Monday, July 5, 2010

Guilty or Innocent?

I write this as a concerned member of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. One of my "concerns," and more than a personal one, is the problem of churches disposing of their divinely-called pastors without what the LCMS has historically understood as "biblical grounds." More and more congregations are trying to get rid of their pastors, and often succeeding, without any attempt to substantiate charges of false doctrine, scandalous conduct, or malfeasance in office. Rather than explain why I am concerned about this, let me direct you to this very excellent blog, written by a young Texas pastor whose gift for simple, clear, to-the-point writing I cannot praise enough. Pastor Sullivan says it all!

Now, what is a pastor to do when one or two elders and/or members of the church council begin running plays from the Get Rid of Your Pastor Playbook? (By now we've all seen the same plays, in exactly the same formation, so many times that we have little doubt that such a book exists, though none of us has seen it.) How is he to defend himself? Will the district/synod "reconciliation" process save him? Take it from someone who has seen that process in action: No. Reconciliation can only happen when both sides want it.

Besides, if one party has wronged the other, any attempt at "reconciliation" (viz. shaking hands and making nice) is futile until the party in the wrong admits its guilt and asks for forgiveness. And in my experience, those who are most effective at bringing political tactics and professional pressures to bear against their pastor also tend to consider themselves blameless. After all, the whole reason we're in this situation is that churches have begun to regard their pastors not as servants of God's Word but as employees to be ordered around, penalized for insubordination, held to a production quota, and subject to a contract that can be unilaterally changed or terminated at the whim of the church council. So everything is always the pastor's fault (especially when he defies orders that conflict with God's Word), and those who are after his head are completely justified in all that they do (even when an impartial observer can't help but notice the fishiness of their tactics).

Only when the poor guy has been pressured to resign, most likely by a district executive who pretends to have the pastor's best interests at heart, does the majority of the congregation even realize something's going on. Certainly no one can remember charges of immorality, heresy, or dereliction of duty being raised. But the pastor is no longer there to speak for himself, and the people who have justified themselves through every move of the game continue to do so in the endgame. The people most effected by what has happened--the faithful members of the parish--may never understand why their pastor suddenly abandoned them, except for a vague odor of innuendo that his deposers allow to linger over his memory.

How can this be stopped? I'm open to suggestions. But I also have a few suggestions of my own. I would suggest that the pastor confide with one or more faithful, supportive members in the congregation, as well as with a trustworthy brother in the ministry, during the early days of the imbroglio. Ask for their prayers and advice. Ask them to be present as a witness at all relevant meetings. Document every development as objectively as possible, preserving every detail of who said or did what, and when. Address the congregation orally and in writing to let them know about the issue and to solicit their counsel and prayers. As a byproduct, this communication will short-circuit the parish power-peddlers' cloak of silence and disinformation. Be prepared to brush off allegations that publicizing the conflict violates some principle like the seal of the confessional, the eighth commandment, or Matthew 18. You can be sure they don't apply a similar constraint to themselves.

But the main reason you need to do this is to get all the encouragement you can. Why? Because the anti-pastor party's most smothering weapon is isolation. And since your only weapon, dear pastor, is the Word of God, do not shrink back from using it in every medium at your disposal to clarify the doctrinal issue that is inevitably behind all this. Use the Law to dent the antagonists' bullet-proof armor of self-justification. Use the Gospel to appeal to them to be reconciled to you, to the church, and to God. And if they refuse, use the Keys, openly and in good churchly order, to rebuke their unrepented sin and to relieve them of their duties to the church.

And if there is any doubt that their behavior is sinful, or that a call for repentance is in order, ask them to consider this: By going after a faithful and godly pastor, they are breaking every one of the Ten Commandments. How? Let's count the ways...

1. The First Commandment requires us to worship the one true God. If we reject the man God has placed before us to lead us in worship, how can we think He will accept our worship? Jesus says in Luke 10:16, "He who hears you hears Me; and he who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me." So if we as a church reject our pastor for no godly reason, are we not rejecting God?

2. The Second Commandment requires us to keep God's name holy. This especially applies to the doctrine taught among us: cf. 2 Peter 2:1-2, which says that false teachers deny the Lord who bought them, "and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed." If we are rejecting a pastor who teaches Christ's doctrine in its truth and purity, are we not then guilty of dishonoring God's name?

3. The Third Commandment ("sanctify the holy day") admonishes Christians to receive God's Word regularly and faithfully (cf. Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 10:25). But if we refuse to hear a faithful servant of the Word, how can we sanctify the holy day? In light of Colossians 2:14-16, how will we fare on the coming Day of the Lord?

4. The Fourth Commandment ("honor your father and mother") receives a wider application in the New Testament. Take, for example, Hebrews 13:17, "Obey those who rule over you [i.e., those 'who have spoken the word of God to you,' v. 7], and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." So if we refuse to listen to our God-given spiritual leader, are we not also going against the spirit of this commandment?

5. The Fifth Commandment ("murder") forbids us not only to physically harm our neighbor, but even to hate him or be angry at him. Remember 1 John 3:15, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Also consider Matthew 5:21-22. Could our unreasoning anger and hatred against Christ's chosen servant make us guilty of murdering him in our hearts? Plus, many pastors under attack by aggressive parishioners have suffered strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and other stress-related illnesses, including premature death and even suicide. How will that sit on our conscience?

6. The Sixth Commandment ("adultery") may not seem to apply to this situation. But in Scripture, when God's flock strayed from following its Shepherd, the charge against it was adultery as often as idolatry! Cf. Jeremiah 13:25-27; Ezekiel 20:30; Hosea 4:12; and Hosea 5:4. Or consider this: as the church, we are the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25ff.). In Matthew 9:15, etc., Jesus describes his apostles as "friends of the Bridegroom." We could also apply this title to the ministry instituted by Christ: Pastors are groomsmen deputized to carry messages between the Bridegroom and His Bride. So what will the Bridegroom say if His Bride refuses to listen to His friend? Can she do this and still remain faithful to her Bridegroom?

7. The Seventh Commandment ("steal") forbids us to take our neighbor's possessions from him. We as a congregation have a duty to support our pastor with a living wage. See Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; and their surrounding context. If we reduce or withdraw our pastor's salary without just cause, or if we "stiff" the collection plate because we're miffed at him, are we not stealing his livelihood? Besides, according to Matthew 25:31ff., whom are we really giving to, or withholding from?

8. The Eighth Commandment ("false witness") forbids us to use our tongue to hurt our neighbor or his reputation. Read James 1:26 and all of James 3, especially vv. 8-10. Now consider the whisper campaign against our pastor. As an essential part of any anti-pastor campaign, we have gone behind his back, denouncing him to parishioners and other pastors, rather than dealing directly with him (Matthew 18:15). We put the worst possible construction on all his words and deeds. We magnify his character flaws until we cannot take any good word about him at face value. Does this honor or dishonor the Eighth Commandment?

9. The Ninth Commandment ("covet...house") safeguards our neighbor's right to due process of law. But if we oust our pastor or force him to resign without finding him guilty of false teaching, etc., we are denying him the due process he is entitled to. Moreover, we are violating our own constitution and bylaws, about which 1 Corinthians 14:40 says, "Let all things be done decently and in good order." Thus our conduct is illegal both in the sight of God and of the secular world. Does our desire to have things our way justify this?

10. The Tenth Commandment ("covet...wife, servants, cattle, etc.") safeguards our neighbor's vocation. As 1 Corinthians 7:19 says, "Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called." Can we now take away the vocation of a man God called to serve us? Dare we take such liberties with an office instituted by Christ? If we do, have we not broken every last one of the Ten Commandments?

According to Exodus 20:5-6, which Martin Luther regarded as a summary of the Ten Commandments, God threatens to punish all who violate these commandments down to the third and fourth generation. Do you expect that He will bless a congregation that follows the course of action described above? If we follow this course, will we not have to give an account for it before the Almighty Judge? Shouldn't we also be concerned about the fate of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, if all who come after us will suffer the consequences of our wickedness as long as its memory endures? And if our entire Synod bears a collective guilt for aiding and abetting such wickedness, what will become of it?

My analysis of the "Removal of Pastors" problem compels me to cry out in loving concern: Cease and desist! This behavior must stop NOW. There is no excuse for it. There can be no justification of it. So there's no point discussing pros and cons. This is non-negotiable. This ends today, lest we pass the point of no return, no repentance, no forgiveness. God help us!

On the other hand, the same verses of Exodus 20 promise blessing to those who keep God's commandments. God sends faithful pastors to bring His blessings to the faithful. If Synod fulfills its covenant with our congregations, we can be confident that the pastoral candidates it puts forward will serve capably and faithfully. So we should assume that our pastor is fit to serve (unless he proves otherwise), and we should encourage him to serve faithfully. Then we can be certain of receiving God's richest blessings through him. And if Synod falls short of its obligation, then perhaps we deserve the unfaithful pastors who will come. Perhaps the harm they do will also prove a blessing, when we repent of our abuse of God's servants and the other errors that have brought all this to pass. Meanwhile, you have all the more reason to give thanks if yours is a faithful pastor. Cherish him, support him, and help him to fulfill his calling with joy.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

For #10 - They desire a pastor God has not given them.