The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



Church assemblies date to apostles, flourished in 15th century

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.

The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

Spring is soon upon us. In some corners a sigh will go up: “Forgive us, Lord, for we have synod.”

Yet, whether one approaches this time of synod assemblies with excitement or reticence, few are aware of the deep historical foundations of “synodality” in the Christian tradition. Many assume that our synodical form of church government arises out of necessity or as a copy of civil legislatures. Instead, it is built on principles dating back to the New Testament, elaborated in ancient councils and in medieval legislation (known as canon law), and shaped by the conciliar movement in the century before Martin Luther.

Deriving their meaning from “gathering,” as in synagogue, the terms synod andsynodality refer to a system of church assemblies that represent a body of the faithful, from parish councils to regional synods and national assemblies.

To better understand these terms we need to turn to the greatest constitutional crisis in the history of the church, the Great Schism of 1378. Incredible as it may seem today, this schism involved the competing elections of two and then three popes.Many people, worried about the effects on their salvation, sought answers: Does a community have any recourse to unresponsive rulers? If so, who or what can do it? 

After several failed attempts to heal the schism, the Council of Constance (1414-1418) restored a single pope. In the process it enacted a decree, This Holy Synod,which declared that a council “derived its power immediately from Christ, and all persons, including the pope himself, are bound to obey.”

A great historian, John Neville Figgis, declared that this was “the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world.” Today, after years of intense research, we no longer see revolution in the decree alone, but in the whole conciliar movement.

Fundamental to this tradition is the image of the church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14) in which leadership is given for edification, not destruction (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10).

Matthew’s Gospel provides the shape of this body: “Where two or three gather in my name ...” (18:20). The apostles put this “gathering” into practice when they held a council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) and the early church turned to this model whenever crisis threatened, beginning with Nicea I (325). The 15th-century conciliarists argued that if it was good enough for the apostles, it was good enough for them in their crisis.

Everyone should be heard
More surprising is a second source — medieval canon law. The major legal text was known as the Decretum (about 1140) which, despite many texts that seemed to favor the papacy, declared that “that which touches all must be approved by all.” Since the schism and reform in general touches everyone, the conciliarists argued, the concerns of everyone should be heard through a council.

Finally, they added a framework that scholars call “corporation theory.” This theory arose from the everyday practice of cathedrals, universities, towns and commercial enterprises. These corporations provided living evidence that the whole body is the seat of authority, while a rector, president or dean represents and holds authority in trust for its members.

Conciliarists forged these three — Scripture, law and the corporation theory — into a common, yet pliant, fund of principles that advocated a dramatic constitutional change in the church. Perhaps the best confirmation of this is a masterwork, The Catholic Concordance by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), a young German reformer and later cardinal. With other leading conciliarists, Nicholas held that the church is the community of the faithful; that the form of this community is synodal; and that it can exercise power through its representatives in a council. In certain cases it can even depose a pope since he is a constitutional ruler with authority delegated to him by the community.

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