Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Church Polity is a Confessional Issue
The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod appears to be on the brink of a radical realignment of its structure and constitution. Business models and the centralization of power seem to be in the offing, but what of doctrinal considerations? Hermann Sasse provides a perspective worth considering in this excerpt from Here We Stand, p. 142-144.
The Holy Scriptures know nothing of a Christ who gave “general rules” for the organization of the church. Calvin, like the theologians of other churches, read this picture of Christ into [emphasis original] the New Testament. And just as we do not know this Christ who legislates, who instituted a senatorial, or presbyterian, form of church government for His church in order that His “sole sovereignty” in the church might not be infringed upon, so we do not know the church which can be recognized as a church of Christ by its obedience to His law.
We, too, know that the church must obey His commandments —- His real commandments, not those which are mistakenly attributed to Him. But this obedience is no part of the nature of the church. For it if were, the church would not owe its existence solely to Him, the Lord who is truly present and active in His Word and Sacrament, but to us as well in consequence of what we are and do.
We have no objection either to church discipline (provided it serves no other purpose -— no purpose, for example, like glorifying God -— besides that of saving sinners) or to a proper church polity. If the Reformed teaching concerning ecclesiastical government were only intended to remind Christendom that the church should he an ordered church properly to fulfil its task of preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments, this doctrine would be a valuable and arguable contribution to the problem of church government. But it happens not to be intended for that.
It claims to indicate —- and this claim has not been given up by the Reformed even today, despite all the liberalizing and softening of Calvin’s rigid principles -- what fundamental commands for the organization of the church the New Testament contains. And as long as it claims to do this, the doctrine is beyond discussion.
“A discussion concerning the correctness or applicability of this form of church polity is out of the question for us who are Reformed” — these words came, in 1929, from the French Reformed Consistory in Berlin — just as a discussion concerning the dogma of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Sacraments is impossible for every other evangelical Christian. For us the question of church polity is a confessional question.”
Here, as in the curious “articles of faith” in the Calvinistic Confessions which treat of the equality of pastors and the election of presbyters, the conclusion is expressly drawn, as it must necessarily be drawn whenever the boundary between Law and Gospel is obliterated, that faith has been turned into obedience, and the Gospel into a new law.
This has an important effect on the work of the church in the world. According to the common testimony of all church bodies, it is one of its tasks to preach the Law — which includes what our Confessions call the “political use” of the Law. According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, since Jesus Christ is not, in His essential nature, a Lawgiver, the Gospel cannot “bring new laws concerning the civil state,” but it “permits us outwardly to use legitimate political ordinances of every nation in which we live.”
According to the Reformed view, on the contrary, the Gospel must be the source of all the laws in society and state. That Jesus Christ, the Lord to whom “all authority hath been given . . . in heaven and on earth,” should be manifest before the Last Day when He reveals His glory which is now hidden, the church should see to it that the world obeys His laws, which are contained in the Gospel, even now.
In various ways Reformed theologians and churches — Zwingli more than the prudent Calvin, the Puritans in England and America more than the German Reformed — have proclaimed a Theocracy (or “Christocracy,” to use the expression of the Reformed theologian, August Lang) and thus set before the church tasks with which the church, as Lutheranism sees it, has nothing to do whatsoever.