Defining a Generation: Getting our Practice to Match our Doctrine

Every generation of pastors has its defining challenges. In the sixties and seventies, for example, it was important to stress the divine origin of the Holy Scriptures, and the fact that all of Scripture, not just the parts about God’s love and grace, is to be taught as the Word of God for today. The “Battle for the Bible” defined an entire generation of pastors and church members.

What is it that defines our generation? I would submit that it is broader than just the “Battle for the Liturgy” or getting the church back to weekly Communion, or any number of individual issues. I think there is something that encompasses all of these things, and that is the movement towards making our practice consistent with our doctrine. I don’t know how to put that into one word or phrase like “The Battle for the Bible.”

Here’s the thing–we’ve read our Confessions. We’ve studied the Scriptures and the History of the Christian Church. And we’ve recognized a huge disconnect between what is supposedly taught and believed, and what is practiced. And we are saying: If this is what we believe, then this is what our practice ought to look like. Regarding the Lord’s Supper, “If the Lord’s Supper is everything that we say it is, then why shouldn’t this be offered every Sunday?” Or, if we’re talking about how to handle the Lord’s Supper during and after the distribution, we are saying: “If the Lord’s Supper truly is the body and blood of our Lord, then shouldn’t we treat it as if it is? Do we want to deny by our actions what we have believed in our hearts and confessed with our mouths?”

Or, if we are talking about worship, we are saying: “If God is truly present in His Word and Sacrament, as we believe and confess that He is, then aren’t we called to be reverent in His presence? Is this not holy ground on which we stand? Should we allow our Services to be conducted as if God were not there?”

Perhaps one could look at it more narrowly and say that ours is the “Battle for the Lord’s Supper” since so many of modern day controversies seem to surround it. Pastors in my generation–ask yourself what are some of the first things you address when you get to a parish. For me it is communion frequency, how the Lord’s Supper is handled by the altar guild after the Service, closed communion, and who distributes the Sacrament. Here at Immanuel I spent the first six months or so of my time in Bible class discussing the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper. I think that says something about what many of us believe to be the #1 issues in our churches.

It boils down to this: practice does matter. The way we do things shows what we believe (or don’t believe!). If we believe that Christ is present in His Supper, in His Church, then the way we conduct our Services, the way we conduct ourselves should reflect that as much as possible. What do you think? Am I overstating this? Do you agree that our generation is defined by this? Is it too broad? Too narrow? Someone else could probably say it 100 times better than me, but these are just some initial thoughts to get discussion going.

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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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9 Responses to Defining a Generation: Getting our Practice to Match our Doctrine

  1. This is brilliant, Paul. I really think you nailed it, especially: “Here’s the thing–we’ve read our Confessions. We’ve studied the Scriptures and the History of the Christian Church. And we’ve recognized a huge disconnect between what is supposedly taught and believed, and what is practiced. And we are saying: If this is what we believe, then this is what our practice ought to look like.”
    What I am witnessing in my own context is very VERY alarming. Because contemporary practice doesn’t match Confessional practice, doctrine has suffered. For example: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Because we contemporary Lutherans have defined worthiness of the Lord’s Supper as being a certain age and mental capability, people are believing that the main point of Baptism is to hold us over until we can understand the faith, and so receive the Lord’s Supper, etc. Again, VERY alarming.
    Our Lutheran forefathers bequeathed to us (in the Confessions) a mighty fortress of practice, ceremony, etc which is a sure defense against false doctrine and false belief. We have torn down some of these walls from the inside out, or worse (in some places) we’ve walked away from the fortress altogether. This generation of pastors is simply trying to rebuild the walls…and it’s back-breaking and heart-breaking work.
    Thanks for your post, Paul.

  2. David Juhl says:

    I submit it is a battle against pragmatism. The race for “success” in the Church has left its mark among us. Remaining faithful to God’s Word is one thing among many now. How one remains faithful to God’s Word is awash in a sea of techniques designed to make a congregation “flourish” and “prosper”, yes, even “succeed”. This is what advertisers call “branding”. I learned a little about it as a broadcaster. Branding can be a good thing (“The church where you know you’ve been to church.”) but it can also be a bad thing when techniques are used that “work”. For example, canvassing the neighborhood and asking people what they want in a congregation, then branding the congregation according to the most popular answers in the canvass. If this “worked” for another congregation, and it was successful, then it should also “work” for us too, regardless of whether or not the scheme is faithful to Lutheran identity.

    Pragmatism can be (and probably is) a theology of glory. Implement a plan, then sit back and watch it succeed. If it doesn’t work, try something else that “worked” for someone else. Suffering and failure are considered to be bad things. This is the opposite of the theology of the cross. Then again, why have a theology of the cross because one will have to call a thing what it actually is. That might not work. One might make people mad. People might leave the congregation. Then we’ll have to try something different.

    Pragmatism is our enemy. It must be stamped out. Doing what Lutherans have done for five centuries, that is, doing what the Church catholic has done, doesn’t look for success as the world looks as success. We confess the faith, and give all honor to God no matter what happens. Congregations do fail. Nevertheless, the Church shall never perish/Her dear Lord to defend.

  3. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Thanks for the comments–great points Nicholas, especially where you say that we are just trying to rebuild the walls. We’re attempting to undo years and years of not-so-great practice. Let’s just call it what it is–unLutheran practice. And it is back-breaking and heart-wrenching work at times, especially those times when we see something that needs to be corrected, but we have to bear with patience while the people catch up.

    It seems like what we are trying to do is to Lutheranize the Lutheran Church. We’re trying to take a Church that has in large part fallen away from its Confessional moorings and bring it back. It seems like the burden has fallen on us to explain “Why” to our members, or to put it another way, to make the apology, the defense for Lutheran practice. I just don’t think this was much of an issue forty or fifty years ago. There were great pastors back then, who read their Confessions too, but for some reason they didn’t take the next step and practice the Faith as it is believed.

    I want to avoid the impression that I am standing on a soap box being critical of past generations of pastors. That’s not the point of this at all! There are things that we are overlooking, or that we do not do as well as they did, I am convinced. I hope that my post does not come across like that. But it just wasn’t an issue. Now it is. And sometimes it may seem like we are dragging our congregations with us, and they may feel that way too. But hopefully it will be worth the effort in another generation or two.

  4. One bit of consolation we do have, even in our loneliest times in the trenches, is that there are others among us who have the same goal, who are moving in the same direction. Thank you and the rest for your faithfulness, it is encouraging. It’s still Time to dare to be Lutheran.

  5. Weedon says:

    Paul, wow. You put your finger right on the challenge of this generation, this age, our task. “Let us be who we say we are.” And I think I’d push it beyond the Confessions in the sense that they really are only saying the same thing to a church that had been corrupted in a different way: we need to BE the Church of God. That is our mission in this day and age. Thank you for your clear and concise statement of the issue.

  6. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Thanks for the replies! One could, I suppose, say that the ongoing goal of the Ministry, in ANY generation, is to try to bring our practice in line with our theology. This is, I suppose I ought to say, always going to be a struggle, always going to be imperfect too. I suppose it is like faith and love. By faith we are already completely reconciled to the Father through Christ. But we’re always working this out in fear and trembling. So also our work in the Church. Our theology is right. We don’t have to change it or adjust it. But applying that theology, getting our practice to reflect it, that will undoubtedly take a lifetime.

  7. Ariel says:

    I think this is probably the best way to summarize the current conflict within the Lutheran Church between the missional and confessional factions that anyone’s attempted. I think that with many confessional Lutherans purity of doctrine and consistency between faith and practice is stressed, and rightly so. I think that what works for the secular world–pragmatism, minimizing differences and maximizing similarity, and group consensus–might not always work in matters of faith. God’s Church is an inerrant divine institution filtered through and facilitated by fallible and imperfect humans. As such, much of the perfection and completeness of the Means of Grace are unfortunately lost through individual cult of personalities and indoctrination–the wrong kind, the kind that is centered on human rationalization. I think that I’m a confessional Lutheran because Lutherans, more than any other denomination or faction, are the ones that come the closest to “getting it”. I think that confessionals are the best at recapturing the divine perfection of God’s Word and the Sacraments, which have by and large been lost and dispersed in the Christian world by attempts to recreate the same perfection within human reasoning.

    Having said that, I do sometimes wonder if confessionals have their own manner of indoctrination and groupthink. No matter how much we “get it”, we ARE human, and we ARE born of sin. We think and reason with the same kind of human brain that everyone else does, and we’re still vulnerable to the same cognitive biases as everyone else. We still tend to fall along the same line of thinking of “our side is right, their side is wrong”. I think that’s why other Christian denominations and even the “missionals” within the Missouri-Synod resent us so much. We like to talk about how other churches and other pastors are going astray, how they’re following un-Christian ideals, we brand them as heretics and false teachers…but have we ever actually TALKED to “the other side”? We assume that we know what they believe and why they believe it…but do we REALLY? Have we even bothered to ask them if what we accuse them of is true? I’m not talking about “opening up a two-way dialogue” or any of those loaded phrases that many use to bring in radical new ideas to an already-existing structure. I’m just talking about making sure that what we’re saying about other people is true, and not just our own paraphrasing or interpretation.

    In a way confessionals have a lot in common with almost any reactionary ideological movement–we’re very good at looking inside our group, but we’re pretty bad at looking outside the group. Perhaps that’s why the confessional movement hasn’t attracted as many numbers as the big-tent evangelical megachurches or parachurch associations. I think that if asked, many “outsiders” would perceive confessionals as dwelling too much on “how we do stuff, and how we’ve always done stuff” (doctrine and practice, in other words), and not enough on “how can I be a part of what you do?” I think that the missional faction within the Lutheran Church–and most Christian denominations– is an attempt to reconcile that dilemma, and in my opinion it’s overcompensation and takes too much away from what we’re already doing right (doctrine and practice).

    There’s nothing in your blog post that I disagree with. This is a great way to summarize a problem within the Church that proves to get worse before it gets better. But I’m not really a fan of villainizing other people or other groups without getting it in their own words. What we believe, teach, and confess is consistent with God’s Word. But let’s not rest on our laurels and break our own back patting ourselves on it for being good Lutherans TOO much–we’re still human. We still sin. And we still live in a world filled with other equally as sinful and fallible humans. Part of the Christian life is navigating the narrow channel between reconciling our life with God and reconciling our life with other humans.

  8. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Ariel, I like how you said, “Let’s not rest on our laurels and break down our own back patting ourselves on it for being good Lutherans…” Agreed!

    I think, though, if you talked to most pastors in my generation, recent grads as well as those from the last fifteen years or so, they would shy away from back-patting, or self-aggrandizement and tell you instead how they struggle within themselves as to what the best approach is to a problem, and how they really don’t always know what the right thing to do is. I certainly don’t feel like I am a “good” Lutheran.

    And, my thought regarding the reason the Confessional movement doesn’t grow as quickly or as big as, for instance, the mega-church movement is that we are too busy trying to figure out how to serve our own flocks, rather than fleecing other flocks for their sheep. Most mega-churches are not growth from new converts to Christianity, but people who are dissatisfied with their “traditional” churches.

    It is possible, however, as you say, to become prideful, and to think that I and I alone “get it” and that no one else does. We certainly should guard against pride always. But my post was mainly trying to put my finger on what characterizes this generation of Confessional pastors.

  9. Drewe says:

    Amen. I think your reply here hit it (certainly for me)

    “One could, I suppose, say that the ongoing goal of the Ministry, in ANY generation, is to try to bring our practice in line with our theology. ”

    Once we define our theology, we need to practice it – or else redefine it. As our theology is based on the Word of God we should be redefining the theology, but out practice in line with it. It will always be the struggle, it is just which element we are focused on – for example. communion, or baptism, or the sacrament of the Word, or even back to the Divine inspiration of Scripture.

    Our place in this is to pray to God that we would be in His will, and continue to be part of keeping His church focused on Him….

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