Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Comfortable Middle

Rome seemed to step back from the precipice and Pope Francis has called his flock back to the middle.  Those who complain about the liberalism in the Episcopal Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are complaining about the loss of the moderate middle.  Some within the Missouri Synod complain that the conservatives have the upper hand and that what the church needs is to reclaim the middle ground.  On the clergy self-rating forms, the middle is the comfortable place for pastors to place their doctrinal and liturgical practices.  It is the safe place.  Or is it?

I am growing increasingly suspicious of that comfortable middle.  Is what the church needs really a moderate middle ground of theology and practice?  Will the world be convinced by a church that believes but not too much?  A church that takes doctrine seriously -- but not too seriously?  A church that practices its liturgical identity but not too devoutly?

The sad truth is that the moderate middle is not a stable place.  It depends upon the fringes to the right or left for its definition.  It is not a solid position at all but an aversion to extremes, to zealotry.  The moderate middle has been moving over the past several generations and it is a decidedly leftward journey.  This is true for society, for politics, and for religion.  All this means is that we have not moved too far ahead of the pace of change so that we are avante guarde but neither are far off the pace so as to be behind the curve.  In the end we are comfortable with change -- just not too much or too fast. 

The disgruntled in the ELCA or Episcopal Church do not pine away for a church that believes like it did in the 1900s but rather a church like they were before the sex wars of the last decade or so.  They want to reclaim a moment in time not so much because they believe it is best but simply because it represents a breather before the craziness began and they saw their churches slip into high gear as forces forcing change upon their people.  In the same way, Baptists pine away for the glory days when everyone was envious of their growth or Missouri pines away for its days when membership losses were unimaginable.  We have sought an untenable position in a middle ground which is constantly moving and which offers us nothing and equips us with nothing substantial to offer those outside our ranks.

The comfortable middle ground of doctrine or practice is not our saving hope.  It is a lie.  We do not need Lutherans who are not too Lutherans but Lutherans who are fully convinced that the answers of their Confessions and catechism are not only relevant but required of those who wear the name.  We need a people who are true believers in the Scriptures, in the efficacy of that Word, and in the means of grace to bestow what they sign.  We need pastors who are thoroughly convinced that what we preach is true and the truth of what we proclaim when we speak as confident Lutherans.

Congregations are perhaps rightfully concerned when they get a zealous Lutheran pastor.  For too many years we have shrugged our shoulders at the casual way we wear the name or do what we do on Sunday morning.  It IS shocking to find Lutherans so convinced of the truth of their Confessions that they truly do believe everyone should believe as a Lutheran.  I am not speaking in a sectarian sense (ONLY Lutherans go to heaven) but as a people convinced of our doctrine and practice and unapologetic of this doctrine and practice before the world.

Scripture does not speak kindly of the future for the lukewarm.  Statistically, the comfortable middle does not bode well as the place to stake a claim for our church.  We already have too many people who are embarrassed by the label.  What could be worse than people convinced of the truth of our confession, the legitimacy of liturgical worship, and efficacy of the means of grace?  Only a people who are not too sure about it all.  The world may fear the zealot but the world has even less respect for a people who do not fully believe their own truth.

So I am ready to ditch the idea of the comfortable middle, the sacred ground of moderate Christianity or moderate Lutheranism.  If zealots scare us, maybe we need to be scared.  Yes, zealots might need to learn to love the people for whom Christ died as much as they love the doctrinal purity that proclaims it faithfully.  But the moderates need to learn that love does not mean ignoring, adjusting, or betraying the truth of God's Word.  No, I am not asking for people to pursue the church as purity cult or to make ideology more important than the people for whom God's truth has been given.  What I am asking is for those who think the comfortable middle is our saving hope to learn some holy boldness and speak with the same passion, conviction, and confidence as the early church in Acts or Christianity in times of persecution and test. 

What is the need to belong to or join a church that you can live without?  We are all too busy for such commitments.  But a church you cannot live without has rightful claim on our days and our attention.  We do not gain by promoting a Christianity or a Lutheranism that is a nice addition to the life you already have.  What God calls us to proclaim is the Gospel that forgives sinners, gives hope to the despairing, and gives life to the dead.  There is nothing moderate or middle ground about such a Gospel!


Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters asks, "Is what the church needs really a moderate middle ground of theology and practice? Will the world be convinced by a church that believes but not too much? A church that takes doctrine seriously -- but not too seriously? A church that practices its liturgical identity but not too devoutly?"

These are perhaps interesting questions, but they pale in importance compared to the big question, "Will Almighty God be pleased with such a luke warm church?" The Book of Revelation tells us the answer, and it is NO! This should be our guide

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Carl Vehse said...

What is the "comfortable middle" between right and wrong? Is it simply "lukewarm"?

John Joseph Flanagan said...

. If lukewarm is our goal, and being moderate at the expense of truth is preferred, then we have failed to obey God, and this is not where we want to be. We cannot please God and man in all things as some would have it. Being liberal in the way of ELCA and the Episcopal church, as well as the Presbyterian Church USA, is contrary to God's word and must be exposed as the heresies they promote. Belonging to such churches and knowing and accepting their values on doctrine and sexual permissiveness reflects a disobedient way of life before God, and cannot be defended scripturally or considered morally as a mere alternate point of view. The only option is to leave such church bodies entirely, lest one become soiled by apostasy and eventually counted among the lost and unsaved.

Anonymous said...

The assessment about the "comfortable middle" or as some say the "mushy middle" is accurate, and that is not the place to be theologically. However, the extremes are just as dangerous whether they be left or right. We see some evidence of extremism on the right which is not very theologically sound and can be abrasive. (It seems many on the far right lack Christian charity) Perhaps a more appropriate term would be "right of centre", combining faithfulness and charity into one aspect


Carl Vehse said...

"It seems many on the far right lack Christian charity"

Of course, that claim usually is made by those on the far left.