Doctrine


I’m sure the posters and readers on Planet Augsburg have encountered bumper-sticker theology before. In my experience, it is usually simplistic at best and snarky at worst. For example, a line such as “My God is too big to fit inside of your God’s box” might be brought out as a supposed “trump card” to win an argument for a universalist interpretation of what/who God is. However, such little quips are more harmful than helpful in rational arguments–no matter which side makes them. They are more for shock value than anything, and in many cases it seems as though their sole purpose isn’t to enlighten the discussion but to silence the opposition.

The specific bumper-sticker theology line that I’m thinking of is the question “Is God so powerful that He can make a rock that even He can’t lift?” There are many atheists who believe that they have the Christian by the short hairs when they ask this seemingly omnipotence-refuting question. The Christian’s answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will undoubtedly be met with the “haha gotcha!” response: “But I thought you said God was omnipotent!” Many Christians might be at a loss for an explaination to this seemingly paradoxical point in the existance of an all-powerful Deity. I believe, however, that even responding to the question with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ in the first place is futile because it gives validity to what is otherwise a ridiculous question. In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis addresses briefly how such arguments against an all-powerful God are not quite as solid as your average bear might think:

The absolutely impossible may also be called the intrinsically impossible because it carries its impossibility within itself, instead of borrowing it from other impossibilities which in their turn depend upon others. It has no unless clause attached to it. It is impossible under all conditions and in all world and for all agents. ‘All agents’ here includes God Himself. His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God. [emphasis author’s]

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Chapter 2: “Divine Omnipotence”

I was going to write my own summary of Lewis’ quote here, but the last sentence of the paragraph does that better than I could. Nonsense spoken about God is just that: nonsense. It would do most Christians well to realize this point and not to lose any sleep over weak, illogical arguments against the faith.

Cranach has linked to a very interesting article in “Modern Reformation” about “home churches.” He includes the following excerpt:

In a fairly recent study, Willow Creek-a pioneer megachurch-discovered that its most active and mature members are the most likely to be dissatisfied with their own personal growth and the level of teaching and worship that they are receiving. From this, the leadership concluded that as people mature in their faith, they need the church less. After all, the main purpose of the church is to provide a platform for ministry and service opportunities to individuals rather than a means of grace. As people grow, therefore, they need the church less. We need to help believers to become “self-feeders,” the study concluded.

How far can this trajectory take us? Evangelical marketer George Barna gives us a good indication. Like the recent Willow Creek study, Barna concludes that what individual believers do on their own is more important than what the church does for them. Barna, however, takes Finney’s legacy to the next logical step. A leading marketing consultant to megachurches as well as the Disney Corporation, he has recently gone so far as to suggest that the days of the institutional church are over. Barna celebrates a rising demographic of what he calls “Revolutionaries”-”millions of believers” who “have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead.” Since “being the church” is a matter of individual choice and effort, all people need are resources for their own work of personal and social transformation. “Based on our research,” Barna relates, “I have projected that by the year 2010, 10 to 20 percent of Americans will derive all their spiritual input (and output) through the Internet.” Who needs the church when you have an iPod? Like any service provider, the church needs to figure out what business it’s in, says Barna:

“Ours is not the business of organized religion, corporate worship, or Bible teaching. If we dedicate ourselves to such a business we will be left by the wayside as the culture moves forward. Those are fragments of a larger purpose to which we have been called by God’s Word. We are in the business of life transformation.”

Of course, Barna does not believe that Christians should abandon all religious practices, but the only ones he still thinks are essential are those that can be done by individuals in private, or at most in families or informal public gatherings. But by eliminating the public means of grace, Barna (like Willow Creek) directs us away from God’s lavish feast to a self-serve buffet.

Wow! There was certainly a time when Christians had to gather in small groups, inside their homes for private services. This came out of necessity because public worship had been banned. This came in a time when confessing Christ as Lord meant you were likely to end up on a burning cross in a Roman-constructed arena.

Now, apparently Christians don’t want to be bothered with all the hassles that come with public worship. We just want to be left alone to do it ourselves . . . and eventually to die by ourselves . . . for all eternity.

This passage was also revealing:

“In just a few years,” Barna predicts, “we will see that millions of people will never travel physically to a church, but will instead roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences.” (7) After all, he adds, the heart of Jesus’ ministry was “the development of people’s character.” (8) “If we rise to the challenge,” says Barna, America will witness a “moral resurgence,” new leadership, and the Christian message “will regain respect” in our culture. (9) Intimate worship, says Barna, does “not require a ‘worship service,'” just a personal commitment to the Bible, prayer, and discipleship. (10) His book concludes with the warning of the last judgment: “What report of your commitment to practical, holy, life-transforming service will you be able to give Him?” (11) The Revolutionaries have found that in order to pursue an authentic faith they had to abandon the church. (12)

“Roaming the internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences.” I have no doubt that what Barna predicts will come to pass. But, “roaming the internet” will not be able to replace Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or the Word. Of course, if you think the heart of Christ ministry was “development of people’s character,”I guess you would think this sort of Church of Self sounds great.

In a recent article titled “Inspired by Starbucks” in the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter writes:

On a recent Sunday, worshippers gathered in a multiplex theater next to a Starbucks, McDonald’s and T.G.I. Friday’s. The lights dimmed and the Rev. Troy Gramling, a goateed man dressed in jeans, T-shirt and blazer, filled the screen. “God knows your secret, and he loves you anyway,” he said. “Isn’t that cool?” A few people answered, “Amen,” as if Mr. Gramling was there preaching, instead of 2,650 miles away in Cooper City, Fla.

While missionaries have long carried their message overseas, a new generation of churches is spreading a strain of evangelical Christianity with worship services as slickly packaged as any U.S. franchise. Rather than seeking converts to a mainstream denomination, these independent churches are forming global organizations anchored by a single leader. Many far-flung congregants watch their pastor via satellite or DVD each week; the services abroad are designed to replicate Sundays at the home church.

Mr. Gramling’s Flamingo Road Church, which has a weekly attendance of 8,000, is based in Broward County, Fla., where he records his sermons on DVD for screenings here, as well as at three branches in South Florida. Each church uses the same distinctive music, banners and logo — a white cube bisected by a black curving road. Mr. Gramling says he tried to copy the success of Starbucks by assembling a creative team to hone “the look, the feel, the branding idea, of what Flamingo Road is.” Like Starbucks, Mr. Gramling is thinking big. His goal is 50 churches world-wide, 100,000 members and a $150 million-a-year budget.

 

Do you think the goal ever gets in the way of the message?

My thanks to Matt for inviting me to blog here at Planet Augsburg.  For those of you who are curious, I am a university student in Illinois who will be attending seminary (http://www.ctsfw.edu) after a National Guard deployment to Afghanistan next year.  

Ironically, my first contribution to this blog is not something that I wrote.  Following this introduction is the address given by my roommate, JJ, a few weeks ago during the Sunday service at the church we attend here at school.  For many years it has been the practice at our Lutheran Student Center (which is apart of the local Lutheran parish) to have graduating seniors get up and say a few words during one of their last Sundays here. 

The following is JJ’s address.  As you read this, know that these are words that needed to be said–not only to our congregation here at school but also to the greater synod and Church.  I cannot add anything to what he said because, in my opinion, he hit the nail on the head in his admonition of our congregation. 

Here is what JJ said:

2 Timothy 4:2-3 says, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

There’s that word that makes many Christians cringe: doctrine. Maybe it makes you cringe a little bit as you think of how many ‘doctrines’ are out there and how many different beliefs there are about it. Whatever you may think of that word, it’s biblical and it is commanded of us to keep in accord with sound doctrine. Which means this: there is truth when it comes to doctrine. There is one view that is right on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, original sin, election of grace, etc. and all the others are not only false, they are unbiblical. 

Do not give into your itching ears. They will lead you astray. Believe me, I know. My itching ears lead me to disobey God. My itching ears want me to put aside sound doctrine.

Hold fast to sound doctrine. The way that you practice things at Immanuel Lutheran will affect what you believe and vice versa. Doctrine and practice are united in a symbiotic relationship. You cannot separate the two. Your itching ears may want something new and something more creative than the same old stuff that we do every week. Your itching ears may convince you that we need to change styles in order to attract more people, to grow as a congregation. Biblical change can be good and it is important to recognize that the only way this congregation will grow is by that very Word that you are currently hearing weekly.

So come to Church every week and listen. Recognize that Christ is serving you. Sit at His feet and let Him teach, let Him serve. It’s what He wants to do more than anything. Pay attention to what is being said to you and know that God Himself is saying it. Go to bible study. Go to Catechism class. Read the Lutheran Confessions. Let Jesus serve you as you study His Word. Spend time in God’s Word at home, in your dorms, or apartments.

Keep in accord with sound doctrine. Hold fast to the teachings of our Lord. Let Him serve. Continue to proclaim Law and Gospel. Continue to Baptize. Continue to come to the Lord’s Supper to be fed by His body and blood. You will grow if you spend time in the Word and listen to what God has to say. That growth should not be measured in numbers. Ultimately numbers are irrelevant. Christ’s command to be the Church is relevant. To be the church you must have sound doctrine. People may leave because of it. That’s ok. Pray for them and winsomely talk to them. If this church is pure in doctrine and 100 years from now there are only 8 members left because itching ears have got the best of everyone else, this church will still be strong as ever because church is not about people. Church is about doctrine and doctrine is all about Jesus. So long as Christ crucified for sinners remains the cornerstone, the church will go on and Immanuel Lutheran will be a shining light in a world of darkness.

That 2 Timothy 4 section does not end with law, it ends with Gospel. By being the Church you may one day join St. Paul in saying:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”

Thank you for welcoming me as a brother in Christ. The peace of Christ be with you.