Monday, January 19, 2015

What do rules have to do with the Gospel?

How often do we hear that rules are antithetical to the Gospel, that the nature of the Gospel means that every rule gives way to a higher principle, a gospel principle, of tolerance, acceptance, love?  How often do we have people juxtapose truth with love so that truth must bend in order to serve the higher goal of love?  How often do we hear people say that it is not the faith that needs to change but practices (liturgical, doctrinal, discipline, etc...) opened up to be more receptive, more welcoming, and more friendly?

I have had conversations with folks who insisted that the Gospel insists that there can be no rules about who may commune or who may not commune. . . that there should be no condemnation for cohabitation. . . that love requires all people of sincerity and good will to be accepted -- along with their lifestyles. The Gospel is not attached to the cross or suffering or even God's answer for sin.  It is, in this mindset, a lofty principle without any judgment whatsoever, without any real truth except tolerance, and without any real substance except feeling.  This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ nor is it remotely related to the Gospel proclaimed in Scripture and testified in tradition.  There is no promise in this gospel nor is there any real hope.

Now I read where a Roman Catholic bishop in Belgium has take up the cause of this Gospel detached from Christ and His suffering and proclaimed the triumph of love that accepts without judgment and tolerates without condemnation any and all of good will.  You read for yourself:

“We have to look inside the church for a formal recognition of the relationality which is also present in many gay couples. As there are a variety of legal frameworks in society exists for partners must arrive recognition form a diversity in the church.”  Moreover, [Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp (not an official translation)] argues that a homosexual relationship as well the criteria of a religious marriage can satisfy.“The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional demand. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty and care are central to each other.”
 Without agreeing with everything Rome says about marriage, it is still possible to see that Bishop Bonny is not advocating a simple change in practice but a wholesale and radical redefinition of what Rome has said marriage is.  Sadly, it seems this fellow may be in line to become the next primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium.  If so, it will surely tell us as much about Francis as it does about Bishop Bonny!

Yet we as Lutherans face exactly the same tension.  To deny approval to anyone of sincerity and good will is antithetical to the Gospel, it is claimed.  Whether at the altar rail for communion or before the altar in marriage, love (gospel) requires us to suspend all judgement and allows only one thing -- the welcome of all who are sincere and of good will.  In essence this is exactly the position of the ELCA with respect to who may commune, who may marry, and who may become a pastor.

As good as this sounds, it is, in reality, the emptying of the Gospel of any of its power and the abandonment of any and all hope in the true and living God whom we know in Christ Jesus.  It represents not simply changes in practice but a transformation of what is believed and confessed, a severe disconnect with the Church that went before us, and a rebuke and rejection of our very Confessions.

We are told that if the music of Sunday morning or the strangeness of the liturgy or the manner of dress is a barrier to even one hearing the Gospel, this must be sacrificed immediately for the higher call of the Gospel.  The problem with this is that the word gospel is being used in a manner foreign to Scripture and tradition.  The music of Sunday morning in not for our feelings or reflective of our preference but a vehicle for the Word, a means of both teaching and confessing Christ.  Music in and of the liturgy has a creedal character.   The problem with this is that the liturgy is not simply an order that might be used but the Gospel.  The liturgy is Scripture said and sung.  To abandon the liturgy in favor of seeker or culturally sensitive forms is to tinker with what we believe, confess, and teach.  To treat the setting of God's people around Word and Sacrament as entertainment designed to satisfy the spectator or provide a venue for the leader to do his or her thing is to move worship from God and for God to one of many different things we do largely because we want to, it makes us feel better, or it allows us to shine before our peers.  Such is not simply a change in practice but a profound shift of belief and witness away from Scripture and tradition and in conflict with creed and confession.

At least we should be able to acknowledge this much.  The argument has never been about a change in a subtle practice.  It has always been about whether practice flows from confession, whether confession changes, and whether fidelity to Scripture and consistency with tradition allows us the freedom to make such changes.  It is not about whether the Church has a hang up with sex or some conflict between high brow and low brow practice but about Christ.  The truth is that the biggest impediment to the world is not the problem of cohabiting straights or homosexuals or music preference or casual style but Christ.  He is the stumbling block.  To transform the Gospel to make it winsome or acceptable to the masses inevitably leads to transforming the Gospel itself and the end result is a Christ-less Scripture, proclamation, and confession that saves no one at all.  It is not that the Gospel has rules we must obey but that to be faithful to Christ requires us to be faithful to His Word.  That is the rule with the biggest kick back.

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