The Need For Measurable Progress

How does one determine the spiritual health of a congregation? For some, the health of a congregation can be determined (i.e. measured) by how active the laity are, how strong the youth group is, and how pious its individual members are. That congregation must be healthy that has lots of programs. What purpose do the programs serve, ultimately? To show measurable results. This is also, by the way, page 1 out of the Pietist’s handbook.

The Orthodox Lutheran measures/judges success not by looking at the fruits of the members, or by counting sheep, or by taking inventory of how much people know, or by how many Bible verses one can recite from memory (more on that later), but rather by the orthodoxy and purity of teaching and administration of the Sacraments. That’s not to say that Christians should not be involved and active in service projects, or youth groups, but these things should not be the determining factors in measuring the spiritual health of the congregation. These are subjective, and they vary from congregation to congregation, just as the fruits of faith vary from Christian to Christian. These things are all well and good, but they are not the main thing. They are not central.

What is central? What is absolutely indispensable? The preaching of the Gospel. The Administration of Christ’s Sacraments. Church discipline, at least for orthodox Lutheranism, has never been considered a mark of the Church. It is good, it is helpful, it is one of the duties of a caretaker of souls, but it is not our primary duty. We are not called to be policemen. At some point, like parents and teenagers, we must commend the souls of our members into the hands of our heavenly Father and pray that He could guard and keep them, and then go on with our lives. Our job is not to measure the success of our preaching by examining the fruits of our members, but rather to preach, as in the Parable of the Sower. Neither, I’m afraid, is it our duty to measure the boundaries of the Christian Church.

It is the Pietist who demands measureable progress, who needs observable, identifiable proof that the Gospel is working. Orthodox Lutheranism is content to preach, to administer the Sacraments, and to leave the rest to the Holy Spirit, who “works faith when in where He pleases in those who hear the Gospel.”

Related to this is the need for measurable progress when it comes to preparation for admission to the Lord’s Supper.  It is my understanding, based on lectures that I have heard on the subject, that Pietism was partly responsible for removing the burden of Catechesis from the parents and putting it on the pastors. Not content to rely on the preaching of the Church to convert and supply faith “in these words,” the Pietists were much more concerned about demonstrable proof of faith in those who received the Sacrament.

The pastors, as the Catechists, served as policemen in a sense, who said “yay” or “nay” to applicants for Communion based on how much they could articulate in their own words about the Christian Faith. I could be overstating this a bit, but it seems like the drive for an almost academic like requirement for first communion stems more from our Pietistic roots than our Orthodox Lutheran roots.

Certainly I am not saying that it is a bad thing at all to require children to receive extensive instruction, but to make it an absolute requirement for admission to the Supper? Sounds awfully Pietistic to me. Hence the need for measurable results, observable progress. Fufill these requirements, and BOOM, you’re ready for the Sacrament. Maybe this is a Western thing in general, this need for identifying a specific point at which a person is “ready.” I don’t think it was always like this though. Luther was content to require children to attend catechetical preaching with their parents, and then to be examined when the parents brought them to the priest, and then to be admitted to the Sacramental fellowship of the Church. I doubt that he would approve of our practice today of holding children back from the Sacrament until they were able to demonstrate to a large extent their “readiness” for it.

There is a certain comfort for a preacher in being able to give someone a test and have that person put down all the correct answers. But one has to wonder: is our fitness for the Sacrament based on our ability to regurgitate doctrinal formulas, or on the fact that we are Baptized Christians? I’ll leave it there.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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5 Responses to The Need For Measurable Progress

  1. forestboar says:

    Not sure what you mean by “Church discipline, at least for orthodox Lutheranism, has never been considered a mark of the Church.” See AE 41:153, 166.
    The first reference is to the office of the keys, publicly exercised, as a mark of the church. Second is to Luther’s contention that keeping the decalogue (holy living) could be added to the marks of the church – though he adds the proviso that hypocrites make than an untrustworthy mark.

    I do agree with what you say about catechesis and admission to the sacrament. Think and Say more about this topic. So far I am totally with you. Let’s see if you end up approving of infant communion before you are done.

    Or, as I have said time and again, “We take decision theology out of Baptism, and place it squarely on admission to the Sacrament of the Altar.”

  2. bobham says:

    I’ve been thinking…and not quite sure I have a totally coherent thought on it all yet, but perhaps a question – I believe that in Communion we share a fellowship with God as he pours out his grace and blessing through the sacrament. (a vertical fellowship) But don’t we also express a fellowship with our fellow believers (a horizontal fellowship)? Wouldn’t this be the area where a longer catechesis comes in? We would want them not only to know and understand what God is doing for us in the Sacrament, but also to know and understand as much as possible the faith that they share with those they are communing with?

    Even writing it out, still not sure i’m that coherent. Sorry!

  3. Rev. Mike Grieve says:

    I agree that it is Pietistic to always want a demonstrable proof of faith. I would say it is also legalistic to want to always measure faith. We do, to an extent, hold confirmation up as a carrot at the end of a maze, or a hoop to jump through in order to get to the altar. However, I would offer these words from Luther in the Large Catechism: “As we heard about Holy Baptism, so we must speak about the second sacrament in the same way, under three headings, stating what it is, what its benefits are, and who is to receive it. All this is established from the words Christ used to institute it. So everyone who wishes t be a Christian and to go to the sacrament should know them. For we do not intend to admit to the sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come.” I guess the question would be, what does Luther mean by knowing what we seek and why we come?

  4. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Forestboar, what I meant by church discipline not being a mark of the church was that we don’t see it as a mark of the church in the same way the Calvinists do. The “notae purae” did not include church discipline. The pure Word and rightly administered Sacraments were the identifying marks of the church. The Lutherans, unlike the Calvinists (and I would say the Pietists) allowed for wheat and tares to grow up together, and did not believe that a mark of the true church was necessarily that all the members were pure. They looked to the preaching and the Sacraments. For Luther, where this was pure, then you had the true Church. This is discussed by Dr. Jonathan Trigg in his book, “Luther’s Theology of Baptism.”

    Bobham–again, I’m not against extensive and rigorous catechesis. What I am against is the idea that this ought to be a requirement for one to be admitted to the altar. I think that it ought to be done between the 4th and the 6th grades, but according to Luther, it was necessary for one simply to “know what they seek or why they come” as Pastor Grieve points out in his comment.

    Thanks for the comments gents!

  5. Dave Schultz says:

    First off, I really wonder about “what Luther and the first generations of original Lutherans actually did.” I see a real mixed bag, from basic Small Catechism teaching, to full length dogmatic courses like Hutter’s “Compend of Lutheran Theology.” It might have more to do with economic class, requirements of the local prince and Intendent, and a host of other factors. But Luther did intend the catechism for home, and for school… and the questions and answers (the big back section) did appear early in Lutheranism (1620’s, I think? In Saxony?)
    I think we do need to break down some of the barriers that tradition has built up around confirmation, to get to the catechisms original intentions. However, before we do that, I really want to see more study about why these things came about, and if there are ways to make it better, first. As Kenneth Korby spoke about Loehe: we need to deal with a Lutheran church that has gone through pietism, we are not able to return to a pre-pietistic church.

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