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Equipping the Saints for Ministry: ‘These are the times that try our souls’

by Pr. Gary Jepsen, Puyallup, Wash.

April, 2008

(This is the text version of the keynote speech given by Pastor Jepsen at the April, 2008 WordAlone Annual Convention held at Calvary Lutheran Church, Golden Valley, MN. This web-page version will print but if you prefer, it imay be downloaded in PDF format.)

photo of Pastor JepsenMay the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in you sight. To you be the glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and through eternity. Amen.

It’s truly a pleasure and an honor for me to be here. When Mark Chavez asked me to make this presentation I thought about some of the persons who have spoken to WordAlone gatherings: James Nestingen, Steve Paulson, and Mary Jane Haemig. My M. Th. thesis advisor, the late Gerhard Forde, was also highly committed to the work of WordAlone.

So, I wondered: who am I that I should be counted among such a learned group? Then I remembered a comment of Luther. He was questioning how he, a lowly German monk, could stand up against the might of the Roman Catholic Church. But then Luther recalled the story of Balaam. You, of course, know the story of how the prophet Balaam was going astray, departing from God’s Word, so God opened the mouth of Balaam’s donkey to rebuke Balaam and call him back to faithfulness. So, Luther said that, “If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, then He can certainly speak through me.” So, here I am…like Balaam’s donkey praying that God would use me as His mouthpiece.

I also noticed, by the way, in the bio for Dr. Kallas, that he played pro football for the Chicago Bears. And I thought, “Well, at least we have one thing in common! I played football for Green Bay…East High School!” I sometimes jokingly say, “Yeah, I played for Green Bay… I played on Lambeau.” My junior year in high school we played our cross-town rivals on Lambeau field. I was a bench warmer that year. And because the coach/team-manager forgot to bring enough warm up jackets, I sat on the bench in 20º weather in just my uniform; I almost froze to death! That was the worst injury I had that year – I was shivering so hard that I pulled a muscle in my back! Well, so much for my athletic prowess.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Those were the opening words of Thomas Paine’s famous essay from Dec.23, 1776, titled “The Crisis.” In it, he challenges those who have little resolve to meet the sacrifices demanded by the War for Independence. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find parallels in challenges we face in the church today:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

How many who claim to be concerned about the directions the church has taken in our culture today, who claim to hold the gospel dear, remain like the summer soldier and sunshine patriot who shrink from the task at hand.

And who do you suppose wrote the following?

The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it. And those who condescend to read it want to absorb everything at once. There has never been an art or a book on earth that everyone has so quickly mastered as the Holy Scriptures. But its words are not, as some think, mere literature; they are words of life, intended not for speculation and fancy but for life and action. But why complain? No one pays any attention to our lament. May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word with all our hearts. Amen. (Luther’s Works 14:46)

That could have been written today by almost anyone here, but if you guessed Martin Luther in 1530, you are correct.

It seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. We face the same challenges today. Things have not changed all that much…the threats to life in the Gospel abound. But who would have thought that they would come so readily from inside the church itself? Thomas Jefferson said that the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. So is the cost of Christian freedom eternal vigilance by keeping ourselves grounded on the Word of God.

My specific assignment is to address the issue of: “Equipping the Saints for Ministry…” And I want to give particular attention to how to respond to pastors, bishops, and denominational leaders who perhaps have accommodated themselves too much to a secular agenda…how to respond to those clergy, bishops, etc. who, in effect, have become too much “of this world.”

In saying “too much of this world” I am, of course, borrowing from John 17:11ff where Jesus prays for His disciples:

And now I am no longer in the world, but they [Jesus’ disciples] are in the world…I do not pray that thou [Father] shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. [my emphasis]

The point being that we are to be “in” the world but not “of” it. That is, we are to find our compass and our anchor for life and faith… not from the world but in Christ, i.e., God’s revelation as witnessed in Scripture.

I would add to that the warning of Jesus in Mark 7:9. Jesus had been challenged by the Scribes and Pharisees because His disciples had not properly washed their hands (not a hygiene issue but a ritual washing issue). Jesus responds and challenges His accusers: “You [i.e., Scribes and Pharisees] have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Or the parallel passage in Matthew 15:6: “So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.”

The meaning is clear: Human traditions (what the Reformers called “adiaphora,” i.e., non-essentials), human traditions whether from the left or from the right, are not to take precedence over the clear Word of God.

And so, again, our calling as Christians is to be in the world as faithful witnesses to the Word without compromising ourselves to the false gospels of worldly values/agendas/traditions agendas that are at odds with the Gospel – namely, the clear teaching of Scripture.

Examples of this false witness/gospel with an earthly agenda might be:

  • the prosperity gospel that is so popular in some evangelical circles;
  • the church growth movement which measures everything by growth in numbers
  • but not necessarily in depth or in faithfulness;
  • the pastor as a virtual cult figure;
  • the many secular issues that seem to be overtaking and driving so much of mainline Protestantism probably out of a desire to appear relevant because there is a latent (or not so latent) fear that Jesus and the Gospel itself are really not all that relevant; and lastly
  • there is even the idolatry that has been made out of certain ecclesiastical structures, that is, styles of governance – whether papal, congregational, episcopal, presbyterian, or whatever.

Now, let me be clear here, I am not against any particular denominational structure. Churches can be organized in a variety of legitimate ways but what I am addressing is the all too common tendency to make a style of governance (a human tradition) into that which defines the church.

You’ve heard the statements: “There is no church/salvation apart from this church.” Or “You cannot have full fellowship with us unless you first adopt our style of church polity.” Can you imagine anything more absurd than for a declining denomination to say, “If you want to have full fellowship with us you must first adopt our style of governance” and then for another fading denomination like ours to say, “Okay”? We ought to have said, “You have a fine way of making an idol out of your form.” We would have been better off to quote Jesus, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” So, the issue is being too much of this world by making human concerns and adiaphora (i.e., non-essentials) into what defines the church.

Now, having established a clear and consistent principle that is in fact based on Scripture – the Word of God via Scripture must never be made subordinate to human traditions or institutions – we continue with a bit of diagnosis and confession.

A former colleague of mine, the late Pr. Norm Nelson, used to ask his congregation, “If you were to fall into a deep hole, what is the first thing you would need to do before you could get out?” He would pause and let us think for a moment, and then he would answer, “Admit you’re in a hole.” “If you fall in a deep hole, the first thing you have to do is…”

The point is that confession/acknowledgement of one’s predicament, is the first step to repentance or cure. In 12 step groups, what is the first step one must make on the way to recovery? Confession! “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (etc.)– that our lives had become unmanageable.”

And so, the same sort of “confession” is necessary regarding our present crisis. In other words, what is the hole into which our culture has fallen and into which it is dragging the church and many of its servants?

In 1995, the late Pope, John Paul II, wrote a papal encyclical titled “Evangelium Vitae” (“the Gospel of life”) in which he described our culture as a “culture of death.” (That’s quite a contrast, isn’t it? Gospel of life vs. the culture of death.)

He wasn’t just talking about literal death (abortion, murder, euthanasia, genocide, etc); although those are important symptoms but he was also talking about the assaults on human dignity – on persons created in the image of God – that take place through torture, slavery, prostitution, and the like. His comments were also directed against the worship of violence that is so prevalent in our entertainment industries.

What’s more, he was also talking about what happens to our souls in this culture of death as we are more and more desensitized by the dehumanizing effects of: violence, vulgarity, impulsivity, raw sensuality (we can fiber-optically connect to every desire/impulse), and the worship of convenience (abortion; euthanasia).

And I’d like to suggest that we can add to this list - the degeneration of language and meaning. I think John Paul-II would agree as he in Evangelium Vitae denounces the double talk of nations, which, by going through intellectual contortions, contradict their own constitutions, and professionals, whether medical, legal, clergy, or whatever, who all too often contradict their own vows and oaths. All of these are examples of the degeneration of language.

Now, in a less profound but perhaps a more experiential way, Christian author, Frank Perretti, describes this culture of death in his novel “The Prophet.” In it he describes a scene where the main character, John Barrett, is in a mall when he has a vision of a great black hole opening up at one end of the mall. Everyone in the mall is in a state of panic as they are being sucked into the vortex of this giant black hole. But the interesting thing is that their panic was not because they were trying to escape. (They weren’t trying to escape!) Their panic was due to their desire for distraction. Even as they were being dragged into the vortex, they were frantically grabbing for and buying more and more things (clothing, appliances, music …) in order to avoid acknowledging or looking at their own approaching doom. In other words, it was the refusal to acknowledge and confess their predicament.

That seemed to me to ring true mythologically as well. It reminded me of the siren’s song in Greek mythology where sailors were being drawn and lured to their own death and dismemberment, but they didn’t care as long as they had the seductive song of the sirens to distract them from the impending doom with the promise of sensual fulfillment and bliss. Whether the “Siren’s Song”, or the vision from Frank Peretti’s novel, both are profound metaphors for our culture of death.

And so, with the death of faith in the west, we are left with nothing but death. And in the process, we are being drawn into, ever more nihilistic lifestyles. “Nihilism” (Latin word ‘nihil’ = nothing) is a philosophy which says there is no God and, therefore because life comes from nothing and goes to nothing, then life has no meaning and there are no values except for the pleasure, the feelings, the sensations and the impulses of the moment. Little wonder people are left with nothing but increasingly hedonistic and violent lifestyles to distract them from the impending doom. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

And little wonder this inevitably leads to despair. The late gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, once told of going to a celebrity New Year’s Eve party. He described the party and those in attendance as being engaged in “desperate celebration.” What an apt description! It strikes me as an apt description of those who desperately grab for anything that will fill the void in their empty lives.

That’s nihilism – no meaning; nothing to live for except the moment…one’s own momentary convenience and pleasure.

Now, let me add something that goes hand-in-hand with nihilism, namely the attitude of “cynicism”. Because, in this thinking, there is no God, and therefore there is no meaning, purpose, or hope there is as a consequence a cynical distrust and contempt for all values, virtues, and beliefs because there is the cynical belief that all values, virtues, and beliefs are merely a ruse whereby one group can manipulate another for exploitative purposes all values, virtues, and beliefs are merely a ploy by one group to have power over another.

Let me try to illustrate this by drawing and example from the movie “Tombstone” about Wyatt Earp and his brothers and their “war” with the Clanton gang called the Cowboys. I have the DVD – the editor’s cut – which contains interviews with the actors who played the various parts and they explain how they saw their roles and the conflict between the Earps and the Cowboys One actor (I believe it was the fellow who played Curley Bill Brocious – a low-life murderer), said that he was glad that the movie wasn’t like earlier versions which tended to portray the Earps as good guys and the Clanton/ Cowboy gang as bad guys, but showed them both with warts and all. And then he said something to the effect that the Earps were just like the Cowboys – they both came to Tombstone to get rich.

Now that comment, was terribly reductionistic. And, unintentionally I suspect, it was a prime example of what I would call the cynicism that has saturated culture, arts, and entertainment because the Earps, although far from being angels, came to Tombstone to get rich by legal/honest/socially-acceptable ways. The Cowboys were a gang who came to Tombstone to do whatever it took – intimidate, bully, beat, rob, and kill – in order to get what they wanted. So, although their goals my have been similar (i.e., to get rich), the methods and the extremes each was willing to employ were radically different.

It’s hard to understand how anyone could come up with that kind of assessment of the Earps and the Clanton’s unless one has been seduced by cynicism, that is, the culture of death, meaningless and despair.

You see, cynicism (and the comments it engenders) fails to account for the broad spectrum of human motivation – from the noble to the obscene. It fails to account for the fact that human beings walk, if not a tight rope, then a continuum between good and evil, light and darkness, creation and chaos, and truth and lie.

The famous Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, said that human life is lived – Am Rande des Nichts –i.e., on the border or edge of nothingness, on the border or edge between creation and nothingness. And part of what that suggests is the question of what our lives (the way we live) are inclined to. What do they witness to? Life or death? Order or chaos? Creation or nothingness?

I think this question (and the challenge it implies) was highlighted rather well in portion of Pope John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” where he discusses the story of Cain and Abel. You will recall that Cain was “very angry” because “the LORD had more regard” for Abel’s offering than Cain’s (Gen 4:4-5). We are told, “his countenance fell.” The Bible does not tell us why God preferred Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. But it does tell us that God, although preferring Abel’s gift, does not stop His relationship with Cain or His concern for him. In fact, God warns Cain of the threat before him, “. . . sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7, NRSV)

There are here several implications: Our task in life is to struggle against sin and not simply cave into it. “Sin is lurking at the door but you must master it;” and by extension, as we grow in faith, we are to endeavor to incline our lives more and more in witness to: Light over darkness, truth over lie, good over evil, and life over death.

Christians as people of faith are not exempt from this struggle; we are not exempt from temptation and sin. In fact, we take confession and absolution so seriously because we probably know our failings as well as or better than many others. We are called to struggle against sin (as Cain was told, “Sin is lying at the door but you must master it,”), not that we are ever entirely successful, but because we are to take refuge in the one who conquered sin for us! And we are to seek to live to under His protective wing and give witness to Him by living to His glory. That is our calling:

  • “born anew to a living hope…” (1 Pet.1:3).
  • Dying to sin and no longer continuing to live in it (Rom. 6:2)
  • Presenting our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1)
  • “Not that I have already obtained it . . . but I press on…” (Phil. 3:12).

Biblical faith is radically different from the culture of death and cynicism in which we are immersed. It is hope vis-à-vis cynicism, life and death.

We must now turn to consider what might be the effect of this acculturated cynicism we’ve been considering on the study of the Bible and its authority? It has carried over to a distrust of words – even the words of Scripture, the Bible. Israelites and Christians have been far from perfect. We have on occasion even twisted the words of the Bible to our own advantage, e.g., the defense of the insidious institution of slavery. But as a result, because of the perversion of the clear and consistent biblical witness, the cynic will take all that to the extreme and regard all words, values, and motives as arbitrary and essentially worthless.

That, unfortunately, is a style of interpretation that is increasingly invading the church. And, dear friends in Christ, I don’t have time to illustrate all that now, but simply consider some of the absurd interpretations of the Bible that were offered and considered acceptable in the “Journey Together Faithfully” documents: Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t really mean what we think it means; neither does Romans 1:26-28; nor 1Cor. 6:9f. Or the ridiculous observation, “Some of us understand a passage one way while others see it quite differently. “Who’s to say who’s right?” Well, my goodness, doesn’t the Bible have any discernable meaning?

So, if the first step in getting out of a hole is admitting we are in one then part of our confession is to acknowledge the black hole we are being sucked into and that one of the black hole’s primary characteristics is its cynicism about the very idea of “meaning,” whether for words or for life itself.

If you think I am just making this up about the loss of respect for language, let me share with you something I witnessed at a Southwestern Washington Synod assembly several years ago, a symptom of our present discombobulation. A resolution came to the floor of the assembly by Pr. Dave Norland, a strong supporter of WordAlone. I don’t have the exact language, but the resolution in effect called upon the synod assembly to re-affirm its commitment to the Bible as the norm for the faith, life, and proclamation of the church. In effect, the resolution was simply asking the assembly to affirm the faith statement that appears in the constitutions of the ELCA, its synods, and member congregations. Section 2.03 states, “This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” [my emphasis]

After lengthy debate, the resolution was in effect defeated – technically, it was tabled indefinitely. I couldn’t believe it! How do you table or refuse to affirm your own faith statement? How do you justify that?

But what shocked me most was what some of the speakers said during the debate. Some openly ridiculed the word “norm.” “What is a norm, really?” one person cynically asked. And, “How can you make the Bible normative because the way you read the Bible (or a verse, or word) may not be how I read it.” That is cynicism par excellence – the belief that there is no real meaning so the individual by him/herself becomes the judge and arbiter of truth rather than any outside norm.

Now, I thought the idea of a “norm” is rather clear. The dictionary defines a norm as “a standard, a model, or a pattern regarded as typical; against which other things are measured.” Seems pretty clear, right?

So, instead of affirming Scripture as norm for faith, notice what was instead being affirmed here: non-meaning over meaning, ambiguity over clarity, absurdity and foolishness over wisdom, and relativity over conviction. And in the process, what becomes of faith? Is that what we are called to affirm and give witness to?

There was, in that discussion, no clarity and no affirmation of God’s revelation in Scripture. There was no affirmation of the biblical testimony that “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” There was no witness to the clarity of the biblical message that declares us all to be “sinners” and thereby drives us to the cross. There was no clarity about the Word of God as both Law and Gospel, the law as a hammer that shatters our human presumption and arrogance and thereby drives us to the grace and mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. There was no affirmation of what Paul writes: “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24ff)

No, no truth was affirmed. But was affirmed in its place was, again, cynicism, ambiguity, and relativity, all of which in the end drive us all to seek to rationalize our sin because, after all, when there are no real standards, there is no sin and no one is really to blame. And then, in the process, we opt for self-justification over confession, which of course is to turn our backs on the Holy Spirit…the unforgivable sin, because, in the words of Frank Sinatra, we want to do it our way.

That is just one example of the consequences of the attack on language that has been going on – even in the church – for generations and which has led to the destruction and deconstruction of language. And so we hear such comments as, “I know what Paul says in Romans 1:26, but surely the text doesn’t really mean it when it speaks of ‘unnatural relations’, does it?” Or, “I know what Paul says, but after all he’s been pretty much discredited as a patriarchal male chauvinist, so why should we listen to him now?” Or, “Did God really say… or mean… what we think He said or meant? After all, words are so confusing.” Did you hear that: “Did God really say?” Where have we heard that serpentine hiss before? Was it in Genesis 3?

Do you see the subtle seduction unfold which at first seemed so innocent?

The following week after the synod assembly, in a sermon, I shared my frustration with my congregation. I described what had taken place on the floor of the synod assembly, as I described it to you, and then I asked rhetorically: If language is so vague, so arbitrary, and has so little meaning, then if those who were making that argument were to be called “idiots”, would they know they had been insulted?

Guess what? After worship, I was cornered by a fellow from the congregation who verbally accosted me and accused me of being cynical! I thought I was asking a legitimate question in light of the discussion that had taken place on the synod floor. I was asking about what it is that we believe. I was asking about the nature of language and he accused me of being cynical!

So, I ask you: who was being cynical and who was building up? I or those who brought down (virtually defeated) that resolution on the synod floor? Was it I who was being cynical or those who by a parliamentary slight of hand refused to affirm a fundamental principle of our church’s faith statement? Was it I or those who, seduced by a big lie, knew that if they affirmed what the ELCA constitution says, they would not have a leg to stand on with regard to their ecclesiastical activism, but who also sensed that, if they voted against the resolution, they would either be (if clergy) in violation of their ordination vows or, if lay persons, out of order in relation to the synod constitution. So, they considered themselves clever and wise when they tabled the resolution indefinitely. So, I ask you again: Who was being cynical and duplicitous, and who was not? And, where does such deviousness and duplicity come from?

But perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “Okay, Jepsen, you’re making a mountain out of mole hill. You’re taking one experience and trying to make a gross generalization out of it. It’s like saying, ‘All Germans walk in single file; I saw one.’” Perhaps, so if you need more evidence of this black hole of cynicism we are being drawn into, then consider this, another symptom.

Last fall, I wrote an email to our ELCA Bishop, Mark Hanson, asking him if he was aware of the ELCA congregation in San Francisco, Ebenezer Lutheran Church. I was pretty sure that he was aware but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you are not aware of this congregation, look it up on the Internet – In short, this is a congregation that has been taken over by a radical feminist element and pastor, and it practices “goddess worship.” It does not confess the Trinity as Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit. They confess Mother, Christ Sophia, and Holy Spirit. If you go to their website you will be able to buy a rosary (strange enough in a Lutheran context, but not necessarily bad), a rosary, not with a cross (because that’s a symbol not of divine love, sacrifice, and salvation but of divine child abuse), but a rosary with a goddess figure on it. The goddess is the likeness of a fertility goddess from ancient Baalism. Baalism, of course, isn’t a problem for the leaders of Ebenezer Lutheran Church because all that stuff in the Old Testament condemning the Baal cult and fertility worship is in their view merely patriarchal paranoia in an effort to repress the feminine.

Now, I think all of us would agree that they have the right (as individuals and as a group) to believe whatever they want. They can even band together to start their own congregation, denomination, or religion. However, on the basis of their own posted statements, they claim to be an ELCA congregation. But they are in complete violation of the ELCA constitutional faith statement because they are completely at odds with the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions.

And the pastor is completely at odds with the ELCA “Visions and Expectations” statement for clergy. How do they justify that? How do they justify hijacking a congregation founded and paid for by Lutherans?

So, I wrote Bp. Hanson and asked him what he was going to do about it. He, of course, did not respond to my e-mail (and I did not expect that he would), but his executive secretary did. He wrote something to the effect: “Dear Rev. Jepsen, thank you for sharing your concerns with Bp. Hanson. You are aware, of course, that the ELCA is organized into synods (Duh – I didn’t know that! I’ve only been a pastor for over 30 years!) and that it is therefore the responsibility of the local synod bishop to deal with these sorts of issues in his synod. And, do remember, the ELCA is an inclusive church.”

Of course I know the ELCA is organized in synods! What I wanted to know was whether or not Bp. Hanson was going to do anything about this situation to hold this congregation accountable, or to hold the synod bishop of the San Francisco area accountable for his failure to discipline the congregation and its pastor in terms of their violation of the ELCA faith statement and such.

You see, what we have here is a major violation of the fiduciary responsibility of the synod bishop and of Bp. Hanson to fulfill the responsibilities of their offices. And, if he’s going to do that, why on earth did we ever need bishops (overseers) in the first place? And why did we need the historic episcopate when one of the arguments for it was to strengthen the “magisterial” (teaching) office of the church in order to insure orthodoxy?!!?

Can you imagine the Apostle Paul allowing that? Or Martin Luther? Can you imagine Pope Benedict XVI allowing one of his bishops to deal so irresponsibly with a rogue congregation? And then just wash his hands of the matter!!! Frankly that’s not only a violation of Bp. Hanson’s fiduciary responsibility as Bishop, it’s also a violation of his ordination vows to preach and teach in accordance with the Scriptures and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. Unfortunately, I was so disgusted with that e-mail that I deleted it so I cannot produce it as evidence. You have to trust my memory.

So, on this basis, we have a cynical commentary right out of ELCA headquarters on what ordination vows mean for our church. Little or nothing! What do the words of the ELCA faith statement mean? Little or nothing! Instead, in place of our ordination vows and faith statement we have some fuzzyheaded notion of “tolerance” and “inclusivity”! Because, if what I have described is accurate (and it is), then it appears that in the ELCA you can preach and teach heretical doctrine, thumb your nose at the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and so on (so long as you do liturgy correctly). Do all that and you will be welcomed in the ELCA with open arms because, after all “we are an inclusive church!” However, if you raise a question about heretical doctrine and improper procedure you will be virtually banished for “intolerance”, and treated as if you don’t exist!

At least the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day took him seriously enough to excommunicate him. The ELCA just banishes you, ignores you, and refuses to answer legitimate inquiry.

This is what happens when a church is seduced by the culture of death into cultural agendas and into cynical methods of interpretation when a church is not only in the world, but also too much of the world. Then it fails (by submitting itself to the heretical rubric of “tolerance”) to hold people accountable to its founding documents and statements of faith.

Whether intentionally or not, the very leaders we elected to lead and guide us in accordance with our founding documents have now, in effect, subverted those documents without any clear statement of why or where they are trying to take us.

Does this bewilder you as much as it does me? I am bewildered because I fail to understand the reason or the logic that enables them to justify their actions. In fact, there appears to be an abandonment of reason and rationality when it comes to these practices and trends. I suppose, in their thinking, logic and reason are just a vestige of patriarchy and its repression of the more holistic feminine embrace of feelings and intuition.

Hadley Arkes, a political philosopher who teaches at Amherst College, was guest lecturer at Georgetown University. He was calling for the use of reason and rationality in civic deliberation. During the Q and A period, a faculty member stood up and almost pleaded saying, “Isn’t there something other than reason?” Presumably he was calling for feelings and subjectivity. “Isn’t there something other than reason?” Hadley Arkes responded by saying, “Well, would you like to dance?”

His facetious response was intended to demonstrate not only the ludicrous nature of the question but also to raise the question of, if you don’t want to use reason and rationality in dealing with the challenging issues of our day then what’s left? How do you propose to deal with them?

And to that I would also add the following: What’s the point of having founding documents if they mean nothing except what each and every individual wants them to mean? Or if you apply them haphazardly? Are you not then opening “Pandora’s Box,” the door to chaos? Furthermore, whether we are speaking of civil government or church if you want to change foundational documents and principles, are there not prescribed procedures for doing so other than judicial whim or ecclesiastical slight of hand? And by the way, whether intentionally or not (and I like to think it’s not intentional), both judicial whim and ecclesiastical slight of hand are not only intellectually dishonest, they are also forms of tyranny. A tyrant always rules by whim and without accountability.

Personally, I think we need to demand a clear statement of faith by Bp. Hanson and crew beyond the generalized platitudes we are accustomed to getting. I think we also need to demand a clear statement of what is their agenda. Where are they taking us? In addition, we need to demand a clear statement by the ELCA on what are its interpretive principles in relation to the Bible.

Some of you may be aware that I wrote a rather lengthy critique and commentary on the second ELCA study document on human sexuality, Journey Together Faithfully – Part 2. I know at least two persons read it – my wife and myself – well, 1½ persons; she read at least part. In it I wrote a lengthy statement about my view of scripture and some of the assumptions I bring to interpretation. Regardless of what you thought of that “critique and commentary” or the interpretive principles I presented, at least you had a clear statement of where I was coming from.

However, you cannot find a comparable statement in JTF-2 about the interpretive assumptions of the ELCA or the authors of that document. Isn’t that strange? And because you never really know where they are coming from you are left to read between the lines to try to figure out where they are going and when I read between the lines I get very concerned.

So, we have done some diagnosis about the black hole we find ourselves in: a culture of death; an affirmation not of faith but of cynicism, ambiguity, relativity, and subjectivity; we find tolerance of intolerable doctrine; and open season on interpretation.

Is that what we are called to do? Is that what we are to bear witness to? Is that what we clergy promised to do in our ordination vows?

Which brings us to, “How are we to respond?” It all sounds rather hopeless doesn’t it? Just as the gravitational pull of a black hole in space is irresistible so do we feel powerless against the cultural and ecclesiastical pressures.

But I would remind you of whom we believe in and to whom we are to give witness! God is the one who called creation into existence out of nothing, who hovered over the waters of primal chaos, and who by the power of His Word, commanded, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures . . .” (Gen. 1:24)

And this same creative Word (by whom all things were made) became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ – who silenced the storm on the Sea of Galilee, who came to the tomb of His friend and commanded, “Lazarus, come forth!” out of the tomb, out of the earth and out of the black hole of death. This is He who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist. This is the same Jesus who rose victorious over the powers that render human beings helpless: sin, death, and evil. And who asks us merely to be faithful in the proclamation of His Word… not ours. And, in this present darkness, He calls us to proclaim not human traditions and agendas, but the Word of God.

And so I ask, to whom are you going to bear witness? The Jesus of Scripture? Or some emasculated Christ of political correctness?

In Greek mythology there is the story of Ariadne’s thread. In this story, the hero, Theseus, must enter an elaborate maze or labyrinth from which no one had ever escaped. What made matters even worse was the fact that the labyrinth housed a man-eating Minotaur (half bull and half human) that was the misbegotten offspring of a union between a divine bull and the wife of the king of Minos.

In the story, Theseus must enter the maze and, if he survives his confrontation with the Minotaur, he must then find his way out, a veritable impossibility. Fortunately for Theseus, the lovely Ariadne had fallen in love with him and gave him a spool of delicate, almost invisible, and seemingly inconsequential thread. He ties the thread to the opening of the labyrinth and unrolls it as he goes down into the labyrinth. And if he is careful, he will be able with that thread, to find his way back to freedom and safety.

Similarly, the church is in danger of getting lost in a maze of confusing and disorienting truth claims. In addition, we are in danger of being consumed by the misbegotten offspring of secularism and bad theology. And so, first of all, we must stop going deeper and deeper into the maze – reverse our steps…reverse the logic that got us here. And then we must follow that seemingly inconsequential thread that is our faith and doctrine back to the true freedom and safety of Christ. However, we will find that this thread is not so delicate or fragile as we might at first think because, as faith in Christ, it can lift up a fallen world and take away the sins of the world. So, don’t let it go!

At this point, let me simply say that I have some ideas or suggestions regarding questions to ask our leaders and the style in which to ask them, which I must leave for the workshops this afternoon. [See below for the ideas and suggestions]

Let me close by bringing us back to the very concept of revelation. In short, we must ask ourselves and our leaders if we and if they still truly believe in revelation. This is a pivotal issue in the recovery of orthodoxy for the church in a cynical age, in this culture of death.

Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, makes an interesting point about the old metaphor of the blind men and women and the elephant. You will perhaps recall that these men and women are standing around different parts of the elephant describing, and then debating, what an elephant is like. The one standing by the elephant’s leg says, “An elephant is sturdy like a tree.” The one standing by the elephant’s trunk says, “No, an elephant is like a python.” The one standing by the ear says, “The elephant is like the leaf of a palm tree,” and so on.

As you know, this analogy has often been used as an argument for the relativity of any particular religious perspective – saying that each blind person’s description is accurate relative to his/her perspective. Then we are told that God and life are much like the elephant and we are like the blind men and women. Therefore, all religions and human perspectives are relative with regard to the person(s) making the truth claim.

Ravi Zacharias counters this analogy by saying that the person who can see would know that all of these descriptions are wrong or severely limited and distorted because the person who can see – can see the whole elephant – and can tell the blind men and women all they need to know about the elephant and the inadequacies of their respective perspectives.

So, if the elephant stands for God or life, then Jesus Christ is, by analogy, the One who can see and He comes to give sight to the blind, but also to take away sight from those who claim to see but do so on the basis of haughty, faulty and inadequate perceptions. Jesus has a divine perspective. He teaches us all that we need to know about the elephant – namely, God and life.

In “these times that try men’s souls”, in these times in which we seem to be swallowed more and more by this culture of death we are reminded Jesus is the light of the world who gives sight to us who are spiritually blind and that we do not face these perilous times alone but that we have one who is the Good Shepherd who says to us: “Believe in me, follow me, and who will guide us in the ways of His righteousness. May we seek to follow Him faithfully in these perilous times. Amen.

Questions for the workshops

I. The question is, do we as individuals, as WordAlone, and as the ELCA still believe in revelation? If the answer by any of these entities is “No,” then I’m not sure there is much to talk about because there is no common point of reference, no common set of assumptions, and no common foundation. Perhaps then it may be time to kick the dirt from our feet and move on because they will not listen to or receive our testimony. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying here. I am not saying that there is no room for interfaith dialogue, for example, Buddhist-Christian dialogue. What I am saying is that, as Lutherans, without belief in revelation there is nothing to talk about in terms of faith community and mission because we would no longer be no building community and mission on the same foundation.

II. Another question closely related to the first is: Do we still believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Notice, I did not say “inerrant”. I avoid that term because I think it gives rise to too much misunderstanding – legalisms about creation theory and such. I also want to avoid giving the impression that I think the Bible was given by dictation. The Bible is not the Book of Mormon; it is not the Koran. So, even though we do not believe the Bible was given by divine dictation, we do believe it was divinely inspired. Then we can ask what God, by historical narrative, poetry, parable, or whatever other literary type is trying to say to us.

III. Do we believe that Jesus Christ, as confessed in Scriptures, is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved? (Acts 4:12) John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” This affirms the revelation of God that points to Christ and is embodied and culminates in Him. It also affirms Jesus’ identity. And please note that we are not talking here about narrow doctrinal formulations, important as those may be. We are talking about the reality that is Jesus Christ; the only begotten (the unique) Son of the Father; “He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life and the life was the light of men… And the Word became flesh…” (John 1:2ff) Do we believe this Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved? If not, then all is lost.

IV. In short, I am asking pastors and bishops how they understand both the ELCA’s faith statement and their own ordination vows.

V. Many of you as laypersons are asking, “But how can I stand up to pastors and bishops? I’m just a lay person.” So, let me ask, do we still believe in the ministry of the laity and the priesthood of all believers?

Luther said, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it” (Bainton’s Here I Stand, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950, p.117).

Cochlaeus was in Luther’s day a defender of Roman Catholicism. He unwittingly paid Luther’s translation of the Bible the greatest compliment when he complained that “Luther’s New Testament has so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yes, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.” [De Actis et Scriptis M. Lutheri ad Ann. 1522. Gieseler (IV. 65 sq.) quotes the whole passage in Latin. -].

VI. What are we/you being called to do and to be? On a personal note, I have been working with a spiritual director for about the last 17 years. He is a Methodist pastor and a pastoral therapist an exceptionally bright and insightful man. Almost from the beginning of our work together he would occasionally ask me: “Gary, what do you feel called to be? What do you feel called to do?” I didn’t know how to answer. I had some general sense of being called to be a pastor but there was nothing really compelling about it. Finally one day, I’m guessing 10 years ago or so, he asked me the same question again: “Gary, what do you feel called to be? What do you feel called to do?” It was all of a sudden like someone slapped me on the back of the head and said, “You dummy, you’re called to be a Lutheran Pastor.”

That may not seem like a big deal to you but it was probably one of the most revolutionary things that has ever happened to me. It gave me a focus and a sense of direction I’d not had before. It gave me the sense of stewardship, in the sense of a stewardship of perspective (Lutheran Perspective), like I’d never felt it before. So, I want to ask you, I want to ask WordAlone, and I want to ask ELCA leadership and membership: “What are you called to be and to do?”

VII. Next a few thoughts about the attitude with which we might approach pastors, bishops, and others with whom you think you might disagree.

First, don’t assume you disagree with this person of that. Talk with that person and make sure.

Secondly, I simply want to ground you in several passages from Scripture. I won’t read them all but will simply summarize a few key points.

A. Matt. 18:15-17: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

In this passage, Jesus is talking about the importance of holding one another accountable in the church – not letting a sin or a wrong fester and this, I think, would include challenging someone you perceive as holding faulty doctrine.

B. I read from 1 Peter 3:15-17 (NRSV): “. . . in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.”

What stands out for me about this is we are to hold one another accountable and we are to be ready to make a defense of our faith but what 1 Peter is reminding us of here is that our style of confrontation and accountability is extremely important. We are to defend our faith “yet do it with gentleness and reverence”.

C. 1 Corinthians 13:4ff: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…”

My wife and I were invited one evening to have dinner with a former colleague, his wife, and two other clergy couples. We were looking forward to the evening. However, when we sat down to dinner the wife of one of the pastors, who knew where I stood on a number of difficult issues (she of course stood on the other side) kept on baiting the conversation so it would turn to a debate. I tried very hard to keep it civil, and I think I was successful, but throughout the discussion she kept on getting this snide condescending look on her face – a patronizing grin. She would roll her eyes – not believing that I could be so ignorant (according to her point of view) and that I was so unenlightened.

Dear friends in Christ, what I am saying to you is: don’t do that! Don’t be condescending and arrogant! She was embodying exactly the opposite attitude to what Paul is calling for in 1 Cor. 13. Assuming I was wrong in the debate, she was rejoicing in the wrong, not in the right. If you are talking with a pastor, a bishop, a fellow believer, don’t try to set them up to embarrass them, to look foolish and you to look smart but instead pray for them pray for their faithfulness. By the way, do you pray regularly for Bp. Hanson and the ELCA? Seek to embody the virtues Paul lifts up in 1 Cor. 13. “Love is patient and kind…”

[Scripture quotations unless otherwise noted are from: Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America; Used by permission; All rights reserved; noted Scripture quotations are from: New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]