We are soon to have bishops in the Lutheran Church of Australia. It is a simple change in nomenclature for our general and district presidents rather than a change in theology or constitutional power and authority, but it has provoked a lot of discussion among pastors and those in the pews, for Lutherans have not had a happy experience with bishops, whether of the regular or emergency kind (when the regular bishops did not support the Reformation, Luther advocated that the civil ruler fill the functions of the office as an emergency measure. In many areas of Germany, the emergency became permanent as the civil magistrates proved reluctant to relinquish control of the church, which effectively became the religious organ of the state, leading eventually to such disputes as the "Prussian Union" measures of 1817, in which a king forced a union between Lutherans and the Reformed, which led to the 1838 confessional Lutheran emigration to Australia and the US).
I am of the view that the way this topic was presented to the church for consideration at the recent general pastors' conference and synod caused us to miss an opportunity to discuss an urgent matter -the need to reform our present constitutional arrangements for oversight in the church. To begin with, I think we made a great mistake when we took our presidents out of their congregations and put them in an office (I mean literally in an office, behind a desk rather than before the altar!). A bishop - especially an Evangelical Lutheran bishop - must first of all be a pastor in a local congregation, as indeed he always was in the early church.
The second mistake I think we have made in this area is that we have seen the church grow and spread geographically since the constitution of the LCA was drawn up in 1965/6. Our districts are larger than those of the constituting church bodies who formed the LCA in terms of congregations and schools and the numbers of pastors who serve in them and their administrative needs are more complex, yet we have not adjusted our system of oversight accordingly, continuing to rely on the state based system of the constituting church bodies (was this a passing nod, perhaps, to the state based church system of Lutheran Germany?). Thus, whereas an Anglican bishop in Australia might have 40 congregations under his charge, an Australian Lutheran bishop will have well upwards of 100 congregations and they might be spread over a geographic area larger than most western European countries. Because of this, most LCA congregations will only see their bishop when a new pastor is installed, and even then that is not guaranteed. Compare this to the Anglican and Roman Catholic systems where the bishop visits each parish at least once a year. Plainly, our present system is not conducive to effective oversight of the church and frankly that fact is being reflected in the life of congregations.
A third area that, in my view, needs reform is the zone conference (our equivalent of a deanery). These work well enough as a support system for pastors, but as a tool for effective oversight and representation in the official discussions of the wider church the zones are under utilised. Too much is done and decided only "at the district level" or "at the national level", which in effect means in a capital city hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away from most congregations.
Perhaps, though, a church can only effectively discuss one important topic at a time. In any case, I've set down below a sort of thesis in order to clarify my own thoughts and encourage discussion on how we begin to conceive the office of bishop evangelically in the Lutheran Church. It is preceded by a quote from the Augsburg Confession, the primary confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which I used as my starting point:
"...according to the Gospel or, as they say, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops as bishops, that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no jurisdiction except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked men, whose wickedness is known, and this without human force, simply by the Word. Herein the congregations of necessity and by divine right must obey them, according to Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. But when they teach or ordain anything against the Gospel, then the congregations have a commandment of God prohibiting obedience, Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets; Gal. 1:8: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel, let him be accursed; 2 Cor. 13:8: We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. Also: The power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction. So, also, the Canonical Laws command (II. Q. VII. Cap., Sacerdotes, and Cap. Oves). And Augustine (Contra Petiliani Epistolam): Neither must we submit to Catholic bishops if they chance to err, or hold anything contrary to the Canonical Scriptures of God. "
AC XXVIII, Ecclesiastical Power
Oversight of doctrine is a function of the office of the ministry, which exists for the sake of the Gospel (CA V). In Lutheran eyes, the difference between a bishop and a pastor has to do with the scope of his exercise of oversight, whether it be over a parish or over several parishes in a city or geographical district. There is no inherent difference in their office, though. The office of bishop (episcopos, superintendent) arose by human development out of the office of the ministry, and exists for the sake of the Gospel. It is not the other way around, as in Catholic and Orthodox doctrine, in which the priesthood, both historically and "ontologically", arises out of the office of the bishop. The Lutheran cannot but regard that position as historically and theologically untenable. The historic and "ontological" source of the office of the ministry is the holy apostolate. The special apostolate came to an end with the death of the last apostle, but the functions of the apostolate necessary for the ongoing life of the church - preaching the Gospel, forgiving sins and judging doctrine, continue in the office of the ministry. The only "apostolic succession" is succession in the apostles' teaching, set down for us in the New Testament. The "apostolic succession" of the Catholics and Orthodox (and even more so the Anglicans) is at best an adiaphoron and at worst a fiction in the service of a false doctrine of authority in the church which has historically worked against the Gospel. When bishops work for the Gospel, though, they have a place in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but by human and not divine right.