The Episcopal Ministry within the Apostolicity of the Church
Lutheran Statement 2002
For over 30 years, the Lutheran World Federation has been a partner in
international ecumenical dialogues. In these dialogues we have sought both to witness to the
gospel we have heard within our own tradition and to learn from others who have
heard that same gospel in different ways and forms.
True dialogue, pursued faithfully, should not leave its participants
One subject of the dialogues has been episcopal ministry and the
apostolicity of the church. These
dialogues have been conducted on various levels. On this topic, Lutherans have
been able to reach increasing agreement with other churches.
Some of these agreements have led to binding forms of communion.[i]
This development has importance for the common life of the LWF as a communion of
churches. It calls for ongoing
attention to the coherence and accountability of the LWF as an ecumenical
partner at the international level.
The present statement summarizes main aspects of the theme of the
episcopal ministry within the apostolicity of the church that have been affirmed
by Lutherans in these dialogues, as well as in LWF studies.[ii]
It is hoped that these basic perspectives serve as an encouragement to
further and necessary reflection on episcopal ministry within the Lutheran
communion and in ecumenical relations where the LWF and its member churches are
As the church participates in Christ and receives the blessings of his
righteousness, it also participates in the mission of Christ, who is sent by the
Father in the Holy Spirit. Christ
sends his disciples as he is sent (John 20:21); "So we are ambassadors for
Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of
Christ, be reconciled to God" (II Cor. 5:20).
The church is called to proclaim reconciliation and the healing love of
God in a world wounded by persecution, oppression and injustice, making manifest
the mystery of God's love, God's presence and God's Kingdom.
The ministry of oversight (episkopé)
should be set in the context of this mission of the church as the whole people
The apostles are sent "to make disciples of all nations."
The Risen Christ promises to be with them in this mission "to the
end of the age" (Mt 28:20). The mission to which the apostles were called
remains the mission of the whole church throughout history. As this mission
shapes the church, so the church is rightly called apostolic.
The handing on (traditio) of
this mission, in which the Holy Spirit makes Christ present as the Word of God,
is the primary meaning of apostolic tradition. Apostolic tradition in the church
means continuity in the permanent characteristics of the church of the apostles:
witness to the apostolic faith, proclamation of the Gospel and faithful
interpretation of the Scriptures, celebration of baptism and the eucharist, the
exercise and transmission of ministerial responsibilities, communion in prayer,
love, joy and suffering, service to the sick and needy, unity among the local
churches and sharing the gifts which the Lord has given to each.
Continuity in this tradition is apostolic succession.
In baptism, every Christian is called and empowered for participation in
this mission. God the Holy Spirit
pours out his gifts upon the whole church (Eph. 4: 11-13; I Cor. 12:
4-11), and raises up men and women to contribute to the nurture of the community. Thus the whole church, and every member, participates in the communication of the gospel through word and life and so participates in the apostolic succession of the church.
As God's gift in Christ through the Holy Spirit, apostolicity is a
many-faceted reality expressed broadly in the church's teaching, mission and
ministry. Apostolic teaching is expressed in the Scriptures and historic
ecumenical creeds, in the tradition of liturgical worship, and in more recent
texts, such as the Lutheran Confessions. The
Spirit uses a variety of means to call and hold the church in the apostolic
tradition that constitutes its identity.
As churches of Jesus Christ, the Lutheran churches claim this apostolic
identity. The Lutheran Reformers
saw the apostolic character of the western church's theology and pastoral
practice threatened. The Reformation aimed at the renewal of the church catholic
in its true continuity with the evangelical mission of the apostles.
The church's succession with the apostles has sometimes been identified
with only certain isolated forms of continuity.
"Apostolic succession" was thus sometimes reduced to specific
forms of continuity in episcopal ministry.
At the time of the Reformation, different Lutheran churches preserved
different aspects of such continuity, but all Lutheran churches understood
themselves to have maintained the one apostolic ministry instituted by God.
Recent ecumenical discussions have moved beyond limited views of
apostolic succession to a richer and more comprehensive understanding of the
apostolic character of the whole church as it continues in the Spirit to pursue
the apostolic mission. This
deepened understanding has enriched the theology and practice of various
churches and has opened new ecumenical possibilities, as churches are more able
to recognize each other's apostolic character.
For this enrichment, Lutherans can only give thanks and seek to be more
faithful themselves to the fullness of the apostolic tradition.
of the Church and Ordained Ministry
Within the apostolic continuity of the whole church there is a continuity
or succession in the ordained ministry. This
succession serves the church’s continuity in its life in Christ and its
faithfulness to the gospel transmitted by the apostles.
The ordained ministry, the office of word and sacrament, has a particular
responsibility for witnessing to the apostolic tradition and for proclaiming it
afresh with authority in every generation.
Through baptism persons are initiated into the priesthood of Christ and
thus into the mission of the whole church. All the baptized are called to
participate in, and share responsibility for, worship (leitourgia),
witness (martyria), and service (diakonia).
Baptism itself, however, does not confer office in the church, the ordained
ministry. “What is the common property of all, no individual may arrogate to
himself, unless he is called.” (Luther’s Works 36, 116; WA 6, 566). Ordained
servants of the church carry out a specific task in the service of the mission
and ministry of the whole people of God.
The ordained ministry belongs to God’s gifts to the church, essential
and necessary for the church to fulfill its mission.
The public ministry of preaching in the church requires an authorized
preacher and the administration of the sacraments requires an authorized
presider. The special ministry conferred by ordination is constitutive for the
church. It is a service necessary in order for the church to be what God calls
it to be. Since this ministry is
God’s gift, it is not the personal possession of any individual minister.
While a permanent aspect of the church, this ministry must always remain open to
new needs and possibilities, taking the shape called for by the missionary
requirements of the time.
Ordination confers the mandate and authorization to proclaim the word of
God publicly and to administer the holy sacraments.
Some churches, faced with special circumstances, also bless or commission
in various ways baptized Christians to carry out specific aspects of the
ministerial office. Service in such
a capacity is an expression of the church's ministry.
For centuries Lutheran churches, like other churches, restricted
ordination to men. Today the great
majority of Lutherans belong to churches that ordain both women and men.
This practice is an expression of the conviction that the mission of the
church requires the gifts of both men and women in the ordained ministry and
that limiting the ordained ministry to men obscures the nature of the church as
a sign of God’s reconciled Kingdom (Gal. 3:
The Lutheran World Federation as a global communion has a commitment
pertaining to the ordination of women. The LWF Eighth Assembly stated: “We
thank God for the great and enriching gift to the church discovered by many of
our member churches in the ordination of women to the pastoral office, and we
pray that all members of the LWF, as well as others throughout the ecumenical
family, will come to recognize and embrace God’s gift of women in the ordained
ministry and in other leadership responsibilities in Christ’s church.”
In many member churches of the LWF today, and in the majority of the
larger Lutheran churches, women not only can be ordained as pastors but can also
be elected to the ministry of oversight. This is consistent with the Lutheran
emphasis on the one office of ministry.
The supra-congregational ministry of oversight must, as it fosters the
one mission of the church, also seek to promote unity in faith, hope and love.
Although every worshipping congregation gathered around word and sacrament is
the church in the full ecclesiological sense, all local congregations are by
their very nature indissolubly connected across the boundaries of space and time
with the one church, on earth and in heaven.
By being specially charged to care for the communion of all worshipping
congregations with the universal church, the episcopal ministry has the specific
task of safeguarding the true nature of the una,
sancta, catholica et apostolica ecclesia that transcends the boundaries of
both space and time. By definition,
ordained ministry particularly includes ordered service to the catholicity and
unity of the holy and apostolic church. The
right and duty of the ministry of episkopé are implicit in this ministry. The task of
supra-congregational oversight therefore is deliberately attached to members of
the ordained ministry. In every
case they are pastors with a supra-congregational leadership task, and it needs
to be stressed that this task has to be exercised in an ongoing, structured way
because every worshipping congregation is essentially linked with the universal
The unity of the faithful consists in their participation by faith in the
communion of love between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Spirit in
the one holy catholic church. This
is the unity to which the apostles bear witness, a gift the faithful are given
in Christ and which must therefore be received.
Since the church as the body of Christ cannot be divided, unity with God
in Christ in faith, made possible through the means of grace, is the strongest
impetus to the search for communion with other Christians.
The communion we seek must include the sharing of the one baptism, the
celebrating of the one eucharist and the service of a common ministry (including
the exercise of a ministry of oversight, episkopé).
This common participation in one baptism, one eucharist, and one ministry
unites ‘all in each place’ within the whole universal church.
In every local celebration of the eucharist the church represents and
manifests the communion of the universal church.
Through the visible communion the healing and uniting power of the Triune
God is made evident amidst the divisions of humankind.
The ministry of oversight is a ministry of service, both to the church
and to the ordered ministry that serves the church.
The diversity of God's gifts requires coordination for the enrichment of
the whole church. The communion of
local churches requires oversight for the sake of the faithfulness of the
church. Episkopé thus serves the
purpose of caring for the life of a whole community. Its faithful exercise in
the light of the Gospel is of fundamental importance to its life.
Most Lutheran churches have a regional minister of oversight, most often
named "bishop." The bishop shares in the one office of word and
sacrament. Unlike the parish
pastor, however, the bishop's ministry is regional and oversees a group of local
The New Testament bears witness to the fact that the church never was
without persons holding specific responsibilities and authority, but it reflects
a tentative phase when different ecclesial patterns developed, coexisted and
interacted. Titles were not yet
clearly defined or commonly accepted, but especially in the Pastoral Letters the
prominently among those overseeing the household of God.
In the 2nd and 3rd century the congregation, which
celebrated the eucharist under the presidency of the bishop, was understood as
the local church. From the
beginning of the 4th century, the bishop came to oversee, not just
one eucharistic congregation, but a group of congregations headed by presbyters
(although the regions of oversight were often small by modern standards). The local church came to be identified with the church headed
by the bishop and not with the eucharistic congregation. Insofar as bishops today also often have their own church in
which they serve as chief pastor, something of the early tradition remains
The theological understanding and organization of episcopacy have varied
greatly in the history of the church. Nevertheless, its exercise by a single
bishop, united in collegial communion with other such bishops, came to be the
virtually universal form of church leadership. It is still the most widely
utilized form of pastoral oversight within the Christian churches.
The Augsburg Confession (AC) assumes the continuation of the office of
the bishop in the church. Its assumption is that the true proclamation of the
gospel is helped and not hindered by this office.
For historical and not theological reasons, the title "bishop"
disappeared from significant parts of Lutheranism.
The ministry of oversight is exercised personally, collegially and
communally. Oversight is never a
merely administrative or institutional matter, but is always personal. Those set
apart for the ministry of oversight are thus set apart as
persons. As a service within
the ministerium ecclesiasticum (AC 5),
mandated and exercised at the regional level of the church, it is performed in
persona Christi and stands simultaneously within and over against the
community in service to continuity in the apostolic faith.
The ministry of bishops is understood to be a distinct form of the one
pastoral office, not a separate office. Bishops are themselves pastoral
ministers of word and sacrament, representing the ministry of Christ toward the
church. It is in this perspective that AC 28 states that “according to the
gospel, the power of the keys or the power of bishops is the power of God’s
mandate to preach the gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the
sacraments. For Christ sent out the apostles with this command [John 20:21-23]:
‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you … Receive the Holy Spirit
The episcopal ministry, however, carries responsibility for larger
geographic areas of the church than individual congregations or parishes.
Therefore, the ministerium ecclesiasticum
carried out by bishops has certain propria,
which are not shared by pastors at the local level. Bishops are called to guide
the life of the congregations in the region under their care, especially through
visitation, and to support their life together. They are authorized to ordain
pastors and to supervise their teaching and practices.
In all of these propria, care for the unity of the church universal, and its
apostolic faithfulness, is a responsibility to which bishops are especially
The personal character of the ministry of oversight cannot be separated
from its collegial aspect. As a collegium, the ministers of oversight represent
and promote the unity and common life of the many local congregations within the
church at large. They also represent their churches in the framework of the
universal church. The episcopal ministry must also be exercised collegially in
cooperation with other ministries of church leadership in the area under the
Lutherans do not use a uniform terminology for the ministry of oversight.
However, in the course of the twentieth century, episcopacy, normally
related to some form of synodical structure, has come to be the typical (though
not universal) form of Lutheran church leadership. Further, persons who carry
out this ministry of oversight should be understood as carrying out the
episcopal office. The integrity of their ministry should be respected and it
should receive appropriate recognition. Ecumenical and popular understanding
would be facilitated if such persons in episcopal ministries were uniformly
The ministry of oversight is not only personal and collegial but also
communal. Bishops are called to a
special role of oversight in the church, but the wider community also is called
to participate in oversight and to judge the way in which episcopal ministry is
being carried out. The development of various committees, synods, and
institutions, including clergy and laypersons, which share tasks of oversight
with the bishop, is consistent with Lutheran understandings of the church.
The role of the episcopal ministry in the church is not, in the Lutheran
understanding, equivalent to church governance exercised exclusively by bishops.
In the vast majority of Lutheran churches, church governance is carried out
through synodical structures, which include the participation of both lay and
ordained persons, and in which the episcopal ministry has a clearly defined
In the church there is no absolute distinction between the directed and
the directing, between the teaching and the taught, between those who decide and
those who are the objects of decision. All stand under Scripture; all are
anointed by the Spirit; all are fallible sinners.
Mutual accountability binds together episcopal and other ministries with
all baptized believers. It is through the communio
of charisms, the total interplay
of ministries within which episcopal ministry plays a leading role, that the
church trusts that it will be led into the truth.
According to Lutheran understanding, the church exercises responsibility
for its doctrine in a positive way by teaching according to the Scriptures and
by watching over the purity of the proclamation of the gospel. The teaching
ministry is exercised in a broad ecclesial process aiming at consensus,
involving persons and church bodies with various responsibilities. It is the
responsibility of bishops to judge doctrine and to reject teaching that is
contradictory to the gospel. It is the responsibility of theological teachers in
the church and pastors in the parishes also to test their teaching to ensure its
accord with the gospel. It is the responsibility of persons in parish councils
or in church synods to ensure that also decisions taken with regard to the
institutional and practical life of the church are in good keeping with the
message of the gospel and witnesses to it.
Apostolicity and unity are inseparable aspects of the church. The church
is confessed as una, sancta, catholica et
apostolica. Hence, all that is said above about the apostolicity of the
church also motivates concern for its unity.
Concern for the unity of the church belongs to the very nature of the
episcopal office. The church is one in the common proclamation of the gospel
and celebration of the sacraments (CA 7). Since episcopal oversight is concerned
above all with the evangelical character of the total ministry carried out
within its region, it is concerned with what makes the church one. Most Lutheran
churches thus rightly see the bishop as having particular ecumenical
responsibilities. Bishops should be ministers of reconciliation both within and
beyond their own churches.
The relation between the ministry of the bishop and the unity of the
church makes it theologically and symbolically appropriate that those who carry
out episcopal oversight preside at ordinations of those who will exercise the
office of ministry. Ordination is into the ministry of the one church, not
simply into the ministry of one denomination or national church or of one
diocese or synod. The presiding minister at an ordination, acting on behalf of
the whole people of God, is thus rightly the person who instrumentally and
symbolically is concerned with the unity of the one church's ministry. In
addition, the role of the bishop in ordination both realizes and symbolizes the
ongoing relation between bishop and the clergy of a region.
Episcopal consecration (or installation) in the Lutheran tradition
regularly includes the participation of one or more bishops of other churches in
the laying on of hands as a sign of the unity and apostolic continuity of the
whole church. With the laying on of hands by other bishops, such consecrations
(installations) involve prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. By such a
liturgical statement Lutheran churches recognize that the bishop’s service in
this place is connected spiritually, in collegiality and consultation, with the
Episcopal Ministry, Succession, and the Identity of the Church
The continuity of the episcopal ministry in the apostolic mission is
important for the church. This
continuity in apostolic mission is the primary content of what is named
“episcopal succession.” This
succession is realized in the handing on of the faithful oversight of the
apostolic mission. It is manifested
or symbolized in a variety of ways, including lists of bishops who have
succeeded one another in a particular place and the succession of consecrations
by which each bishop is integrated into a network of shared apostolic ministry
reaching across time. These are
signs of continuity in apostolic mission, bearing witness to the church’s
trust that God will maintain the church in faithfulness.
The laying on of hands is a prayer for the exercise of the office
conferred, and the church is confident that God has answered that prayer
continuously over the centuries and will continue to do so.
The continuity of the episcopal ministry is to be understood within, and
in the service of, the continuity of the apostolic life and mission of the whole
church. Continuity in episcopal ministry is misunderstood when it is taken as a
guarantee of a church’s faithfulness to its apostolic mission, or as a
guarantee of the personal faithfulness of a particular bishop. However, the sign
remains a permanent challenge to fidelity and to unity, a summons to witness to,
and a commission to realize more fully, the permanent characteristics of the
church of the apostles. The
ultimate ground for the apostolic continuity and fidelity of the church is the
promise of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the whole church.
An important element in discussions about episcopacy is the relation
between episcopal structures and succession on the one hand and the identity of
the church on the other. Lutherans have insisted that the identity of the church
is constituted by word and sacraments and the divinely instituted ministry,
which serve these. An episcopal ministry of oversight in a succession of
consecrations cannot be considered essential to the church’s identity in the
same sense, nor as essential to the identity of the office of ministry. No
particular structure of church leadership is an infallible sign of the
The unity and continuity of the church in the one apostolic gospel are
gifts God has promised and given to the church. The Spirit works through many
means to preserve the church in the gospel: the Scriptures, the sacraments, the
classical creeds and confessions, the witness to the truth by the saints and
prophets of past and present. A Lutheran concern with the nature of episcopal
ministry is first and foremost an interest in its capacity to serve unity and
continuity in the mission of the gospel.
The Reformation was fundamentally concerned with the apostolicity of the
church in faithfulness to the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, upheld by
the proclamation of the Word and by the holy sacraments and received in faith.
In relation to the episcopal ministry, the churches of the Lutheran communion
around the world are maintaining and developing forms and practices to serve the
divine mission of the church. In this statement, we have stated some convictions
that we hold in common. As in all matters, our final trust is not, however, in
the strength of our convictions, the clarity of our analysis, or the wisdom of
our advice, but in the Lord whom all ministry is called to serve, Jesus Christ,
who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is worthy of eternal praise.
[i] ECUMENICAL DOCUMENTS
The present statement is to a great extent developed using formulations from agreed texts that have been achieved multilaterally as well as between Lutherans and ecumenical partners in bilateral dialogues:
A. Several perspectives regarding the episcopal ministry in relation to the apostolic tradition of the church, which have subsequently found a place in ecumenical documents, were presented in the WCC/Faith and Order study document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” in 1982.
B. Among reports from bilateral dialogues involving Lutherans at the international level, the following have considered the topic of the present statement most directly:
- “The Ministry in the Church.” Report of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Joint Commission, 1982.
- The Niagara Report. Report of the Anglican-Lutheran Consultation on Episcope, 1987.
- “Church and Justification.” Report of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Joint Commission, 1994.
- “Called to Communion and Common Witness.” Report of the Lutheran-Reformed Joint Working Group, 2002.
- “Growth in Communion.” Report of the Anglican-Lutheran International Working Group, 2002.
C. Among reports from dialogues involving Lutherans at the regional level the following have considered the topic of this statement most directly:
- The Meissen Common Statement, by the Church of England, the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in the GDR, 1988.
- The Porvoo Common Statement by the British and Irish Anglican Churches and Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches, 1993.
- The Reuilly Common Statement by the British and Irish Anglican Churches and the French Lutheran and Reformed Churches, 1999.
- “Called to Common Mission.” An Agreement of Full Communion between the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1999.
- “Called to Full Communion.” The Waterloo Declaration by the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, 1999.
- “Communio Sanctorum. Die Kirche als Gemeinschaft der Heiligen,” by the Bilateral Working Group of the German Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Kirchenleitung of the United Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany.
[ii] LUTHERAN STUDY DOCUMENTS
LWF studies with direct relevance to the topic of the present statement have been conducted earlier. The reports from these studies also provide a significant part of the basis for the present statement. The documents are published in the study book “Ministry: Women, Bishops”, LWF Geneva 1993.
The individual documents in this publication are:
- “The Lutheran Understanding of Ministry”, 1983.
- “Lutheran Understanding of the Episcopal Office”, 1983.
- “Women in the Ministries of the Church”, 1983.
- Report from “Consultation on the Ordained Ministry of Women and Men”, 1992.
16-21 November 2002
Dr. André Birmelé
Dr. Theo Dieter
Dr. Luis Henrique Dreher
em. Guy Edmiston
Dr. Karl Christian Felmy
Dr. Wolfgang Greive
Dr. Béla Harmati
Dr. Hartmut Hövelmann
Archbishop Dr. D. Georg Kretschmar
Dr. Kristen Kvam
Dr. Eeva Martikainen
Dr. Mickey Mattox
Dr. Ricardo Pietrantonio
Dr. Hermann Pitters
Dr. Roman Pracki
Dr. Michael Root
Dr. Risto Saarinen
Dr. Turid Karlsen Seim
Dr. Jeffrey Silcock
Dr. Yoshikazu Tokuzen
Dr. Pirjo Työrinoja
Dr. Bruce Marshall
em. Dr. Ambrose Moyo
Dr. Samson Mushemba
Dr. Kirsten Busch Nielsen
Dr. Ola Tjörhom
Dr. David S. Yeago