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The sources and exercise of authority and the limits of sustainable diversity.

This article seeks to address the following two questions: a) What are the sources of authority within your church, and how is authority exercised? b) In your church's understanding, what are the bases for maintaining union and what are the limits of sustainable diversity?

Introductory Remarks on Uniting Churches in Germany

The Union of Evangelical Churches (UEC) is a community of churches founded in 2003 within the Evangelical Church in Germany. The successor of the Evangelical Church of Union (EKU) and of the Communion of Churches of the Arnoldshainer Konferenz, the UEC follows the theological tradition of the former United churches in Germany, of certain Reformed churches and of certain Lutheran churches in Germany. Lutheran and Reformed confessions, the Declaration of Barmen and the Concord of Leuenberg are theological and ecclesial traditions.

It is a feature of the UEC to exist as a community of churches in a certain transitory status. That means the Union delegates step by step its tasks and offices to the Evangelical Church in Germany--juridical, organizational, ecumenical and liturgical. The frame and the aim of this transition are an integrative community of churches within the Evangelical Church in Germany, not only a cooperative community of Lutheran, Reformed and United churches. The Union's self-understanding is that we are "model and motor of an ongoing and further unity within the EKD".

An ordained minister of a Lutheran church and now a member of the Theological Committee of the UEC, I'm also a theological teacher in another uniting church: the Evangelical Church of Pommerania. The Church of Pommerania, in northeastern Germany, is one of the oldest united churches in the country. It is a diaspora church in a highly explicit atheistic context. About 20 percent of the people are members of our church; about 75 percent of those living in the region describe themselves as non-Christian. We live in a missionary situation. Although it is a minority, the Evangelical Church is one of the main agents in an emerging democratic and civil society in the former East Germany.

Since 2007, the Church has been in a uniting process and in a fusion with two Lutheran churches in the north of Germany. This process of fusion shall constitute a new Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Northern Germany by January 2012. This church will include 2.4 million Christians and 1100 local parishes. It will be historically a new church in different aspects:

* confessional, because it will be a Lutheran church with a united church as a member;

* political, because it will for the first time unite western and eastern churches in Germany;

* ecclesiastical, because it will not only have a general synod but also a leading bishop (currently, there is a collegium of regional bishops).

In our uniting process there is a remarkable and correlating tendency to both synodalism and episcopalism.

* Are these processes evidence of degradation or even a crisis of a united ecclesiology? Are there signs that the traditional self-understanding of the united churches in Germany won't survive strong historical and political changes?

* The uniting processes also show that the Lutheran churches are involved in a long-term process of reform, as on the level of the EKD. It is still uncertain if they will go for a cooperative alliance or integrative alliance.

The following theses are in this context both a sketch report of a current theological discussion and a personal statement.

A. What are the sources of authority within your church and how is authority exercised? Authority and Christian Freedom

1. Authority within the church can only be claimed to serve the proclamation and ministry of atonement (2 Cor. 5:14-21). Therefore, any authority that is exercised within the church springs from one and the same source, namely the freedom of the spirit in its different gifts (charismata, 1 Cor. 12-14) as embodiment of Christian freedom. Authority must above all be characterized to be of that spiritual kind of Christian freedom.

This is why Protestant churches in Germany consider themselves to be uniting as a "Church of Freedom" (Kirche der Freiheit), as a paper issued in 2006 by the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany (Rat der EKD) put it.

So whenever churches unite, their (1) spiritual authority (ministerium)--their (2) ecclesiastical authority in a narrower sense of the word (ordo, episkope) and even more the (3) (sociological) authority of governing and giving laws (vis, potestas)--must be put to the test to determine whether such authority contributes to the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:12-27).
   Authority can be measured by means of its accordance with the
   spiritual freedom both of the Church within society and of the
   ministry within the Church. The closer the Church sticks to her
   mission to proclaim the gospel of God's free grace in both word and
   sacrament (Barmen Declaration, 6), the more authentic freedom and
   exercise of authority will be. "What we as uniting churches must
   learn and spell out with the words of Barmen Declaration, is that
   the freedom of the church is rooted in its mission, that is to say
   that this freedom has its own unmistakable roots and fruits." (1)

1.1 Authority within the church is an authority of ministry and serves the gospel of reconciliation in both word and sacrament. This one ministry of reconciliation determines

a) the ministry of all believers,

b) the ordained ministry, and

c) the different forms of an evangelical episkope, e.g. functions of oversight and episcopacy.

Authority and Institutional Ministry (ministerium, Augsburg Confession 5)

1.2 In exercising her mission-rooted authority, the church answers in spiritual freedom to the singular authority and freedom of her Lord Jesus. "This authority was self-emptying with 'power to lay down his life'" (John 10:18, cf. NMC 105). The authority of the ecclesiastical ministry, though, is not meant to simply continue the authority and freedom of Jesus in some kind of historical succession. Neither can it be derived from Jesus' authority, nor can it be understood to reflect it. This means that there is no way whatsoever for direct analogies between the authority of Jesus and the exercise of authority within the church.

This also applies to the claim of the ordained ministry to represent Jesus over against the congregation or parish.

1.3 The freedom and authority of Jesus as the head of his body embraces both the church and the world, both first and new creation, both the church and the multitude of Israel (Rom. 11:25f). It is therefore of "eschatological nature" (1 Cor. 15:28, cf. NMC 105).

The authority of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18) sustains and builds up the church so that in witnessing reconciliation to the world, the church can be distinguished from that very world. This means that the authority that is exercised within the church is of an interimistic nature.

1.4 It is the nature of free answering to the authority of Jesus which turns the authority of the ministry of reconciliation into an authority that is instituted by God the Spirit. Therefore, the ministry of reconciliation cannot be understood to be derived from the priesthood of all believers, as some understand it. Rather, it is rooted in God's will to have the gospel proclaimed to all nations (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

1.5 The mission to proclaim the gospel is given to the entire church and thus also to every single baptized person within it. The individual authority to take part in this mission is rooted in baptism.

1.6 The "apostolic authority" of this ministry is exercised (1) as a plea and request to the enemies of God to be reconciled with God. This authority of request will succeed if unreconciled human beings commit themselves to a reconciliation which is already accomplished on God's side. This basic reception of God's reconciliation takes place in baptism. By virtue of baptism, all believers take part in the authority of ministry not by governing, but only by asking reconciliation on behalf of Christ. all believers remain recipients of the Spirit, never merely transmitting it.

1.7 Taking part in the authority of ministry means (2) to give thanks to God for sending Jesus into the world and (3) to be a witness to the power of the Spirit who proves the truth of Jesus to the world. Regularly and publicly celebrating the eucharistic communion means both to give thanks to and be a witness to God's reconciling love. Celebrating eucharist in this way is also the mission for which all baptized believers are responsible, and it is thus also a means of exercising authority.

1.8 The Protestant understanding of oversight and episcopacy is characterized by the above-explained relationship between the institutional ministry and the priesthood of all believers. According to this understanding, my thesis is that in the present processes of uniting and united churches, the presbyterian and synod-based structure of oversight is preferable to different and other types of oversight.

Synods consisting of both ordained and non-ordained members of the church have the authority to declare communion or even unity among churches. Within the church they also have the authority to give constitutional laws. This is not self-evident. It is in our current discussion a theological statement and needs arguments.

Let us illustrate the facts more clearly. Historically speaking, it must be stressed that in the Reformation era, the priesthood of all believers was not fundamental for the Protestant doctrine of ministry and its authority, neither in the confessions nor in Luther's or Calvin's or Zwingli's thought. Therefore, if synods exercise their authority to give constitutional laws within the church, they do so claiming the authority of oversight, but only as a result of the freedom of ministry that answers to the freedom and authority of Jesus. The sources synods can draw on when doing so stem especially from the witnesses contained in the holy scriptures (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:14). This is the norm which allows us a revision of our traditions and a strengthening of certain traditions (e.g. of Luther, the Augsburg Confession, 19th-century reformed and united traditions). We do this in facing major tendencies in German Lutheran churches and theologies to episcopalism in a stricter sense.

Protestant Episcope--Currently

Since communal, personal and collegial ways of exercising ecclesiastical ministry and its authority work together, the authority of ministry in the church is exercised in a specifically structured manner (the term in German would be gegliedertes Amt).

Ordained Ministry

2.1 This authority is exercised personally, when the exercise of the ministry fulfills certain functions of the church. Personal exercise of authority is, for example, committed to ordination, which refers to a lifelong exercise of the ministry in word and sacrament within the unlimited public of worship.

Ordained ministry is one, but not the only, form of the above-mentioned structured ministry, which contains further aspects, such as spiritual oversight, leadership and administration of the church. Theologically, in the situation of worship, though, it is not ordained ministry, but God the Spirit in the Word (and the sacrament) that the congregation of listeners is faced with. Ordained ministry bears witness to this theological aspect of worship.

Ordained ministry is in communion with the "succession of the elders" (successio presbyteralis). Although the authority of ordination is reserved to the bishop for the sake of ecclesiastical order and unity, the ministry of oversight exercised by the parish priests ("elders") generally includes the authority to pass on the ministry and thus to ordain ministers, according to Lutheran thinking. Consequently, a bishop is to be regarded as a parish priest who fulfills certain additional tasks on an above-parish level within the church.

Therefore, the authority of ministry can also be exercised personally,

* on the basis of an ordination which refers to a local ministry of limited public; and

* on the basis of a special investiture referring to a personal episcopacy of a certain region of the church within the neighbourhood of other regional bishops.

At the moment, Lutheran and United churches in Germany are in dissent concerning the different forms of personal oversight and episcopacy, the authority of such forms and the relationship among them.

2.2 The ecclesiastical ministry to which all baptized members of the church are called due to the priesthood of all believers also includes the ministries of oversight, leadership and administration of the church. In certain aspects, this exercise of the priesthood of all believers has some influence on the ordained ministry insofar as non-ordained members of the church take part in the responsibility of voting and ordaining parish priests. The greater portion of this non-ordained exercise, though, deals with the ministry of spiritual oversight and of leadership.

There is no need to discuss the relationship between synods and bishops as subjects of such exercise of ministry in general. I only wish to give two comments on how this relationship may change within the process of uniting churches.

"Sociological" Forms of Authority in Current Uniting Processes

2.3 No sociological forms of authority--as described by the sociology of Max Weber: bureaucratic, traditionalist, personal-charismatic authority (Herrschaft)--can be derived from the authority of the ministry of spiritual oversight and leadership.

2.4 Of course, these three sociological forms of authority are also exercised within our churches. But they have to be measured by the authority of the freedom of ministry.

2.5 Issues of sociological authority often play an important role in the present processes of united and uniting churches. They are patiently negotiated but still cause serious conflicts of interest between the churches involved in the process. The task of ecclesiology in such a situation is as follows:

a) to detect any pseudo-theological disguise of sociological authority and interests (discerning); and

b) to prevent sociological authority from being detached from the authority of ministry (qualifying).

2.6 It is obvious that the personal form of exercising charismatic authority, i.e. the ministry of the bishop, has gained enormous influence over the last decades and years. At the same time, the importance of synods as subjects of exercising authority has been significantly raised, too. Both tendencies can point to non-theological factors. The rise in personal episcopacy can reveal the desire to have a "person in chair" of the leadership of the church, to have an identifying figure in a uniting process for church members and for media publicity, whereas the rise of synods can reveal democratic interests in the order of the church.

2.7 The authority of the bishop's ministry as a means of spiritual oversight and leadership within the church still needs further research. This applies to the question of whether the right to ordain ministers is to be exercised by episcopal or by presbyterial forms of leadership. It also applies to the issue of ecclesiastical visitations. Finally, it applies to the episcopal ministry in its relationship to different forms of oversight and to its function as a sign of the unity of the church.

We can firmly say that the proclamation of the gospel, which is the mission of the entire church, serves as both basis and goal of the unity of the church. The one ministry of the church necessarily includes the ministry of oversight. This ministry, though, cannot guarantee the unity of the church but rather serves this unity by helping the church stick to her mission.

2.8 Like episcopal oversight, the authority of synods as subjects of exercising oversight needs further research. This applies especially to the present processes of united and uniting churches. The constitutional laws given by such synods are not to be understood in terms of sovereignty in a democratic state.

Rather, such constitutional laws must also be an answer and a service to the mission of the church and its fulfilment by exercise of the structured ministry, especially ordained ministry and the ministry of spiritual oversight.

Theological Argument as Exerted Authority

2.9 The academic theological work that is done at the faculties of theology helps keep up denominational identities during the processes of uniting churches and must therefore be understood to be its own special form of theological oversight. In the UEC, academic theology and theological discernment is an important form of exercising authority ("academic" here means institutionally independent faculties at state universities).

B. In your church's understanding, what are the bases for maintaining union and what are the limits of sustainable diversity?

3. In the present process of united and uniting churches in German Protestantism, the different forms of leadership within the church and even the serious dissent concerning ordained ministry do not exceed the limits of sustainable diversity. Rather, these differences can be helpful topics of theological discourse between the churches.

3.1 It is possible, though not likely, that certain Lutheran advances towards a threefold structured and hierarchical ministry, including the historical succession in episcopacy, may someday exceed the limits of sustainable diversity. At any rate, such signs as the threefold ministry are not necessary for the visible unity of the church.

3.2 The limits of sustainable diversity would be exceeded if one of the churches involved in the present process were to declare these signs necessary. Any such claim would contest the spiritual rights of the reformation, especially the right to take part in the theological development of the ministry of oversight.

4. In their efforts to deepen the communion with the Roman Catholic Church, with the Lutheran churches of northern Europe, and with the Anglican churches (cf. the process of Porvoo), Protestant churches in Germany ought not to take the issue of the threefold structured hierarchical ministry as their starting point. Certainly this very issue (defectus ordinis) is of the utmost importance for the other churches involved in the process. Yet, the Protestant churches should feel free not to share this point of view.

5. On the other hand, the Protestant churches ought to take seriously the issue raised, such as by the Roman Catholic Church concerning "fuller" (denser) and "weaker" (thinner) forms of representation of the communion with the body of Christ in the celebration of the Lord's supper. This issue is to be distinguished from the difference between true and false church.

5.1 We must be aware of our ways of representing the fullness of the presence of Jesus in our eucharistic liturgies. The crucial issue is whether we can make clear that any celebration of the Lord's supper and his presence is together with the church in its entire catholicity. Protestant eucharistic liturgy should not weaken fullness. Here are some examples:

a) There should be no exception to the rule that church members presiding in the eucharistic liturgy should be ordained--unless such exceptions are sustainable for the Roman Catholic Christians who take part in the liturgy.

b) The celebration of the liturgy should express the following aspects of the eucharistic congregation:

* They form the inner circle of the church and of the baptized, and by eating and drinking together in the presence of the Spirit they confess Jesus to be their Lord. In the name of this Lord they pray "Our Father" without repeating or having to repeat Jesus' own prayer "Father!" which he said at Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal (Mark 14:36).

* They enter the unlimited public of the people of God and thus exceed their own inner circle. This excess goes further than the congregation could ever express in word or prayer. For a moment it exceeds the boundaries of denomination, even between the Church and Israel, so that afterwards these boundaries cannot be reset to what they were.

* In the celebration of the eucharistic liturgy, the local parish becomes a "prophetic sign pointing beyond itself to the destination of the entire creation" (NMC 43). With regard to this prophetic character, it is worth discussing whether the nature of church should be described as a mystery of the kingdom of God (NMC 45).

c) Protestant theologians of both Lutheran and Reformed origin still work hard for a common understanding of the personal and real character of the eucharistic presence of Jesus. These efforts try to get further than the Leuenberg Concord states. At the same time, they work for a Protestant understanding of the Lord's supper as eucharist in the true meaning of the word and as invocation of the Spirit. These issues can only be dealt with together.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.2009.00047.x

(1) Bishop Ulrich Fischer, Chair of Presidential Committee of UEC.

The Reverend Professor Dr Heinrich Assel from the Union of Evangelical Churches in the Evangelical Church in Germany is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Greifswald in Germany.
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Author:Assel, Heinrich
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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