A BAD CASE OF STREP THROAT (Nothing Else Can Take the Place of Biblical Authority)
by Rev. Roland Wells
What if I went to my doctor with a bad case of strep throat, but he ignored the root cause? "Here you go, Pastor Wells. You've got strep throat. Here's a prescription for a great new mouth wash to kill the throat pain," said the physician, "And here's a narcotic for the pain. Here are some aspirin to bring your fever down."
"But Doc," I said, "I've got strep throat. Can't I get some penicillin?"
"Nope, use the mouthwash," he said; "I want to ignore the bacteria."
A couple days later, I return. Strep has moved to scarlet fever. A red rash covers my body. I'm getting very sick.
"Doc, I'm not getting better. I'm going into scarlet fever. I'm in danger."
"Pastor, are you taking your medicine and gargling? " "Yes," I reply.
"Well, keep it up. And here's a prescription for cortisone for that nasty rash. And a compact of Maybelline makeup to cover it up on your face. Go home now, and get better."
"Can't I please deal with the bacteria? Can't I please get a $5 prescription for penicillin?"
"No, I think it's best to ignore the bacteria. You've got nasty symptoms; let's treat those."
So I went home, gargled, took my aspirin, rubbed on my salve and makeup. And died.
Treating the Symptoms, not the Disease?
Today the illness of the mainline church is the lack of a common understanding and recognition of the authority of the Bible. We lack a common "hermeneutic" - an understanding of how Scripture is the Word of God. Because we have no understanding of how God’s Word is God’s Word, we aren’t able to stand on the words of Scripture. Historically, our Lutheran sense of identity has been based on Luther’s principle, Sola Scriptura. Scripture Alone is our central authority and source of identity. In the middle of the 20th Century, the rise of “higher criticism” and its unstated theological presuppositions, undercut the authority of the Word. The fairly neutral tools of higher criticism, when used with presuppositions undercut the authority of the Word. The fairly neutral tools of higher criticism, when used with presuppositions that miracles can’t happen and that science and sociology are a higher authority than Scripture, have weakened the role of Scripture in our churches. We have lacked the will, tools and language to re-articulate a strong view of Scripture in the modern climate.
Because we have been told over and over again that Scripture is not authoritative, that the Bible can be twisted to support any argument, and that the modern mind recognizes all the "contradictions" of the Bible, we are then told that we must find our authority and identity from some other source. That's the central cause of the problem in the ELCA and the rest of the mainline church. The lack of a common, shared, authoritative hermeneutic, with a high view of Scripture is the bacteria, the cause of the disease of the church. Several treatments for the symptoms have arisen. All can be good things, but each is just treatment of symptoms. Let's look at some of these:
So if we can't trust in the reliability of Scripture, we'll trust in the office of Bishop or church structures. This is exactly what we've done in the adoption of CCM (Call to Common Mission.) We've been told that we can trust the two things that have saved the Episcopal church- bishops and liturgical form. (More on liturgical forms below.)
This approach has worked well in the Episcopal church, we're told. In fact, it has worked so well that in the last 35 years, the Episcopal Church USA has shrunk by 37% while the population has grown by 35%! The Episcopal Church USA declared the 1990's to be their "Decade of Evangelism." It worked so well they only lost half a million members!
We are told that a top-heavy hierarchy will save us. It didn't work for Luther! From whence does its Scriptural basis come? "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the bishops of the Lord will live forever?" I think I missed that one. Good bishops, and good oversight are Scriptural, but human authority can never replace the Word of God! That's a major point of the Reformation! Human structure and authority can't replace God's Word!
As the 20th Century church cast about to find its identity, it re-evaluated liturgy. It's not a coincidence that the "liturgical renewal" of mid-century developed at the same time Scriptural authority declined. I remember in seminary discussing among friends that many of the area churches that had the most ornate, "neohistorical" worship forms seemed to be the ones most distant from historical faith. This is not always true, as certainly there are congregations that have had both a high church tradition and a strong emphasis on the authority of the Word. But, in many, many cases, churches with little Scriptural identification sought their identity in form. The idea is "If we can get back to the traditional forms of worship, these will unite us and give us an identity." That reminds me of those words of 2 Timothy 3:5 about those who are "holding the form of religion but denying the power of it." Worship forms, without the content of God's Word teaching us the nature and will of the God we are worshiping, will not save the church. Good, authentic, heartfelt worship-- neohistoric, traditional or contemporary -- are good only if they are faithful to God's Word and centered on its proclamation.
Ah, how we love traditions! We gain our sense of identity from the annual lutefisk supper, our great-grandmother's stained glass, a certain hymnal, and the location of the pop machine. We rally around camps, buildings, favorite hymns, college names, ethnic backgrounds and historic alliances. None of these are bad, but they're secondary.
The Lutheran Confessions, our most trustworthy traditions, even though we hold to them because they are a faithful exposition of Bible teaching, are not above Scripture in the church. Indeed, I believe in the truth of the Confessions, without reservation. Even so, the Confessions are the Confessions because of the authority of Scripture, not vice versa. The Confessions cannot be deemed more authoritative or trustworthy than Scripture. It's trustworthy, but it's a secondary source.
In mid-century another emphasis arose. Perhaps because of the shared ministry of ecumenical chaplains in the World Wars, or because of the rise of the 'social gospel,' some said, "Let's not get hung up on doctrine. Let's gain our identity by changing society." This move of ecumenicity makes all kinds of practical sense. It's not all bad. But without content of faith, there is no Christianity. Christians are not just nice people who do good things. One does not become a Christian by being really, really nice. A Christian is one who trusts in Christ because his faithful Word has come to him/her. (Rom 10:17) True faith shows itself in good works. But without faith, works are dead.
In the 1960's and '70's the mainline church made social service the focus of its youth programs. They taught that being a Christian was being one who changed the world. But then the world fought back! Our young people had no faith resources to lean back on as they attacked the world in their youthful idealism. They got burned, found no depth, and walked away from the church by the tens of millions. Social ministry is a good fruit of the Gospel, but it cannot replace the Gospel.
Hierarchy, liturgical forms, human traditions and social ministry are all good and important things, but they cannot replace the Word of God as the center of the life of the Church. Some would suggest that Christ is the Word, and that the Bible is authoritative only through faith in him. That is true, and is held by many of my friends. But does that mean that if I do not trust in Christ, the Word of God has no authority? Does it mean that only the parts of the Bible I accept as truly reflecting Christ have authority over me? Does it mean that there is no absolute truth; I trust in Christ, therefore the Bible is my truth, but your truth might just as validly be Winnie the Pooh?
Coming up with means of proclaiming the Word as the authoritative Word of God is difficult. As soon as we use words like "inerrant and infallible" some bring up problems of mismatching numbers and other difficulties. They point in horror to the excesses of some fundamentalists and say "Tsk, tsk!" "Inerrant and infallible" are now very much out of fashion, but for many of us in the Great Commission Network, we have found these to be trustworthy old words that worked well for the ALC and several antecedent bodies. We have fought hard to keep them in our congregations' constitutions.
In a later article we need to look at some of the other options that have been proposed for an understanding of Scripture. The ELCA Statement of Faith's view of Scripture is not bad, but it can mean many things to many people. It is better than many of the earlier drafts that came out as the "New Lutheran Church" was being formed in the mid-eighties. It says that "The Bible is the written Word of God." It recognizes its inspiration by the Holy Spirit. But it doesn't say how, nor is there any commonality on that idea, and "everyone does what is right in their own sight." -and so we grasp onto secondary authorities in the place of Scripture. Then, when issues come upon us, we ignore the clear words of Scripture. And our church is torn apart.
The lack of a common, shared, authoritative hermeneutic, with a high view of Scripture is the bacteria, the disease of the church. Let's get going on the production and use of antibiotics!
Sent to: Letters to the Editor, Minneapolis Star Tribune Augsburg College, a
college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has decided to pay
health benefits for the homosexual partners of their homosexual employees. In
so doing Augsburg has betrayed its Christian heritage. While we believe the
Church should reach out in compassion to those struggling with the sin of
homosexuality, it is unfaithful for the Church or its colleges to support a
behavior which the Scriptures teach is wrong. Augsburg has chosen to follow
the world rather than the Word. Parents wanting to send their children to a
Christian college will think twice before choosing Augsburg. Augsburg’s
Scandinavian founders would weep to see what has become of the college they
founded to promote the Christian faith.
Rev. Thomas Brock Rev. Thomas Parrish
Ms. Toni Freer Rev. Laura Lee Solberg
Rev. Matt Griggs Rev. Roland Wells
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