Conflict, Confession, and Unity
Conflict, Confession and Unity: Addressing Doctrinal Issues Faithfully and Fraternally for the Sake of Christ’s Mission
Rev. Dr. David H. Benke, Presenter
PACIFIC SOUTHWEST DISTRICT
2004 ANNUAL THEOLOGICAL CONVOCATION
February 16–19, 2004
Suncoast Hotel, 9090 Alta Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada
The Practice of Theology, Prayer and Worship in the 21ST Century
How Do Churches and Pastors Develop Guidelines for Making Decisions as to What Kind of Events They Will Participate in?
- A) Perspectives on life after September 11
People ask me if I’ve seen the tape. You know the one I’m talking about? It’s a question indicative of the times in the Missouri Synod. I just tell them, “No, I haven’t seen the tape; I was there when it happened.”
Of course, for me the rewind goes back a bit further. I could hit the button and press July 31, 2001. I’m sitting outside the Superdome in New Orleans at the Youth Gathering with the kids from my parish going, “Do I look bad? Because I feel bad.” It was a heart attack, a warning shot. I made a strong resolution to cut back on my activity level, relax into the fall, stop and smell the roses.
So I prepared the new Atlantic District theme all by my lonesome for initial presentation. The point was going to be to hand it off to others to implement. I beat the big rush as I made my way up to the office at Concordia Bronxville for our staff meeting around 7:30 on the morning of September 11. It was a gorgeous morning like a whole bunch of them that year. It was a day that had golf written all over it. I had my documents all ready to go. Then Pastor Bill Wrede called and asked for permission to go into Manhattan and help—because a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Go, I told him; go with God.
We ran to find TVs on campus and watched it unfolding. I walked into our staff meeting at 9:30 and laid the theme sheet on the table—Engaging the World with the Gospel of Hope. And then I said, “All of our plans have just been changed. The Atlantic District has a new mission in New York as of this moment.” We prayed, beat it out of there toward new destinations. For the next week and a half I saw and heard and felt and smelled the destruction up close and personal,
Just that morning, on the Throg’s Neck bridge, one of the last ones over going to Queens, hopping out of my car to gape at smoke and flame and flume belching from the place where the towers had stood tall
at St. Peter’s in Brooklyn, school parents covered in ash like snowmen running down from the elevated J Train to clutch their frightened little ones to their chests,
hearing from Judy, who had seen the second plane hit from the Triboro Bridge on the way to work, listening to her tell how she got tangled in panicked traffic for four hours
driving like the last man on earth, all alone, only car on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn and turning the corner past the Verrazano bridge to that smoking inferno on the horizon on the way to Lutheran Medical Center and the pain there because there were no trauma victims to help—they were all under the rubble—they were all dead.
Inhaling the incredible stench up close, the firefighters hanging, heads down, by the firehouse across the street from Tower One, the firehouse where everyone had died, the columns stuck in the twisted beams, huge rescue workers sobbing and dropping to their knees for prayer, the great house of healing at St. Paul’s Chapel, people cheering for us and crying as they handed us a bottle of water on our way out from an FBI-led tour of what had become Ground Zero on September 19,
listening, listening, listening to prayers and gathered whispers of citizens in and out of sanctuaries and the nightmares opened up like screams in the spirits of the little children, the holding and clutching of friends in prayer for deliverance even as the dreadful toll began to be counted of those who were not coming back, who had been obliterated, listening for the voice of God in all of it, songs that stick to me even now—“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder;” an organist beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” and then branching into “My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall”
hatching the idea for the first time with Steve Bouman that we would personally see to it that Lutheran Disaster Response became the vessel for comfort and renewal and gathering of resources in our city and living up to that commitment with the help of national heroes who never let us down not even for a minute up to this very day
sharing thoughts in the rectory at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with former mayors Koch and Dinkins at the invite of Rudy Giuliani to make some effort at inter-religious healing when the peace of the city was so fragile that kids from my church were being knocked to the ground just for “looking Arab”
grabbing the hand of Admiral Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, US Navy, and singing “Proud to Be an American” on that clear sunny Sunday, September 23, just after offering a prayer for healing in the Precious Name of Jesus
peering out at Judy and our people in the stands on the third base side, seated just to the left of second base, everybody dazed and seeking, firefighters huddled together, folks holding the pictures of the people they hoped somehow would show up in New Jersey alive and well but they knew were ashes and dust, and all the rest and the performers singing and playing through tears,
hanging with people in immediate need in the way we started LDRNY—Bengalis in Queens who had lost their whole way of life being cabdrivers working downtown Manhattan, immigrants who couldn’t find loved ones, folks in desperate need of housing, food and clothing, respite workers popping in from around the country, Lutheran schools burying parents of kids, everything at a million miles an hour, decisions always on the fly, prayer coming in stops at lights on the way to something
listening in that intense way we learned to listen to Ronnie Buca’s son saying on November 8, “Forget Mike Piazza and Derek Jeter; there are 343 real heroes in this city and there always will be. My dad is one of them—he knew every inch of those buildings and he still ran back in to save lives.” And all of us at Concordia Bronxville for the funeral of the only fire marshall killed in line of duty just taken aback at the power of the simple words of love for a dad, a hero, a baptized child of God, Missouri Synod Lutheran.
Pulling the car to the side of the road when three of us heard on the Spanish channel that Flight 587 had gone down, parishioners holding their breath because the Dominican Express usually held one of our school mom flight attendants, hundreds more dead out in Queens and all of us right back at Ground Zero again, watching her come back the next day and just sitting crying holding her kids while her daughter said, “mommy, we were praying for you the whole time.”
Reading the complaints and checking the signatures of the first five Missouri Synod pastors, beginning a process that would snatch thousands of hours, all the way through my suspension from the clergy roster of the LCMS for heresy, pending appeal, a hearing in Newark and my eventual restoration
Devouring, hearing, touching the hundreds and thousands and thousands of message-bringers and prayer warriors and huggers and supporters from New York and all over the country to keep on keeping on in the Lord, life just taking on a whole new direction
Watching Annette Evanson’s face crack with emotion as the proud sponsor for a man named Mohan, a Hindu who got baptized and confirmed one day, or the family of Moussa, a Muslim, who got baptized on Easter Sunday, or Ather, a Pakistani sheikh, who came forward for a Trinitarian blessing on New Year’s eve, all related to their connection through a prayer at Yankee Stadium
Standing and meditating on a little hill in a park in Brooklyn in March on the first night the twin beams of light pierced the sky from Ground Zero, of all people in the world running into a parishioner there whose son Isaiah had been born as I stood praying at Yankee Stadium, both of us transfixed by the power of remembrance in those two towering blasts of light
Spending time with folks from other faiths and getting the hang of how to approach it—exclusive claims in an expansive way in a time of global intolerance—as the path to interfaith dialog post 9/11, watching that message sink in and be appreciated by all those “pre-Lutheran” folks who keep saying—“Yes! It’s time we talk about what divides us seriously and not just skirt the edges.”
Jumping on the great jamming jumbling J Train from Brooklyn to Manhattan on a daily basis, doing something I’d never done in a place I had no desire to go, running Lutheran Social Services for nine months, offices a block from Ground Zero in a building that had been struck by the engine of the plane that rammed the second tower, and finding what God intended for me—healing and peace and new friends.
My tape is full, friends. It’s not on stop and it’s not on rewind. It’s still rolling, and I’ve just recounted for you one ten-thousandth of a percent of what it’s been like. My perspective on Yankee Stadium is not of an event clipped and pasted and stored on a disc but of a Sunday afternoon when Christian witness was not prohibited and took place right out in the open, one minute’s worth of prayer out at second base in a tidal wave of Gospel hope amidst the ashes of despair and the cinders of the remains of human flesh and human dreams. That’s my perspective.
- B) Diving Deep in Dialog:
Hope for Unity in the Missouri Synod
“Dive deep for dreams or a slogan will catch you,” the poet E. E. Cummings wrote. My prayer for us in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is that we get out of the way of the Godly directional control pattern that always drives us to the depths of our being (Hebrews 4:12) so that the authentic dynamics of this most vibrant and orthodox tradition might be available to a world hungering for a righteousness that can only be received from the outside, from the most special revelation of all time, the Word of God incarnate, our Lord Christ. I’ve been sound bitten, tape spliced, sliced and diced in a thousand ways even as I’ve been extolled and put on a pedestal these feet of clay can’t survive, and I am standing here to tell you that the only hope for the LCMS is to come clean and dive deep in dialog with the Word, with one another and with the world.
Herb Mueller stated that he has found Yankee Stadium to be the equivalent of the third rail. When two sides running parallel but apart from one another try to dialog and touch the actuality of Yankee Stadium, they are immediately electrocuted and dialog dies. I am the guy who was there. My opinion is that in this denomination at this time, unless the third rail is touched, the train is not going to move. Grab it, feel the shock, listen and learn and laugh at your hair standing on end, and in the course of that, this little engine that could, the LCMS, will chug down the line engaging the world with the Gospel of hope. That’s MY dream.
Theological and Biblical Principles for Participation in Civic Events
Mission demands engagement with the world because mission begins in the heart of God, as determined in God’s revealed Word.
The Missouri Synod’s official theology tells us that God engaged the world in love by sending His one and only Son to pitch his tent with us to fight and gain the once-for-all-time victory over the chaos of our self-imposed death and destruction. We are committed to the same magnificent obsession, aren’t we? To do what we do in this very whacked out world because we know it is God’s world and God loves it. It is God who calls us to be with him in God’s foolish activity of turning the upside down world right-side up even though it looks to all the world as though we’re the ones who are upside down—poor and humble and hanging out with all the wrong customers.
Do we need to construct a mission theology of engagement? Hey, it’s already there! It’s been written for 30-40 years based on one hundred fifty years of denominational zeal, five hundred years of Lutheran existence and 2000 years of New Testament Trinitarian revelation. There are innumerable referents. However, “from time to time,” as it is stated, circumstances, much as in the ’70s, demand an update to current situations. This is good—we can’t wander from Lutheran doctrine; we’ve got to stay hooked there.
I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of LCMS Lutherans are centrist, Gospel-oriented mission-directed on the ground incarnational word and sacraments troops. That’s us. We stand for the conservative tenets of Lutheranism, and we won’t budge.
The incursion of doctrinal novelty is not coming from the Left, folks, nor is it coming from the realm of the Left. Accusations of a “liberal left” agenda in the LCMS sound to people on the outside like the mutterings of a lunatic. When I was engaged in conversation with Dan Wakin from the New York Times, after I told him what my positions were on issues social and theological, he said, “Why, you’re way on the conservative side, aren’t you? Why are you in trouble?” I replied, “I know. And I don’t know.”
But I do, actually. The thunder is booming from the right, where the holocaust-denying forces have united with the WELS/ELS devotees of avoidance and the over-the-top gnesio Lutherans in what amounts to an ideological war.
There are a whole bunch of folks committed to a magnificent obsession with God’s universal reconciling activity, desirous of affirming it as the Church’s mission in the world. Another group is captive to the scriptural fundamentality of an interpretation of Romans 16:17, in which the capital bold and underlined word is AVOID followed by AT ALL COSTS and THAT MEANS YOU. Matthias Flacius is the ideological hero then, the over-the-top steroidal gnesio for whom the knowledge of God from the Law could not include the first three commandments because someone on the outside might get in. He ended up on the right edge of the ledge himself.
I’d like Missouri to face that thumping thunder in its right ear. It does NOT represent the conservative tenets of Lutheranism. It represents folks who have either left us or parted company with us because we have held to the Lutheran dynamic and dialectic that is seminal, radical and to be conserved.
Yes, it’s OK to be a Boy Scout and to have a troop in your church. Cub Pack and Scout Troop 251 are hosted at my parish. You can’t get to heaven by being a Boy Scout, but you can tie a better knot more courteously than anyone around. And that’s good. It’s productive of civil righteousness.
And yes, we’re allowed to take an oath in court “so help you God” without invoking the Trinity, because the Almighty God, the true God as known through the Law, and not the Triune God revealed through the Gospel, is presiding over the law in those rooms. And yes, we can sing “God bless America” without fear of syncretising in harmony with the guy in the turban next to us.
And yes, we can use American money because the God in whom we trust is the Almighty God, the one true God as revealed scripturally in Romans 1 and 2 and as revealed in our nation’s founding philosophy and in nature And yes, we can support with fervor the pledge of allegiance to the flag INCLUDING “one nation, under God,” BECAUSE we are upholding the conservative tenets of Lutheranism, which speak of the beauty of civil righteousness as one of the highest gifts of God on earth.
And yes, we can engage in prayerful pastoral practice in the world without people being removed from our rosters. Evil in the world does not produce a hostile takeover. The earth remains the Lord’s, for in God’s own word through the prophet only one God exists to take credit: “I am the Lord. There is no other” (Isaiah 43). He’s “by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit” (TLH 262). And what if the stadia and byway hedges are filled with demons and sinners? Sing it out with brother Martin: we “tremble not, we fear no ill—they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will—he can harm us none, he’s judged the deed is done; one little Word can fell him.” The Word named Jesus—the precious Name that sounds so sweet.
What I’m suggesting is that we face that group that prevents and avoids and find that group within and engage in dialog. Don’t avoid—approach! With straightforward, from the shoulder Biblical and Confessional truth. It’s needed within the conservative Lutheran community. And it is the way to healing and strength. Because the inadequate doctrine, which is mostly Reformed and never going to be Lutheran or conservative, needs to be transformed, exchanged for the dynamic dialectic that is Lutheran at Luther’s finest because it is straight from the Word of God.
That’s the meaning of my life right now—to encourage dialog WHEREVER it can be found. I’ve sat in a yurt in a backyard in Louisville with a rabbi and an imam and listened as the rabbi grabbed me and said, “You know what I like about you? You stand up for your particularity! Somebody asks you to pray, you give your prayer in Jesus’ Name and you refuse to back down when they say you shouldn’t have been there and prayed that. We need more Jews like that!” Oddly enough, a Jewish woman out on Long Island called her Lutheran friend the day after Yankee Stadium and said, “Did you see that thing on TV yesterday—wow, was it long! But way at the end a guy got up and gave a prayer, nice and loud and ended in Jesus’ Name. Right from the heart. That’s what I needed to hear.” And her flabbergasted friend said, “That was OUR guy.” And brought the message of salvation to her Jewish friend.
True tolerance in a time of global terror means putting your faith on the line with gentleness and respect, exactly as St. Peter advises (I Peter 3:15) and expecting the same of folks from other religious traditions. In that dialog you grab the opportunities presented from the commonality of the belief in God who is the Creator of the universe to articulate the source of mercy and grace in Christ. True tolerance in a time of global terror means exclusive claims made in an expansive, dialogical way. The alternative is blood and guns and the demolition derby called religious intolerance, where those who pray are compared to terrorists or in other parts of the world just simply hacked to bits. There’s a better way, and there’s a better line of theological reasoning. As it turns out, we already have it and have had it for a long time.
So what are the theological issues on the mission engagement table right now? The topic seems to turn around “civic events.” A document is being prepared for our denomination by the CTCR as we speak, and by this July will be up for discussion. And that can be a good thing, although over time it seems to me our best denominational efforts have come through a more lengthy process. It has most recently been revealed to me that a more thorough examination of civil religion might be in order. I will make four theological points in this ongoing dialog.
But first I’d like to make several observations. The portion of the synodically approved document on fellowship called “cases of discretion” states, “Not every occasion were worship takes place is necessarily a manifestation of church fellowship.” When Christian witness is not prohibited, participation at civic events is to be encouraged after discernment. Where there are differences, as there will be, charity must prevail. These are GOOD and SUFFICIENT words AS IS. The statements are Lutheran and pastoral in approach, and those are not contradictory but complementary terms. The purpose of the new CTCR document is not to replace those words—this comes directly from Dr. Nafzger—but to answer questions asked since—well, since Yankee Stadium.
However, it seems to me that over time the dichotomization of our theological enterprise has taken us away from the integral connection of word with deed, the connection of mission of God in the world that is God’s with mission in the church in the Church that is God’s. We’ve been run toward the separation of our theological endeavors and become focused on the inside and to those on the inside. In so doing we have lost our connective tissue with the world.
Therefore, virtually everything has to do with church fellowship and a falsely seminal and very radical one-passage entrance/exit passage to approach or avoidance. Thus conversation regarding civic events comes to us through a document on church fellowship. How did that happen? Here I agree with some of my critics who don’t see the connection in the document on fellowship to civic events. Well, the enterprise is off kilter at that point. We’re flowing from “render unto God the things that are God’s,” when we’re invited by the mayor of a city who “renders unto Caesar.” So instead of civic events being seen as an aspect of mission and witness, they are seen as an aspect of church fellowship, even though they’re in God’s realm of power. I believe that’s a less than helpful place from which to start. It creates the potential for, as Luther put it, a “stewing and brewing” of the two kingdoms, a hostile invasion from the realm of grace (the church) into the realm of power (society). Rather, Luther would have us understand from the perspective of the knowledge of God from the Law that when we head out there into the world we are doing exactly what our church signage tells us. We are entering the mission zone. There the task is Christian witness in word and deed at the overlapping intersection of left and right realm, power and grace.
If you think it through the other way, every arena in the world is heterodox, heretic or pagan and to be avoided at all costs. It leads to a fearful attitude—there are devils out there—stay home—the world is very evil, the times are waxing late—go to your room or you will be terminated. The only options then are either to organize the conquering of the world through new crusades, and in a denomination of oldish white-folks that’s a non-starter; far easier is the other option—to stay indoors in the sanctuary waiting for folks like you to come to you.
Of course, it’s impure out there—that’s why they killed Jesus—for hanging with the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners and eating with them; for shamelessly promoting the concept that the poor were better off than the rich whose butts were always going to get stuck trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle on the way into God’s Kingdom. We belong in the arena, hanging with what Paul Sieveking from Iowa West calls “normal people” and the Jerry-Springer like mélange that hits the pavement running in spots like New York City or Lake Havasu City.
What are the theologically determinative factors for participation in civic events? That’s a great Lutheran question to ask. In fact, there are only two real questions, for there are two ways in which we can discern participation, before the fact and after the fact.
Before the fact, we should ask, “What is the public doctrine of or the ‘banner’ over the event?” After the fact, we should ask, “What was the fruit or the results of participating in the event?” To jump ahead for a second to the second question, here is a strange fact: In all the hearings and communications to this very minute, not one person who opposed my participation at Yankee Stadium ever asked, “Did any good fruit result from your participation?” Don’t you find that strange? However, let’s go back to beginnings. The sedes doctrinae or loci, the theological foundation or point of entry, for civic events, in order for mission to be evangelical and catholic, cannot be church fellowship. That’s not the mayor’s banner. The banner must be lodged somewhere else. There are three conservative Lutheran spots, three evangelical and catholic anchors, to lodge those sedes. All have to do with Christian mission activity in society, in God’s realm of power.
The first is Luther’s concept of the two realms. Martin Marty quotes Martin Luther crowing, “not since the time of the apostles have the temporal sword or the temporal government been so clearly described or so highly praised as by me.” It’s hard not to crow WITH him. From the time of Augustine as mitigated especially through Aquinas, the church had proposed a “continuum” between natural law and revelation. The extension of that crooked road is that, in the view of a contemporary like Karl Rahner, there are “anonymous Christians.” That’s raw universalism of the NON-catholic or universal order. Luther rejected that course and thereby gave God God’s due both in the defined realm of power and in the defined realm of grace, which IS the catholic or universal order. As the Augsburg Confession states it clearly, “we are also members of the Kingdom of God’s Power whereby He rules this world by His Law through the agency of civil government.” We agree with the Lutheran Confessors who said that church and government are “the two highest gifts of God on earth” and that these two authorities should not be “mingled or confused” (AC XXVIII: 4,12).
Activity in God’s realm of power, therefore, dare not be a confusion. There can be no compromise on Christian witness. That witness can be either in deed or word and prayerfully both-and. There dare be no revulsive avoidance of engagement, for the kingdom of power is God’s and the Christian belongs there. The document “That We May Be One,” prepared through the Atlantic District and Rev. Don Matzat, is very helpful in this regard, and copies are available at this gathering for your perusal.
So then, what makes a civic event civic? I asked Bill Lazareth—he should know a thing or two as the author of some of the most seminal books in the area of Christians and society. “Under whose auspices was it convened?” was his question. The answer of course in my case was then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In his own words, “Pastor Benke joined the service at my invitation as Mayor of New York City and his presence contributed to a truly inspiring event” (October 18, 2002). The pre-meeting I went to was hosted by Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington and former mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, along with the commissioner of parks, who was later traded for George Steinbrenner. It’s not about percentages of civil or religious conversation—that’s an over-the-top fellowship perspective, a P. E. Kretzmann perspective, and a stewing/brewing problem as the realm of grace inappropriately tries to determine what transpires in the realm of power. Under the auspicious big umbrella of civic authority, Lazareth stated clearly to me in agreement with the great Reformer and my ecclesiastical supervisor, Gerald Kieschnick, who cited the synodical resolution, the vocational task of the Christian is to witness Christ. Bang, zoom, done. Engagement accomplished. Of course those events could be polydox. There are Muslims in Iowa. There are Hindus in St. Louis. There are Buddhists in Colorado. People worship bugs and rocks. It’s a free country. We ENJOY religious freedom in God’s realm of power. Of course those events will have representatives of various religions or in normal settings like an inauguration, for instance, will exhibit in this country all the banners of the Almighty through “In God We Trust.” The task is Christian witness. In some cases, when the cameras are rolling, the result may be Christian witness to the whole society all at once. There is and must be a place for Christian intercession, for the bringing of Light into darkness, for intercessory acts, outward and upward. This is GOOD.
The second point, as discussed already, is the knowledge of God from the Law. What makes the knowledge of God the knowledge of the True God? I asked the Apostle Paul—he said, “Dave, if God put that knowledge there, in the world God made and in the human heart God created, isn’t it going to be knowledge of the True God? God doesn’t lie about God! People pervert that knowledge, pollute it, distort it, lay it on rocks, birds, reptiles and animals in their foolishness, down to annulment, but they cannot obliterate the knowledge of the True God from the Law. They can De-face it, Dave, just like that church sign that you get so hopped up about when the kids graffiti it. But they cannot Ef-face it. They can’t take the sign away. They can’t take the knowledge of God from their human hearts because God put it there in order that they might seek Him. And that knowledge produces an appreciation of nature and the Law as God’s, of sin, guilt and life after death. I thought I made that clear in Romans 1 and 2 and Acts 14 and 17. I thought I demonstrated quite clearly before baseball began, at my big-time arenas in Athens and Ephesus that your job among the rock-worshipers and Packermaniacs, even and especially after the force of demonic energy released in the destruction of lives through terror, is to promote God’s evangelical will and works of grace. Get on it.”
I asked Luther. And Luther said, “I’ve got the gout. Don’t bother me.” When I persisted, he said, “Read the Large Catechism, fella. Explanation to the Creed. Aren’t you already ordained?” So I did. “These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and distinguish us Christians from all other people on earth. All who are outside the Christian church, whether heathen, Turks, Jews or false Christians and hypocrites, even though they believe in and worship only the one, true God, nevertheless do not know what his attitude is toward them. They cannot be confident of his love and blessing. Therefore they remain in eternal wrath and damnation, for they do not have the Lord Christ, and besides, they are not illuminated and blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
“Now you see that the Creed is a very different teaching from the Ten Commandments. The latter teach us what we ought to do; the Creed tells us what God does for us and gives to us. The Ten Commandments, moreover, are inscribed in the hearts of all men.”
When I finished reading, Luther said, “And don’t let anybody ‘fix’ it, either. All the English translations including Bente/Dau, Kolb and Tappert have it right. Take it from me. I’m German. Leave it alone. It’s fine. Yes, they worship the true God with their outward acts, as my pal Philipp states, but their hearts are not secure because they lack what you and I know is the key to the universe—the Lord Christ.”
This theology is both evangelical and catholic. It is perduring and must persist in the world. It provides the “button-on” point to those who do not know the Lord Christ through the knowledge and yes, worship of the true God through the Law, but understands clearly that the universal revealed claim of God on fallen humanity is through Christ alone. Emil Brunner, going up against the Reformed Karl Barth, invented the “button-on,” anknupfungspunkt, word. His incredibly pertinent words to all us missionaries are also available in the narthex. It’s Brunner we want, not Barth, to be Biblical and missional, and yes, to be Lutheran.
Therefore the presentation of the Gospel to and in the world is the aim in order that the confidence in God’s love and blessing, already accomplished (II Cor. 5:19,20) might be gained by all. It is dialectic in that the door is open to all through the knowledge of God from the Law to hear the Gospel, even though the knowledge of God from the Law can never save but only condemn. It is precisely that fine and honed dialectic, that “both-and”, that paradoxical in and outness, that MAKES and KEEPS Lutheran theology evangelical and catholic. This is what must be conserved.
In other words, even there in the civic arenas of the world, be they Areopagas or Temple of Diana or Yankee Stadium where the representatives of all religions gather, or even there in the bodega on the corner where the hang-out syncretist with a beer in a bag tells you, “Padre, we all believe in the same God,” we must engage the world with the Gospel of hope! And say, “I agree with you, compadre. There is only one God. What do you know about God, hermano?” And grab a beer and let the dialog and the dialectic begin.
The third theological sedes therefore is Christian witness or Christian apologetic. At the intersection of the two realms lies this incredible opportune space where the process of soul-healing, societal and personal redemption and transformation begin and transpire.
Paul in chains writes to the Philippians, in the San Diego of his day where old soldiers went to retire, and tells them they have a common citizenship. Then he gripes at them, stating that their quarrels and stupidity out in the open are making their witness to the world worthless. And states, “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ Jesus.” Witness counts! Don’t mess it up! Here are a few thoughts on the topic:
When it came to the relationship between Christians and pagans outside the Church in the civil realm, the position of the Apostle Paul was that the Christians are the ambassadors of God’s reconciliation of the entire world of sinners in Christ Jesus. The issue is no longer perversion and pollution but witness and opportunity.
While within the church the issue of perverting the truth of the Gospel was very real, and separating from paganism was necessary, when it came to the functioning of the Christian within the civic community, the Apostle’s perspective was totally different. Paul was most certainly not a separatist. He could not be accused of promoting Monasticism or being an Anabaptist.
Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” There is, according to the Apostle, a major difference between mixing idol worship and idol feasts with the Lord’s Table and eating at the table of an idol worshipper. One action is a syncretism in the Church and pollutes the Lord’s Table; the other is in the civic community and provides an opportunity to witness. It is clearly contrary to Scripture to apply fellowship principles governing the life of the Church to the manner in which aChristian functions in the civic community.
For the Christian to be interacting with pagans and unbelievers within the civil realm was a matter of Christian freedom. Even then, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that there is only one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He writes in 1 Corinthians 8:4-11:
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
The Apostle Paul does not condemn the man who is actually “reclining at a table” (katakeimenon) in a pagan temple. It is an issue of Christian freedom.
The Christian interacting in the midst of a pagan culture should use much wisdom and seek the “kairos” moment to share the Gospel and speak of the Lord Jesus. In Colossians 4:5-6 Paul writes:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
The manner in which the Christian confronts the “outsider” is vital. There are specific “kairos moments” (opportunities) in which the Christian is given the chance to speak truth. In so doing, the Christian’s words should be winsome and filled with grace so that the unbeliever will ask questions.
This same approach to confronting the unbeliever is confirmed by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Now that is an outline of Christian apologetics for the 21st century from the 1st century. Here’s what happened in my specific case:
I presented a prayer as Christian witness in the Precious Name of Jesus. I gave the reason for the hope I have. It was done with gentleness and respect for those mourning the loss of their loved ones. It produced many results. This is the answer to the second question above—show me the fruits of the effort:
Christians called, wrote and jumped all over me by the thousands with thanks for the healing they received from God through the prayer. Janet Wechsler, a Lutheran who had lost her husband, was there—“I can never thank you enough for representing ME,” she said. “Please God, don’t let anyone take pastors out of the stadiums at times like these.” Twila Petal Evanson, who’s like a daughter to me, was there—“Pastor B,” she said, “you don’t know how the people in the stands were reacting. They were going—yes, yes, yes, thank God for that prayer.” Linda Thompson who lost her husband, Brian, was home but watched on TV. At the dedication of, appropriately enough, a flagpole and garden in front of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Dix Hills, NY, last September 11, she told me and her pastor, Chip Froehlich, “Never give up your right to pray in public. Never.” I sent a bushel basket of early emails to the Board of Directors of the synod way back when; there are drawers full of thank-yous, all in a safe and treasured place.
Some Christians said the prayer was “too Christian.” I responded, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,” and we talked.
Some Christians said I should never have been there and disgraced Christianity as a heretic. You know the rest of that story. It’s still being told. The response is to promote dialog, dialog, dialog.
Some non-believers and practitioners of other religions asked the question—who is that Jesus? Your prayer was powerful. What is Jesus all about? Dialog and in some cases conversion to Christianity ensued. Ask those two guys named Mohan and Moussa. Ask others out there, from what I’ve been told. Grace is as always amazing.
Some Christians were confused—are all religions the same? Why were they all up there together? Or—they were validated in their misunderstanding that all religions ARE the same. It’s a teachable moment, folks. Some Christian religionists are doing it by pouring oil on the fire —kill the Muslims; they’re evil. Wonderful—those folks are captive to double predestination weirdness—God so loved the world I’m from, and not the one you’re from. Other Christian religionists are pre-syncretized and make inclusive claims in a non-territorial way—the Christian “all water goes to the ocean” crowd. We’re way, way, way more expansive than that, as expansive as the universal love of God for God’s cosmos, and we’re way more exclusive than that, as exclusive as “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life—no one comes unto the Father but by me.” Dialog, dialog, dialog.
Some non-believers and practitioners of other religions were offended by the reference to Jesus. See point 2, but remember the illustration from I Peter and Luther’s Large Catechism. The knowledge of God from the Law is knowledge of the true God but does not save; in fact, it condemns. Hey—the law kills. What is Ground Zero but the greatest physical sign of the results of Law the world has recently seen? September 11 was the end of the age of deconstruction—the plane hit the building, the building fell down, the people were incinerated, thirteen hundred with no body parts found or ever will be—there are no other versions of that truth. Before the Law of God all mouths are shut. The Law of God out in the open like that in smoke, fire and thunder cannot be ignored but produces terror of the first water. The open sight of the deus absconditus only lets us know the end of the human project without special revelation, special help from the outside. Ashes, dust, incineration. (Exactly, by the way, the spot Luther called the “mathematical point” of saving faith—the ash of my psychic remains covered by the cross of Christ.) Rejection of that condemnation and exclusivity is not unexpected, but can, as Peter states, result in feelings of shame in those who are under the Law. This could be good—the offense caused by the Name of Jesus was heard and understood. My fellow District President Bob Newton tells of the tribe in the Philippines that had to finally understand that no amount of sacrificed pigs could get you to heaven—only Jesus through His once-for all time atonement. The rest is law upon law upon law.
Many non-believers and practitioners of other religions were unaffected by any of what went on and remained lost in grief and sadness. Get out there. Find them and hang out with them. Attach yourselves to them like white on rice.
You want results? Here’s my table, not only of the prayer but of the whole meshugenneh:
Peace in the city—happened. There is a very specific and definite result in the concrete of historical fact from Yankee Stadium. The mayor’s intentions were honored by God as civil righteousness; where there could have been huge religious bloodshed, there was not—the presence of religious leaders in the same arena gathered by their mayor calmed things down
Healing – happened. The prayer went up and the blessings came down and thousands and thousands thanked me for that specific prayer and its words
Opportunity for interfaith dialog—happened and continues to happen, big time
Loads of theological reflection—happened
Help—offered—LDRNY is the “hubhive of disasterocity” to this very day, in the inimitable words of the director of FEMA, Ken Curtin, who states that LDRNY is the finest faith-based disaster response in the history of disaster response
Witness – happened
Deepening of faith—happened
Polarization – happened
Scapegoating and name-calling—happened
Sin – happened
Change – happening
The “point of contact” is our point of engagement for the sake of the mission of Christ’s church to the whole society, whether in acts of love or justice or prayer at civic events or any of a thousand, thousand ways. So the three sedes or loci are honored—God’s two realms are honored, God’s knowledge of God is honored, witness to Christ is honored. By the Missouri Synod in its “Cases of Discretion” paragraphs. By its president in his supervision of me. By me on the ball field.
Threats to Unity
And the way to overcome them
Now to the fourth point. It’s not a sedes. It’s just as absolutely necessary, however. The fourth point is to seek and regain trust through dialog and in relationship. The pastoral and dialogical impetus must be regained in our denomination or we will certainly perish, split or otherwise disintegrate as a communion of saints. What has jumped off the page to anyone who has read the “Cases of Discretion” document is the last sentence—“Charity must prevail.” Charity seems to be gasping for air in the LCMS. And yes, we can fix the rules and guidelines, at least for awhile, at least for a convention or two, pray God, so the filing of doctrinal complaints becomes far more difficult, and dialog is mandated by church dictate. But rules don’t fix the human heart—reconciliation under the auspices of the Holy Spirit does. We are being held captive both by a polarized culture as well as by a theological intransigency to uncharitable words and deeds, and it’s got to stop. That’s a cautionary, yet hopeful word. Because stopping and restarting through baptismal repentance and renewal is what daily Christian life is all about.
I’d like to speak for a moment about shame. It’s a very, very powerful human component, really more than just an emotion. Because it is buried so deep in the human heart, it is not discussable. It’s shameful to discuss shame. Try these synonyms on for size:
Abashed—to be profoundly embarrassed, surprised in a very negative way
Scorn—to view as mean or contemptible
Despise—a strong emotional response toward that which one looks down upon
Disdain—a haughty or arrogant contempt for what one considers beneath one’s dignity or status.
How did that list make you feel? It’s too revealing, isn’t it? People who were ashamed that I went to Yankee Stadium or embarrassed by it, find me to be shameless. Apologies are viewed as insincere because I am unabashed in my theological and practical outlook that Christian witness in the world is not an option but a mandate. Shaming is a way to attack and affect the dignity of another human being. In the Bible shaming was accomplished in the normal course of events by spitting on those who had shamed the family or the group (Numbers 12).
What’s this all about in my case and in the Missouri Synod? Is this a doctrinal thing? Yes, I believe it is, in the sense that it’s about sin and forgiveness. Of course, I’m the kind of guy who believes the choice of the color of the rug in the narthex is a spiritual decision because it ends up leading to sin and the need for forgiveness. But really, what’s going on? I believe that my situation revealed to the world—and this gets brought up over and over in references to “publicity”—that we are a divided and quarrelsome denomination. We are the Lutherans who fight. This is the shameful behavior. It’s not even remotely about the Gospel of Peace or the Prince of Peace. This is what we want to sweep under the rug. And what’s underneath that? What’s the real source of our shame, down ingrained in the floorboards? We know it’s wrong to fight, but … we like it. We enjoy it. We thrive on it even as it kills us. We devour our gossip sheets; we peck away online and off; we create the monsters we can tackle even as we are being tackled and devoured by the Devil’s wiles. You see, fighting among ourselves beats the alternative. Which is to go out into the world. Which is to work with real people in real time. Which is to take some risks. Which is to lose our lives. Which is the whole point.
Here’s a brief exegetical excursus for you. St. Paul to the Philippians, a group with lots of retired soldiers, says it this way—and it’s a classic one-two punch of what is to happen when those with celestial immigration green cards find themselves in the other kingdom, the kingdom of God’s power here on earth. (The book covering this passage in detail is Seek the Welfare of the City by Bruce W. Winter.) Paul says (1:27), “Live as citizens (politeyesthe) in the world of politeia in a way that is worthy of the Gospel.” He ends that portion of his discussion with the great imperative image: “Shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life in this crooked and perverse generation.”
His point to the Philippians as they were living their lives at that time and in that place is very basic—quit your fighting. Period. You can’t prevent it from going public because you ARE the public—you ARE citizens. You don’t live in caves; you live in the real world. Your fighting is getting the better of you. And it’s getting in the way of you in the world with the Gospel. “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (2:14). He has a personal point in that while he’s in jail trying to make his case for the beauty of the Christian faith, people are saying to him, “Your converts are just as whacky as the rest of us—divided and messed up. Why should you be believed, or this Jesus you claim to represent? Actions speak louder than words.” And he has a Philippi point—how can you advance the cause of the Gospel when you hack away at one another out in the open, with only your own selfish interests on your brain? This to Paul, and it would have been seen immediately as such by the Philippians, was part of their CIVICresponsibility as Christians living in both of God’s realms. It wasn’t about preaching a sermon on the street corner. It wasn’t about “evangelizing.” It wasn’t about the theory and theology of social ethics. It was ALL OVER simple, basic Christian witness, what you say and do out in the open. You can’t shine like a star if you’re covered with mud.
At the heart of his argument to them is the word “humiliation” in what we now call the passion epistle lesson, Philippians 2:5–11. Have this mind in yourselves which was in Christ Jesus, in whose humiliation and exaltation lies your death and life, Dayspring from on high brought down to the mud and dust and dirt for you so that in his rise to the skies every knee might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
I am convinced that this passage has great significance for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We can’t shine like stars if we’re covered with mud. We’ve got to clean up our act.
I cannot tell you how in how many places before great varieties of people, often from other religions, I have recounted how my whole story on a personal level is learning to live one sentence from the mouth of Jesus. Know what that sentence is? “Love your enemies.” When I say that, invariably people look down and tears fill their eyes. Know what’s happening? They are confronting their own internal shame at what is undiscussable—that they have enemies and they enjoy it. It’s what keeps us going. (A story).
There is another level to the shame in the LCMS, however. Call it Theological Shame. Let me illustrate. What’s happened to me is that I’ve been forwarded material from folks who question these three phrases that I use: denominational (as applied to the LCMS), baptized Christian (as applied to me) and faith tradition (as applied to ours or others). These are “wrong” ways to express myself, shameful.
Why? Because we’re not a denomination, we’re the True Visible Church on Earth. I’m not a baptized Christian, I’m a baptized LCMS Lutheran. And other faith traditions, since they are at best heterodox, cannot be given the appellative “faith.”
All of this reveals that the “shame” theologically is that we might be revealed as NOT manifesting all final and decided characteristics of the True Visible Church on Earth. On DOCTRINAL grounds, of all things. See, it’s OK if we fight—that’s just an ethical issue, an issue of the flesh. But there is no way to uncover a doctrinal deficiency in our system without questioning the whole True Visible Church on Earth motif. The True Visible Church on Earth cannot be flawed or have doctrine in rudimentary, inchoate form. We are world orthodoxy’s advanced class.
Let me give you an example. There is a letter signed by over 1,000 people with this phrase in it:
“The Rev. Don Matzat has been a constant defender, twisting the words of Luther’s Large Catechism beyond recognition in order to support Pastor Benke’s false statement that the Muslims worship the true God.”
Now here is what has actually happened. The Large Catechism as translated into English in at least six versions unanimously contains virtually the same wording: “even though” or “although” “they believe in and worship only the one, true God” as a descriptive of Jews, Turks, heathen, false believers and hypocrites. This worship does not save these people. Far from it—in point of fact, as Luther points out, and Don and I follow his lead—they are condemned. Why? Because they do not know what the attitude of God is toward them and so cannot be confident of God’s love and blessing. They remain in eternal wrath and damnation, for they do not have the Lord Christ. This is exactly what I stated in my private email that was unethically distributed and has been sound-bitten ever since to eliminate the last portion of Luther’s words and my agreement with them, and for which Don takes abuse from over 1,000 uncomprehending layfolks via internet signup sheet. The contact point we have with all the groups Luther mentions is through the First Article, which contains the knowledge of God from the Law and gives us the evangelical opportunity to connect through the Law to the precious Gospel.
Know what a better question is? Why are people retranslating this passage to remove the perceived “offense” of Muslim belief in Almighty God from the Law? The Confessions were not made to be translated to suit. Wasn’t this what the Battle for the Bible was all about? We don’t have designer-made sacred documents, norma normans and norma normata. Because actual orthodox doctrine IS of a piece, it IS unified in its intent and scope. This doctrinal point, the knowledge, worship and belief in God from the Law, is not petty and discardable because we contact Muslims through the knowledge of the true God from the Law and thereby God has opportunity to deepen the knowledge of the Law to its full offense so that the proclamation of the precious Gospel might be received by grace through faith. This doctrinal point is important, essential, necessary.
But this doctrinal point been discarded by people who claim they are the True Visible Church on Earth. Why? I believe because it would be shameful for many to admit the point Luther made and that Don and I have made in the context of the whole Yankee Stadium controversy when it’s been predecided in a different direction. The True Visible Church on Earth has already spoken and it can’t be wrong.
Know what? I believe the LCMS is a Pretty Good Denomination. On a sunny day with the wind behind us, we have all the dynamics of God’s grace in our noggins and deep within our souls. Now let’s get out there with them and quit hacking at one another even as we acknowledge that we still have some learning to do about doctrine. And you know what? That’s not likely to change for some time. Even though I agree with LCMS fellowship principles based on the wide determination of Augsburg Confession VII’s “satis est,” the problem we have internally is that “satis est” has gotten all tangled up in church politics and predetermined positions so that shaming is the way to prove to OURSELVES that we’re the True Visible Church on Earth. The only true “satisfaction” is the satisfaction made for our sins in the cross of Christ.
This is just us the way we are, folks. And you know what? We can get through this. We can. What the ancients understood about the death of Christ that we often don’t from our double millennial distance was that what led up to it was the worst a human being can endure while alive—the abject humiliation. They spit on him, they mocked him, they scourged him, they chucked him outside the city in the garbage dump, they hung him up for everyone to see and spit and mock some more. They made sure he knew with every fiber of his being that he was beneath human dignity, that he was less than a man. In the blood of Christ pouring from the hole where they stabbed him to make sure he could kick no more, poked like a dead dog with a sharp stick, is my redemption. And yours. And ours in the Missouri Synod. And the world’s. So were the trespasses of the world not imputed unto us. That’s what our conversation is all about at the end of the day. About Christ and him crucified, the hope of the world, the peace that passes all understanding, about the universal reconciling activity of God in Christ, you know, the reconciliation we have received and receive daily and richly? That one.
Things I’d Change—A Story with a Handwritten Copy
You ask a very hard question at this conference. Be a Monday morning quarterback—what would you change two and a half years down the line from Yankee Stadium? It’s a perilous question. But I’ll tell you a true story. Sad but true, and illustrative.
Herb Mueller and I have something in common. Heart problems. And the story that follows could have changed the entire course of events in the Missouri Synod. This was during the time after Wallace Schulz received the Yankee Stadium case and before it was decided. It was an open time, an opportune time. The Council of Presidents met with the seminary faculties for a weekend in St. Louis. George Wollenburg indicated as soon as we got there that he wanted to talk to me privately and personally, so we did. He then went before the assembly and stated with great passion that since he had come back from serious heart surgery he had just one life goal, one promise to God—to promote peace in the Missouri Synod. So he arranged for me to meet with three other district presidents—what you might call the heart attack squad: Jim Keurulainen, George, Herb Mueller and me—and put together a statement to present to the synod that would end this matter and allow us all to move on. Here it is. This is an original. I just discovered it this weekend, inserted in a library book I had with me that weekend long ago. (It is a dramatically overdue library book, by the way!)
We hacked through all kinds of versions of this statement and came up with words that were straightforward, appropriately apologetic, irenic—at least that was the unanimous opinion of the heart attack brigade. It was a late niter putting it together. So the next morning I got up and got ready to go before the assembly. We never got there. I can’t tell you what was said. I can only tell you that Jim and Herb kept me from what was going on there at the other end of the hallway outside the ballroom. It was loud, emotional and had a bad ending. It involved George and several synodical leaders. The bad ending was that these words were purposely kept from the assembly to discuss and kept from distribution to the synod. George’s initiative went nowhere. It could have gone a long, long way.
It was, and is—a shame. Heart problems were not healed.
Deciding Factors—Interim Guidelines from a Participant
In the end, I say pray and discern and wrestle over issues in our society with all the implications—and then go for it! Get out there! Bang, zoom, to the moon. Don’t box as one beating the air—lay a glove, lay a hand, lay a blessing on ’em out there on planet earth.
Stand at the intersection of God’s realm of power and grace and bring your witness ON. At the intersection of love and death choose love. At the intersection of disaster and healing, choose healing. At the intersection of smoke and flame and fire take your baptismal grace and anoint the heads of Christian firefighters with Bill Wrede and guide the smoke-blinded and fearful down the stairs with Richie Ramirez through life and death and into eternity. Pray your prayers of intercession for the world with the world and in the world because the world is God’s, and He wants and needs you there. Speak your words of healing and comfort because the Comforter has healed YOU and you want the world to know. Be a pastor of the church “upon the plain,” with God’s good gifts and Spirit.
At the intersection of action for Christ and sideline inaction, choose action. Listen to the troublemakers, to those magnificently obsessed. Tell ’em Jesus sent you. Or the Apostle Paul. Or Luther. Or even me.
3 thoughts on “Conflict, Confession, and Unity”
Mr. Becker, you are no longer a pastor in the LCMS. Would you please leave us alone.
Jack, the last time I checked, one does not need to be a pastor in the LCMS to post material to the internet. Perhaps you should leave this website alone.
It’s time you shut up and moved on. Please.