Friday, February 24, 2012

Re-branding a Religion - Is It a Good Thing to Do?

Recently the Southern Baptists discussed renaming their denomination.  They were frustrated by declining numbers and less success in mission outreach and felt their name was holding them back.  In the end the vote went against renaming.  David Gibson at the Religious News Service discusses this and other discussions regarding "re-branding" of religious groups such as the Mormons.  Interestingly, folks from the corporate world advise against name changing, as there is value in the wide recognition of a well known label. 

Some time back the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod discussed the same thing.  They, too, decided to stick with LCMS - for now.  Some feel that changing a name changes the image, and changing public perception translates into other successes.  Yet such is not always the case.

"I think you should stick to your mission and just work harder to explain why your mission matters," advises Josh Feldmeth, head of the New York office of Interbrand, an international brand consultancy business.  His advise should be considered carefully.  Too often we think that by changing the exterior of something we make substantial and productive alterations that positively affect the church.  In truth, the substance of what that church teaches and proclaims is of much greater importance.

For more information, read Gibson's article "Re-branding a religion is hard to do and not always successful."  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

President Harrison Before the House

For those interested in learning more about President Harrison's time before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to discuss the recent federal mandate on contraception should check out the Witness, Mercy, Life Together site, which is his official blog.  There are other sites as well, but this one is the official one.  The posted articles also summarize the general issues involved.

Where the Women Were During the House Contraception Mandate Hearing

If you have been keeping up with the recent political fallout on the federal government's contraception mandate, you may want to read this recent article in Christianity Today.  As many observers will note, the discussion has swung between issues of religious freedom and women's rights.  So it was to be expected that someone would cry foul at the House hearing when the table did not include representative women.  The author, Maggie Karner, works for the LCMS, and so she brings a voice both of women and the Synod.  Surprisingly for some she wasn't bothered by a lack of women on the panel. 

A 'taste' of her article can be gained by this choice quote:
As a woman, I was embarrassed by the cry of "Where are the women?" because I don't give a rip what gender is speaking about religious freedom as long as it is being addressed. It matters to us all—at least I thought it did. It certainly did to our Founding Fathers who penned the Constitution. And it certainly did to my ancestors who came to this country over a hundred years ago to find the freedom to exercise their faith in a robust and unencumbered way. Rep. Maloney's, and others', insistence that this is primarily a matter of "women's health" is an intentional (although I must say, masterful) attempt to redefine the argument, gain liberal momentum, and detract from the critical issue at hand.

Should "Discussions" Establish Doctrine and Practice?

Those promoting the eventuality of women's ordination in the LCMS continue to insist that we still need a "Synod-wide discussion" on the issue in order to finally put it to rest.  This troubles me.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for discussion and debate.  It clarifies positions and sharpens points of contention.  Yet when it comes to what the church teaches and practices as a matter of public conviction, deciding on the basis of a "discussion" seems fraught with all kinds of pit falls.  From my vantage point the ELCA tried this and eventually gave in to the political and social pressure surrounding "gay rights."  Theological rationale was given, but one wonders how much of the theology was driven by "Synod wide discussion."  Such a discussion will only provide resolution for those seeking the outcome of women's ordination when it finally makes it 'legal' in Synod.  Even if we took a Synod-wide vote it would remain unsettled.  Why?  Someone would insist that proper representation was not given.  Others would claim that key voices were left out of the discussion, at least in terms of public exposure.  Naturally it is unreasonable to expect that every rank-and-file member of the denomination would or could vote on such an issue.  That being the case, how do we ultimately decide what is fair?  We have already voted on this in convention before, so apparently that is not the equitable route to take.  So what is the better way?  OWN began a Facebook page as a start, but anyone following it will see that it bogged down in the same general disagreements seen elsewhere.  They have now started a new 'forum' for a new discussion.  And where will that lead?  No further than the last discussion.

What bothers we most of all is that the historic and early church catholic has determined its theology not by popular discussion, but by the deliberations of its trusted theologians and leaders gathered in official conclave. Can you imagine the results of the church's theology on the Trinity and the deity of Christ if the Arians had been given a significant 'voice' in the Trinitarian and Christological debates of the third century?   Given their control of certain geographical areas and access to secular power we might all be practicing Jehovah's Witnesses if we had gone down that track. 

No, popular discussion has never been the church's means of settling on doctrine, and I know that the LCMS is not going to go down that road now. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is Some of the Bible No Longer 'Applicable'?

Some comments by Dr. Becker have continued to trouble me and I would like to work with it here for a moment.  He has stated: "The prophetic and apostolic gospel frees us from many Scriptural texts that are no longer binding or applicable for Gentile Christians."  In particular he is referring to such texts as circumcision and OT sacrifices and such. However, he also believes that parts of scripture are "culturally conditioned," and we therefore need to balance the "historic meaning with the contemporary understanding."  Many times he has stated that such an approach to scripture has backing from past sources in the Synod's history, and yet every time I hear him speak this way it sounds strangely foreign to my ears.  I can't help but wonder where all this must lead.  He appears to embrace the essential message of the gospel, as far as I can tell. That is, he hasn't denied salvation through Christ, etc.  He gives the impression that teachings such as women's ordination and evolution do not impact directly on this central gospel message.  He also goes to great lengths to try to prove that the inerrancy of scripture is not something that the reformers embraced and is a latecomer to the theological scene.  We should be free, he seems to say, to change our views on certain parts of scripture as culture dictates, all in the spirit of Christian freedom.

But I ask again, where does all this eventually lead?  Where do we stop?  What is holding us back from questioning key doctrines of Christ and the Trinity or other essential doctrines of the Faith?  If one has followed the modern history of the large, liberal mainline denominations, we already know that such denials are not only possible, but have occurred.  The very doctrine of God has not only been denied, other models have been substituted even in the context of worship.  As I noted in an earlier post regarding the doctrine of creation and the literal understanding of Genesis 1 & 2, the very doctrine of sin itself is at issue if evolution is embraced.  Does death follow the entry of sin into the world?  "In the day you eat of it you shall surely die," they were told.  But if we embrace the evolutionary model we must put death well before this revelation.  And if we believe modern man is an evolutionary development from a lower form, at one point is man held accountable?  And if Adam and Eve are only 'representative' of the firm "hominoids,"  why does Jesus refer to them as real persons?  Was the Son of God also subject to the limitations of cultural understanding?  And is this is so, what of his teachings can we take at face value?  Are the form, redaction, literary and other 'critics' right that what we possess is only the upper layer below which exists the real truth, if we can even know it?  

I recognize that certain texts may not be immediately applicable to me today, at least not in a practical sense.  Becker notes circumcision, for one, and I acknowledge that I am no longer required to be circumcised as a sign of my covenant inclusion.  That said, do we merely set this aside now as outdated and irrelevant?  When Becker sees circumcision he seems to see a custom no longer applicable to the modern situation.  When I see circumcision my mind goes to the reason for its original requirement, and then its final fulfillment in the circumcision of our Lord Jesus.  Since my life is "hid with Christ in God," his circumcision impacts my life and faith.  I stand with all who were circumcised, all God's people stretching back to Abraham, the first to be circumcised.  

So too with the many  Old Testament sacrifices.   Am I required to sacrifice various animals on a stone altar as was done right up to the time of our Lord?  Of course not.  Why?  They are all fulfilled in Christ.  Yet because they are fulfilled, do we essentially 'move on' from them as no loner relevant to the topics at hand now?  For me they are relevant as I look back at the various purposes for these sacrifices and note how they 'flesh out' the fulness of what our Lord did in his own sacrificial death.  To disregard the older testament as something we are 'freed from' tempts us to see it as unnecessary to our full understanding of the newer testament.  Any study of the Apocalypse requires a prior knowledge of such books as Ezekiel and Daniel, to name just a couple.  John was immersed in the Old Testament and its imagery.  So much of the Old Testament helps to inform the New.  

Which takes us to the issue of women in the church.  Paul appeals to the Old Testament for support as he commands that women be liturgically silent in the worshiping community.  He goes all the way back to Genesis, in fact.  If this part of the Bible is "culturally conditioned," then someone forgot to clue in Paul.  He takes it at face value.   It underscores his point.  The Law still informs.  And not once does he seem to think that appealing to it compromises our freedom in the Gospel.  

Whether one chooses to use terms such as infallible and inerrant, the premise behind what they imply is critical.  For once they are abandoned, we are left to choose what seems applicable and relevant to us today and ultimately no doctrine is safe from revision.  I have never figured out how to preach under such a compromised situation.  When I enter the pulpit I take God's Word 'cover to cover' as the full truthful witness of the Almighty in all its parts.  I do not take modern science with me there to critique what the Bible says.  The Word of God stands on its own.  That is what makes it a divine revelation.   

Try as I might, I cannot embrace Dr. Becker's views.  Thank you for indulging this brief exercise in 'thinking out loud.'  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dr. Becker and His Dissent

Dr. Matthew Becker has formally dissented from two areas of teaching in Synod, which he submitted to the CTCR.  Their response is now public, as his response to them.  You can read about it all in his most recent blog article, "Dissent in the LCMS."  The CTCR response to his dissent and further commentary on the nature of his dissent can be found here.  I highly recommend anyone who has followed my commentary on Becker's theology to read both of the documents at the CTCR site linked above.  They speak for themselves and in a way far superior to any additional commentary from me.  As I understand it now, any further written dissent on his part will be forwarded directly to his ecclesiastical supervisors (district president and synodical president), who are then obligated to follow through on appropriate discipline.  I am pleased that the church has spoken clearly and firmly against his interpretations and theology.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dr. Frederick William Danker (1920-2012)

My familiarity with this great lexicographer comes, as for many others, through the use of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.  As a Greek student at Concordia-St.Paul from 1979-1983, one of my first required texts was most certainly this tome for which he served as one of its valuable contributors.  The second edition (1979) was at the time of my initial studies virtually 'hot off the presses.'  Although Danker went on to produce yet a third edition in 2000, I have yet to replace my original.  Dr. Danker, who taught at Concordia Seminary-St. Louis for twenty years from 1954 to 1974, was one of the professors who later left to help form Christ Seminary in Exile (Seminex).  He wrote his reflections of this difficult period in the book No Room in the Brotherhood: The Preus-Otten Purge of Missouri, published by Clayton Publishing House in 1977.  I have never read this work, but was surprised when I checked out that no reviews exist for it there.

Dr. Matthew Becker recently wrote a testimony to Dr. Danker on his blog on February 9.  The ALPB also has a thread discussing Dr. Danker, which, predictably strayed off topic as most threads inevitably do.  Both of these sites reveal interesting insights and perspectives not only on Dr. Danker, but on the issues and events of the 70's that propelled him to leave the seminary for Seminex.  Dr. Danker's life and work largely concerns his incredible lexicographic efforts.  For these he will be most remembered and appreciated.  Unfortunately, his role in the 'walk out' in '74 inevitably becomes the second defining mark of his life, especially by those who wish to see him as a martyr-type of the times.  Dr. Becker writes toward the end of his testimony: "Word came last week that 'Red Fred' Danker died from complications that resulted from a fall he took. He was kicked out of an earthly 'brotherhood' that had no room for him and for so many others. One can imagine our Elder Brother having said to Fred last week: 'Welcome, there is room for you here.'"  Obviously a convenient swipe at members of a church body with which Dr. Becker continues to feel at odds.  The LCMS may not welcome good Christian people, but thank goodness Jesus does.  This rhetoric reverberates from other comments I have heard before, especially with the ongoing conflict over fellowship and the Lord's Supper.  The fact that the LCMS simply could not allow the direction of teaching then occurring in St. Louis gets spun as intolerance and closed-mindedness.  Dr. Becker realizes that even today his views, while embraced by a  remnant of aging post-Seminex moderates, is still a minority conviction in the Synod-at-large.  Thus, a kinship exists with these Seminex heroes of yesteryear.  Although lately come he remains to keep their torch alive.  He even admits that he "almost went to Seminex."  While he relates that those close to him convinced him to do otherwise, he fails to provide the essence of their argument that won him over.  However, he took his views with him and seems to have remained unconvinced of the views that prevailed in St. Louis many years before.  "Some of us joked at the time--1984-88--that 'the historical-grammatical method' merely meant that one didn't have to use one's brain as much as 'the historical-critical method,'" Becker recalls.   The condescension toward those of a more conservative bent was present even then. 

At any rate, this post was not intended as a reflection on Dr. Becker, but a brief one on Dr. Danker was passed away on February 2.  One article of his life and passing can be found here. My side note above was meant to be illustrative of how his memory is kept alive as much to showcase the perceived lovelessness of that time as to highlight his academic brilliance.  History is always muddied with the sinful stains of pain and hurt and the reactions we give to them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Technological Generation Gap

There are always 'gaps' between the generations; experiences and preferences only understood by people of a particular age.  Another 'gap' is now occurring, but this time it concerns not styles and tastes, but access to technology, computer technology to be specific.  The most elderly face the greatest separation, yet it affects people of varying age groups from middle age to elderly.  Part of the problem concerns the ability to afford this technology.  Although greatly reduced in cost from a couple of decades ago, much of the cutting edge equipment remains out of reach for many.  No part of society is exempt from the frustration this brings.  In the church, where the bulk of membership in some smaller, more rural parishes is to be found, this technological generation gap is being felt as denominational entities and headquarters shift to online access for services once enjoyed through the mail.  For cost reasons such a shift is good stewardship.  Paper and postage expenses have soared in recent years.  Using online services allows an entity to offer all it once offered in the past with bonuses besides.  The convenience of email and now Facebook allows denominational officials and workers to communicate with speed and efficiency never known before.  Going back is simply not an option.  Still, during this transitional era we must face the fact that many good church people will potentially be left behind without access to needed information without the added assistance of a more technologically savvy generation willing to step in and help.  More information is available than ever before, but for too many of our people the opposite is occurring.  Without the former paper trail they are being left out in the cold, looking in through a fogging computer screen they cannot comprehend.

Religious News Service Has New Look

Of the various sites that I monitor for information, Religious News Service (RNS) provides insights from time to time of the religious world outside my denominational world.  While checking in recently I noticed that they have revamped their site.  I like the new look,  but admittedly I haven't explored it fully yet. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Looking Back

Cleaning the house inevitably unearths forgotten treasures and faded memories.  Last night while straightening up one room I ran across some files set aside for a purpose long since expired.  In the midst of these files were letters, one of which was from a past member, taking issue with my leadership and actions at the time.  Reading it again brought back the memories of a difficult era in my ministry, one that was deeply formative, yet also quite filled with stress.  The date of the letter goes back 14 years, so the immediate issues are now irrelevant.  I was in my mid-30's, the senior/administrative pastor of a 1,600 member parish, trying to juggle family, church, and personal life.   Mistakes were made, as they always are by sinful people, and I was initially reminded that while our self-protective memories may shield us from the pain of past regrets, revisiting those times is sometimes healthy.  It is a careful dance between past and present.  Too much obsession with what came before and our lives crawl into dark corners to hide.  Too much amnesia about that past and we may begin to believe distorted images of our lives and abilities and human tendencies to fail.  We need balance.  In a time of neo-power-of-positive-thinking through such gurus as Joel Osteen, we are told to move forward with unbounded hope and enthusiasm.  Leave that past behind.  Forget the mistakes.  You are a new person and this is a new day.  To some degree that is true.  But what about sin?  If we forget this we will inevitably fall into the very same traps that complicated us in the past.  We can learn from mistakes.  And one of those lessons is to realize our own limitations and weaknesses.  We never move from a kneeling position under the cross.

Might I do things differently than I did 14 years ago?  Sure.  But that was then and the past cannot be corrected or amended.   Better to take the lessons into the present and keep learning. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ordain Women Now Bans Some Particpants

In a previous post I noted the creation of a new Facebook page dedicated to the promotion of the ordination of women in the LCMS.  A few days later I posted again on the reactions to this site.  Since then I have simply dropped in from time to time to read the many posts for and against.  At present the administrators of the OWN Facebook page have begun to ban certain participants from posting.  I would encourage you to go to the site and review for yourself the dialogue and discussion, but with certain posts removed I suspect the script is rather disjointed and hard to follow. 

The administrators are certainly within their rights to ban whoever they wish.  Even on a blog like this I have the same rights and powers.  However, watching this play out over the last couple of months has brought a few observations from the Seelsorger:
  • A topic such as ordaining women does not lend itself to dispassionate discussion, despite the fact that the administrators indicate a desire for civil and respectful discourse (as they define it).  The administrators of the OWN site have indicated by the very title of their site that they are interested in but one outcome: the eventual ordination of women in the LCMS.  The imperative in the name speaks volumes of their intent.  How can one begin a 'dialog' when the premise is a demand?
  • The call for an open and balanced dialogue in the Synod on this topic is fraught with all kinds of difficulties.  First of all, do we determine doctrine by dialogue and discussion with no regard to the previous history of the Synod?  Can we ignore that for well over 100 years our fathers in the faith rejected this based on a careful study of God's Word?  Some will be willing to do so.  They point to the fact that the Synod changed its stance on such issues as women's suffrage and insurance.  If they changed on this, they argue, what is to say they are not wrong on WO?  However, such argumentation is flawed.  We do not argue our point by pointing out previous mistakes.  We argue it based on a careful study of the sources, biblical and confessional, and then form our conclusions.  To date the original argument on this issue is still sound to which several scholars have testified, past and present.  
  • As Dr. Gard pointed out elsewhere, this issue has been decided and only a minority seem to keep the call for change alive.  I have no doubt that there are both men and women in the Synod today who want to see the LCMS ordain women.  The question is do these people represent a growing group as claimed; a group significant enough in size and influence to indicate a shift in the rank-and-file thinking of the denomination?  My sense is that it does not.  
  • The administrators of OWN have banned those they identified as rude and disrespectful, and yet I can't help but thinking that even the definition of this is in question.  Take my previous post regarding whether this site is 'McCarthy-like."  One person decided that since I disagreed with Dr. Becker and felt his views to be contrary to the way we 'believe, teach and confess' as a Synod, I was on some sort of unfair witch hunt for heretics. If I disagree with those who promote WO and believe that their views are contrary to scripture and God's will, am I rude for saying so?  We live in a time when disagreeing is defined as rude.  We are called to avoid conflict at all costs.  Admittedly, how one disagrees can be labeled as rude.  Yet the act of calling one to repentance is not rude in and of itself.  I fear that the administrators of OWN are a bit confused on this.  They want a discussion in which all views are embraced as equally valid.  Yet when truth is at stake, such an approach is simply not possible.  
As I stated, the administrators of OWN can do as they please.  It's their site, thus, their rules.  However, by banning their detractors they will only create an artificial atmosphere of pleasant head nodding, but no real dialoging, as they desired.