Where HCSB failed

A year ago I wrote an initial evaluation of the HCSB. Over this past year I have used the HCSB more and found it is generally very good. It is one of the final translations we are considering for the congregational use. One concern I had was the inconsistent use of Yahweh [LORD in most English translations] in the Old Testament of the 6,600+ occurrences of the divine name (יְהוָ֜ה) HCSB translates it about 484 times with “Yahweh,” where it specifically refers to the name. The other 5,925 times it is rendered “LORD.”

In the month of September we used HCSB as the Scripture texts for the bulletin. It went well, and the texts in the Narrative Lectionary (focusing on the Old Testament) were good. But then for November 11, 1012 the Old Testament reading is Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11. As I was preparing the bulletins for November, I realized how the inconsistency of HCSB renders such a text, specifically 1:14-16.

14 So they called out to the LORD: “Please, Yahweh, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For You, Yahweh, have done just as You pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

So for this text, would the reader/hearer recognize that LORD and Yahweh are identical? Not hardly. But then it leaves all the other renderings in the three chapters confusing, trying to relate it to this section. Interestingly I read the HCSB that was last updated in 2003 and in this passage, each instance used LORD, not Yahweh.

This makes me pause about using it for every text. HCSB has been reliable in so many readings. But this highlights the drawbacks of the inconsistency. The translators should either change entirely to Yahweh or adopt the common LORD of other translations. Either option would be far better than this.

(Note: I still think HCSB is an excellent translation, despite this quirk.)

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The real world meets Law and Gospel

The real world makes it a little harder to properly distinguish and apply Law and Gospel. How would you respond in this scenario? First, let’s look at a passage about forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NAS)

Clearly this is a statement of Law… “If you forgive… then…” and “if you do not forgive …then …” With that as background, let’s take one example about whether we should apply Law or Gospel.

“I will NEVER forgive him!”

Parents come to talk, but they are not sure how to start. Fear, anger, despair. They are disturbed to the extreme. Their teen daughter had been raped and murdered. And both expressed their anger to the one who did it, in this way: “I will never forgive him!”

So the question is: do they need to hear Law (Matthew 6:15) or Gospel?

When I raise this in Bible classes, the responses are usually split 50% on Law, 50% on Gospel. We usually have a lively exchange, discussing the advantages, etc.

So what is the answer? We don’t know enough yet about the people to determine whether they need to hear Law or Gospel.

If they speak these words from the stand point of hardened hearts, then that puts them on the Law side of the diagram, trying to justify themselves. And they need Law, for instance, Matthew 6:15.

However, if they speak these identical words from anger, confusion, despair, anguish, because they are now at the very bottom of the Law scale, and have nothing more to offer, give, even the capacity to forgive. Then it may be that the same desperate words require the Gospel. But not just that Jesus died for them.

The Gospel needs to be more specific: Jesus forgives your inability to forgive; but even more Jesus forgives that murderer in your place, even when you are not able to forgive. For you see, the Gospel is more than just Jesus taking our sins on himself, which is the negative side of our failure to meet the demands of the Law. The Gospel also includes Jesus’ positive fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). That means in every instance he fulfilled all requirements, including forgiving when we cannot. And because he did it perfectly, his righteousness is credited to us. That righteousness includes forgiving in our place.

But the key here is that we do an injustice to the person if we rush to judgment. We often assume we know what the underlying problem is. We assume that we can diagnose it correctly with only a fleeting glimpse into the person’s pain. Sadly, if we start giving our diagnosis to the person, we see three things happen: 1) the person clams up, and may not hear anything we say; 2) we move forward thinking that the person is so messed up “they couldn’t even listen to my Christian advice,” 3) and we miss an opportunity to bring Jesus to the person and the person to Jesus.

As I look back on my life and ministry I can see times when I rushed to judgment, where I thought I had it all figured out. And missed it completely. We fail in this task. Thank God, that he forgives even my inabilities in this area. I do not give up, though. For the reward of applying Law and Gospel appropriately is so great. To see a person in bondage to despair over not being able to fulfill a demand of the Law and who finally hears the extent of the Gospel and specifically applied to her or him is to see one move from death to life, from the crush of the Law to the sweetness of the Gospel, from despair with no hope to confident hope in Jesus Christ.

My desire is that we all see how critical the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel is for the Christian life, for the Church, for our mission. This is not about church politics, not about worship wars, not about a church with factions. This is about life, life on the raw edge, life filled with sin, and all its ugliness. This is about life redeemed, saved, renewed, refreshed.

No wonder Martin Luther noted that if someone can rightly distinguish Law and Gospel and apply them appropriately, then the person should be given a doctor of theology degree.

We may not get a doctor’s degree in theology, but we can speak God’s appropriate Word into peoples’ lives. And that is what God has called us to do.

When to confront…when to comfort

In the past few posts we have looked at Law and Gospel, as a lens by which we can see God’s Word. Properly distinguishing between the two is critical. But it doesn’t take too long for a student of the Bible to go through a passage of Scripture and determine whether it is a statement of Law (what we are to do or not do, and God’s punishment for that) or a statement of Gospel (what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what he is still doing). It might be tempting to say that we have learned to “properly distinguish Law and Gospel.” But have we?

The real challenge

Not really, because the real challenge is to determine whether Law or Gospel should be applied in a specific, real-life situation. Let’s look at two cases from the Bible: Mark 10:17-22 and Acts 16:25-31

Mark 10:17–22 NIV

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. 18 “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

So, is the question in v. 17 a Law question or a Gospel question? While it includes “eternal life” and some think it is Gospel, notice that the heart of the question is: “What must I do?” That is a Law question.

What is the answer to the question? In v. 19 Jesus provides the answer(s)—”Here is the Law, follow all of them (second table of the 10 Commandments).” So a Law question is answered by a Law statement. Makes sense, doesn’t it? By the way, the rich man claims to have followed those laws since he was a boy. Our first reaction might be: “Let’s get him on the Board!” But when Jesus confronts him with the the 1st commandment: “No other gods” then the man goes away sad. That Law statement was too much.

Acts 16:25-31 NIV

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

So in v. 30 is that a Law question or a Gospel question? Again, it is tempting to see the word “saved” and assume it is a Gospel question. But he asks the same question as the rich man in Mark 10: “What must I do?” It is a Law question. Now based on the consistency of the Bible, we would expect, just like Jesus did in Mark 10, that they would answer with the Law (“Do this, do that, don’t do this, etc.). Instead Paul and Silas answer with the Gospel (“believe in the Lord Jesus”). Notice that the word “believe” is the word which extends the Gospel to the jailer (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9).

So what is the difference between the two situations? The rich man was still trying to climb up the Law ladder (left side of the Law-Gospel diagram). What he needed to hear was the Law to show him that the only acceptable performance under the Law is perfection (Matthew 5:48). Whereas the jailer knew he faced death and there seemed no escape. He was at the bottom of the Law, crushed and waiting for death. Law would not help him at that point, only discourage him more. For him the answer is the Gospel, what Jesus has done. And that is what saved him.

The Next Step

With this new insight, we begin to look at our own lives and those around us. We discover that perhaps we have not always understood what was going on. A person can ask a Law question, and need the Law; at other times the same person will ask a Law question but need the Gospel. Maybe we didn’t understand what was going on behind the questions. Maybe we needed to listen more carefully before prescribing a “solution.”

Stayed tuned for the next post in which we look at a couple real-world examples.

Twelve Months, Twelve Religions? I don’t think so

29-year-old Andrew Bowen became a Christian in high school, but says that he took “a nose dive into fundamentalism. It just ignited a furnace in me.” His journey with God since then has been challenging. When his wife experienced a complicated pregnancy that ended tragically, Bowen says he plunged into a “two-year stint of just seething hatred toward God.”

Last year he decided it was time to explore what he really believed. He began Project Conversion. With the aid of religious mentors, Bowen practiced 12 different religions each for one month including: Hinduism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhisim, agnosticism, Mormonism, Islam, Sikhism, Wicca, Jainism, and Catholicism.

As I thought about that, I wondered how many others are drifting around sampling the Christian landscape and finding it bland. Has Starbucks met its match in Christianity de jour? Perhaps.

The question is whether he or anyone else can practice one religion each month. I don’t think so, for three reasons. Yes, a superficial practice and orientation is possible, but not the essence of the faith, especially the Christian faith.

Christian faith is not about me, but Christ

If we reduce Christianity to mere outward rituals, then we find that it is not really any different than some of the other religious samplings. But the Christian faith is about Jesus Christ, not me or anyone else. The heart of the faith is who Jesus Christ is and what he has done.

Who is this Jesus? Jesus is “true God begotten of the Father from eternity and true man born of the virgin Mary” (Luther’s explanation of the 2nd article of the Creed). Immediately that statement excludes all of those other options (except Catholicism) that Andrew tried. If Jesus is indeed true God, how could he put up with a pretender, no matter how well-intentioned? He can’t.

What has Jesus done? God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to take care of sin, death, and the devil:

He is the payment for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2 GW)

Christ must rule until God has put every enemy under his control.  26 The last enemy he will destroy is death. (1 Corinthians 15:25-26 GW)

The reason that the Son of God appeared was to destroy what the devil does. (1 John 3:8 GW)

As a result, we can say that the Christian faith is both exclusive and inclusive. The Christian faith is exclusive in that no one can be in the center except Jesus Christ.

No one else can save us. Indeed, we can be saved only by the power of the one named Jesus and not by any other person. (Acts 4:12 GW)

The Christian faith is inclusive, in that Jesus died for everyone, to take the sins of the whole world upon himself.

God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. (John 3:16 GW)

Christian faith involves death

Paul writes about it this way:

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 2:20 NAS)

This is far different than sampling Christianity. Being crucified with Christ takes the Christian faith out of the casual, drive-by kind of spiritual experience. Jesus invites us to follow him, even unto death. He does not invite us for a week long retreat, or even a one month retreat. That is not Christianity.

The battle with sin is real; the daily encounters with sin, confession, forgiveness, cannot be reduced to mere pantomimes that one learns in a month. That is why Paul is so graphic in his life-death struggle. A one month sampling doesn’t even get us to the point of recognizing how real the battle is, let alone evaluating what it is like.

Christian faith involves community

The Christian is saved alone, but never saved alone. By that, I mean that the individual must believe—no one else can take it upon herself or himself and “believe for another.” But God never saved people so that they live in isolation from other Christians. The Christian faith involves community.

Christian community is not living in a commune (it could, but not the requirement or expectation). Rather in community, we get to know one another beyond a mere hello. For some of us, we can barely know people’s name in a month. Living in community moves into the realm of having to deal with each other’s sins, failures, short-comings, irritations, etc. For a month, I can grit my teeth and endure just about anyone; but that is not living in community.

Community living means having to interact with other sinful humans. That means we take sin and its effects seriously. Even more seriously we take God’s approach to dealing with sin. First, in relationship to God:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 NIV)

Then in relationship to others:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32 NIV)

It is one thing to endure someone for a month. It is quite another to interact with, confront with sin, forgive, restore, and grow together. That does not happen in one month snatches of an outward observance.

My hope is that Andrew, and others who have been encouraged to prepare a pottage of spiritual experiences, will take a second look at who Jesus Christ is. Perhaps they will understand why they can’t sample him and mix in religious elements that deny Jesus Christ.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NIV)

The Church is disconnected —and doesn’t know it

That’s a rather strong statement! Before rushing to judgment about it, based on your assumptions of what it means, take a moment to consider what I am saying and why. What am I not saying by this? This is not an exercise in pointing the finger at “someone” and identifying blame for something. This is not an attempt to “modernize” the church. Nor is it a call to be “relevant in worship” (I have much more to say about this!). Nor is this a call to move away from the solid doctrinal foundation of the Church. Nor is this any kind of “latest organizational technique to make the church more efficient.”

Rather, this assessment of the Church has developed over many years, but has come into sharper focus as I worked through the blog series: 15 Reasons why I came back to the Church; Searching for the Church—Part 1; and Searching for the Church—Part 2. And it is causing me to re-evaluate much of what we say and do in the Church.

The Church is disconnected for several reasons; some related to assumptions about people outside the Church, some related to people inside the Church, some related to language, and some related how we view the transition from evangelism to discipleship. Underneath all of these assumptions is the failure of the Church to see how disconnected it really is.

How bad is the disconnect?

I belong to an era that no longer exists. I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For some that was an exciting time to “throw off the chains of the past.” For others it is seen as the “golden era” of the Church. For me, it was neither. I was not outwardly rebellious even though I was 20 when Woodstock happened. At the same time, as a young child in church, with neither mother nor father present, I went to church with many people “keeping me in line” (including snapping my ears if I happened to turn around to look at people in the church). That was not fun, and certainly not the golden age of the church, for me. Why would I want to restore the Church to that?

So where is the disconnect? Some readers of the previous paragraph are probably wondering, “What is Woodstock?” Notice, even my reference to that event shows a disconnect, and even more a disconnect to all that Woodstock stood for. As the official site declares: “Woodstock is more than a moment of time. It is a way of being in the world.” But note, this disconnect is not because I don’t have those personal memories of Woodstock because I wasn’t there, nor is it a slam against those who don’t know what the event was. Rather, the referent (event) means something to someone my age, but most readers of this blog are not my age, and that event really means nothing to them. And this is a simple example of disconnect.

On a larger scale, the Church has not realized the disconnect across the board over the past 40 years. For many centuries (from the time of Constantine in AD 313 to 1970), the Church of the western world shared a common heritage with society, first in Europe, and then after 1500 in the Americas. That common heritage meant that the collective memories of the Church and of society were essentially the same. Even images, paintings, writings reflected that common heritage.

Assumptions about those outside the Church

Consider the two groups “outside the Church”: 1) those outside the Church in the basically shared heritage of what is called the “western world,” 2) those outside the Church with no societal connections (essentially the entire culture has never had any connection to the Church and the Biblical stories). The second one involves missionary work telling about Jesus in totally new areas. I remember as a young person, this second category was “the mission field,” while the first was “evangelism territory,” as if there were a difference.

As we look at the changing world, perhaps the two are not distinct, and we can and should learn from the second category; no matter where we live, we are involved in missionary work. And that is based on asking the question: Is that common heritage still a valid assumption? I would say it is not valid at all. With the disconnect of the last 40 years, how do we in the Church view those outside the church? My observations over that time indicate that we in the Church continue with the assumptions of previous centuries. We don’t recognize that we no longer live in the “shared heritage” of previous generations.

The unchurched population in the area in which I serve as pastor is 90-95%. When I was growing up, that would have meant that most of them had been in some church for an extended period of time and knew some of the Bible stories, but had drifted away. Today, that is no longer a valid assumption. Many of the unchurched have never read the Bible, never heard about who Jesus was, don’t know how to act in worship (how would they?), etc. This is not a put down, but a realization of the world we live in and the people who live in that world.

Assumptions about those inside the Church

So, we “see the mission field” more clearly. We are all set to move forward, right? Not exactly. The wrong assumptions about those outside the Church are matched by wrong assumptions about those inside the Church. This is perhaps the hardest for pastors and leaders in the Church to face. During the past 40 years of shift we have preached and taught as if everyone in the Church had the shared heritage of Church and society. But they don’t. Consequently we have not helped people grow to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Let’s take a couple quizzes…

How well do people in the church know the Biblical stories? Can they put the following people in correct chronological order (Paul, David, Abraham, Moses, Jesus)? These are not obscure people in the Bible; they are major players. My observation is that many within the Church could not put them in correct order.

How well do people in the Church know the basic Biblical doctrines? What is the phrase that describes the central teaching of the Christian faith? How does the view of original sin relate to Baptism? How do we relate what the Gospels present about who Jesus is and how the letters of Paul present Jesus?

Language — How do we communicate?

In this section I do not want to address the “worship wars” nor the contest between translation techniques of formal equivalence and meaning based translations. Both are important topics, but this question is even larger. How do we communicate with people inside and outside the church, when the basic foundations of faith and basic knowledge of the Biblical story are not present?

For those outside the Church, it means we have to think, speak, and act like missionaries at the edge. We have to speak with people at a level which connects with where they are. Those who are newest to the faith often are the best ones to learn from; they still have connections with the world outside the Church. As they learn the language of faith and worship from the Church, we in the Church can learn from them about speaking with those outside the Church.

Consider just one area: what do we read in worship services? Historically churches use a lectionary system, a series of readings for each Sunday of the year. Typically lectionaries include four readings from these four sections of the Bible: Psalm, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Over a period of years, a large portion of the Bible is read.  The lectionaries focus on “what everyone knows”— and we have to ask, is this helpful in today’s world?

Is this kind of lectionary helpful when those inside and outside the Church have little knowledge of the Bible and doctrine? Let’s take a series of recent consecutive Sunday Old Testament readings in the three year series (approximate years of the events in parentheses):

Isaiah 60:1-6 (~ 700 BC)

Genesis 1:1-5 (yeah, THAT beginning)

1 Samuel 3:1-20 (~1050 BC)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (~790 BC)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (~1400 BC)

Isaiah 40:21-31 (~650 BC)

What do you notice? Well, there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the selections (there is, but it is not evident when laid out this way). If someone inside the Church has trouble following this, what about someone who is new to the Church? So the question remains: Is the lectionary helping us communicate? 

Discipleship…how do we make the connection?

Regardless of church background, we would all essentially agree that the Church is to be involved in discipleship. Given the changed world both within and without the Church, how do we accomplish discipleship?

Or in terms of continuity, how do we move from evangelism/mission to discipleship? Is our process of Catechesis (teaching the faith) based on assumptions about what “everyone should know”? Are we helping people grow in the faith? Or are we not even connecting with them? Or are we confusing them by giving mixed signals about faith and “what is proper”?

Well, after this long post, it seems there are more questions than answers. But I think we have to begin looking at these questions. We have to examine our assumptions about what people “know” relative to what we “think” they know. And we have to rethink discipleship and Church in the broadest terms.

But I am not suggesting discarding everything in the Church. On the contrary, I think we have the answers, tools, and approaches already. But we in the western world have employed them with wrong assumptions. By doing so, we are not really church, then. We have the shell of being the Church, perhaps fighting and defending against something that is not the real challenge. Are we missing the living existence of “growing in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Searching for the church—Part 1

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

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

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

Faith and Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search changes direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does this lead?

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

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

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

The Next Step

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

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

… especially for men in the church

A silent plague, no, the silent plague in the church is so ingrained in churches that we don’t recognize, or we shut our eyes and ears to it, so that we don’t have to deal with it. But as people of God we have to deal with it. This post is just to set the stage for looking at this destructive force in our midst, destructive in our homes and families, but even in our church life together.

This past Sunday, we talked about the issue of abuse in our Adult Bible Class. The focus of that was our challenge as disciples of Jesus Christ and how we can act in mission in such a critical area. That provides a backdrop for this post.

The Hidden Nature of the Plague

This post is directed to conservative Christians, and specifically conservative Lutherans, and even more finely tuned: pastors, male leaders, and males in congregations. As a pastor in The AALC, this hits close to home, so close that I have been blind to it at times. But we have to get this in the open; as Christians we don’t have the option to be silent.

What is the plague? Abuse, physical, emotional, and spiritual. It is a sad reality that 95% of all physical abuse is done by a male against a female, most often within the same household. This leaves scars that last a lifetime. Identity, relationships, expectations, all are affected by abuse. Add in alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc., and the problems multiply.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Abuse comes in many forms beyond the actual abuse. Do we listen to what a woman says in conversation? Do we pick up signs of abuse? How about pastors, do we compound the abuse when we urge a wife to remain in a home while abuse is occurring, telling her “she has a responsibility in the marriage”? Do we listen to her undercurrent of fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt? Have we caused her even more fear, doubt, and lack of hope?

These are tough questions—they need to be! We cannot sugar coat this plague. Yes, the victim of abuse suffers from each of these problems. By our indifference or insistence on “being faithful and not moving out” we have added to the abuse, silently. Note, this is not to counsel divorce… far from it. But it is to point out that abuse, especially physical abuse has to be stopped, immediately… before any helpful pastoral care can enter into the situation.

So what can we do?

Let’s begin with Scripture. In Psalm 68:5, we read:

Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.

God himself sets the tone for us with this passage. Further study indicates that throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, especially in Luke’s Gospel, God is concerned about widows and orphans. I suggest that the woman/child who is being abused is in a spiritual state of being a widow or an orphan, only worse because they do not have a voice. Don’t believe that? Spend a little time with someone who does counseling for abused women and children; you will soon discover how on target such an assessment is. If this is a high priority of God’s compassion, then it has to be our high priority as men, as husbands, as fathers, as grandfathers. Right now I am writing to those who are not abusing, but seem to be “ordinary guys” with their own families.

Emily Cook, wife to an LCMS pastor, a mother of six little chilren, has blogged on many important topics—often bringing in critical statements in the midst of incidental aspects of life. Recently she posted about watching her children play in the first snowfall of the year. Then when she mentions her oldest daughter (at the time, 8 years old), and she writes:

a picture daddy loves… and I remind myself to tell him to tell her that, because she is getting to that age when it is so good for a little girl to be told by her daddy that she is lovely.

What a wonderful starting point for each man to begin a change in perception and attitudes! To realize how much influence we all have in the lives of our children (and our wives)—it is huge! A simple expression of gratitude and acknowledgement from a father can shape this young girl for the rest of her life. Don’t overlook the everyday life we live: God places us in our vocations as husbands, fathers, grandfathers, uncles for his specific purposes, living out the new life in Christ.

How are we doing in what we say to our wives and children, grandchildren? Does our speech reflect what Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:29?

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

Yes, we can take a first step right here. But let’s not stop there. How about when we are in meetings in churches? How about when we are in a “guys only” session in the parking lot. Are we showing our real (sinful) colors? Or is the Spirit at work there, too, directing our speech?

What if I have failed?

As I look back over my life in various vocations as husband, father, grandfather, I realize how far I have fallen short—so many times. Perhaps you are there, too. It might be easy to say, “What can I change after so much water has gone under the bridge?” First, God’s mercy is such that when we confess our sins of omission as well as commission, we receive God’s forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ. Life begins anew—Paul wrote, “Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence” (2 Cor. 5:17 GW).

Second, with that restored status, God showers us with the Holy Spirit, yes, to study and grow in Scriptures, but also to look at all of life in a new way. That is, because you have been forgiven and restored to God, the Spirit can lead you to a new relationship with your wife, daughters, sons, etc. It may be that as the Spirit works, you will become aware of sins that were hidden from you. You can now go in humility to the person you sinned against. Is it hard? Yep, been there, done that, and it is never easy. But it is critical. This is not “family” as usual, this is the beginning of a new relationship with everyone, especially your wife and children. Note, too, that how you speak to your wife will influence how your children view the vocation of wife, and the value of women and girls.

Third, you can now pray unhindered, which is critical in relationships. Peter wrote

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.(1 Peter 3:7)

Do you see that? It is the husband who treats his wife respectfully who then can pray unhindered.