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Lessons in the Lutheran Confessions
Concerning the Power of Bishops, Part 4

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Galatians 1:6–10

From the Confessions: The Augsburg Confession

Concerning the Power of Bishops

If bishops have any secular power, they do not possess it by virtue of being bishops commissioned by the Gospel, but by human law received from kings and emperors for the civil administration of their properties. This, however, is not the office of the gospel.

Therefore, when the question concerns the power of bishops, civil authority must be distinguished from that of the Church. Again, according to the Gospel, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops, those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no power except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church ungodly people, whose wickedness is evident. This is done simply by the Word, without human force. By necessity and by divine right, congregations must obey bishops as the gospel teaches: “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). However, when they teach or ordain anything contrary to the gospel, then congregations are commanded by God not to obey. “Beware of false prophets” (Matt 7:15). “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” (2Cor 13:8). The power which the Lord has given bishops is “for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor 13:10). Canon Laws command the same (Part II, Question 7, Priests and Sheep). Augustine also write in the Letter Against Petilian: “Neither must we submit to Catholic bishops if they chance to err, or hold anything contrary to the Canonical Scriptures of God.”

Pulling It Together

The jurisdictions of Church and State must be kept separate. If a bishop has secular power, it was conferred by the government, not by divine agency. The Church does not give such power to any bishop, for that is not a function of the gospel. According to Scripture, beyond preaching and teaching the Word of God and administering the Sacraments, the office of bishop includes these powers: forgiving sins, judging doctrine, rejecting heresy, and excluding the ungodly from the communion of the Church. In these matters, congregations are to obey God through the bishop. If a bishop strays from the gospel, congregations are charged by God not to obey that bishop, obeying instead the gospel that bishops are commissioned to keep for the building up of Christ's Church. 

Prayer: Lord, keep me steadfast in your Word today and all days. Amen. 

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A Reading and Discussion of the Augsburg Confession is a more challenging study series based on assigned readings from the Book of Concord and related Scripture texts. Each study is comprised of eight sessions, plus an optional introductory session, presented in a question and discussion format. The Leader's Guide that accompanies this study is a resource for those facilitating group discussion, or may serve as a reader's commentary for those who are studying the Book of Concord on their own.


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