Sunday, October 28, 2007

The "emergency" office in the LCMS

I'm intrigued by how often the Missouri Synod tends to operate (in ecclesiology) as though it were in an "emergency" mode.

Emergency situations are by definition unusual, unexpected situations, temporary and short-lived in nature. Any discussion of ecclesiology in LCMS circles will inevitably bring up St. Augustine's story of the 2 Christians in a boat, one of whom baptized the other, at which point the baptized one absolved the other, and this is told to illustrate that in an emergency situation, the church may call, ordain, etc. without benefit of bishops and other useful ecclesiological strictures.

All of which is true, and all of which is irrelevant in our lives today. We are not in an emergency. No one -- no one -- in the LCMS lives under emergency situations now, at least not in a churchly sense. So why does the LCMS talk about such emergency situations so frequently?

I wonder if the emergency mode that the LCMS has cultivated for most of her 150 some years is owing to the beginning of the synod, when Lutheran emigrees were here, wondering if -- bereft of church structures in Germany -- they were the church or if they indeed had the church among them.

And one of the great contributions of the LCMS is the realization that the church was indeed among them, that they indeed had God's word, had baptism, had the Supper, and had the word of forgiveness in their midst. But can we acknowledge that contribution and get past it?

The catholic church has historically operated with bishops, defined as ministers of the gospel who often ministered to a number of congregations, shepherding and superintending the gospel ministries in those congregations. Bring up the idea of bishops in the LCMS, and most often we will be tiresomely reminded that the church doesn't "have to have" bishops.

Of course not. But it's irrelevant. The question is whether such bishops would help ensure the free course of the gospel in our midst. And if they would. why are we -- as a church body -- so terrified of such?

Is there abuse of power among some who are named bishops? Of course. Can the church live without bishops? Of course. The church can also live without hymnals, church buildings, and a lot of other things, but when such "unnecessary" things help give out the word of God in our midst, we use them.

Some in the LCMS like to pretend that various synodical officials -- specifically, synodical and district presidents -- are bishops. They are not. They are not by the very definition of the synod (except in the English district), and they are not in reality. We have chosen to call these men "presidents" and in the American context, calling someone "president" makes them into political officials. This is inevitable. Calling someone a president and expecting them to act pastorally is simply not going to happen.

(Likewise the Missouri conceit that all parish pastors are bishops is another situation that's true, but irrelevant. Calling them bishop is confusing, and goes against the consensus of the church. It would not -- in one sense -- be wrong to call each pastor "pope" but I don't see any arguments in LCMS blogs for that nomenclature).

A couple of isolated Christians in the gulag in Siberia are in an emergency situation. Isolated Christians shipwrecked onto an island without means of communication are likewise in an emergency. But American Lutherans in 2007 are not in an emergency. Recognizing that, and recognizing what in our history has made us cling to an emergency status would be helpful. And working to restore a pastoral hierarchy -- and calling such men "bishop" -- would be even more helpful.

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