Church in the Midst of Turmoil

In the midst of much public angst, fear, etc. over the past week, accusations have been flung at Christians, specifically Evangelicals, about what should be done, changed, etc. In this post I will address that topic. But more, there is much about what Christians say and do, especially relative to the elections and who is elected/not elected, than has been addressed.

Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical

I use all three of these terms, but not as identified by a church body or movement. That may cause confusion, so let me explore this a bit. When I teach hermeneutics (principles of interpretation) I repeatedly point out that one key is looking at the referent of a word, i.e. what is it referring to, pointing to.

Definition: catholic 

When the word is capitalized (Catholic) it refers to the church body that is headed by the pope and headquartered in the Vatican. In my references to that church body I use the fuller title, Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

When the word is not capitalized (catholic) then it carries the basic sense of “universal.” Historically catholic referred to the universal Christian church, that is, believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of location or affiliation. It also meant that the Christians were identifiable by the confession they publicly professed.

I am catholic, in that I confess the Christian faith, and as articulated in the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian).

Definition: orthodox

Like catholic, when Orthodox is capitalized it refers to a specific church body (or a group of church bodies: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.). When the word is not capitalized, orthodox carries the basic sense of “straight praise” (literalisticly) which came to indicate “straight doctrine.”

I am orthodox in that I confess the true, straight Christian doctrine (and praise/worship that reflects such) proclaimed in the Bible (as as expressed the creeds of the Christian Church.

Definition: Evangelical

Again, when capitalized the word, Evangelical, refers to a movement within the last 100+ years. Most of the rhetoric of the past 60 years about “Evangelicals” is used in reference to a conglomeration of people from various Reformed, Calvinist, and other Protestant backgrounds.

When not capitalized, evangelical has the historic meaning “gospel.” Interestingly, in Germany since the time of the reformation the Lutheran church was and still is known as the evangelische kirche, the gospel church.

I am evangelical as an expression historically meaning “gospel.” I adhere to the confession of the Gospel in all its purity, as articulated in the Book of Concord 1580.

Confusion and Caution:

These three words can also be used in a sociological way. That is, it might refer to many groupings of people who have the sociological identification as such, but are not theologically included in the terms. Thus, when each is used in a sociological way, then they might include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc. However, when used in their historic theological understanding, the words do not apply to those groups.

I do not write this to cause problems but to note that using a word like “evangelical” (in a sociological construct situation) includes these groups which are not necessarily theologically accurate. For instance, I will never include these groups because I use the terms in their strictly theological sense.

Ministry in a Changing Social/Political Arena

What happens to the message of a Church/pastor when the social, political, economic situation drastically or subtly changes? The answer depends on how the terms above are used, sociologically or theologically? Sadly many churches/pastors don’t make that distinction. Is it any wonder that those outside the Church are confused when trying to provide an answer, demand changes?

Background:

With the election of Donald Trump as President, many are questioning how the Church can/should be changed or exhorted to respond. First, I would like to approach this from a secular standpoint. I served in the U.S. Navy 9½ years active duty and 4 years reserve. I served under four different presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan.

In fact, my final processing interview (May 1973) took place when the Watergate investigation was reaching its peak. I was asked how this changing environment would affect my service in the Navy. I answered that my oath is to defend the country and the Constitution. If the President were impeached, then the VP would serve. It would not change my service at all. Thus, over the next decade, changing presidents didn’t affect my work, my commitment to the Navy, the nation, or relationships with family and friends.

So what is the Church to do?

So when the Church is called out now for not addressing the current hot points, I think I need to follow a similar path as a pastor. Note that most of these calls are for Evangelicals to change, or become what the Church should be, etc. My first response is: I am not part of the Evangelical movement, never have been, even though I am evangelical.

Second, I have pastored at the time of six different presidents (Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump). Over the past 30+ years, my focus as pastor has been on proclaiming the Gospel as historically understood. That means that much of my ministry is to and with people who are broken, abused, outsiders, etc. I began using the term “fringe ministry” to summarize this approach, which I think reflects Jesus’ ministry. Not once did the national climate affect the message or my ministry.

From that perspective, I do not have to change church bodies. I do not have to reinvent myself for the current situation. It is not because I am insensitive to what people are experiencing. Rather it is because I have been in the trenches of what people are experiencing: brokenness, abandoned, abused, neglected. The Gospel I proclaim is not a new social construct, in fact, to be Gospel, it cannot be.

What many, or most, people do not realize is that my ministry has even happened. It has not received public acknowledgement. And for that I am extremely thankful. Such public notice could easily close doors to ministry to the broken, abused, forgotten people, not open doors. I have seen God work changes in peoples’ lives that demonstrate exactly where God’s heart is, and therefore where my heart is.

Church and ministry do not change for anyone or any political, economic condition. I think we can learn from our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world: that even extreme, true (not artificial) persecution allows the Church to still be the Church. No president, no congress, no political platform can change that.

So what is the Church to do? In my case, exactly what we have been doing in the past. Thus, I speak Law to expose sin, but most importantly I speak Gospel to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, hope in Jesus Christ. And the Church responds in caring for others as well.

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Framework for Lutheran Theology

Theological Prolegomena—the name of our one our seminary courses. That’s a mouthful. So what is it? Crudely translated: “Forward to Theology.”

As I began developing the courses for our seminary my focus was on the core courses in the four areas of theology (exegetical, doctrinal, historical, practical). But as we received interest from people leaving non-Lutheran backgrounds who wanted to study with us, I realized that there was a component missing in the curriculum. That is, they were attracted by many aspects of Lutheran theology, but they retained their old framework of thinking. That is, Lutheran theological topics were stuffed into a framework that couldn’t effectively embrace Lutheran theology.

Thus, Theological Prolegomena was birthed into our seminary curriculum. In our syllabus for the course, here is the overview of what is Theological Prolegomena.

What does it mean to be Lutheran? That question causes much confusion. Some think that it means to follow Martin Luther. Some think that it is inappropriate to even ask the question, assuming that the real question should be about “Christian.” Some think that it refers to denominations. And still others think that it means to be “Protestant” with a few, minor doctrinal differences from all other “Protestant churches.” But each of these miss the point of the question.

This course looks at the underlying thinking that sets the foundation for understanding Martin Luther, but more importantly for understanding those who confess the Christian faith in this unique way. That is, one cannot take the theology of another movement and adjust a few things and become Lutheran. Rather, the foundation of thinking affects every doctrine, and even how to approach the Scriptures, doctrine, and theology. Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians (Luther’s Work) gives the student a primary source related to the topics covered in the course.

But to be Lutheran is more than studying some of Luther’s writings. It involves a shift in how we view God, how we view humanity, and the relationships developing out of those two views. In fact, we do not follow Luther, rather we confess the faith as Luther and Melanchthon and Chemnitz, and a whole stream of others have done throughout the centuries.

Defining Terms

We start with these statements that guide our study of theology.

Material Principle: What matters most?

Justification by grace through faith

Formal Principle: What is the source for determining Material Principle?

Bible

Then we look at three commons terms used in the history of the Christian Church. Sometimes the words have been narrowly defined or applied. But we discuss these terms as they developed in the early church, and as historically applied to Lutherans.

Catholic: “universal”

If the word is not capitalized. Sometimes you will see Church catholic and it means the universal church (all believers in Jesus Christ). If the word is capitalized then it is narrowly referring to Roman Church headed by the pope.

Orthodox: “straight praise” ———> “straight doctrine”

Again, this is used two ways, in the general sense of “straight doctrine,” namely everyone who teaches the “straight doctrine of the Christian Church.” In a narrow use of a church body then it applies to many of the eastern churches, i.e. Greek Orthodox Church.

Evangelical: “Gospel”

In the broad use the word refers to those throughout the centuries who have maintained a proper understanding of the Gospel. In the contemporary environment, the word has been associated with a very narrow segment within the Protestant churches. Interestingly the Evangelische Kirche is the name that refers to the Lutheran churches in Germany.

Thus, as Lutherans we identify ourselves as catholic, orthodox, and evangelical. 

Confessional Phrases

How often have I heard this statement: “I am Christian first and Lutheran second”? Far too often! And worse, such a statement is not even accurate. Rather the statement should be:

“I am a Christian who confesses the faith as a Lutheran” (how we confess)

In other words, we are catholic, orthodox, and evangelical Christians who have publicly stated what we believe the Bible teaches, definitely given in the Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (compiled in 1580).

Some might object and say, “We just believe what the Bible teaches.” Our response to that is, “Okay, what does the Bible teach?” The instant a person answers the question, she or he has given a public confession of what the Bible teaches. Our answer to that question has been in place since 1580 (some documents are earlier) when the entire Book of Concord was accepted.

Thus, we find two phrases repeated in our confessions that reflect all the above:

“The Church has always taught”

“We believe, teach, and confess”

By those phrases, we as Lutherans publicly confess that what we are stating in the Book of Concord is what the Christian Church has taught since the time of the apostles up to the present time. That is why the first three documents in the Book of Concord are: Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed. We are not changing what the early church taught. We are not some spinoff of many, but rather we confess the faith as it has been passed on from the beginning of the Christian Church.