Reflections on Christmas

This year Christmas has been a true blessing. Christmas Eve worship was God-honoring and a blessing. Christmas day was the same. And then today, we had the most in worship in a while. Great music all three services, great congregational singing. After divine service on Christmas day, we had an enjoyable meal with friends.

This was also a lonely Christmas. In April, we learned of the death of our sons’ birth mother. She actually died in late 2013 (in Korea) but we didn’t find out about that until the end of April. It affected our younger son more than we thought. And in the process, it was a loss for us as well. In a way it was surprising loss for me, but as I have pondered this, I realize that even though we had never met, we had a very close connection. We pray for our sons’ sister as well, since she no longer has her mother, and has never had a connection with her brothers. Maybe God will open doors there as well.

In June, my wife’s younger brother died after several years of battling cancer. We had the privilege of knowing he came back to faith in Jesus earlier this year. So our visit with him in June (just a week before he died) was filled with Scripture, prayer, pleasant memories, and a warm but also sad goodbye.

We also saw my mother in June, celebrating her 88th birthday. Very good time of conversation, love, and sharing Jesus. She died near the end of August, dying less than 18 hours after moving into an assisted living facility. In my time of reflection since then I realized she was the closest relative I had, a person who knew me and could me my moods, etc. Yes, loneliness, but also a deeper joy of knowing her, and being known by her. In the same way , but deeper what Paul wrote: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Galatians 4:9).

Then one of my closer friends growing up, much like an uncle to me, died in October (my only uncle died in 1974 and I had only seen him 4-5 times in my life). So many good memories of our time playing guitar, and even more he was always encouraging in my playing. We worked together a few times. He was big, strong, and a hard worker; and he was a devoted follow of Jesus.

Then there is our family in the church here in California. The people are so kind to us, welcoming us from the beginning. We celebrated with a group one night playing guitar and singing, plus feasting on great food. Even more, they have been very supportive and encouraging throughout the 4½ years we have lived here. They are true brothers and sisters in the faith in so many ways.

Then there is the larger fellowship in The American Association of Lutheran Churches (TAALC) who have been a true blessing. At the National level Dr. Leins (Presiding Pastor), Pastor Dean Stoner (Missions and Development), and Bonnie Ohlrich (Executive Secretary to Presiding Pastor and Seminary President) have been a joy to serve alongside. Then we have the seminary professors and all our seminary students. They continue to challenge me in my faith and in my teaching of the faith. What a joy and blessing to know each of them.

This Christmas has been a special blessing: remembering the birth of our Savior, and all the gifts God continues to shower on us. And then to have shared lives with several people who are no longer with us. But each has enriched my life, and I learned more about them and the God who loves unconditionally in Jesus Christ.

 

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How long, O Lord?

The Psalmist wrote: “How long, O LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46).

For many Christians that refrain becomes not just a lament of the moment, but a searing reminder, day after day, year after year. “How long, O LORD?” A sense of abandonment by God. Perhaps you are thinking such a thought is unacceptable for a Christian to utter. For one who has been through the agony, the thought is a frequent companion, and the words express the painful, long, unending wait.

The person calling out to God does so in a loud wail and in a soft whimper. The intensity is not shaped by the volume but by the breaking heart.

Sometimes the plea is met with a bargain, “God if You… then I…” Other times with a complaint, “What have I done to go through this?” And even with a condemnation, “Yes, Lord, I have sinned and this is my punishment.” But even that does not remove the plea.

It can be hard for others to minister to a person who has the ache of “How long, O LORD?” The drain can be overwhelming just listening to it, let alone living it. It is little wonder that many feel the loneliness even among Christians. I treasure each person who walked with us at various stages of our own 37 years of uttering the cry within our hearts.

Having lived that cry of “How long, O LORD?” for 37 years, I have a few observations to make about myself and others. See Too important and The ugliness of the missing. At times the intensity of my cry was such that a full day was too much to handle. If I could make it to mid morning… if I could make it to lunchtime… if I could make it to bed time… if I could only get to sleep, one night.

Tears, anger, frustration, pity, edginess, sadness, helplessness, yes, they were part of my diet for 37 years. Sometimes the periods of relief (no calls from the police, etc.) were so welcomed that I would feel guilty for the break.

Time was measured, waiting for an answer to “How long, O LORD?” For years it seemed as if time stood still. Looking at the clock seemed the obvious solution, as if the time would pass more quickly. But for what benefit? My own discomfort, angst, relief? Yet, measuring time only amplified the sense of “How long.” Yet 37 years gives me a perspective of Paul’s desire for the unbelieving Israelites in Romans 9:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1-3)

That, too, was on my heart.

Not “How long?” But “How Amazing!”

A little over a week ago our son sent a letter to us, confessing his faith in Jesus Christ. He wrote about this being the first time he had peace in his heart. Bible reading has become a staple for his daily spiritual life. Not only has he received forgiveness from God, but he is learning to forgive himself—as Paul wrote: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1). Knowing what he had been through physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, this is monumental!

In the letter he also thanked us for always loving him, even when he was the worst. He had often said over the years that he could not figure out how we could still love him after all he had done and said. I told each time that it was because of God’s love in Jesus that we could love him. (We love, because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19). Now he is believing and receiving it.

Paul also wrote,

for He says, “at the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.”
Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is “the day of salvation” — (2 Cor. 6:2)

So what has changed? We obviously are rejoicing. But as I do so, I am quietly reflective on all this. Was the 37 years of pain, uncertainty, fear, heartache worth it? Absolutely! Was it a living hell? Many times it was, but I would not trade one minute of the 37 years for the joy now of our son confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, I no longer think in terms of “how long?” But rather, how each moment was part of God’s working in his heart, even unknown to us. Indeed, how amazing!

Our son is learning this truth every day:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

“How long, O LORD?” is now answered with: “Forever!” Because of our common confession in Jesus Christ, we have an eternity to share with our son. I won’t even have to count minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, or decades, as I had been. Now is the time, today is the day of salvation.

And we give thanks to God for His patience, love, mercy, and amazing grace—to all of us! The plea changes to praise in song!

Amazing Grace

Pastoral Formation 2

Last week I had the privilege of updating the convention attendees at TAALC East Region about our seminary, American Lutheran Theological Seminary (ALTS). My report included an updated status of the seminary, and especially the online program, Master of Theological Studies (MTS), as well as an update on the new database system that will support our continued growth. The other half of my report included some thoughts on Pastoral Formation, specifically related to online seminary. This is just a sketch of the topic; I am writing a more complete version for our theological journal.

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 as: 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.

Dr. Curtis Leins,  Presiding Pastor of TAALC. Churchman
Dr. Curtis Leins, Presiding Pastor of TAALC. Churchman

filter out all distractions

Guest post today:

I grew up in the era of secretaries and I was blessed with many good ones. Early in my career there was Ann Marie who would take my meager dictations and with skill and polish turn them into a thing of beauty. At the end of my career it was Wendy, the master of the computer, who created an elaborate data base that quickly identified new trends in an ever changing environment, while I struggled to get a dial-up connection.

Somewhere in between those years came Judy. She was neither cutting edge nor even the fastest, but she had an incredible talent. Judy was able to filter out all distractions from employees’ angst to corporate demands; she would only hear and react to my voice.

Now, many years later, in retirement as I remember these talented and generous women, who dedicated their work to make me look better; it is Judy’s skill that I find most amazing. It is her skill set that I wish to emulate. 

Can I close my eyes and ears to the distractions of the world and focus only on my Creator and Redeemer? As I approach Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, can I see only His finished plan, hear only His Word of Truth and walk only on His path? When the evil one throws obstacles in my way can my focus for my Lord be so strong that I only have Him and nothing else?

Holy Lord, great Trinity, let me hear and react only to Your Voice. Because You have finished everything, I have only to follow You.  Grant to me that focus, Lord; that my eyes, ears and actions are all for You. Because You are my everything.  Amen.

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Written by a friend who has shared a couple posts with me in recent months. This was her timely reflection about distractions today… Thank you.

Christians in Relationships 1

This is a two part blog on Christians and Relationships. We will end up considering marriage as a special subset. In this blog our focus is the background to relationships among Christians. The second blog will focus on marriage and the relationship within marriage.

Marriage: What comes to mind? The beauty of a wedding ceremony? The attacks on marriage in recent news? The factors within marriage that threaten marriage? Or something else?

Are our views on marriage influenced by the culture in which we live? Is marriage even viable in our culture? Listening to many, we might get the impression that marriage needs to be “expanded.” For some, “other arrangements” are equally viable.

Marriage can be a hot topic, even a painful topic for many. Even if your own marriage is solid, you are probably related to someone of friends of someone who is divorced on moving in that direction.

What is the Christian response to all this?

Many times Christians will point to Ephesians 5:22-33 or 1 Peter 3:1-7, as if such texts solve the problem. In Ephesians 5 Paul wrote about the relationship between husbands and wives, which reflects the relationship Jesus has with the Church. What kind of relationship do you have with Jesus? With your spouse? With family members who are married, divorced, separated?

Ephesians 4:17-32

As pastor I use a different starting point, namely Ephesians 4:17-32. Why? Because there Paul lays the foundation of all relationships (among Christians). The text in Ephesians 5 is one premier example of that but not the entirety of relationships.

Ephesians 4:17-24 (NAS)

17 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Notice that Paul identified that the new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5) has implications for the person. On the negative side many things are left behind.

“no longer living in futility,
darkened understanding,
excluded from the life of God,
hardness of heart
callous
given to sensuality
greed”

On the positive side, something new comes in place of all that:

“heard Jesus
taught in Him
lay aside old self
renewed in the spirit of your mind
put on new self
created in righteousness
and holiness of the truth.”

Thus, the change from the old person to this new person is not just a temporary fix of a situation. It is not a solution to “make it work” with this person. The change Paul described elsewhere is more dramatic: the old person being put to death, a new person brought to life.

Romans 6:4-6 (NAS)

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.… knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;  7 for he who has died is freed from sin.

11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 4:25-32 (NAS)

Paul continues in Ephesians 4 to describe that change from death to life.

Therefore, laying aside falsehood, “speak truth each one of you with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. 26 “Be angry, and yet do not sin”; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not give the devil an opportunity. 28 He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. 29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. 30 Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Paul covers four items: speaking (25, 29), anger (26, 27), work (28), and forgiving (32). Each of these receives special mention because it is in the abuse or neglect of these that we run into problems.

Speaking the truth: Sadly, even in churches we fail to do so. We hedge our words, we want to criticize but not seem like we are. We want to “share the latest” but really want an excuse to gossip. If we can put someone down (just a little) then that seems to raise our estimate of our own worth. Rather as a new person in Christ, we speak the truth, and we do so in love, genuine God-implanted love. Speaking in such a way shows that this person is indeed a sister or brother in Christ.

Our speaking is not flavored with “spicy/racy” words, a practice all too common among some Christians and even pastors. Rather our words are meant for building up one another. Whoever listens to you will receive grace. In other words, if someone hears you speaking about a fellow Christian, what is the response that will be triggered? Rudeness, vulgarity, anger, sarcasm, bitterness, slander? If you address another Christian about a sin, i.e. Matthew 18:15-20, then that speaking is done in private, not where someone else may overhear.

Do we show love when we speak? Do we show respect? What will your children hear when you speak about your spouse? What about the person you’ve been witnessing to? How will he or she respond to what is heard? As Christians we speak words that encourage, uplift, support, and strengthen others.

Anger seems a way of life for people; some seem to claim that it is “just my nature.” No, that is part of the old nature, the anger that drives and festers and causes wounds. Rather, righteous anger, anger that reflects God’s kingdom is different. This is not a “offense-against-me” kind of anger that is selfish. Rather this righteous anger sees the world falling further into separation from God, the uplifting of sin and what happens to people and the devastation of sin. Thus, Paul can write that “be angry… but do not sin.” Yes, righteous anger, but never an excuse for sin in either unrighteous anger or righteous anger.

Work also shows the change from living dead to living alive. The repentant one will not only desire forgiveness but also what can be done to change the behavior. Thus, the one who had been stealing changes so that instead she or he can work and give to others, i.e. the reverse of stealing.

Forgiving—

Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a Christian is forgive. When someone sins against us, the effects are often greater than the sin. The wounds can be very deep and forgiveness may seem impossible.

Paul wrote this radical solution to sin: Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Read previous posts on forgiveness:

Forgiveness in the church

Liturgy — Response to Forgiveness

Liturgy — Brokenness, Forgiveness

God Has Amnesia

Liturgy—Confession and Absolution

Forgiveness for the Fallen

Lutheran-Protestant Differences

This basics elements of this post originally appeared in April 2012. It was part of a series on “Searching for a Church.” I have modified it to fit the context of Sasse’s quotes and the distinction between Lutheran and Protestant in the two previous posts.

The caveats

This part of the search takes a while. It is one thing to hear a good sermon on Sunday or a good short series of sermons. It is another to determine whether the church covers all key doctrines or whether these are more hobby-horse sermons. What makes this more complicated is that you have to be there and dig into both the sermons and the official teachings of the congregation or denomination.

So, in one sense you are becoming a focus of the church’s ministry (or you should be!) unless the church doesn’t want to deal with you as part of the ministry and only as “members” (whatever that might mean). This is a catch 22 situation. As you and your family become (unintentionally) integrated, it can be difficult to leave if you discover the teaching of “the faith” doesn’t measure up.

This part of the search also involves your own growing in the “the faith.” That is, you study the Scriptures in a more consistent manner. You don’t just pick a few favorite passages, but wrestle with some of the more challenging texts (1 Cor. 11:23-29; 1 Peter 3:21; Romans 3-8, John 14-17, etc.). At this point a critical text to keep in mind is Acts 17:11

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true  (NIV)

Thus, no matter what the credentials of the pastor, the size of the congregation, or popularity of the ministry, every pastor ought to welcome questions about Scripture. And you can ask, not to trick someone or “win an argument,” but rather in humility to see whether what you hear and see in the church is consistent with Scripture. I can’t stress this enough: humility is critical in this whole process, in your own study of Scripture and in your testing of the church’s teachings.

Two Questions to Start:

There are always two questions to ask a group or an individual to find out whether it is even worth pursuing.

1. What is most important? [Material Principle]

It’s amazing how easily this question is glossed over in many churches today. The Bible is very clear on this point, but the answer to this question can be summarized as:

justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

justification by grace (alone) through faith (alone) in Jesus Christ (alone)

See the following Bible passages:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 NIV)

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24 NIV)

The list of passages goes on and on: Philippians 3:9; John 14:6; Acts 2:36; Acts 4:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 2:16, etc.

Unless that is stated up front by the group and is consistently the center of everything else in teaching and ministry, then the group does not reflect the most important thing, and hence is not Lutheran in confession.

Regarding this question, when we examine other confessions within the Christian church, we discover that most churches would not necessarily disagree with the response to the first question [Material Principle]. Rather the disagreement is whether that statement is the top priority, and they may disagree with the means by which that is accomplished.

Within Protestant churches, some follow Calvin, as summarized a century later in the Westminster Confession (1647)

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Other Protestant responses could include those by Zwingli (divine causality), or Methodism (holiness or the perfected person), or Pentecostals (maturity in speaking in tongues). And the list goes on.

2. What is the source for #1? [Formal Principle]

For Christians, the answer ought to be “the Bible.”

Scripture (alone)—the Bible

But don’t be too quick to jump on this answer. Why? Because over time it will surface that the real answer might be “The Bible and reason.” In other words, the real stance might be: “I accept the Bible as long as it makes sense to me.” Or ask yourself whether faith is so narrowly defined that it does not apply to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the Bible does.

Have they (we) restricted it to mental capability? The answer to such a question may indicate that the Bible is no longer the source, but rather my own reason. So, if a group claims the Bible is the only source for doctrine and faith, very good. But look closer at how this is practiced in preaching and teaching.

Using Reason: Ministerial Use

Even further, we have to look at how reason is used with regard to the second question about Scripture alone. For Lutherans, we use reason in a ministerial way, that is in service to the Scriptures. Thus, we use reason in all its fullness, using all the tools that are available, including new archaeological discoveries, lexicons (dictionaries), manuscript finds, etc. The stopping point for Lutherans is at the point at which Scripture declares something that our reason struggles to believe. Ministerial reason tries to understand all that is involved, but if no solution can be found, then we say that Scripture has the last word, not reason.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this limit is the Lord’s Supper. How can Jesus’ body and blood be present in the the Sacrament of the Altar. Our reason would want us to get out a microscope to confirm that it is true. Yet, as Luther told Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, “But the text says, ‘This is my body’ ” (paraphrased). So reason is a tool, but always stops short when there is a contradiction between what the text says and what reason deduces.

Using Reason: Magisterial Use

In that same Marburg discussion, Uhlrich Zwingli (1483-1531) used reason but in a magisterial (judging) way. That is, when he could not comprehend using ministerial (serving) reason, he moved to magisterial reason to sit in judgment over Scripture. Thus, Zwingli’s response to Luther’s declaration was in essence, “But that doesn’t make any sense that his body and blood were actually present.” To get around this contradiction, Zwingli claimed that the communicant (the one receiving) would ascend to heaven to get benefits. The bread and wine were only signs of something (the “real benefit”) that was happening elsewhere not in the elements in the Lord’s Supper. So not only did Zwingli sit in judgment with magisterial reason, he even used it to devise a non-Biblical solution.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholicism formalized this same position. The source of official teaching includes four sources:

1 all the canonical books of the Bible (including the Deuterocanonical books)

2 reason

3 the tradition of the Church (formalized reason over a period of time)

4 the interpretation of these by the Magisterium (official teaching authority of the Church through the pope and bishops).

Accordingly, for Roman Catholicism, these four sources constitute the complete and best resource for fully attaining to God’s revelation to mankind. Thus, within Roman Catholicism, sacred scripture and sacred tradition as preserved and interpreted by the Magisterium are both necessary for attaining to the fullest understanding of all of God’s revelation.

Distinguish between what is important and not important?

So how do we decide what is or is not important? What is the role of baptism relative to what is most important? What about the role of women? (NB: even phrasing this question this way reveals much about the church) What about end times? It can be very confusing.

As I wrestled through this process I came to realize that there were distinctions between doctrines, some very important, and others less so. At the time I didn’t have resources to formally sort this out, but as it turned out, I followed much the path that Franz Pieper had articulated in his Christian Dogmatics. And I discovered that this process was used by Christians for many centuries, that is, to distinguish Fundamental Doctrines vs. Non-fundamental Doctrines vs. Adiaphora (“things indifferent”).

Fundamental Doctrines:

These concern the foundation of the Christian faith. Saving faith (as “the faith”) includes the following:

Knowledge of sin and consequences of sin (Luke 24:47; Isaiah 66:2; 57:15; Psalm 34:18; 51:17; Luke 4:18, etc.)

Knowledge of the Person of Jesus Christ, i.e. true God and true Man (Matt. 22:42; 16:13-17; 1 John 1:1-4; Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 12:3, Matthew 28:18-20, etc.)

Knowledge of the work of Jesus Christ, not as an example, but rather the Mediator who gave Himself as a ransom for all to take away the sin of the world (1 Timothy 2:5-6; John 1:29; 1 John 3:8; etc.)

Faith is in the Word of Christ, the external Word, not an internal “feeling” (Mark 1:15; Romans 10:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13, etc.)

Belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead and of eternal life for all believers in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 54, etc.)

If the above are not believed and taught, then the person/group is not Christian. It is that simple.

There are two secondary fundamental doctrines, that support the above, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The difference is that while these are built on the above foundation someone can believe or teach wrongly on either topic and yet be Christian. This is critical in two ways. We may disagree on these two topics but we cannot then claim that those who disagree are not Christian. On the other hand, we cannot just accept something to avoid digging further, claiming “it doesn’t matter because I’m Christian.” Doctrine does matter. If Scripture teaches something on these two topics we cannot dismiss it as unimportant (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 1:13-14, etc.).

Non-fundamental Doctrines:

Pieper writes about this classification very well:

Non-fundamental doctrines…are those Scripture truths which are not the foundation or object of faith in so far as it obtains forgiveness of sins and makes [people] children of God, but with the faith of those who have already obtained the forgiveness of sins should and does concern itself. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1, pp. 91-2)

The knowledge of non-fundamental doctrines serve faith, and include topics such as: the Antichrist, doctrine of angels, end times theology, etc. However, the denial of or errors regarding non-fundamental doctrines can endanger saving faith, i.e. approaching the end times in such a way that faith in Christ is weakened rather than strengthened.

Adiaphora (“Things indifferent”)

These are things which God has neither commanded nor forbidden. In Christian freedom we can make choices on either side of the topic, but always with concern for the weaker believer (i.e. Romans 14:13-18). Examples include: to be vegetarian or not, to drink alcoholic beverages, what day to worship, etc. These can raise all kinds of additional concerns, which means caution, love, and humility inform and guide our freedom in these matters.

One other topic: Law and Gospel

Understanding Law and Gospel and the proper distinction between them is essential in terms of reading Scripture rightly. Over the past 30 years I have found that once people come to grips with this, many other pieces fall into place (not in the sense of “making sense” but rather consistent with Scripture itself. This deserves a separate post, but just a note on it (and a Law-Gospel Handout):

Law: Tells us what we are to do or not do, and threatens punishment when we fail. It can only condemn, accuse, threaten (in doctrinal terms). “I” am the subject of the Law.

Gospel: Tells us what Jesus Christ has done for our salvation, 100% his doing, nothing I can do or even believe to change that. “Jesus” is the subject of saving work, and He is always the object of saving faith. Gospel never condemns, never accuses, but always comforts, forgives, renews, restores, and builds faith in Jesus Christ.

Much more could be written but this is at least a good starting point. It gives a road map to make sure that we do not make a “shipwreck of our faith” (2 Timothy 2:16-18). As we work our way through the above process, we also look at how this is working itself out in the congregation. Correct doctrine is to be consistent with a Spirit-led, God pleasing ministry among the people and in outreach. So that is the next focus.

Book Review: Blessed are the Balanced

Pettit, Paul, and R.Todd Mangum. Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy. Kregel Academic, 2014.BlessedBalanced

The helpful guide should be available to all seminary students. The target is especially those in an academic institution (namely a brick and mortar institution); but it is also applicable to those receiving their theological education online.  The authors address the balance of academic and spiritual growth that is so necessary in the preparation of pastors.

The authors identify the primary problem: “Unfortunately a good number of students graduate with a head full of biblical and doctrinal knowledge, but with a heart that has grown cold to God.” (p.7) In the introductory chapter they list four “Warning Signs of a Shaky Balance.” They are: “confusing your identity in Christ with your identity as a vocational pastor,” “growing isolation and privatization in your academic studies,” “lack of zeal and service for God and others,” and “lack of time for prayer and reflection.” Even this list is worth a look by every pastor who long ago left seminary.

The authors cover six chapters that provide insight and guidance to deal with underlying problem and many associated manifestations.

Christian Maturity and Higher Education

Learning about God and Living for God

Disciplining Heart and Head

Avoiding Spiritual Frostbite

Humble Service

Family and Friends

Each chapter covers critical topics related to the seminary student and the seminary challenges. The breadth of material means that the writing is terse and discussion is not drawn out. That actually is a very good thing in this kind of book. In other words, it is a readable book with excellent advice. But the style also permits quick reference in the future.

A couple of points regarding clarification and complementary concepts to help sustain the balance. In chapter 2 (“Learning about God and Living for God”) they include a reference to Luther’s dictum “sin boldly.” However, the authors seemed to miss what Luther was actually addressing. Luther’s advice did not have to do with Melancthon and a problem with hypocrisy in his preaching, as the authors assert.

Chapter 3 (“Discipling Heart and Head”) offers some excellent advice on discipline. However, there seems to be a gap. They write about “ancient disciples today” but then jump from the New Testament to the 21st century, as if the church throughout the ages does not offer any advice, insight, wisdom regarding disciplines. Thus, all of the types of discipline they mention are very good, but they are also basically individualistic. The church through the ages recognized that discipline is also incorporated into the community, and especially through the hours of the day (Matins, Vespers, Compline, etc.). While that may seem rustic or quaint, there is great value in such community disciplines to complement the individual practices advocated in this book (all very good).

Again, one item missing from the book is one I have mentioned in other Kregel Academic book reviews: there is no index (subjects, Scriptures, etc.). With a hard copy of the book, such a tool is essential for maximum benefit of the book.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. The only caveat is to note the missing historical church practice of community disciplines. Other resources can be found to supplement that area.

Thanks to Kregel Academic for the copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.