Bishop Tyranny and Heresy (Part 2)

In part 1, we saw how a congregation of my friends suffered the tyranny of a bishop concerning their pastoral vacancy, and the imposition of a pastor who teaches heretical doctrine. We contrasted that to the experience I recently had during the pastoral vacancy in my congregation. My congregation had a good vacancy and a good call of a new pastor because our district follows procedures that are cast from the mold of the Lutheran confessions, which confess the Scriptural teaching concerning the office of bishop. In part 1, we looked at the Scriptural meaning of the word bishop.51keq5JdQdL

In this part, we consider a second meaning of the word bishop, a meaning by human arrangement. This meaning is explained in the Lutheran confessions. Then we will apply both meanings to the suffering of the abused congregation and see the rights of a congregation to call an orthodox pastor.

Divine Law; Divine Authority; Divine Right. Since Christ himself gave the church pastors, and since all the Apostles appointed pastor-elder-bishops in every church and every city because of Christ’s gift, the powers of a pastor, elder, or bishop that are established in Scripture are said to be powers the office has by divine law, divine authority, or divine right.

Equality of All Pastors and Bishops. The confessional writings of the Lutheran church written to establish its doctrine during the Reformation teach from Scripture what has been said in Part 1 of this article about the single office, the three titles, and the divine authority of the office. All pastors, elders, and bishops are equal in this divine power or authority. The Lutheran confessions say:

Everyone confesses, even our adversaries, that this power is common to all who preside over churches by divine right, whether they are called pastors, elders, or bishops. So Jerome explicitly teaches in the apostolic letters that all who preside over churches are both bishops and elders. He cites from Titus 1:5-6 [one of the passages discussed in Part 1, and explains it in the same sense as it was explained in Part 1].

“Treatise Against the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd edition, p. 303, ¶¶ 61-62, (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2006). Since the power is common to all, the divine right is equal in all the pastors, elders, and bishops.

Human Arrangement of Bishops over Pastors. The Treatise continues:

But afterward, one was chosen to be placed over the rest. This was done as a remedy for schism, lest each one by attracting a congregation to himself might tear apart the Church of Christ. … [T]he elders always elected one from among themselves and placed him in a higher station, calling him bishop.

Id., ¶ 62.

One Distinction: Ordination. Because the word bishop already had the well-established scriptural meaning relating to the single office given by Christ, it would have been better to give this office by human arrangement a different name. In the Missouri Synod, it is given the name District President, and that probably is a good thing. But in other synods, so long as the distinction between powers by divine law and powers by human arrangement is maintained, using the title bishop can work. The Treatise continues:

Jerome, therefore, teaches that it is by human authority that the grades of bishop and elder or pastor are distinct. The content itself says this, because the power is the same, as he has said above. Later, only one thing made a distinction between bishops and pastors, namely, ordination. For it was arranged that one bishop would ordain ministers in a number of churches.

Id., ¶¶ 63-64.

Lording it over Congregations. The trouble is, bishops tend to drift over time into claiming that extra powers over elders, pastors, and congregation are vested in them by divine right, despite the fact that this contradicts the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions. They also are tempted to lord it over congregations, which is contrary to what Jesus taught about leadership in the kingdom of God, and contrary to what the Apostles taught about bishops. “Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.” Matthew 20:25-26. We saw above in 1 Peter 5:1-3 that bishops oversee the flock not “as being lords over those entrusted to you.”

Congregations Retain Divine Right to Call Pastors. The early Lutherans experienced such troubles and were careful to maintain the distinction between powers of bishops by divine right and by human arrangement. The Treatise explicitly says:

Since the grades of bishop and pastor are not different by divine authority, it is clear that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine law.

Therefore, when the regular bishops become enemies of the Church or are unwilling to administer ordination, the churches retain their own right to ordain their own ministers.

Wherever the Church is, there is the authority to administer the Gospel. Therefore, it is necessary for the Church to retain the authority to call, elect, and ordain ministers. This authority is a gift that in reality is given to the Church. No human power can take this gift away from the Church.

… [T]he people elected pastors and bishops. Then came a bishop, either of that church or a neighboring one, who confirmed the one elected by the laying on of hands. Ordination was nothing else than a ratification.

Id., pp. 303-04, ¶¶ 65-67, 70.

While Scripture and the Lutheran confessions provide much more evidence of what is being said, we have seen enough already to make application of the teaching.

When a bishop will not provide a congregation in pastoral vacancy with candidates to be its pastor, or will delay for sufficient time to make the congregation desperate for a pastor, or will provide only one or two candidates whose teachings depart from the faith once delivered to the saints, this fits the language of the Lutheran confessions about being unwilling to administer ordination. It is a case of lording it over the congregation and arrogating to the bishop a pretended authority contrary to Scripture and the Lutheran confessions and contrary to the example of Christ who, though Lord of all, came not to be served, but to serve.

When a bishop will provide but one or two candidates whose doctrine contradicts the congregation’s historical, scriptural, and Lutheran teachings, the congregation retains the divine right to call an orthodox pastor. The Treatise says,

If the bishops … will not ordain suitable persons, the churches are in duty bound before God, according to divine law, to ordain for themselves pastors and ministers.

Id., ¶ 72.

Part of the trouble in my friends’ congregation was their lack of understanding of the office of bishop and its limitations, and their lack of understanding the congregation’s right and duty to call an orthodox pastor. All congregations of any Lutheran synod should learn from this disastrous example, and from Scripture and the confessions. No bishop has any divine right to impose heresy or artificially exacerbate a pastoral vacancy.


Photo credit. Image above is of a figurine of Jesus washing Peter’s feet by Joseph’s Studio. It is a favorite of mine because of how it captures the dynamic with Peter, and it illustrates the servant nature of leadership in the kingdom of God.

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