Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Simple Church

Some of the leaders of my home congregation are reading a book called Simple Church over the summer and invited others to read and join the conversation. So, I got a copy and read it. Here are my thoughts on it.

Rainer, Thom S. and Eric Geiger. Simple Church. B&H Publishing (Nashville): 2006.

There are countless books on how to fix what is wrong with churches. So, after years and years of different books, different theories, different strategies, why do many people conclude that there are still problems with churches that require additional approaches, additional books, additional theories? What makes Rainer and Geiger’s Simple Church the long-awaited return to “God’s process for making disciples”?

At one level, there is much praiseworthy to be said about Simple Church. Inasmuch as the it serves to call churches away from inundating themselves and their members with innumerable programs and opportunities. If it were possible for Lutheran Christians to take only this premise away from the book without also swallowing the false teachings that lie under the surface, the book would be safe to read and recommend.

But that’s not possible. Simple Church comes with too much bad-theology baggage. These false teachings are inseparable from the overarching themes of the book. You can’t buy just part of what Geiger and Rainer propose. You can’t import their thinking about what makes an effective church without also believing that churches can be more or less effective.

That’s where Simple Church presents an unhealthy view of “Church” for Lutherans, and it manifests itself in two ways: synergism and asacramentalism.

Synergism means “working together.” In most realms, working together is a good thing. In matters of salvation, when the co-workers are God and us, it’s a false, pernicious doctrine.

Rainer and Geiger have a synergistic view of the church that cannot be separated from their proposals to make the church simpler. The entire book rests on the premise that there are things church leaders can do to make the church more effective.

Ministers cannot be effective. Only God, working through His means of grace, is effective. Pastors and people can only be faithful.

Any suggestion that we can help or hurt the work of God through His Church is synergistic, implying we work alongside God in His work. We don’t.

A discussion like Rainer’s and Geiger’s cannot be had withough this false, synergistic premise at the beginning. In Rainer’s and Geiger’s proposition, who makes the church simpler? Who brings clarity? Who creates movement? Who fosters alignment? Who provides focus? You do. That’s synergism, and it’s false.

Lutherans have always confessed this about the church: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” (Augsburg Confession, XIV)

Lutheran clergy simply cannot ask, “What can I do to be more effective?” They may ask, “Am I preaching and teaching the Gospel purely?” and “Am I administering the Sacraments correctly?” In short, “Am I being faithful?” If the answer is “yes,” that’s as much “effectiveness” as he’s been given to do.

Although the singer of the spiritual probably expects the answer to the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” to be “yes,” Lutherans have always answered “no.” None of us was there at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. So how do we get the benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross delivered to us today?

Luther wrote, “If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.” (Luther’s Works, v. 40, p. 214)

There’s a difference between where forgiveness is achieved (on the cross) and where it is delivered (in the Gospel and the Sacraments). So Lutheran churches and Lutheran worship has always placed these means through which God delivers to us the forgiveness of sins—the Gospel and the Sacraments—at the center.

The highest worship of God is to receive His gifts. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV, 155:310) Thus the point of “church” is continually to be drawn back to receiving the Lord’s gifts. For Rainer and Geiger, though, who don’t believe that in the sacraments God bestows His gifts of forgiveness and eternal life, the point of the church is to foster growth in discipleship.

There’s nothing wrong with talking about discipleship. What’s wrong is letting those who don’t believe that a Christian’s highest calling is to receive God’s gifts to enable him to live in love toward his neighbor instruct us about making churches more effective and producing disciples.

The Church is as simple as the Lord has made her. Rainer and Geiger cannot presume to speak for God, telling others God’s plan for making disciples, without acknowledging what our Lord Jesus says is the way the Church makes disciples. “Therefore, go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I commanded you.”

What is God’s plan for making disciples? Baptizing and teaching. Sacraments and the Gospel. That’s the simple Church.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Spectacle of Spectacles

Some people post things on their blogs to make them seem sophisticated. Not here.

What else were you going to do with your old car? Park it in your front yard up on blocks? This is a much better use.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Humanae Vitae: 40 Years Later

The new issue of First things has this insightful reflection by Mary Eberstadt on Pope Paul IV's widely criticized Humanae Vitae.

Here are a few insightful excerpts.

"That Humanae Vitae and related Catholic teachings about sexual morality are laughingstocks in all the best places is not exactly news. Even in the benighted precincts of believers, where information from the outside world is known to travel exceedingly slowly, everybody grasps that this is one doctrine the world loves to hate. During Benedict XVI’s April visit to the United States, hardly a story in the secular press failed to mention the teachings of Humanae Vitae, usually alongside adjectives like “divisive” and “controversial” and “outdated.” In fact, if there’s anything on earth that unites the Church’s adversaries—all of them except for the Muslims, anyway—the teaching against contraception is probably it.

"To many people, both today and when the encyclical was promulgated on July 25, 1968, the notion simply defies understanding. Consenting adults, told not to use birth control? Preposterous. Third World parents deprived access to contraception and abortion? Positively criminal. A ban on condoms when there’s a risk of contracting AIDS? Beneath contempt.

"Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae’s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.

"The adversaries of Humanae Vitae also could not have foreseen one important historical development that in retrospect would appear to undermine their demands that the Catholic Church change with the times: the widespread Protestant collapse, particularly the continuing implosion of the Episcopal Church and the other branches of Anglicanism. It is about as clear as any historical chain can get that this implosion is a direct consequence of the famous Lambeth Conference in 1930, at which the Anglicans abandoned the longstanding Christian position on contraception. If a church cannot tell its flock “what to do with my body,” as the saying goes, with regard to contraception, then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.

"By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican Church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell her other members—married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual—not to do the same. To put the point another way, once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals.

"Thus in a bizarre but real sense did Lambeth’s attempt to show compassion to married heterosexuals inadvertently give rise to the modern gay-rights movement—and consequently, to the issues that have divided their church ever since. It is hard to believe that anyone seeking a similar change in Catholic teaching on the subject would want the Catholic Church to follow suit into the moral and theological confusion at the center of today’s Anglican Church—yet such is the purposeful ignorance of so many who oppose Rome on birth control that they refuse to connect these cautionary historical dots.

"The years since Humanae Vitae have seen something else that neither traditionalist nor dissenting Catholics could have seen coming, one other development shedding retrospective credit on the Church: a serious reappraisal of Christian sexuality from Protestants outside the liberal orbit.

"Thus, for instance, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed in First Things in 1998 that “in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation’s Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church’s teaching.” Later, when interviewed in a 2006 article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about current religious thinking on artificial contraception, Mohler elaborated: “I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the Pill. . . . The entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there can be no question that the Pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.”

"Mohler also observed that this legacy of damage was affecting the younger generation of evangelicals. “I detect a huge shift. Students on our campus are intensely concerned. Not a week goes by that I do not get contacted by pastors about the issue. There are active debates going on. It’s one of the things that may serve to divide evangelicalism.” Part of that division includes Quiverfull, the anti-contraception Protestant movement now thought to number in the tens of thousands that further prohibits (as the Catholic Church does not) natural family planning or any other conscious interference with conception. Such second thoughts among evangelicals are the premise of a 2002 book titled Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Re-Thinks Contraception.

"In fact, the disgrace of contemporary American Catholicism—the many recent scandals involving priests and underage boys—is traceable to the collusion between a large Catholic laity that wanted a different birth-control doctrine, on the one hand, and a new generation of priests cutting themselves a different kind of slack, on the other. “I won’t tattle on my gay priest if you’ll give me absolution for contraception” seems to have been the unspoken deal in many parishes since Humanae Vitae.

"Exactly one hundred years ago, for example, the Lambeth Conference of 1908 affirmed its opposition to artificial contraception in words harsher than anything appearing in Humanae Vitae: “demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.” In another historical twist that must have someone laughing somewhere, pronouncements of the founding fathers of Protestantism make the Catholic traditionalists of 1968 look positively diffident. Martin Luther in a commentary on Genesis declared contraception to be worse than incest or adultery. John Calvin called it an “unforgivable crime.” This unanimity was not abandoned until the year 1930, when the Anglicans voted to allow married couples to use birth control in extreme cases, and one denomination after another over the years came to follow suit."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jeremiah Wright or Joel Osteen: What's the Difference?

There's a wonderful article by Russell Moore, a Vice President at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the most recent issue of Touchstone Magazine about the difference between the liberation theology of Jeremiah Wright and what you might find in a seemingly evangelical pulpit. What do they have in common? No gospel. Here's a snippet to whet your whistle:

"How many times have we heard conservative preachers use the Bible in exactly the same way that Jeremiah Wright uses it? Wright uses the Scripture as a background to get to what he thinks is the real issue, psychological or economic or political liberation from American oppression. Others use the Scripture as a background to get to what they think is the real issue, psychological or economic or political liberation through the American Dream.

"Either way, Jesus is a way to get to what the preacher deems really important, be it national health care or “your best life now.” Either way, the end result is hell for the hearer who accepts this gospel, regardless of whether God damns or blesses America."

You can read the whole article here. If you don't subscribe to Touchstone, an insightful, pan-denominational magazine, you should.