Squabbling in the church, lack of central coordination, everyone going their own way, locked in an acrimonious debate between traditionalists and those on the cutting edge of mission? While that certainly describes the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod at the beginning of 21st century, it was equally true of the early church at the Council of Jerusalem. Yet the Council of Jerusalem helped to unleash a mission effort that was appropriate, effective and unsurpassed in the history of the faith for spreading the Gospel. Is the LCMS in a similar situation today? Might we be “poised for mission”?
I. An Appropriate Message
A. Original Sin
Perhaps no message will resonate with the majority of the world’s people than one which begins with original sin. All of the members of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod believe in original sin. This is what makes Lutherans realists, skeptics and sometimes even cynics. Whether our hopes are built on the world, the church body, our family or even ourselves, we are prepared for disappointment. Like theFormula of Concord,1 numerous sermons and many adult instruction manuals, we begin with original sin.
Sin, though not always mentioned by name, is that common ground where so many of us find ourselves. A group of African immigrants and refugees fail to form a common organization for mutual self-help because of personal and community rivalries. A humanist organization with little room for religion or God finds nearly full agreement on the fact that this world is made up of nasty, selfish people. A growing majority of Americans no longer see their nation as exceptionally virtuous but concede our nation is about as bad as any other. Even the “almost 21” crowd of young people respond most to stories of how messed up other kids are and how they are coping with their own self-centeredness.2
Even though original sin is the place to begin and resonates so well in the sensibilities of people, little does the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (and other church bodies for that matter) demonstrate that we really believe it. The problems of the church body always seem to be someone else’s fault. The synodical and district media are always talking about accomplishments and successes and almost never mention failures. As a result, the church as an institution has begun to look like a giant hypocritical lie. Walking by a church building, is there any outward sign that this place contains those dead dreams, failed initiatives and uncertain, vulnerable sinners like me?
B. The Theology of the Cross
What could be more Lutheran than the “theology of the cross”? Even non-Lutherans like Douglas John Hall champion the teaching as particularly relevant to North America.3 Nothing so addresses the devastation of original sin as does the theology of the cross. Here Christ enters our world of darkness and in our stead embraces it and takes it to the cross with him. Even after the resurrection there are doubters and persecutors and legalists and oppressors. Prison awaits the innocent; execution is in store for the saints.
The appropriate message for our time is that it is O.K. to be in the dark because that is where we see Jesus walking with us. At first it appears that there is no relief to the tension between our hopes and our disappointments. Then Christ identifies the tension and names it when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” As he picked up our cross and died on it, we are invited to pick up other people’s crosses and make them our own.
But is this message too sad, too depressing for people looking for joy? Not really. Instead it filters out phony joy as being counterfeit. It speaks clearly and profoundly that godliness and contentment are great gain. Mere consumerism is replaced with the sober and realistic joy that is found in the midst of disappointments. When all is lost, then Christ is gained. Real beggars can laugh when earthly supports give way. At the very bottom one finds Christ and his community, their generosity and their hope.
C. The Kingdom’s Ours Forever
It is the last phrase of “A Mighty Fortress” and encapsulates the victory. Satan is defeated; guilt is silenced; death is swallowed up. The prophet’s promises of the coming kingdom provide God’s plan for the world: There will be forgiveness of sins, food for the hungry, water in the wilderness, liberation of slaves and prisoners, health and healing, homes and work and peace between peoples. Jesus began working on those promises. He forgave sinners, fed the hungry, healed the sick, and his people followed, preaching and feeding, digging wells, working with prisoners, building houses, providing work, releasing slaves and negotiating peace.
Here the task is incomplete and will always be so. The battle hymn says it all, “On earth he [Satan] has no equal.” Massive starvation, deadly plagues, wars without end, pervasive unemployment and increasing homelessness cloud the future. No sooner is one problem addressed than others arise. Why work when there is no hope of ever righting the wrongs?
Lutherans say that we work toward the promises of the kingdom because that is who we are. Faith in Jesus makes us faithful in doing Christ’s work and meeting him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, sick and imprisoned. We cannot do otherwise. And when we get tired, Christ shows us a glimpse of that “forever” kingdom where there is no sin and no hunger, where the bow is broken, the spear is shattered, and we learn war no more.
All of the world’s fundamentalisms are driven by fear and hopelessness. But neither circling the wagons nor bombing the enemy will right the wrongs. Lutherans know we can walk boldly into the future knowing that it is God’s world, Christ’s church and the Spirit’s work. With that faith and confidence we can share a sober and realistic hope for the future. With that hope we have an appropriate message for the whole world.
II. An Open Door to Mission
Most Lutheran congregations are aging; many are stagnant or dying. Though they possess an appropriate message for our society, many people in the target audience are not buying it. As the children of immigrants who have moved up the economic scale to middle class, we often assume that the well-employed young couple with two small children want what we have to offer. Yes, sometimes it happens but not often enough to keep Lutheran denominational statistics from continuing their slide downward.
Instead Lutheran congregations should concentrate on what they do best: minister to immigrants and other vulnerable people in the society. As immigrant church bodies, no other denomination has done as much to minister to immigrants and their families as have the Lutheran churches in America. Through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and its parent agencies, Lutherans helped refugees from Europe, Cuba, Hungary, Uganda, Hong Kong, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Russia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia and other countries. In 1990 the U.S. State Department recognized the LIRS as having the best national refugee program.4
The agency could not have done what it did without the generous support and welcoming efforts of Lutheran congregations across the land. While Lutherans were never good at “cold call” evangelism visitation, they had no problem in inviting the refugees to church while delivering some used furniture and dishtowels. In addition to welcoming immigrants into Anglo congregations, the Synod in its North American missions has encouraged the growth of immigrant and refugee congregations. Furthermore, these immigrant congregations in the LCMS have shown some of the greatest amount of growth and vitality in the entire Synod.5
In ministering to immigrants, refugees and other vulnerable people, the theology of the cross and the promises of the kingdom find a listening ear. People like these well know the results of original sin and need the hope that comes from the theology of the cross. But doesn’t a ministry to vulnerable people founder precisely on the need for more and more financial resources? No, not if churches again trust the ministry of word and sacrament to locally trained, part-time or bi-vocational ministers. With the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT) program of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis a start has been made. However, it is still dominated by classically trained theologians with little sensitivity to the conditions under which many ethnic students must cope. It is also expensive. It would be much better to adopt the Pauline methodology in which local pastors and teachers are entrusted with providing education more relevant to the history and culture of the people.
III. An Effective Strategy
A. Christian Liberty
For the mission of the early church, the Galatian debacle was crucial. If the traditionalists won, the mission was finished. In planting the Galatian churches Paul and Barnabas challenged the traditional role of the law and the preparation of religious leaders. In effect they defied the Jewish understanding of authority in the community. New wine needed new wineskins.
To shape an effective strategy for mission the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod also needs a whole new understanding of law, especially the institutional laws governing the church body. This is certainly the case in the preparation of ministers of word and sacrament. With but a few exceptions, all ministers of word and sacrament now need to pass seminary courses, receive a salary and go along with church traditions. Furthermore, the current education of pastors makes them far more fit for old disputes than for the challenges of the multi-cultural, post-modernist world in which they minister. Might we apply that same Christian liberty Paul advocated to the preparation and selection of church leaders? Why not follow the Biblical pattern and educate and call pastors within a parish setting? Furthermore, if those called are retired or bi-vocational, every congregation, regardless of size, will be able to have their own pastors at nominal cost.
Christian liberty also changed the whole traditional understanding of fellowship (neither Jew nor Greek), of gender (neither male nor female) and of class (neither slave nor free). Furthermore the missionaries did this in the name of the Gospel and Christian liberty. No wonder that, when faced with the tradition of papal authority, Luther became a champion of Christian liberty. He said Galatians was as dear to him as his betrothed, his Katie von Bora.6
B. Congregational Polity
In the present climate of the LCMS it seems almost absurd to propose these applications of Christian liberty. Yet, according to its constitution the LCMS has a congregational polity, which means that the synod is only advisory to the congregations.7 Thus a congregation may call any of its locally educated lay people to serve as its pastor. The administration of the synod and neighboring congregations might well disapprove, but a congregation is well within its right to do so.
Commenting on a “deacon ordination” by Japanese missionary Cliff Horn, Arthur Carl Piepkorn said that the Lutheran Confessions say that an ordination performed by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right.8 As a result the “deacon” who was called to preach the word and administer the sacraments should be recognized as a “pastor.” Piepkorn concludes that it is not necessary for a clergyman to have seminary training, nor is it necessary for a clergyman to be engaged full-time in the sacred ministry.9Thus, according to Christian liberty, the example of the early church, the support of the Lutheran Confessions and the polity of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, any and all congregations can call locally equipped persons to be ministers of word and sacrament.
With the local preparation of a diverse group of bishops, elders, deaconesses, evangelists and prophets by traveling missionaries and teachers, the early church was able to reach out culturally to Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, soldiers and philosophers.
Many of our congregations are geographically poised to minister to the marvelous variety of diverse populations. However, for the most part our pastors are ill-equipped to engage people with different cultural patterns than the ones with which they were raised or picked up at the seminary. They are equipped, however, with a good theological education. With the right orientation this might make them excellent theological educators to equip a wonderful variety of leaders for their diverse communities.
Trusting in the Holy Spirit to work through the Word of God and locally prepared leaders, the early church grew faster internally and externally than it has since. When Paul appointed elders to take over the ministry of word and sacrament (Acts 14:23), he was free to plant congregations elsewhere. When traveling Christians found a ready audience, they simply began another church like the one in Colossae. This external growth was matched by growth in the Spirit as leaders prepared themselves to lead in study and worship. Additional theological education was readily supplied by traveling teachers and letters. Furthermore, the education supplied was focused and relevant to the situation in which the congregations found themselves.
Is the Lutheran church–Missouri Synod poised for mission? Probably not, at least as a church body. There are too many vested interests and by-laws have become more important than a dynamic mission. Yet in Christian liberty, in accord with the apostolic example, true to our confessions and in agreement with our synodical polity, any congregation is free to call and prepare people to carry out a ministry of word and sacrament. Is there a law against it? Of course, just as there was a law against being uncircumcised. But now, like then, the mission of sharing the Gospel is more important than that law. Paul did not wait until the law was changed; neither should we.
Though Paul fought for the liberty to welcome the uncircumcised into the fellowship, he did not do so rebelliously. When the opportunity presented itself at the Council of Jerusalem, he sought to bridge the gap between the traditionalists and the mission, and to a point he succeeded. Were pastors and congregations to prepare and call people for ministry, they should be forthright with their more traditional brothers and sisters who see this as breaking a synodical covenant. Perhaps what we need is a new Council of Jerusalem clearing a path in which the whole church can go forward in mission. No, it will not solve all the disputes. Even after the council Paul inveighed against those who wished to mutilate the flesh (Phil. 3:2). But the mission was safe, the Gospel prevailed, and the word of the Lord grew.
1 The Book of Concord, Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 487.
2 Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts for Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publ. Co., 2003).
3 Douglas John Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976).
4 History of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services at http://www.lirs.org/who/history.htm
5 Report of the Pentecost 2000 program of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod athttp://www.pentecost2000.com/
6 Jaroslav Pelikan, “Introduction to Volume 26” in Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), ix.
7 Constitution of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Article VII, 2004 Handbook, 14.
8 Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “Deacon Ordination,” Concordia Theological Monthly 38 (January 1967): 58. The quote from the Confessions is from the “Treatise on the Authority and Primacy of the Pope” (65) in Kolb and Wengert, op. cit., 340.
9 Ibid., 59.