Between Luther and Montesquieu: the Church of Norway's democracy

Democracy as a basic structure in organisational life is a given in most Western NGOs. However, church doctrine challenges the Montesquieuan principle that the body of the people possess the supreme power. Still, with reference to the Norwegian case, Helge Nylenna argues that churches, like other NGOs, can be democratic

The Church of Norway as a democratic organisation

The Loop's series on the Science of Democracy seeks to describe marginalised concepts of democracy. As part of this mission, it's relevant to discuss the theological and philosophical foundations of democracy within the Church of Norway (CoN).

All organisations, including churches, operate in a context. Each is the product of a society that influences the way the organisation unfolds. Though many churches and denominations are transnational, both geographical and cultural elements vary and create distinct practices. Lutheran churches in India and Ethiopia operate in different cultures to Nordic ones.

Until the disestablishment of the state church in 2012, CoN was officially an organisational expression of the religion of the Norwegian state. The Constitution of 1814 named the Evangelical-Lutheran faith as the official religion of the country. As a state church in the Nordic tradition, it can trace the linkage between church and state back to the christening of Norway in the 11th century.

Through the 20th century, the Church of Norway has developed a range of democratic elected bodies

However, since the latter half of the 19th century, Norway has seen an increased emphasis on freedom of religion and the secularisation of society. Migration has also contributed to greater cultural and religious diversity.

As a result, while remaining a traditional state church, CoN developed official democratic church bodies. Thus, the church organisation, to a large extent, became responsible for handling its own affairs. Previously, it operated within a reality in which the King and his ministers, in cooperation with the clergy, ran the church. But by the end of the 20th century, there were established local, regional, and national democratic elected bodies.

In the church elections of autumn 2019, roughly 8,000 persons were elected to 1,200 parochial church councils. Meanwhile, just under 100 were elected to 11 diocesan councils, which combined constitute the General Synod.

A Lutheran take on democracy

What, then, is the basis for a church democracy? CoN traces the ideological basis for democracy to the teachings of Martin Luther and the idea of universal priesthood. Luther argued against the notion of clergy as mediators of Gods grace. Instead, baptism restored the broken bonds between God and man.

Thus, every baptised person is a priest, called to serve God in their way. Through this Lutheran doctrine, all lay people are equipped to contribute to the governing of the church. However, CoN was not democratic from the moment of the Reformation onwards. Instead, when democratic ideals became prominent in society during the mid-19th century, they also made an impact within the church.

When the people were given a voice in the political sphere, it felt strange to be governed from above by church and/or state church authorities

Church commission, 1987

Writing about the cooperation between clergy and lay society in 1987, a church commission wrote that, 'When the people were given a voice in the political sphere, it felt strange to be governed from above by church and/or state church authorities'. At the same time, God and Scripture remain the absolute authorities within the church. Therefore, one cannot just transfer political democratic ideals into the church.

The commission noted that the principles of natural law, wherein the sum of each individual constitutes the supreme power, could lead the church astray in a worst-case scenario. However, they connected the notion of Gods people as an expression not of ethnicity or heritage, but of all baptised people carrying out the mission provided by Jesus, to the workings of democracy.

Lay and clerical representation

The commission also related the participation of lay people in the governing of the church to the Lutheran doctrine of clergy, as given in Confessio Augustana article V. The democratic bodies within CoN have from the very beginning included representatives of the ministry of teaching the gospel and administrating the sacraments. For instance, when the parochial church councils were established in 1920, they used structures known from local democracy in the municipalities. The exception was that the local pastor would be a permanent member of the council.

This combination of lay and clerical representation has since formed the structure of all democratic bodies within CoN. It reflects two key perspectives. Firstly, that the clergy are a constitutive element of the church order. Secondly, that a separation of one dominion for the democracy and one for the clergy is neither possible nor desirable.

The Church of Norway justifies its democracy using specific theological arguments, including lay empowerment through baptism and the principle of universal priesthood

With the empowerment of the laity through baptism, the principle of universal priesthood, and the cooperation between lay and clergy through the councils, CoN uses specific theological arguments to justify its democracy. These ideas are broadly accepted, and form the basis of church democracy. They give it a distinct characteristic, separating it from a traditional western political democracy. However, when applied to organisational structures, the theological and sociological implications of these ideas are still contested.

Differing positions on democratic structures

It is, therefore, worth emphasising two historical positions within the democracy of CoN. One is organisational democracy. This emphasises the congregation, wherein the gospel is preached and sacraments administered, as the basic unit of the church. As a result, this perspective holds that indirect elections to the regional and national democratic bodies are the best way to organise church democracy.

The other position emphasises more clearly baptism as the decisive factor. It therefore advocates direct elections at all levels of the church more in line with a political democracy.

To summarise, CoN adopts ideas from both Montesquieu and Luther. The former has a strong influence, through the adoption of democratic ideals in society. But the latter provides an ecclesiastical legitimacy to the church order. The organisation of the church in a Lutheran tradition is an adiaphoron, meaning that there is no 'correct' theological democratic order. Therefore, the church's democracy continues to develop in dialogue with society, Scripture, and the traditions that compose it and in which it unfolds.

No.101 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for theto read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Helge K. Nylenna
Helge K. Nylenna
PhD Candidate, VID Specialized University, Oslo

Helge's thesis deals with the separation of church and state in Norway, viewed through the lens of organisational and institutional theory.

His latest article, A Legitimate Democracy: Legitimacy Work and Democratic Reform During the Separation of Church and State in Norway, was published in the Journal of Church and State, vol. 65 (2), 2023.

Helge holds an MA in Theology from MF Norwegian School of Theology and an MA in Values Based Leadership from VID Specialized University.

He is an ordained pastor in the Church of Norway.

His research interests are church, state, organisational theory, and institutional theory.

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