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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 84. Reconstruction of Church Government and Discipline.


Aemil Ludw. Richter: Die evangel; Kirchenordnungen des 16 Jahrh., Weimar, 1846, 2 vols. By the same: Gesch. der evang. Kirchenver-fassung in Deutschland. Leipz., 1851. By the same: Lehrbuch des kath. und evang. Kirchenrechts, Leipzig, 5th ed., 1858. J. W. F. Höfling: Grundsätze der evang.-lutherischen Kirchenverfassung. Erlangen, third ed., 1853. Stahl: Die Kirchenverfassung nach Recht und Lehre der Protestanten. Erlangen, 1862. Mejer: Grundl. des luth. Kirchenregiments, Rostock, 1864. E. Friedberg: Lehrbuch des kath. u. evang. Kirchenrechts, Leipz., 1884.


The papal monarchy and visible unity of Western Christendom were destroyed with the burning of the Pope’s bull and the canon law. The bishops refused to lead the new movement; disorder and confusion followed. A reconstruction of government and discipline became necessary. The idea of an invisible church of all believers was not available for this purpose. The invisible is not governable. The question was, how to deal with the visible church as it existed in Saxony and other Protestant countries, and to bring order out of chaos. The lawyers had to be consulted, and they could not dispense with the legal wisdom and experience of centuries. Luther himself returned to the study of the canon law, though to little purpose.670670    Letter to Spalatin, March 30, 1529 (De Wette, III. 433): "Jura papistica legere incipimus et inspicere." He hated it for its connection with popery, and got into conflict with the lawyers, even his colleague, Professor Schurf, who had accompanied him to the Diet of Worms as a faithful friend and counselor, but differed from him on matrimonial legislation. He abused the lawyers, even from the pulpit, as abettors of the Pope and the Devil.671671    Comp. A. Kohler, Luther und die Juristen, Gotha, 1873; Köstlin, M. Luth., II. 476 sqq., 580 sq. In his Table Talk (Erl. ed., LXII., 214 sqq.), Luther has much to say against the lawyers, and thinks that few of them will be saved. "Ein frommer Jurist," he says, "ist ein seltsames Thier." He was not a disciplinarian and organizer like John Calvin, or John Knox, or John Wesley, and left his church in a less satisfactory condition than the Reformed churches of Switzerland and Scotland. He complained that he had not the proper persons for what he wished to accomplish; but he did what he could under the circumstances, and regretted that he could do no more.

Four ways were open for the construction of an evangelical church polity: —

1. To retain the episcopal hierarchy, without the papacy, or to create a new one in its place. This was done in the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, and in the Church of England, but in the closest connection with the state, and in subordination to it. In Scandinavia the succession was broken; in England the succession continued under the lead of Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, was interrupted under Queen Mary, and restored under Queen Elizabeth.

Had the German bishops favored the Reformation, they would, no doubt, have retained their power in Germany, and naturally taken the lead in the organization of the new church. Melanchthon was in favor of episcopacy, and even a sort of papacy by human (not Divine) right, on condition of evangelical freedom; but the hostility of the hierarchy made its authority impossible in Germany.672672    Apol. Conf. Aug., Art. XIV. (Müller’s ed. of the Lutheran symbols, p. 205): "Nos summa voluntate cupere conservare politiam ecclesiasticam et gradus in ecclesia, factos etiam humana auctoritate." He subscribed the Smalcald Articles (1537), with a clause in favor of a limited papal supervision. He had, especially in his later years, a stronger conception of the institutional character and historical order of the church than Luther, who cared nothing for bishops. He taught, however, the original equality of bishops and presbyters (appealing to the Pastoral Epistles and to Jerome); and held that when the regular bishops reject the gospel, and refuse to ordain evangelical preachers, the power of ordination returns to the church and the pastors.

2. To substitute a lay episcopate for the clerical episcopate; in other words, to lodge the supreme ecclesiastical power in the hands of the civil magistrate, who appoints ministers, superintendents, and church counselors as executive officers.

This was done in the Lutheran churches of Germany. The superintendents performed episcopal duties, but without constituting a distinct and separate grade of the ministry, and without the theory of the episcopal or apostolical succession. The Lutheran Church holds the Presbyterian doctrine of the parity of ministers.673673    See the Appendix to the Smalcald Articles, which have symbolical authority, on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (Müller’s ed., p. 341): "Quum jure divino non sint diversi gradus episcopi et pastoris manifestum est ordinationem a pastore in sua ecclesia factam jure divino ratam esse. Itaque cum episcopi ordinarii fiunt hostes ecclesia aut nolunt impartire ordinationem, ecclesiae retinent ius suum." The organization of the Lutheran churches was, however, for a number of years regarded as provisional, and kept open for a possible reconciliation with the episcopate. Hence the princes were called Nothbischöfe.

3. To organize a presbyterian polity on the basis of the parity of ministers, congregational lay-elders, and deacons, and a representative synodical government, with strict discipline, and a distinction between nominal and communicant membership. This was attempted in Hesse at the Synod of Homberg (1526) by Lambert (a pupil of Zwingli and Luther), developed by Calvin in Geneva, and carried out in the Reformed churches of France, Holland, Scotland, and the Presbyterian churches of North America. Luther rather discouraged this plan in a letter to Philip of Hesse; but in 1540 he expressed a wish, with Jonas, Bugenhagen, and Melanchthon, to introduce Christian discipline with the aid of elders (seniores) in each congregation. Several Lutheran Church constitutions exclude adulterers, drunkards, and blasphemers from the communion.

4. Congregational independency; i.e., the organization of self-governing congregations of true believers in free association with each other. This was once suggested by Luther, but soon abandoned without a trial. It appeared in isolated attempts under Queen Elizabeth, and was successfully developed in the seventeenth century by the Independents in England, and the Congregationalists in New England.

The last two ways are more thoroughly Protestant and consistent with the principle of the general priesthood of believers; but they presuppose a higher grade of self-governing capacity in the laity than the episcopal polity.

All these forms of government admit of a union with the state (as in Europe), or a separation from the state (as in America). Union of church and state was the traditional system since the days of Constantine and Charlemagne, and was adhered to by all the Reformers. They had no idea of a separation; they even brought the two powers into closer relationship by increasing the authority of the state over the church. Separation of the two was barely mentioned by Luther, as a private opinion, we may say almost as a prophetic dream, but was soon abandoned as an impossibility.

Luther, in harmony with his unique personal experience, made the doctrine of justification the cardinal truth of Christianity, and believed that the preaching of that doctrine would of itself produce all the necessary changes in worship and discipline. But the abuse of evangelical freedom taught him the necessity of discipline, and he raised his protest against antinomianism. His complaints of the degeneracy of the times increased with his age and his bodily infirmities. The world seemed to him to be getting worse and worse, and fast rushing to judgment. He was so disgusted with the immorality prevailing among the citizens and students at Wittenberg, that he threatened to leave the town altogether in 1544, but yielded to the earnest entreaties of the university and magistrate to remain.674674    See his letters to Jonas, Lauterbach, Link, Probst, and others, in De Wette, vol. V. To Lauterbach he wrote, Nov. 10, 1541 (V. 407), "Ego paene de Germania desperavi, postquam recepit inter parietes veros illos Turkas seu veros illos diabolos, avaritiam, usuram, tyrannidem, discordiam et totam illam Lernam perfidiae, malitiae, et nequitiae, in nobilitate, in aulis, in curiis, in oppidis, in villis, super haec autem contemtum verbi et ingratitudinem inauditam." To Jonas he wrote, March 7, 1543 (V. 548), that the German nobility and princes were worse than the Turks, and bent upon enslaving Germany, and exhausting the people. To the same he gives, June 18, 1543 (V. 570), an account of the immorality of Wittenberg, and the indifference of the magistrate, and concludes, "Es ist ein verdriesslich Ding um die Welt." He thought that the end of the wicked world was near (Letter to Probst, Dec. 5, 1544, vol. V. 703).

The German Reformation did not stimulate the duty of self-support, nor develop the faculty of self-government. It threw the church into the arms of the state, from whose bondage she has never been able as yet to emancipate herself. The princes, nobles, and city magistrates were willing and anxious to take the benefit, but reluctant to perform the duties, of their new priestly dignity; while the common people remained as passive as before, without a voice in the election of their pastor, or any share in the administration of their congregational affairs. The Lutheran prince took the place of the bishop or pope; the Lutheran pastor (Pfarrherr), the place of the Romish priest, but instead of obeying the bishop he had to obey his secular patron.675675    Friedberg, Kirchenrecht, p. 57, correctly says, "Die Reformation hat schliesslich wohl Pfarrsprengel geschaffen, aber keine Gemeinden." This is true even now of the Lutheran churches in Northern Germany; but in Westphalia, on the Rhine, and in America, the congregational life is more or less developed, partly through contact with Reformed churches.


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