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An evangelical episcopate —Do bishops really help us see what God is doing?

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone board member, Associate professor of philosophy and religion, South Dakota State University, Pastor of Pioneer Lutheran Church, White, S. D.)

October 23, 2002

photo of Dr. BielfeldtIn The Lutheran (September 2002, p. 53), ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson makes a number of claims about episcopal oversight, and challenges ELCA members to conceive and implement a truly evangelical episcopate. Unfortunately, Bishop Hanson’s claims are inaccurate and misleading.

Near the beginning of the article Bishop Hanson makes this startling assertion:

I believe the call to oversight (episkopé) is, in part, to help the church see more clearly what God is doing, whether nearby or far away . . . .The ministry of oversight assists us to see more clearly God's will for our lives and God's work in the world.

Bishop Hanson appears to be making two claims:

  1. The call to episkopé helps the church discern what God is doing.
  2. The ministry of episkopé helps us see God’s will for our lives.

Ignoring the difference between a call to, and a service of, oversight, the ELCA presiding bishop seems to be claiming that oversight (the office of bishop) can help the church discern God’s actions in the world and, more astoundingly, God’s will for our lives. In the Lutheran theological tradition, claims such as these have usually been made only about the activity of the Holy Spirit.

But there’s more. Bishop Hanson wants us to consider the evangelical (Gospel) dimension of the bishop’s call:

As pastors, bishops are called to proclaim Christ through word and sacrament. An evangelical episcopate helps us see more clearly where the text of Scripture intersects with the context of our lives.

This is an amazing declaration. Bishop Hanson seems to be saying that not only does the bishop help in ascertaining God’s will, but also he or she apparently has special hermeneutical -- that is interpretative -- powers; the bishop supposedly aids us in determining the application of Scripture to our lives. Notice that Bishop Hanson does not seem to be asserting that the one occupying the office has this ability only by virtue of being aided by the Holy Spirit—the traditional Lutheran understanding of interpretative aid—but rather, is suggesting that the bishop because he or she is bishop has this hermeneutical or interpretive gift.

In reality, however, a bishop has only the interpretative ability gifted to every other believer animated by the Holy Spirit. Hanson’s claim, then, is empty. An evangelical plumber is a bishop’s equal in helping one see how Scripture intersects with one’s life.

Mark Hanson has even more to say. He elaborates.

It [an evangelical episcopate] calls us more closely to see through the compassionate eyes of Christ those living in poverty, those in prison, the forgotten elderly, new immigrants and the mentally ill. An evangelical episcopate helps us see more clearly the unity we share in Christ with global companions and ecumenical partners and the possibilities for shared mission those relationships give.

Hanson’s claim is that a bishop as bishop unlocks Scripture for us by helping us discern Scripture's call to remember the marginalized. (Apparently, the bishop can even see the plight of the marginalized through the eyes of Christ!!) Furthermore, the bishop helps us more clearly apprehend our unity with global companions and ecumenical partners. Simply put, Hanson proposes that my own chances of ascertaining Scripture’s concern for the marginalized and my understanding of proper ecumenical unity increases to the degree that I listen to a bishop.

But Hanson is not done. He finishes with this assertion: . . . bishops help us see our interrelatedness as the ELCA—one church in three expressions: congregations, synods and churchwide.

In his view, a bishop can help us understand the “proper” ELCA structure—congregations, synods, and churchwide as "expressions" of the church. But it is not just the presiding bishop who does this. In the ELCA there are 65 other bishops who, says Hanson, “ . . . help us see with greater precision the work of God close up and far away.” The bishops of each synod evidently have the gift of special discernment as well. Thus, they too can aid clergy and lay people in seeing the work of God in the world and the proper structure of the ELCA, according to Mark Hanson.

The WordAlone Network must join all confessionally based Lutherans in rejecting these assertions from the ELCA Presiding Bishop. In the Lutheran tradition the bishop, in so far as he or she is a bishop, has no special gifts by which he or she can:

  • know God’s will
  • discern God’s actionsin the world
  • perceive the proper meaning of scripture
  • grasp more clearly ecumenical agreement, or
  • understand better the proper structure of the ELCA.

Bishops, like pastors and lay people, are judged by God’s law and justified by divine grace. Bishops possess no authority to claim that their judgments of the divine somehow set the norm.

Although Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession is often appealed to by supporters of a Lutheran “evangelical episcopate,” it really grants bishops no more power than pastors. Bishops and pastors both must see to it that the Gospel is taught and preached in its purity and that the sacraments are properly administered. Bishops have no secular power. Furthermore, their power in the church is limited to questions of good order directly relevant to the task of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. The church, as those called out by the Gospel, must have requisite order to get the Gospel preached and the sacraments properly administered. The moment bishops and pastors operate outside this directive, they can be disobeyed; the moment they burden consciences with rules and procedures not entailed by this directive, they should be disobeyed.

We are at a crossroads in the history of American Lutheranism. It has been said that Luther’s reformation was both a rediscovery of Augustine’s doctrine of grace and a rejection of Augustine’s understanding of church. The Lutheran theological tradition has always “traveled light” with respect to the visible church. The attempt to ratchet up a notion of episcopal authority in our democratic context can only lead to a functional understanding of the bishop as the CEO of an ecclesiastical corporation. This understanding of the bishop is decidedly not what Melanchthon was prepared to accept in 1530.

The notion of a truly evangelical episcopate is extremely difficult to articulate. After all, the Gospel concerns the gift of God’s right hand (faith and grace) while the episcopate is an affair of God’s left hand (reason and law). While episcopacy may be useful at times to get the Gospel effectively preached and the sacraments rightly administered, it does no more than that. Clearly, it grants its office-holder no special gifts. It does not bestow grace or give any special insight into the nature of the divine.

Oversight is administrative. Probably Lutherans should continue to employ the administrative names used by previous generations, “President,” “Superintendent” and so on. While one can be called to administration, such a call is not a matter of salvation.