Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can You Be a Christian and Not Go to Church?

The other day at a graveside committal service, an elderly woman confessed that she still had not found a church where she felt comfortable becoming a member. She has lived in the area now for over five years, yet remains as so many are out there - disconnected people who avoid church but claim to be committed Christians. This is not the first time I have talked with people who are quick to claim their status as believers while holding to their right to be private worshipers.

Yet this begs a significant question in this culture of cafeteria-style faith shopping. Can one truly claim to be a Christian while still actively avoiding the fellowship of other believers? C.F.W. Walther, first president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, commented that “it is certain that he who first neglects divine services and gatherings of the congregation has therefore already separated himself from the church.” Harsh words? Perhaps. But what is a person saying when they willingly avoid belonging to a congregation?

There are undoubtedly as many 'excuses' as there are people on this issue. For some it is probably a desire to have faith on their own terms. They don't want to be told what to believe or how to behave. In short, they do not want to be held accountable. Is this biblical? Hardly. Even a cursory reading of Paul will put this to rest. Or Hebrews (10:25; 13:17.) Yet by avoiding formal membership with a church people are able to avoid the discomfort of confrontation over sin and the responsibility one has to the fellowship to encourage and discipline the erring (Matt. 18.)

The infection of our permissive and pluralistic culture has deeply invaded the church, and this attitude unfortunately exists even among those who retain formal ties to active congregations. Many hold on to their membership, regularly avoid worship, and wait for the day things change to suit their own desires and tastes. Or when the pastor leaves, which is often the issue for those who drop out of active involvement. Church on my terms. That's the current creed. But is it Christian?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dr. Francis Collins, Evolution, and the Continued Debate

The last time I brought up the topic of evolution, Northwoods Seelsorger set a record in the comments section. The debate that ensued, however, was more a reaction of committed evolutionists against Intelligent Design, and unfortunately did not deal as much with the real dilemma evolution poses to the Christian committed to high view of Scripture.

Dr. Francis Collins, an acknowledged evangelical Christian and highly celebrated scientist in the area of genetics, has recently entered the evolution debate within the conservative Christian sector, and is aiming to get the Christian community to finally accept evolution. He has launched a new website called "The BioLogos Foundation," which endeavors to show that science and faith are not in conflict, and that it is possible to harmonize evolution with God as creator.

The sticking point that Dr. Collins is going to ultimately experience when trying to get the evangelical church to be open to evolution, is the issue of biblical interpretation. The point of contention centers on whether Genesis will be read and interpreted in a straightforward, historical way, or whether it will be reduced to an allegory and the end relegated to mere symbolic language. He writes:

"The two different creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 set the precedent for readers to be openminded to truths that run deeper than historical accounts and to be wary of interpreting every word in a scientifically literal way. In Genesis 1, God creates the plants, marine animals, birds, land animals and then man and woman together (Genesis 1:1-2:3). In Genesis 2, however, God creates man first and then plants, land animals and birds and finally woman from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:4-2:25). Clearly, the order of the creation differs in these two accounts. Discrepancies like this suggest that these passages are not to be interpreted historically or scientifically, but rather through a figurative, allegorical, and/or theological lens.

By reading Genesis 1 and 2 from an allegorical perspective, one can see that these passages lay the foundation of biblical understanding which tells us who God is, what the world is and what it means to be human. They ultimately reveal God’s desire to be in relationship with his creation. Through these passages we know that God is outside of the world and has total control; the universe was not created through a cosmic battle as other creation myths of the day claim. God is not an abstract concept but a personal being; his spirit hovers over the waters. He is also the consummate artist that brings beauty from ugliness and order from disorder. The world, therefore, is a place of order that gives us the possibility of scientific discovery and exploration. It is also a place of diversity and beauty, and it is good in God’s eyes (Genesis 1:31). The pinnacle of that goodness is mankind, made in God’s image both to resemble and represent God as caretaker of his world."

Dr. Collins uses the old technique of the liberal community to take supposed discrepancies in the harmonization of the textual details, and use it to discredit the approach that would take the text seriously. Since an approach that concludes allegory is possible, and since that explanation allows for the inroad of evolution, he embraces it to the exclusion of a fair hearing for a more literal approach. Then, believing he has allowed for an effective discussion of key theological concepts by this process, he unknowingly undermines the foundational doctrines upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. For by reducing the text to allegory, how can one truly take sin and salvation through the incarnation of Christ seriously? If these texts are only symbolic, when do we begin to take sin and salvation literally? And how do we explain our own Lord's approach to Genesis? Was he merely "pre-scientific" and therefore limited in his understanding? So much for omniscience.

Collins wants very much to harmonize science and faith. What I do not understand is why belief in evolution is the key for Christians to be able to use and enjoy science. Many committed Christian scientists with a high view of Scripture and a belief in divine creation are successful contributing members of the scientific community. Much of the scientific discoveries and advances in the last century or more do not require a firm belief in evolution to work. Christians understand that science is about observing what is before us in nature and determining the laws that govern it. While science can and does help us in determining some aspects of the past, its limitations increase the further back in time we venture. For the further back we go, the less we can know with certainty using the tools of science, which are based upon the criteria of what we see and examine in the here and now.

I wish Dr. Collins all the best, for he is unquestionably a brilliant scientist. When it comes to questions of faith and divinity he becomes involved in that which cannot be answered by his vocation. I also do not believe that embracing evolution is necessary for the Christian to use and explore the scientific realm. It would be best if we simply encourage our young people do be discerning scholars, recognizing that science, as great as it is, is not infallible.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Close Communion and DayStar

Having just written a blog post on "Close Communion and the Holidays," the recent DayStar articles for their online journal were disturbingly timely. I say that realizing they are once again vigorously opposing the official policy of the Synod regarding communion fellowship, yet may very well be 'on target' regarding their assessment of where the Synod is actually at in parctice. In one of the final footnotes of the first article, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," author Robert Schmidt writes: "It should be noted that even though “close(d)” communion is advocated by the current leadership of the synod, many pastors and congregations freely welcome Christians belonging to other denominations to commune at their altars."

The author makes no effort to hide his contempt for the official practice of the Synod, and in the sentence to which the above footnote was attached calls the LCMS "one of the most exclusionary of denominations." Dr. Schmidt is clear in his opinion that the Synod's close communion practice is unbiblical and believes it opposes St. Paul's own directions in 1 Corinthians. He notes: "On this issue of the Lord’s Supper communities of Christians are divided into competing congregations; families are split, and the entire Christian Church on earth witnesses to its divisions. In these verses from 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 Paul is not condemning the church for welcoming the errant brother or sinner or grandmother who comes from a different denomination. All at Corinth were to receive fellowship, forgiveness and comfort in this Communion. Rather, he condemns in no uncertain terms those practicing their “closed communions.” These then are those who stand judged because they did not discern the Lord’s body either in their fellowship or in their eating and drinking."

Dr. Schmidt holds a view of fellowship and unity in the church that is so broad and wide that it appears to conveniently ignore not only the church's historic practice of communion fellowship stretching back to the Early Church, but also the very real differences dividing churches today that are based clearly on false doctrine. He reduces the differences to "creative chaos" as he sees the matter in terms only of outward practice, and refuses to acknowledge the doctrinal aberations behind these practices. How are we to honestly overlook the reality of those who deny the clear teachings of scripture on matters as basic as the real presence of Christ in the Supper? And we have not even touched on the equally disturbing issues of how churches are divided on matters relating to the sanctity of life, role of women in church and ministry, and the nature of the Bible as the innerant and infallible Word of God.

"Ask a Baptist or a Roman Catholic or a member of the local community church whether they feel they are witnessing to Christ’s death for their forgiveness, and they will all agree on its common purpose. Indeed, because we are remembering the love of Christ that unites us despite our sins and our definitions, we are one at the altar. We commune both with our Lord and each other," Schmidt writes. I beg to differ, Dr. Schmidt. You are naive if you believe that oneness at the altar can be defined merely by claiming the "love of Christ." Does the love of Christ overlook false belief on his divinity? Does it overlook false teaching regarding the Supper itself? Does it convenienly look the other way on issues that impact the foundational issues of family, life, and the whole created order? Or can we be sure that based on what they were taught in their own churches they understand the very basic doctrine of grace, or may it be possible that they bring to the Table errant beliefs of works righteousness and decision theology so prevalent in Baptist or Roman Catholic teaching?

Dr. Schmidt unfortunately not only misunderstands the nature of true Christian fellowship, but he also misunderstands the Supper itself. He pits one aspect against the other to bring out his own agenda. "While some denominational traditions such as the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran have made much of the real presence in these words, they have glossed over the more important emphases of the function and meaning of the Supper:'This do in remembrance of me.'” More important emphasis? I beg your pardon? We "make much of the real presence" because it is central to Jesus' own promise. It is the center of the reality of the Sacrament. Come on!

But then doctrine, in this new paradigm, is not critical or important, not even the reality of Christ's presence. The matter at hand is more with the individual. "Paul condemns neither the eating nor drinking but rather the callous disregard of other people’s feelings." So the great "sin" in the Sacrament is to offend people's "feelings"? This postmodern preoccupation with feelings is what has compromised the church's commitment to the Lord's Word in our time. Dr. Schmidt here has identified where many people are at when it comes to Communion fellowship. Their feelings are hurt because they were not allowed free access to that which they 'feel' they are entitled. So the Supper and its fellowship are reduced to the vagaries of human feelings. We are really in trouble now.

And not only is the understanding of the Supper at risk, Dr. Schmidt has further misunderstood the doctrine of the ministry and its responsibilities. His solution for determining worthiness at the altar? Let the people themselves decide. Better yet, leave it to the small groups. "Suppose that the congregation of thousands would divide itself into smaller units or families that would get to know each other as individuals? If such a group were persuaded that an individual could and should participate, could not the entire congregation trust their fellow believers within that group? Would not this personalized approach do far more to build Christian community than all of our rules and policies?" Schmidt furthermore confuses the idea of "elder" in the New Testament with what modern churches define as such, and apparently sees no real clear doctrine of the Office of the Holy Ministry. "Paul simply blessed the early church leaders who were probably part-time elders, and these served as celebrants at the early observances. The notion of having a specially trained, seminary- or university-educated clergy came about at a far later date." The training of the clergy is not the issue here. Where is the teaching of the "call" so clearly outlined in our confessions?

Dr. Schmidt, it would appear, examines the Supper through his past experiences in the mission field, and believes in a approach that suspends any real spiritual discipline. He notes: "Others have such a restrictive policy that only people belonging to their denomination, or even congregation, may attend. Some feel that only those should come who can “examine” themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28). This leaves out very small children and those uninstructed in the faith. Others believe that no one should come who is living in open and unrepented sin. On the mission fields all sorts of rules and regulations have been placed upon people before they can come to the Lord’s Supper. Many of these were required to force people into a better Christian life. Once again 'control' became the most important factor."

The more I read this article, the more disturbed I become. Is this author really Lutheran? (Rhetorical question). At one point he dares to try and convince us that the doctrine of the real presence is of little importance. "In the Reformed symbolic remembrance, we are brought back to Christ’s death and its once and for all significance. While not stressing the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the same way that Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans and Episcopalians do, they do not believe in Jesus’ absence. As someone once pointed out, no denomination has a doctrine of the 'real absence.'” Really? Luther himself denied fellowship to Zwingli over the real presence. He understood that the doctrine of Christ Himself was at stake. Yes, they do believe in "real absence." Has the author not read how the Reformed explain the physical presence of Christ as being kept away in heaven?

One could write more, but I will stop here. The article is posted for all to read and examine. It should be noted, however, that this author is indeed writing as a member of the LCMS (albeit a retired professor who sees himself now with immunity), and thus wishes to put forth these ideas as those which should be adopted by the Synod. On the page that explains who they are, it is clearly stated that "the DayStar Network is a forum for gospel-centered members of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod who want to work together." Those of the LCMS that treasure her historic teachings and practice would do well to take careful notice of such articles. They are put forth by a group that truly desires and works to change the Synod, and turn it into a denomination more in keeping with where the ELCA is at today. In doing a search of Dr. Schmidt, it was encouraging to find a review of his writings on women's ordination critiqued on the St. Louis Seminary's webite. If you would like to read further you would do well to review the article "David Berger addresses vocational issues brought up in Pr. Wyneken's article, 'Let's Include Women in the Pastoral Office.'" Prof. Berger clearly addresses the "gospel deductionism" prevalent in DayStar's writings, and writes a brilliant rebutal of this current push for women's ordination in the LCMS. --Also, if you would like to review a previous post on Northwoods Seelsorger that addressed an earlier Schmidt article on DayStar, I would direct you to an equally disturbing assessment of the liberal agenda in "The New Agenda for the Synod: LWF" from December 18, 2006.

[By the way, do any of the readers of Northwoods Seelsorger understand the DayStar logo shown above? I don't recognize it from any symbol with which I am familiar (minus the cross, of course.) At first glance it looks like a computer disk with a cross on it, but I suspect that's probably not it....]

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Importance of Gestures in Worship

The act of crossing oneself to some Protestants, not to mention some Lutherans, seems disturbingly Catholic and out of place in worship. Yet, it is so indicative of our theology (cross-centered) and has unfortunately been lost from much of the general piety of our church. So too with many of the traditional gestures of worship. The other day while worshiping at a local pastor's conference I noticed that the pastor next to me was responding to the divine service with the same gestures I am accustomed to using: crossing, bowing, etc. It felt refreshing. But the question a Lutheran today may still ask: "Are such actions not mere empty ritualism?" "Isn't it more important to know what is in the heart?"

Naturally anything done in rote fashion for the mere sake of doing it, without an understanding of its purpose and place in worship, can easily break down into empty ritualism. On the other hand, intentional gestures, understood and appropriately used, can also be an invaluable aid to worship. We practice this reality every time we fold our hands to pray. Certainly such an action is not required and is not commanded in scripture. Still, we do this, sometimes out of blind habit, yet aware at times also that it disciplines our body to respond to the worship of addressing our heavenly Father (we control our hands as to better concentrate and focus.) So too with other gestures of worship. Bowing at the name of the persons of the Trinity in the Creed disciplines my body in such a way that my mind is reminded of the humility and reverence required in the presence of our holy God. Likewise with kneeling at the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ at the Blessed Supper. Or, again, when one crosses oneself at the mention of the Trinity, or at the end of the creed, or at the conclusion of the absolution, where it can be a way of acknowledging the reception of the gift there given.

Worship is an act that involves both body and mind, and gestures in worship help to coordinate this reality as well as discipline the heart in realization of the reality one stands within: the holiness of God. One wonders how the reintroduction of these gestures of worship might change the unfortunate casualness that has marred so much of worship today.