Going back to graduate school placed me into the heady invigorating world of academic theological deliberations. Keeping abreast of ongoing debates among scholars conservative and liberal alike allows me the chance to continually sharpen those reemerging skills. However, as I was reminded yesterday in the basement of my church with six students at the adult instruction class, theology must ultimately address issues affecting the real-time lives of God's people. Last night we discussed the age-old question of sin and the Fall in Eden and the ancient tactics of the evil one. Parish work affords ample opportunity to wrestle with the most difficult theological dilemmas, as sin continually poses challenges to the application of law and gospel in the most fundamental way.
In my corner of the world two of the challenges that most frequently complicate the life of the parish involve issues impacting morality (e.g. cohabitation) and fellowship (e.g. close communion). While the answers often seem clear and obvious to me as a pastor, the solutions are another story. Parish-level theology is complicated in large part because of the fellowship in which it must be practiced. The law's hammer crushes the pride of sin and checks our selfish desire to be our own god, but its impact also sends unintended reverberations throughout family units in ways that too often obscure the real message. Nothing is more personal than ones family, and when issues cause people to break their fellowship in a church where family ties go deep, the fallout sends waves of hurt into many lives, including the pastor. How can we refuse to commune someone's daughter whose parents know to be a 'good Christian girl'? How dare we judge the private decisions of people who are faced with economic challenges that prohibit the luxury of independent living! Sure, there is the 'letter of the law,' but what about the exceptions every law is afforded for the sake of real people with messy, complicated lives? Are we heartless?
If you have ministered at this level you know only too well the spirit of these quandaries. As I often remind my people, there is a reason the hymnal has a section entitled "The Church Militant." Satan has constructed his chapel next to our cathedral and will not be closing any time soon. As he cracked the door with his first question of doubt and sowed the seeds that bore the fruit of rebellion against the very Word of God, so this well-worn pattern is employed with tireless application day in and day out. Pastors remain at the heart of a battle and must never relax so long that they forget their own vulnerabilities and inherent weaknesses.
With that in mind I realize I must retire for a time to God's Word and to prayer. Every day the evil one works to keep me from it, and I confess has secured a good record of victory on too many days. May the Lord bless you in this battle as you minister in the kingdom. Theology on ground level is tough work.