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
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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.

Marketing in the Church

I watched this video today, which I will title, Marketing for Food.

As I thought about that (I worked at marketing for a Fortune 100 company for 7+ years), I began to think about marketing in the church. Have we covered up the ugly aspects? Have we twisted what the Church is by changing the message?

Easy Targets for Marketing

It is easy for us to point fingers at the false marketing of the Christian life. For instance, this one DNA of a Winner by Joel Osteen, or this one “I want to deserve fire” by Benny Hinn. And the list continues. Yes, each one has a major problem behind the marketing demonstrated in the videos.

Sadly this kind of marketing always leads back to the person, and always disappoints, despite the marketing. Many have spoken to these issues, exposing them. If you have further questions, read your Bible, not just those proof texts promoted by the marketers above.

Harder targets for Marketing

But let’s move to the darker side of marketing in the Church. That darker side meaning you and me, as we live out the Christian life. Do we market the Church as we want people to see us on Sunday morning while in worship? Do we want to control the environment so that none of the ugliness of sin is seen, much less dealt with? Not sins “out there” but the sin in my heart, my hard heartedness, my loneliness, my withdrawal from someone who needs help, because I, too, need help?

The hard part is no one is paying for this marketing. I am doing it myself. No one is using a test panel to see which is the most effective tool to manipulate. No one is asking about the right color palette to use. No one is worried about their marketing jobs.

Marketing the Crucified Life

No, in the Church, we market by our lives, by what God is doing in and through us, by means of His Word and His Sacraments. Consider these marketing strategies:

 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and You will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NAS)

[Paul said:] “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20 NAS)

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me — to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NAS)

When we get to life in the Spirit, as Paul presents it, notice that it isn’t outward deeds that receive attention, rather the forming of “Christ in you” (Galatians 4:19). Paul notes the deeds/works of the flesh are evident.

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, bstrife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions,  envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 NAS)

But the marketing of the life in Christ is portrayed by Paul this way:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  (Galatians 5:22-23 NAS)

So which is easier to market? Our flesh likes the first option. We are attracted to the flashy, catchy phrasing, the easy Christian life, that we only model on Sunday morning. But the life in the Spirit is marketed when we walk with someone through a divorce, through cancer, through rebellious teenagers, through fractured friendships. We will be misunderstood, misrepresented, misquoted, and even just plain missed.

There won’t be headlines to boast of this life, but it will be “Christ in us” through the Spirit that God will use for His purposes. No marketing campaign, no catchy YouTube videos of 10 minutes to success. But humility in the mud of sin and life, prayer in the pit of despair, and ultimately the Word that speaks to our condition, Baptism that reminds us of whose we are, and the Lord’s Supper that bring life and forgiveness to one who cannot see life or hope in anything.

God hears, remembers, knows

Cry for Help

Yesterday’s post about “hollering and whimpering” when at the bottom of the depression barrel triggered further thoughts. And then this morning I read in Exodus

After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned because of their difficult labor, and they cried out; and their cry for help ascended to God because of the difficult labor. So God heard their groaning, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and He took notice. (Exodus 2:23-25 HCSB)

After the great days of Joseph and the favor that the Israelites enjoyed in Egypt, the days of affliction came to them. Not only did the political environment change, but the personal circumstances changed for every Israelite. Moses was gone when he hastily fled from Egypt when he tried to correct a wrong (Exodus 2:11-15).

The joy of Joseph is replaced by the groaning of the burdens. As oppressed people who saw no hope in their circumstances, “they cried out; and their cry for help ascended to God because of the difficult labor.” Whether this was “hollering or whimpering” does not matter. From the anguish of the burdened soul, such differences are meaningless. This is a “cry for help”—forget categories, forget subtle differences. The broken heart does not care, cannot care.

The three fold response by God

God is not indifferent to the people, His people. He “heard” and “remembered” and “took notice.” These three actions by God are critical; they are the turning point for the Israelites—and yet nothing “happened” for them. The burdens continue, the agony does not cease, and God seems to have a deaf ear.

God heard

But the reality of change depends not on their (or our) ability to see change. Rather, the key is that God is already poised to act in behalf of His people. In yesterday’s post I finished with 1 John 5:13-15, “We are confident that God listens to us.” This is something the Israelites will learn. This is something that all God’s people learn. For the Israelites in Egypt, “God heard their groaning.” Their groaning does not reflect our use of muttered sigh to a bad joke, but the extreme cry of the heart that is longing, yet cannot see any solution. The groaning is real, the expression of a heart overwhelmed by experiences. No matter the outward circumstances, God hears our groaning.

God remembered His covenant

This is the critical turning point in the story. God had made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17). It is a one-sided covenant, dependent on God’s fulfillment. God said, “I will …” to Abraham.

I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, … (Genesis 12:2-3)

Further, it is not Abraham who fulfills the covenant, but God Himself. “When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals” (Genesis 15:17 HCSB).

It is this covenant that God remembered, His promises, His commitment, His action, His fulfillment. Thus, while the Israelites groaned, God remembered. And that is the key for God’s delivering action. After their deliverance and as Moses wrote his farewell, Deuteronomy, notice how many times Moses urges the people to imitate God by “remembering.”

God knew

Several translations have “God took notice.” ESV has “and God knew.” This reflects the basic sense of the Hebrew yadah (ידע). Same word used for Adam when he “knew” Eve. An intimacy of knowing, and for God that means he understands, even feels, the agony and misery of His people.

We may be tempted, okay, I am tempted to think that God does not know what I am experiencing. My pain, my hurt is too deep, too personal. Or so I imagine. But no, God knows, He knows everything about me, even my desire to set up a protective cocoon that keeps out anything that might hurt.

But God wants more than that for His hurting, groaning people. He hears, remembers, and knows.

And that is enough!

And it is well with my soul.