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Human sin, mission imperative—and church governance—a Lutheran primer

by Dr. Cynthia Jurisson (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, WordAlone board member)

April 17, 2003

Luther recovered, from Scripture and from Augustine among others, an understanding of sin and its ramifications that had been all but lost in Medieval Catholic piety.

The Medieval church had long thought about sin (and redemption) in quantitative terms. A certain amount of sinning required a corresponding amount of penance. In contrast, Luther recovered an older, Scriptural tradition of sin, which was not quantitative, as in, “How many sins did you commit?” but qualitative, as in “We are sinful people living in a sinful world.”

In Luther’s view, sin is not so much a verb as a noun, not so much an activity as a state of being separated from God. This is one reason why Luther rejected the practice of indulgences. They were a waste of time and money because they didn’t address the real problem: humans live in sin, unable to bridge the chasm between us and God, unable to make full reparation to God and to others for our sins.

Only Christ, the Son of God, can bridge the chasm.

Luther’s definition of sin, as a state of being separated from God, functioned as one of the great democratizing principles not only of the Reformation, but of the early modern world. If sin is the great leveler of persons, then all persons exist—in the eyes of God—at the same level, whether pope, king or peasant.

Luther’s view on sin and redemption was an enormous threat to the power and authority of the Catholic hierarchy, the pope and bishops. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) had long maintained that the pope was the Vicar of Christ by virtue of his office and ordination, thus standing in a unique relationship to God. He was considered, therefore, exempt from some of the theological errors that beset the rest of the human race. Though it was not until the mid-19th Century that Vatican I officially promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility when speaking “ex cathedra,” in fact the concept had a very long history in the RCC. Most Roman Catholic theologians will argue that Vatican I did not establish a new dogma but rather publicly affirmed a very old idea.

In the RCC, bishops too, claim to occupy a distinctive place before God. They say that a special ordination service makes them the exclusive spiritual heirs of the apostles, giving them alone “apostolic succession,” and ensuring that their church really is the True Church. The Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) makes a similar claim, called, “the historic episcopate,” which supposedly insures that it really is part of the True Church. Ironically, the RCC insists that the ECUSA doesn’t really have it, and the ECUSA insists that other churches, like the Lutherans and Methodists, etc., don’t really have it, even if they use the term “bishop.” Churches which allege this special spiritual pedigree, traceable, through previous bishops, back to the apostles) usually say their bishops are ontologically (indelibly changed in their being or character) different from all other non-episcopally ordained humans. They claim that “apostolic succession,” or the “historic episcopate” renders them spiritually privileged, or even less prone to error when interpreting Scripture, guiding the church and teaching about the faith.

Luther’s experience was that there was no truth to any claims of inerrancy either in his own day or in the Church’s history.

Too many popes’ and bishops’ errant theological judgments had been all too obvious, including of course the then pope’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the sale of indulgences. Luther’s own experience was that neither ordination, nor papal office, nor episcopacy, made the officeholder more faithful to the Word, more accurate in his interpretation of scripture, more capable of guiding the church or less prone to theological error.

Why? Because none of these rites and offices were divinely instituted. The Book of Concord, the founding document of Lutheranism, calls them ceremonies instituted by men.

Things like the myths of papal infallibility or the historic episcopate (and the divine right of kings, for that matter) are all variations on the same basic theme, which the Reformers rejected. Namely, that people who have been subject to certain church rites and ceremonies—certain words and hand gestures—are more able to lead and less affected in their theological judgments by the chasm of sin that separates all humans from God.

The Lutheran understanding of sin as inescapable and pervasive for the human race continues to have valuable, concrete implications for Lutheran views on ministry and church organization (polity) and even for civil government for that matter.

Checks and balances, representative governance, the distribution of power among various departments of government, democratic elections, limited terms of office, the right of recall and petition—all of these developments are based on the conviction that all humans err, often on the side of self-aggrandizement. Thus the need for strong structures of accountability to compensate for the capacity to sin.

All of us, whether ordained or lay, pope, pastor or president, would rather do our will than God’s will. This desire clouds even the best of human judgment, can lead to arrogance and often tempts us to accrue excessive power and influence for self-serving reasons.

Human ceremonies like episcopal ordination, no matter how elaborate, no matter how old, are, after all, just human ceremonies. They cannot safeguard the Word or the sacraments, they cannot guarantee the truth and they cannot enable church leaders to avoid theological error.

In fact, quite the opposite may be true. Exclusivistic myths of spiritual privilege or superiority, like the historic episcopate, by definition exclude theological dissent as a faithful, legitimate response of the laity. Even worse, myths like these—if given credence—can actually perpetuate theological error and misinformation by protecting erring or abusive church leaders from legitimate critique and correction.

Luther and Calvin’s experiences and excommunications are instructive here. Their critiques of the RCC fell on the deaf ears of the popes and bishops. Not one episcopally ordained leader acknowledged the legitimacy of their critiques. Not one tolerated their dissent.

We can only wonder why any thoughtful, 21st century Christian would want to adopt archaic systems of church governance and mythological concepts such as the historic episcopate? These antiquated ideas, grounded in pre-Enlightenment political thought forms like monarchy and the divine right of kings, exaggerate the leadership role of bishops at the expense of pastors and laity. Their exclusivistic character tends, by definition, to deny the legitimacy of both lay theological dissent as well as other, more democratic and representative forms of church governance. Finally, such myths locate the spiritual prerogatives of leaders in scripturally unsupportable claims of unique, supernatural power.

There are many challenges facing North American churches today, not least of which includes empowering laity in their ministries. Others include lifting up the voices of those groups that for too long have been marginalized by churches and their leaders, and helping believers rediscover the power and authority of scripture for their lives. And, for the sake of the laity, achieving an ecumenical unity that celebrates rather than destroys denominational diversity and particularity.

Given these challenges, the attraction of some American church leaders to archaic, authoritarian and elitist structures of church governance seems not so much a call to common mission as a detour into irrelevance.