The Church Needs to be The Church Again

St. Thomas Lutheran Church; Ann Arbor, MI. Where I had my first pastoral internship

St. Thomas Lutheran Church; Ann Arbor, MI. Where I had my first pastoral internship.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions within this article are reflective of the author and not GUG as a whole.
On Saturday, April 16th I attended the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) Michigan District’s 2016 theological conference, “Let’s Talk Life.”  Issues that were discussed were abortion, euthanasia, miscarriage, and marriage.  The past couple years have been filled with constant debates over these issues.  I’m not going to be talking about what the Christian stances are because those are already known.  People already know Christians are rightly against abortion, gay marriage, and mostly euthanasia.  I’d just be beating a dead horse if I wrote an article about these issues.  I refuse to talk about the Christian stance because, as I said, it’s already known, and I also refuse to talk about my personal stance because of Paul’s words, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know tbeatingthedeadhorsehat they breed quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23).  So please, don’t use this article as a place to make your political arguments because 1) this is not the place for that, 2) that is not the purpose of this article, and 3) I won’t read them.  My biggest take away from this year’s theological conference was how the Church is no longer the Church anymore. Society knows what the Church stands for, at least politically, but it does not know who the Church stands for.  Society knows we stand for life because of the common politically conservative affiliation, but they don’t know we stand for Jesus Christ because, well, we no longer stand for Him.  I know, this is a challenging statement, and I’ve probably ruffled a few feathers, but allow your faith to be challenged for a moment (2 Cor. 13:5).  I don’t have any definite answers in how exactly the Church can be the Church again, but I do call us to reflect on our own lives within the Church.  Perhaps by this self-reflection, we can begin to change the Church.

The Role of the Church

What is the purpose of the Church?  Is it to make political demands or preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Hopefully you agree it’s the latter, because that is the Church’s only role.  If you’ve read my articles before, you might be familiar with the two kingdom Lutheran theology.  God rules over two kingdoms: the right (vertical) kingdom and the left (horizontal) kingdom.  The right kingdom is exclusive only to Christians, which is where God meets us in grace and forgiveness.  The Church’s role as an organization is only in that vertical relationship in bringing God’s grace and forgiveness to believers.  She does not involve herself in the left kingdom—that is, in horizontal relationships with people (secularism); that’s what people in their vocations are for.  The left kingdom is both where God keeps the world in order through the laws of physics, the government, and other means, as well as how we Christians treat our neighbor.
So at issue is how we as Christians can influence the morals of society to make the world a better place to live in.  Again, it isn’t the Church’s role as an organization, but it is certainly the individual Christian’s role.  The Church is where we receive the sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, and edification through various means of fellowship.  What we learn as the Church is what the individual Christian incorporates into the secular world through their vocations.

The New Commandment

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  It’s one of Jesus’ simplest statements, but with tremendous depth.  The best way we can change society towards something better is just by being Christian.  If we want the views on issues such as abortion and gay marriage to change to what Scripture says, then we first need to start living like we’re actually Christians.  Luther’s theology on vocation discusses each person’s different roles in life—student, employee, brother, sister, boyfriend/girlfriend, wife/husband, son, daughter, etc.  All these roles and more are our vocations, and there is no greater way to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ than in developing relationships.  Keep in mind we cannot formulate a completely Christian society, and neither should that be our goal.  But we can bring more people into the church by how we love one another.  If this happens, we just might begin to see society change towards something better.  The more people we bring into the Church, the more people will stand for God’s stance on life.  The only reason why I’m Christian today is because of the love Christians showed me all those years ago.  I experienced God’s love through their love.  Today, I hardly see that love in Christians even amongst ourselves (perhaps most evident in the GUG community group).  This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The Condition of the Church

The greatest image we have of how the Church is meant to be comes from Acts 2:42-47:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Take this passage and compare it to the Church today.  The Church today is vastly different, isn’t it?  Let’s get some context: this happened right after Pentecost.  The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, when they spoke people heard them in their own language, and about 3,000 people were converted.  These Christians were devoted to the apostolic teachings and “had all things in common.”  Today, we have various denominations.  Nothing can be done about this, but we can nonetheless come together as God’s universal church, for we all have the same head: Jesus Christ.  Imagine the powerful effect we might have if we set aside our doctrinal differences and just love people as Christ taught us to love.  These early Christians went to the temple together. Today, we have those lukewarm Christians who only attend church twice a year on Easter and Christmas, or only a few times a year.  Church is not an option; it is an expectation God has for His people. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  How can we stir up one another in love and good works and encourage each other if we refuse to meet each other at church?  Lazy church attendance is not normative for the Christian.  These Christians also met frequently in their homes and ate together.  We have the Pietist movement to thank for the Protestant tradition of small group meetings and devotions.  It’s a habit the Moravians started, and John Wesley borrowed it in his effort to have the Anglican church preach the Gospel (because the Gospel was missing at this time).  Honestly, small group meetings and devotionals are probably the thing we’re best at, and involvement in these groups should be continually encouraged.
Lastly, these Christians had favor with all the people!  Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine having favor with the people in our society?  That favor is obviously lacking, due in part to our contentious arguments as we stubbornly refuse to capitulate.  These Christians showed such enormous love for one another in their fellowship and for other people in their generosity that society at the time viewed them favorably.  The effect this had on the Church was that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved!”  Can you imagine that?!  How awesome would it be to experience the Church like that?
So what’s missing then?  Why isn’t the universal Church like this?  I think it’s because we’re missing that vital component: love.  In his theology on vocation, Luther describes vocation as a “mask of God.”  That is, He is hidden in each vocation in taking care of His creation.  God’s work is hidden in the farmer, the janitor, the pastor, the doctor, the artist, the sandwich artist at Subway, the burger flipper at McDonald’s, the shoemaker, the parent, the brother/sister, and so on.  The purpose of every vocation is how God takes care of His creation.  The thing that is characteristic of God is that He works through physical means to give us His grace.  We are saved through the physical means of baptism (the water) and forgiven in the Lord’s Supper (the bread and wine, body and blood). God reveals Himself to us through His Word (ink and paper, the sound waves from the pulpit), and He takes care of us through physical vocations—through other people. When we buy fruit and vegetables from the produce section, God is giving us our daily bread through the farmer.  When the janitor cleans the facilities where we work and/or study, God is giving us a clean place to remain healthy.  When the burger flipper at McDonald’s gives us our meal, God is providing us food.  When we engage in our relationships with family, God is giving us a community in which we can always remain comfortable, safe, and loved.  You see where I’m going with this I hope.

Loving Our Neighbor in Vocation

Part of Luther’s theology on vocation is the role of government as drawn from Romans 13.  In short, God establishes government to restrain our sin and to protect people from sin.  It bears the sword for this very reason.  It is wrong, therefore, for the citizen to go outside their vocation and try and force what it’s the government’s job to do.  Luther would argue we need to trust the Christians in government to fulfill their vocations in order to do God’s will.  Of course, today they seem to be failing.  This is either because they forgot how to do their jobs as Christian government officials, or because they are the minority and have no influence.  We can’t really know this.  Reverend Gene Veith said, “Luther puts it even more strongly.  Vocations are ‘masks of God.’  On the surface, we see an ordinary human face—our mother, the doctor, the teacher, the waitress, our pastor—but beneath the appearances, God is ministering to us through them, God is hidden in human vocations.  The other side of the coin is that God is hidden in us.  When we live out our callings—as spouses, as parents, children, employers, employees, citizens, and the rest—God is working through us.  Even when we do not realize it, when we fulfill our callings, we too are masks of God” (Lutheran Witness, 2001).  It doesn’t matter whether the person is Christian or not.  Whether a doctor is Christian or atheist, he serves God’s purpose in taking care of His creation.  “For He [God] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).   Allowing others to fulfill their vocations in our lives frees us to carry out our own vocations.  We should allow others to fulfill their vocations, and recognize that we cannot carry out the work of another person’s vocation for ourselves. 
So, what can we do?  Nothing short of loving our neighbor.  These Christians after Pentecost had the favor of all people because of how they loved one another and how they loved their neighbor. This is what’s lacking today.  Instead of focusing on Jesus Christ as our head, we separate ourselves from each other depending on what denomination we identify with, making haughty claims as to which denomination is the right one.  We identify with our denomination rather than with Jesus Christ.  Instead of praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), we hardly ever pray and tell others we’ll pray for them without really meaning it.  Instead of giving to the poor generously, we take it upon ourselves to discern who “deserves” our giving by rationalizing they’ll probably use it for drugs or alcohol.  What absurdity!  Instead of going to church on a regular basis to engage in fellowship and edification, we treat church like a gas station and only go when we want to be filled up.  And if we do go to church, that’s the only time we ever see each other; we hardly dare to meet outside of church.  Instead of loving each other and loving our neighbor and being favored in peoples’ eyes, we yell at each other and yell at society and they hate us.  And so, instead of more people coming into the church, more people leave the church.
When Jesus told the parabThe Good Samaritanle of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), He told this parable in response to the lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?”  In this parable, Jesus teaches the lawyer not to be so concerned with defining who his neighbor is, but rather to be neighborly to all.  The Jewish priest who walked by the beaten man in the parable didn’t stop to help him because, well, he was a Gentile. But the Good Samaritan, also a Gentile, helped the man just because.  He did it out of the kindness and love of his heart.  When we refuse to give to the poor because we assume he or she is going to use the money for drugs or alcohol, we are no different than this self-righteous priest.  We do the same thing when we refuse to show love to our neighbors in each of our vocations.  It doesn’t matter who that person is, or what kind of person they are, Jesus commanded we love one another (John 13:34). It wasn’t a polite suggestion; it was literally a command.

What’s to be Done?

If the Church changes, I believe society will begin to change too.  The Great Awakening of the 18th century caused an enormous Christian awakening, and it changed society.  America needs another awakening, but she won’t wake herself up.  The best way to wake her up is by showing the love of Jesus.  So, what can we do?  It starts with you.  Remember how the Christians were in the Acts passage and pray God gives you the strength and the ability to do as they did.  The Church body will change as soon as her individual members begin to change.  If you want to see the Church change, it begins with you.  Share this message with your friends to encourage a drastic change in how we love one another.  When the people change, the Church begins to change, and then she begins to positively influence society because the foundation of this change is the love of Jesus Christ in His people.

Ricky Beckett

Garrick Sinclair "Ricky" Beckett first started his Christian writing on a blog titled "The Lutheran Column" where he hires proficient Lutheran writers to convey biblical truth. Along with the blog, he also writes poetry, string quartets in music composition, enjoys doing photography, reading, and playing video games. Ricky is a graduate from Concordia University-Ann Arbor from the Pre-Seminary program with a major in Christian Thought and a minor in Theological Languages. Currently, Ricky is a seminarian at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis as he works on his Masters of Divinity to become a pastor in the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod).

1 Comment

  1. Charles Norrington on April 13, 2020 at 2:46 pm

    Ehhhh…. The so called “Great Awakening” was a disaster, we got cults like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Millerism, and the rest of Charismatic Christianity (which I used to be a Charismatic). Your idea of the Church not being involved in politics sounds just like the Lutheran stance of the Church only doing Church things and not getting involved in politics, which led to the rise of a very angry Austrian with a toothbrush mustache, WW2, the Holocaust, and the list goes on. We as Christians need to be involved in the secular world… wait… no that’s wrong… what I mean to say is that the “secular world” doesn’t even exist!!! God rules over everything so there is no such thing as a “secular world”, the kingdom of Satan is in shambles even though the Church is stupidly claiming that it is alive and well thus implying that Christ was not victorious when he rose from the dead. This dualistic approach to the world is very Gnostic and going to get us into trouble. I agree we need to love our neighbor, which we are not doing if we don’t resist evil, sometimes it involves going at a mad man with a gun when he is distracted and snapping his neck so that the people who he was intending to swiss cheese (our neighbors) will survive and come to know the love of Christ, even if such a bold move does cost you your life (being armed with a gun does decrease the possibility of death IF you have it on your person). I don’t really trust Lutherans (or any protestant for that matter) because their founder was a Geo-centrist (even Answers in Genesis states that), an Anti-Semite (of the proto-nazi variety), and a Mary worshiper (go look up his statements about Mary, they are very Catholic indeed). Granted I am of the belief that even the Protestant Reformation was an ungodly disaster in hindsight.

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