Tag Archives: Church

Digressions in Church Polity: There are no members of the Reformed Church in America

For anyone familiar with my ecclesiastical communion, the Reformed Church in America, or anyone who has read my writing elsewhere as of late, perhaps you are aware of the struggles that our communion is facing regarding differing understandings of human sexuality. However, the real issues are much deeper, the real issues are the things below the surface that we don’t talk about. I hope in this series of who-knows-how-long of digressions in church polity, I will have an opportunity to address some of these issues, and hopefully this (and other engagements) will serve to edify the church.

***

Part of the struggle within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over differences in biblical interpretation is a misunderstanding of how a communion (or denomination) exists within our theological doctrine of the church. One of the biggest problems that perpetuates and enhances this misunderstanding is the concept of being a member of the RCA. The root of this misunderstanding is a misidentification of the locus of the church.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a member of the RCA. No one joins the RCA, people join local churches which are a part of a covenantal communion called the Reformed Church in America. While the RCA has a common glue that holds it together (Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government), the major bonding agent in that glue is our own willingness to submit ourselves to it. So while there are procedures to hold each other accountable to our covenantal commitments, these processes are to originate locally rather than from afar. There is no magisterium or college of bishops. The RCA does not have a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in New York, New York or Grand Rapids, Michigan or anywhere else.

The General Synod, then, is not a magisterium, it is not a collegial pope, and it is not the essence of the church. Instead, church is when the congregation gathers, shepherded by the offices, around pulpit, table, and font. Church is located in the local churches, not in synods. 

One of the ubiquitous statements arguing for the urgency of a lock-step uniformity on understandings of human sexuality (and interestingly enough, many of these same people also desire complete liberty for local interpretation of many other things, sometimes even those things which are of the essence of the church) is that people are leaving local churches because the RCA doesn’t have a lock-step uniformity on this one topic. The problem, however, is an apparent lack of understanding and education, on the part of office bearers, to help their flock understand how we, as Reformed Christians, understand the church.

The RCA is not a monolithic hierarchy . Unlike the Roman Catholic Church which has a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope, the Reformed Church is not a hierarchy and has never located church within an episcopacy or hierarchy. Rather assemblies operate within their sphere of responsibility, with the greater assemblies not infringing upon the lawful prerogatives of the lesser assemblies.

So as we discuss this, we need to stop talking about being members of the RCA, as there are only members of local churches (and in the case of ministers, members of the classis).

So rather than disregarding and discarding our doctrine of the church in the name of cultural utilitarianism, perhaps it would behoove us to live into our countercultural way of being and understanding our covenantal communion, and help the members of our churches to understand this.

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

From Beyond the River

Joshua 24:1-28

God comes to Abram with no apparent reason, makes a promise that God will bring forth from Abram a great nation which will be blessed so that they can be a blessing to all the world. So without any recorded hesitation, Abram goes, as God told him, to the land which God will show to him. When he enters into the land of Canaan, he stops at Shechem, It is at this point that God promised to give all of this land to Abram’s descendants. Abram then builds an altar to God, a monument, marking this as a holy place, a place of worship, a sanctuary.

We find ourselves many generations later and at the same place, at the edge of the promised land, at the time known as the land of Canaan. This is a generation after the people had been liberated from Egypt.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, they were mistreated and they cried out and God listened and saw and called Moses to the task of serving as God’s envoy. Many signs were performed and Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, but shortly thereafter Pharaoh regretted this decision and he and his army pursued the ancient Israelites, who found themselves trapped between an advancing army and a sea. God reached out God’s hands and held back the waters so that God’s rag-tag group of people could cross to freedom.

Almost immediately, the people began grumbling, after all, they needed food, certainly a legitimate need and complaint. So each morning, God gave them food, enough for each day, but not only this, but God gave meat to them to eat in the evening. But not long after this, the people needed water, which is also a legitimate complaint. God told Moses to strike his staff upon a rock, and then water came forth.

God dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle so that wherever the people went, God journeyed with them.

The people get to the brink of the promised land, and they send a few spies to see the condition of the land, the people who lived there, the conditions of their cities, and anything else they could find. After forty days, the spies return and speak to the beauty and fertility of the land. They also said that the people were strong and the cities were well fortified. The people again began to complain and long for slavery in Egypt, continuing to suffer from the disease of nostalgia.

Throughout their time, thus far, they would often speak of how they wished they were in Egypt, forgetting that the good ol’ days were not all that great. But this time was different. They actually began to make work of returning to Egypt, and the selected captains and organized themselves into companies to go back. While they were packing up, God became angry, after all, God had freed God’s people, led them through the wilderness, fed them, gave them water, brought them to the edge of the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and after all this they begin to make work of returning to slavery in Egypt. God determines that not a single person that walked out of Egypt, not a single one, except Caleb, would see the promised land. God would not kill them, after all, God is merciful, but God would continue to teach them trust and faith in the classroom of the wilderness.

***

So here we stand, Moses has finally died, and the people have crossed the Jordan River and have taken hold of the land.

After the ancients entered the land, after the tribes have been given their portions of the land, after God had given rest to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, “a long time after” as scripture reads, Joshua is old and near death, and he gathers everyone, all the Israelites at Shechem. The place where Abram was promised the land, the place where Abram built an altar, the sanctuary that Abram built.

The significance of this place would not have been lost on all the ancient people. they did not, as of yet, have a book, but they did have stories, and these stories about God and God’s people were told over and over again. The assembly would have recognized this place, where the aged Joshua called them to gather for his farewell address.

So Joshua speaks to them and begins at the beginning. “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.”

Gods of a place, gods of prosperity, gods of fertility, gods of good health and fortune. These other gods were bound up with their identity and it was understood that to be a good citizen meant serving these other gods. Here the people are reminded that Abram was no different than all the others. Abram wasn’t particularly special in his faith and practice, Abram did not come to faith in this one God on his own, no, Abram lived far off beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. But God took him “from beyond the river.”

The people are reminded again, they are told, again, this “old, old story” of what happened. The people are reminded them of God’s great deeds to them throughout the journey throughout the wilderness. God speaks to them, “I took, I gave, I sent, I plagued, I did, i brought, I brought, I handed, I destroyed, I rescued, I handed, I send, I gave…” Here the people are reminded of the things that God had done for them. In light of all this, the people are called to fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The people could not be confused here, because Joshua does not speak of god in general, but rather, the specific God. Anytime you see the word “LORD” in caps or small caps, this is the divine name. God’s specific name. My name is Matthew, God’s name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, the four letters, four letters which we translate into English as YHWH. It is not printed because of the long tradition that the average person is not fit to pronounce God’s name, we are not on a first name basis with God. So here, it is very clear that when Joshua tells them to serve the LORD, it is not to be confused exactly which god of which he was speaking, it was this particular one.

And so here, at Shechem, we have come full circle, the promise to Abram so long ago has been fulfilled. And so all the people stand, with the Euphrates behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them, standing at Shechem. The people stand, their past behind them, their future ahead of them, standing in the present, at the place, symbolically showing the promise to be fulfilled. Where once a man stood in a foreign land, now a nation stands in a land which is now theirs.

And Joshua says to the people, in the words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It is important that Joshua invites them to look over their shoulder at their past, look ahead to the future, and to remain in the present. Joshua is calling them to account, right now, they will have to determine whom they will serve, because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But, Joshua tells them, if you will not serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve, because you have to serve somebody.

If you will not serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then serve the gods of your ancestors behind you, before the LORD took your ancestor from beyond the river. Or, serve the ancestral gods of their new home.

You have you choose who to serve, Joshua told them, the gods whence you came, or the gods here. Because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I, I am committed to the LORD.

But yet this is not even the climax of the story, the high point comes when the people proclaimed that they, too, will serve the LORD.

***

This is a riveting story, a story which is in our past, but is also a story in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not just a story, but it is the story in which we find ourselves.

So Joshua not only called the ancients to gather at Shechem, but also calls to us.

We gather and we, too, are told, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We don’t have named gods from across the river or from a place, in the same way. But we have things that serve that function. We, too, have various gods which we sometimes serve. Maybe it will be the nation, or maybe it will be money or ourselves. We have to serve somebody, and we, too, are called to make a commitment to whom we will serve, will we go back across the river? Will we adopt the gods of the place? Will we serve the gods that promise health, wealth, prosperity, safety, security?

We can adopt the gods where we find ourselves, gods which we can see, gods which are supposed to bring us good things, or we can serve the God who called us, chose us, and journeyed with us through the good times and the difficult times.

***

As we stand in the present between the future and the past, Joshua calls to us to choose whom we will serve. This isn’t about in whom to believe, this is not about whom to accept into one’s heart, this is not about some kind of personal savior. Joshua asks them whom they will serve. To whom or what will you dedicate your effort and energy? To whom or what will you make sacrifices? On what hill will you die?

So Joshua comes to us and asks us not to accept Jesus into our heart as our personal savior. This is not a biblical way to understand it. Instead Joshua asks us whom we will serve. Will it be the gods from across the river, or the gods from this place, or the God who has fulfilled God’s promise, the God who has nurtured us and journeyed with us.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, so let us serve the God who brought us from across the river, from our former life. Let us serve the God who brought us from beyond the river.  Let us serve this God not just with our hearts, but with our minds and our actions, and our lives.

You can only serve one master, as Jesus reminded us. and “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so we must ask ourselves, whom will we serve? This is not just a question that comes once, but many times. Many situations come to us and we are given this opportunity. We cannot give lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then serve these other gods with our actions. We cannot simply get carried off in emotion and make inconsiderate promises. Will we choose the nation, or money, or our house or possessions, ourselves or the Packers?

Or will we serve the God who guides us and tabernacles among us?

We may not see the fulfillment of these promises in our incredibly short individual memory, or even with our lifetimes, but this is why, again and again, we tell this story of what God has done in the past, because it is only through the telling of this story we can remember that God had brought us from beyond the river.

 

Why I Welcome the Demise of Christendom

Christ flanked by emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and empress Zoe: Eleventh Century; Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

In my corner of the Evangelical Bible Belt, a few things take concern above all else. Opposing gay marriage, decrying taking God out of the schools, mourning the loss of the privileged position of the church in the United States. We fear that the church is losing ground and we fight against it in every way possible.

The root of all this, though, is the loss of greater societal privilege for the Church. It is a symptom of the disintegration of Christendom, and I welcome it.

***

The history of the People of God was never that of a great empire which conquered the world, instead, it was a relatively small people, whose ancestors were nomads, who were conquered by foreign powers again and again. The great part of the story, though, is that the People of God have endured, by divine providence, against all odds and against the might of foreign powers.

The early church found themselves pressed by all sides, and yet against all odds, they grew not only in numbers but also in strength and depth.

Things changed, however, with Constantine when Christianity ceased to be a pressed minority and became state-approved. From this point on, the story of the majority of the Western world is centered around the unholy union between Christianity and the principalities and powers.

This signaled a significant reversal of the history of Christianity. Rather than facing the end of the sword, Christians were the ones holding the sword in the name of “God and country”. The Crusades were one example of the fruit of this union as was the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than being pressed themselves, Christians were the one doing the pressing, rather than facing the powers, the Christianity was in league with the powers.

Rather than denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23), we, in the West, have become accustomed to standing proud with official backing, taking up our sword and following the state.

The problems with a “Christian nation” are myriad. At some point, one has to question, whom do we worship…God or the state? God or the emperor, king, or president? Further, when the Church and state are wed, the rulers of the state carry undue influence in the church and the church simply becomes a pawn in national affairs or for political gain.

We see this in the United States when political candidates at all levels work to appear more religious and pious than one another (usually always in the form of Christianity), speaking of God solely for political gain. In the United States, too, the Church has become a pawn in the game of politics. One has to wonder if this is the spirit of the commandment not to misuse the name of God (Ex 20:7).

We must ask the question, is the role of the church simply to baptize the actions of the state, or is the role of the Church to speak truth to power and call the state to faithfulness and righteousness?

***

While many (especially among the Bible Belts) may see the increasing pluralization of the religious landscape of the United States and the increasing separation between church and state as the church losing ground, I think that this will be a renewal for the church to actually be the church rather than simply playing on the chessboard of the state.

The decline of Christendom brings several distinct benefits.

First, it helps the church speak truth to power in a more faithful way. When the church wed itself to the state it gave up its role to speak to the principalities and powers. Beginning with Constantine, the church became captive to the state and the fall of Christendom actually functions as liberation from an unfaithful relationship which binds the church and its witness. After all, the church must stand outside of the powers in order to honestly and faithfully speak truth to the powers.

Second, the separation of church and state protects the church from the undue influence of the state. I certainly do not want the church to be used in the game of politics. I do not want the president or members of congress to direct church assemblies, the teaching of doctrine, or the further conscription of clergy or other office-bearers of the church into the service of the state.

Third, the decline of Christendom returns the church to the historic narrative of the People of God, and the experience of being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (2 Cor 4:8, NRSV). What does it mean to take up one’s cross? How does the church live out its calling “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1b, NRSV) when the Church has bound itself to the powers which created these situations in the first place?

We must ask ourselves, do we require the validation of the state or the greater culture in order to live out our faith? Do we require that our faith be in a privileged position in order to follow it? If we do, the problem is not in the greater social environment, the problem is within us. There is nothing at all in all of Scripture which would lead us to believe that the People of God are supposed to be the ones in power, the ones in high esteem, the ones who do the pressing. The Jews in the first century were largely expecting a messiah who would rebuild the fortunes of the Kingdom of Israel and throw off the Roman Empire, but instead they received an outsider who turned over tables of money changers in the temple, spoke truth to power, and eventually died for it.

So I welcome the fall of Christendom, because this holds the great potential to signal a renaissance in the church. Rather than seeking to control the society, we can begin to discover what it means to live faithfully. Rather than trusting in the providence of the state, we can begin to trust in the providence of God. Rather than wielding a sword, we can learn what it means to carry a cross.

We find ourselves at the end of Christendom. We can either live into our calling to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, or we can abandon our calling and fight to regain power and prestige and control and esteem.

We follow a guy who died naked on a cross. Why should we expect social privilege and worldly power and esteem?

Christ as Good Shepherd: Third Century, Fresco, Catacomb of Callixtus

Wounds in the Body of Christ

Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial

(cc) Tabitha Kaylee Hawk

Eendracht maakt Macht

These words adorn the banner at the bottom of the crest of the Reformed Church in America. Often the translation into English is, “Unity makes strength” but, as I understand it, a better translation is “Concord makes strength” — a pulling together like a team of horses.

***

The Christian church today is fractured, but it has not always been. For nearly a thousand years, the Christian church was essentially unified throughout the world. This changed significantly with the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern church (Orthodox) and the Western church (Roman Catholic) excommunicated one another. For another five hundred years these remained the primary divisions within the Body of Christ.

The Western church experienced yet another major fracture when Martin Luther, in his attempt to reform the church, found himself considered to be a heretic and was cast out of the church. From this moment, the Protestant branch of the Christian church was born and continued splitting and fracturing over significant things such as the Doctrine of the Trinity and more trivial things such as the introduction of hymns in worship alongside the Psalms.

I, myself, am also aware of my own history and I, too, am involved in the fracturing the Body of Christ. In the nineteenth century, there was a split in the Reformed church in the Netherlands. As some of the Dutch immigrated to the United States, the Reformed people joined together and several then joined with the established Reformed Church in the United States. For a number of them, however, this union was short lived and they seceded and came together to form a second Reformed denomination on this continent. It is into this latter denomination that I was baptized and raised, and it was here that I learned the essentials of the faith. My ancestors were secessionists and it is through them that I participate in this…

Today I’m at That Reformed Blog. Head over there to finish reading…

When it All Comes Together

Half-way through my sermon, I saw about one third of the congregation sleeping, another third appeared to be present in body only (somewhere else in mind), and the final third appeared to be engaged.

After the service, I was told that the bathroom was out of toilet paper. It was full before the service.  This, of course, means that someone stole our toilet paper, again.  We go through quite a bit of toilet paper and most of it gets stolen.  Financially it adds up, but the larger concern is the principle behind it, that people steal from their church, particularly when we try to give it to people when they ask.

All of this after I spoke about not stealing.

* * *

I don’t need continual ego-stroking, but I do like to know that my work and my efforts make an impact. So many times it does not appear that my work makes the slightest of difference and I’m stuck wondering why I even try.

As we were all leaving, one of the children of our congregation, a seven year-old girl, came up to me.

“Pastor, I made this for you.”

It was a picture and it had some writing on it. I held it in my hands and began to decipher the seven year-old handwriting.

She said to me, “It says ‘We love God, and God loves us.'”

I looked over at her and she smiled. I smiled back, and she gave me a hug.

She gets it, I thought, she gets it in her own seven year-old way.  This is the essence of what I speak of every week.  “We love God, and God loves us.”

I won’t ever know the full impact that our church has on people.  So I keep working, keep telling people about God’s love and grace and I will keep looking at that picture, “We love God, and God loves us.

Sometimes grace comes from the least expected places.

…God First Loved Us

Baptismal Font

By brandsvig on Flickr

I had the privilege of administering my first baptism yesterday.  It was an infant who was recently born of one of the families in our congregation.

It was a wonderful celebration of the sacrament of baptism.  The liturgy is beautiful, the child was adorable and dressed in this lovely white dress.  She fussed a little bit but it was not like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that sometimes occurs.  As a fellow pastor friend of mine once told me, “If the baby doesn’t cry you’re not doing it right.”  Which refers, of course, to the fact that in baptism we symbolically die with Christ, and as such, there should be at least a little bit of fussing.

The moment was a wonderful celebration of God’s grace, and God’s love for us even when we cannot yet love.  There is a portion of the liturgy when the minister speaks directly to the person to be baptized immediately preceding the administration of baptism with the Trinitarian formula.  In the case of an infant, it reads like this:

[Name],
For you Jesus came into the world;
For you he died and for you he conquered death;
all this he did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.

We love because God first loved us.  That is, of course, quote from 1 John 4:19.  This is also where the theology behind infant baptism all comes together.  I cannot find a better defense of infant baptism than this.  After these words were spoken, and I dipped my hand into the water, I felt as though we were all in the very presence of God.  I wish that we could have stayed in that holy moment forever.

However, that moment did not last.  Shortly after the service, the sinfulness that pollutes the world reared its ugly head.  Divisions, anger, self-centeredness and greed invaded the aftermath of this holy moment. It had been a very difficult couple days leading up to that day, and I felt as though I was delivered from the inferno to the very presence of God and then immediately dragged back to the inferno.  I quipped to my wife after we returned home that this experience is what Dante saw in his vision when writing the Inferno.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps, however, this was somehow a gift, it is an example of life in this world.  Our world is grossly imperfect, polluted by sin and evil.  Much of life is filled with trials and sufferings, but these are always punctuated by moments of heaven.

We baptize infants not because they are perfect, not because they are faithful Christians, not even because they are good.  We baptize infants because God first loved us, and therefore we are able to love God because God loves us first, and we are able to love others because God loves us first.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps it is fitting to experience both the heights of the experience of God’s grace and the depths of depravity.  This is, after all, what we experience in this life.  We have experiences when love is easy, when we feel loved.  We also have experiences in which love is difficult, and we have to love in spite of the fact that all we may receive is hate, anger, and bitterness.  We do not love because the other is nice, or because they are even deserving of our love.  We love because God loved us first — God loved us despite of our anger and bitterness and hate, and God requires that we treat others in the same way.

I wonder what that child thought of all that was going on.  I do know that she rubbed her forehead onto my shirt to dry it during the prayer after the baptism.  I’m sure she had no idea what was happening, and I am certain that she has no idea what the future holds for her.  I do know, however, that God’s grace is not ultimately dependent on what we can understand with our minds, but God’s grace is stronger than all of our weaknesses.  My ability to love people is often times weak, and I continue to hope and pray that God’s grace will not only transform the life of that child as she grows, but also transform my life as I am still in the process of becoming a Christian and learning how to truly love.

We love because God first loved us.

The Minister as Particular Theologian

I have not been very faithful the last couple of weeks in my writing.  The reason for that is largely because I have been immersed in writings by and about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This is, of course, in a way unfortunate, as the breadth of the Edwardsian corpus is much broader than this one sermon.

One of the aspects of his life that I am intrigued by is how he lived out his calling as a minister.   I, at times, wonder if this was simply contextually and temporally specific, or if there is something to ministry that we’ve lost.

It cannot be denied that the world of eighteenth century New England was very different from our contemporary contexts.  However, in many other ways, there were great similarities.  Edwards struggled with his congregation to overcome their spiritual apathy, he dealt with teenage pregnancies in his congregation, and people that little interest in helping those less fortunate. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012, the year 1712, or the year 12, human nature is relatively consistent.

As a parish minister, Jonathan Edwards not only composed a large body of sermons, but also letters and theological books and articles.  Edwards was a venerable theologian, and as a theologian he was also very clearly connected to the church.

One thing that I have consistently encountered during my formal education is a growing division between theory and practice.  Those who engage in “practice” argue that they don’t have to know theory because it is “empty head knowledge.” Furthermore, those who are engaged in theory sometimes lack any practical interest as they are interested in intramural academics. This all contributes to a strong distinction between theoreticians and practitioners.  Although in Christianity there is a rapidly growing distrust of knowledge and education, this phenomenon is not limited to the Church and occurs in many arenas.

I, of course, come at this discussion with a master’s degree from a theological seminary.  I also place a great deal of importance on highly educated clergy, and history has always placed an importance on educated clergy. This trend of lowly or uneducated clergy is of relatively late origin, and the anti-educational sentiment among some is recent as well.  Although I am not sure which is the proverbial chicken and which is the egg, I see this as connected to this trend of divorcing the role of pastor and the role of theologian.

I have heard it argued that theologians do theological work, and pastors take care of things “which really matter to people.”  This of course grieves me to my core.  I am a person who both cares deeply about the church and the people of God and also loves theological work and study.  I have always assumed that I would have to choose, either give up my passion for leading the church and teach in a seminary, or give up my interest in theological work and pastor a parish. I have at times felt as though my only choices where to ignore my heart or ignore my head.

This is what interests me about Jonathan Edwards because he was both a parish pastor who sought to make God real to his congregation week after week, as well as a theologian in his own right.  This inspired my journey on reflecting on the minister as a theologian.

To be sure, I do not have a doctoral degree, and I do not argue that my theological credentials are the same as a professor at a seminary.  However, I do see a minister as a theologian, albeït a theologian of a particular order.

In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we have four offices: Elder, Deacon, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and General Synod Professor of Theology.  The fourth office (General Synod Professor of Theology) are teachers and theologians of the whole church, they are general theologians.  However, Ministers of Word and Sacrament earn a master’s degree in divinity at a theological seminary and in the local church Ministers serve as “pastor and teacher” (as my denomination’s Book of Church Order defines the role of minister in a local church).  If Ministers as parish pastors see themselves solely as practitioners or as professionals that deal with practical and “down to earth” matters and not theological work, our churches then are devoid of theology and the manufactured gap between theologians and pastors, between theoreticians and practitioners widens.

A minister/pastor however, is not called to be a general theologian, a minister/pastor is called to be a particular theologian.  A pastor is called to be the theologian for a particular people in a particular place; to help the people entrusted to their care experience and make sense of God and their lives.  We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and part of the role of the pastor is not only to move someone’s heart but also to help them grow in understanding.  After all, theology, according to St. Anselm, is “faith seeking understanding,” so what better place for theology than in the local church?

As ministry has become a profession rather than a calling, and a job rather than an office, this idea of pastor as theologian no longer seems to make sense.  If pastors are professionals, then their highest responsibility is to run a church — administration, employee supervision, building and grounds superintendence.  This is why some argue that pastors should have education and background in business, because much of contemporary pastoral ministry has devolved into running a business.

However, this is a grossly (and sadly) deficient understanding of ministry.  A pastor is not called to run a church, they are called to help teach and lead the people of God, and a part of this is the ability to be a competent theologian.  I do this not for intellectual exercise, but to help my congregation seek an understanding for their faith, to help make sense of God and make sense of their lives, to understand where God is calling them, and what God desires.

Theologians in a seminary or university, while they may be brilliant theologians, are not able to help my congregation make sense of God and their experience simply due to the fact they do not live and dwell among the congregation.  They are general theologians, who teach the whole church and help to educate and form particular theologians who will live in and exist in a particular community, to understand a particular community, and to speak to the particular experience of a particular community.

As I continue to form my understanding of myself as a pastor and teacher, I have come to be convinced that theological study is a major part of my responsibilities. My study, however, is not solely for general interest or for my own edification, but it is so that I can better help my congregation as they learn to love God with heart and mind, and as they make sense of their existence, as they seek to understand and apply scripture to their everyday lives.  Seeing myself as a theologian allows me to ascend to the pulpit week in and week out and help my folks to understand and apply scripture, it helps my pastoral care as I minister to someone who is dying of cancer, it helps my exhortations as I seek to help people live into God’s desires.

Without adequate study and reflection, my sermons and teaching can become formulaic, simply regurgitating what I find in commentaries.  Without knowing the fundamentals of biblical Greek and Hebrew I am unable to understand the nuances of the original languages.  Without a theological lens or hermeneutic, I will tend to approach every piece of scripture as isolated and I will lack any coherent beliefs that hold consistent, and can be blown easily with any shift in the winds of change.  Without seeing myself as a theologian and scholar, my work to preach and teach the scriptures becomes trite and irresponsible.

My only hope is that we will be able to deepen our understanding of ministry and return to a focus on minister as pastor and teacher and not as the professional who runs the church.

How the Teacher Becomes the Student

The highest assembly of my denomination, the General Synod, meets annually in June. There are delegates which are elders and ministers, and there are corresponding delegates which can speak but not vote. Corresponding delegates are often people with particular expertise or particular experiences that make them valuable additions to General Synod and the denomination values their input. Among these corresponding delegates are those from the three colleges of the Reformed Church in America and from each of the regional synods.

These students are part of a program called “Call Waiting”. This is a program which guides them through the process of General Synod, but also guides them through an exploratory process of call — how and where they feel God calling them and leading them. It is a lofty goal to attain, but it is a process in which we seek to engage as deeply and authentically as possible. For the second year, I have had the privilege of leading the Call Waiting group.

I was recently asked what I enjoy about directing this program. My first response was that I appreciate General Synod and I enjoy helping others to appreciate it as well. While this is true, I do not think that this adequately describes why I truly enjoy directing this program. My true enjoyment comes from the other focus of the program: helping the participants to explore their call.

In order to do this, I choose various “calling” stories from scripture and invite them to reflect upon those stories, first bringing their life close to the story and eventually bring the story to their life. I never cease to be amazed at their insight, self-reflection, and grace. Many of these students have a faith which is very alive and which is very passionate. Some of these students were not raised in the faith but were gifted with faith later, others were born children of the covenant and have recently had the fire of faith rekindled within them, and still others of them have always felt near to the divine.

I am certainly not arrogant or self-centered enough to suppose that I help them to discover or understand their callings; rather, I try to create an environment where we invite God to do this for them. It is a privilege to be able to witness “light bulb moments,” when it is evident that something has “clicked” or that they experienced a revelation of some sort. It is also a great privilege to witness their struggling and wrestling, often things which are so personal and private.

I enjoy facilitating this program not only so that I can see the sparks of their faith, but because they also build up my faith.  At times my faith can be shopworn, and I find cynicism and lack of hope to be easy paths to go down.  However, when I work with these students, I find myself getting pulled back to a road of hope and I find my faith being restored.  It is by witnessing God working in these young people that I can sense God working in my own life as well.  It is seeing these young people who are so passionate about God, that I have a hope for not only our denomination, but also for the church in general.

I enjoy facilitating this program, not only because I have an opportunity to share my knowledge, my experience, and my passion, but I am also able to receive much more than I could ever offer.  I may offer these students some historical perspective, some basic operations of our church order and parliamentary procedure; however, these students, likely without realizing it, offer me hope and they do amazing things to restore and build up my faith.

The City and the Redemption of Creation

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From AdamL212 on Flickr

I try not to talk or write about politics very often as a normal course of my ministry.  My congregation is composed of people of all political stripes, and I strongly believe that no one political ideology has a corner on the Gospel.  However, something has been disturbing me as of late about the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall campaigns. It appears that there is a new opposition in the race: the City of Milwaukee.  I have received mailings, at least twice a week, from the campaign of Governor Scott Walker.  I understand that politics is dirty business, and I understand that Mayor Tom Barrett (the mayor of Milwaukee) is the opposition candidate, and as such his record is up for criticism.  However, many of these mailings have criticized Barrett by criticizing Milwaukee.  Many of them have highlighted Milwaukee’s unemployment rate, Milwaukee’s school troubles, Milwaukee’s poverty rate.  In fact, in his primary victory speech, Walker said, “…we don’t want to be like Milwaukee, we want to be like Wisconsin…” (you can hear his speech here).  This anti-Milwaukee rhetoric is what bothers me most about the whole political climate in Wisconsin. Additionally, as an urban minister, this has served as a catalyst for my theological reflection on urban centers in general.

Right out of seminary, I was interested in urban ministry.  It was a pull that I cannot completely explain.  I grew up in a small town (no traffic lights, not even a blinking light), and a city was certainly not part of my upbringing.  It was a summer field practicum in an inner city ministry that I felt the internal urging to ministry in an urban setting.  I have found that among others, there is often a lot of fear about cities, particularly low income inner cities.  For some, it is the natural anxiety that accompanies the unknown; for others, they may have been taught that cities are dangerous places, bad places, even God-forsaken places.  I know the narratives that cities are riddled with crime, gangs, drugs, and debauchery of all sorts.

I am certainly not going to argue that cities are some kind of utopia, or a place where the Kingdom of God is more evident than in suburban or rural communities.  However, I grieve the fear and, at times, hostility to cities.  I do not feel called to urban ministry because cities are somehow more deserving or more important than other communities, but because I want to work against the history of churches moving out of urban communities into suburban communities which have tended (at least in the last fifty years) to be more homogenous and have a higher socio-economic level.

I believe that God is very present in cities, and that cities have played, and will continue to play, an important role in the church’s mission in the world.  Until recently cities have been the major centers for industry, business, living, and culture.  Every day as I walk the streets of Milwaukee, I see remnants of the thriving city that Milwaukee once was (and will hopefully become again).  Further, cities have been central to my denomination’s history.  It was in a city that our denomination was first established on this continent, and it is in cities that people continue to encounter Christ, and continue to be formed into disciples of Christ.  I think that there is something unique about a city and God’s work in cities.  In fact, in the vision of the redeemed and restored heaven and earth, we see the image of a city — the restoration of human relationships and the model of people living in harmony, peace, and wholeness together.

The cities that we know and experience are certainly no where near the ideal of people living together in peace and harmony, but this does not mean that they are completely lost.  Cities continue to hold great potential for the Gospel to be spread and for God’s redeeming work to be observed.  There is, to be sure, a great deal of suffering and brokenness in cities (as is the case everywhere), it just seems that in many ways, the brokenness of those in the inner-city is more visible.

This vivid description of a city, the ideal of what a city should be, in Revelation 21, tells us that God’s plan is not to abandon cities or to abolish cities, but God’s plan is to redeem cities.  I think this is something for us to learn from.  The church cannot abandon cities, the church cannot ignore cities, and the church cannot simply look the other way from cities and the challenges of cities.  As Christ’s body on earth, it is our job to follow God’s leading, and I think that, in part, God is calling us to work for the redemption of cities, to work for the restoration of cities, and to seek the peace and welfare of cities, because when our cities are thriving, we will thrive (Jeremiah 29:7).

Milwaukee is not the city of God, neither is any city here and now.  However, I still believe that in the new heaven and new earth, we will be living in a city, in the perfect city with perfect relationships.  Until that complete restoration happens, however, I will continue working in my neighborhood in my city, always looking toward the peace and harmony that we are created for.  If God’s work of redemption has already begun, then it stands to reason that we can see signs of it, even (or especially) in the midst of a big city.