Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not doctrinal but pastoral...

The problems facing Lutherans are largely not doctrinal.  Notice I did not say we do not disagree about doctrine.  I confess that we do -- and not just between notoriously different church bodies or theologians (like ELCA and Missouri, Becker and Scaer, for example).  But this disagreement is not because doctrine is unsettled or has a history of dispute.  It is settled, primarily for Lutherans in the Book of Concord but also in the great evangelical and catholic tradition which we claim as our own.  It is that we dispute this settled doctrine and this is a pastoral problem.

I was reminded in something I read that Pope John XXIII believed the problems of Rome to be pastoral but not doctrinal and his vision for Vatican II was to address those pastoral issues (not in the least of which was how the Roman Church was to face the radically different landscape of the world following World War II, the Cold War,the economic success of the1950s, and the cultural challenges of the day.  What happened was that the Council had people who believed that the issues were not pastoral at all but doctrinal.  Whether through the direct means of the Council decisions or the implementation which was done largely outside the Council, Rome has awakened to a Church no longer sure of its doctrine and whose practice has fostered a diversity that was never intended by the Council itself or the humble man who called Rome's bishops to meet.

To connect this to the situation in Lutheranism today, I would suggest that we run the same risk.  If we let our problems become doctrinal then we open the door to ruin in which everything settled by Scripture and tradition becomes suspect and open to reinterpretation (at minimum) or redefinition (at worst).  This is what the ELCA has done.  It began with a pastoral issue and it became a doctrinal issue -- one that was settled not by Scripture or tradition but by the prevailing mood of the moment and a practice inconsistent with what we had believed, confessed, and taught prior to the current day.  The ELCA should have known better.  The same thing happened with the ordination of women.  A pastoral issue became doctrinal and, without theological justification or reason to depart from the unchanged consistent confession and practice of the Church prior to 1970, a decision was made that radically departed from that unchanged consistent confession and practice.  In many respects, that women have been ordained among Lutherans is not in dispute but why remains an open question.

Many of the big issues facing Missouri -- if not most -- are pastoral.  The unsettled mess of who shall commune is a pastoral issue.  Pastors and the congregations they have taught and serve have chosen to dissent from the established tradition, not only of Lutheranism, but of the Church prior to Luther.  The why of this change must not be allowed to become the issue.  The issue is the dissent and its consequences of disunity, confusion, and offense.  BTW, I mean not only those who will commune everyone but also those who are in selective fellowship with only some of Missouri and who practice their own brand of selective communion that seeks to close the door rather than find the fullness of our common faith and life together at the table.

The disarray of what happens on Sunday morning is not doctrinal but pastoral.  Pastors and the congregations they have taught and serve have chosen to dissent from their own constitutional requirement for the exclusive use of doctrinally pure hymnals and agendas as well as from our common liturgical life which is not an adiaphoron.  Why they have departed from the tradition of the Divine Service and its published forms within our own hymnal tradition must not be allowed to be the issue.  The issue is the dissent and its consequences of disunity, confusion, and offense.  All of us, me included, owe it to one another and to our common identity as Missouri Synod Lutherans to practice consistently with our confession and liturgical tradition.  How elaborate or simple the ceremonial may be open to local decision but the form of the Divine Service, following one of the lectionaries, and the church's hymnody are essential components in the Sunday morning life of every Lutheran, especially every LCMS, parish.

The lack of consistent and faithful catechesis for young and new to the faith is not a doctrinal issue but a pastoral problem.  How we fulfill the calling to catechize and disciple the people of God is a matter of some freedom and flexibility but the content of that catechesis is not.  The fact that in some of our parishes every last detail of the faith must be taught and believed and in others the barest outline is required is a problem that will manifest itself over and over again in our future as we forget who we are and find that none of us are sure what a Lutheran is.  Pastors and the parishes they teach and serve bear the responsibility for the decline of preparation for membership which has left the folks in the pew confused about what we believe, confess, and teach -- or worse, believing that it does not matter.

The failure to speak to those who fall away and call them to repentance is not a doctrinal issue but a pastoral problem.  With it is our lamentable practice of private confession and absolution and our lack of forgiveness and reconciliation as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have the surprising circumstance in which nearly all Lutherans believe that private confession is not Lutheran or no longer faithful Lutheran practice and we have the tragedy of people who are not called to account and of sinners who carry the burden of the grief and shame as an unbearable weight without relief.  As an example of this is the hijacking of Lent's call to repentance and catechesis for forty days of purpose with Rick Warren.  The Pastors and the parishes they teach and serve have left us unable to distinguish which is Lutheran and which is not.

I could go on but I won't.  Again, my point is that the issues before us are not doctrinal issues awaiting resolution or definition but pastoral problems of dishonest dissent and of the disrespect for those who have gone before us and our common life together as the people of the Lutheran Church (in my case, Missouri Synod).  The ultimate pastoral problem is both the perceived freedom to whatever seems right in our own eyes and the isolation from review and accountability for that departure from the faithful practice of the Church.  We do not need to find doctrinal consensus.  The doctrine is clear both in terms of the Lutheran Confessions and Scripture (not to mention the evangelical and catholic tradition that is our claim as well).  What we need is faithful pastoral practice.


Anonymous said...

Every LCMS parish is led by a called
pastor who has met the requirements
for ordination. His pastoral tact and
leadership determines whether that
parish will be healthy and vibrant
under the power of the Holy Spirit.

A pastor has a Word and Sacrament
ministry to nurture the faith of
the members in Jesus Christ. Since
there is no perfect parish and no
perfect pastor we must rely on God's grace.

Anonymous said...

I never thought it about it this way. We do not lack doctrinal clarity. We lack faithful practice of our clear doctrinal confession.

While no one insists upon absolute uniformity, it is to be expected that the range of practice is narrower rather than wide open.

Pastors and their congregations that flaunt their freedom often forget they have just as much obligation to their peers as they do freedom to make individual choices. A little balance in this would be wise.

Chris said...

If lex orandi, lex credendi is the basis by which to judge whether a church observes correct doctrine, then you're wrong, Fr. Peters: the problem in Missouri is doctrine. There is no possible way that the sappy, egocentric, praise band lead worship of megachurches is rooted in the theology that Missouri formally claims to teach and defend.

Lutheran Pastor said...

Is there doctrinal ambiguity? Is there unsettled doctrine? If the answer is no, then the problem is not with the doctrine but with the practice of that doctrine -- which largely leaves it up to the individual pastor/parish to do as he and they please. If it is a doctrinal problem, then we need to convene a council, discuss the disputed doctrine, and determine which is orthodox. I think Pastor/Father Peters is correct. We do not have doctrinal ambiguity, we do have a refusal to accept settled doctrine and a refusal to have practice defined and shaped by that settled doctrine. Do we need a new creed, confession, or statement of faith? No, we need to practice/enforce the ones we have. That is a pastoral issue.

At first I also disagreed with Pastor/Father Peters but now I think he is correct. The alternative is to suggest that our Lutheran Confessions either do not speak to these issues or they do not bind us and this is a can of worms none of us needs to dig into. Now to be sure, the Confessions do not speak to EVERY doctrinal issue but they speak to many and they presume/assume the evangelical and catholic consensus undergirding these settled questions.