Law-Gospel differences

C. F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel

Thesis I.

The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

It is not my intention to give a systematic treatment of the doctrine of the Law and the Gospel in these lectures. My aim is rather to show you how easy it is to work a great damage upon your hearers by confounding Law and Gospel in spite of their fundamental difference and thus to frustrate the aim of both doctrines. You will not begin to be interested in this point until you place before yourselves in clear outlines the points in which the Law and the Gospel differ.

The point of difference between the Law and the Gospel is not this, that the Gospel is a divine and the Law a human doctrine, resting on the reason of man. Not at all; whatever of either doctrine is contained in the Scriptures is the Word of the living God Himself.

Nor is the difference, that only the Gospel is necessary, not the Law, as if the latter were a mere addition that could be dispensed with in a strait. No, both are equally necessary. Without the Law the Gospel is not understood; without the Gospel the Law benefits us nothing.

Nor can this naïve, yet quite current, distinction be admitted, that the Law is the teaching of the Old while the Gospel is the teaching of the New Testament. By no means; there are Gospel contents in the Old and Law contents in the New Testament. Moreover, in the New Testament the Lord has broken the seal of the Law by purging it from Jewish ordinances.

Nor do the Law and the Gospel differ as regards their final aim, as though the Gospel aimed at men’s salvation, the Law at men’s condemnation. No, both have for their final aim man’s salvation; only the Law, ever since the Fall, cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel. Furthermore, it is through the Gospel that we obtain the ability to fulfil the Law to a certain extent.

Nor can we establish a difference by claiming that the Law and the Gospel contradict each other. There are no contradictions in Scripture. Each is distinct from the other, but both are in the most perfect harmony with one another.

Finally, the difference is not this, that only one of these doctrines is meant for Christians. Even for the Christian the Law still retains its significance. Indeed, when a person ceases to employ either of these two doctrines, he is no longer a true Christian.

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Walther’s Law-Gospel Theses

C. F. W. Walther spoke to seminary students on Friday evenings at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis beginning in September 1884. For the next year and a half, he provided practical instruction in the proper distinction of Law and Gospel. Now, 132 years later, his words till resonate with a the heart of spiritual care uppermost for pastors.

I have read the book at least six times in the last 35 years. Well worth your time reading and re-reading. Check out CPH.org or Amazon for a hard copy. Or for an online resource, check out:

Walther’s Law and Gospel Distinctions

Here are the 25 theses he presented (took more than 25 sessions to cover all this!).

25 Theses on the Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel

Thesis I. The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis II. Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis III. Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.

Thesis IV. The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is an remains a sealed book.

Thesis V. The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized — and the grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by Papists, Socinians, and Rationalists, and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the Gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the papists.

Thesis VI. In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.

Thesis VII. In the third place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.

Thesis VIII. In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.

Thesis IX. In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when thy are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.

Thesis X. In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.

Thesis XI. In the seventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law, not from fear of the wrath and punishment of God, but from love of God.

Thesis XII. In the eighth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sin.

Thesis XIII. In the ninth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when one makes an appeal to believe in a manner as if a person could make himself believe or at least help towards that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.

Thesis XIV. In the tenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when faith is required as a condition of justification and salvation, as if a person were righteous in the sight of God and saved, not only by faith, but also on account of his faith, for the sake of his faith, and in view of his faith.

Thesis XV. In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance.

Thesis XVI. In twelfth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practises.

Thesis XVII. In the thirteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times.

Thesis XVIII. In the fourteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.

Thesis XIX. In the fifteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if there were not of a damnable, but of a venial nature.

Thesis XX. In the sixteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox Church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.

Thesis XXI. In the seventeenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.

Thesis XXII. In the eighteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a false distinction is made between a person’s being awakened and his being converted; moreover, when a person’s inability to believe is mistaken for his not being permitted to believe.

Thesis XXIII. In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promises of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.

Thesis XXIV. In the twentieth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the unforgiven sin against the Holy Ghost is described in a manner as if it could not be forgiven because of its magnitude.

Thesis XXV. In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.

Law-Gospel

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Law or Gospel—How hard can that be?

Law:

Tells us what to do and what not to do. In this use of the Law, it always threatens, accuses, condemns a person.

Gospel:

Tells us what God has done for us in Jesus, who took all the punishment of the Law that we deserve (Christ’s passive obedience for us). Jesus also lived the perfect life (Christ’s active obedience for us). The Gospel proclaims both aspects and forgives, renews, restores—Gospel never condemns.

Application—it’s difficult

It’s relatively easy to distinguish Law and Gospel when reading the Biblical text. Regarding salvation if a person is the subject of the verb then it is Law. If God/Jesus is the subject of the verb it is Gospel.

But in real life, when does this person across from me need to hear Law and when to hear Gospel? Now this becomes difficult, very difficult. In an earlier post I mentioned that we are quick make a judgment and think we have the solution and apply what we have imagined is the right “medicine.” In reality many times we don’t know the person well enough to know whether he/she needs Law or Gospel.

What about you? Can you identify a situation in which you had trouble determining whether Law or Gospel was needed? (Please, no names, just incidents).

20091224-depressed

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Law and Gospel Intro

C. F. W. Walther had taught at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. But he also gave evening lectures of a more practical nature. In the fall of 1884 he began a series of lectures on Law and Gospel, not doctrinal lectures, but a practical encouragement to future pastors. His words are as timeless today as when he first gave the lectures. The following is his introductory comments.

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FIRST EVENING LECTURE.

(September 12, 1884.)

My Dear Friends: —

If you are to become efficient teachers in our churches and schools, it is a matter of indispensable necessity that you have a most minute knowledge of all doctrines of the Christian revelation. However, having achieved such knowledge, you have not yet attained all that is needed. What is needed over and above your knowledge of the doctrines is that you know how to apply them correctly. You must not only have a clear apperception of the doctrines in your intellect, but all of them must have entered deeply into your heart and there manifested their divine, heavenly power. All these doctrines must have become so precious, so valuable, so dear to you, that you cannot but profess with a glowing heart in the words of Paul: “We believe, therefore we have spoken,” and in the words of all the apostles: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” You have indeed not seen these things with your physical eyes or heard them with your physical ears, like the apostles, but you ought to have an experience of them through your spiritual eyes and ears.

While in my dogmatic lectures I aim to ground you in every doctrine and make you certain of it, I have designed these evening lectures on Fridays for making you really practical theologians. I wish to talk the Christian doctrine into your very hearts, enabling you in your future calling to come forward as living witnesses with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I do not want you to stand in your pulpits like lifeless statues, but to speak with confidence and with cheerful courage offer help where help is needed.

Cranach_Gesetz_und_Gnade_Gotha

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If you have not read Walther’s Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, you can read it here:

Walther’s Law and Gospel 

Other posts about Law and Gospel:

When to confront…when to comfort

What does it mean…to be Lutheran?

Puzzle: Living under the Law or living in the Gospel

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Pastoral Formation and Churchmanship

I had posted this a year ago last month. But I think it needs to be read again… by me and other church leaders.

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When someone raises the issue of pastoral formation and seminary education, the focus always leans to the theological education. And rightly so, because a solid theological education is important for pastoral formation. In traditional terms we speak about four areas of theological education: exegetical, systematics, historical, and practical. Each area assists in providing the necessary tools, experience, and knowledge to effectively carry out pastoral duties in the congregation.

But other aspects influence Pastoral Formation. Here are four critical components in that formation: spiritual formation, character formation, catechetical formation, and Churchmanship formation.

1. Spiritual Formation

Spiritual formation involves three realms: worship, Bible reading/study, and prayer. Luther wrote about spiritual formation for all Christians:

 Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (read/study), and Tentatio (affliction)

This is vital for spiritual formation and growth. I leave tentatio out of this discussion at this point, only because it affects all areas of pastoral formation.

Worship: What kind of worship experiences has a seminary student had? Does he live in a congregation that has only one form of Divine Service? Where and how does the student learn about the great traditions of divine service? What can be done to help him learn not only history but also to practice that? As part of our seminary training, we examine how to best form the pastor regarding worship and leading worship. For online seminary this is a particularly challenging area.

Bible Reading/Study: In Peter’s second letter he writes about end times and the Christian in the midst of waiting for Christ’s return. His last words express this point of spiritual formation:

…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18 NAS)

It might be a surprise to some, but pastors struggle with daily Bible reading and study. They study for preparing to preach a sermon or teach a Bible study. For some that is the extent of reading/studying. But the issue of spiritual formation is “How can someone grow spiritually without regular, consistent Bible reading and study?”

When I visit with seminarians and pastors I will ask what they are reading. Some respond with the latest theological books (which can be good). My concern, however, is what are they reading in the Bible. I then say, “If I ask you what you are reading in the Bible, you should ask me what I am reading.” So, for the record, my wife and I are reading through 1 Samuel, last night it was chapter 24. In my private reading I am reading through Genesis; last night I read chapters 28-30.

Bible reading and study are the means to grow in this knowledge. Yes, many theological books can help. But they can never replace Bible reading. To do so is to stunt the seminarian’s spiritual growth. When a student learns Greek and/or Hebrew then the desire is to also read the Bible in those languages. If we are not reading God’s Word daily, regularly, then we are short circuiting God’s desire for spiritual growth. Ultimately the seminarian/pastor will have little to nothing to offer his people in sermons and teachings.

Prayer: Prayer is speaking to God. It is the human response to God speaking to us in His Word. Prayer is individual and corporate. It is often easy to get used to leading prayer in the corporate worship setting. But it can also become mechanical. The right entry phrases, the right endings, the appropriate statements of petitions.

When prayer is individual and privately with one or two other people, then the words may not come so easily. Instead prayer is the outpouring of a heart devastated by sin. Prayer reflects the struggle that we face in a sinful world. Prayer reveals our broken hearts, our desire for answers, our pleas for mercy. And many times it is joyful, but quiet contentment to praise God with hymns, songs, and spiritual songs. Prayer isn’t necessarily learned by a book, but by imitating a praying person. I have grown much in this area in the past four years because of a group of people who pray, pray, and pray. Philippians 4:6-7; Ephesians 5:18-20; 6:18-20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; and many other Scripture texts can be used to encourage and grow in prayer.

2. Character Formation

Most people are surprised to learn that there is only one talent/gift for a pastor: “he is apt to teach.” Everything else about the formation of a pastor has to do with character. And so little is written/spoken about this. We have a seminary class, Pastoral Theology and Life, in which we explore this whole concept of character formation.

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and cthe snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7 NAS)

This is a challenge, but also an encouragement to those whose who serve as pastors. It does not mean that pastors are perfect in all of these areas. But unless he wrestles through each of these, he is only examining his life to satisfy “what can I get by with?”

Character formation affects all relationships: with God, with spouse, with children, with members, with neighbors, with outsiders. Notice how especially negatives in vv. 3-5 highlights the need for self-examination. For me, the one about “keeping his children under control with all dignity” became a four decade battle and challenge. I almost left the pastoral office three times because of that. I have known some who struggle with drugs or alcohol. In reality, every pastor fails in these areas whether in deeds or in the thoughts. As always, when we fail, we confess and seek forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9), but we also recognize that there may be further consequences.

One particular issue that affects the current state of the church is that the pastor is not to be “pugnacious, but gentle” or as one translation has it, “not a bully but gentle.” Unfortunately the internet provides a platform for bullies in the church. But even worse is a pastor who is a bully, whether on the internet or especially in his congregation in his dealings with people.

Paul provides the proper perspective on character formation, for everyone.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; (Galatians 5:22-23 NAS)

3. Catechetical Formation

Catechetical formation is not “how to teach the catechism.” It is much more comprehensive than that. Catechetical formation refers to the entire approach of the congregation in “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, it includes catechism instruction, family devotions, family and church gatherings that reflect the life of grace and mercy, shaped by proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel.

How easy it is for the pastor to be distracted from this essential task. Meetings are important, but they do not direct the congregational life. Activities are important, but they can divert energy and interest away from learning the essential truths of the Christian faith.

Catechetical formation also involves a consistency throughout congregational life. Hymns, prayers, and readings done in worship form the basis for shut-in visits, hospital visits, family crises ministry. That is the faith confessed, and expressed, in worship is not about a la-la land, but of real life, lived in the trenches as well as on the mountains. Thus, catechetical formation provides the threads that unite and emphasizes the Christian life and growth. In our seminarian curriculum we have a course, Catechesis, in which we explore the dimensions of catechetical formation.

4. Churchmanship Formation

Of all the areas mentioned, Churchmanship formation is the least mentioned or even acknowledged as important. Yet, when Churchmanship is missing, everyone suffers. So what is Churchmanship?

In church life, life can be messy for the church and for pastors. Churchmanship calls pastors and lay leaders to stand up to do what is right, whether it is popular or not. Paul gives some guidelines here:

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. (1 Timothy 5:17-22 NAS)

Note, then, that Churchmanship is not taking charge as if you are the only one who knows what to do. It means that sometimes when the system is broken, the pastor identifies areas that need fixing, but not going on a vendetta against someone. In cases of difficult discipline, the pastor is a churchman who takes the avenue that is appropriate and consistent with the sin involved.

Churchmanship may also involve leading the congregation, the area group, or the entire church body in a way that will be difficult, challenging, frustrating but ultimately good for the body. This means that a churchman will listen to advice, seek consensus if possible, and move with deliberate yet responsible steps to achieve the goal.

Sadly, over the past four decades in church service, I have seen many examples of poor Churchmanship. When I quoted Peter above, it was a continuation of a previous thought. Now look at it in context:

You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18 NAS)

But sometimes, silently I have observed Churchmanship demonstrated that was outstanding, but was seldom, if ever, recognized as Churchmanship. I have had the pleasure of knowing churchmen who upheld the highest integrity and concern for the church at large. One of my professors (now deceased) in seminary was not the flashiest, but I refer to him with the accolade: “a gentleman scholar.” My hope is that in the seminary, the other professors and I can follow that path.

Posted in Meditatio, Ministry, Oratio, Pastoral Formation, Tentatio | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Abuse and Hermeneutics

Note: If this article hits too close to home—stop reading and call your counselor or pastor now.

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Wow! What a combination! How can either of these be related? I have considered this for the past few weeks and hope to make some sense in the connection between the two topics.

Abuse

As a pastor, I have found the issue of abuse is real. As an environment is created for trust and safety, then stories about abuse begin to trickle out. Stories of pain, fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt, etc.

Abuse is serious and more prevalent than many pastors and churches think. Denial does not work, does not address the issues, does not help those abused, does not give the abusers help either. It is a systemic problem in the church.

One theme continued to come up in these discussions:

“Why don’t the churches and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

These questions stayed in my mind over the past few months. As a starting point, in our own church we pray for those who have been abused and for the abusers. But these questions are deeper than even that. “Why don’t people understand?” I have taught Hermeneutics in our seminary the past five years, and in fact, I am teaching it this quarter. And that led me to a startling revelation. Is this question (and solution) really a problem of hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics

In general terms, hermeneutics is “principles of interpretation.” How do we interpret what is written, spoken, seen. In everyday living we unconsciously use some kind principles of interpreting each of these. In specific terms as a Bible teacher, we use this to refer to principles of interpretation applied to the Biblical texts.

There many approaches to Biblical hermeneutics. The one I have found the most helpful over the past 35 years is one presented by Dr. James Voelz in his book What Does This Mean? (Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World), and also his video and audio lectures in iTunesU.

I will not cover everything in the book, but one specific aspect of his approach is key in Biblical interpretation, and now critical in interpreting abuse. One of the challenges of interpretation is asking the question: “What does this mean?” Voelz notes that the word “mean” is used in three different ways (Voelz uses the term “levels” to separate the three):

1. What is the sense of the text?

2. What is the significance of the text?

3. What is the implication of the text?

Consider one example Voelz addresses: Luke 7:14-15

And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Level 1 interpretation: 

Taking the words at face value as marks on the page. So: Jesus healed a dead young man and gave him back to his mother.

Level 2: interpretation: 

This significance of this event (action) is provided in the following verse by what the people surmise what had happened.

Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16)

Scripture does not often provide a level 2 interpretation. And sometimes what is recorded as level 2 is wrong—no, not that Scripture is wrong, but that someone’s interpretation of an event is wrong, i.e. when the Jewish leaders claim that Jesus is demon possessed (John 8:48).

Level 3 interpretation: 

What is the implication of Luke including this event? In other words, at this point we are looking at the author to see what it tells us about the author’s motive, audience, etc. This is by far the hardest aspect of interpreting a text, and there are few resources to help.

Note how confusing this could be if people in a conversation claim “This is what the text means” and they use a different “level” to give an answer. Thus, I think Voelz gives us a helpful map through this confusion as we look at the Biblical text via the three levels. He also shows that this can be used to interpret actions as well as words.

Understanding Abuse using Hermeneutics

The light came on for me when I put together that Voelz’s three levels not only applies in Biblical interpretation but in all interpretation. That is, we also interpret events/actions that happen in everyday life. And this brings us back to abuse.

So I began asking how to interpret abuse? For the sake of illustration I am presenting a hypothetical case that involves a man physically abusing a woman. This can equally apply to sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, etc. Also, abuse is not limited to men as abusers.

By using three levels we can begin to sort out not only what happened (level 1) but also how to interpret the actions (level 2) and how to interpret the “author” (abuser) (level 3).

Level 1: 

The man hits a woman repeatedly. Level 1 seems relatively simple, but we are isolating one event. As the abuse continues then each Level changes. But in public the abuse is not “evident.”

Level 2: 

There are really three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “She just wouldn’t listen to me. I wanted her attention.”

For the abused: “I love him and trying to do what he says.”

For the outsider: “Look how his wife tries to please him.” (the outsider never sees the effects of abuse, at least initially, so only interprets what they see her do in public, namely trying to appease him.)

Level 3: 

There are also three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “What is wrong with her?” (the abused tells something about her but the evaluation/interpetation is controlled by the abuser)

For the abused: “What am I doing wrong that I can’t please him?” (the abuser tells something about herself but from the abuser’s perspective, guilt, shame play a major role here)

For the outsider: “That couple looks so happy, what a model of love for others.”

Notice that each level illustrates different interpretations depending on the role each plays in the “action of abuse” and the one who controls the narrative interpretation at each level.

The deadly part of this cycle is that the abuser controls the interpretation at all three levels for himself and her. And typically the abuser knows how to say and do things to bring the abused wife back to him. Thus, it is now at least understandable why it takes a woman who is physically abused to leave the man seven times before she finally does leave for good—if she lives long enough.

So what?

So much more can be explored in this topic. But this may help set the tone for understanding what happened and the consequences of interpreting at each level.

Where does the church fit into this? In one sense the church is the “outsider” in the above scenario. Notice what happens then. The abuser controls level 1 (he will abuse at will). He controls at level 2 (changing the interpretation as time goes on), and he will always blame the one abused (level 3). The narrative the church accepts (level 2) is also controlled by the abuser. And at level 3, the church hears about the abused, but only as interpreted by the abuser  (“the fault lies with her”).

What happens if the abused woman begins to speak out, to identify what happened (level 1), what is the significance of what happened (level 2), and to tell about the abuser (level 3)? Ironically, she is seen as not truthful because she is attacking a person (level 3) and not the situation (level 1) and therefore “she doesn’t really get what happened” (level 2). It’s almost as if she is abused once again when she is met with anger, hostility, etc. because “she is disturbing this fine relationship.” Her pain, experience, value as a person is challenged at the very time that she needs genuine support.

This is already a longer post than I usually write. But there is so much more to write about. My goal in this post is to give the church some insight into abuse and begin to interpret abuse in all three levels and see where the pitfalls exist for the church and especially church leaders. My hope is that this will generate open discussion about this church problem.

And ultimately my hope is that the church begins to deal with abuse and provide love, care, and help for the abused, the abuser, and all family members involved.

Let’s go back to those questions from the abused:

“Why don’t the church and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

Are we listening to the questions? Are we interpreting in light of what the abuser is saying, and the abused is afraid to say anything to contradict that? Now we have something to think about and come to grips with in the church. Abuse is real—the pain, fear, guilt, shame, anger, frustration are real. The Gospel is specifically there for this situation.

I have discussed this understanding of abuse with other people, and they find it helpful. May you find it to be so, too.

Psalm 34:18 (MEV)

The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the contrite of spirit.

Ps 147:3 (MEV)

He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.

Isa 61:1 (MEV)

The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Luke 4:17-18 (MEV)

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. When He had unrolled the scroll, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed;

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All promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Now those promises continue in the Church‘s life and proclamation of Jesus Christ. May it be so in the Church today.

Posted in Meditatio, Pastoral Formation, Tentatio | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Conference-itis Really?

Conference-itis — What is it?

This post has been brewing for several years. All critiques and questions in the post have arisen from my own struggles, questions, concerns. In other words, if these comments feel a little uncomfortable, I understand, I have been there, too.

What is conference-itis? There are many conferences, from the church body conferences to the wild and woolly conferences (many times bizarre, but catching international attention).

But the focus of this post is not on those kinds of conferences. Rather, I use the term in reference to independent groups springing up within the more conservative churches, that has also been attracting some Lutherans. The conferences have become the next great thing in the church. And to attend or speak at a conference is the badge certifying that “I have made it.” Conference-itis affects the person who thinks this is the “real deal” in church.

A little background on me. I write as one who has served, and is currently serving as a pastor, and in the last 8 years also serving as a seminary president. I attended more than my share of these kinds of conferences from the mid 1980s to the present, several times speaking at such conferences—I was suffering from conference-itis. In the mid 1990s I began to ask myself questions about the conferences, the speakers, and my own role. I now attend far fewer conferences.

Why am I going to the conference?

Several conferences I attended were very helpful for me. They opened my eyes in terms of pastoral care, teaching, and preaching. They served to assess my own ministry. Yet after a few I learned that other conferences were not helping, but in fact, distracting me. Then my question changed to: “Why am I going to this?”

Yes, fellowship with others was good. But at a two day conference where I met 100-200 or more people I soon realized that almost none of them would be ongoing friends. Not because I didn’t want to, but I was serving a congregation of 250+ with Preschool (75) and Parents’ Day Out (125), etc. In other words, any time I dedicated to conference attendees beyond the initial conference was time away from caring for those I was called to serve as pastor.

Yes, learning goes on at conferences. I have gained significant insights over the past 29 years. But I had to ask myself: How is this helping me improve as a pastor serving people? The insights showed that many conferences were not helpful, and so I attended fewer—the conferences were being filtered through that questioning lens.

It was an eye-opener when after attending one conference that all 70 pastors were so enthusiastic about the ideas presented. Some rushed home to begin the “new ministry approach” the first month. I remember one pastor was so excited about small group ministry that he started eleven groups within three months of returning from the conference. Yet at the conference everyone was strongly urged to start small—with one group. Within five years that pastor had no groups in the church. And worse, he provided no support to group leaders at any stage.

Others of us took time and assessed whether it would work in the congregations we were serving. We also took time to plan further out than six months—more like 10 years. It has been 23 years since I went to that conference. The congregation I served at the time started with one group, eventually growing to seven groups when I left. But even more—long after I left the congregation the groups have continued to grow in number and size to this day.

What is the purpose of the conference?

Over the last 25 years I have begun asking this question repeatedly (to myself). Will the purpose of this conference help me serve as pastor? If a member of my congregation attends, how will this conference help that person grow in the faith and serve in the community into which he or she is living/serving?

In the mid 1980s I assumed that every conference would benefit me and every member. But the reality is that many conferences are not so much designed to build up and support the existing congregations and members. They may serve other needs and purposes, which is fine. But I needed to clearly think about this and the implications for the congregation. So, my question became “What is the purpose of this conference?”

It breaks my heart to even write this: In some conferences I have seen where the local ministry is portrayed as “not sufficient.” In other words, the conference itself becomes more important than the congregation. As a Lutheran, I understand that the congregation is a group of believers in Christ gathered around Word and Sacrament. And when a conference moves away from that focus, then I have even more serious concerns.

Even at Lutheran conferences, I have heard comments about Word and Sacrament being essential, but then the speaker(s) totally ignoring those tools, rather intimating that the local congregation might be lacking in some way—which only this conference can fix. The conference becomes an “encouraging community” to get the “real deal” at the conference, not the real deal in Word and Sacrament with brothers and sisters who are my community.

So, I ask myself as a pastor, is this conference helping me serve God’s people? Or is that only a hook to get me there, to be “encouraged” by others wanting “something more”?

Those are tough questions, perhaps making some of us very uneasy. If so, I am glad that is happening, because we need to be brutally honest about all this. If not, then we are slipping into the mindset that “something out there” is needed beyond what God gives and provides in the congregation.

What about those who lead the conference?

One of my filters now includes this question: “What is going on in the congregation of this speaker?” This is not just a congregation-size issue. A pastor may serve a mega-church, but have little hands on experience with ministry in this specific area. The name is well known, but what exactly is he providing in real world experience that will benefit other pastors? If the speaker serves as pastor of a small congregation that has not grown beyond more than a large small group (not an oxymoron), then what does he offer at the conference?

If he is an author, is that the reason he is speaking? That he might generate more sales from his insights? Are those insights, true insights or just a repackaging of something else?

How is his presentation? I don’t care to be entertained. I don’t need speakers who publicly push the boundaries of language. Is he sarcastic, snide, rude? That doesn’t edify anyone—Ephesians 4:29. Will that language help me care for the cancer patient, the new widower, the parents of a runaway in the congregation. If the speaker critiques someone, does he critique the false teaching or does he ridicule the person?

Is the speaker showing by his knowledge of the Bible that he knows ministry inside and out, from failure and success? Or is he offering his own mix of what works with a little from the Bible, a little from the business world, and a little “common sense?” Is he willing to admit the limits of his knowledge and experience? Or is he presenting as if this “new thing,” better than the Bible, is the only way to go?

These are very difficult, challenging questions. But as I have learned over the decades, if I don’t ask the questions, then I am letting someone else dictate what I should be doing in ministry, with me becoming a shallow imitation of someone who may or may not be working for the good of the kingdom.

What are alternatives?

At that point, we need to see whether the time and money to attend any conference really is worth it to the pastor and congregation. Maybe that two day conference (that eats up four days when travel is included; effectively amounting to 60 working hours) might yield to an alternative that will help the congregation. Perhaps it might benefit the congregation more if the pastor took those 60 hours over the next two weeks to study Greek and Hebrew texts, gaining insights into the Scriptures. Then he can deepen the Bible studies that he teaches locally and faithfully preach each week. Each pastor has to ask himself that question.

I have been mentoring pastors for 25 years, and in the last eight years visiting pastors and seminary students. I ask them all the same question: “What are you reading?” Sometimes I will get responses about the latest best seller by Rev. Dr. ______, or just throwing out a last name, intimating that I should know who he/she is and be pleased they are up to date. Now, I have no problem with people reading books, I’ve been known to read 5,000+.

But when I ask the question about “what are you reading?” I am specifically asking: “What are you reading in the Bible?” As pastors the best preparation for service is to be in God’s Word. By this I also do not include commentaries, although commentaries are good they cannot replace reading the Scriptures.

 The reading of the Bible:

1. Read the Bible: (i.e., a consistent reading through the Bible). Many resources are available for anyone to begin and continue reading the Bible. In hermeneutical terms, we are expanding the matrix of understanding the Bible, always with Christ as the key to the matrix. (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-46; etc.). As a pastor, we can easily make it a goal to read the entire Bible in one year.

2. Mediative reading: To complement #1, this approach takes more time, a slower pace. It is often best to read aloud the text. As the mouth articulates the text, the text forms in the mind, in the heart, and begins a process of drawing one closer to God. Psalm 1:1-2 illustrates this process.

3. Detailed Study: For the pastor, this means taking out the Hebrew and Greek texts and working through a section of a text. Often people hear this encouragement and want to start but tackle too much at one time. If you are rusty, then I suggest working through a book (like John’s Gospel) and translate one verse a day. You may have to frequently look up words in a lexicon when you start. But you are doing one verse. Soon you will discover that you don’t have to look up some words, because they have become familiar to you, and you can do 2-3 verses each day.

For those who are not trained in the languages, detailed study can still be done. Compare translations (different approaches is good: so NAS and NLT or NKJV and GW make good combinations). Where they differ, there is probably something going on in the text that needs more attention. As you study, notice structural words (connectors like “therefore” [Romans 12:1] or repetiton of patterns [Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5]). Can these patterns help us understand the thought progression of the author, etc.?

Attend Bible studies that the pastor leads. Ask your pastor questions (Acts 17:11). If he doesn’t know, then ask him if he could help you research the text.

Are all conferences to be avoided?

Not at all. I think pastor conferences within a church body can be very beneficial. In The AALC we have an annual Fall Pastors’ Conference that has become a refreshing, enjoyable, and helpful environment for my service in the congregation.

My plea (for myself, first) is that I examine the purpose of any conference. Will this help me in my service in the congregation? Or will it direct my attention elsewhere? Sadly some conferences do that. So I have declined to attend.

Finally I ask: Am I called by God to serve as conference speaker? Is this more important than my call as a pastor to a congregation? Then look at where am I in serving a congregation. Will speaking at this conference also assist me,a s well as others in serving God’s people?

Finally, the really personal questions: Do I crave the applause of the “audience”? Am I in a popularity contest? Who has the largest audience? Who is receiving attention? Is my ego being stroked by the accolades?

Again, the questions are mine—and they have revealed much about my own heart. This has been a long process and rethinking issues, and stopping to consider what I found so “fashionable” at the time that I wanted to pursue it. In repentance I seek God’s mercy. Not for others, but for myself.

I have directed this series of questions at myself since the mid 1990s. In discussions with other pastors, I have found they too have had concerns but didn’t quite know how to address the topic. Thus, my post is for my benefit, my friends’ benefit, and anyone else struggling with the pressure to “be at this conference!”

I am slowly recovering from conference-itis. It is freeing to do so.

Posted in Ministry, Pastoral Formation, Personal Reflection | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment