According to the Chinese calendar, we are in the Year of the Rabbit. But rendering the current year according to the Missouri Synod, it may be shaping up as the Year of the District President. First, we see the high honor of the Gottesdienst Sabre of Boldness being awarded to a Missouri Synod District President, the Rev. Brian Saunders. Then we see this: a Missouri Synod District President, Rev. David Stechholz, wearing a miter and carrying a crosier to carry out his episcopal functions.
Maybe this is our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather's church after all. Bishops looking like bishops (instead of guys who work at the local country club pro-shop) and bishops showing not just bureaucratic leadership, but theological acumen and courage in the face of a hostile culture, have been part and parcel of Christian churchmanship since the days of the apostolic fathers.
In our very young American church body, we have traditionally shunned having any kind of episcopal oversight over pastors or churches. We Americans are a democratic and independent people, and our churches often reflect that frontier spirit. However, God's regime is neither a democracy nor a republic, but a hierarchical kingdom - with Jesus as the Overseer (Bishop) of our Souls.
Traditionally, the Christian church has governed itself in a hierarchical manner. While not referred to as "pope" in the New Testament, St. Peter was clearly respected as a leader among the apostles - at very least, a "first among equals." We see St. Titus, who seems to have been ordained by St. Paul, being instructed to appoint "elders" (Greek: presbuteroi), which is to say, pastors, in every city. The pastors are themselves overseen.
The biblical term "presbyter" (presbuteros) is the source of the word "priest," and the biblical term "bishop" (episkopos) is the source of the word "episcopal" - as in "pertaining to bishops."
We Lutherans are not dogmatic about church polity, or how a church body is governed. Scripture does not mandate any particular form of government other than that a congregation is overseen by what scripture calls (interchangeably) a presbyter or bishop. Scripture also speaks of deacons in a supporting role to the presbyter/bishop.
Early on in the church (very early in fact!), the church begins to organize clusters of congregations and pastors underneath overseers. The terminology quickly reflects this reality by presbyters (priests) generally being those ministers who oversee a congregation, and overseers (bishops) generally being those ministers that oversee the pastors and congregations. In time, the Roman geographical term "diocese" was used to indicate a territory underneath a bishop's churchly jurisdiction. Bishops are themselves often overseen by other bishops (overseers). In the Latin west, the Bishop of Rome was given a status not unlike St. Peter (the first bishop of Rome) as a kind of "first among equals." In the Greek east, several prominent bishops share oversight over other bishops.
Bishops have generally (though not exclusively) been the grade of minister used to ordain bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops often "confirmed" priestly baptisms by a laying on of hands. Bishops have generally had the authority to discipline pastors and congregations. And bishops have generally continued serving as pastors, preaching and administering sacraments, in addition to their administrative duties.
The American Lutheran churches have generally not only shunned the term "bishop," but also most of the trappings of the episcopate. The reasons for this are complicated, and beyond the scope of this post. In the Missouri Synod, our synodical and district overseers have traditionally been styled and titled as "presidents" instead of bishops. One exception to this rule is the president of the English District of the LCMS (which was at one time its own synod) who also bears the title "bishop." Most district presidents understand that they exercise episkope (oversight) as they oversee or delegate all ordinations; they discipline wayward congregations, pastors, and other rostered church workers; they place all newly-certified candidates for the holy ministry into their first calls, and they serve as "ecclesiastical supervisors" for all pastors and church workers under their jurisdiction. But there is a hesitation to identify this office of episkope (oversight) with the office of episkopos (overseer).
I believe there is an inconsistency here. Either these District Presidents are merely bureaucratic advisers, or they exercise genuine episcopal oversight. Maybe we in the LCMS are still trying to figure all that out. I do think our bylaws and ways of governing ourselves sometimes say two different things. But not every Lutheran church body has this American aversion to hierarchical authority.
Moreover, the LCMS is now in fellowship with many Lutheran bodies that have retained the custom of unabashed episcopal oversight. In many places around the world - such as in Africa - Lutherans who have episcopal polity enjoy a higher level of respect among other Christian churches. The now sainted Rt. Rev. Andrew Elisa, for example, was the synodical president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sudan. But most African Christians did not understand what a "president" was. After he had been serving as president for quite some time, Pastor Elisa was consecrated as a bishop by other Lutheran bishops, and Bishop Elisa was understood as the Lutheran primate of Sudan.
While American churches often seem to be pushing the envelope of "casualness" - even to the point of slovenliness - there is also a backlash the other way. More younger pastors are wearing the traditional garb of the clergyman in their day to day life, as well as the traditional vestments of the Church in the Divine Service. And as the LCMS has more and more international contacts, we are seeing the value of traditionalism - in thought, word, and deed. As St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Letter to the Smyraneans around 110 AD, the church finds its unity around the bishop's office. In our democratic "everyone a minister" and "every pastor a pope" ethos in the LCMS, we see a devastating lack of unity - even on such matters as whether or not to use the liturgy in worship. There is a sense in the LCMS that anything and everything can be settled by a 51% majority in convention.
The oversight of bishops (the preferred polity according to our Lutheran confessions) may well serve as an antidote to our current chaos. And if nothing else, the image of a bishop clad in historic vesture should stand and confess in stark contrast to the Protestantizing tendencies that plague our church body while reminding everyone that we are Catholic Christians.
Anyway, I applaud bishops Saunders and Stechholz for the good confession they are making, the courage to take a stand, and for their faithfulness under fire. Leadership is more than just being elected. It involves stepping out in faith to blaze a trail for other men likewise in the service of the Bishop of our Souls Himself.