Saturday, August 1, 2009

Roundtable 44: The Marriage of Priests (Smalcald Articles Part III, Article XI)

Just as we can not make a man, a woman, nor a woman, a man, no matter what modern surgical techniques make possible, so we can not through modern theological "surgery" make a man something other than a man, and demand and require that he renounce marriage before he can serve Christ and His church as a priest/minister/pastor/elder [whatever term you prefer]. The very fact that the Papacy had come to deny marriage to clergy is a mark that indicated to the Reformers its anti-christian character, since the Apostle Paul had clearly warned that among "the teachings of demons" would be the teaching that marriage was forbidden. (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

Luther in Part III, Article XI of the Smalcald Articles asserts that the Roman Church has neither the authority, nor the right, to ban marriage and to burden the office of the ministry with a requirement that is not Biblical. We know, for example, that the Apostle Peter himself, the first Pope, so it is said by Rome, had a wife!

We hardly need to think much further than to the recent sex scandals that have afflicted the Roman Church, and have come out in to the open here in the United States, to concur with the comments of Luther; namely, that enforced celibacy has caused a myriad of problems: "all kinds of horrible, outrageous, innumerable sins of unchastity [depraved lusts], in which they themselves still wallow."

The Reformation threw out the required, enforced celibacy of the clergy, something that remains to this day as a scandalous anti-Biblical teaching of the Church of Rome.

Luther himself set an example that has been followed by countless Lutheran pastors since. He took a faithful and devout spouse, had children with her, and from that marriage, he was richly blessed by God, and by extension, so was his ministry. While marriage is not a requirement for the clergy, avoiding it certainly is not either. The Church has no business attempting to say "no" to what God had declared to be very good, in the beginning of all things.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Roundtable 43: Ordination and the Call (Smalcald Articles III X)

At the time of the Reformation, it was important for there to be a renewed understanding of the extent of the authority of the Church's bishops and other authorities in matters pertaining to the calling and ordaining of the church's ministers, that is, her pastor/preachers/priests — the title makes no difference. Luther was willing to permit a legitimate role for bishops in the administration of the Church, as long as they understood that their authority extended only over matters pertaining to the welfare of the Church. Ordination, that is, the ancient rite of the laying on of hands to commission a person to begin his ministry as a pastor in the Church, does not require a bishop in order to be efficacious. This was an erroneous view that had become well entrenched and established by the time of the Reformation. However, in historic, genuine Lutheranism there was never any doubt that a proper call to serve, formalized through ordination into the ministry, was necessary in order for a pastor to be a properly authorized public servant of Christ.

The problem with Bishops and the system of Bishops at the time of the Reformation was that they had seized power, through a succession of historical circumstances, and had become, particularly in some areas, rulers of both the Church and the civil state. In the Church, the Scriptures teach that only men with the proper theological and personal qualifications are able to serve as pastors in the Church. See 1 Timothy 3:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:2, 15). Even the practice in the Early Church demonstrates that pastors, could, and should, when necessary, ordain other men to be pastors.

The key consideration for whether or not the ministry of bishops can properly be received and used in the Church is simply whether, and to what extent, they would be true actual bishops, that is, overseers who are devoted to the Church and the Gospel.

The Lutheran Church was faulted for ordaining clergy without the participation of bishops in the so-called "line of apostolic succession" which, of course, is more myth than fact.

In the church today, what, and how, could the church make use of the ministry of bishops? Have American Lutherans lost sight of the fact that the historic episcopate is a model that is perfectly acceptable, and is strongly rooted and grounded in historic precedence? Is the greater danger today bishops, or a lack of proper ecclesiastical supervision and care for the spiritual welfare of the Church? Comment.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Roundtable 42: Excommunication (SA III.ix)

Every once in a while one still hears Lutheran pastors speak about imposing the "lesser ban" as though there were also a "greater ban." SA III.ix shows that such is not the case. The greater excommunication is something Lutherans regarded merely as a civil penalty; it has no place in the Church herself (and those who think it does are confusing the two swords - getting Christ's government confused with Caesar's). What the pope calls the "lesser" excommunication is the real deal. "Open and hard-hearted sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin."

Open - which means that the sin is known. It's not secret. It's not hidden. It's blatant and in your face. Everyone knows about it.

Hard-hearted - which means that the sinner doesn't give a rip about the sin. "Yeah, so God says it's wrong; it's a problem. Tough. He'll have to forgive me because I'm not going to change." Nowadays this frequently shows up with folks living together in sexual relationship without benefit of marriage.

To those who meet these two sad criteria, the Church through her called ministers employs excommunication. They are not admitted to the Sacrament *and other communion of the Church* until they amend their lives and avoid sin.

Amend - which means repent and change.

Avoid sin - which means the exact opposite of the embracing of sin; fleeing from it as from a deadly poisonous snake.

Not admitted to the Sacrament is pretty clear. I've had to tell folks before: "You can't receive the Eucharist as long as you are holding onto this sin and refusing to repent." It always is the most difficult of moments, but it must be done when there is no repentance.

What's the "other communion of the Church" that the SA refer to in this article? I think it refers to anything in the Church's life BEYOND being present to hear the Word proclaimed. If a person is serving as a treasurer, and they are excommunicated, then their office is forfeit. Same if they are an organist, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, a parochial school teacher, a deaconess, a lector, a baptismal sponsor, well, you get the idea.

The article concludes by warning pastors not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment. The reason, if you think about it, is clear: the Church is ruled by the Word of God. She has no other means of persuading or of carrying her responsibilities. She may NOT call upon the state to assist her in this. The "geistliche" estate is governed by "geistliche" means entirely. One thinks of how this got so muddled in early America where folks were pilloried for breaking the Sabbath and such.

Christ rules His Church by His Word. The faithful living out of this in community will call for putting out of the communion of the community those who try to hold onto sin and to justify it rather than letting Christ forgive, absolve and remove them from its shackles.

A final pastoral note: we should always distinguish between ruling sins and besetting sins. Ruling sins are when a person has truly given themselves over to what they know to be sin and no longer struggle or fight against it. To such people, the Law only is to be proclaimed. But they are quite different from those who struggle with besetting sins, sins that they fight against continually, and sometimes win against and sometimes lose. But they HATE the sin and wish to be free of it, and so they flee to Christ, who is the Savior of poor sinners and who will forgive them and strengthen them anew for the battle. To them, the Gospel alone is to be proclaimed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Roundtable 41: The Means of Grace (Smalcald Articles III.iv-viii)

Sometimes we hear people ask, “Why do we need the Sacraments if we have the Word?” It’s an understandable question. We tend to think, “If God said He forgives us, and Christ died, why do we need Sacraments?” I’ve heard the question answered this way, “How often do you need to tell your wife you love her? Once?” No, of course not. We tell those whom we love how much we love them, often. And God is the same way. He gives His grace and mercy, lavishly.

Luther has a delightful way of putting it in the Smalcald Articles, “God is superabundantly generous in His grace.” The German word here for “superabundantly” is “├╝berschwenglich” and means “effusive” and can mean “gushing.” A paraphrase might be, “God gushes grace!” The Latin translation of the Smalcald Articles says that God is “rich” (dives) and “liberal” (liberalis) in His grace and goodness” (dives et liberalis est gratia and bonitate sua.)

How so? Luther lists four ways: First, through the spoken word (Ger: m├╝ndliche Wort; Lat: verbum vocale), “through which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world.” Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Luther here presents the specific means of grace, which are often referred to as the Word and Sacraments. The “particular office” of the Gospel (Ger: eigentliche Amt des Evngelii) is the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, and the Sacramental means of that proclamation are located, by Luther, in Baptism, Lord’s Supper and the Power of the Keys, which Luther explains most specifically in Article VIII: Confession.

But Luther does not end his “laundry list” of the ways in which God is so lavish and generous with His grace. He explains that there is also a communication of God’s grace through the “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” which Luther, in his German text, here uses Latin words to explain: “per mutuum colloquium et consolationem fratrum” and then cites Matthew 18:20, “where two or three are gathered, etc.”

Luther’s point in these articles is twofold: to affirm the variety of ways our good and gracious God provides His lavish treasures of forgiveness, life and salvation to us, and to affirm what God’s Word teaches about Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the Keys. The key to understanding these gifts is the recognition that it is not in the act of doing them that grace is given, but that God has given us His word of promise connected to these simple, external means of communicating His grace to use: word, water, bread and wine. Thus Luther says of Baptism, that it is “nothing other than God’s Word in the water, commanded by His institution.” (Art. V.1).

In the article on the Sacrament of the Altar we have the most strikingly realistic assertions of what the Lord’s Supper is: “the bread and wine in the Supper are Christ’s true body and blood.” (Art. VI.1). Luther, with a verbal wave of the hand, dismisses the “high reasoning” and “sophistic cunning” that had developed in the Medieval Church to try to explain how it is that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine His blood, and then a way of justifying not distributing the blood of Christ to the laity. These theories, transubstantiation and concomitance, are speculative human theories which have nothing to do with Christ’s institution.

Here we should caution that often we hear Reformed Christians (heirs of Zwingli and Calvin) claim that they do not deny the Real Presence, but they just don’t try to explain how it happens. This is not the same thing as the Roman Church adopting a philosophical explanation for how the bread is the body of Christ. Reformed Christianity rejects the assertion that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, choosing instead to affirm, in various ways, that the actual body and blood of Christ as as far away from the elements of the Supper as heaven is from earth (this is what Calvin asserts in his writing the Consensus Tigurinus).

The binding and loosing of sins in the Church is not a power and authority that is given to the Pope to distribute as he sees fit, but rather it is “given by Christ to the Church” (Art. VII.1). This article is followed immediately by Luther’s comments about Confession. “Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and consolation for a bad conscience. It is ordained by Christ in the Gospel. Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means be abolished in the Church.” (Art. VIII.1). This article really is more about Luther’s desire to assert the strength and power of the means of grace, which is located in the “spoken, outward Word” through which God grace His Spirit or grace “to no one except through or with the preceding outward Word.” (Art. VIII.3).

Luther is very concerned to make these points clear because there were those in his days, as in ours, who were pointing people not toward the external, objective Word and promises of God given to us in Scripture and delivered through the outward preaching and teaching of the Word, but rather pointing people to their feelings, emotions and their perception of the Spirit’s promptings and stirrings. Luther rejects any such interior speculations, be they from radical reformers like Muntzer and others, or from the Papacy itself which Luther says is “sheer enthusiasm” since the Pope finally claims the right to decide and command based on the “shrine in his heart” as evidenced by the Papacy’s directing and teaching things that are “above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.” (Art. VIII.4).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Roundtable 40: Repentance (Smalcald Articles III.iii)

Over the years of the Middle Ages the Gospel was corrupted perhaps most dramatically and visibly in regard to the doctrine of Repentance. Medieval Romanism had developed a view that man is not totally corrupted as a result of the Fall into Sin and as a result there was within man still a spark of spiritual ability that could be aroused and awakened by a "dose" of grace, and following that "dose" of grace, the life of the Christian is marked by man doing what is within him to merit and earn God's continuing grace and favor. The entire Roman Sacramental system had developed around this error. The Smalcald Articles, Article III, Part III, sets forth a proper, Biblical understanding of repentance and grace.

Aside from the important doctrinal content of this section of the Smalcald Articles we have some of the most powerful autobiographical content by Luther in the Book of Concord. He describes his own experience, in the third person:

"As for Confession, the procedure was this: Everyone had to list all his sins (which is impossible). This was a great torment. If anyone had forgotten some sins, he would be absolved on the condition that, if they would occur to him, he must still confess them. So he could never know whether he had made a sufficiently pure confession or if confessing would ever come to an end. Yet he was pointed t his own works. He was comforted like this: The more fully you confess, and the more you humiliate yourself and debase yourself before the priest, the sooner and better you render satisfaction for your sins." (SA III.iii.19).

The Gospel rediscovery on this point is that confession is being moved by the holy will of God, the Law, to see our sin, to confess it and to cling only to Christ for His grace and mercy. This repentance continues until death, throughout our lives, as we wrestle with the sin that remains in us. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us, every day, and Luther asserts that "this daily cleansing sweeps out the remaining sins and works to make a person pure and holy." (SA III.iii.40).