Jul 22 2010

Steeped in God’s Love

(A personal reflection)

I was raised a Lutheran, in a small community in northern Minnesota that very well could have been the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon. My dad came from a long line of Swedish Lutherans who had been part of the Swedish Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, which merged with the Lutheran Church in America (now part of the ELCA). Kittson County, where I lived, was at least at one time considered the most Swedish county in the United States and still boasts the highest percentage of Swedish speakers in the country. My dad was raised speaking Swedish at home and my grandfather, who lived with us when I was little, never fully converted to English.

The church we attended was called Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, a truly wonderful name for a church. “Evangelical” was the term Martin Luther used to refer to his reformation movement, and was kept in the name to honor the former Augustana church. My church was the largest church in town, with a membership of over 1,000 (but an average attendance at less than 1/3 of that). While the LCA was apparently known as the most liberal of the Lutheran denominations, I remember our church as being quite conservative, both socially and theologically.

Oddly enough, the Swedish Lutherans had been pietists, something that I’m sure would have caused Martin to spin in his grave. It was the very thing that Luther had warned about in the introduction to his commentary on Galatians:

I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, once again to expound the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians; not because I desire to teach new things, or such as you have not heard before, but because we have to fear, as the greatest and nearest danger, that Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions.

When my dad was young, for example, playing cards were not allowed (although they could play regular card games with a deck of Rook cards), alcohol was wrong (except for medicinal purposes), and frivolous music was frowned upon.

These trends obviously didn’t stick in my family, as my dad and his brothers were self-taught musicians, my dad playing piano, guitar, and clarinet in a local swing band. My mother was Episcopalian, but joined the Lutheran church when I was little, and began teaching Sunday School, which she did for fifteen or more years. Neither of my parents were drinkers, although they no aversion to making home-made wine on occasion. By the time I was born, playing cards were in abundance in our house, and I could play Rummy as soon as I could count (if not before). My parents certainly demonstrated very high moral standards; however, I was never taught that God would be mad at me if I failed.

I grew up convinced that God loved and accepted me unconditionally. I don’t know where I first learned this, but I was surer of this than anything, even of my parents’ love for me. I’ve often heard that children will form their ideas about God from their relationship with their father. While I had a wonderful dad, I can’t really say that this principle held true for me. Rather, from a very early age I understood that God was the only person who would ever really love and accept me unconditionally. My parents were fallible, God was not. I might fear the wrath of my parents or other authority figures, but I never feared God’s wrath.

And to this day, I never have.


May 22 2010

Give pastors some grace

In the past few days a couple of former-Christians-become-atheist sites have picked up on this article (by Dr. Richard J. Krejcir) on Schaeffer Institute site about the sad state of evangelical pastors. For a number of reasons, the atheist sites present the material in a more compelling way than does Krejcir’s article. Here’s just a few of the figures:

  • 1500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • 50% of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • 80 percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
  • 50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 40% of pastors polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

The conclusion, reached by atheists and Christians alike, is that something is seriously wrong in the evangelical church. Being a pastor is certainly a stressful job, there’s no doubt about that; but I don’t think it has to be as stressful as it often is.

During my stints in church leadership positions, where sometimes my main function was merely to look out for the well-being of the pastor, I recognized some problems. I believe it is systemic. There is a really, really bad model of church that has been perpetuated in evangelical churches that in essence makes the pastor a potential victim of abuse. Some of this is actually encouraged by the pastor, as it’s what they have been trained to believe.

This usually results in the pastor – as a survival mechanism – becoming an abusive leader.

One of the problems is that the church adopted much of the corporate business model, which is essentially organized social Darwinism. It’s survival of the fittest, results matter, perform or get out. It also puts the pastor in a conflict of interest situation with regard to his finances. His continued income depends on the church growing (at least financially) and the church giving. Again, this is a set up for abuse. If nothing else, the pastor lives in conlfict.

Many pastors have never been trained for anything else; they are indentured servants of the church system. And, many of them don’t have any retirement plans, and may not pay into social security. So, when they burn out or retire, they are nearly destitute. Unless, of course, they’ve learned to make money as authors, conference speakers, and TV personalitites.

The church needs to understand that being a pastor is just a job (yes, that’s what I said). It’s a role, of which there are hundreds in any church. Rather than the pyramid-shaped CEO model that most churches use, the church was really designed as a “flat” organization, where all relationships are reciprocal in nature. That is, if the pastor helps you with his teaching, you help him with whatever “good things” you’ve got, not necessarily financial.

If everyone in the church would function on this principle of grace – sharing each other’s burdens, sharing all good things with one another, and so on – the pressure on the pastor would be relieved.

Of course, grace means freedom – which also means personal responsibility, for everyone.  Good luck getting a church to buy that.


Nov 30 2009

Idiotic Evangelicals (and some who aren’t)

The other day I was reading something online about the Manhattan Declaration, and saw a comment stating that many evangelicals are hesitant to sign the document because it has been endorsed by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders, and so they were concerned about the loss of the Gospel.

Idiots.   They haven’t stopped to consider that if it weren’t for the Orthodox and RCC churches, they’d have no gospel.  For example, fundamentalists (perhaps the most idiotic of the evangelicals) rely heavily on Augustinian concepts (that’s where Calvin got most of his stuff).  And, of course, the concept of the Trinity, our understanding of the dual nature of Jesus and the Biblical Canon all comes from the early Orthodox Church (before the RCC was the RCC).

In fact, many from liturgical churches question whether evangelicals really have the Gospel, or if they’re championing some “other gospel” (a la Galatians 1:8).  But, that’s a topic for another time.

In 1977, a group led by Robert E. Webber drafted a statement known as “The Chicago Call,” which pointed out some of the idiocies of popular evangelicalism.  This movement led to the formation of groups such as the Charismatic Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Orthodox Church (now a part of the Antiochian Orthodox Church), and to other movements within evangelicalism.  Eventually, another document, known simply as “The Call,” (I believe the long name is, “The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future”) was developed.  Someday I plan to review both of these documents.

The Prologue to Chicago Call states:

In every age the Holy Spirit calls the church to examine its faithfulness to God’s revelation in Scripture. We recognize with gratitude God’s blessing through the evangelical resurgence in the church. Yet at such a time of growth we need to be especially sensitive to our weaknesses. We believe that today evangelicals are hindered from achieving full maturity by a reduction of the historic faith. There is, therefore, a pressing need to reflect upon the substance of the biblical and historic faith and to recover the fullness of this heritage. Without presuming to address all our needs, we have identified eight of the themes to which we as evangelical Christians must give careful theological consideration.

My favorite passage is in the following paragraph, in a section entitled, A Call to Historic Roots and Continuity:

We confess that we have often lost the fullness of our Christian heritage, too readily assuming that the Scriptures and the Spirit make us independent of the past. In so doing, we have become theologically shallow, spiritually weak, blind to the work of God in others and married to our cultures.

When I first read this in the early 80’s, it captivated me – and it still does.  It helped a great deal to keep me from becoming one of the Idiots (although I can tell myself that I am too smart to have ever become one).

I have tried to find a version of The Chicago Call online, but apparently it has been removed from it’s old site, and no one else to my knowledge has posted it.  So, I have decided to post the text on Smallvoices.net where it will remain as long as I keep paying the bills.

Enjoy.


Nov 18 2009

Exploring the Twain

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads

Years ago, I got to know a Greek Orthodox Priest (who was, in fact, from Greece) who tried to explain to me the difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches; to me, both the RCC and the EO were quite similar.  However, to him, the RCC was closer to evangelicalism than it was to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I didn’t quite understand it then.  Now, 30 years later, I find myself considering the issue once again.  This time, however, I am beginning to understand.  Besides reading some Orthodox theology, I’ve also been trying to catch up on 1500 years of Western theology by reading summaries of the major theologians, and I’ve been listening to a great series from The Teaching Company called Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary.

Western theology: Fundamentally Flawed?

As I learn more about the history of Western theology, I am finding I have more and more problems with the theological and philosophical direction taken by the Western theologians (as I have dealt with a bit in my Webber series and elsewhere).  In fact, I am finding that it is fundamentally flawed, and that it is very, very difficult to filter out potentially errant presuppositions, as I am so saturated in them I don’t even recognize them.  Such is the problem of worldviews.  My theory, then, is that by understanding the differences between East and West, I may be more able to find a more pure theology.  Even writing this, however, I am aware that this is a purely Western approach to the problem; but, I have to accept that I am rooted in the West, even while I look to the East.

Understanding the Schism: A little history

Even trying to understand the Great Schism, as the split between the Eastern and Western church is known, is difficult.  I have decided that the best way to approach it is by favoring the Eastern interpretation, while not ignoring the Western; reading Western points of view merely tends to reinforce the problem.  However, both sides do point to a number of political, cultural, philosophical and theological issues that contributed to the Schism.  Constantine perhaps set the stage for the split by establishing a 2nd capital city in Constantinople. This, I think, made it easier for the Eastern Church to eventually ignore Rome.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, of course, is  a major factor.  Many people are perhaps unaware that in the East, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire lasted for about 1,000 years, which contributed to more stability in the Eastern church.  The Roman Bishop (Pope), with Europe in chaos, turned to the Franks (Charlemagne) for support (which led to other problems). Besides these political differences, there was a language barrier, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin, and both churches insisting the other should convert.

Eventually, as we know, the Pope took on a quasi-political role in Europe.  While this did have a stabilizing effect on the region, it didn’t do the church any favors.  Soon the Pope was considered to be the highest source of spiritual authority in the West; the Eastern church, however, maintained a flatter church structure with a plurality of leadership among the patriarchs.  Today the Ecumenical Patriarch is still considered “first among equals” in the Eastern church.

The issues between East and West grew over several hundred years.  Possibly the biggest factor in the increasing schism was the role Charlemagne played in the late 8th and early 9th Centuries.  At this time what is known as the “Filioque Clause” was being added to the Nicene Creed in various places in the Western church.  The clause changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity, adding that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.”  While debated even in the West (Pope Leo III disagreed with the addition), it was Charlemagne who adopted it and subsequently accused the Eastern Church of heresy for failure to use it. Charlemagne had no authority in the East, and I suspect he thought that he could use the Church to extend his political clout.

The final straw came in 1054 with the Roman church “excommunicating” the entire Eastern church.  The Eastern church to my knowledge never officially broke ties with the West (although they finally realized that the Roman Church had, by their own actions, left Orthodoxy). Relations, however, got even worse when the Romans sacked Constantinople on the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  As one could expect, things have never been the same.

Theological Aspects of the Schism

While these issues are important in understanding the Schism, I’d like to focus on the philosophical and theological differences.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an evangelical-turned-Orthodox theologian, writes this concerning the theological split:

In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.

Ware, I think, does a pretty even-handed job in his analysis, and also points out in this chapter that while the contributing causes to the Schism were many, it was really the theological differences that divided the church, and which still divide it today.  The 2 primary issues that he sees are Papal authority, and the Filioque Clause. However, the issues he mentions above show a more fundamental difference which, I think, resulted in more than just a church schism; what developed seems to be more of a philosophical or worldview schism, which I will discuss in my next post.