Monday, April 15, 2013

When "Preaching Sanctification" Hits the Fan

As part of my Field Work duties during seminary many moons ago, I was called upon to teach public school confirmation classes. As the 8th-graders entered the room on the evening of the first class, one young lady walked in wearing a halter top and short-shorts, much to the delight of the young men in the class, since this young lady had been granted an early and full development, and she was intent on flaunting all that the Lord had given her (technically, I'm not sure if it was a halter top she was wearing, since I'm not sure what a halter top is, but what I do know is that it was mega skimpy, whatever it was).

Realizing right away that this was going to be a severe distraction to the boys, whose ogling eyes were steadfastly fixed upon the young lady's features, and also that, well, young Christian ladies should not be dressing in such a manner (especially during Confirmation Class - does that really need to be said?), I took her out in the hallway before the class began, explained to her that she was dressed inappropriately, and asked her if she had some other clothing in her locker that she could don. She said she didn't. So, I went and retrieved a gown that the acolytes wore at that congregation, had her put it on, told her not to arrive at class in the future dressed in this way, and proceeded with class that evening. The young lady was none too pleased about this.

The next week, this same young lady entered the classroom dressed in the same manner as the previous week, much to my amazement. Before I could approach her, she came up to me and said, rather snottily, "If you have a problem with how I'm dressed, my mom's in the hallway." So, I proceeded to the hallway to chat with mom, the young lady following me with a "Now you're gonna get it!" smirk on her face. In the hallway, there was the angry mom, dressed in the same manner as her snarky daughter (go figure!), ready to give me what for.

"How dare you embarrass my daughter like you did last week! Who the hell do you think you are telling her how she should or should not dress?!" And on and on she went ranting and raving at me, her daughter standing beside her with a big grin (if there was a picture for the phrase, "grinning from ear to ear," this would have been that picture). When she finished her rant, I said, "She's not attending confirmation class dressed as she is. If she wants to come to class, she'll either have to dress appropriately or put on an acolyte gown like she did last week."

"We'll see about that!" she yelled. Then, she and her daughter stormed out of the building, the mother spewing a continuous flow of less-than-desirable comments in my direction. I went back into the classroom and proceeded to teach that evening.

The next day, I was called by my Field Work supervisor (the Administrative Pastor at this congregation), who asked me to come talk with him. I did. Much to my surprise, he told me that my job was simply to teach the catechism, not to play "wardrobe police." He went on to explain how I would learn with experience in the pastoral office which battles were worth fighting, etc. Evidently, this was a battle not worth fighting, since this young lady belonged to a prominent family in the congregation, whose roots went back to the congregation's founding.

After listening to his lengthy lecture, I said, "You began by telling me that my job is to teach the catechism, not to play 'wardrobe police.' I'm confused. I thought I was teaching the catechism by explaining to this young lady that she was dressed inappropriately and that she wasn't going to attend class dressed as she was."

That was a mistake. I know that now. What made it a mistake is that this led to me having to listen to another fifteen-minute lecture about how much I need to learn, and how years of pastoral experience would train me in how to properly deal with these "delicate parish matters." I wanted to interrupt on several occasions and say, "Are you kidding me?!" (actually, truth be told, my word choice would have been to replace "kidding" with a different, more forceful word, but that's neither here nor there). But, I didn't interrupt. I'm a fast learner. Interrupting would have just prolonged the lecture, and you can't have no idea how much I didn't want that. So, I bit my tongue and took the chastisement, which, very interestingly to me, never once addressed the actual issue at hand.

When this second lecture had come to its end, I so wanted to say, "So, what you're saying is that this young lady can dress however she pleases, because this is a 'delicate parish matter' that involves a prominent family in the congregation, and you don't want to do anything to upset that family." But, I didn't. That would have been stupid, and would have negated my statement above about me being a fast learner.

What I did say is this, "I've heard all that you had to say, and I agree that I have much to learn about being a pastor, but I cannot, in good conscience, continue to teach the class if I'm not permitted to address behavior from the catechumens that conflicts with the catechism's teachings. Not only can I not, in good conscience, continue to teach the class, but I will not do so, and I will be more than happy to explain myself to the Field Work Director at the seminary."  

"Oh, there's no need for that," he responded. "I've already decided that you're not going to continue teaching that class. We'll find something else for you to do."

In the words of the Church Lady, "Weeeelll, isn't that special?!"

So, the halter-top, short-shorts wearing mom and daughter team won the day, much to their delight (and much to the delight of the young men in that class, I'm sure). I imagine they were all singing, "Ding dong, the wardrobe p'lice, the wardrobe p'lice, the wardrobe p'lice, ding dong, the wardrobe p'lice is gone!"

At this point, should you be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with the title for this blog post, and I would not blame you at all for wondering such, it is this:

This same Field Work supervisor (the Administrative Pastor at this congregation) often lectured me (and other Field Workers) on how the seminary was doing a great disservice to the synod, because they weren't doing a good enough job of teaching our future pastors how to "preach sanctification." He cited how the last half of the apostles' epistles in the New Testament were about "living the Christian life," and complained that the Law-Gospel preaching formula being taught at the seminary was insufficient and producing antinomian preachers, since it supposedly went out of its way to avoid teaching the Third Use of the Law. If I had a nickel for every time he ranted about this, I'd still have massive student loan debt, but you get my point.

And, he practiced what he thought he preached. In every sermon I heard him preach over the two years of my Field Work, he robbed us of what little Gospel he preached by always giving us lists of what we should be doing as Christians. He even included an outline in the bulletin each time he preached, so that we could write down his pearls of wisdom and work on those things throughout the upcoming week. His preaching was really no different than what one might hear from Joyce Meyer, which, as it turns out, is no coincidence, since he once told me that he thought she was "doing great work for the kingdom" and that "we could learn a lot from her on how to preach sanctification" (this was prior to the "delicate parish matter" mentioned above, so the fact that I spoke up when he said this, which resulted in a fifteen minute lecture about how we shouldn't "throw the baby out with the bath water," does not negate my claim of being a fast learner).

But, here's the deal. For all his efforts to deliberately preach the Third Use of the Law, all he ever really did was preach a watered-down, cheesy version of the Law, which was really no preaching of the Law at all. His preaching formula was supposed to be a sort of "Gospel-Holy Living" formula, but how it played in the pews was "Jesus As Example-Be Like Jesus." His favorite phrase in his preaching was, "We are blessed to be a blessing" (if I had a nickel for every time he uttered that phrase in his preaching, I'd still have massive student loan debt, but, again, you get the point). 

Now, there's certainly nothing inherently wrong with that phrase. We are indeed "blessed to be a blessing." However, "preaching sanctification hits the fan" when the whole point of the sermon is to show us how to be the blessing we are blessed to be, especially when this includes a list of things for us to work on accomplishing throughout the week, until we can get another list of further "how-to-be-the-blessing-we-are-blessed-to-be" things to work on the following week.

What makes this attempt to deliberately preach sanctification worse among Lutherans, no matter how well intentioned it may be, is that we really do know better. Even those among us whose preaching results in nothing more than motivational messages or self-help pep talks still feel the need to try to cram the Gospel into the sermon somewhere (as this preacher did). We gotta say something about what Jesus has done for us, after all. We're Lutherans. A sermon without some reference to the Gospel simply will not do. But, when the Gospel is something that has to be crammed in somewhere, the preaching is not Lutheran at all. Even Joel Osteen will cram the Gospel into his motivational, self-help talks every once in a blue moon.

If preaching is to be Lutheran preaching, the Gospel will not be crammed into a sermon, but will predominate every sermon. And, it will only predominate if the Law is preached in its full sternness. The Gospel is always to be applied as the sweet, healing balm it is to sinners crushed by the Law. This has nothing at all to do with giving more time to the Gospel in the sermon. What is preached determines whether or not the Gospel predominates. The Gospel may still predominate a sermon even if it consists of only two minutes out of a fifteen minute sermon.

Here's the other thing: If you have preached the Law, you have preached the Law. I really don't know what to make of all this talk about deliberately preaching sanctification, by which many seem to mean that we have to make sure to include the preaching of the Third Use of the Law, i.e. the Law as a guide for the Christian. The Law cannot be deliberately compartmentalized and distributed by the preacher, even though the preacher is fully aware of the Law's three Uses. The preacher does not get to decide which Use of the Law he's preaching. He can only preach the Law. If the preacher accuses sinners, he's preached the Law. If the preacher exhorts Christians to holy living, he's preached the Law. The preacher does not preach this or that Use of the Law. He simply preaches the Law. We cannot grab the Holy Spirit by His feathers and manipulate Him as we see fit. All we can do is preach the Law and preach the Gospel. He takes it from there. And, if we have preached the Law and the Gospel, we have preached justification and sanctification. There is not some third thing (or category) we need to preach in order to cram a little sanctification into our sermons. This is as bad, and as ineffectual, I might add, as trying to cram a little Gospel into a motivational, self-help talk.

So it is that there is no such preaching formula as "Law-Gospel-Third Use of the Law." That preaching formula is simply "Law-Gospel-Law." Really. It is. And, when the preacher is so intent on following this preaching formula in a deliberate and intentional manner, because he imagines that doing so will ensure that he has preached sanctification, that's when preaching sanctification hits the fan. Such a preacher is so concerned that he avoid having his hearers treat the Gospel as cheap grace that he runs the risk of robbing them of the Gospel altogether. As someone who has had to suffer through several preachers who had jumped on the "preaching sanctification as Third Use of the Law" bandwagon over the years, I just want to scream: "You had me at the Law and the Gospel! I know you feel this dire need to talk about holy living here at the end, but, as crazy as it seems, you done preached holy living to me when you preached the Law and the Gospel. Really. You did. You were done. That last five minutes about all the things I need to work on was redundant. Not only that, but now the Old Adam in me, which you had successfully slain, has again reared his ugly head and is arguing with the New Man in me, which you had successfully raised, over whether or not the Gospel you preached was really for me, since I'm not so sure the Gospel is shining forth in my life the way you just said the Gospel should be shining forth in my life as a Christian. So, now I'm left crying out to the Lord for mercy, but you're done with the sermon. Bummer, that."

But, you know, maybe that's just me. Maybe I haven't grown in sanctification enough to appreciate a good dose of post-Law-and-Gospel-holy-living-exhortation. What I am pretty sure of, though, is that, if you're going to lecture me about the great need for Lutherans to preach sanctification as some third thing in addition to the preaching of the Law and the Gospel, you would probably be more convincing if you a) didn't act like such an unsanctified puke while doing so, and b) stopped talking about sanctification in a way that isn't totally wrapped up in Jesus.

It would also help if you avoided using Joyce Meyer as an example of how to preach sanctification, and if you didn't turn a blind eye to sin in the name of handling "delicate parish matters." 


mqll said...

This is a great article Tom. But I have to say that you took it in a completely different direction than I thought you would.

When you were talking with the young girl, what did you say? You didn't say "You are a sinner; you need to repent; but you are forgiven in Christ." No, you said specifically "What you are wearing is not appropriate."

The problem with your pastor is not that he was preaching sanctification — it is that when the time came for an appropriate proclamation of it, he didn't.

I don't know all of the discussion that has been going on concerning the topic. All I know is that I agree with your actions and to me, that is exactly what preaching sanctification is about. You saw conduct, you did not merely want her to repent, you wanted her to change the conduct — even though in her heart she might still be sinning. But better for her to change her conduct and not cause others to sin.

And not disturb your catechism class.

Honestly, what do you call what you did? Just plain Law/Gospel proclamation? I guess to me, the distinction is that you are not looking for repentance for sin — you are looking for a change in behavior. One that can be accomplished. And could have been if you had been backed up. And would have been better for her.

Once again, if you did not preach sanctification — and not just in the story, but in the post as well — what do you call it?

And once again, good post.

Todd Wilken said...

It sound like your field work supervisor was determined to not preach the Gospel. That's a shame. TW

Anonymous said...

"and if you didn't turn a blind eye to sin in the name of handling "delicate parish matters."

I agree with this. That is ridiculous, and that is one of the big problems with our churches.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Messer,

Always find your commentary to be thoughtful. Wondering if you might care to stop by and comment on this....


Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

"Once again, if you did not preach sanctification - and not just in the story, but in the post as well - what do you call it?"


You don't know the half of it. ;)

I will check out the link you provided.