Action Alert!

How to Establish Authority in a Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 09, 2011

I intended to give the poor Protestants a break, but now I read that the Lutherans are imploding or exploding, depending on your point of view. It seems that the two largest Lutheran “churches” in America have broken up, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).

The first split occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s after a long battle between resurgent conservatives and liberals, the latter including especially the faculty of Concordia Seminary. The liberal losers in the LCMS moved on to help shape the ELCA in the late 1980’s, but they crafted a self-destructive mode of governance. Insisting on disproportionate minority representation in all governing bodies and committees, the ELCA ultimately shifted power to special interest groups, hastening an inevitable disintegration in the last few years. Meanwhile, the more conservative LCMS seems doomed to be locked in constant theological squabbling, encompassing spiritual, social and political concerns.

A brief survey of what has gone on is available from First Things in Robert Benne’s The Trials of American Lutheranism. One of the key problems in all this is unwittingly raised by Benne when he notes that “the refugees from the first conflict were instrumental in shaping the flawed foundation for the second.” After all, when it comes to shaping the structure and governance of a “church”, one must surely wonder how—as a purely human enterprise—the foundation could be anything but flawed. What would constitute an unflawed foundation?

Wouldn’t it have to come from God?

The incredible confusion in Protestant circles on this subject is captured nicely in Benne’s final paragraph, as he closes his commentary on the shattered fragments that remain:

These Lutheran perspectives retain crucial importance as distinctive insights into the Great Tradition. They of course are not the whole and should not be taken for the whole. But they do provide flashes of illumination and insight for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. That is justification enough for their preservation.


Here we go again with the Great Tradition, which nobody can adequately define. What is part of it and what is not? And once again we meet a sort of ideal but non-existent “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”, which apparently the Lutherans have been attempting to approximate with flawed foundations by forming or reforming their own “churches”. So how do we know that anything these groups provide qualifies as an “insight”? Which “insights” are to be retained, and which rejected?

Please. My friends, none of this works, and the sad thing is that it should be obvious to anyone capable of basic reflection that none of this works. Protestantism is capable of offering some goods conducive to salvation only to the degree that it continues to cherish what it has inherited from a real and identifiable “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”. Insofar as it progressively abandons this inheritance, Protestantism has less and less help to offer, less and less “insight” into the relationships between God and man, less and less similarity to what it means to be a church.

The whole matter depends on the basic principles of what we might call Religion 101. Any Revelation which God discloses to us must necessarily include details of the ongoing authority by which that Revelation is to be transmitted and implemented over time. Without this, God has no means of making His Revelation effective; His Word would return to Him void (Is 55:11). The ultimate structure and authority of a Church, if it is to be taken seriously as something which can achieve God’s purpose despite human weaknesses, cannot be drawn from human imagination or fashioned through human debate and compromise. In other words, to avoid being irremediably flawed and inherently self-destructive, the mechanism of authority in a true Church must come from God Himself.

Logically, it would have to, wouldn’t it? Well, wouldn’t it?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jun. 07, 2017 5:50 AM ET USA

    This is wonderful. It sometimes feels lonely going against the crowd and sometimes I wonder if I'm not just being "rigid". It is also wonderful to be reminded that each of us was fashioned in a way to do some work that God explicitly wants of us, right here, in this time and place.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 06, 2017 3:45 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this valuable reflection. Speaking about the "crowds," in NT they had interesting new role: "Chief priests and the Pharisees wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet" [Mt 21:46, Mk 11:32]

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Jun. 05, 2017 11:56 PM ET USA

    Thank you! I needed to hear this today: "Each one of us is called by name and gifted for a purposeā€”not to follow after a multitude in sin, but to participate uniquely in the glory of God." Praise be to God!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 11, 2011 4:48 PM ET USA

    Here's my operational definition of Protestants: any of 25,000 or so Christian faith communities that can agree on only one doctrine--that the Catholic Church is wrong.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - May. 10, 2011 8:39 PM ET USA

    The problem is, the sheep are being fed pablum instead of the true meat of the Faith; there's little or no mention of sin, penance, sacrifice, or discipline any more. It's all about finding "your truth", not THE Truth, Jesus Christ. Until this is remedied, we'll have little success convincing lost sheep to return, or stay.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 10, 2011 8:14 AM ET USA

    Well yes it would. But the Protestant mentality has certainly made deep inroads into Catholicism. The concept that one can be Catholic but do and say things opposed by the Chruch is more prevalent today than in any other time. More disturbing from a philosophical perspective is the widespread belief that there is no problem with this dissension. It is no accident- Good Shepherd Sunday- that Our Lord used the image of the Good Shepherd and that he advised Peter to "feed my sheep."

  • Posted by: DrJazz - May. 09, 2011 10:50 PM ET USA

    I kid my Lutheran wife about what I call "ABC Protestants": Anything But Catholic. No matter how disaffected they are with their church, and no matter how many mainline protestant churches go down however many crazy doctrinal roads, most protestants have been raised to resist reflexively any surrender to that monolith that they fear waits to consume them: the Roman Catholic Church. Like you, my attempts at persuasion usually end in frustration.

  • Posted by: - May. 09, 2011 5:16 PM ET USA

    Your frustration with this thinking is becoming palpable, Dr. Mirus, and I am familiar with it myself. One runs into the "anything, anything but the Roman Catholic Church!" mentality that twists otherwise bright people into pretzels of illogic and selective perceptions.