Saturday, July 28, 2007

The "New Perspective" on Paul and Justification

Did Paul really mean what the 16th century reformers say he meant when he spoke of being "justified by faith"? Or was it something very different? Theologians of the biblical view called "the new perspective" argue that Paul's statement reflects something very different than what Reformation churches have long taught.

Simon Bathercole, in "What Did Paul Really Mean?" (Christianity Today, August 2007), reports on the essential argument in this trend within Pauline scholarship that attempts to reinterpret what Paul meant when he wrote about justification.

"The difference between old and new perspectives," writes Bathercole, "can be summed up briefly. In the old perspective, works of the law are human acts of righteousness performed in order to gain credit before God. In the new perspective, works of the law are elements of Jewish law that accentuate Jewish privilege and mark out Israel from other nations."

The "new perspective," which began with E.P. Sander's book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), was mainly concerned about "anti-Jewish tendencies in the old perspective and its portrayal of Judaism as inferior to Christianity." As Bathercole puts it, "Sander's aim was to present a cleaned-up picture of early Judaism, untainted by Christian prejudice."

The "new perspective" has continued under the banner of other scholars down to the present, especially D.C. Dunn and the prolific author H. T. Wright. However, to say that all who put forth this teaching are unified would not be accurate. These scholars, it is said, argue among themselves as much as the traditionalists do.

Although I respect the scholarship of those who wish to be true to the text and seek to better understand the culture of Paul's time, I would say that requiring rethinking of the age-old Reformation doctrine on justification is premature - and unnecessary. Bathercole demonstrates well that balance is needed in this discussion, and that faith cannot be seen solely in nationalistic terms to the exclusion of personal faith, which the extreme of the "new perspective" would require. Yet new scholarship sometimes favors the extreme of a point of view, and time is required for others to glean the gems of possible truth that will enrich the overall discussion.

Will the Fairness Doctrine Be Resurrected?

Over the years I have enjoyed conservative political talk radio. I think I discovered Rush Limbaugh while driving long commutes to area hospitals back in the early 90's in Michigan. Sean Hannity was my next discovery a half dozen or more years ago. It was refreshing to hear intelligent counterpoint to the singular point of view given by the major newscasters.

Conservative talk shows are still largely limited to radio. If you are lucky and can get FOX, you can pick some of it up on TV or Cable. But the big three - ABC, NBC, and CBS - still dominate the regular air waves. I wouldn't imagine that they would feel threatened. Their influence remains widespread.

But alas! there are rumbles within the ranks on Capital Hill that the Fairness Doctrine might be resurrected to counter the conservative talk radio success. The Fairness Doctrine was originally part of a 1949 FCC regulation that required broadcasters to "afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance." The FCC, thankfully, overturned this 'doctrine' in 1989. But could it see a revival under the power of the party currently controlling much of government? Some lawmakers think so.

The implications of such action could easily spill over into other broadcasting realms, especially those with religious messages. My observation is that conservative religious broadcasting has enjoyed much the same success as politically conservative talk radio when compared to their more liberal counterparts. And conservative Christian media is often at the forefront of 'hot button' issues that divide conservative and liberal churches, such as the abortion debate and the homosexual issue. The lines on these matters are sharply drawn with vocal proponents on both sides of the isle.

However, the present political climate in our country considers certain areas to be virtually settled and off limits to dissension. Abortion on demand is the law of the land. Homosexuality cannot be considered anything but a genetic condition enjoying the same minority needs as gender and religion. Add to this the theory of evolution, which commands the status as the only legitimate scientific point of view allowed in a respectable classroom, and the newest kid on the block, Global Warming, the driving force of panic for any number of changes to the way we currently live.

Yet the health of a nation is determined, in part, by the free flow of debate on issues of interest to the general public. To squelch such discussion is dangerous and harmful to the truth. I pray that this old 'doctrine' is not resurrected, for if it does it will artificially stifle the clarity of the truth. The proponents of limitations are only afraid of what the truth might do.

[Source: National Liberty Journal, August 2007]

Friday, July 27, 2007

Record Number of Abortions Through Planned Parenthood

According to Life Decisions International, a Washington D.C. -based pro-life organization, there was a 3.9 percent increase in the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood between 2004 and 2005. They have also admitted to to having sold 1,245, 506 "emergency" birth control kits in '05, an almost 26.6 percent increase over the previous year. These kits are are mainly sold over the phone and via Internet orders, but without the requirement of an actual physical examination of the woman. The kits can precipitate an abortion. Also, Planned Parenthood receives $270 in government funds each year.

All this in light of a recent CNN poll from May that demonstrated that up to 50% of Americans describe themselves as "pro-life," and only 45 as "pro-choice."

We are obviously a nation divided on the question of life, but where the powers-that-be continue to both protect and propagate a practice that is clearly not in the best interest of the people. The efforts of the church to proclaim God's will for all pre-born life is still critical. Our call is not unlike the prophets who often spoke against the terrible evils of their time only to be ignored and even resisted by the one in power of the nation. Nevertheless, we must still speak out. The pre-born have no voice except with us.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Busy Pastor

As pastors we often hear the familiar apologetic statement, "I'm sorry to bother you pastor. I know how busy you are...." Such statements flatter our fragile egos. For busy means important. Busy implies great accomplishments. Busy shows sacrifice. Right?

Not so, according to Eugene Peterson. In his recent book The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson writes that "the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion, but defection. The adjective busy set as modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker."

Such words sound strong and almost insensitive. Yet he is wright, and the truth often hurts. Busy is a word we hide behind to cover up other weaknesses and shortcomings.

Peterson identifies two reasons why pastors become busy: 1.) They are vain, and 2.) They are lazy. The first reason plays to our sense of importance. A busy doctor with a crowded waiting room is a good doctor. Many people want to see him. Peterson notes that we "live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance." So what do we do? We "develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge [our] significance, and [our] vanity is fed."

The second reason plays to our inability to define our own vocation. We let others define what we do with our time, believing such acquiescence will endear us to demanding parishoners. We let others define our goals and establish our values, he notes, and then we "find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone."

When we fail to define our own vocation we end up never accomplishing the proper work of our calling. How can we lead people "into the quiet place beside the still waters" if we are in "perpetual motion"? Good question.

Peterson's words strike very close to home. In my last parish I took a certain amount of pride in my overworked and hectic schedule. I felt important (even in my supposed humility). However, as God allowed me to see the distant shadow of my suffering family hid behind the veil of my misguided commitment, I began to realize how warped my ministry had become. It was time to move on. The vocation of husband and father were too important to be buried in my need to feel irreplaceable to the church.

Today I do not feel the curse of busyness as much as I did in those heady days of administering a large parish. Yet I am reminded by Peterson how the temptation still lurks in the shadows. There are times when I still take pride in all the things I am doing.

I find it interesting that in the book of Acts the apostles created the deaconate in order to devote themselves more fully to preaching and prayer. Yet how often in the larger mega-churches does it seem that we praise the pastor who does anything but this? Even in smaller parishes the pastor is too often defined by duties outside of preaching and prayer (such as his effectiveness in youth work). But this is our vocation to proclaim and intercede. This is what we are called to do. No other vocation can substitute for us here.

May the Lord of the church teach us again to labor faithfully without using our labor as a barrier to fruitful ministry to those in need, and never to put a stumbling block before the free course of the Word of God - especially our misguided busyness!

[Excepts from Peterson's book included in Logia, Holy Trinity 2007 issue, p. 63.]

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The LCMS Convention - Personal Observations and Concerns

Part of me hesitates to comment on this latest convention. For one thing I wasn't there, although the actions of the assembly are public knowledge. Another reason is that I find myself at cross-purposes with some of the directions of my church body, and I'm not sure how to express my reservations in an edifying manner. So, is that diplomatic, or not?

After reading some of the observations of others and talking with one of our local delegates, here are some of my own thoughts:

1.) Control of the national leadership of Synod seems to be pretty much in the hands of one political group. However, looking at the voting results for the incumbent president with less than 53%, it is obvious that the synod is anything but unified around this leadership.

2.) Along with this control there is another related development as regards the involvement and decision making of the laity of Synod. In 2004 the dispute resolution policy was significantly changed, eliminating the possibility that members of Synod or her churches could actually initiate charges of discipline against those who erred in practice and teaching. This was all essentially transferred to the district presidents and the Council of Presidents. Now, in 2009, there will be a specially called convention for the purpose of changing the very governance structure of Synod. From my understanding it appears that there will be a proposed change to what is commonly referred to as "policy based governance."

Many parishes in the Synod, and some districts, have moved to this structure, replacing much of what used to be decided in larger assemblies (such as voters' meetings), with a more streamlined board of directors. While in the business world this makes a lot of sense, where waiting on critical decisions can make the difference of a company losing a contract or falling behind their competitors,- it does not make sense for a church. The rationale given is that the synod is in financial trouble. That is no doubt true. But taking away our voice will only exasperate relations across synod (which are strained, to say the least), and parishes are likely to give less in the future if they do not feel they are a part of the decision making process.

A decision to change the governing structure of Synod will ultimately have to go to the parishes themselves for a final vote, requiring, I am sure, at least 2/3 to pass. I suspect that it will be a tough sell at this point. It should be remembered that a majority of Synod's churches fall into the 200 or 300 and smaller category. The views of these smaller and oftentimes very rural churches will be significantly different than the bigger city parishes.

3.) A tax on churches? From what I heard there is talk also of requiring a kind of "tax" for synod's churches to bolster the financial support of the church body. This, too, may come up in '09. Again, I don't think that the rank-and-file parishes out there will take too kindly to this. They are already sensitive about tight budgets and the financial strain of keeping their own churches afloat. I can't imagine that such a requirement will in any way endear members to the Synod, especially in the challenged churches of the shrinking rural landscape.

3.) Pulpit and altar fellowship was formalized with the American Association of Lutheran Churches - I commented on this pending action back on January 9 in "Fellowship and the AALC." My concerns remain the same. Although I understand that 'on paper' they look more or less orthodox, the prevailing practice within their synod gives me pause for great angst. It is no secret that there is a traditional of Neo-pentecostalism and open communion within this church body. We have battled both of these practices in our past history, especially over the last 30 years. Now, with a formal fellowship agreement in place, there is little motivation for any of their churches to change, thus legitimizing the practices all the more within the LCMS as well.

These are just a few of the items that transpired last week. As I read and study the decisions further I will certainly have more upon which to comment.

As I reflect on all that transpired at this convention, I remember that often little in the local parish is directly or immediately affected by the decisions made in these national assemblies. Even if the national organization continues to disenfranchise its members from involvement in the day-to-day details of discipline and dollars, parishes will still call the shots at the local level.

For me I'm just going back to work. People still need to be fed the Word. The convention didn't change that.

Monday, July 23, 2007

How Holy Should They Be?

The Church of the Nazarene is in a kind of theological crisis. For all these years the doctrine of "entire sanctification" marked them theologically as clear descendants of John Wesley. However, as the Methodist-inspired denomination prepares to celebrate its centennial, there are brewing questions as to what this teaching implies - and whether it should be dropped or modified as they go into the future.

Founded in 1908 by former Methodist minister Phineas Bresee, the Church of the Nazarene embraced entire sanctification (ES) from its beginning as an "act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement [sic] to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect." From the perspective of this Lutheran the doctrine of ES is confusing and troubling at the same time. It's clearly a Law-Gospel muddle.

For starters ES easily leads to a legalism that crowds out the Gospel. As Thomas Jay Oord, a Nazarene theologian, admitted, "A lot of the folks who have been around the church awhile thought of themselves as being characterized by things they don't do. You don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't go to dances, and in some parts of the denomination, you don't wear makeup or go to clubs or some parts of society." Oord admits that this kind of Christian expression "loses stem quickly" because it is not "something you can give your whole to."

And he's right. A church built only on the Law (and an overly restrictive one at that) will ultimately lead not to joy and fulfillment, but either to despair or pride. Given the condition of our state of original sin, the Christian is set up for instant failure by this kind of doctrine. You just can't do it.

Wesley, to his credit, did not believe that the Christian was sinless or immune from temptation. Still, ES clearly implies, if not states, that the Christian is preserved from original sin. So what is ES then? The doctrine appears to ride the theological fence trying to claim the ability to live a holy life by works, while leaving just enough 'wiggle room' for the reality of sin any Bible-believing Christian would be hard-pressed to deny out of hand.

In the end ES separates Christ from the Christian and leaves them only with their own inadequate efforts. The common understanding among Nazarenes, as demonstrated above, shows the logical end of such Law-based belief. How much more comforting to look to our baptisms and find Christ who makes us holy through the blessed sacrament by enveloping us in a robe of perfect righteousness. How much more edifying to live the Christian life in faith that Christ works through us, and even though we do not immediately perceive the effects, we still believe God is working. To the Nazarenes I would offer this: Go back to Christ and go no further.

[Source: Christianity Today, July 2007, "Identity 'Crisis'" by Brad A. Greenberg]

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I'm Back!

The past two weeks have taken me from a wet and cramped tent in a Northwoods Boy Scout camp to a spartan 50's dorm room at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, with a brief interlude at home between these events to weed the garden, mow the lawn, pack my bags, write and preach a sermon, lead worship, attend a voter's meeting (where we agreed to adopt the Lutheran Service Book - hurray!), and then race to the airport in Green Bay. Thoroughly exhausting, but well worth it.

The Writing for the Church Workshop that I attended this week in St. Louis exceeded my expectations. The CPH editors who led the session this week (Rev. Ed Engelbrecht and Dr. Rodney Rathmann) provided a first-rate experience for this budding writer. After many years of countless conventions and conferences that tried my patience and wore out my endurance through tedium, this week was a refreshing relief. Engaged from beginning to end, I can't think of a moment when the workshop did not feel productive. From the very beginning we learned to write professionally and confessionally. An exercise in Law-Gospel distinctions set the theological tone for church writing at the start of the workshop, and as a pastor long trained in this art, I found myself still learning. Apparently Luther and Walther were right. This is art learned and relearned over a lifetime.

The editors worked hard throughout the week editing our attempts to write, and their feedback alone was worth the time there. Considering the overuse of "to be" verbs and an oftentimes overabundance of adjectives and adverbs may seem almost overly elementary, but the review was much needed. It's easy to get 'sloppy' in the spoken and written word. And it is difficult to realize that these bad habits stand in the way of effective communication. Suddenly writing a simple 250 word devotion with proper Law-Gospel balance and a clear line of thought was harder than it first appeared. Writing is work, if you are serious about doing it well.

It will take time to process the lessons learned these past several days. However, I am excited to apply them in future projects, maybe some destined for real publication. We'll see where the Lord leads.

The Concordia Seminary campus in St. Louis was a delightful place to spend a week writing. I had been on campus only once before in 2004 during the LCMS convention that year, and I didn't really get to see a lot. Now I walked everywhere. With a cheap disposable Kodak I snapped several pictures, careful to capture the fascinating details in the building facades and richly detailed stained glass. Trying to find an image my son could relate to, I told him it reminded me of the Hogwarts school in the Harry Potter movies. Although built a mere 70 or so years ago, it looked downright medieval. By the way, my special thanks to Sam for the great tour, especially the trip to the tower during the thunderstorm!

During our stay in St. Louis we also had the chance to visit Historic Trinity Lutheran Church, the "mother church" of the 19th century Saxons where the esteemed C.F.W. Walther once pastored. Ascending his pulpit I wondered if I might feel a sense of the great church leader. Well, there was no special feeling, but I got a picture of me in the pulpit! Trinity member Dennis Rathert led a fascinating tour, which was also very informative regarding early LCMS history. If you ever get to the church they have a booklet on the church's architecture and history for $5 that is worth the cost.

It is going to be hard now to catch up with everything I put on hold the last two weeks. Especially since I will be taking off to go west on vacation the week after this. So, time to get to work again at my 'day job.'

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Out For a Little While

As I write this I am sitting at Tesomas Boy Scout Camp (Rhinelander, WI) where my son is spending the week. I agreed to serve as scoutmaster for the week, so I am quite busy. It's like being a dad to 19 junior high through senior high kids: camp counselor, troop administrator, troubleshooter, surrogate dad, etc... When I get back on Saturday I will have just enough time to prepare for the weekend, and then then I'm off again. This time it will be Concordia Seminary in St. Louis for the Church Writer's Workshop. I will be at the workshop until the Saturday following this one.

I enjoy writing this blog, so count on me being back and writing soon again. But first I have to catch up with myself :)

Blessings to all who stop here along the way and read!

Don Engebretson, dad, pastor, temporarily insane scoutmaster hoping I won't get 'tapped out' this evening at the OA ceremony....

Friday, July 6, 2007

Defining Missions

For some time now it has been standard operating procedure for any organization or business to have a "mission statement." The idea behind it is that it creates a focus around which the group organizes its work and activity. Churches, naturally, got in on the idea as well, and began crafting mission statements in a rainbow of colors. I never entirely understood this, though. Businesses and organizations vary widely in their purpose (profit vs. non-profit, etc). The church, however, has only one mission. The different incarnations of the church, be they large mega churches numbering in the thousands, or tiny rural parishes barely hanging on, all exist for one reason. They are all called by their Lord to "make disciples of all nations" by means of baptizing and proclaiming the Gospel (Matt. 28:19).

As the national convention of the LCMS looms just ahead this month, I am reminded of the tension that exists when we talk about mission in the church. Right now the official mission emphasis goes by the name of "Ablaze." The goal of this mission program is to "ignite 100 million hearts with the Gospel." An official counter is established on the website to record the number of people "ignited." This has always made me a bit uncomfortable, since counting, as necessary as it is sometimes, fails to really get at the heart of mission. For example, how do we define Jesus' mission when many of his disciples left him after his Bread of Life discourse (John 6)?

I have heard discussions over the years about the difference between "maintenance" and "mission" type congregations. Other terms have been applied, but the premise is the same. Some congregations are only interested in maintaining what they have at present. They are unwilling or afraid to change and move on. On the flip side, however, there are churches that are bold and brave and pushing the envelope of mission by reaching the unchurched in new and innovative ways.

As a pastor of a mid-sized rural parish, I guess I'm just maintenance. We haven't grown in any significant numerical way since - well, I don't know when. In fact, we shrinking. I know, it's demographics. Family farms are disappearing. But still, shrinking or not, can't the little guys be in mission too, even if our 'counter' is slow at the moment?

I believe we can. This morning I am going over shortly to instruct a young man in the faith. Yesterday I worked with a retired couple looking to join the church. Other prospects await. We loose as many to death as to new growth, to be sure. But that's not the point. The point is are we proclaiming and Gospel? Are we baptizing? (This Sunday I will baptize another infant - something Ablaze, I don't think counts!). If this is true, then I am in mission.

And we are doing all this in a very traditional way. The worship is basically what it has always been. The preacher still vests up in his usual cassock and surplice. No jumbo tron screens. No fancy state-of-the-art PA system. Just a microphone and a text. But then the secret of the Gospel is the power of the Word itself. It really does work! Yet should that surprise us? God himself said that his Word would never return to him empty, but would accomplish the purpose he set out for it. And on that promise I will continue. I'm not sure how "ablaze" I am. By definition I'm rather laid back. We're not a very exciting and emotionally riveting place out here. But disciples are being made and strengthened in Christ through the Word. For me, that's the mission.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Children Not as Important to Today's Marriages

In the beginning children were integral to the meaning of marriage. God told the first man and woman to "be fruitful and multiply." Of course it has always helped to have a relationship that was supportive and caring and emotionally fulfilling. But that wasn't the primary purpose way back then.

Times have changed over the centuries and millenia, though. According to David Crary of the Associated Press, "the percentage of Americans who consider children 'very important' to a successful marriage has dropped sharply since 1990, and more now cite the sharing of household chores as pivotal, according to a sweeping survey."

How far have children fallen in importance to a 'successful' (I really don't like that word!) marriage? In the Pew Research Center survey on marriage and parenting they have plummeted to 8 out of 9. They are behind other criteria such as "adequate income" and "happy sexual relationship."

And the main purpose of marriage according to people now? The survey reveals that it is "mutual happiness and fulfillment."

All this has not occurred without some concern being expressed by experts. "The popular culture is increasingly oriented to fulfilling the X-rated fantasies and desires of adults," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project. "Child rearing values - sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity - seem stale and musty by comparison."

Dafoe has identified the root of the problem. Modern society is by definition inward-looking and basically self-centered. And this nature of our society is obvious in the many examples of couples who are childless by choice (not by physical necessity as in those who have conception problems), teen-pregnancies brought about by kids putting pleasure before responsibility, and parents who neglect their children by abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Postponement of marriage in favor of cohabitation also seems related to these findings. Instead of providing a stable environment where children feel secure and safe, couples selfishly try out relationships until they think they will work (meaning they are sure they are emotionally fulfilled and satisfied), or wait until they can afford some fantasy wedding experience while enjoying the benefits of a physical relationship in the meantime.

The findings of the Pew Research poll are not surprising. However, they are disconcerting for our future, especially in the church. The family unit, complete with parents and children, is a basic component of the church upon which all other relationships are built. Modeled after the love of Christ for the church, families live out this mystery of the faith in their daily life. But if children are now low on the list, where does this leave us? The church has a calling to teach now more than ever. If society's warped value system predominates we will pay a huge price. It will not be easy, but we should take such findings as helpful warnings of what is facing us, and work now to set a different pace within the church. We must not be "conformed" to the world, as Paul tells us, but "transformed" by the Good News of God's Grace.