Friday, December 28, 2007

Mammon or God

I tell a lie. I do have time to make one more blog post in 2007.

And now for the hard truth. It has weighed more and more on my soul over the past several years. The truth is that Protestant Christianity - and in this instance I include Lutheranism - needs another Reformation for basically the same reason that Catholic Christianity needed reforming in Martin Luther's time. I quote the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24 (Luke 16:13 is almost identical): "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."

It would be radically simple, but probably not unfair, to say that a profit motive lay at the bottom of the abuses that Luther set out to correct when he famously tacked his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door. It would be ditto ditto ditto to say that not just the cynical practices of the church in Luther's time, but also a goodly part of the doctrinal system that had been developed to sustain those practices, could be traced back to the question of how to keep the church solvent...and even beyond that, how the church could be used to satisfy men's greed and lust for power.

Just as John the Baptist offended people who lived in soft clothing, Luther offended churchmen who had extravagant debts to repay - debts for financing the rebuilding of St. Paul's, or the buying of an archbishopric - and he ultimately threatened the power of princes who depended on the church to keep their people loyal to the God-given crown. By attacking the teaching that "when a coin in the coffer clings, a soul out of purgatory springs," Luther threatened to topple an entire pentitential system - what with indulgences, and masses for the dead, and pilgrimages, and relics, and monastic foundations, and all sorts of lucrative ways the church could dispense grace - that had made the Catholic Church the richest and most powerful institution in Europe. Men had been burned for much less.

But Luther, by a miracle of God, got away with it and led a significant portion of Europe away from the Pope's allegiance. Luther's great rediscovery of the Gospel meant that Christians, for the first time in centuries, could have God's grace and forgiveness unconditionally - freely - no strings attached. Other Reformers and Reformation movements may have merely replaced one set of rules and conditions with another, one tyranny with another. But Lutheranism's distinctiveness has always been the total assurance of God's grace and pardon, promised and given as an unreserved gift. This was true in the early 20th century when Dr. J. M. Reu answered the question "What is Lutheranism?" with one word: assurance. And it was true more recently when a lapsed Catholic of my (slight) acquaintance went shopping for a new church, and kept finding nothing but different sets of rules...until he came to the Lutheran church.

It distresses me to see Lutherans turning from this unique freedom of the Gospel. It alarms me to see Lutherans today rushing to become indistinguishable from other Protestants who merely live under a different set of rules. It perplexes me to see liberal Lutherans subjecting the saving doctrine of Christ to gospel-reductionist criticism, using an alleged "freedom of the gospel" to reduce the faith once again to a mere set of rules - albeit new ones. And it agonizes me to see conservative Lutherans petrifying their doctrine into a system of theological rules, adherence to which in minute detail is held as an acid test of faithfulness. Lutheranism is a vital and unique thing. Its message is too exciting to be sleepily recited by dwindling groups of true believers. Its utterly unique and earthshaking message should be, must be, and can be brought to the attention of every discouraged, frustrated, and disillusioned Catholic, Protestant, and none-of-the-above in the world: "In the stead and by the command of God, whose gave His Son to die for your sins and raised Him from the dead again, I forgive you all your sins."

You don't have to pay me anything. You don't have to remember every sin. You don't have to fulfill any condition whatsoever, before or after I pronounce these words. You don't even have to wait until the next business-day for this forgiveness to "clear your account." Right now, as I speak to you these words, God in His heaven forgives you. Not one sin is left unforgiven. This forgiveness isn't taken back the moment you sin again. This forgiveness isn't held in escrow until you render to God the appropriate sacrifice of faith, or prayer, or praise, or devotion, or money, or obedience, or anything. You can even walk away unbelieving, and reject the forgiveness God has given to you through me - but He has given it all the same, as He swore to the first apostles of His message: "Whose-so-ever sins you forgive, they are forgiven."

If you're not a Lutheran, you will probably be shocked by what I just said. Even many "Lutherans" will be shocked. But that is the radical Lutheran difference. No one else has this. No one in the world! And to give up any article of the Lutheran faith is to give up this unique treasure. There would be no point in being Lutheran. There would be no point in being Protestant, or even Christian, without this "absolute absolution" that only Lutherans possess. There is no other way to confound the devil and the powers of sin in our flesh. Really, there isn't. Show me anything like it, anywhere outside Lutheranism, and I will show you another set of rules which, if you trace them back to their purest motive, lead to a bank account.

Godzilla rampaging through the streets of Tokyo could do unspeakable damage. The spaceships from the movie Independence Day, shooting fireballs at major population centers, could do an appalling amount of damage. James Bond always seems to be up against a villain who thinks wiping out an entire hemisphere, more or less, would be a small price to pay to bring about peace on earth. But none of these disasters takes place in real life. No tragedy on this scale has ever really happened. But to put out the light of what makes Lutheranism distinctive would be even worse. It would be the end of the one "sure and steadfast hope" (Hebrews 6:19) that can yet be given to mankind - and the one and only religion that offers something (everything!) for nothing.

This danger hangs over the Lutheran church as our Synod, and others like it around the world, considers adopting strategies and structures for financial success. We are beginning to measure success by the numbers of people coming to worship, rather than by the Word of God being sown. We are beginning to validate the Means of Grace and the ministry of our pastors by whether they bring in X number of people. We have begun to seek people to save our church, rather than looking for people for our church to save. We have begun to measure a congregation's missionary zeal in terms of capital growth and financial success. And to hit these new targets, we have enlisted consulting firms, borrowed strategies from other denominations (regardless of their theological underpinnings) and from secular businesses (whose theological underpinnings are hard to assess). We have opened the Pandora's box of policy-based governance, CEO pastors, congregations hiring and firing ministers based on their ability to bring in money and members, and tests of doctrinal correctness that have no relevance to God's Word or the forgiveness of sins.

We are, in short, becoming like everyone else. We are becoming another church that attaches strings - conditions - to the grace of God. We are becoming another temple that serves mammon rather than God. We are becoming another idiosyncratic sect with its own set of rules that generally apply in areas where the Lutheran church has not customarily preoccupied itself - whereas, in the essentials that Lutherans have historically suffered, gone to prison, fought wars, and even died to defend, everyone now "does what is right in his own eyes."

I frankly don't give a rip whether the Lutheran Church has a hierarchical structure (bishops, archbishops, apostolic succession, and the lot), or a congregational polity (voters' assemblies, church councils, lay representatives at synodical conventiones, etc.). This is not relevant to the Gospel, and the Word of God is indifferent on the matter. But the Carver Model, policy-based governance, CEO pastors, etc., etc., is an evil of Godzilla-like proportions, threatening the very soul of Lutheranism - and the salvation of mankind. If we move in this direction, I declare to you that we are doomed, and very possibly damned.

In saying this I might join John the Baptist and Martin Luther in the company of those who have touched their contemporary church where it hurts: the bottom line. I don't care. I would sooner lose my church pension plan & health insurance than my soul. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not currently on the Plan, since I'm not serving a parish.) I would sooner live on the street, go around on foot, live on hand-outs and preach the Word of God, than have a marble mansion, a stretch limo, and a private plane while serving the idol Mammon. And I would sooner belong to a small, struggling, spiritually tried and tested Lutheran Church where God's living and lively message of total assurance and free forgiveness is proclaimed, than in a thriving spiritual franchise that sells today's new and improved indulgences to the latest generation of spiritual dupes.

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