Tag Archives: Martin Luther

If you’re not “missional”… (Revised with apology)

***This post has been revised as of 11/30/12. The original post included some language towards my District that was not consistent with the collegial tone that I desire to maintain. Though the theological evaluation and call for dialogue remains the same, I have done my best to remove uncharacteristic inflammatory language, with my apologies to those I have offended by not first speaking to them in person. Be assured I am in the process of personally speaking with individuals regarding this transgression, while also aiming to continue an in-person dialogue on this topic.     

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This world is full of unbelievers. We need simply look around and we’ll find someone who does not know that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Like you, they are in desperate need of the truth of the Gospel—that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). It’s a powerful truth. God’s love is so intense that He sent Jesus to be “crucified, dead, and buried” for their sin, my sin, and your sin.

I like the way Paul put it to young Pastor Timothy: “[God our savior] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:4-5). In other words, God does not discriminate. His love is clear. He wants all to receive it, rest in it, and share it. His ultimate desire is for “all” people to have faith and receive, as the creed says, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The Lutheran church (LCMS) has long stood upon this truth (AC IV) and the desire to make sure the Gospel gets delivered. As our confessions simply state:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ. Augsburg Confession, Article V.

However, as of late, many in the Holy Christian Church, and notably in my own Lutheran church, feel that the church has lost her way, that the mission of the church has somehow been displaced. As a result, a new movement has emerged. It’s called the Missional Movement. I’ve already written about it at some length. But it needs continued dialogue. Many are still confused about it. Many are frustrated it’s not being embraced. There’s even much discussion about using the word “missional” itself. It’s a new word. Some like it. Others don’t. Does it describe a behavior or imply a particular theology? Not everyone is sure. In short, we need to talk.

Thus, I propose that we engage in some forthright, collegial, and honest conversation about what it means to be missional, and how for better or for worse, the movement is impacting our Lutheran church body. So, once again, here we go. I apologize for the length of this post in advance. But since I’ve been away for a while, perhaps you won’t mind.

In short, the Missional Movement has the desire to “reclaim” the mission of the church—to take back what some say has been high jacked by a “maintenance mentality” that only seeks to serve “their own,” ignore the lost, and remain insulated from the invading and changing culture. Consequently, a passionate “missional” paradigm shift is being thrust upon the church. It’s crossed denominational lines. But as we’ll see, its origination has a distinct identity.

At its core, the desire is to get the Gospel out. This is, of course, an awesome thing to do! However, as we will also find out, the understanding of the Gospel does not have uniform agreement or understanding within the Missional Movement. (Just consider Matt Chandler’s recent book, The Explicit Gospel, as well as J.D. Greear’s recent book, Gospel: Recovering the Power that made Christianity Revolutionary. Both are written as reactions to the movement’s inability to maintain a clear confession of the Gospel.)

In short, the paradigm being offered attempts to organize the ecclesiology of congregations (i.e. church governances, organizational structure, and their defining purpose) in a way that is entirely focused on getting the message out to the lost. Part of this includes the emphasis on “making disciples who make disciples” though what those “disciples” actually look like is also not always agreed upon.

One book in particular attempts to establish this paradigm in great clarity. It is titled, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. Simply put, it’s a guide to developing missional leaders and missional communities: “Missional leaders, along with their leadership teams, have a clear vision for creating authentic missional communities. Everything they do is designed to facilitate development of Christians as missionaries sent by God to live and proclaim His kingdom in their world. Ultimately, the leadership team desires every member of the community to function in a missional lifestyle, equipped and empowered for effective ministry” p.168.

Shaped by God’s Heart?

The book is a favorite among missional advocates, and is a Leadership Network Publication written by the experienced Baptist Pastor, Milfred Minatrea. It is perhaps the best articulation of the movement’s missional paradigm and ecclesiastical desire. As such, it also provides a distinct opportunity for insight into the paradigm’s inherent theology and some of the resulting friction it creates with our Lutheran theology and practice.

The book is divided into three parts: Part One—The Church in a New and Changing World, establishes the belief that most churches in North America are “maintenance” churches that are only focused on “survival” and thus are failing God’s mission and therefore need to move to becoming “missional.”

Part Two—The Nine Essential Practices of Missional Churches, explore what “missional” churches do on a regular basis: 1) Have a High Threshold for membership, 2) Be Real, Not Religious, 3) Teach to Obey Rather than to Know, 4) Rewrite Worship every Week, 5) Live Apostolically, 6) Expect to Change the World, 7) Order actions according to Purpose, 8) Measure Growth by Capacity to Release, Not Retain, 9) Place Kingdom Concerns First.

And Part Three—Structures and Strategies for Becoming Missional provides some specific details of the organizational change the congregation must go through to become “authentic disciples” and “truly missional.”

What becomes apparent from the very beginning of the book is the context from which the author is speaking. His regular comparing and contrasting of “missional” to “maintenance” churches reveals that he is operating with a distinct theological and ecclesiastical context that is unmistakably Baptist in nature (including nondenominational or evangelical expressions of this theology).

He is quick to criticize (rightly I might add) how many congregations “have adopted and adapted to consumer culture” where “just as they count on Wal-Mart meeting their material needs, they expect their churches to provide religious goods and services” (p.7). But then he also asserts that maintenance mentality churches merely focus on “preserving the ‘savedness’ of the members, and the church’s function to manage that salvation” where in such churches, “both clergy and laity lose sight of their obligation to make disciples” (p. 9).

However, with this assertion he offers no consideration of the ongoing spiritual needs of church members (i.e. the forgiveness of sins, despairing souls etc.), or any recognition of how sin can continually wreak havoc on the faithful and the peculiarities of each afflicted sinner, nor about the God pleasing nature of vocation. To be sure, he does note how each person has a “sphere of influence” where they can share the Gospel, which includes their place of work (which I completely agree with). However, that is portrayed as a divinely mandated obligation and issue of obedience rather than an outworking of the Gospel, to say nothing of the God pleasing nature of their other various family or work vocations.

His attempt to theologically back up this assertion reveals a distinct difference in how his “missional” mind understands the desire of God and how Lutherans understand the desire of God: “God desires His church to relish in His glory, share His glory among the nations, and reflect His glory in word and deed. The church is a Body made in His image, sent on His mission, to be His glory!” (p.9). The glory of God is not explained in terms of the forgiveness of sins through Christ (central for Lutheran theology), but rather in people coming to worship God.

In other words, it appears that according to this paradigm, missional churches do not emphasize the forgiveness of sins, but rather that people are to praise God, worship God, and give God glory. “Their passion is to see the people of all nations worship God” (p.122). To be sure, worship of our Creator and Redeemer is indeed a salutary and proper activity. But Lutherans recognize worship consists of things far greater than our human endeavors of praise and adoration, and can only occur because of God’s gracious activity toward us.

This approach should not be surprising. It would only be consistent with the non-sacramental nature of Baptist and nondenominational theology, (i.e. that worship is all about the human action of giving praise and glory to God, not about God serving the forgiveness of sins and the gifts of His grace—Word and sacrament worship in Lutheran parlance.) This would also help us understand why he emphasizes the importance of his missional practice number four: Rewrite Worship Every Week (p.65-75). Though he says “worship is about content, not form” he still emphasizes that missional churches are to “make sure worship stays fresh” so that a “relevant” connection can be made with worshipers (p.66). Thus, by theological default, the emphasis of this missional paradigm is repeatedly on the law—what we are to do. As such, if we are being honest, this creates friction for Lutherans.

Law and Gospel or Just Law?

By-in-large, this is the reoccurring theological emphasis of the book. Though he attempts to portray this paradigm as simple “practices” of missional churches, the reality is no practice is theologically neutral, nor is any ecclesiology theologically neutral. They have inherent to them the theological disposition of those creating any such “practice” or “church structure.”

Consider what he says are the four “dimensions of missional churches.” These are what establish the heart and soul of being a missional church—what it is and what it does: Dimension one: Love God—worship and obey. Dimension two: Live His mission—serve and share. Dimension three: Love people—embrace and invite. Dimension Four: Lead them to follow—equip and empower (p. 16-26). Nowhere is the Gospel clearly declared, at least not as Lutherans understand it.

Again, the emphasis is all on the human action rather than on what God in Christ has done and is doing. In fact, from a Lutheran perspective, the Gospel is made into a law—do this, do that—love, live, lead. To be sure, those are sanctified activities and even part of the works that God has in advanced prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). But that is not the Gospel. The saving work of Jesus Christ is the Gospel.

Ironically, the book is titled Shaped by God’s Heart, but seems to have missed the mark of what makes God’s heart beat, (not to mention the marks of the church)—namely, the justification of the ungodly in the cross of Jesus Christ; the forgiveness of sins regularly doled out through Word and sacrament.

Instead, the Gospel is depicted as activities that must be done by those who are “authentic” disciples of Jesus. (By the way, does this mean that non-missional folks are not authentic or real disciples? He is fond of backhandedly indicting those who are not missional: “Missional churches are communities of authentic disciples. These churches take discipleship seriously.” p.45. Does this mean that the rest of us don’t?

Also consider this quote by Erwin McManus: “I think that in the traditional church what you oftentimes have is the affirmation of beliefs, and that’s how people get fed. In a missional church it’s the implementation of the actions of beliefs and the fleshing out of beliefs. We actually hold ourselves more fundamentally to the scripture. Honestly, I think most traditional churches don’t really obey the scriptures” p.56. (Seriously?!)

Unfortunately (and perhaps ironically) sin and repentance are dealt with very little in this paradigm. At one point, Minatrea depicts repentance as a past act with no apparent continued need, where it is portrayed more as a part of a past church culture, rather than as a vital part of “authentic” faith:

Leroy Eims is a marvelous disciple builder, author, and master storyteller who called for authentic discipleship in the twentieth century as a representative of the Navigators. Some years ago, as he tells the story, he was listening to the radio while driving toward his Colorado Springs home, It was Saturday evening, and he was listening to sounds of the Big Band era. While enjoying one of his favorites, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” the song was suddenly drowned out by a higher-powered station broadcasting a “fire and brimstone” preacher who shouted, “Repent. Repent, now!” In response to this appeal, Eims replied, “Now my problem is I’ve already done that. I did that years ago. I have repented. Right now, I am trying to listen to ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo! But he won’t let me listen to ‘Chatanooga Choo-Choo’; instead he insists that I repent!” Living apostolically can be like that. Our connection to the church can be so strong that it repeatedly interrupts our attempts to move beyond the church and into the culture of the world. While we try to hear what is being said in the world, the sounds of our religious traditions continue to overpower us.” (p.78).

I believe his aim is to challenge the prescriptions of a particular church culture (which can be a fair approach), but in so doing he reveals that the forgiveness of sins is not necessarily central to “missional” congregations (which would not be a healthy approach). Rather, being missional seems to mean that a person is someone who gets others to know who Jesus is; know his love (whatever that might mean) and what he did a long time ago on the cross, but not necessarily know the ongoing effects of sin and the need for the forgiveness of sins today and tomorrow. In other words, the life of evangelism, not the life of repentance, is the core of the “authentic” disciple’s life.

Measures of Success

What is more, the “success” of missional congregations is not measured by the presence of the forgiveness of sins, but rather by a numerical evaluation: “Concerning measures of success… ‘The measure of church success may need to be reevaluated. One day, a church may evaluate its fulfillment of Christ’s commission not only on the basis of attendance, its strength of fellowship, budget and cash flow, but by the number of congregation it begets.’ Indeed, missional churches are redefining what it means to be a church” (p.122-123).

In the end, this is what concerns me about this movement. Confessional Lutherans maintain the nature of the church does not change. This missional paradigm says it does. If we are being honest, we would have to acknowledge that, at a minimum, this poses some very significant concerns.

Ultimately, this is what makes the book, along with many elements of the movement itself, so disenfranchising for me as a Lutheran. Minatrea claims the missional church wants to work with all churches, and not compete with other churches since they are “members of the same team” (p.135). However, I find it troublesome when he notes that “moving to missional is a deep change that is inherently difficult because it requires leaving established ways of doing things” (p.173). Sometimes there are things that are not up for debate. There is not the option to leave them.

Thus, I occasionally wonder if we are really on the same team when there are such disparities of understanding the Gospel. Is the Gospel Jesus’ work for me or my work for Jesus? Lutherans say it’s the former, this missional paradigm says it’s the latter. Leaving the way of Jesus “for me” is to leave the way of the forgiveness of sins. That’s not an option for Lutherans.

This is by no means to disavow all non-Lutheran Christians. Rather, it is to simply affirm the clarity of the Gospel—the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ—for the sake of God’s kingdom and the sake of those sinners called into it. In fact, I love how Reformed Presbyterian Pastor Tullian Tchividjian puts it in his just released book: Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free:

Listen carefully: Christianity is not first and foremost about our behavior, our obedience, our response, and our daily victory over sin—as important as all these are. It is not first and foremost about us at all–it is first and foremost about Jesus! It is about His person; His substitutionary work; His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. We are justified—and sanctified—by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. Even now, the banner under which Christians live reads, “It is finished.” Everything we need, and everything we look for in things smaller than Jesus, is already ours in Christ (p.83).

Thus, it should be clear that I’m not trying to be elitist, snobbish, or a preservationist. I simply desire to affirm the Lutheran principle that doctrine and practice go together; that doctrine is not negotiable, that Christ is central, that sinners need to be forgiven, and that life is very often much more messy than what this missional paradigm seems to acknowledge.

I like how Luther puts it in his 1535 commentary to the Galatians: “Therefore, as I often warn you, doctrine must be carefully distinguished from life. Doctrine is heaven; life is earth. In life there is sin, error, uncleanness, and misery, mixed, as the saying goes, ‘with vinegar.’ Here love should condone, tolerate, be deceived, trust, hope, and endure all things (1 Cor. 13:7); here the forgiveness of sins should have complete sway, provided that sin and error are not defended… But by the grace of God our doctrine is pure; we have all the articles of faith solidly established in sacred scripture. The devil would dearly love to corrupt and overthrow these; that is why he attacks us so cleverly with this specious argument about not offending against love and the harmony among the churches” (p.41-42).

Doctrine and Danger

Yes, as with all books, there are some helpful things that can be learned from this one. Congregational structures can be tenuous and difficult, and there are some helpful pointers that could be gleaned from Minatrea. But the inadequacies of this paradigm as its presented here prevents me from being able to recommend this book.

Curiously, one of the dangers Minatrea notes about the movement is one that I have observed with some frequency. Minatrea offers this warning: “The Missional community must shun the pretense of viewing themselves as ‘more spiritual’ than members of the church who do not pursue the missional vision” (p.177).

It has been my observation that there is a significant amount of pressure to be “missional” even though not everyone agrees or understands on what it actually means to be missional. Nonetheless, congregations and pastors are being evaluated and assessed (implicitly and explicitly) on how “missional” they are. This book itself has multiple missional assessment tools after each chapter that can be used to measure pastors’ and congregations’ missional effectiveness.

I will acknowledge that tools can be helpful to take stock of a congregation’s situation, however this particular mode of measurement would seem to be foreign to Lutheran theology and practice. It does not lend itself to creating a unified atmosphere of Lutheran ministry, but would rather seem to divide and label by way of a new emerging (and yet uncertain) movement.

As a result, those that are not be deemed to be “missional” (either by choice or by circumstance) end up getting looked down upon. Very often they are then viewed or labeled as inferior. They’re seen as upholding a “maintenance” congregation. They get a mark against them and, for some, are seen as a hindrance to “real” ministry. The intent of such measurements may indeed be sincere. But such resulting labels are unfortunate, particularly in view of Minatrea’s own warnings.

In the end, if measurement tools are going to be used, at least from a Lutheran theological and practical perspective, I wonder how pastors and congregations would feel if they were to be evaluated by similar tools on whether they are being truly Lutheran? I know, its a touchy statement. But it draws out the accusatory slippery slope we risk when utilizing such assessment tools.

I believe the Missional Movement desires to get congregations headed in the right direction. I just think Lutheran theology has been pointing us there long before this movement came along.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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Recovering the Gospel

The church of North America continues to struggle. Much is being written and being said about the church and her mission. Great confusion remains. Emergent, missional, relevant, contemporary, discipleship-focused, informal, young—all are words used to describe the various Evangelical versions of what the church is to be. Some focus on making their worship services informal, relevant, and relational. Others focus on serving the community. Some focus on small group ministry. And still others emphasize ministry to specific ages. Similarly, many Lutheran congregations have followed suit in one way or another, often relying on the Evangelical world and their rational as the impetus for change.

I’ve been tracking these varying emphases for some time, often providing my own critique from a Lutheran theological perspective. However, what I have discovered, (actually stumbled upon at the start) is the growing number of Evangelical voices calling the church out. As of late, I have been noting a number of them on this blog. Their overarching observation is that something is wrong.

As well-intentioned as these movements might be, many are saying something is missing. What is it? Sadly, they’re saying it’s the Gospel. And they’re also saying a correction needs to take place. (See my last two posts on The Explicit Gospel, among others).

The reason I track these Evangelical voices is that it seems many Lutheran pastors and congregations are more prone to embrace a new ministry emphasis based upon the endorsement of a foreign theology and practice rather than their own. Ironic, is that Lutheran theology and practice has long held that the beating heart of the church is the justification of the ungodly through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In other words, the proclamation of the Gospel has historically been our foundation. So the concern is this, if Evangelicals have lost the Gospel will Lutherans who follow their lead also lose it?

But don’t get me wrong. I think we can certainly learn from our Christian cousins. And I readily admit they have some thoughtful things to say. I just think Lutherans need to be more discerning about what we so willingly embrace and use as foundations for our ministry, particularly when there is a great degree of uncertainty about those foundations.

In fact, if there is the desire to embrace what our Evangelical cousins are saying, why not heed those corrective voices calling the Evangelical church to task for their loss of the Gospel?

One such voice is mega church Pastor J. D. Greear. He has some very thoughtful reflections (and more than a few indictments) for the church to consider in his 2011 book titled, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.

The 39 year old Greear has a Ph. D. of Philosophy that concentrated in Christian and Muslim theology. He is the Lead Pastor at Summit (Baptist) Church of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina which worships over 6,000 people a weekend. His book recounts the burdened experience he had with the various emphases and practices of evangelicalism, where he came to feel that “enough was never enough.” Serving the Lord in one way was never enough because more could always be done. More could be given. The church constantly put pressure on him to be a “good” Christian. He had to give more if he was to gain God’s favor and be a true disciple. At one point he notes: “I even packed up my entire life into an oversized duffel bag and went to live in a third-world fundamentalist Muslim country for two years.

He aims to offer a compelling resolution to this law based and guilt ridden malady: I want you to see how the gospel, and it alone, can make you genuinely passionate for God, free you from captivity to sin, and move you outward to joyful sacrifice on behalf of others… I believe evangelicalism, as a whole, desperately needs a recovery of the gospel as the center of Christianity. Even in conservative denominations like my own (the Southern Baptist Convention), the gospel has been eclipsed by any number of secondary stimuli for growth. (Chapter 1, Kindle Edition).

The Gospel needs to be recovered! And he is very clear on what the Gospel is and is not, at times sounding rather Lutheran, even repeatedly invoking Martin Luther. It’s an interesting read. Though I don’t agree with everything he says, on the whole I found it to be another fascinating voice of reform. For now, I’ll provide some quotes from chapter one (of my Kindle Edition) with more from the rest of the book to come:

The gospel is the announcement that God has reconciled us to Himself by sending His Son Jesus to die as a substitute for our sins, and that all who repent and believe have eternal life in Him. I want you to see the gospel not only as the means by which you get into heaven, but as the driving force behind every single moment of your life.

The gospel, and the gospel alone, has the power to produce love for God in the heart. Paul calls the gospel “God’s power for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). There are only two things that Paul ever refers to as “the power of God.” One is the gospel; the other is Christ Himself. As the story of the gospel is proclaimed, the Spirit Himself makes the heart come alive to see the glory and beauty of God revealed in it. Just as Jesus’ command to the lame man to “get up and walk” had in itself the power to obey the command, so the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has in itself the power to make dead hearts new. As the gospel is believed, through the power of the spirit, our selfish, hardened hearts burst alive with righteous and godly passions.

Only in the gospel, you see, is the power to obey the first commandment. Only in the truths of the gospel can a heart turned in on itself burst alive in love for God. For many evangelicals the gospel has functioned solely as the entry rite into Christianity; it is the prayer we pray to begin our relationship with Jesus; the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity. After we get into the pool, we get into the real stuff of Christianity: mastering good principles for our marriage; learning rules and regulations of how to behave; and figuring out if Kirk Cameron will be left behind.

We have substituted all kinds of cosmetic changes for true heart change. We encourage people to pursue new and better spiritual gifts. We tell them to recover ancient devotional techniques. We try to beef them up on a particular doctrinal system, as if more correct facts will do the trick in itself. We tell them to show audacious, mountain-moving faith in prayer. We tell them to get radically committed to the Great Commission. These things all have their place, but all we are doing is piling superficial changes onto a heart that doesn’t really love God. None of those things can produce love for God. Only the gospel can.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

 

That I May Be His Own

Much debate in the church today centers on what it actually means to believe in Jesus Christ. Two non-Lutheran sermons I recently listened to help provide a contrast that characterizes the divide in the church.

Both preachers are relatively young, well known leaders of large congregations. One is evangelical preacher David Platt. He has become well known for his book Radical, which explores the radical demands made by the Gospel upon the believer. The other is Reformed Presbyterian Tullian Tchivdjian. He has become well known for his book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, which explores the radical sufficiency of Christ for the believer. Both have many thoughtful things to say (books and preaching alike), but they do draw out some distinct differences that various segments of the church are emphasizing.

I recognize that preaching a sermon always has a context, and taking a few sentences out of a sermon runs the risk of misrepresenting what a preacher might actually be saying. Thus, I tried to select quotes from the sermons (which you can listen to at the associated links) that sought to be representative of the entire sermon theme.

The first is a quote from Platt’s 2010 sermon titled “The Gospel Demands Radical Sacrifice:”http://www.vergenetwork.org/2012/01/30/david-platt-the-gospel-demands-radical-sacrifice/

“Jesus requires superior love. Luke 14:26 is the first “If… then he cannot be my disciple” [of Jesus.] “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters– yes, even his own life– he cannot be my disciple.”…I want to be very careful with all the verses that we study because there is a danger that we try to soften the words of Jesus to fit the way that we live… Love for each other springs from who? From our love for God. Loving Him is supreme. It’s superior love… Biblical Christianity sees the supremacy of Christ and is so infatuated with Him, so drawn toward Him, that our love for Him drives everything that we do! It’s a superior love. So the question before you, in light of this verse is, do you love Christ?”

The second is from Tchivdjian’s sermon titled “Free at Last” and was preached at Coral Ridge Presbyterian church this past Sunday, (Feb. 5, 2012). http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/:

In all of Paul’s letters that he wrote, he gives the bottom line of the Gospel right away in two words: grace and peace… Grace being the root of the Gospel, and peace being the fruit of the Gospel. Grace involves the remission of sins; and peace involves, as Martin Luther said, “a happy conscience.” The peace of God which transcends all understanding comes only as we increasingly believe that by grace alone Christ has made peace with God, for us! In other words, we never experience the peace of God that transcends all understanding by looking in! We can only experience the peace of God that transcends all understanding by looking out, and up, at the very fact that Christ made peace with God, for us!

Again, I realize that each sermon has a context. However, I think they sum up the divided emphases within the church.

One feels that Christians are failing to properly love Jesus and therefore their unbelieving neighbor. As a result, countless calls are being made for intensely increased witnessing and superior love for our unbelieving neighbor, because that is what they feel the Gospel demands and true love for Christ requires.

The other emphasis feels that such intense demands and requirements confuse the fullness of the Gospel. It’s not that Christians shouldn’t do these things. Absolutely, they should! Rather, it’s just that they feel such demands cause people to look to themselves rather than to Christ for the meaning of the Gospel. As a result, they feel the Gospel is turned into a law to be obeyed rather than a gift to be received. That is, the 10 commandments already require Christians to intensely love God and neighbor. So the primary message of the Gospel then is not another law to be obeyed, but that it proclaims grace and peace for our miserable failures to do so.

What do you think? What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of how Luther had a knack for making it so simple. In the explanation of the Second Article in his Small Catechism, Luther beautifully summarizes what it is to believe in Jesus—“that I may be His own.” (See the full explanation below).

It’s not first about what I must do. Rather it is first about what Jesus has done. It’s not about my superior love, but His. And as my dear friend put it, “This is much happy news!” For, sinners by definition cannot meet the demands of superior love. Our wretchedness is so complete that we need the supreme and superior love of our Savior Jesus Christ. It’s how we become His. And when we are His, then there is much living and serving to do. But that comes as the fruit of this happy news. Not because it has been demanded from us, but because it has been given to us—because we have been made His own!

[Explanation of the Second Article: I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.]    

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

A Theology of Primary Vocation

As of late, there is the notion that every Christian’s primary responsibility and obligation in life is to be obedient to the so-called “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20), and is therefore to constantly be about the making of disciples of Jesus Christ, (see my previous post A Missional Manifesto Considered). It is true that the making of disciples is a mandate that Christ did certainly give to His Holy Christian Church. However, the assertion that every Christian’s primary and overarching responsibility in life is to be about disciple making, though certainly zealous, is, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, not altogether theologically accurate, and in varying ways, actually devaluing to the God-ordained ordering of everyday life.

Consider these words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17). Are these words specific to the Corinthians or to all Christians? If the Great Commission text is meant for the whole Church, is not also this one?

To be sure, the making of disciples is a prime directive of the Holy Christian Church, which is indeed made up of individual believing Christians. Yet, recognizing the above verse, confessional Lutherans have historically acknowledged that God has ordered His creation and His Church in such a way to ensure that both spiritual and physical care is given to His human creatures.

Children need to be cared for, food needs to be grown, clothes need to be made, people need to be protected, and society needs to be ordered. At the same time, sinners need forgiveness, the despairing need hope, the lost need a Savior, and dead bodies need resurrecting.

Thus, God has ordered society in such a way that the physical needs of people are met through the various vocations of people in life. Without them, earthly life could not be sustained. Likewise, God has ordered his Church in such a way to ensure that His gifts of grace—Word and Sacrament—are delivered so that saving faith can be obtained and disciples made (Augsburg Confession V). Without them, eternal life could not be sustained.

Thus, within the Holy Christian Church the Office of the Ministry (Office of Pastor) was established, ordered, and set apart by the Lord for the benefit of His people. However, to be clear, this ordering does not create a “two-level Church, with clergy above and laity below, or laity above (who hires and fires) and clergy below…There are no levels—only where our Lord has put himself there for us to give out his saving, enlivening gifts as he has ordained the Means of Grace to do, and put the Predigtamt, [Office of Ministry] there for the giving out of his gifts surely and locatedly in the Means of Grace” (Norman Nagel, “Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers” Lutheran Theological Quarterly, Oct. 1997, 286).

Consequently, confessional Lutherans recognize that the individual Christians who make up the Holy Christian Church also possess other God pleasing and God ordered daily responsibilities (vocations of life) that must be tended to for the good of others lest, among other things, chaos, disorder, starvation, and want abound.

But please note, by this I am by no means asserting that individual Christians should ignore any opportunity to share the faith. Rather, I am simply affirming that other vocations may in fact, out of God ordained necessity, be the primary responsibility for many Christians. In other words, their life may be ordered differently than that of solely being one who is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And such ordering, ordinary or mundane as it might be, is in fact good, right, and God pleasing as it serves our neighbor.

But again, to be clear, this does not mean individual Christians should not be intentional about sharing their faith within the specific vocations they are placed. Luther himself is clear on this. In His sermon on Psalm 110:4, Luther sets out the unique rights, privileges, and powers of the laity (or spiritual priesthood) within the Holy Christian Church:

After we have become Christians through this Priest [Christ] and His Priestly office, incorporated in Him by Baptism through faith, then each one, according to his calling and position, obtains the right and the power of teaching and confessing before others in this Word which we have obtained from Him. Even though not everybody has the public office and calling, every Christian has the right and the duty to teach, instruct, admonish, comfort, and rebuke his neighbor with the Word of God at every opportunity and whenever necessary. For example, father and mother should do this for their children and household, a brother, neighbor, citizen, or peasant for the other. (Psalm 110, 13:333).

Thus, by no means does the doctrine of vocation negate the ability of a Christian to witness to others. Rather, quite the opposite, it locates them in specific relationships and specific places so that they can give witness to others when the opportunity arises, while simultaneously also providing individual Christians the confidence to know that the works of service they are doing within their various vocations, no matter how mundane or ordinary, are also God pleasing and appropriate to do.

Vocational guru, Gene Veith, summarizes the value of the doctrine of vocation this way: “Recovering the doctrine of vocation can help Christians influence their culture once again as they carry their faith into the world, into its every nook and cranny, through the plenitude of vocations. The doctrine of vocation is a theology of the Christian life, having to do with sanctification and good works. It is also a theology of ordinary life. Christians do not have to be called to the mission field or the ministry or the work of evangelism to serve God, though many are; nor does the Christian life involve some kind of constant mystical experience. Rather, the Christian life is to be lived in vocation, in the seemingly ordinary walks of life that take up nearly all of the hours of our day. The Christian life is to be lived out in our family, our work, our community, and our church. Such things seem mundane, but this is because of our blindness. Actually, God is present in them—and in us—in a mighty, though hidden way.” (God at Work, p.156-7).

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

Demanding the Gospel or a Gospel that Demands?

The hallmark for Lutheran preaching and teaching has long been the presence and proper distinction of law and Gospel. In short, it is the division of God’s Word that, on the one hand, declares what God demands of you, and on the other hand, proclaims what God has done for you in Jesus Christ.

In his classic work, Law and Gospel, C. F. W. Walther asserts that the “Law is anything that refers to what we are to do,” while “the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or word of God that does not require works from us and does not command us to do something but bids us simply to accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of sins and the everlasting bliss offered us.” This division of law and Gospel has long been one of the defining characteristics that make Lutherans, and their theology, distinct in their understanding and application of God’s Word. Historically, it has been standard Lutheran operating procedure.

However, the current “missional” and “emergent” church debates have drawn this practice into question. In short, the movement’s stated goal is to return a wayward church to its original “mission” by unabashedly following the Great Commission and calling all Christians to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. Consequently, it often critiques Christians, congregations, and whole denominations, for dismissing the need to seek and save the lost.

As Lutherans feel they have always maintained theological clarity regarding the nature and mission of the church, (AC VII) the movement is viewed with uncertainty by some, particularly when the Gospel is portrayed as a demand of obedience. Thus, when “traditional” Lutherans and “missional” Lutherans (for lack of better terms) debate the nature and mission of the Holy Christian Church, the issue often gets boiled down to the nature of what Jesus told us to do versus what Jesus has done for us. To be sure, Jesus did both. But how we speak about them (i.e. our preaching and teaching), as well as our (in)ability to talk collegially with one another, has become the issue.

On the one hand, there is the refrain, “Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples and we have to obey that command. Jesus demands it.” If we don’t, depending on the author or person speaking, the legitimacy and authenticity of our faith may be called into question. On the other hand, there is the simple exhortation, (as above) that the Gospel makes no demands.

True, Luther was unequivocal about the Gospel: “The Gospel, however, is a blessed word; it makes no demands on us but only proclaims everything that is good, namely, that God has given His only Son for us poor sinners. This good news also includes that He is to be our Shepherd, seeking us starving and scattered sheep, giving His life for us, redeeming us from sin, everlasting death, and the power of the devil.” Yet, Jesus did say, “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19). What’s a Lutheran to do?

Maybe it comes down to letting all the words of Jesus be the words of Jesus, and not just our favorite few. And maybe it means duly noting and distinguishing all of His words (and actions) of law, and all his words (and actions) of Gospel. This way the law remains the law, and the Gospel remains the Gospel.

Historically, for a Lutheran to make the Gospel into a burden of obedience is a high offense. Lutherans have long cherished the claim that the Gospel frees. That is, it does not coerce, it does not force, and it does not insist. Rather, Lutherans have long held that it is the law that demands: “You shall do this” and “You shall not do that.”

What is more, not only does the law demand obedience, but it accuses us when we fail to fulfill it. But the Gospel makes no demands whatsoever! It is all gift. It is all love. It utterly frees. It frees us from our sins. It frees us to love others. Not because we “have” to, not because we “get” to, but simply because that is what Christ’s love for us and in us does to us.

Likewise, the Gospel frees us to share our faith and to give witness to others, not because we “have” to, not because we “need” to, but because (by the Holy Spirit) we are freed to. This is the proclamation of the Gospel. To make it a demand (i.e. following Jesus means you must sell your house, you must give to the poor, you must go on a mission trip, you must forget retirement, and you must work only for the Gospel), burdens the conscience, destroys the freedom of the Gospel, and no longer trusts the Holy Spirit to do what He says He will do. Sure, the law can demand things of us, but the Gospel does not “demand.” It does not burden. It frees.

Yes, the freedom of the Gospel permits us not to love others. But then we must deal with the law. For here is the right work of the law: it convicts and condemns us for our lack of love and drives us to repentance, back into the gift of the Gospel, and back to the freedom and power of the Gospel, wherein we go about doing the works (loving, serving, witnessing) God has prepared in advance for us to do.

It is a high art to rightly preach and teach law and Gospel. Lutherans have long held to this endeavor. Given the current church debates, and current confusion about the mission of the Church, I think it is worth revisiting.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? Does the recent mandate to be “missional” have tendencies to make the Gospel into law? Or is the desire for right doctrine (rightly dividing law and Gospel) promote hair splitting?

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

A Noble (Mission) Vocation

Lutherans have long held the cherished doctrine of vocation. It is the profound understanding that God is working through us as we serve our neighbor through our daily stations of life (including family and community members). However, the recent “missional” emphasis has tended to push the doctrine of vocation aside, making people feel guilty for simply tending to their daily jobs, family responsibilities, and the general grind of daily life, instead of forsaking it all to go spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For example, David Platt’s 2010 book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream is relentless in making readers feel utterly guilty and completely inadequate in their faith.

I believe this to be unfortunate, problematic, and deeply hurtful to Christian families, particularly the vocation of parents.

I cherish the vocation of my parents, as I know did my older sister Heidi. She was the oldest of three; she was six, I was four, my brother Matt was three (my brother Josh came along later). However, a Wilms Tumor was ravaging her body. I know Heidi didn’t know what a vocation was when she was six, but I am certain she was thankful my parents lived theirs out so fully.

As Christians, they took their family regularly to worship. As a farmer, my dad worked long hours trying to support his family and make a living. As a mother, my mom had three young children to take care of—including Heidi as she was plagued by cancer.

Heidi’s favorite song was, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Even though she was just six-years-old, she was particular about her songs. She liked the hymns and if it wasn’t to her liking it got the ax— “Mom, that one just doesn’t have enough Jesus in it,” so out it would go.

By every human reason and by every manner of human strength, they tried to make Heidi get better. They couldn’t. While sitting in my mother’s lap, her last words were, “Mommy, I know I am going to be with Jesus now.” She closed her eyes and then breathed her last. She died in my mother’s arms, hair gone, strength gone, and now life gone. Not by her own reason or strength did she go from the arms of her mother into the arms of her Savior. Baptism has a way of doing the impossible.

My vocation as brother was confusing at that time. I remember my brother Matt and I thought it was cool that Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane was leading the funeral procession in his squad car—our favorite show was the Duke’s of Hazard. But then we got to the grave site. Not by my own reason or strength could I figure out why they had put Heidi into a box. Not by my own reason or strength could I figure out why they were lowering her into the ground.

I turned to ask my mom. The picture of my dad and mom crumpled in an agonizing embrace, utterly weeping, is forever etched in my mind. Not by their own reason or strength would they be able to bear the burden of seeing their child lowered into the grave. Not by their own reason or strength would they be able to calm the devastating outrage of watching their six-year-old little girl suffer and die.

But their trust was not in their own reason or strength. Their trust was in the One who called them, and called Heidi, by the Gospel. Just as they confessed in the Apostles’ Creed that day—“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Here, the “Amen” becomes painfully and expectantly real.

My mom and dad often talked of Jesus, but their vocation was not as missionaries. Their vocation was as parents—diaper-changing, supper-cooking, clothes-folding, cow-milking parents. They told my sister about Jesus, just as they told all of their children about him. They taught each of us the hymns and songs that the church has sung for ages.

I am pretty sure Heidi probably sang her favorite song to many of the nurses who cared for her, and maybe even told one or two about Jesus, but her vocation was not as a missionary, it was that of a little girl—a daughter who also had the horrid disease called cancer. Yet, she was a little girl baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. She was a daughter, taught by her parents of God’s unconditional, irreversible, and resurrecting love promised to her through the water and the Word.

It is no wonder that Luther writes this about the vocation of parents: “In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls…Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal” (Estate of Marriage, 1522, AE 45:47).

It should also be no wonder that the latest studies unequivocally show that parents are the most formative influences in the faith life of children. From the largest study of this kind ever done, Christian Smith in his book Soul Searching, now has the research to back up what the Scriptures have said for thousands of years—parents are the most formative influence in the faith life of their children:

 “More broadly, one of the most important things that adults who are concerned about how teenagers’ religious and spiritual lives are going to turn out can do is to focus attention on strengthening their own and other adults’, especially parents’, religious and spiritual lives.  For in the end, they most likely will get from teens what they as adults themselves are.  Like it or not, the message that adults inevitably communicate to youth is ‘Become as I am, not (only) as I say.’”

This, too, is part of the mission of the church.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford