Mark Driscoll & The Road of Repentance

Pastor Mark Driscoll announces that he is taking a leave of absence. Photo credit:  http://www.religionnews.com/2014/08/24/mark-driscoll-step-down-mars-hill-elders-review-charges/

Pastor Mark Driscoll announces that he is taking a leave of absence.
Photo credit: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/08/24/mark-driscoll-step-down-mars-hill-elders-review-charges/

This is a re-post from my article over at Made for More.  Made for More is a great forum for exploring the intersection of life and faith and wrestling with the tough questions that are posed by both.  Head on over to their website and check them out.

FAREWELL PASTOR MARK?
This past Sunday Mark Driscoll, lead pastor of the Seattle megachurch Mars Hill, shocked the evangelical world once again when he announced that he is stepping down for at least the next month and a half while the leadership of his church investigates the charges brought against him by 21 former elders. For those who have not been following this story, Pastor Driscoll has come under increasing scrutiny over the past year as he has faced charges of creating a culture of fear among the church’s leadership, plagiarism, and using ministry funds to advance his own book sales.   In one of the more shocking developments of the past few weeks, Driscoll and Mars Hill were removed from the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting organization that he helped start, by its leadership board.

Reactions to Pastor Driscoll’s remarks have been mixed. Some are shocked and saddened by the news. Others have rejoiced. However, in all of these reactions there seems to be an overwhelming sense that this is the end of the road for Driscoll as a leader in American Christianity. Words like “demise” and “the end of a career” have popped up again and again. Even in his well-balanced post on the issue, Jonathan Merritt of the Religion News Service concluded by writing that “I grieve that the story did not have a happier ending.”

But while I agree with many that stepping down is the right move for Mark Driscoll, I honestly hope that this is not the end for Pastor Mark. In fact, my prayer for both Mark and for Mars Hill is that they would take this time to demonstrate what real repentance looks like. We’ve seen far too many Christian leaders fall over the years and few who have actually been reconciled to their accusers and return to healthy ministry.

The truth is that Mark Driscoll is a gifted leader. You don’t plant a church that goes on to include over 14,000 people and launch one of America’s most successful church-planting networks without being gifted. Furthermore, Mark is an incredibly skilled communicator whose sermons and books have reached countless people around the world. He is young, talented, and whether you agree with him or not, he takes Scripture seriously. To lose such a leader is a loss not only for Mars Hill, but also for the church at large.

That being said, it is clear from recent events that Pastor Driscoll needs to take some time away from leadership, “for processing, healing, and growth”. The accusations against him are serious and many people have been hurt. His decision to step down and allow Mars Hill’s leadership the time and space to investigate these charges is a responsible step, but it is only a first step. Much more will be needed in order to restore him to ministry leadership.

But hear me clearly. I did say “restore”. The goal of all church discipline is ultimately the restoration of the individual person and the healing of relationships that have been broken. Too many, in the wake of Mark’s announcement, have rejoiced and celebrated Mark’s “demise”. But such an attitude is not in keeping with what we, as Christians, should be pursuing in circumstances like these. So what does the road of repentance look like in circumstances like these?

PASTOR MARK’S PERSONAL WALK
It is clear that a lot must be done in Pastor Mark’s own life for him to be restored to leadership. This is something that he has verbally acknowledged. But what is clear is that much more is needed that verbal apologies. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the following:

“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

As such, Mark’s personal road of repentance is going to have to bring him face-to-face with those he has wronged as well as involve wrestling with his own struggles as a leader. Here is what that might look like:

  1. Directly addressing his accusers & their accusations.
    In order to live out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, Pastor Mark is going to have to address his accusers and their accusations face-to-face. He is going to need time to talk with those who have felt injured or hurt by his leadership. But more than this, he will need to take concrete steps to address the ways in which he has caused harm. This may mean spending time working with and learning from an organization that builds healthy team cultures and equips pastors to do the same. Learning from leaders like Pete Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Church, could be a starting point.
  2. Learning to live in humble submission.
    One of the major themes of Mark’s own ministry is learning to submit to your church’s elders and those in authority. In the face of these accusations, now may be a good time for Pastor Driscoll to spend some time humbly serving under the leadership of others for a season. This will, perhaps, be one of the most difficult steps. It is hard because anyone who has been in leadership naturally has a hard time taking a back seat, especially when you have led at the level and to the caliber that Pastor Mark has led.

    This will also be difficult on the person under whose leadership he serves, as it is not easy to lead and direct someone as gifted, talented, and, yes, stubborn as Mark. Yet, I think this will be vital for his own growth and healing, as he learns to truly serve selflessly and obediently under the leadership of another. My one piece of advice here would be that Pastor Mark serve under someone who is truly his elder brother, both in years and in spiritual maturity, who can care for him and guide him in a way that is both authoritative and pastoral.

  3. Receiving long-term counseling.
    It is never easy to handle change, especially one as difficult and painful as stepping down from ministry. As such, I believe counseling is a must for Pastor Driscoll. This would need to go well beyond one or two sessions to include ongoing guidance and support as he processes his thoughts and feelings during this season. However, as someone who has personally benefited from the care of a professional counselor, I know that this will be vital in terms of restoring Mark to healthy leadership.

If it isn’t clear already from this brief list, this will certainly take longer than the minimum six weeks that Pastor Mark and the elders have given for his time away. As such, I think that Pastor Mark and his leadership team should seriously consider a 12-month Sabbatical, if not longer, to give proper time and space for this process to take place.

While this may seem like a long time, I think it is essential to ensure healthy, long-term ministry on the other side. Martin Luther once said that, “When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” This journey for Mark will take the whole of his life, as it does for all of us, but it will need a season to take root and it will be necessary for the church to support him in these first steps.

 

THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH
Which brings me to my last point: what should the role of the church be in helping restore Pastor Mark? I think that this is a vital question that we, as Christians, need to ask ourselves, because the truth is that none of us is immune from sin. We all fail and mess up. Yet Scripture calls on us to bear one another’s burdens in love, and that extends to walking with Pastor Driscoll in this season of change. So what does that look like for us? Here are a couple of thoughts:

  1. Stop gossiping and start praying.
    We need to stop attacking Pastor Mark and Mars Hill and, instead, start earnestly praying for them. We should ask God to bring them comfort and guidance as they move forward together.
  2. The leaders who have disciplined Pastor Driscoll should now be a part of his restoration.
    There have been many pastors and church leaders who have brought accusations and calls to step down to Pastor Driscoll. Now that these calls have been heeded, it is time for those same leaders to love, support, and walk with Mark as he grows. I’m thinking specifically of the Acts 29 Network and the Gospel Coalition leadership. These men include some of Mark’s friends, allies, and protégés from the past, and he needs their love and insight now more than ever. So there should be an earnest attempt to heal any wounds that exist between them and walk with Pastor Driscoll in this time of growth and discernment.
  3. Thank Pastor Mark and encourage him in his walk with Christ.
    The truth is that many of us have benefited from Mark’s ministry. Whatever his faults and imperfections, God has used him to bless and encourage countless people in their walks with Christ. As such, he needs to hear stories from those people about how God has used him in their lives. Over the next weeks and months Pastor Driscoll is going to hear a lot of criticisms and get a lot of hate mail. So what he needs are godly people who will also send him messages of hope and love. He needs to hear that God has and will continue to use him. He needs to be reminded that when he has been faithful to Christ, God has used him to bless others. Rather than calling out the wrong in him, let’s be a part of calling out what is right and good in him, and encourage him to develop those healthy and fruitful aspects of who he is. So write him an email, send him a letter, or just give him an encouraging Twitter shout-out. It will mean more than you know.
  4. Finally, defend him against the haters.
    The truth is that there are those who will never be happy, no matter how far Mark goes in his walk of repentance. Mark needs people who will back him up and defend him from the haters. He has already been humbled. He doesn’t need to get kicked while he is down. Let’s protect our brother in Christ as he learns and grows.

My hope is that we will indeed see Mark return to ministry and, yes, leadership in ministry. Furthermore, I hope that the process leading to that day will be healthy for Mark and for the Church as a whole. I pray that the road of repentance would not only bring about healing for Mark and for those involved in these conflicts, but would also speak powerfully to our culture at large about the grace of the God we worship. I pray that through this, Christ would be glorified and I echo Mark Driscoll’s words in saying that “the best thing for us each to do is look to Him and point others to Him.”

 

 

Spiritual Disciplines & The Classroom of Life

Photo Credit:  HFT Design

Photo Credit: HFT Design

LET’S GET SPIRITUAL!!!

What does it look like to live a spiritual life?  This is a question that I have had since I was young.  Even before I became a Christian I was drawn to spirituality and religion.  I wanted to know what it meant to be close to God and live a holy life.  Holy people are attractive to me.  Their selfless living, their intimacy with God, and their insight into life are things that I desire for myself.  This is why I was so drawn to the spiritual disciplines when I started my Christian walk;  practices like fasting, retreats of silence, lectio divina, and so forth.

In fact, if you want to make any money writing Christian books just write on discipleship, being “missional”, or the spiritual disciplines and you’re guaranteed to have a bestseller.  Why?  Because there is a powerful interest in rediscovering and re-applying these ancient practices of the Church, especially in evangelical circles.  During my years as an InterVarsity staff worker I would regularly take retreats of silence or practice disciplines like fasting as a way of growing in my walk with Christ.  I could easily do an hour-long daily devotion, complete with Scripture reading, journal writing, and praying.  I loved it.

A RUDE AWAKENING

However, my spiritual equilibrium was not to last, because my life was about to be interrupted by one of the greatest challenges to my spiritual walk that I would ever encounter:  children.  With the birth of our first and, two short years later, the arrival of our second, I quickly came to the realization that the days of hour-long devotions had come to an end.  With the kids waking up ungodly early and going to bed ungodly late, the academic demands of seminary, the responsibilities of work, and the need to continue to nurture my marriage with Jenny, I suddenly realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to enter my personal monastery and meditate on my place in God’s universe.  Why?  Because the barbarian hordes named two-and-four-year-old would regularly storm the cloister and upend the furniture.  And my spiritual life began to suffer.

Furthermore, this season at seminary has not made it easy to stay spiritually healthy.  In fact, I am convinced that nothing will endanger your faith as much as getting an M.Div.  This is largely because the things that you once enjoyed doing purely for the joy of doing them (studying Scripture, praying, sharing your faith, reading theology, going to church, etc) suddenly become homework assignments.  Furthermore, studies have shown that whenever you attach an external motivator (a grade) to an internal motivator (a love for reading the Bible), the joy you have in doing that activity drastically decreases.

The result was that these past 12 months have been some of the driest and most frustrating that I have had spiritually in recent memory.  My patience with my kids has been shorter, my desire to read Scripture almost gone, and my prayers increasingly scattered and disjointed.  But what I began to realize is that these issues were merely symptoms of a deeper problem

A STUNTED VIEW OF SPIRITUALITY

But if I’m going to be completely honest, the reason why this period has been so dry has very little to do with the kids or seminary.  While these two things have certainly been a change, it would be a cop-out to blame them for my spiritual drought.

So why haven’t I been able to cope?  Well, because I had developed a stunted view of the spiritual life.  I had come to see “spirituality” as something that could only be achieved through special practices and disciplines like fasting, retreats of silence, long devotions, extended prayers, and so forth.  These were my God times.

I had inadvertently defined spirituality as a rhythm of life that took me out of the world to “get away with the Lord” and now family and seminary were messing with my spiritual mojo.  I did not have the tools or resources to cope with these changing realities because I had not developed a view of spirituality that was able to encompass things like taking my kids to the bathroom or writing a paper on denominational history.

FINDING GOD IN THE MIDST OF THE MUNDANE

The truth is that I desperately needed to have my understanding of spirituality redefined.  Luckily, the answer came through one of my readings in seminary:  Here I Stand by Roland Bainton.  In that book Bainton summarizes Martin Luther’s view of “vocational calling” in the following way:

“God has called men to labor because he labors.  He works at common occupations.  God is a tailor who makes for the deer a coat that will last a thousand years.  He is a shoemaker also who provides boots that the deer will not outlive.  God is the best cook, because the heat of the sun supplies all the heat there is for cooking.  God is a butler who sets forth a feast for the sparrows and spends on them annually more than the total revenue of the king of France…As God, Christ, the Virgin, the prince of the apostles, and the shepherds labored, even so we must labor in our callings.  God has no hands and feet of his own.  He must continue his labors through human instruments.  The lowlier the task the better.  The milkmaid and the carter of manure are doing a work more pleasing to God than the psalm singing of a Carthusian.  Luther never tired of defending those callings which for one reason or another were disparaged.  The mother was considered lower than the virgin.  Luther replied that the mother exhibits the pattern of the love of God, which overcomes sins just as her love overcomes dirty diapers” (Bainton 233-234).

What this helped me realize was that true spirituality is found not in retreating from the world, but in seeing and depending on God as we go about our daily tasks.  Rather than waiting to meet God in a day-long retreat of silence or feeling like I need an hour-long devotional time, God is pleased to meet with me as I wash dishes or bathe my kids.  He has made me a husband and a father, a preacher and a student.  As such, doing homework well is more pleasing than five hours of solitude.  Playing with my kids is holier than skipping out on a meal.

Furthermore, it is in living out these callings that I am actually driven back to God.  He uses my life as a husband and father to round off my rough edges, to highlight my selfishness and sin, and to form me as someone who loves and cares for others.  As such, these moments actually become a motivator rather than a hindrance to prayer.

It makes me think of John the Baptist’s advice to those who came asking, “What shall we do?”  Rather than tell them to put on a camel’s fur coat and run into the wilderness to pray, he told the soldier to do his duty well and the tax collector to be fair and honest in his accounting.  He pointed people back to their daily lives and said, “Live your life to the glory of God.”

For the Christian, spirituality is about seeing God in the midst of the daily grind.  It is about seeing the mundane circumstances of our weeks as holy moments.  It is about encountering God in our daily walk, for he is a God who was incarnate in ordinary flesh, the divine and holy one who walked dusty roads with the “average Joe”s of the world.

SPIRITUALITY FOR THE AVERAGE JOE

What I’ve slowly been learning is that God does not call us to retreat from the world.  He doesn’t ask us to renounce the lives he has given us.  He doesn’t call us to leave our jobs in order to become monks (or nuns).  He places us in everyday circumstances and uses everyday tasks to serve others and to shape us as his children.  Rather than meeting us through additional practices and spiritual disciplines, he desires to meet us in the disciplines of daily living as we perform the tasks and functions to which we have been called.

This is not to say that spiritual disciplines are not important or have no value.  Rather, it is to say that they are optional and extracurricular; do them if you have time and only if they are helpful.  But what matters more is learning to see God in the midst of our daily lives, in the context of our immediate relationships, and as we perform the jobs and tasks which have been entrusted to us.  For these are holy moments, divine friendships, and disciplines which shape and refine us as people who know and trust God in all moments of life.

While I still have not figured out what spiritual value a paper on denominational history has, I’m beginning to see my daily moments as great times of learning from God as I play with my kids, love my wife, and dedicate myself to my studies.  Thanks be to God for meeting with this average Joe in the midst of the mundane.

What’s Our Code?

good samaritan

One of my favorite movies is the film A Few Good Men.  I like it because it is an awesome courtroom drama in which a hot-shot JAG lawyer (played by Tom Cruise) has to defend the actions of two marines who are on trial for murder.  Over the course of the film he learns what it means to respect and defend his clients, even though he disagrees with their actions.

In one scene he offers them a plea bargain in order to avoid the trial.  However, the two men do not want to take it because they felt that they were doing right in following orders and seeking to discipline their fellow Marine for breaking the chain of command.  They said that he violated their code.  When Cruise’s character asks them what their code is, one of the Marines responds:

“Unit, Corps, God, Country.”

The reason I mention this is because my last post addressed the question of Christian priorities when it comes to political engagement.  In the course of making my argument I wrote the following:

“We engage politics and political issues is with a different set of priorities; ones that focus on service to our neighbors and the administration of just laws rather than advancing the agenda of a particular interest group or political party.”

However, the one issue that I realize I needed to elaborate on some more was this question of “Who is my neighbor?”  If we are to serve our neighbors rather than an interest group, it begs the question, “How do we evaluate who our neighbors are and what it looks like to serve them?”  That’s what this post aims to address.

THE PROBLEM WITH “UNIT, CORPS, GOD, COUNTRY”

The truth is that very few Christians would disagree with the call to love our neighbors.  In fact, when summarizing all of the Old Testament Torah and the Prophets, Jesus said:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
~Matthew 22:37-40

The call to love our neighbors is one of the most familiar parts of Jesus’ teaching.  Sadly a problem arises when it comes time to define who our neighbor actually is.  In many ways, I think we develop a Christianized version of the code, “Unit, Corps, God, Country”.  We tend to think of our neighbors in the categories of “Family, Community, Country, God”.  What I mean by this is that we tend to define who our neighbor is in terms of whether or not we are related to them, whether or not they are a part of our immediate community, and whether or not they are a part of our country.

For example, if I were to apply this code to my own life, it means I look out for my wife and kids, my extended family, and anyone who is a middle-class White person in America with moderate political views.  We turn this call to love our neighbors into a justification for caring for our own interests and the interests of those who are like us and with whom we agree.

The code starts to break down when you begin to push the boundaries of who qualifies as a neighbor.  After all, how do we tend to think about those who are different from us?  Allow me to offer a couple of examples:

  • What about Muslims?  We label them “terrorists”.
  • What about undocumented people?  They’re “illegal aliens”.
  • What about the homeless?  We call them “lazy welfare abusers”.
  • What about members of the LGBTQ community?  We label them “fags”.
  • What about the Chinese?  They’re “communists who are trying to take over the world”.
  • What about our enemies?  They’re “dangerous and should be killed or imprisoned”.

If you were offended by that list GOOD.  You should be.  Because it’s an offensive list.  And I would argue that it is offensive because we have taken people, human beings made in the image of God, and dehumanized them.  Furthermore, we have made excuses for why we shouldn’t care for them and their needs, much less treat them in a “neighborly” fashion.

And what is sad is that, quite honestly, I have heard all of those things on the lips of people within the church.  I’ve heard Christians say these kinds of things about people and it breaks my heart.  And yet, these all betray that we are working with an inner hierarchy that preferences those who are like us over those who are different.

But the funny thing is that Jesus had something to say about people who operate with this code:

44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
~Matthew 5:43-48 (emphasis mine)

 Yup.  You just heard that from the man.  The code doesn’t match up with Jesus’ notion of who is our neighbor.  So what does?

A DIFFERENT CODE

So how does Jesus answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  The answer is found in Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In this story a Samaritan man cares for a Jewish man who has been robbed and beaten.  When he asks the Jewish expert in the Law who was a neighbor to the man who was beaten, he answers, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Again, this is a pretty familiar story for Christians, but I honestly don’t think we wrestle enough with the implications of what is being said here.  We have to remember that the Samaritans and the Jews in Jesus’ day were not on the best of terms.  The Jewish people looked at the Samaritans as religious and ethnic outsiders.  They were heretics and half breeds.  Animosity between the two groups often became violent and there are several recorded incidents of violent conflict between the groups in the 1st centuries BC and AD.  For Jesus’ hearers a Samaritan is not the likely hero of this story.  If anything, they would have expected a Samaritan to be the culprit.

And yet here is Jesus holding up a Samaritan as the hero of the story.  It is the Samaritan who is the neighbor.  It is the religious and ethnic outsider, the enemy and the outcast, who is the neighbor.  This totally upends the code of “Unit, Corps, God, Country” because it says that our neighbor is actually the one who is least like us.  It is the person with whom there is the greatest distance, the greatest tension, that we are to consider our neighbor.

What this tells us is that Jesus’ understanding of who our neighbor is flies directly in the face of what we would prefer and, as Christians, we have to not only wrestle with it, but seek to apply it to our own lives.

SERVING OUR NEIGHBOR

So how do we do that?  What does it look like to serve our neighbor, especially the neighbor who is so different from us?  My answer is going to sound like a cop-out, but honestly it starts by getting to know them.  That is the only way you are going to build trust, learn their needs, and discover where they are at in their walk with God.  There is no formula for this.  Service to neighbor has to begin with relationships.

And this is what is so uncomfortable for us.  If I’m honest, it is uncomfortable for me to be in a room full of people who are different from me.  It is hard to talk with someone with whom I disagree politically.  And, honestly, it is hard for me to love and pray for those who want to kill me.

And yet…that is what Jesus calls us to do.  He calls us to love, pray for, and serve our neighbors as he defines them.  We have to wrestle with that and ask God for the strength to change our hearts as we reach out others.

So what would it look like for those Christians who spoke poorly about the “other” to re-evaluate their views through the lens of this parable?  What would it look like for you and for me to do so?  I think this would radically redefine what political issues we take an interest in, the books we read, the places we live, and the people we hang out with.  That is what this parable calls us to.  That is what it looks like to love our neighbors and it is a far better code than “Unit, Corps, God, Country.”

“We Pledge Allegiance to the __________________?”

cross flag

 

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
~1 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV)

Early this month we, as a country, celebrated the Fourth of July and I have to admit that, since becoming a Christian, I have struggled with how best to honor this holiday.  The reasons why are multiple, but perhaps the biggest reason is because of the tendency, in many American Christian circles, to blend nationalism and faith.  The most recent example of this was Holly Fisher’s 4th of July Twitter post of her posing with a flag, an assault rifle, and a Bible.  Over the years I have heard too many of my brothers and sisters in faith parade out Bible quotes in support of a nationalist political agenda and question the faith of those who don’t hold those particular political views or whose theological conclusions seem to challenge or question conservative political values, especially on issues of social justice, racial reconciliation, poverty, war & peace, and immigration.

Sadly, the response hasn’t been any better, for as many Bible-quote-toting conservatives as there are, there is an equally large number of Bible-quote-toting liberals doing the same.  The problem is that, for both, Scripture and our identity as Christians is being tied to a political allegiance.  In fact, in his groundbreaking study of American religion, Robert Putnam noted that for the majority of Christians political and party affiliations play a more powerful role in determining which church they belong to than their theological beliefs.

All of this leads me to ask the question, “How do we, as Christians, actually view our role in society?  To what do we pledge allegiance?  A nation?  A party?”  This is my attempt to answer those questions.

PILGRIMS, ALIENS, OR EXILES?

There have been countless attempts to answer this question down through the ages of the Church, even from our very earliest days as citizens under the Roman Empire.  So to claim that I am offering anything new or insightful would be arrogant and unfaithful to those who have come before.  Christians have variously been called “pilgrims”, “exiles”, and “resident aliens”.

While each of these views has its basis in Scripture, one paradigm that I have found particularly helpful is that of “ambassador”.  Christians are to be ambassadors for Christ.  Not only is this term Scriptural, but the implications of it are profound for how we view ourselves and how we interact with the broader national culture, especially when it comes to politics and social engagement.

A DIFFERENT ALLEGIANCE

What makes the paradigm of ambassador so compelling is that it assumes that we are a “sent” people.  We are sent on behalf of another government or ruler to a country that is not our own.  While we live in that country or land, our allegiance remains tied back to our sovereign.  It is His laws we are to uphold, His agenda we are to pursue, and His priorities that we are to value above all others.  To give our allegiance to the country to which we are sent would be to violate the allegiance that we have already pledged:  to our King.  As such, Christians cannot and should not hold any allegiance to any earthly power (political or otherwise) that supersedes their allegiance to Christ.

While this is easy to say, I think that oftentimes we are shaped more by our cultures, families, communities, or the political paradigms that we inherited from our parents.  However, as Christians we have to be self-reflective and ask, “Which of these values is in line with those of Christ and which are not?”  Rather than uncritically sticking the label “Christian” upon the values we already hold, we subject our preconceived notions to the test of Christ and ask whether or not the values we hold actually align with those of our King.

Honestly, the best way to do this is by talking to other Christians who were not raised in the same cultures, communities, families, or even under the same political systems as ourselves.  For when we do so we help each other identify those assumptions, beliefs, and practices which may be out of step with those of Christ, for we do not necessarily share the same blinders as one another.  In doing so, we become more effective ambassadors for our King as we begin to shed other allegiances which stand in the way of our faithful witness.

A DIFFERENT MISSION

Likewise, as a sent people we have a particular mission.  Ambassadors are sent for the purpose of winning a hearing for their home culture and government.  Ambassadors are not sent with the strength of arms nor with the power of economic might.  Rather, through a combination of personal integrity, diplomacy, and an awareness of the culture to which they are being sent, ambassadors seek to improve the reputation of their home culture among the culture to which they have been sent.

Sadly, I think that this is lost on many American Christians today.  We want to win a hearing for Christ, but we use political power games or economic might to try and accomplish this.  We vote for “Christian” politicians, establish “Christian” Super PACs, run “Christian” political campaigns, and donate to “Christian” causes.  We use the tools of might and power to try and force an agenda rather than winsomely persuading and presenting a case for the Gospel.

The result, sadly, is that Christians just come across as another political option in an already hyper-politicized nation.  We are just one more interest group trying to grab the reins of power.  This damages our witness, because it looks like we care more about our constituency than about serving our neighbors…all of them.  Rather I think we need to consider that, as Christ’s ambassadors, God is making His appeal through us:  “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

So what does this look like in terms of political engagement?  I think the answer is found in passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-25.  In these two passages we learn that God has instituted secular governments to be agents for justice and the welfare of the broader society.  Sadly, many secular governments and governing officials seem to only be in the political game to serve themselves and their narrow constituencies or interest groups.  Our role, as Christ’s ambassadors, is to call them back to the service and administration of justice and good order, NOT to the establishment of a pseudo-Christian theocracy.

This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t vote nor to give the impression that Christians should hold politics at arm’s length.  Rather, it is to say that we engage politics and political issues is with a different set of priorities; ones that focus on service to our neighbors and the administration of just laws rather than advancing the agenda of a particular interest group or political party.

This is part of the reason that Christians should not fit neatly into any political party or group, because the reality is that, in our current climate, neither of our two major parties fulfills this function well.  And the truth is that, in our broken world, they probably never will.  So, we exhort, challenge, pray for, serve, and encourage whoever sits in power to exercise their God given authority with justice and for the betterment of our neighbors.

“WE PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE ___________________?”

So who do we pledge allegiance to?  The truth is simple.  We pledge allegiance to Christ.  It is to Him and His reign that we look for guidance as we consider our engagement with any political issue.  As such, we need to examine our political leanings carefully and weigh them against the priorities of Jesus.  I think that this is best done within the community of the global Church as we talk to our brothers and sisters in faith and learn how to question and evaluate our views in dialogue with one another.  We must remember that we are ambassadors; citizens of the kingdom of Christ sent to win a hearing for Him in countries across the globe.

The Gift of Married Life

Just Us

There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.
~Martin Luther

So he’s a bit of a fixer upper
But we know what to do
The way to fix this fixer upper
Is to fix him up with you
~The Trolls from Disney’s Frozen

This week I stand between two important days:  the anniversary of my wedding to Jenny and Father’s Day.  As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about both what it means to be a husband and a father and I’ve come to the conclusion that there a few gifts greater than those of a spouse and children, for I believe that it is in the beautiful vocations of both marriage and parenthood that God humbles the spiritually proud and shows grace to the weak.

Here is what I mean.  I think it is easy for a person to become quite proud in his or her own spiritual life.  However, when we enter into marriage we suddenly give another person the most intimate access to our life on the face of the earth.  This front row seat is expanded by the arrival of children.  Our spouses and our kids see us at our very best, but also at our very worst.  It is easy to believe oneself to be a saint until you have people watching you 24/7.  You quickly learn just how impatient, stubborn, and self-centered you actually are when you suddenly find yourself responsible for and exposed to these most intimate of relationships.  God uses marriage and parenthood to humble the proud, to show us our faults, and to round out our rough edges.

But He also uses marriage and parenthood to display His grace, because even as our spouses and our kids see us at our worst, they choose to love us.  Our families know we are not perfect.  They know we can be selfish, screw up, and make mistakes, and yet, they still choose to love.  In a small way, this is a display of the love and grace that God shows to each and every one of us.

So today, as I reflect on six years as a husband and four as a father, I am grateful to God for my wife and kids.  They have been with me on this crazy journey of life and ministry and I could not be more thankful for all the ways that they have blessed me.  Thank you guys and I love you:)

Who is Doctrine For?: Theology in the Life of the Church

DISCLAIMER:  The following post is rated “Looooong” and may not be appropriate for people with short attention spans :p

This past quarter I took a course in Systematic Theology.  Honestly, it has been one of my favorite classes.  The readings have been great, the lectures engaging, and the assignments thought provoking.  We’ve addressed topics like Christian ethics, the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, the sacraments, death, and resurrection.  For an egghead like me, this kind of stuff gets me excited.  I have been on cloud nine all quarter because I am in nerd central and I love it.

However, the other night Jenny and I were talking and she said something that really struck me:  “I feel like you are immersed in this subculture and you’re starting to speak a language that I just don’t understand.”  Her words really hit me.  I had to slow down and ask myself the question:  “Who is all this for anyway?!”  If I’m spending all this time (and money) learning theology, but it is not translating, then why am I doing it?

My conversation with my wife helped me to see that it is very easy for me (and others) to become a product of the seminary subculture rather than transforming us into leaders who are able to speak with, but also relate to and be a part of the spiritual formation of the people around us.  As such, I have to routinely remind myself that the vocabulary, practices, and viewpoints that we so often use and take for granted are not those of the world around us.  As theologians, we are presented with the ongoing challenge of “communicating timeless truths in an ever changing world”.

So who is doctrine for, anyway?  What role should theology have in the life of the local church?  What follows is my response.

THE DECLINE OF THEOLOGY IN THE AMERICAN CHURCH

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
~1 Timothy 4:16, NIV

With these words the apostle Paul charges his young protégé, Timothy, to serve faithfully as a teacher and leader in the early church. Over and over again in the Pastoral Epistles, Paul concerns himself with encouraging his successors to faithfully live out their calling as teachers of the Christian faith. His primary concern was that future generations would grow to full maturity in Christ Jesus and he saw the teaching of sound doctrine as essential to this task. Yet, in our modern context words like “doctrine”, “theology”, and “dogma” have largely been confined to academia. They stir up mental images of old buildings, older books, and long-since-dead theologians. In an age of self-help devotions and pop-theology a dedication to the sound teachings of the faith has been on the wane. YouTube sermons and celebrity pastors have replaced the catechist and the shepherd-teacher. “Why,” we reason, “would we need such outdated teachings when the latest Christian book is at our fingertips?” And so we are tossed about, like waves on the sea, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14 NIV).

The state of the Western Church is a sad one. Rather than reflecting the image of Jesus Christ in greater and greater measure, Christians simply reflect the individualistic, pluralistic, and syncretistic inclinations of the world around them. If we were to diagnose what is happening I believe it all comes back to this: the church has lost its calling to make disciples. And while recent trends have begun to correct this deficiency they often circle around the same solutions that have led us into our present calamity: more books, more DVDs, more conferences.

So what can be done? I believe it is time for the church to rediscover the motivations which drove the apostle Paul and his contemporaries: “[Jesus Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28-29 NIV). Our calling, as teachers and preachers of the living Word is to help people grow into maturity in Christ Jesus. However, this will not happen through the same consumer-oriented methods of spiritual development that have characterized the Western Church in our modern age. Likewise, it will not take place in the sterile environment of the classroom lecture. I believe it will happen when the church re-claims its calling to teach theology in the classroom of life. In the following sections I will explore the important place of theology in the life of the church and present a framework for incorporating deep theological reflection and application into the life of the church.

REMOVING SOUND TEACHING FROM THE CHURCH

But before discussing solutions to this problem, I believe it is necessary to highlight the reasons for the decline in theological education within the context of the local church. For the purposes of this paper I want to focus on three areas.

External Pressures

In their book Grounded in the Gospel, Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer highlight that one of the greatest barriers to teaching theology in the life of the local church is increased skepticism of external authority in the Western world.[1] They note that,

Many Protestant leaders remained largely unaware that the real roots of Christianity…were being replaced by the idea that those who adhered to the church system and kept up religious appearances were still free to believe or disbelieve as their personal judgment might suggest. This liberal mindset undercuts catechesis completely, for catechesis assumes the existence of authoritative truth that needs to be taught.[2]

This skepticism toward any kind of teaching authority makes teaching theology a challenge in our increasingly postmodern world. The rise of individualism and pluralism has not helped. The result is that the idea that the individual is the sole determiner of philosophical and theological truth has taken on such widespread cultural acceptance that to challenge it virtually guarantees that one will have lost his or her audience before a single point is made.

Sadly, rather than facing this challenge, the church has largely run from it. Rather than articulating a robust, deep, and equally challenging counter-narrative of its own, the church has settled for the lowest common denominator when it comes to teaching and preaching. We have seen this at its apex during the church growth movement, in which pastors were encouraged to write seeker sensitive messages and steer away from theological mine fields like judgment, hell, the pervasiveness of Sin, and so forth. Furthermore, theology itself came to be viewed as a dry and esoteric discipline largely divorced from the complex realities of our modern Western world.

While this approach may have scored some points with church-weary seekers, it did little to win over the truly skeptical. Furthermore, it left the already-convinced Christian ill equipped with the language to defend the Christian worldview against the onslaught of counter-narratives and religious claims.

Outsourcing Theology

The second factor that has led to the decline of theological education in the local church is the outsourcing of theological training to seminaries. In its brief catalog of this trend, the New Dicitionary of Theology notes that:

It was chiefly through the scholastic writers and the new universities of Europe that theology became a more systematic exercise, a field of study and teaching, even a discipline or a science. This usage was not entirely new—it picked up pre-Christian Greek uses and some in the fathers also, but it foreshadowed the development of theology as an academic discipline no longer necessarily located in the Christian community.[3]

This shift from teaching theology in the local church context to teaching it in the academic setting has had a number of harmful effects.

First, it divorced the discipline of theology from the real-life struggles and challenges of the church in the world. As such, the discipline of systematic theology became more about defending the old doctrines and their developments and less about demonstrating the power and relevance of those doctrines for today’s world. As such, it became a largely esoteric discipline, focused more on theory and less on practice and application.

Second, this shift created the unintentional impression that theological education and study are for the professionals. Pastors and seminary professors study theology. Lay people do not. If any formal theological education was given, it was dispensed during the middle school years through confirmation classes, after which the Christian was on his or her own. Further theological reflection was not necessarily encouraged and, if it was, only was seen as for those who were interested in entering vocational ministry. As such, the average layperson was starved for lack of sound theological instruction. Again, Parrett and Packer were insightful on this point as they noted the strange influx of Christian men and women into supposedly evangelistic programs like Alpha and Christianity Explored. They write that:

These evangelistic ministry efforts are attracting large numbers of church members as well as inquirers. It seems that many who already count as believers are hungry-famished, really-for a rudimentary knowledge of the faith.[4]

By outsourcing theological education in this way we have left the church a mile wide and an inch deep when it comes to understanding even the most fundamental of Christian teachings.

Lack of Life Application

The third trend that has led to the decline in theological education within the church is the failure of many teachers of theology to helpfully apply the deep truths of doctrine to Christian life. The great agnostic thinker Robert Green Ingersoll once said, “Let us put theology out of religion. Theology has always sent the worst to heaven, the best to hell.” He noted how those most committed to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy rarely lived out the convictions that they so fervently confessed. Just as the writer of James once said, “Faith without works is dead,” so theological reflection without life transformation is also dead. If theological education is to have any future in the church, it must find ways of bringing the profound doctrines of Christian theology to bear on the character formation and personal lives of the Christians who profess them. In short, theological study must once again be grounded in the cause of making disciples. It is with this in mind that we now turn to one possible way forward.

THEOLOGY RE-APPLIED

In this section I want to briefly propose several ways forward in re-introducing theological education back into the life of the church. But before offering several concrete proposals, I think it is worth taking a few moments to re-define how we think about theology itself, as this will serve as the backdrop for the proposals which follow.

Theology Re-Defined

In the opening pages of his book, The Christian Faith, Michael Horton makes the simple but profound observation that “Theology simply means ‘the study of God,’ and doctrine means ‘teaching.’”[5] As such, he says, it is incumbent upon every Christian to take a serious interest in the field of theology, for theology is concerned with nothing less than knowing God himself. Sadly, he notes that “some Christians assume that knowing doctrine and practical living are competing interests. The modern dichotomy between doctrine and life, theology and discipleship, knowing and doing, theory and practice has had disastrous consequences in the life of the church and its witness in the world.”[6] For Horton, theology is an inescapable and necessary part of Christian discipleship for it helps Christians to orient themselves in the divine drama that God is writing in history.

Horton then goes on to highlight how doctrine arises out of this divine drama. He defines doctrines as the “grammar of faith.”[7] In much the same way that vocabulary and sentence structures help us make sense of language, doctrines, argues Horton, help us make sense of the divine narrative and locate ourselves within it. Furthermore, we are able to critically engage with that story and examine it more deeply by asking the right questions and dialoguing with it. He notes that “By questioning and testing our interpretation of God’s Word, we come to know what we believe and why we believe it, so that the grammar of faith becomes our own language of worship through which we interpret all of reality and live in the world.”[8] As such, doctrines have a way of reshaping and conforming our own categories to those of God’s divine drama.

In much the same vein J. I. Packer writes in his groundbreaking book Knowing God that, “The conviction behind the book is that ignorance of God—ignorance both of his ways and of the practice of communion with him—lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”[9] As such, theology has a vital role to play in the life of the church not only because it helps us understand our place in God’s divine drama, but also because it grounds us and helps us make sense of the world around us. He writes:

As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.[10]

When we begin to view theology in these terms we begin to see that theology is not an isolated discipline full of esoteric propositions and meaningless theorizing. Rather theology is the way by which we learn the language of faith. Not only this, but it becomes our compass in a world of competing truth claims and clashing worldviews. It grounds and it nourishes us by helping us make sense of the world and the God to whom it belongs. With this in mind, I’d like to offer three ways in which theological education can find its place back in the life of the church.

Curiosity Created the Church: Dialoguing with Modern Narratives

One of the ways that Christian theology can find its place back in the life of the church is by doing what it does best: dialoguing with the counter-narratives of the world around us. As many theologians are quick to note, the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith were articulated at times and in environments where alternative narratives were competing with the central assumptions of orthodox Christianity. Our doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity are just two of the foundational teachings of the church that grew out of intense dialogue with other philosophical and theological claims.

As such, it is incumbent upon theologians and Christian leaders to begin dialoguing with the other narratives that we find in our world which stand against the central claims of the Christian faith. This was one of the primary reasons why John Stott wrote his standard book on Christian discipleship The Contemporary Christian. In his opening chapters he calls Christians to develop the discipline of “double-listening”, which he defines as:

the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensible to Christian discipleship and Christian mission. It is only through the discipline of double listening that it is possible to become a ‘contemporary Christian’. For then we see that the adjectives ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ are not incompatible, we learn to apply the Word to the world, and we proclaim good news which is both true and new. In sum, we live in the ‘now’ in light of the ‘then’.[11]

This discipline of double-listening is essential to the task of good theology. If theology is the language by which we make sense of our place in God’s divine drama and in the world around us, it is essential that theologians help the church bring its great and historical doctrines to bear on the challenging, multifaceted, and confusing issues of our day. Learning to ask questions like, “How does our view of the Trinity define our understanding of human relationships in a social media world?” or “How does our understanding of men and women as made in the image of God inform our view of sexual ethics?” are vital for helping Christians appropriate and live out the truths of the faith in an increasingly digital and sexualized world. If theology is truly the queen of the disciplines, then it must regain its ability to dialogue with and challenge the prevailing narratives of the world around us, and do so with insight, humility, and winsomeness.

Theology for Everyone

The second way in which theological education can benefit the church is by getting it out of the Ivory Tower and into the hands of Christian men and women. In the preface to his Small Catechism, Martin Luther spoke about the absolutely vital role that theology had in the Christian life in the following way:

The deplorable, miserable condition I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, and simple form…The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach…Yet, everyone says that they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.[12]

Luther noted the lack of sound theological training more by its absence, but it was this lack that compelled him to write both his Small and Large Catechisms and insist on instructing the average layperson in them. This is made clear in his preface to the Large Catechism where he says, “This sermon is designed and undertaken to be an instruction for children and the simple folk…It teaches what every Christian must know.”[13]   For Luther and the other reformers it was necessary to teach the core doctrines of Christian faith to every believer, regardless of station, age, or degree of education. This is what led the reformers to reclaim the ancient Christian practice of catechesis, by which Christians were routinely instructed in and encouraged to live out the fundamental teachings of faith.

For the church in our day this process of catechizing the faithful is just as necessary. While we have typically done well at teaching children through Sunday schools and confirmation classes, this education must also extend to adults. This can be in the formal setting of a classroom or an informal setting such as discussion groups on the relevance of Christian teaching in the modern world. Furthermore, new technologies provide an incredible array of opportunities for Christians to offer basic forms of theological instruction to their congregants.

One recent effort that is worthy of mention here is The New City Catechism [14], an online and interactive teaching tool created to teach the fundamentals of Christian faith to both adults and children. Using an interactive combination of readings, video teaching, and memorization, this catechism is available both online and as an app for tablet computers and cell phones. This ingenious effort is just one expression of how the church can begin to teach the fundamentals of faith to its members.

But beyond discussion groups and online tools the church should regularly find ways of inviting theologians to join them for a time of corporate teaching and discussion. Congregations can host local theological conferences or partner with nearby seminaries to provide space for classes as well as opportunities for their members to grow in theological understanding. In these ways, the church can again become fertile ground for theological education and formation.

The Theologian as Disciple-maker

This last proposal is perhaps the hardest to quantify, but it has to deal with the theologian himself/herself. If theology is to reclaim its place in shaping the life of the local church, it must find expression in men and women who are not only able to teach the basics of faith, but model how those core doctrines are applied in Christian living. What I am calling for is for the theologian to increasingly view him or herself as a disciple-maker. Horton notes that our discipleship is directly tied to our understanding of theology. He writes:

“Unless we are relocated from the stories of this fading age to our identity in Christ and begin to understand the implications of this new script, our discipleship will be little more than moralism. Merely imitating Christ’s example is different from being united to Christ through faith, bearing the fruit of his resurrection life. It is the creed that gives rise to praise and therefore to informed and heartfelt love, service, and witness to our neighbors in this world. Doctrine severed from practice is dead; practice severed from doctrine is just another form of self-salvation and self-improvement. A disciple of Christ is a student of theology.”[15]

Horton’s argument is that discipleship must be grounded in the truths which theology helps us to understand and appropriate. If we are to live in light of God’s mercies, we need to understand the drama that he is writing. Failure to do so will inevitably lead us into greater idolatry or give us a faulty and unbalanced picture of Christian faith. It is easy to see why the reformers spend so much time writing catechisms and stressing the importance of educating every believer in the basics of Christian theology. Christian life and faith are inherently dependent upon a right understanding of God and his ways.

But more than this, theology must be modeled. It is the role of the theologian to teach his or her fellow Christians how to live out the truths that we profess in the classroom of life. More than simply stating how such doctrines are applied to everyday life, theologians must come alongside and model how these are lived out to their fellow Christians. In short, what I am calling for is more theologians. I define them as people rooted in the truths of Scripture, who embody the truths of faith, and who pass those on to other in word and practice. Without such models of faith we allow the other competing narratives of our time to shape and form us rather than the words of God himself, properly understood and articulated through careful study. The truth is that, ultimately, we are all “doing” theology. We all hold assumptions and stories about who God is (or is not) and what the telos of life really is, and we live these out an various intentional and unintentional ways. Theologians can help challenge those ingrained stories and force us to grapple with whether or not our lives reflect the story that God is writing. As such, every theologian, at his or her core, must dedicate him or herself to the cause of disciple-making. Theologians should have a prominent place in the life of the church as they model for their communities how to appropriate the truths of faith for everyday life. In short, my hope is that every Christian would be a theologian in the making as he or she meditates on the beauties of God and his character and seeks to live in light of the God whom we worship.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, I believe that the discipline of theology has much to give to the local church. However, whether or not it does depends on our commitment to root the truths of the faith in the life of the church and do so in a way that is compelling, insightful, and transformative. This will involve having not only a right understanding of the goal of theology, but applying that right understanding in ways that engage Christians and non-Christians at various places in their lives. This will mean re-engaging with the predominating narratives of our world, providing practical opportunities for theological education, and, perhaps most importantly, living out our theological convictions in the context of mutually enriching relationships, for such is the nature of true discipleship. In all of these ways, my hope is that we will all take to heart Paul’s great exhortation to “watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV). To God be the glory. Amen.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old Fashioned Way. (Grand Rapids: Baker 2010), locs. 54-65.

[2] Ibid. loc. 65

[3] Ferguson, Sinclair B. and David F. Wright (eds.). The New Dictionary of Theology. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1988). pg. 681.

[4] Grounded in the Gospel. loc. 215.

[5] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2011), loc. 99.

[6] Ibid., loc. 113.

[7] Ibid., loc. 240

[8] Ibid., loc. 285.

[9] Packer, J. I. Knowing God. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1993). pg. 12.

[10] Ibid. pg. 19.

[11] Stott, John. The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1992). pg. 29.

[12] McCain, Paul Timothy (gen. ed.). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (St. Louis: Concordia 2011). pg. 446.

[13] Ibid. pg. 482.

[14] Keller, Timothy and Sam Shammas. The New City Catechism. http://www.newcitycatechism.com/

[15] Horton, The Christian Faith. loc. 336-337.

Toward a Lutheran Legacy

verticalreformation500

Logo of Reformation500 at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

The Crisis of Our Present Time

In 2017 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. As I have been reflecting on my time at Concordia Seminary I am acutely aware of the fact that I will be ordained 500 years after the young Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. With this single act, Luther began a spiritual, social, and intellectual revolution that single-handedly reshaped Western history and the nature of the Christian Church, the effects of which we are all heirs.

As such, the question that I have to ask myself is, “What will our legacy, as the religious descendants of Luther, be in the next 500 years of the Reformation?” This is a pressing question for us in the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod. While the Lutheran Church, like many churches, is growing rapidly in the Majority World, in the West we are in a state of decline. Fully 2/3rds of our congregations worship 125 people or less on a Sunday morning, and are not even able to financially support a full-time pastor. And if these trends continue then it means that this generation of seminarians will most likely minister over the death of at least one congregation over the life of their ministries.

And so, we must ask ourselves the question, “What will our legacy be? What will our gifts to the global Church and the world be?” Sadly, if you take our history as any indication of our trajectory, our prospects do not look good. While we have remained a church committed to sound doctrine and biblical faithfulness, we have historically been insular, reactionary, and isolationist.

Throughout the short life of our Synod we have swung back and forth between the poles of a false dichotomy: we will engage with others only if we have complete doctrinal agreement or we walk away from the table. The two choices that we seem to feel we have are either that we compromise who we are for the sake of unity with others or we remain isolated; a church body apart for the sake of preserving our Confessional identity.

And I have to ask, “Are those our only options or is there another way forward?”

Recovering Our Reformation Identity

I believe that there is a third way and it begins by reminding ourselves of our birth as a church body. We are the heirs of the Reformation. Our founder is the man credited with sparking this titanic shift in the history of Christianity. But what was the Reformation? How do we understand it?

Some have defined the Reformation as a prophetic movement, with Martin Luther and his contemporaries calling the Church, God’s people, to repent of the ways in which they had betrayed God and departed from the Scriptures. Others have defined the Reformation as a missionary movement, with Luther and the reformers reintroducing a pagan people to the true faith and preaching to those who, despite living under the auspices of Christendom, had not heard the good news.

And while both of these pictures contain an element of the truth, neither of them fully captures the spirit and essential nature of the Reformation. I would argue that the Reformation was essentially a Gospel movement. That may sound overly simple, but I believe that this, more than anything, brings together both the prophetic and missionary aspects of the Reformation movement, for at its core it is about reintroducing people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to the good news that God, apart from any work or merit of our own, entered into our world and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. We are carried along by the words of St. Paul: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The Reformers like Luther and Melanchthon were about radically engaging the world with this message. Rather than retreating into their Saxon enclaves, they published, spoke, met with opponents, and debated. They preached to the leaders of the Church and the laity, to nobles and peasants. They were well-educated, well-read, and knowledgeable of both the classics as well as the writings of their contemporaries. Rather than hiding in Germany and withdrawing from other Christians for the sake of protecting their pure doctrine, they sought dialogue and engaged the world with their Confessions. They were able to speak with persuasion and chose to stay in conversation where there were differences rather than walk away.

Lutheran Engagement in the 21st Century

And I believe that is this posture that we must recapture in the new millennium. We must recapture our calling to be a Gospel movement speaking the good news of Christ to Christian and non-Christian alike.

So what does this look like? I believe it takes place on two fronts. The first involves positive involvement with the Church catholic, the una sancta. The reality is that, for all of our theological and doctrinal rigor, we in the LCMS have not had a significant influence on Christian theology in the 20th and 21st centuries beyond our own theological tradition.

And yet, I would argue that there is a deep hunger within the global church for robust theology that we, with all of our resources, can meet. I cite a couple of examples from within the Western world.

Two of the largest evangelical leaders, Timothy Keller and Tullian Tchividijan, have each produced two books in the last several years that were directly drawn from the unique theological insights of the Lutheran tradition.

Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor is directly based on Luther’s view of vocation. His book Counterfeit Gods was inspired by his own reflections on Luther’s comments regarding the first commandment in the Large Catechism. Tchividijan’s book One Way Love is directly based on the Lutheran view of the one-way nature of salvation from God to us, and was an insight he gleaned from reading Kolb and Arand’s book The Genius of Luther’s Theology. Likewise, his book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free is his own meditation on the power of the theology of the Cross for those facing hardship and pain.

Do you see what I’m getting at? People are interested!!! These books have all topped the bestseller charts. Furthermore, these are two incredibly influential Christian leaders on the international scene. And my question is, “Why weren’t we on the front lines of this?” Why is it that these two leaders had to find us on their own? Why weren’t we in relationship with them, talking theology, discussing the nature of the Gospel, thinking about how it shapes how we, as members of the una sancta, engage the world?

Likewise, the Acts 29 Network, perhaps one of the most successful church planting organizations in the nondenominational world, recently hosted a conference in which a major topic was the importance of Law-Gospel preaching in the teaching ministry of pastors. Again, my question is, “Where were we?”

I believe that we need to find ways of positively interacting with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the wider Church. Part of what made the Reformation, as a movement, so influential was that the reformers out-published the Catholic Church 8-to-1. And yet, we as the LCMS publish only for ourselves. I believe we need to be publishing our books and works through non-Lutheran publishers and encouraging our theologians and pastors to write. We should be marketing our theological books and commentaries to seminaries and church bodies beyond our own.

Furthermore, we need to be involved in many of the conferences and organizations that are shaping the character of Christendom around the world. Organizations like The Gospel Coalition, the Verge network, Acts 29, and The Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization are just a few of the organizations that are significantly shaping the theology and practice of the church in the West and abroad. And yet, Lutherans are conspicuously absent, leading one blogger for The Gospel Coalition to write, “Where have all the Lutherans gone?”

This is not a call to ecumenism nor is it a call to formally unite with other churches into one denomination. Rather, it is a call to be involved with and participate in the many inter-denominational organizations that are shaping the theology, practice, and witness of the Church, for these are chances to bring our doctrinal and confessional distinctives to the table, share them with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and have an influence in shaping the consciousness of the global Church.

The second front involves a recommitment to world evangelization. Sadly, over the past several years fewer and fewer dollars have been spent Synod-wide on domestic and foreign missions. Likewise, fewer and fewer programs designed to reach the lost have been started. The decline in missions giving and of evangelistic programs like the Ablaze campaign has not only hindered our witness, but has led to the decline of our church body in the West.

And yet, the Lutheran church abroad, because of its passion for witnessing to the lost is growing by leaps and bounds. Furthermore, on the domestic front, the districts which have experienced the highest rate of district-wide giving and growth are those with a clear emphasis on church planting and evangelism.

Why? Because the mission of Christ is contagious. It motivates His people to lives of faithful witness and passionate service. And, most importantly, it leads people from darkness to light, from death to life. So a major priority for us, as a church body, is to recommit ourselves to world evangelization. This should involve concrete actions directed toward planting new churches, equipping and sending new missionaries, and developing new initiatives designed to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Toward a Lutheran Legacy

The first 500 years of the Reformation have been a rich period of theological reflection, cultural engagement, and worldwide missions in the history of the Church. My prayer is that the next 500 years of the Reformation will not only continue in this great tradition, but offer new insights, cross new boundaries, and continue to reach the world with the good news of Christ. And I pray that we, as Lutheran Christians, would be a part of that legacy as we live out our calling as Reformation people.

To God alone be the glory. Amen.