What's wrong with "Church as Koinonia of Salvation" (Round 10 of US Catholic Lutheran dialogue)

And just briefly while I’m on about the US Catholic-Lutheran dialogue…

The last round (Round 10) ended in the publication of a joint statement entitled: “The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: its structures and ministries”. Father Neuhaus made the following comments in The Public Square:

It says here that an important document from the official Lutheran-Catholic dialogue will be released in April. It is called “The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: Its Structures and Ministries.” Auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, Richard J. Sklba, is quoted by Catholic News Service: “Five years of intensive and meticulous research have produced a striking consensus within our dialogue group. It has become very clear to me that the differences between our respective Lutheran and Catholic notions and practices of ministry are not church-dividing.” Among Lutheran “notions and practices” today are these: an absence of the ordained diaconate, the election of pastors to the title of bishop without ordination to the episcopate, the ordination of pastors, including women, by other pastors, and, in the absence of an episcopal magisterium, the determination of matters doctrinal, moral, and institutional by majority vote of a dominantly lay assembly. “We continue to pray for the gift of reconciliation for our churches,” said Bishop Sklba. And so must we all, while some of us might be forgiven for also harboring a measure of skepticism about the aforementioned differences not being church-dividing. On the other hand, who knows what may be possible when dogma, doctrine, and apostolic precedent are more flexibly understood as “notions and practices”? With strenuously disciplined enthusiasm we await the April document. A specific date is not given, but one assumes it will not be April 1. (In truth and very seriously, I expect the document will be a significant theological statement and that the bishop in his remarks was just momentarily carried away.)

I share all RJN’s concerns, but what really bothers me is a serious error in category so integral to the statement itself that it almost makes the entire “agreement” worthless, namely: the equation of Catholic category of “bishop” to Lutheran category of “President/Bishop” (both under the category of “episcopus”), and the correlated equation of the Catholic category “diocese” to the Lutheran category of “synod” (both under the category of “local church”). [Remember, this is the US dialogue. What I am about to say does not apply to the Scandinavian Churches which retained the office of bishop and the three-fold ordained ministry of bishop, priest and deacon at the time of the Reformation.]

The old adage “if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be a duck” fails in this case. Yes, Lutheran “bishops” (or “Presidents” as they are called here in Australia) do seem to do all the episcopal type things that a Catholic bishop does. In fact, in the Lutheran Church of Australia, while the actual title “bishop” has not been adopted, successive General Synods have gradually increased the episcopal role played by the President of the Church. Nevertheless, the President is most emphatically, in Lutheran theology, not a “bishop”, and no Lutheran would ever regard the area over which the president has jurisdiction as the “local church”.

In most Lutheran Churches (excluding the Scandinavians as I point out above), there is only one office of the ministry, that of the ordained pastor, and the “local church” is that place where the word and sacraments are locally proclaimed and administered, ie. the local congregation. For the sake of good order and unity, congregations in a geographic area who share the same confession of faith may form a “synod” and elect a synodical “superintendent” (the term originally used in Germany for the “president”) from among the pastors of those congregations to have jurisdiction over the synod. In his office, however, the Superintendent retains the status of “pastor”, along the lines of being “the first among equals”. In fact:

  • The office of president is temporary.
  • When a “president” retires, he is no longer a “president” but a simple pastor.
  • When a “president” visits a congregation, the pastor of the parish retains the sole right to exercise the office of the keys through preaching, absolving and celebrating the sacrament. The “president” comes as a guest who can only exercise these functions in the parish if invited to do so.

From this it can be seen that, whereas “The Church as Koinonia” makes the following equations “Bishop = President” and “Diocese = Synod”, the real equation should be “Bishop = Pastor” and “Diocese = Congregation”. In the end, the relationship in the Lutheran Church between the President and the Pastors has much in common with the relationship in the Catholic Church between the Pope and the bishops. Its just that in the Lutheran Church there are no “presbyters” as a distinct order below that of “episcopus”!

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