I've been asked what it is that I have against a hierarchical form of church government. The simple answer is that I'm not really opposed to such hierarchy, leastwise not on principle. In fact, I believe that foundations for a hierarchical polity are rooted in the New Testament, in the way the Apostolic Church was ordered and aranged under the providence of God, and that it was exemplified in a salutary way for the first several centuries of the Church's history. Matters of polity are largely adiaphora (neither commanded nor forbidden by God), and, as such, I don't regard any particular form of church government to be essential. All things are free; but then again, not all things are profitable. Given my preference, I'd opt for an historical form of ecclesial hierarchy over and above a strictly democratic rule of the majority (via suffrage). The one true Head of the Church, either way, is the Lord Jesus Christ, who rules and governs His Church on earth by His Word and Holy Spirit. Hierarchs and voters' assemblies alike can fall into error and may become tyrannical, and our trust must remain in the one true God alone.
Within the Missouri Synod, the fact of the matter is that we have not had a hierarchical form of church government; nor has there ever been a conscious decision on the part of the Synod to adopt such a polity. Thus, I have expressed concern over what I perceive to be a shifting in practice toward hierarchy, because I sense that it is happening without the real knowledge or consent of the pastors and congregations who collectively are the LCMS. Over the last two Conventions, at least, more and more power has been assigned to the Council of Presidents, and at the same time removed from the pastors and the laity of the congregations. I'm not going to go into detailed examples here; one can always quibble about the particulars. But the overall trend, so far as I can tell, appears to be in the direction of centralized power and a top-down approach to the governance of the Synod. (The new dispute resolution process introduced at the 2004 Convention is perhaps the most striking case in point.)
It is also my opinion that hierarchy can be arranged in a variety of ways, according to all sorts of different criteria. Historically, what bishops and patriarchs did was to serve as pastors of the larger parishes. Even Pope Gregory the Great, for example, is rightly remembered above all as a pastor; not only to the pastors under his jurisdiction, but to the people of Rome. Those great early bishops of the Church exercised oversight principally by preaching and teaching and administering the means of grace, by the ways and means of catechesis and pastoral care. Such things, broadly gathered under the "Office of the Keys," are the definitive authority of bishops. Whatever other authority they may be given, whether within the Church in the freedom of the Gospel, or by the powers that be in the kingdom of the left, those things are peripheral to their office as pastors, as ministers of the Word of God, as preachers of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are the things that every parish priest (or pastor) is given to do; for all pastors are equal in office, though they differ in gifts and may well be given different jurisdictions.
What I have observed happening in the LCMS, however, is not a hierarchy of pastors, but of bureaucrats and politicians. I don't say that to be insulting, nor to be critical of anyone, but to be descriptive. It's a problem that Dr. Weinrich called attention to in one of my classes at the Seminary, already fifteen years ago. That is to say, the closest thing to "bishops" that we have in the LCMS, our district presidents, by and large do not do the things definitive of the pastoral office, but primarily exercise temporal authority, determined not by the Word of God but by the polity of the Synod. If the district presidents are to be the bishops of the LCMS, then I would prefer to see them function like real bishops, that is, as pastors of the Church. Which is to say that each would be and serve as the pastor of a congregation, wherein he would regularly preach and teach and catechize, baptize, absolve and commune the sheep of the Good Shepherd. The oversight of other pastors, and of the Church in a particular geographical region, would be in addition to these pastoral responsibilities, rather than in place of them. Being thus rooted in the work of the Gospel, their episcopacy would more readily lend itself to an evangelical manner.
I am aware that some district presidents, at least in the past, have continued to function as pastors within congregations of the Synod. I applaud those situations, although it would strike me as very odd if the bishop of a district were to be an assistant pastor within a congregation of that district. A man who aspires to the office of bishop ought to manage his own household well.
In general, it seems to me that we actually remove a man from the office to which he has been called and ordained, in order to give him, instead, an office of human invention and temporal authority. We rightly insist that our "bishops" be ordained pastors, but we make it harder and harder for them to do the real work of pastors, the work of the Gospel, because we load them down with more and more political responsibilities. I don't believe that our district presidents desire this sort of position, but I don't see how many (or any) of them can stave it off for long. More and more they are being called upon to deal with concerns on the national level, and less able, therefore, to serve as pastors of their own districts (to say nothing of pastoring congregations). I fear that when a man is "called" to such an office, in which he is largely pulled away from the administration of the divinely-given means of grace, there is a real temptation to invest temporal political duties with divine auspices. That is the sort of hierarchy that I oppose, because it no longer serves the Gospel as it should.
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