Friday, November 6, 2009

Can You Speak of the Church without the Threefold Order?


Having just taught a Bible class last night on the structure and teaching of the Catholic Church, I took a moment this morning to go over to the blog of Daniel Woodring, former LCMS pastor now turned Roman Catholic. His latest post concerns information about the clerical structure of the church as indicated by church father Ignatius of Antioch. The good father, in referencing the typical order of bishop-presbyter/priest-deacon claimed that "Without these three orders you cannot begin to speak of a church." Mr. Woodring (I assume he is no longer in the "orders" of which he writes) notes that if Ignatius was wrong, it is quite surprising, given his relationship to the apostolic church and his status, that no one corrected him. He then says: "You may reject the threefold office, but you cannot avoid the question, 'Why didn't the early Church reject it?'"

I am well aware that for the Catholic church the outward structure defines and identifies what is considered legitimately "church" (as opposed to the biblical Lutheran view that the church is identified by the "marks" of Word and Sacrament.) In fact, the RC church goes a step further in claiming that without the pope there is no legitimate church. I suspect that Ignatius, writing in the second century, didn't anticipate that, although the RC church no doubt simply puts the pope in the "first order" of bishop. To be truthful, however, the pope is an order unto himself. He may sometimes be referred to as a 'first among equals,' but in practice I fail to see the equality.

Still, what are we, as Lutherans, to do with Ignatius' claim and Woodring's challenge? Does the Lutheran church truly "reject" this order? No, we do not. Luther was more than willing to live with the entire ordered structure of the late Medieval church if only the bishops would be the pastors they were supposed to be, instead of political leaders into which they had evolved.

The historical reasons for our current structure in the LCMS are a bit complex and beyond this brief post. However, in many ways we have retained the structure, even if we do not always use the exact titles. Is it right to read the current RC structure as it exists today back into Ignatius? I would think not. The Lutheran church recognizes Ignatius' concerns in that it has always claimed that you cannot talk of the church without the public office of the ministry (contrary to some claims within the Lutheran church notwithstanding.) It has always acknowledged the order of laity and called servants of the Word. And as Woodring rightly admits, the terminology in the New Testament is 'fluid.' A careful read of St. Paul will reveal that there is anything but a rigid and set definition of the terms then employed in the sense that the RC church now insists. Lutherans, for example, recognize that "bishops" are synonymous with "presbyters." In Christian freedom (and that is the operative word - freedom!) we are permitted, as need arises, to order the church with increasingly complex structures, or to remain as simple as a little rural church requires. I cannot see in Paul any insistence on the exact structure now seen in the RC church (And we haven't even dealt with matters such as archbishops and cardinals.) Furthermore, in fairness to Ignatius I suspect he did not visualize the complex ecclesiastical bureaucracy that has now emerged claiming apostolic legitimacy.

For the record, I, as a Lutheran, do not "reject" this structure. I also believe that I can remain true to Ignatius' concerns in the current order we now observe, where the true office of bishop - a churchly office of Word and Sacrament ministry - is mandated within each parish, along with the other supportive structures as well which carry on the time-honored duties we associate with the deaconate office.

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