Saturday, April 26, 2014

A "Christian" Is Not a Christian

A friend of mine shared this blog post with me a couple days ago. The author, a young man named Michael Harris, wants to keep the heritage of his Evangelical upbringing, but without all the doctrinal baggage. He wants to be "Culturally Evangelical" in the same way that many Jewish people are "Culturally Jewish," i.e., still remaining "in the community" and retaining the "label," but without actually buying into the belief system and all the doctrinal stuff of the community. He writes,
Even though I’m no longer a Christian by doctrine, I’m proud of much of my heritage. But the world’s largest religion doesn’t yet have a category for people like me — you’re either an actual believer or you’re just a lukewarm Christian, and that's the kind of Christian God spits out of his mouth.
He goes on to give a brief synopsis of his Evangelical upbringing, how he bought into it all growing up, but then went to Oral Roberts University straight out of high school and came "back home really (really) pissed." He couldn't believe that he had not only accepted, but also promoted, all the zany doctrinal stuff of his childhood. He was ashamed that he had been spreading what he now understood to be the unreasonable, archaic, out-dated, and bigoted teachings of "Christian Fundamentalism." He had been "brainwashed with extremism," but no more. His eyes were now open and he has no desire to go back.

At the same time, he still loves much of his Evangelical upbringing. He doesn't want to give it up wholesale. He still thinks there is much about Jesus that is pretty cool, too, even though he no longer considers Him to be the way, the truth, and the life. That rising from the tomb business is really no different than the silliness of "speaking in tongues" or the "faith-healing" nonsense he knew growing up, but experienced in full at Oral Roberts University. Jesus is just one of many teachers throughout history to be celebrated and admired. Christianity is fine, so long as it is stripped of its exclusive claims and supposed bigoted doctrines, and is whittled down to a philosophy or way of life that you can define for yourself. 

What I want to say to this young man is:

Congratulations! What you've just described is the vast majority of what passes for Christianity in America today. You are not alone. There is no need to whine and moan, as if you have no place to call home. You don't even need to add the word "Culturally" before "Evangelical." Just call yourself an "Evangelical." It's all good. Most people who have likewise abandoned, or never really knew, the Christian doctrines taught in Holy Scripture (not exactly the same as what you grew up with in Evangelicalism, but that's for another blog post) just call themselves "Christians." It's just a label. Nobody really cares. Don't fret. Go ahead and use the label. Everybody's doing it. And, if you do feel some sense of guilt for using the label "Christian" or "Evangelical" to describe yourself, since you're no longer a Christian by doctrine, my advice would be to just add the word "Progressive" before either of those words. I mean, why reinvent the wheel here? "Progressive" Christianity is all the rage these days, and they would welcome you home to their "doctrine-less" version of "Christianity" with as much vigor and joy as the father welcomed the prodigal son in that one Bible story I'm sure you know. Heck, given your testimony and ability to write, I have no doubt that you would be eagerly welcomed to become one of their "preachers." So, again, don't fret. There is plenty of room for you in Americanized "Christianity" today. You are in the majority, by far.

But, no, you are not a Christian. You are a "Christian." You are wrong in thinking that the world's largest religion doesn't yet have a category for people like you. It does. It always has. That category is heretic or unbeliever or pagan (take your pick). I know, I know, those are deemed words of hate and intolerance today, and we can't have any of that. But, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is not interested in how the world defines hate and intolerance. She is also not interested in what culture decides is good and bad, right and wrong, righteous and evil, and so forth. And, she doesn't really care about your views or opinions on this, that, or the other thing any more than she cares about mine or anyone else's. Instead, she confesses the Three Ecumenical Creeds (Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian) and minces no words in saying, "Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally." Call it hate or intolerance or bigotry, if you like. She's used to being called names.

So, yes, you can label yourself however you like. You will find many friends. 78% of Americans still claim to be Christian, but the vast majority of them are "Christian," like you. It's just a label. It doesn't really mean anything to them. And, you can find "Christians" across denominational lines, so that there are plenty of "Catholics" and "Lutherans" and "Baptists" and "Methodists" and "Pentecostals" and "Non-Denominationals," etc., to join you "Evangelicals" in the melting pot of today's "Progressive Christianity."

But, no, you can't really have your cake and eat it, too. You can't be a Christian on your own terms. It doesn't work that way. You don't get to pick and choose which Christian doctrines you want to keep and which you want to discard. You don't get to cast aside any of the core Christian doctrines confessed in the Creeds, mentioned above, and remain a Christian. Jesus is not just one in a long line of spiritual gurus and Christianity is not your pet philosophy to meld according to your views and opinions. Either you're in or you're out. It is all or nothing. You're right about that. There is no middle ground. That doctrine doesn't come from "misusing or overemphasizing strange verses like Rev. 3:16," as you imagine; it is the doctrine taught in Scripture from beginning to end, which testifies of the Jesus Christ confessed in the Creeds. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

. . . But Confirmation Ain't One!

It's right there in the LSB Agenda (pp. 25-27). Pastors aren't making this up. They're not "doing their own thing." This is a recognized and authorized Rite we have agreed upon as a synod. The practice of First Communion Prior to Confirmation is not "sectarian." Heck, there's even a section in the LSB Pastoral Care Companion (pp. 664-670) with guidelines for pastoral examination before the Rite of First Communion.

And yet, many a Lutheran pastor continues to rant against this practice (even some on the confessional side of the aisle, amazingly). They tell their brother pastors that they're wrong for instituting this practice where they serve, either because they think the practice itself is wrong or because they believe it will cause confusion and shouldn't be practiced until we have greater consensus about it in the synod.

The first reason lacks any semblance of truth. There is not a thing wrong with this practice. You will not find anything in Scripture or our Lutheran Confessions that would support the notion that bringing children to the Sacrament at a young age, prior to Confirmation, is wrong. In fact, neither Scripture nor our Lutheran Confessions recognize Confirmation as necessary. Scripture never mentions it at all and the only references to Confirmation in our Confessions are negative in connotation. Lutherans do not recognize Confirmation as a Sacrament (except that, sadly, we kind of do - more on that below).

The second reason also must be rejected, regardless of how appealing it may sound. We already have consensus. Again, it's in our official Agenda. We have a Rite for it. We have guidelines for pastoral examination for it. It's approved. Sanctioned. Good to go. As well it should be, since the most common practice among us of making our children wait until they're teenagers before receiving the Holy Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood is just plain wrong. That was most definitely not the practice of our Lutheran Fathers. It's most definitely not the practice described in our Confessions. It's a practice that developed over the years due to the influence of pietism and rationalism. It's wrong. It needs to change. Now. Not later, now.

That change will not happen if we wait for some mysterious "greater consensus" in the synod. That change will happen one pastor and congregation at a time moving forward now. We should already be united in the desire to bring this change about. If we're not, then many need to dust off their copies of the Book of Concord, study what we believe, teach, and confess about what is necessary for admission to the Sacrament, and get on board. But, the rest of us are not waiting for you to do so. We're moving forward, with or without you. We desire to follow the practice described in our Confessions, admitting our baptized children to the Sacrament when they have learned the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, been instructed in the Gospel and Sacraments, examined and absolved by the pastor, and desire to receive the Supper for the forgiveness of their sins and strengthening of their faith, regardless of age.

Will this cause confusion in the synod? Good Lord, I hope so! We need this confusion in a bad way, since this confusion will provide us with an opportunity to catechize our people away from the many misconceptions they have regarding the Sacrament, who should be admitted to it and why, and Confirmation. In the process, we'll have to apologize to them, for they are simply holding to these erroneous beliefs because that's what they were taught.

They were taught that children must not be admitted to the Sacrament because they're too young and lack the cognitive ability to understand what it is. They were taught that children couldn't possibly understand what it means to examine themselves and receive absolution. They were taught that children were ill-equipped to have faith in these words: "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." They were taught that admission to the Sacrament is something that must be earned by going through two years of Confirmation classes and passing all the quizzes, tests, and the public questioning, which has made the Sacrament a sort-of prize for jumping through all the necessary hoops. They were taught that the really big thing - the really important thing - is Confirmation itself, as if Confirmation is a means of grace that delivers forgiveness, life, and salvation to their teenaged children (you know, like a sacrament). They were taught, in short, that the Holy Supper was only for those who had reached some arbitrary "age of reason/discretion" (you know, like Baptists, etc.).

According to the Roman Catholic Church, "Confirmation is a true sacrament instituted by Christ and different from baptism." Our Lutheran Confessions say, "Hogwash! Nowhere does Christ institute Confirmation as a sacrament. You're making that up, Rome" (I'm paraphrasing). And yet, according to the most common practice among us in our synod, you could make that Roman Catholic statement in many of our congregations and people would nod their heads in agreement. Practice teaches. Our most common practice of withholding the Sacrament from our children until they are teenagers has taught people all the things mentioned above. If you don't believe me, just ask people why we don't admit younger children to the Sacrament. You'll see.

Besides all that, it must be noted that we would not be witnessing the great shift toward every Sunday Communion that has been occurring among us over the past couple/few decades had we followed this "wait for greater consensus among us" approach. That shift has come about one pastor and congregation at a time moving forward now in the desire to bring their practice in line with our Confessions, which state, "Masses are celebrated among us every Lord's Day and on the other festivals" (Ap. XXIV:1). Some of us have even worked toward celebrating Masses "on the other festivals" where we serve. While that hasn't yet picked up the steam moving toward "every Lord's Day" has, it's a start. In any event, the point is that it's hard enough for Lutherans to bring about change (you all know the joke), since it's nearly impossible for us to ever admit we've been wrong about something (have we ever passed a synodical resolution admitting we were wrong about anything?), so these sorts of salutary changes among us can only be achieved incrementally over time, which, again, happens one pastor and congregation at a time moving forward now.

Confirmation is not a sacrament. It isn't necessary. It was not instituted by Christ. It has no promises from God's Word attached to it. It is not a means of grace. We have two (or three, or four, depending on how we define things) sacraments, but Confirmation ain't one.

Confirmation is not a prerequisite for admittance to the Lord's Supper, either. Baptism is. Instruction, examination, and absolution is. But, not Confirmation.

Confirmation is a humanly ordained, public Rite in the Church, wherein baptized children (and adults) publicly confess the faith bestowed to them at Baptism. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less.

I have nary a problem with Confirmation correctly defined and practiced. There is nothing wrong with the Church establishing a public Rite like this to have her catechumens (whether children or adult) publicly confess their faith before the congregation. Heck, I'm all for throwing a party, eating cake, and giving gifts, too. Nothing wrong with celebrating this. That's a good thing.

But, I am opposed to what our understanding of Confirmation has become and how we have tied the admission to our Lord's Table to it as a sort-of prize or diploma or something. We should have never allowed that to happen. Dr. Luther would assuredly throw a major tantrum about it were he alive today. I dare say that his comments in the Preface to his Small Catechism would seem rather tame compared to what he would say about making our children wait until they are thirteen or fourteen years old to receive the Supper.

Furthermore, while I can certainly understand why the people we serve are confused about this and why many of them reflexively object to changing things, there is simply no excuse for my brother pastors to be confused about this or object to changing things. I have been majorly disappointed and, to be perfectly blunt and honest, more than a little ticked, that some of my brother pastors not only object to this, but have even seen fit to run their mouths to my visiting parishioners about how wrong this is and how they can't believe that their pastor (me) would be allowing their small children to commune. It doesn't matter that the said children can recite the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord's Prayer from memory right there on the spot, or that they can tell these pastors what they believe about the Lord's Supper and why they want to receive it, all of which is more than probably 87.6% of the adults they'll be communing that day can do, by the way. Nope, doesn't matter. It's just immediately absurd to these guys that these children would be admitted to the altar, which is bad enough, but the fact that some of them also feel compelled to lecture my visiting parishioners about it, as if they've been duped by me into participating in some great heresy or something, is way over the line. If you won't commune these children, who have been instructed, examined, absolved, and admitted by me, then just say no and shut up about it, because the comments you make to them only reveal your ignorance in the matter.

For my part, I simply don't understand how brother pastors in the same synod would refuse to commune visiting children who have been admitted to the altar in their home congregations. Before we adopted the practice of First Communion Prior to Confirmation where I serve, there were several times when we had visiting children who had been admitted to the altar prior to the "sacred age of 13 or 14," and the possibility of refusing to commune them never entered my thinking. Who am I to excommunicate these children? Their pastor had instructed, examined, absolved, and admitted them, and I'm going to say, "Sorry, no Supper for you"? I don't think so. How absurd!

And, yes, I know the "but my people will be confused and maybe even scandalized if I communed the young children from your congregation" argument. I don't buy it. First, what would probably happen is that no one would even notice. Second, even if they did and asked you about it, you could simply say, "These children have been admitted to the altar at their home congregation, and I don't think it's right for me to excommunicate them." Third, what a golden opportunity for you to use this to catechize your flock; you're welcome (unless, of course, you're perfectly content with the practice of withholding the Sacrament from children until they're teenagers, which, if you deny visiting youngsters the Sacrament, you probably are, so just scratch this point, I guess). Fourth, do you not think that it's laughably absurd that you deny children who stand before you ready to confess their faith and be examined by you, but readily admit to the Supper any and every visiting older child or adult without batting an eye simply because they belong to another LCMS congregation? In the words of Everett in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, "I don't get it, Big Dan."     

It's right there in the LSB Agenda (pp. 25-27). Check it out. It's approved. Sanctioned. Good to go. As well it should be. Please, for the love of all things sacred, stop acting like it's not.     

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lutheran to Americanized Protestant, Step-by-Step

Step 1
"Ceremonies don't have to be the same everywhere."

Step 2
"It's all adiaphora."

Step 3
"God doesn't tell us how to worship."

Step 4
"Worship should appeal to the unchurched."

Step 5
    "Yes, I'll accept the nomination for District President."