Sunday, November 25, 2018
Preaching truth to closed ears. . .
This was once the method for those abusing priests but it is also a convenient practice for priests who get under the skin of bishops. Now I am not Roman Catholic and have no skin in this game, as they say. I know that there are certainly occasions in which such evaluation and treatment is salutary and compassionate. I know that in the halls of power, abuse of that power takes many forms. So, you might be wondering, what is the point here or is this Lutheran simply meddling in Roman affairs.
The point is this. Conflict comes from various sources. There are priests and pastors who seem oblivious to how they come across and are offensive when they should not be. Their people skills are wanting. There are conflicts that involve priests and pastors but they are not the source or even the focus of that conflict -- they are collateral damage to internal power struggles and prey to the alligators who seem to thrive in some congregations. There are conflicts due to priests and pastors who themselves delight in pushing people's buttons and who seem to create chaos and bitterness wherever they go -- not a mere personality defect but worse -- all so that everything goes their way.
But. . . there are other conflicts over doctrine and truth and practice. They are not the same but are often treated as if they were. These things happen not only in Rome or in Wittenberg but everywhere doctrine matters and because doctrine matters, practice cannot be ignored. We tend to lump them all together into one as if these conflicts were not different. They are radically different. Priests and pastors are sometimes their own worst enemies and do themselves in with foolish things said and done or by making everything into a doctrinal matter and making every hill one to die on. I know. I was probably that guy at one point. I have had friends and acquaintances who were those guys. We need good and honest friends to help us out when we are those priests and pastors. Probably not bishops but peers are best suited to help us see how we have contributed to the mess. But when doctrine is at stake or faithful practice is dismissed as something unimportant, this is not something treated by therapy or friendly conversation. This must be addressed with truth.
When doctrine and faithful practice are at stake, when this is conflict over that which we must faithfully preach, teach, and pass on, the solution is not therapy or friendly conversation. The role of episcope has become confused with the role of conflict manager. Those whom the churches have assigned with ecclesiastical supervision have been gravely tempted to become firemen, to go and put out fires in parishes, find out who is to blame (conveniently often the priest/pastor), and deal with him. Ecclesiastical supervision is not about putting out fires but standing for truth. Speaking the truth with love is the domain of all of us but it is surely and essentially the specific responsibility of those who exercise ecclesiastical supervision over priests/pastors and parishes. Doctrinal conflicts cannot be resolved by a change of leadership. Surely there is room and place for those involved in those conflicts to confess and seek the forgiveness for those whom they have wronged in their vocation of preaching, teaching, and presiding but there is not and should not be repentance for holding to the truth of the Word that endures forever. When we confuse other conflicts with conflict over what we believe, confess, and teach, we trivialize the faith and betray the solemn responsibility given to those who provide this pastoral presence within the parish and those assigned to oversee priests/pastors and parishes.
In Lutheranism as in Rome, those assigned with ecclesiastical supervision have not only great responsibility but great power. That power can easily be abused and I am sure it has many times but it can also be denied. Those assigned roles of ecclesiastical supervision of doctrine and practice in the churches must be careful to discern what the conflicts are and are not and how best to deal with them. Putting out fires is a hard and wearisome duty -- ask those who battle forest fires in our land. If all the energy is spent trying to calm the waters, how much time and energy is left for the greater duty to preserve doctrinal integrity and promote faithful practice?
Whether we call them bishops or superintendents or district presidents is a smaller matter than what duties they have been assigned and how they carry out those duties. I know that we expect much of them -- too much. We think them wizards to fix all sorts and kinds of problems (from declining numbers to financial shortfalls to personality conflicts to alligator filled swamps of congregations to pastors who have no people skills, and well, the list goes on). We love to criticize them (as some might think I am doing here) but what we need to do is to free from of their firefighting responsibilities in order that they may fulfill the most important duty they have -- to oversee doctrine and practice over those assigned into their care. Their success and integrity -- indeed for the whole church -- depends on this more than anything else.
It is frightfully easy to promote false doctrine in a church -- certainly much easier than changing the color of the carpet in the narthex! Because of this, both priests and pastors as well as their parishes need to hear and heed their overseers (managerial speak for bishops) and overseers need to make sure that the highest goal and duty they have is to orthodox doctrine and its accompanying faithful practice. The Word of the Lord that endures forever demands no less than our full attention to this. Speak the truth in love but speak it clearly and hold us accountable for that saving truth in Christ is the ONLY rationale for our being.