Searching for the church—Part 1

In my previous post (15 Reasons why I came back to the Church) I focused on the reasons for coming back to the church. Today I will turn my attention to the searching aspect of coming back. First, let me distinguish between the Church, consisting of all believers in Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, also referred to as the Church Catholic [does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church=RCC] and the church as the local visible manifestation of that Church.

The Church in its essence is invisible. No one can look into another person’s heart and determine whether that person is a Christian or not. Yet there is a unity among all Christians, as Jesus expresses it ( “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one;” John 17:20).

The church is visible and gives our “flesh and blood” look at those who believe in Jesus Christ. But even here we cannot identify those who truly believe. As Jesus says there are weeds among the wheat.

Faith and Faith

Early on it became helpful to distinguish between two uses of the word faith.

  1. Faith which believes: This refers to the belief/faith/trust that God creates in the person (John 3:5; Romans 10:17, etc.). You might hear the expression “personal faith,” but that is really redundant, because faith which believes can only be personal.
  2. Faith which is believed: This refers to the content of the faith which believes, and often identified with the definite article, “the faith.” The outward expression of the content the faith is critical, because if the “faith which believes” is based on wrong content, then there is great danger in losing the “faith which believes.” Here are two examples of this use in the New Testament:

Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13)

until we all attain to the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13)

So, what difference does it make to know the difference between “faith” and “the faith” when searching for a church? In my experience in church leadership over the past 35 years, much of it as a pastor, I have found most people use #1 as the criteria, and seldom if ever pay attention to #2. That is, the person will state, “I believe in Jesus” (with many assumptions behind that statement) and tries to find a church that reinforces the “personal faith.” Carl Braaten aptly observed: “that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls ‘experiential expressivism.’ Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology” (First Things 61 [March 1996]).

For someone who approaches the search this way, it is not unusual to find that person shifting from Methodist to Baptist to Presbyterian to Evangelical to non-denominational, searching for a local church that “feels comfortable.” These tags are of little or no consequence in the search, because “it is what I believe in my heart that counts.” Note this is not a judgment but rather an observation.

The Search changes direction

What happens if we include that second aspect, the content of faith, “the faith”? Now I have to begin to examine what is the content of my faith? What do I believe about God? Who is this Jesus? What does the Trinity (three in one) mean? What do I believe about justification, sanctification, baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc.? If these questions come up, then we search Scriptures. But how many of us are experts in that? Is it necessary to be an expert? The key is beginning to read the Word, but more than just a quick devotional plunge every now and then. (I recommend reading entire books in roughly this order: Ephesians, Mark, 1 John, Luke, Romans, Matthew, 1 Peter, John, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, etc.)

As I examine these topics and come to some decision about the content of my faith based on my study of Scripture, now I begin to examine what that local church, or congregation, publicly teaches. If I come to one conclusion about baptism, what happens if that congregation teaches differently? Is this a church where I can in good conscience worship? Where do I draw the line on all these essential teachings?

This is not a new problem. Christians have faced this challenge from the very first. So what becomes the standard for me and the church to determine what is “the faith”? Obviously, we will say the “Bible.” For the first Christians, prior to the formal collection of the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was the basis. In Acts 17:11 we read: “and every day they carefully examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true.”

As time went on, challenges to the Biblical teaching arose, and the Church responded with statements of faith based on the Scriptures. Those statements of faith, known as “Creeds” (“creed” comes from credo = “I believe”) became summary statements of the content of what is believed. We have creedal statements even in the New Testament:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.  (1 Tim. 3:16)

Notice that Paul even writes “by common confession.” So Paul acknowledges how important it is to share in the content of “the faith.”

Also, notice that in this search of Scripture, we discover that this is never a “one issue” or “one doctrine” kind of litmus test of a church (or myself). If I disagree with what the church teaches about baptism, that will affect what it teaches on sin, salvation, God and humans in relationship, etc. In fact, every critical doctrine ultimately affects the teaching about justification by grace through faith.

Where does this lead?

At this point, our search leads us to consider what a church publicly teaches or confesses. A statement of “the faith” is critical. Every church has a creed of some kind. I remember serving as pastor in a smaller community, in which there was a church, specifically identified as “anti-creedal” claiming “we believe what the Bible teaches, so we don’t need a creed.” One newsletter had the very large headline, “We are Anti-creedal!” The rest of the page consisted of 20+ statements of faith, i.e. a creed!

As you study the Bible, it helps to examine the two major creeds, Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed to see what they teach. The Apostles Creed developed over a period of centuries but has been seen original as a baptismal creed. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea in AD 325 as they met the challenge of those who taught the Jesus was somehow a “lesser God.”

Again, see whether the creeds themselves teach what the Bible teaches. When I teach adult instruction class, I give this handout of the Apostles Creed for them to see that the creed is not “something added to the Bible” but is a summary of what the Bible teaches.

The Next Step

Finding a church that confesses “the faith” that matches the Bible is not an easier or simple path. If a doctrine of the church is obviously contrary to the Bible, then move on, this is not a place for you to grow in “the faith,” let alone concern for “your faith.” But take your time. As your grow in your understanding of the Bible, you will discover your understanding of “the faith” will reflect more and more what the Church has confessed as “the faith.” And as you do, you will find a church which does as well.

This is an important aspect of your faith, but it is also an exciting time as your learn more about who God is, what God has done, and how God relates to people. We belong to that extended train of believers throughout history, the Church. The wisdom of those who have gone before us is valuable for us as we study, reflect, pray, and learn.

Shopping for a Bible? Choices may be limited

I love libraries and bookstores. Give me an extra hour and I can fill the time easily in either place. Yesterday was a day of errands: car repairs and meeting with CPA for taxes. In between those two activities, I had some spare time and visited a Christian book store; it was my first visit to this particular store. I try to look at what categories of books are handled and the range of authors stocked. And I do the same with Bibles.

Bible Selections and Non-selections

The book store carried four primary translations: KJV, NKJV, NAS, and NLT, with several different kinds of Bibles (study, devotional, topical, etc.). Even more fascinating were the translations missing: ESV and NIV (2011). ESV fits into the realm of the KJV/NKJV/NAS, and the NIV provides something between them and NLT.

So where were these two translations? I thought perhaps they limited themselves to “reliable and usable” — but why not ESV and NIV? Then I thought maybe because these four were considered better translations for study—but why NLT? And as I explored more, I discovered they carried The Message in multiple editions, as well as the Amplified Bible, the Expanded Bible, and the Common English Bible. And I found they carried a few editions of God’s Word (GW) translation, which I think is better than NLT. They even carried a new GW edition that I had not seen, published by Baker, called the Names of God Bible. I look forward to reviewing that new edition.

Hmmm. That doesn’t quite make sense. The Message is not even a translation, not even in the category of NLT, let alone ESV and NIV. The Amplified Bible (and as I looked it over the Expanded Bible, too) does an injustice to those wanting to study the Bible. It offers all possible meanings within a context, which is less than helpful, in fact, it is misleading.

So all this makes the omission of both ESV and NIV even more puzzling. I have been in other bookstores that carry ESV but not NIV, or they carry NIV and just a smattering of ESV. Given the rhetoric on both sides of the translations debates about ESV and NIV, those kinds of choices make sense (even if I disagree with both sides).

I didn’t have time, but now I wonder if any of the devotional books, study guides, or commentaries in the bookstore used ESV or NIV. Perhaps that is for my next visit (being 60 miles away from a Christian bookstore means less frequent trips).

It just gets curiouser and curiouser…
(PS: At least I found another edition of God’s Word to investigate!)

15 reasons why I came back to the Church

Earlier today, Rachel Held posted 15 Reasons Why I left the Church. She got me to thinking about this, and why it is important for us to listen to people who leave the Church. But it is also important for us to understand why some come back to the Church. I serve as a pastor of a Lutheran congregation and president of a Lutheran Seminary. As I reflected on her post, I realized some similarities, despite the fact that I am a generation older than her (I have grandkids closer to her age than I am to her age). Please note: this is not an attack against Rachel, rather these are my own reflections on the same issues she raises, because they are important.

I came back to the Church  when I was 27. I am nearly 63 years of age and have lived in many places (28 moves in 41 years of marriage). I have served as a lay leader, then as pastor of several congregations, and as mentor for other pastors in the past 20 years. Each time I have moved into a new congregation, the challenges, while specific to a context, share many of the same issues. The people are broken sinners, just like I am. They need hope, help, and encouragement of the Gospel like I do.

Let’s begin with fifteen reasons why I came back (parallel to Rachel’s):

  1. I came back to the church because Bible study and worship were both important.
  2. I came back to the church because we talked about sin, without pointing a finger at someone else, because this was about my sin.
  3. I came back to the church because my questions were seen as encouraging others to ask.
  4. I came back to the church because it finally didn’t feel like a cult or a country club.
  5. I came back to the church because I believe the earth is young. I was not told that I was stupid for accepting that view.
  6. I came back to the church because sometimes I doubt, and some in the Church allowed me to doubt, knowing that they had been there, too.
  7. I came back to the church because I couldn’t be someone’s “project.” I am the focus of God’s heart and desire, not someone’s notch on the spiritual belt.
  8. I came back to the Church because it didn’t matter whether one was Democrat, Republican, Independent. And I didn’t need to feel guilty about helping the poor even if I wasn’t Democrat.
  9. I came back to the church because I was troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and no one told me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
  10. I came back to the church because I discovered something better than pat answers.
  11. I came back to the church because I knew I would not see a woman behind the pulpit; but I also saw that God equipped men and women for service in God’s kingdom, which is most important.
  12. I came back to the church because I wanted to help people in my community because I was Christian.
  13. I came back to the church because I had learned what the Bible offered is true compassion for the hurting, for injustice, etc. And I learned that those in the limelight (regardless of background) often don’t know poverty and injustice except by a one week journey in some videoed publicity tour. I learned from those who lived in the trenches of poverty and injustice and who brought more than temporary help. The Church I work with wants to end abuse of all forms, not just the current fad abuse.
  14. I came back to the church because there are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and someone told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience.
  15. I came back to the church because the church doesn’t put signs out in the church lawn and never demanded a vote in either direction.

Rachel, while we may disagree on many of these points, I appreciate your openness in sharing where you are. I hope that you can understand where I am coming from. My passion comes from Paul’s letters:

[that I] may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:9).

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2)

To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22)

I am glad the Church is on that path, however incompletely, indirectly that occurs. In our Lutheran Confessions we have this statement by Martin Luther:

For, thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. (The Smalcald Articles, III.12)

The Church, because it is inhabited by sinners, can be lonely, demeaning, abusive, uncaring, etc. But Church includes broken sinners being made whole, forgiven sinners who learn to forgive, poor sinners who are rich in Christ, lonely sinners who have found a place of security and comfort, inadequate sinners who desire to receive all that God gives, here in time and there in eternity. And I find that today as 36 years ago many young people are looking for that kind of Church.

I’m glad I came back to the Church 36 years ago.

Living in Light of the Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb

Holy Week climaxes with the four day observance/celebration from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. We follow the events of the last day of Jesus’ life, His death, and His resurrection as He finishes the work His Father sent Him to do. On Maundy Thursday He celebrates the Passover as expected of all 1st century Jews. Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. Even more He institutes the Lord’s Supper, as the new covenant, which becomes effective upon His death. Good Friday brings before the world the extent of God’s love, when Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). The great reversal of history comes with the shock of the stone rolled away, and the empty tomb.

How do we live in light of those events? In a sense, we live through each of them every week. Our lives as Christians in this world are still covered with the reality of death, suffering, pain, separation, what we commonly call the theology of the cross. As Christians we experience the effects of sin, destruction, and death. But we also know that Jesus’ victory over death means that the glory of heaven awaits us when we die, true glory, our future reality.

Unfortunately some expect, and even demand, that we have all of the future glory now. “If you are sick or not healed, it is because you don’t have enough faith.” “If you do not experience wealth in this life, then there is something wrong with you.” This approach has been called the theology of glory. Sounds wonderful, except real life intrudes into that kind of wishful thinking. Persecution and suffering for the Christian is to be expected in this life, as we wait the true glory of heaven upon our death or Jesus’ return at the end of time.

Consider these passages from the New Testament related to this topic (there are many others in the New Testament):

[Jesus said:] “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

[Paul writes:] “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Philippians 1:29)

But we understand our current life of trials and suffering from the perspective of the empty tomb. As Paul wrote:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4)

And the mystery of the Lord’s Supper by which we receive the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins sustains us in the deepest valleys of suffering. We celebrate with it being a foretaste of the feast to come in the final glory of heaven. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb…” (Revelation 19:9).

May we always live in light of the four days from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday.

My Love-Hate relationship with the Internet — Part 1

I have wrestled with this topic for two months at least. Please don’t misunderstand, this is not a rant against technology (see Part 2). Rather, it is looking at the internet in terms of Christians and relationships—what happens to Christian relationships and why the internet is troubling. The spark that led to finally posting was a comment that Sarah Markley tweeted: “Convinced more than ever that the Internet can be a soulless place. Wondering how much longer we can do this b4 losing our humanity.”

“I hate the Internet”

Not all of it, of course. But here my concern is what it does or does not do for Christians in terms of relationships. It is wonderful to meet so many people throughout the world. Good discussions can occur on a wide variety of topics. But here are the problem areas:

To snark or not…

Because communication is more than words spoken or typed, much is lost when other clues are not available. Often I will hear, “But that was true when physical letters were written.” Perhaps, but I think some things change. The speed of response on the internet changes the interaction. I grew up and lived much of my adult life prior to personal computers. When writing a letter, I was much more careful about what I wrote, often throwing pages away. I had time to think and reflect on what it say to the person reading it.

With the internet, the instantaneous nature of communication, time to think through what we write demands “response” not reflection. And there is a critical factor. I have been on Christian discussion boards over the past 13 years, and the attacks by one Christian on another is amazing, or better stated, disturbing.

Speed of response raises the temperature of the “discussion” before it can even become a true discussion. And if several are involved, it is “one Christian gang vs. another Christian gang.” Sadly this environment is not just a case of one-up-man-ship. It becomes vicious so that conversation does not happen. And this between Christians… It makes me sad.

What can we as Christians do to halt this? I think asking ourselves some questions can be helpful.

1 “Is this beneficial for myself and for all who read? Notice, it is not just the one you are trying to communicate with; it includes those who are silent observers. Ephesians 4:29 comes to mind:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (NIV)

2 Does this require an immediate response? 99% of the time the answer is no. I learned very early on, that if the topic was hot, and my emotions were involved, I needed to write my response in a word processor, put it away for a while (1-2 hours, maybe a day), re-write and reflect. Sometimes I would even send a copy to a couple trusted friends to see what they thought. It has spared me and others much grief.

3. Am I demonstrating Christ in my response? I have heard some say, “Well, Jesus chastised the scribes and Pharisees publicly!” So, are the people in the forum in the same category as the scribes and Pharisees? My guess is, no. But even prior to that, I have to ask: who put you in the position to categorize that way? And by the very reasoning above, it is likely that the person who does it is also a scribe or Pharisee.

Forgiveness and Restoration

This area is much more critical for Christian relationships and the internet’s role in the disruption of this. When we live in community and we sin against one another (and we do!), Jesus provides the perfect resolution. In Matthew 18:15-18 we read:

If your brother (sister) sins (against you), go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won your brother (sister). But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

Note several things: 1) Sin is confronted so that the person might repent and sin is done away with. If repentance happens, then “you have won” your brother (sister) back. 2) The person you are approaching is “your” brother (sister), not just some stranger with passing acquaintance. Community is strongly emphasized in the pronoun “your.” 3) The continuing effort to win back the brother (sister) denotes a love that is willing to go a long way to re-establish Christian fellowship.

The internet changes the dynamics. We “meet” Christians from all over the world, with all kinds of backgrounds, etc. But do we really know them? Do we know their “hot buttons”? What might be meant jokingly by one person can be devastating to the other. Now what? We can’t “go to the person” in the same sense.

How is that resolved on the internet? Often one person will just “disappear” so there is not further contact, no resolution. No email contact, no forum discussion, no way to stop the unfriending if on FB, and certainly no phone to call. What could be resolved in person now becomes an impossibility.

And therein lies the problem. The sense of community in struggle, now restored is missing. There is no community in that sense. And the result? One person who is deeply offended, hurt, or sinned against gets no comfort from a restored relationship. The one who perhaps unknowingly wrote something begins to draw back, no longer willing to extend to another person—“I can’t go through another loss.”

So instead of community being established, encouraged, and strengthened, the opposite happens. And this relates to Sarah’s comment on Twitter: “Convinced more than ever that the Internet can be a soulless place. Wondering how much longer we can do this b4 losing our humanity.” And even more serious, “losing our Christian community.”

stay tuned for Part 2 “Why I love the internet”

Liturgical Spirituality

One of the challenges of the Christian life is to see the integral nature of everything we do, say, and experience. In the U.S. there is a tendency to maintain a “rugged individualism” —“my way, my God, my worship, my life.” But is that consistent with the Biblical picture of discipleship?

Dr. John W. Kleinig offers a more wholesome, Biblical view of these separated existences. In his book Grace upon Grace (CPH, 2008) he challenges much of what passes for spirituality today. The key is his section on “Liturgical Spirituality.” His first paragraph:

There are two domains that provide the context for the spirituality of God’s people. One is the public domain of the congregation that gathers for participation in the Divine Service. The other is the private domain of the faithful who engage in their daily devotions in their homes and go about their daily work. These two domains complement and enrich each other. Thus the practice of our spirituality links our daily routine with the sacrament of Baptism. Our spiritual self-scrutiny in our devotions prepares us for the rite of public Confession and Absolution in the Divine Service. Our personal reading of God’s Word and our meditation on it interacts with the public reading and exposition of the Scriptures. Our personal faith in Christ is included in the common confession of faith by the whole Church in the liturgy. The Prayer of the Church inspires our personal petitions and intercessions. Our family meals are joined with the Lord’s Supper by the saying of grace. The interaction between these two domains produces a healthy liturgical spirituality. The more they intersect and interact, the richer our spiritual growth and the deeper our spiritual maturity. (Grace upon Grace, pp. 68-69)

Profound words that get to the heart of what encompasses our Christian life and discipleship. Liturgy is not some “ritual to endure from past generations.” Liturgy invites us to participate in God’s life through Word and Sacrament—in the Church publicly with others, and in the home individually.

There is no disconnect between the public and private domains. Each is vital to our spirituality, each is essential to our maturing in the faith. If something is dead in the liturgy, then there must be something dead in my private domain too. The solution is God’s work in us through Word and Sacrament, living daily in light of Baptism, living in the strength, comfort, and hope of His Word, and receiving regularly the benefits of the Lord’s Supper.

Thank God that he does work in and through both domains. May we not be so focused on the private that we church shop to find something that only reinforces our private view. We need the perspective of the Church, in history, and in the world today. What a difference that makes—privately and publicly!