Friday, February 23, 2007

Letter of resignation as elder at my church

February 21, 2007
Dear Elders,

I feel the need to take a stand for what I believe is the chief article of the Christian faith: Gospel/Justification. I believe that humans have have a long-standing history of failing to preserve the Gospel because it is nonsense to our sin-corrupted minds. For me, the Gospel encompasses: the right understanding of justification by grace alone, the proper declaration of both law and gospel, the gospel seen as the only motivator to Godly living and the right attitude toward God, recognizing we are but poor sinners and He is the wonderful giver of gifts. It may perhaps also be summarized with the label "Theology of the Cross."

I probably had the fight taken out of me by past experiences in my life. I stood alone in several situations in the past and fought to the end. Yet there are times when this stone must cry out. I now to believe that there are times it is better to leave in the hopes that the act of leaving will wake-up those left behind to the issue which they are missing. I have concluded that I cannot at this time serve effectively on the Elders Committee and I do hereby resign. Not content to let a few words stand where many more could do the job, I'll expand on my concerns below.

I realize this may not be an ideal time for me to do this in view of the other challenges going on in our congregation and especially in our Pastor's family life. I decided there would really be no good time. For me, things are getting so bad that I feel terrible continuing. So, to reduce stress in my life, I am moving forward with this at this time. Even more important, how can I not take a stand when I have grown to understand that the Gospel is being withheld.

After giving my concerns much consideration, I think at the heart there is an issue of what is believed about humans and their condition before God. I believe that the "Theology of Glory" dominates in the WELS, among pastors and within our congregation instead of the "Theology of the Cross." This is exemplified by the issues and approaches to problems described further below.

1) The approach taken to many issues by the various groups: Pastors, Elders, Sunday School, Adult Spiritual Growth, the Council, the Voters and the Synod is given by the question: "What can we get away with?" What is OK with God? I see that as an approach that views God as only Lawmaker and it is our job to figure out how far we can push His limits. It is not an attitude of sinners recognizing their fallen state before God and humbly receiving His gospel and desiring to do anything we can to keep the focus on the Gospel. Instead of this, if we are asking what can we get away with, we are viewing our relationship with God as merely one of Lawmaker and law-follower.

2) There is an assumption of our ability to do good works behind many things taught and preached. These are viewed as good works as they stand alone, not after Christ's blood purifies them. The strongest example I can point to is the extreme dominance of preaching where the main point is directing how we live our lives (sanctification or third use of the law). Nearly every sermon I hear (both inside Ascension and other WELS congregations) is trying to teach me how I should live. It gives me God's law that says: do it this way. This kind of preaching seems to be a problem with, not only pastors, but also with the people. The people demand such sanctification preaching by their praise of the pastors when they get it. This leads to several further problems:
a) The law is diluted. It no longer crushes us by showing us that it is utterly hopeless for us to try to follow the law and thereby satisfy God's demands. Instead, the law is held up as something we can achieve. At least it is something we can do better with and we are left to conclude that maybe that will be good enough.

b) Sanctification is imported into passages where it is not expressed and the Gospel that is there is not preached. A example was a sermon on Luke 10:25-37 (Parable of the Good Samaritan) where it was set up as 3rd use of the law, teaching us that we need to be doing better at serving our neighbor. I cannot understand that to be the main point. The question posed to Jesus was "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus was directing the questioner to the answer that we can do nothing because all our attempts to follow the law are as filthy rags. Instead we must give up on ourselves and depend only upon Christ.

c) The excessive 3rd use of the law can lead people to assign sins to others and thereby feel justified. I have heard people at Ascension respond to sermons this way. They praise sermon because it rebukes those "other people" who are violating God's law. They are happy and smile about this.
3) Worship theology is askew. It emphasizes what we do and what is pleasing to us. It elevates the human elements as something of high value. It dimishes the divine elements and gifts that are given. The attitude behind our worship is that we each are a saint giving his holy praise instead of a humble sinner coming to receive God's grace. Some of the aspects of this theology can be broken down into the following points.
a) Innovation in our worship practices is pursued for its own sake. It has been said that "variety is good." "We need to move from the 14th to the 20th centuries." It does not seem to enter into people's minds as to why they call these things good. I believe there are several attitudes at work here: 1) worship is entertainment for me, 2) worship is my work towards God, 3) church should fit into our culture, 4) worship should make me comfortable, 5) worship should be easy.

b) Worship at Ascension is focused on "me," that is each individual is directed back to themselves. This comes from hymns which have more "I" and "me" pronouns than references to Christ. It was also seen in the "new" liturgy setting which places the highest note by far in the "Create in me" on the word "me." (Compare with the hymnal setting).

c) There is a strong emotional appeal in worship. Again, this is a focus on me. It should make us feel good about our ability to follow God's law. It should just "tickle" us a little bit with the law. The cross gets moved to the side and the screen that displays pictures to make me feel happy replaces it. This emotional appeal has replaced a teaching of objective truth that stands steady despite my current emotional state. Whether I am happy or sad, God's truth still stands. Yet that is not what we are teaching.

d) Worship is seen as a performance. We have the Sunday School "Program" where the children are told not to get nervous for their "performance." We have the choir calling for members for an upcoming performance. Again it is a focus on what we humans have to contribute and entertainment.
4) Doctrinal control has been lost or abandoned. Not only is our Synod publishing books with false teaching ("God's People" series) but our congregation is buying them for our library and even publishing favorable book reviews in our newsletter. This is despite the fact that we recognized the problem with this very book series a year ago and returned a set of these books that were purchased for a Sunday School teacher's gift. We recognized the problem in 2005, but then in 2006 we turn around and buy the books for our church's library. We cannot count on the Synod to provide doctrinal control of its material and if we have no control ourselves, then any wind of false teaching will be free to blow on us.

5) A am concerned with Synodical trends and propaganda. The "Church Growth Movement" seems to have taken over the Synod. That Movement prescribes the use of business and marketing techniques to put warm bodies in the pews and dimishes the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing us to faith. The propaganda comes with a strong appeal to emotions, as was exhibited in the the December WELS video. The Spiritual Growth Workshop we had about two years ago was full of false teaching. I specifically remember discussing the whole point on the so called, "power of prayer." That seemed to come to little avail as nobody else got the point of the concern I was raising.

6) Ascension, like many other Lutheran congregations, has a desire to be like all other churches. The people want to have contemporary music, hymns on the screen, roving pastors, lay involvement and other features because it is what other (often non-Lutheran) churches are doing. It is really a desire to reduce the church to be like the world. Instead of coming to a service and having an "other-worldly" experience because we are dealing with a God who stretches far beyond this world, the people want to have something like their everyday experiences. I wonder if members of Ascension really recognize what separates Lutherans from others. The distinctives of Lutheran teachings and historic practices are not widely understood, I believe, and instead they are viewed as irregularities from the 14th Century that we need to eliminate for something more modern.

Part of my role as an elder seems to be to encourage folks to attend church services. I find myself asking more and more why I should encourage attendance at our services. Is it a good thing? I don't see that people really get to hear the gospel most of the time. In fact, attending worship with the dilution of the law and shortage of the gospel makes we wonder if someone could easily be confirmed in a false belief of self-justification and works righteousness. Is it instead harmful for someone to attend? I really had to consider this on December 20 when Pastor Limpert delivered a message that told us we need to persuade others to come to church to hear the Gospel. The entire message was law, telling us what we should be doing. I thought that it would have been a shame to have those we persuaded come to our service that night because the message they would have heard would be essentially Law, not Gospel. We might have persuaded them to come and hear the Gospel, but that wouldn't be what they got.

What really is the goal of Christianity? What is the goal of the Church? What is the goal for the Christian, overall? What is the goal for the Christian in this life? I believe that sanctification is not any of these goals, but justification is. Sanctification is a response to the Gospel. It is a response that is directed by the Holy Spirit. If we believe we see a "problem" that our members don't seem to be progressing in their sanctification, then we don't need more law to try to motivate them, but instead we need a better understanding of the Gospel, which comes through a proper understanding of justification. It is not a Lutheran but a Reformed practice to emphasize sanctification as the primary goal. Reformed teach that we are to pursue to goal of perfection and maybe by the end of our lives we will be ready for heaven. The Reformed emphasize the Theology of Glory.

I know that I long for the Gospel to again dominate. I am feeling pummeled by the Law coming at me every Sunday and no Gospel relief. I provide my own Gospel. But more important than me are others. If there is one member, or even more critical, one one-time visitor who does not hear the pure 2nd use of the Law and Gospel without more law following it, on a given Sunday, then we have failed miserably. We have let that lost sheep wander away. I believe we have lots of members at Ascension who don't understand justification. They are lost sheep too. Preaching and teaching Theology of Glory and sanctification only drives them further into their false thinking. God wants us to shelter those lost sheep in their Savior's arms.

- me

4 comments:

Mark said...

After 20 years of being a Lutheran Pastor (LCMS/WELS), I was forced to resign. Feel free to check out my website: www.markox.net My book (posted there), "Paradigm Shift" is another good example of what is going on in churches.

Orycteropus Afer said...

I laud your humble courage. There are so few Lutherans remaining in American Lutheranism; I rejoice to have found another.

Walt, Holly, Julia, and Adam said...

As a former Lutheran (LCMS) and now as a Reformed pastor. I firmly disagree that the Reformed faith teaches a theology of glory. Your critique is more aptly applied to the holiness movement of Weslyan and bretheren churchs.

Kevin Buchs said...

It was exciting to see the prior comment because that means someone is reading this blog! Anyway, I would partly agree with the poster that I made a broad generalization. "Reformed" is a large category. I personally experienced the Theology of Glory being taught and preached in a Presbyterian upbringing. I can think of counter examples (Reformed who teach the Theology of the Cross) and the poster may be a pastor who is such an example. However, I would not limit the focus on Theology of Glory to just Holiness Movement churches, however.