Sunday, January 6, 2008

Roundtable 29: Church Authority

A dispute arose among the Apostles, on more than one occasion, over the question of power, authority and rights. The desire for power and control is an ancient evil temptation that plagues humanity; and so, it should come as no surprise that it also has been an ongoing subject of concern, debate, discussion and intense disagreement in the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Matthew 20, says, "It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (vv. 26-28).

Article 28 offers an expansion of several points made about the nature of the ministry of the Church and the authority of the Church, in Articles 5 and 14. What power, precisely, do Christian pastors have? What authority do supervisors, or bishops, have in the Church? Over the course of the centuries, bishops had become powerful political as well as ecclesiastical leaders.

To be fair, this happened often through the force of circumstances. When the political and social structure of the Roman Empire was collapsing in the sixth and seventh centuries, it was the Church that was the only institution that had a structure that could provide societal order and control.

Roman bishops and popes soon were claiming, by divine right, the authority to govern and to rule both the Church and civil society. Lutheranism often refers to these two realms as the "kingdom of the right" and the "kingdom of the left." The Augsburg Confession offers in this article its assertion of proper Biblical teaching concerning the authority Christ has given to His Church and, by extension, to the Church's ministry and ministers.

The pastoral concern of this article is clear from the outset when Melanchthon writes, "All the while the popes, claiming the Power of the Keys, have instituted new services and burdened consciences with Church discipline and excommunication. But they have also tried to transfer the kingdoms of this world to the Church by taking the Empire away form the Emperor." (par. 2). No doubt this comment was made in an effort to persuade the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to be more sympathetic toward the cause of the Lutheran princes and theologians. Charles V was no great fan of the Roman Papacy.

The Lutherans point out how these problems in the Roman Church had been the subject of many learned men's protests and concern (par. 3). This article makes very clear that the authority specifically given to the Church, referred to as the Keys, is the "power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments." Why? Because Christ had sent His Apostles out with this very set of marching orders, as recorded in John 20:21-22.

"This authority is exercised only by teaching or preaching the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, either to many or to individuals, according to their calling." (par. 8). This is a key sentence in this article. "According to their calling" indicates that there are various offices in the Church by which the authority of the Keys is carried out, but in every, and any, case, the authority of ministerial offices in the Church is the authority that Christ has given to the Church to proclaim the good news of forgiveness. The focus and point of the Church's ministry are eternal things: eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life. "These things cannot reach us except by the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments." (par. 9).

Civil government is instituted by Christ to "deal with things other than the Gospel does. Civil rulers do not defend minds, but bodies and bodily things against obvious injuries. They restrain people with the sword and physical punishment in order to preserve civil justice and peace." (par. 11).

The confusion of the power and authority of the office of bishop had reached a point where there was great confusion between the different authority God entrusts to the Church and to the civil government; in addition, bishops assumed that because they had been given authority by God to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, they also had authority to come up with new "ordinances, instituted as though they are necessary, or with the view that they merit grace" (par. 50). The Augsburg Confession rejects this claim. What is essential in the Church, and most necessary, is "for the chief article of the Gospel to be preserved, namely that we obtain grace freely by faith in Christ, and not by certain observances or acts of worship, devised by people" (par. 52).

But what then is the Church to do about ordering itself properly to provide for all things to be done decently, in order to facilitate the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments? Is it the case that it is in the Church's best interest for there to be a "free for all" when it comes to proper order and the institution of certain customs and practices? No, this was never the intention of this article, or any other in the Book of Concord concerning things termed later in the Book of Concord as "adiaphora." This point is one that is the source of considerable confusion in the Church today. The Augsburg Confession acknowledges that it is in fact perfectly "lawful for bishops, or pastors, to make ordinances so that things will be done orderly in the Church, but not to teach that we merit grace or make satisfaction for sins" (par. 53). But, the Augsburg Confession asserts "that it is proper that the churches keep such ordinances for the sake of love and tranquility, to avoid giving offense to another, so that all things be done in the churches in order, and without confusion (1 Corinthians 14:40; comp. Philippians 2:14).

Article 28 concludes on an irenic tone by indicating that the Lutherans would be willing to accept the leadership of Roman bishops just as long as they "allow the Gospel to be taught purely, and that they relax a few observances that they claim it is sinful to change." Allowing the Gospel to be taught purely was, and remains, a very tall order for an ecclesiastical system of thought, like Romanism, premised on certain key and fundamental theological positions that conflict with the very heart of the Gospel: justification by grace, alone, through faith, alone. Rome acknowledges salvation is by grace alone, but it is the continuing failure of Rome to acknowledge that grace is received through faith alone that remains the problem, resulting in the dangerous interjection of imperfect human works into the equation, thus throwing sinners continually back on their own devices, rather than exclusively, always, and only Christ and Him Crucified.

About the painting:

Albrecht Dürer
The Four Holy Men (John the Evangelist and Peter)
Oil on panel


William Weedon said...

Have you come across David Truemper's piece - and I can't seem to locate it at the moment - where he argues that the AC really isn't about Article IV, but about what it saved till last: Article XXVIII. It's about the question of authority and whether the Gospel is sufficient to keep the Church the Church. I wish I could find the link - but maybe you already know about it? - because I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Any other readers remember the article? I don't even remember where I read it.

carlsonloggie said...

See Church and Ministry Book and also David Truemper, “Church and Ministry in the Lutheran
Symbols,” Church and Ministry.