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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

LCMS Polity and the Lobbyist


I have never been a synod delegate before. I should have known that I would be targeted by mail and email by ecclesiastical lobbying.

Aside from the now almost-routine distasteful campaign-posturing and character-assassination (yawn), I received an email encouraging my support for synodical resolutions involving Waltherian polity.

Of course, polity is an adiaphoron.

We assert this as a via media between the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox traditions on one side of the road, who believe that having the “right” polity is one of the marks of the church, and only episcopal polity is legitimate. On the other side of the road is the odd, cultic position among some in our synod that embraces the recent novelty of the American experiment: congregational polity and democracy - and moreover asserts that this is the only scriptural form of polity. Some of the advocates of this vox populi polity go so far as to treat the voter’s assembly as a mark of the church and the sacramental place where the Holy Spirit dwells. No holy voters’ assembly, no church. Know voters’ assembly, know church.

These two exclusive positions both deny the idea that polity is an adiaphoron. Both dogmatize that which the Lord God Himself declines to do.

But being that it is adiaphoristic, not mandated by Scripture, we are free to adopt either episcopal or democratic polity, or some mixture of the two, or even an entirely different political structure. And since, in our democratic polity, we are free to vote for a new form of polity, I suppose it would make sense that lobbyists would be writing delegates to win them over.

So far, the offers to fly on private jets and sip champagne are wanting.

The good news is that this will all be over after the convention, and whatever side loses will be free to go go home and remind everyone that synod is only advisory, and the side that wins can wield the mighty legalistic sledge-hammer of the “covenants of love.” At the end of the day, it’s all shirts and skins.

But back to my lobbyist: the pastor emeritus who wrote to me seeking to sway my vote used an interesting analogy. He championed the Waltherian form of democratic polity by means of the “Chestertonian fence.” It’s a most curious way to argue for Waltherian polity, since the founders of the LCMS actually tore down the existing ancient Chestertonian fence: the episcopal polity that has been in the church universal since its earliest days. While Walther represented a somewhat moderate path between the polarities of Stephanite episcopacy and Vehsian mob rule – Walther’s polity is still, for the most part, American republican-democracy applied to the church: a cross with an eagle on top.

And we Americans love democracy, to the point where, while the founders were resolute in their consideration of democracy an abomination, and opted the USA out of democracy in favor of a republic – all of our secular leaders today routinely refer to “our democracy.” And with the adoption of the direct income tax (16th Amendment) and the direct election of senators (17th Amendment) during the Progressive Era – not to mention the current popular uprising against the electrical college – it is little wonder that most Americans consider Big Democracy to be a good thing – if not a sacred thing.

Alcuin of York, the tutor of Emperor Charlemagne, is credited with the expression “vox populi, vox Dei” – a saying one finds inscribed on the walls of courthouses across the fruited plain. The only problem is that Alcuin’s original statement was negative in context – “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit” (“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness”).

Luther recognized as much when he pointed out that popes – and councils – could err, and indeed, they often contradict one another. For truth is truth, no matter what a legislative or parliamentary body votes to do. And yes, even congregational voters’ assemblies can and do err. And sometimes synod conventions contradict one another. You know how we consider life insurance to be sinful? Well… not any more – because a more recent parliamentary body contradicted an earlier parliamentary body. The 1989 amendment of Augsburg 14 (authorization of so-called “licensed lay deacons” to “consecrate” the elements on the altar), and its subsequent repeal by the 2016 convention - is another case in point.

Our impulse toward democracy is, I believe, rooted in routine life experience.

For example, if three college students are sharing an apartment, and they need to make a group decision about what kind of pizza to order, an appeal to democracy is a fine way to go. For if two people are happy with cheese, and one is not, that is preferable to one person being happy with pepperoni, and two unhappy. In economics, this is called “maximizing utility.”

Of course, this works with a small decision that is relatively unimportant. If two members voted to kill and eat the third member (or perhaps just enslave him - majority rules!) – the appeal to democracy would be slightly more dubious. Democracy also becomes more unwieldy with large numbers. Having seven billion people on the planet vote for where to put the capital of the planet would not work as well, nor yield the best decision as would be the case if the local stamp collecting club were to have a thorough discussion among their eight members, and then vote on what color to make the club stationary.

There is also an non-intuitive critique of democracy proposed by anarchist theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who argues that between the alternatives of democracy and monarchy, monarchy is preferable, and provides greater incentive not to waste resources – a position akin to our Lord’s assertion that the owner, and not the hireling, cares for the sheep. Hoppe’s thesis can be found in his book Democracy: the God that Failed – as well as in his other writings and lectures on YouTube.

A tack not taken by Dr. Hoppe (who is an agnostic) is to look at God’s creation to see how we are designed, what is natural. Is God’s creation democratic or is it hierarchical? The natural order is certainly hierarchical – both in the food chain of the fallen world as well as the pre-fall created order that placed humanity in charge of the perfect world. The family is hierarchical, with children submitting to parents, and wife submitting to husband. The supernatural world has a hierarchy of archangels and descending orders of angels – who, of course, submit to God. So what about the church? Well, biblically, there are no examples of the voters’ assembly. But there is an episcopal office, literally “over-seer” (the Latin form is “super-visor”). The word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd” – which is authoritative and hierarchical. For the shepherd guides the sheep, the sheep do not lead the shepherd, or ratify his shepherding by majority vote. The biblical word “presbyter” (elder) is also hierarchical (the Latin form is “senator”).

But of course, lacking any biblical superstructure (apart from the mandated Office of the Holy Ministry), polity is adiaphoristic and essentially anarchic. And yet, we would do well to look at the Bible and nature for guidance instead of relying too heavily on our American biases.

But back to Chesterton’s fence: the argument of my lobbyist-interlocutor is to keep the existing structure because of its antiquity. But this is to deny history itself. The Waltherian experiment in American ecclesiastical democracy dates back merely to the mid 19th century. That means there have been 18 centuries of prior Christian history and life experience to draw upon! What we have is not Chesterton’s fence of mysterious and ancient origin; rather we have a prefab fiberglass structure from Home Depot – one that is worn and in need of repair or replacement.

Being an adiaphoron, we are free to tear it down, replace it with a brick wall, clear the land, or put it back just the way that it was. But let’s not delude ourselves that our polity is in any way traditional, ancient, or Chestertonian. It is rather a recent novelty that has yielded mixed results.

What does our Book of Concord say?

Interestingly, our confessions are silent about democracy, conventions, voters’ assemblies, Robert’s Rules, or congregational supremacy. Given that there is a vocal proponent within our synod (though some have left our synod but still continue lurking about like a spurned prom date) that sees the voters’ assembly as a virtual sacrament, it is curious that our confessions not only do not advocate anything resembling Waltherian polity, but actually express a clear preference for the extant hierarchical catholic polity: the real Chestertonian fence – all the while wisely not dogmatizing a political structure that is not mandated by the Word of God.

“We have frequently testified in this assembly that it is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity (Latin: “conservare politiam ecclesiasticum”) and the grades (Latin: “gradus”) in the church [old church-regulations and the government of bishops] (German: “alte Kirchenordnungen und der Bischöfe Regiment”), even though they have been made by human authority [provided the bishops allow our doctrine and receive our priests]” (Ap 14:24).

And so polity is an adiaphoron (as our confessions say: “by human authority, humana auctoritate”). And given that we have adopted an American constitutional form of polity, having lobbists contacting delegates is to be expected. Sigh.

Although, I really would enjoy a ride on a private jet.

Just saying.