Answering Lutheran Objections to Church Structure and Authority

Yesterday, I described a class lecture given by a Lutheran pastor, Mark Anderson, on the canon of Scripture and the authority of the early Church.  Pastor Anderson showed how rejecting the authority of the early episcopacy would leave you without a Bible and without any reliable way of distinguishing orthodoxy and heresy, admitted that Protestantism still hasn’t found a way of solving “the question of authority, which is really the question,” yet declared himself an opponent of episcopal governance.  He responded with a link to an article by the Lutheran Joseph Burgess, to which I now respond to.

Pastor Anderson,

Behind all of the excess verbage and unnecessary use of Latin (seriously, was it necessary to say cum grano salis, instead of “with a grain of salt”?), it appears that Burgess makes (a) a number of baseless theological and ecclesiological assertions, which he never bothers to justify, and (b) a few actual arguments. If I may, let me respond to each, in turn.

Baseless Assertions

In the former category, Burgess simply dismisses, out of hand, the idea that Catholics and other non-Lutherans even know God, because we disagree with the Lutheran view on Law/Gospel. But who put Burgess (or the ELCA, or Luther) in charge of defining the content of “the Word,” “the Law,” “the Gospel,” or “the canon of Scripture”? As a wise man once said, “Where do we go finally for resolution of doctrinal problems? Where do we go finally for resolution of theological questions? Who determines what the meaning of Jesus Christ is?” Burgess just gives himself (and those he agrees with, theologically) this authority and moves on. That’s no answer.

Likewise, Burgess quotes himself for the conclusion that “there is no special gift (charism) of infallibility in the [M]agisterium.” On what basis do we know that Burgess is right and the Catholic Church is wrong on this issue? Burgess’ answer seems to be, “Because the Catholic Church is wrong.” Again, not an answer.

Bizarrely, Burgess provides no evidence that for any of his central claims. He simply asserts them and moves on, even praising the German Lutherans for refusing to “make decisions about dogma” when a Lutheran minister (Baumann) declared the pope the head of the Church or when another (Schulz) declared that there was no God.

There are a number of of other examples where Burgess makes sweeping claims as well, without supporting them (“The gospel is, of course, sola fide and sola cruce,” “Christian freedom, of course, includes the adiaphoristic principle,” and so on), but I think the above are the most important.  But more fundamentally, given that (a) Burgess never points to any authority outside of himself for his claims; and (b) neither Burgess, nor the ELCA, nor Luther himself  claim(ed) to have the charism of infallibility, and can’t define dogma, why trust them over the Church which brought us the Councils of Jerusalem, Nicea, etc., and does claim to be uniquely led by the Holy Spirit? She has a better doctrinal track record and, at the very least, a colorable claim of infallibility.

Actual Arguments

I count four actual arguments in Burgess’ article (if I’ve missed any, let me know):

  1. Sometimes, we don’t want to obey the Church.
  2. The historic episcopate has been a fallible mark of church unity.
  3. The Church actually enforces orthodoxy.
  4. The historic episcopate is not “an irreversible development in God’s plan.

Burgess’ first point is that a “recent study (1982) by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the former LCA, done with the help of the Alban Institute, on the functions of the bishop points up the dilemma: both pastors and congregations want their bishop to speak with authority when he agrees with them, but not when he disagrees. There’s the rub.” Very true. The sheep want shepherds with actual authority to direct the sheep, but only if they’re not the errant sheep themselves: then they talk about the importance of Christian liberty. But  how is this an argument against the episcopacy?  It sounds like an argument for it, to prevent us from becoming puffed up on our theological conclusions, and mistaking our reading of the Bible for the Gospel.  We need an episcopacy not to police our brother’s sins, but to better see the plank in our own eyes.  Yes, it’s tough medicine; yes, it’s humbling. But emphatically, these are not arguments against the episcopacy. If every sheep is left to follow their own opinions, we’d have no unity (a fact which Lutheranism and all other forms of Protestantism illuminates all too clearly).

The second argument, is that there have been times when the episcopacy (which Burgess never defines, but by which he apparently means, “a majority of the Church’s bishops, at any given time”) sometimes are wrong. To support this, he cites to the Catholic bishops during the Reformation not abandoning Catholicism, and to the Arian bishops of the fourth century. Interestingly, if Burgess’ definition of “episcopacy” is simply “popular opinion among bishops,” we agree.

The problem here is that Burgess ignores or fails to understand the difference between “the Magisterium” and “the episcopacy.”  At times, individual bishops embrace doctrinal views which are wrong.  Sometimes, there are a lot of bishops backing the wrong horse.  For a while in the fourth century, for example, perhaps even a majority of bishops were Arian.  How did the Church solve this?  By calling the First Council of Nicea, which then condemned Arianism.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit, unpopular Truth triumphed over popular heresy.   So disputes, including ones in which bishops take opposing sides, are solved by the Magisterium, since the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit in a way that individual bishops are not.  This is how things played out in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), how they played out at the Council of Nicea, and how they played out at the Council of Trent.
Burgess’ third argument is that, according to the late Fr. Richard McCormick, within the Catholic Church, “Episcopal unity is revealed as enforced, not genuine.” Again, true enough.  After Nicea, the Church didn’t simply say, “believe in Arianism if you want to.”  Instead, Trinitarian orthodoxy was “enforced,” Arianism died out as a movement, and the post-Nicene Church enjoyed a fuller unity as a result.  The basis for episcopal unity isn’t that every bishop happens to agree with every other bishop, but that good bishops have the humility to submit to the Magisterium. Fr. McCormick, too proud to accept Catholic teachings on fundamentals like abortion and birth control, say this as oppressive.  But this is just another instance of wanting Church authority until you’re on the wrong side of orthodoxy.

The Most Important Argument

Finally, Burgess raises his most important argument: “On the question of the historic episcopate our Confessional literature is very specific: ecclesiastical ranks ‘were created by human authority.’”  This question is most important of all: if the office of bishop (as something distinct from the presbytery) was established by the Apostles, we ought to obey it, rather than rejecting Apostolic Christianity.

Of course, the three ecclesiastical ranks in question, bishop (“Overseer, 1 Timothy 3:1), priest/presbyter (“Elder,” 1 Timothy 5:17), and deacon (“Server,” 1 Timothy 3:8), are each mentioned in Scripture and are of Apostolic origin.  But the stock anti-episcopal response is to claim that bishop and presbyter are the same office, based on some grammatical ambiguity in Acts 20:27-28, and a few other passages.  Now, there are plenty of good responses to this within Scripture itself.  For example, in the Old Testament, the Overseer was the sole man in charge (see Proverbs 6:7, comparing him to a commander or ruler), while the Elders were a ruling body (Exodus 3:16).  And using the ambiguity with which the New Testament writers sometimes speak of the three offices, you could just as easily prove that the Apostle Peter was really only a presbyter (1 Peter 5:1), or that the Apostle Paul was really only a deacon (Col. 1:25).  It’s a much stronger hypothesis that the New Testament writers are saying that each Christian leader is called to oversee and to serve, even if their office isn’t Overseer (Bishop) or Server (Deacon).

But since we have differing interpretations of what the Scriptures mean here (based on what I think it’s fair to say is a genuine ambiguity), let’s get back to what you rightly identify as the first question, the question of authority.  Should we simply part company, each with our own theological interpretations, or listen to the historic Church?  In your talk, you said the latter, and I agree.  So let’s put two questions before the historic Church: 
  1. Did they think the Church had two or three tiers?  
  2. Did they think the Church structure was instituted by the Apostles, or a latter innovation?
The answer to both questions is surprisingly uniform.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing shortly before his own death (c. 107 A.D.), wrote to the Magnesians, in Greece, “I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotio,” so we know that they had this structure from the earliest known records.  Likewise, Ignatius tells the Ephesians, in modern-day Turkey, to obey “the bishop and the presbytery,” referring to the bishop, Onesimus, by name. And he refers to himself, in his letter to the Romans, as “the bishop of Syria,noting that they’ll have no bishop but God after he’s dead (h/t Called to Communion).
But not only do we unambiguously see this identical tri-fold structure (a single bishop, a body of presbyters, and deacons) throughout all of Christendom within a decade of the death of the last Apostle, we’re also told  that it was the Apostles themselves who set up the episcopacy.  In 180 A.D., St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in modern-day France, wrote that every church on Earth could trace their lineage back to the bishops appointed by the Apostles:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times…

Irenaeus then recites the chronology of bishops in the See with “preeminent authority,” Rome.  Without giving the full list, it begins, “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy.

Both Ignatius and Irenaeus, and many others besides, are making incredibly bold claims about a Church hierarchy instituted by the Apostles, and headed by one bishop per city (each called to be loyal to Rome, as Irenaeus tells us).  If this isn’t the universal belief of the early Church, where do we see opponents rejecting the episcopacy as an accretion, as you do?  Or where do they at least deny that the episcopacy is created by the Apostles?


Pastor Anderson, this is what I meant in my last post, when I suggested you identified the right problems, and even offered the right solutions, but didn’t follow your own advice.  If you’re serious about submitting your own opinions to the historic Church, you should do so in this matter, and on the canon of Scripture, and on justification, and the Eucharist, and so forth.  Otherwise, you seem to simply tie up the burden of following Tradition and the Church for others’ shoulders, while not carrying that burden yourself (Mt. 23:3-4).

In Christ,



  1. Yes, we are back to where we started.

    You guys place more importance on who is saying the words, or who interprets the words than the words themselves (I believe).

    And we place more importance on the words themselves, because it is in those words (the gospel) “your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake” (in whatever form that forgiveness takes). We believe as St. Paul tells us “That the gospel IS the power of God …”, and that it creates faith, when and where it will, regardless if the Pope says them, or if Larry the plumber down the street says them.

    And on that note, Mrs. Kallabash, let’s call it a day.

    We are at the point of saturation.

    Anyway, I appreciate the chance to speak my piece. Many blog sites would not let that happen, so your graciousness is wonderful and refreshing. That goes for Joe, and all the rest of you.

  2. Steve,

    I agree– we’ve said what can be said here for now, and I don’t want frustration to seep into the dialogue. That said, you’re welcome to jump in on any topic that interests you, and I hope to hear from you again. On behalf of all of your Catholic brethren, God bless!


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