheran practice is a big question.

Baptism is indeed the foundational sacrament and can be seen as related to the question of polity in the life of the early Church. For example, catechumens were not permitted to pray the "Our Father" until they were baptized. Also, baptism is a pre-requisite to receiving the Holy Eucharist. As foundational as Baptism is to the Church it is not opposed to the Holy Eucharist which is at the center of the Church's life together. We may say that more emphasis is needed on the latter, which is the more "neglected" of the two among Lutherans. Both are sacraments. Both are Christ.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

"The Confessions suggest an order (Bishops, presbyters, deacons) that is consistent with both divine choice and development. How this was lost in Lutheran practice is a big question."

Fr. May,
Thank you for this excellent article. I wonder about your quote above from one of your responses - we see the use of the term "bishop" lost to the (future) LCMS in the Martin Stephan saga, do we not? Did not the Saxons come over with Stephan as "Bishop" properly selected/elected? I understand there are even drawings in the CHI of the liturgical vestments to go along with the office that the Saxons had brought along from the fatherland. I wonder if the loss of the confession's understanding which you quoted occurs with the move to America, or is it the move to Reformed theology (noting that the Union churches of Germany have "president" as well, I believe).

Many thanks,
Rev. Jacob Sutton

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Rev. Sutton,

Thank you for your comment. I believe the Stephan case, in particular, did mark a major change in ministry at least in the understanding of the Missouri Synod. This may also explain why, later on, the Missouri Synod had difficulty in reaching agreement on questions of ministry with other Lutheran synods where the role of "bishop" was still accepted, even in America.

Undoubtedly, the "American" factor was large. The Saxon immigrants were not English-speaking nor, as Lutherans, did their practice fit the American protestant mold. Then too, if I remember correctly from the textbook of seminary days, the German socialists of St. Louis knew they were coming and whipped up sentiment against them in the press even before they arrived. So there were a number of factors/pressures that may have helped set the stage for this change in ministry (These are general observations, I have not studied the Stephan case in depth.)

Reformed (and other protestant) influence is also a factor, whether it was the Prussian Union of yesteryears or the "small groups" of today. It could probably be demonstrated how Pietism, Rationalism, Enlightenment, and any other number of factors played a role. However this all worked itself out we have an order spoken of in the Confessions which is practically unknown or frowned on in Lutheranism today. As I suggested earlier there are probably Lutherans who have never even heard of AC XIV.

In my limited knowledge of Reformation history I dare suggest that while this order of ministry was indeed practiced by the early Lutherans as attested to in the Augustana that the Reformation itself, in one way or another (intended or unintended), opened the door to changes in Western civilization that worked (and work) against a "churchly" understanding of ministry that is still apparent in the Augustana. This rupture in the Western Church, exacerbated by developments in the last 500 years, both inside and outside Christianity, raise questions for me how Lutherans might be more comfortable today accepting secular understandings of what ministry is and ought to be over what has been the traditional practice, not only among Lutherans, but also the practice of ministry prior to the Reformation going back through the Middle Ages to the early church and the Apostles.

I am going way beyond the point you are addressing (Stephan) but I think I am doing that so that the order of ministry might be understood in its fuller context. For example, the Augustana goes way before the time of the Reformation and cites Chrysostom's observation of the practice of Holy Communion and the order of ministry extant at that time, involved in the distribution of the Holy Eucharist.

I do believe the Stephan case was a turning point, specifically for Missouri. Also, there is undoubtedly Reformed influence in many different aspects of Lutheran practice including that of the ministry. My response would be to underline the "catholic" practice of the ministry, meaning not only the wholeness of doctrine but also the practice throughout time (church history). Thus if we have confusion on the question of ministry it is only because we have forgotten and/or disregarded the "catholic" practice of ministry. Insofar as the protestant practice of ministry is a-historical and insofar as such practice has influenced Lutheran understanding and practice then we have every reason to be confused on this question.

Thank you again for raising the Stephan can and for your patience with my response.

Matt said...

So was this rejection of the role of bishop an error? And if it is, how can you remain affiliated with an erring church body?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Matt:

From my perspective (not to speak for Tim), I wouldn't call our polity an "error" - though I think our polity is not necessarily the best we could do. In historical retrospect, we opened a can of worms that led to other problems (such as the 1989 error I will mention shortly).

But all of us in the LCMS who stick around are choosing to remain in an erring body. We have been so since 1989 when the convention amended AC14. The convention has no such authority, and the consequence has been the abomination of "lay consecration" and vicars being compelled to perform ministerial and even sacramental acts without being "rite vocatus" ("rightly called").

But, to put it in the analogy of marriage, we don't encourage people to divorce one another right away, but to fix the problems between them. In the church, errors sometimes persist for centuries. Obviously, if things reach a point-of-no-return (for instance, if the LCMS were to "ordain" women or allow baptisms in some other name than the Trinity, or some such), I think there would be a mass exodus.

But in the interest of not uprooting the wheat with the tares, I think a lot of confessional Lutherans hang in there with the LCMS and try (perhaps Quixotically) to reverse the errors.

As for me, I am called to serve my parish. If they stay in, so will I. If they vote to leave, so will I. The fullness of the Church resides in our parish with or without the LCMS. I would like to see the LCMS ship be righted. That would be the least violent and disruptive for the sake of the Gospel.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Dear Matt,

I echo Fr. Hollywood's response and his example of the current situation arising from the 1989 act confirming lay practice of the pastoral office in the LCMS.

My post, without referring to 1989, was a broadening of the question using an historical angle going to the reformation (a can of worms) and before (AC XIV's reference to practice at the time of Chrysostom).

As to the question of error, the LCMS still permits ordained pastors to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. This means that faithfulness is still possible in the congregations. To the extent that error on the question of ministry, among other questions, is permitted to effect and/or dominate will affect the reaction of pastors, laity, congregations, etc.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Another thought related to the post. The post does question both Lutheran and protestant attempts at polity so the question about bishops is a fair one.

Although justification is considered the center of the Church in Lutheran theology and polity is more or less "adiaphora" it has been interesting to stumble upon the fact in online conversation among us over the years how much import has been placed on one's views of polity (even in casual conversation such as that which is often held online).

Therefore, I am not too averse to the outside critique that the ecclesiastical question that faces us is not just a matter of justification but also that of ecclesiology.

So, it should not be too big a jump to say that we're not just talking about justification but also of Christ (the One who justifies). This is not just salvation of the soul, but also of the body. Salvation of that which is invisible is also salvation of that which is visible (ie, God is the "maker of . . . all things visible and invisible.")

In brief, Christ's relationship with His Bride, the Church, may be a mystery (or sacramentum), but it is still a relationship. This is not just a matter of justification but of ecclesiology.

The risen Lord breathed His Spirit on the Apostles.