Confessional Subscription and the Rise of the Bureaucrat

By Paul Koch

“Do you believe and confess the three Ecumenical Creeds, namely the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, as faithful testimonies to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and do you reject all the errors which they condemn?”

Yes, I believe and confess the three Ecumenical Creeds because they are in accord with the Word of God. I also reject all the errors they condemn.

“Do you confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession to be a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? And do you confess that the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord—as these are contained in the Book of Concord—are also in agreement with this one scriptural faith?”

Yes, I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God.

“Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?”

Yes, I promise, with the help of God.

These are part of the weighty and formative questions put to a pastoral candidate in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod on the day of his ordination. Before a gathering of friends and family, before colleagues all wearing their red stoles (and looking very reverent), before a congregation of God’s children he makes his bold answers loud and proud for all to hear. “Yes, I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God.”

Now these vows are no light thing. They are not just something said one time and quickly forgotten. The ordination vows dealing with the Confessions of the church in fact do give shape and substance to the ministry of a called and ordained servant of the Word. We hold to the Confessions because they are in accord with the Word. We joyfully embrace them as faithful guide into the heart of Scripture. They are not a fearful whip keeping pastors in line but a blessed light that shows the way, always driving us to the proclamation of Christ alone.

But I fear we have believed a lie about our subscription to the Confessions. Now it is not a lie found in the ordination rite itself. It’s not that pastors have been tricked into saying something we don’t fully believe. Rather, there is this common conception of what a group of congregations that subscribe the Confessions, along with a group of pastors that also subscribe, ought to look like. The lie has to do with walking together, with joyfully receiving all who have likewise confessed as a brother or sister in the faith. We will find freedom and confidence springing from our confessional subscription, but the lie is that we will find unity as well.

The reality is that our confessional subscription seems to leave room for a wide variety of manifestations of the visible church. I may not care for the way the church down the street puts together it’s “creative worship” nor the smells and bells of the high church practices a few towns over but that doesn’t mean those congregations or their pastors are not confessional Lutherans. But we can’t seem to let this simply be the state of things. After all, we’ve all made the same confessional subscription. Yet we find inconsistency and discrepancy that constantly rocks the boat and challenges the status quo. So, we demand some form of unity.

Perhaps it’s just a lingering desire for the days when everyone followed pages 5 and 15 from The Lutheran Hymnal. But we’ve created and perpetuated a lie about what confessional subscription means. The greatest benefactors of this lie is also the greatest indicator of its prevalent status – the church bureaucrat.

The function of bureaucracy is to mitigate variance, to bring uniformity, and generally keep the boat steady. Those who subscribe to the Confessions because they are in accord with the Word of God begin to turn to the bureaucrats to bring uniformity around such a subscription. The bureaucrats perpetuate the lie, but the tools available to them are quite limited. Not that they are without great power, it’s just that they don’t have very many options. They can teach and inspire, but such things take time. Such options may not be tolerated from those who are to protect us from variance. Rather the best way to bring uniformity is to regulate our choices under bureaucratic control. Sure, we may sacrifice freedom but we lessen the risk of wandering astray.

And so the joy of our confessional subscription begins to look like an authoritative church structure that promises to fulfill the unity that our Confessions never quite obtained.

In the end we are left arguing over what bureaucratic enterprise is in the right, which authority has the power, and whether or not someone is confessional enough. We’ve turned the freedom of confessional concord into threats of power and control. We’ll happily argue over the scraps from the bureaucrats table when we’ve long since stopped reading the Confessions themselves. But hey, at least we’ll be walking together…