Rome contends that pastoral authority flows from the pope on down. (They do concede the pope stands in for Christ, but then give him the authority to just make up stuff that Jesus never said.) The Reformers, having actually read the scriptures, reject this outright. The Pastoral Epistles (Timothy 1&2, Titus) are directed at pastors – that is, those who have pulpit, font, and altar and spend their days tending to the flock where they are located. Ie. the Church in Corinth, the Church in Ephesus, the Church in Philippi, etc.
The Apostolic era had an office we no longer have, Apostle: A group of men who preached wherever they willed, established churches, and appointed the first pastors. They were immediately called. Jesus looked them in the face, said, “You are now a fisher of men”, and appointed them to their holy office. But after the ascension, Jesus only appointed one more man to serve such an office – Saint Paul, who would serve as missionary to the Gentiles. It’s worth noting that tradition tells us the other apostles by common agreement still divided things up, and set off for their respective places of service and death. This was by their own agreement and for the sake of good order however, not by Divine Command.
Pastors have a Divine Call. It is a Divine Command to preach. But it is mediated through the church. The people of God in a place, along with the clergy of that place, all agree and testify that “this is the guy whom God has called to be pastor.” In our current system, the testimony of the laity is given through the Divine Call document itself. The testimony of the local clergy is given by their attendance and participation in the installation rite – the worship service. But it is a call to a place. Pastors don’t wander about. And when the pastoral epistles refer to “Bishops” or “Elders” (Two ways of translating the same word “Episcopos”), it means the local pastor and nothing more. Since the close of the apostolic era (the death of Saint John), there is NO OTHER DIVINE OFFICE in the church than the pastoral office.
After the apostles could no longer be consulted, a member of the local clergy was set apart at “first among equals”. He was a pastor recognized for his wisdom, who would advise and administer various matters on behalf of the clergy and local congregations. But he was a pastor. He had his own parish where he was shepherd. To pastors in other parishes, he was an assistant. That this assistance took a certain form of headship in no way changes that “bishops” (as they were now called) were servants to the other pastors. The one Divine Office was still the Pastoral one. It remains the highest office in the church. Any superior office we create is inferior to that one. And even in times of schism or unfaithfulness, it was recognized that, if you wanted to get rid of a faithful teacher, you couldn’t order him to teach unfaithfully, he had to be unjustly removed (i.e. Athanasius, on five separate occasions, many faithful pastors in the LCMS removed under the false charge of “being too brash and unloving”, etc.) If left in the pulpit, it was his. He would preach the Word as he was commanded.
Over time, the assistant function took on more and more responsibilities. By the time of the Reformation, bishops had an altar and pulpit (Rome has never been so godless as to remove bishops from at least that vestige of faithfulness!) but they spent so much time doing paperwork that they seldom if ever saw them. Assistants would tend their parish, while they attended to interloping into other parishes. Smalcald 3:10 lays it out bluntly and severely. It’s worth considering how our confessions define the Divine Office:
If the bishops would be true bishops, and would devote themselves to the Church and the Gospel… But because they neither are, nor wish to be, true bishops, but worldly lords and princes, who will neither preach, nor teach, nor baptize, nor administer the Lord’s Supper, nor perform any work or office of the Church…
Today we have an even worse situation. The men who assist local pastors are no longer themselves pastors (with few exceptions). We take men out of the pulpit and away from the hospital room and death bed where they used to minister, put them in an office and make them sign forms all day. They neither “preach, nor teach, nor baptize, nor administer the Lord’s Supper”. I’ve said it rather flippantly before, but it is true, “We take men out of the Holy Office, make them middle managers, and then are shocked to discover them acting like it.”
The good news is that things are already changing. Financial pressures are forcing men back into the parish. Perhaps not the current crop of executives. But I suspect that each time a group retires, one or two more will be “part time” at the DOB (District Office Building), and part time in a parish. Eventually, the problem will be solved. This already applies to our Synod Office Building. (Acronym Omitted) The early signs are good. Stewardship executives are now in the parish, and as of a year ago, so is the synod University Rep. If we will not be faithful for it’s own sake, God will bring it about through attrition.
Until then, pastors will be guided by their assistant/bishops as far as they are faithful. But since the office itself is now unfaithful (See above), pastors will more likely be guided by the Pastoral Epistles. And that’s ok as well. God gives his word so we would know what faithfulness is, and so that we would know when to heed the advice of others, and when to say “This is not the voice of my shepherd. I do not recognize this voice and will not heed it.” And that is a great comfort. The Church will endure. Our institutions may be tottering. But until they return to the Word of the Lord, I can think of nothing better for them to do than that.