Monday, August 30, 2010

The Unity of the Church vs. New Church Bodies

As a new church body forms out of the continued wreckage of the ELCA, one hears concerns about the unity of the church raised. A similar note can be heard among Anglicans as their communion continues its ongoing fracture. Many from the more liberal side of the spectrum will undoubtedly appeal to Jesus' words in John 17 about His prayer that we should be one, even as He and the father are one. The desire for outward unity, a conviction shared, ironically with Rome itself, forms a core of the modern ecumenical identity for the church. So, is any disruption of this outward unity of breach with the will of God for His church?

Any student of church history will acknowledge that maintaining outward unity at all costs ultimately sacrifices something else critical to the church. Usually this involves fidelity to the truth. Agreeing to disagree only erodes the church's commitment to a clear confession which is exchanged in turn for social statements that embrace increasingly liberal agendas. If one understands the theological distinction between the hidden and visible church, we realize that the unity for which our Lord prayed has always been fulfilled. The gates of hell will never prevail against those united in true faith spread throughout time and eternity.

It is sad when a church body begins to crumble and die, and part of us dies with it. Denominations form significant parts of our identity much like our families do on a more personal level. Yet these outward organizations exist not to maintain a memory, but to carry out the call of the Lord of the church to proclaim the Gospel and administer his life-giving sacraments. If this cannot be done in faithfulness to the Word, then the time has arrived for that denomination to disappear and others to take their place.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Prayer and the Church

Recently I received an email inviting me to an event called PRAYER2010. The note states that this event is "designed to invite the gifted intercessors from around the Lu­theran Church–Missouri Synod to come together in one place for a time of prayer and intercession for the advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth, the blessing of our LCMS and her leaders, the provision for our mis­sionaries to the nations, and to ask the Father’s blessing on LCMS congrega­tions, pastors and people as we pray 'Come Holy Spirit' to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify us in your truth. (Daniel 9-10)." It was sent by the Rev. Dr. Victor Belton, a member of the LCMS Board of Directors. According to the website of the LCMS he is a 1986 graduate of our St. Louis seminary, although the directory fails to list any doctorate, honorary or earned. A website devoted to Dr. Belton supplies a short biography, with scant reference to his education and again any reference to his doctoral accomplishments (although he is shown there in full academic apparel, doctoral robe and hood.) Apparently he and his church are active supporters of mission work in Africa, specifically the Sudan. Also, according to "LinkedIn" Pastor Belton involves himself in other business activities, such as being an area representative of "PewsPlus of Georgia," specializing in selling interior furnishings to churches, and "ID Theft Georgia" where he consults with companies who need to be compliant with FTC guidelines regarding identity theft in the workplace. He is a busy man for a parish pastor.

However, my interest involves more than Dr. Belton at this point. What concerns me regards the nature of prayer and the church, upon which perhaps readers of this blog may wish to comment. Now I am certainly not opposed to prayer, and most certainly not in the church. Prayer remains the very substance of our worship. Yet that contains a major point of my concern. For many years I have watched a variety of events rally for the express purpose of prayer alone, such as the one referenced above. Here they especially endeavor to gather together "gifted intercessors" to call upon God for his blessings. The event is limited to the first 25 who sign up.

Gifted intercessors? This expression confuses me. How is one "gifted" in prayer? Can some people pray more effectively than others? Does "giftedness" contribute to the nature of prayer? Where do we find this in Holy Scripture? Last night I gathered with around 20 people for our weekly Thursday service at my congregation for Vespers. Naturally the service, which was structured on prayer, concluded with the prayers of the church where we interceded for those in need. It never occurred to me whether I needed to be "gifted" to carry out this responsibility, or whether that would change the outcome or direction of our prayer. Why should we not simply call upon the Synod to remember its leaders in the prayers of their various corporate services where they naturally would intercede for those in need?

I may be mistaken, but doing a little searching on his sight led me to a link of a man who is decidedly charismatic/pentecostal. This man is referred to as an "apostle" and "a friend" of their ministry at Peace. I suspect that the above PRAYER2010 is another "renewal" event, similar to the many we used to see in "Renewal in Missouri" movement some years ago and now defunct.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

N.T. Wright on the Active Obedience of Christ

If you read John Piper's book The Future of Justification you will discover that one of the central points of contention with N.T.Wright's doctrine of Justification involves the imputation of Christ's righteousness, especially that of his "active obedience." Classically we have usually emphasized both Christ's passive and active obedience, His sinless life of keeping the whole law perfect and his obedience unto death, even death on a cross. In criticizing this teaching Wright seems often to characterize it in such a way that it resembles the Catholic doctrine more than the one of the Reformation - infused vs. imputed. However, the reason why he resists this teaching so much involves his deconstruction of Paul that I referenced in the previous post. While he acknowledges the law-court metaphor in justification he insists that the judge in no way shares or transfers his own righteousness, but merely creates a new "status" for the justified. At times it almost seems like the 'splitting of hairs' and you are on the verge of saying, "Well that's what I mean." He emphasizes Christ's death and the central place it has in our salvation, and for that we are grateful. However, this area of Christ's active obedience, long taught and cherished, is swept away in his new paradigm. In its place we have the Messiah who does what Israel was unable to do because of sin, which is to carry out God's single plan for the world, being the faithful Israelite, faithful to the original covenant. Something has dropped out, and you find yourself looking to find it.

Wright, in his effort to reemphasize the role of the Spirit, looks more to a model of "transformation" than "imputation." He believes that the old model risks, in the end, of being less than trinitarian, even falling into the potential trap of 'having faith in faith.' A fear, for me, though, is how this "transformation" works its way out for the Christian. Progressive sanctification, the traditional bane of the holiness bodies such as the Weslyians and Pentecostals, represents a falling into the other ditch with the same error from which Wright wishes to protect us.

Piper was right to warn against this omission in Wright. The church is not ready to jettison its doctrine even over one man's need to protect another.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

N.T. Wright on Justification

I have almost finished N.T.Wright's book Justification - God's Promise and Paul's Vision and the review essay required on it for my class. Taking a pause before lunch I thought I would jot a few notes while they are fresh in my mind. Understanding Wright requires effort. One problem with Wright, to use his own analogy, is that he rearranges and discards the traditional puzzle pieces so much he leaves you more than a bit confused, and concerned, if not outright frustrated. While surfing around I stumbled across a short post entitled "N.T. Wright's Doctrine of Justification - In Layman's Terms!" For the most part his brief summary hits the main points of what I read in his book. A blog post cannot possiblly do justice to a thorough review of his work, and if time allows I may post my own paper later. Suffice it to say that Wright, while endeavoring to appear quite biblical and evangelical, has managed to completely upset any traditional understanding we Lutherans ever had on the doctrine of Justification. In fact, his comments throughout the book betray a not so thinly veiled distaste for any Reformation-based statement on the doctrine. So where does that leave him? To accept his thesis you would have to scrap whatever understanding you had of Romans prior to this, and start over. You would have to accept a new vocabulary and new definitions of familiar terms. In short, you would have to start over.

Yet would you still end up with grace and faith alone once you did this? Hard to tell. On the surface it seems so at times. Yet one wonders, especially when he talks about eschatology and the verdict at the end based on works. Christ is there, too, but not as forcefully as in the "old perspective," in my opinion. When you jettison the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the sinner you lose something. A lot, to be sure. I'm just not sure where we get back what we lost when Wright is done dismantling it. Perhaps someone out there has read Wright as well and would like to shed some light in an attempt to better understand him. I'd be interested to hear your insights.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Nashotah Reflections

A week has now passed since I returned from my studies and I thought I would muse a bit on my time away. These are relatively random thoughts, placed in no particular order, related to no single theme.

1.) As I was researching my options for graduate study over the last year or so, I looked into a variety of possible arrangements and degrees, including online distance learning. With more than a few hours back in the classroom I see even more the value of residential programs, even if only for an intensive two week period. Interaction with fellow students and the professor in a live face-to-face encounter provides invaluable learning experiences I am not convinced online programs could adequately reproduce. Now I am not arguing against online distance programs. They have their place. I simply am observing a unique benefit and possible advantage of residential programs over and against these offerings. The 60 hours I spent in class exposed me to a variety of opinions, insights, backgrounds, and interesting discussions that at times directed the class time in ways we could not predict, yet proved to be quite helpful.

2.) The rhythm of education at Nashotah was framed by the cycle of daily prayer, something easily taken for granted. Each morning before 8:00 a.m. and each evening before 5:00 p.m. the bell would remind us of the coming service at chapel. This daily discipline proved for me a powerful reminder of my own need to renew the place of regular worship in my own life. The cycle of prayer over those two weeks was an overdue retreat away from the pressures of ministry and a chance to refocus. Undoubtedly I should have taken this time long ago, and now I will look forward to my annual opportunity to retreat in the quiet serenity of God's comforting word in this unique atomosphere. Many times as I juggled the unfamiliar books my attention would be distracted and I certainly missed more than a few things. Yet I realized that there is a benefit in the rhythm of word and prayer in itself. Too often we get caught up in the preoccupation of whether we "got something out of it." Can I recall the pastor's sermon? Do I remember all the details of the readings? Our minds are always wandering. Yet if they are wandering in the atmosphere of prayer, can all be lost?

3.) Being in the presence of other students and scholars is a humbling experience, as it should be. Pride too easily rises in the midst the pursuit of higher education. We obsess over degrees and accomplishments. Yet the experience of interacting with sharp minds reminded me of my own limitations and my own lack of knowledge. Still, far from discouraging me, this helped instead to spur me on to learn more and try harder. Again, being in that daily rhythm of prayer served as a constant reminder that this pursuit was ultimately for the sake of the church, not my own ego. I pray that the Lord keeps this focus before me.

4.) The people who were on campus during my stay came from an amazingly diverse array of backgrounds and provided an unexpected learning opportunity. One was a canon lawyer from a nearby Catholic diocese. Another was a former resident of Nigeria with a Ph.D in anthropology who now works for F.E.M.A. Some of the students came from several of the islands in the Caribbean - the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad. My professor was a priest from Norwich Cathedral. I discovered that all of the faculty at Nashotah are coverts to Anglicanism from other Christian traditions: Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Southern Baptism, etc. Each day at meals gave me a chance to interact with someone different who expanded my horizons and who often gave me the opportunity to share my life and experiences as a Lutheran pastor (and specifically of the LCMS), since I believe I was the only one on campus during those two weeks (besides one other man studying for the ministry from a breakaway synod from the ELCA). I was only three and a half hours from home, yet I often felt as if I had traveled to another country. It is good to step out of ones comfortable environment and be challenged by other traditions and experiences. To be a Lutheran among Lutherans is easy. To be a Lutheran among Anglicans requires a different set of skills!

Well, that's just a few thoughts. Many pages remain yet to be read, and many papers are still unwritten before these courses are completed. As these efforts unfold I will no doubt expound on my discoveries there as well. Until then......

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Church of England and the Episcopal Church

The troubles and stresses in the Episcopal Church (TEC) are no mystery. This past week while studying at an Episcopal seminary I picked up on the frustration of many within this denomination, but also from a priest within the Church of England who served as my professor. Then I read in my most recent issue of Christianity Today that this frustration has risen all the way to the upper leadership of the Anglican church. Apparently the tipping point came with the ordination of a lesbian assistant bishop in Los Angeles. In light of this Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has recently requested that TEC withdraw from ecumenical dialogue and rescind its voting rights on an Anglican doctrinal committee claiming that the ordination breaks guidelines aimed at calming tensions in the worldwide church. Predictably, however, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori defended the ordination showing concern over what she called "colonial attitudes."

Well, Schori may scoff at her English neighbors, but she must truly be out of touch with the growing dissent and defection within her own denomination over this issue. This past week I ran across a number of those from the breakaway Anglican Church of North America (ANCA) who chose Nashotah House to prepare for the ministry or to pursue graduate education. England is not the problem, Schori. Rebellion against the clear word of God is. And many within your church are realizing this and leaving. You may want to address this before looking down your nose at your English cousins.