For at least twenty years I have been puzzled about the place, or function, of ecclesiastical law (i.e., synodical constitution and bylaws) in the theology of the Lutheran church. When there has been controversy in the church in which ecclesiastical law, or church governance, has played a role, I have often wondered, “How can such action be justified in a Christian church?” The almost universal answer I have received from church officials is, “The duly elected church officers followed the bylaws and didn’t violate state law, therefore it is right, moral, and legal.” In other words, shut-up and don’t think about it.
Today I read through a new book that answers many of my questions on these subjects: Johannes Heckel, Lex Charitatis: A Juristic Disquisition on Law in the Theology of Martin Luther, tr. & ed. Gottfried G. Krodel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmanns, 2010). Many LCMS Lutherans will recognized Krodel as the distinguished professor of church history at Valparaiso University, recently deceased in June 2011. The back cover includes a recommendation of the book by Robert Kolb, recently retired professor of Reformation history at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis. The book is in the new series “Emory University Studies in Law and Religion,” edited by John Witte, Jr. This book is sure to become a standard resource on the subject for all future Luther studies.
Heckel’s greatest contribution to the literature is his paying attention to categories and definitions in Luther’s discussion of the Law. I won’t go into all of that, just apply what Luther says to the situation today at University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. That situation has been reported in detail on this website, so I won’t repeat it here.
Luther saw the law of the spiritual government which applies to the Christian as the law of love (lex charitatis). This was distinguished from the law of civil government, whose purpose was to force people to live together in a modicum of peace. Both governments and both laws are approved by God and necessary. But the Christian submits to the laws of civil government out of love for the neighbor, not because they are forced to do so. This is the meaning of Luther’s famous epigram in “The Freedom of the Christian Man” (1520): A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
Heckel argues, from Luther, that ecclesiastical law is valuable as an aid for educating Christians, but it is full of imperfections, because it is derived from civil law. “This imperfection constantly admonishes the church to use the standard of the spiritual law of love for examining and correcting its law. Such a reform becomes necessary when the man-made ecclesiastical law contradicts the divine positive law (for instance in the matter of the sacraments) or is not in harmony with the three spiritual basic rights of the Christian estate,” (Heckel, 201), which are Christian brotherly love, Christian equality, and Christian freedom.
Here is where there is application to the case of University Lutheran Chapel. The existing statutes of LCMS ecclesiastical law say that the Minnesota South Board of Directors are fully in their rights in selling the property and buildings of University Lutheran Chapel out from under its present occupants. LCMS ecclesiastical law is based on civil property law, which gives full and unimpeded powers to Board of Directors to purchase and sell properties. But in this particular case, the application of LCMS ecclesiastical law is contrary to the spiritual law of love.
But note this very carefully. It is not just offending the members of University Lutheran Chapel. It is offending all the members of Minnesota South and Minnesota North Districts, plus any other members of the LCMS who may attend the University of Minnesota, or whose children do the same. The Board of Directors of Minnesota South are violating the three spiritual basic rights of the Christian estate, which are love, equality, and freedom: Love, because they assume they know what is best for those affected by their decision; Equality, because they are using their office to “lord it over” members of those districts; Freedom, because they are denying the District Conventions the opportunity to make a free decision in this matter, even though the Pastoral Conferences have begged the Board to change its mind and delay its decision until the conventions have spoken.
The President of the Synod has met with the MNS Board. I am not privy to his conversations with them, his reactions, or theirs. But they have been visited, and I suspect have been urged to act according to Christian love, and bring the decision before the MNS District convention. Yet I have seen no response on their part. They seem determined to continue forward with their violations of the spiritual law of love and close the sale before the convention convenes.
What should we, then, do with this board? The members are obviously incompetent to serve in matters of the church, since they don’t understand how the rights they have under secular laws of property need to be moderated by the spiritual law of love, in light of the basic rights of their fellow Christians, whom they have been asked to serve, not lord it over. I am thinking that not only should they be deposed at this next convention, but that, for their own sakes, they should be asked to repent of their sins to their brothers and sisters in those districts. And if they refuse to apologize, which apology is not at all difficult to do, then they should be treated as unrepentant sinners by all the pastors in the district, by direction of a district resolution. Of course, this will not be necessary if they delay the sale closing until the district convention has had a chance to discuss, resolve, and direct the board’s action.
I am thinking that this may be an important step in our Life Together in the synod. It may be an important way to teach all church officers, including pastors, teachers, and congregational officers, that their office is one of service, not lordship, and that actions that they take which are legal according to civil law need to be moderated by the spiritual law of love. We can expect nothing less of leaders who claim to be Lutheran. What a better place to start than Minnesota!