Christian organizations in the world, such as synods and churches, are subject to order in two different ways. One way we may call God’s Word, which is the expression of God’s will for us, for all time. The other we may call bureaucracy.
Likewise, two kingdoms exist in the world by the authority of God.
The Kingdom of the Right is the Holy Christian Church. It’s not to be seen upon the earth, except in its pure marks: the preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments.
The Kingdom of the Left is civil governance and organization, which is found in every country, nation, state and province.
This division between Right and Left, authority Spiritual and authority Temporal, is carried into outward Christian organizations, notably congregations and synods. Why? Because the Holy Christian Church is ruled only by the Gospel, in which we have complete freedom. It’s not suitable to organize a group of sinners, which after all, describes every synod and congregation. Temporal authority is required.
So a congregation has articles of incorporation and bylaws. It elects officers and others to carry out its business. They do so with temporal or bureaucratic authority, not with the Gospel. The same is true for synods.
It has been asked what spiritual authority a synod has over its member congregations. There are two ways to err in answering this question. We would err by saying that the synod and its officers, as such, have been given spiritual authority over the member congregations, pastors and missionaries of the synod. Note this quotation brought up at the 2006 General Pastoral Conference, from Christian Anderson in 1927:
Much less ought the congregations assign to the general church body or its officers any power and authority by virtue of their resolutions — even when not in conflict with God’s Word — could be construed as laws binding upon the congregations by virtue of divine authority, vested in them as superiors according to the fourth commandment. Such concession on the part of the congregations would make of the synod a papacy which might become just as anti-Christian as that of Rome.
Unsurprisingly, Christian Anderson agrees with paragraph 8 of the Treatise and with holy scripture (John 13:3-17 and Luke 22:25-30).
Then what are we to make of synodical discipline? It is entirely bureaucratic in nature, proceeding only under temporal authority. The reasons for it, and the manner of its implementation may be rooted in the Gospel, but it is not to be construed or understood as Church discipline.
The other way to err in describing what spiritual authority a synod has over its member congregations is to say that it has none at all. If the Synod is a churchly organization; that is, if it is composed of and for Christians, then it has the same spiritual authority that every Christian has: it may speak and publish God’s Word.
If God’s Word rebukes a congregation or pastor, then the synod may speak
that Word of God in rebuke — an element of church discipline.
If God’s Word commends, encourages or exhorts a church or pastor, then the synod may speak that Word in such a spirit. Every individual Christian, and every congregation may do exactly the same, with the same authority. The synod has no spiritual authority beyond the Word of God.
Now allow me to shift the subject a bit.
What ought to happen when bureaucratic necessity conflicts with the Word of God? For example, suppose a member of my congregation notices that our mission statement contains something that seems to be false doctrine, but our bylaws require that all our members agree to the congregation’s teachings. It’s a conflict between bureaucratic necessity and the Word of God. Here are some choices:
Release the member from the congregation and spend extra time on evangelism with the intent of forgetting that there could be a doctrinal problem with our mission statement. Under this option, the Word of God takes the brunt of abuse.
Suspend the bureaucratic requirement for membership until the mission statement can be examined and fixed, or its doctrine explained to the satisfaction of all parties. Under this option, the human and temporal organization takes the brunt of abuse.
If such a hypothetical situation ever arose in church or synod, we can predict with some certainty that the first choice would be followed. That may surprise you. But if you read enough Luther, you’ll find that he often laments that it is God’s Word and God’s name that must suffer the worst abuse in the world. If you pay attention and live long enough, you just might see this theory tested.