Creeds! What are they good for?

The following is an example of an all too common conversation that arises when certain Christians encounter confessional subscription for the first time. 

Lucy: Hey, Andy, I know you are studying at a Lutheran seminary.  I was hoping you could explain to me what just occurred during this installation service for Pastor Forde.

Andy: (Starts to nod yes to give a reply, but is cut off.)

Lucy: During the service, the pastor said he confessed the Bible to be (she throws up her fingers for air quotes) “the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”  But then he also pledged himself to the creeds and the Lutheran Confessions.  Then he promised that everything he would do as a pastor would be (throws up her fingers for air quotes again) “in conformity with Holy Scripture and these Confessions.”  This seems like a contradiction.

Andy: How so?

Lucy: It seems to me that the promise he made puts the Confessions on the same plain of authority as the Bible.  Is this correct?

Andy:  No.  That isn’t correct.  Before I answer your question, let me first share with you what the Confessions are, so that you know what it is he subscribed to believe to be in conformity with Scripture. The Lutheran Confessions are called The Book of Concord which contains the three ecumenical creeds of the Church, the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasius Creed, as well multiple documents written during the 16th century during the Reformation: Luther’s Small and Large Catechism, Philip Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession and Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Smalcald Articles, Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Authority and Primacy of the Pope – in which he calls the office of the pope the office of the Anti-Christ – it’s awesome!  You’ll love it Lucy – and the Formula of Concord, which was written by many authors.

I can give you more information on any of these writings, if you would like them, but to answer your question; what the pastor just subscribed to was that he unconditionally recognizes that these writings are a correct exposition of the Bible.  In other words, The Book of Concord accurately represents the teachings of Scripture.  It is not “the infallible rule of faith and practice.”  Instead, the Confessions are normed by “the infallible rule of faith and practice” – the Bible.

Lucy: Do I understand you to be saying that these Confessions are true only insofar as they represent accurately what is in Scripture?

Andy: Some Lutherans might be open to accepting such a subscription, but my church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, expects our pastors to subscribe unconditionally to the Lutheran Confessions not insofar as they are a correct exposition of the Word, but because they are a correct exposition of the Word.

Lucy: To my way of thinking this still seems like splitting hairs.  It appears as if the Confessions are being raised to the level of Scripture.  Why is it necessary to have the Confessions?  In my Church, we don’t believe in creeds or have confessions; we just believe in the Bible.

Andy: I understand how this can be a bit confusing to you, as I do understand how this might seem as if we are adding words to the Bible, since you are not familiar with confessions or their use.  I ensure you that’s not what we are doing, and I might be able to help you understand how we are not doing this by pointing out that you just shared a creed of your church body.

Lucy: I didn’t share a creed.  We only believe the Bible.

Andy:  That’s your creed.  (Pausing to let it sink in)

Lucy: …That’s not a creed.  It’s an anti-creed.

Andy: A creed is simply a statement of belief.  You believe that creeds are not necessary for a church body to have and confess, but that is a statement of belief, thus creedal.  Essentially, everyone has creeds.

Lucy: So maybe what I’m asking and really wanting to know is, why isn’t the Bible enough?  What task or function do the Confessions play that make them necessary, or really important?

Andy: Great questions.  When we consider the Bible, it’s not that large of a book, but certainly there are many interpretations that emerge concerning it, wouldn’t you agree?

Lucy: Yes.  I know that you Lutherans believe that baptism saves you, but I reject that idea entirely.

Andy: That’s an example of division in the Body of Christ.  And from my experiences, when discussing this teaching, both sides of the debate end up using the same verses.  When I point to verses that I believe demonstrate the promises of forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation that God has given to us in baptism, Christians from your position typically say those verses are about spiritual baptism.

Lucy:  That’s right.  My church body would say such gifts are received in Spiritual Baptism when we receive the Holy Spirit and faith – or when we are born again.

Andy:  Because of these differing interpretations and the different hermeneutics – rules of interpretation – that bring forth these contradictory teachings, confessions are necessary and helpful.  They place a stake in the ground concerning what one understands to be the proper interpretation of Scripture.  You and I both would agree that we what we believe is found in Scripture, but we believe different things are taught by Scripture.  For instance, how would I know what you and your church body believes concerning the Bible, since all you believe is the Bible?  Would I have to read the whole Bible?  And then because of different hermeneutics, I still likely wouldn’t arrive at knowing what you believe when you say, “I just believe the Bible.”

Lucy: You’d go to our church website and you can find our “What We Believe” page.

Andy:  And when I click on it, would the page simply show a picture of a Bible, or would it take me to the entire text of the Bible, since that’s “just what you believe?”

Lucy: (Pausing a moment in thought) Are you suggesting that our “What We Believe” page functions as our Confessions.

Andy:  Yes, I am.  And I think when you understand that, you’ll understand more fully the function of confessions. I’m sure you believe that your church’s “What We Believe” page is in submission to Scripture.

Lucy:  I do.

Andy: And as such, that page and the beliefs found on it, are a helpful tool for you to share your faith with others.  It’s a good summation of what you (throwing up air quotes with his fingers) “confess” to be true as a Christian – even though the Bible is (again, throwing up air quotes with his fingers) “the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

Lucy:  I’m glad we’re having this conversation.  I’m understanding creeds and confessions in a brand new light.

Andy: Thanks for taking the time to understand our position and use of the Lutheran Confessions.  We certainly don’t want anyone to think that we are adding to or taking away from Scripture with our use of creeds and confessions.  I think it is also helpful to understand the origins of confessions.  Many scholars consider 1 Corinthians 15 to contain an early church creed.  Paul says that what he first received he passed on to the Corinthians as of first importance.  As I said, creeds are useful for sharing and teaching the faith with others, because they formulate what is in Scripture in precise statements that Scripture doesn’t always do for us.  The idea then is that Paul received this instruction when he became a believer and then he used that instruction to pass the faith on to others.  It’s a very simple creed: “Christ died for sins, was buried, and raised on the third day according to Scripture,” and then a list of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord is given.  If someone were to ask me what the Gospel is, I’d use that creedal statement that in this instance, interestingly, goes back to before Scripture was even written!

Lucy:  Are there other reasons creeds and confessions are used, or other reasons they were formulated besides simply confessing and teaching?

Andy: I do think we take for granted much of the doctrines we know in the Church today.  For instance, if I looked on your church’s website’s (throwing up air quotes) “creedal page,” I imagine that I would find statements about the Trinity – God being three persons, yet one God.  That doctrine and the wording we use to describe the nature of God is not clearly defined or formulated in Scripture.  We can see that all three persons are fully God in Scripture and we can see that Scripture is clear that there isn’t three Gods, so what do we do with that?  Well… thankfully, the early Church handled such problems for us by formulating doctrinal statements on the Trinity – a word that is not in the Bible by the way.  The Church was forced to do such work, because they recognized that teachings were emerging that were against the witness of Scripture.  Because the saints that have gone before us have done such work formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, such as what is recorded in the Nicene Creed, we don’t have to and that creed can serve as a boundary marker for us on what is correct and incorrect concerning the person and nature of the Triune Lord.

Lucy:  So what do you do if a new controversy or false teaching arises that isn’t addressed in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church?

Andy:  I’m glad you asked.  The Confessions can serve as a flexible guide that shifts to the needs of the times, since the Confessions don’t always address the concerns of the day.  For instance, a couple of decades ago, the book series, Left Behind, sparked a lot of conversation concerning the return of Christ.  The Lutheran Confessions don’t directly make statements on the Rapture or the Millennium found in Revelation chapter 20, yet they do provide guidance on what is allowed and not allowed to believe concerning such matters by the boundary markers they set concerning how we can interpret Scripture.

Lucy:  It is interesting that you mention that example, because when that series was so popular, our church made an addition to our “What We Believe” page.  Do you think your church body would ever add or update your Confessions to meet the needs of the day?

Andy:  It is possible.  We however have the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) that provides study documents, opinions and statements on theological issues that are not directly and specifically addressed by the Confessions in our current context.  Their reports serve as guidance to the pastors and congregations in our church body, but pastors are not bound to subscribe to them as they are the Confessions.

Lucy:  This is all very fascinating.  Thank you for taking the time to explain the Book of Concord to me.

Andy:  I’m glad you found my answers helpful.  Let me send you a text message of an image I have saved that I think will serve as a good summary of what we’ve discussed that you can use as a tool to help explain this conversation to others in your church.  I probably should have pulled this up at the start of our conversation. (Sends text message)

Lucy: (Opens message and sees the following image)

Creeds and Confessions

Everybody has a creed!

Everybody has a creed!

  • Every personal belief has a statement that expresses it.
  • Even those Christians who say “No creed except the Bible.”
    • That in itself is a creed.
    • This is a self-contradictory position.

Why isn’t the Bible enough?

  • Even though the Bible is a small book, there is a lot of content in it.
  • There are differing interpretations – different hermeneutics that bring forth contradictory teachings.
  • Confessions place a stake in the ground concerning what one understands to be the proper interpretation of Scripture.

The first creeds/confessions of the Church

  • The most important teachings, formulated in a way that you can get it across to your pagan neighbor! This would be like 1 Cor. 15
  • Nicene Creed – Written to counter false teachings
  • Irenaeus used the rule of faith
    • Subjective – everyone has a rule of faith that they run with
    • But this rule of faith must be in submission to Scripture
    • As to confessions the rule of faith has a flexible guide
      • This flexible guide shifts to the needs of the people
        • Confessions don’t always address the concerns of the day
        • Is it Left Behind? Is it speaking in tongues and spiritual gifts?  Is it transgender issues?  It depends.
      • Operative rule of faith
        • A rule that one would write for his current situation to operate by

The confessions set boundaries/parameters by which we can interpret Scripture.

Ministry Teams vs. Multi-Staff Ministry

The topic of this blog post is ministry teams, which is different from multi-staff ministry.  I learned this key difference from Pastor Christiansen at Webster Gardens Lutheran Church.  He expressed that in team ministry everyone is working together!  In team ministry a well-defined mission and vision statement is key.  In a church with multiple staff and more than one pastor, the mission statement and vision statement is what brings every department, every ministry into alignment with one another.  Every ministry department has the same goal, the same objective.  If one ministry within the church hits a home-run, the youth ministry for example, then every ministry hits a home-run, because every ministry has shared alignment and buy-in to every ministry’s success, because everyone is on the same team with the same standard of what it means to hit a home-run.  Pastor Christiansen explained that in multi-staff ministry everyone is playing a different game; a home-run for youth ministries wouldn’t be a home-run for senior ministries.  Another fascinating element to Christiansen’s explanation is that he said some churches will have two pastors who take turns giving the sermons, take turns doing the funerals, take turns doing, well — everything.  He said this is also a sign of multi-staff ministry.  One has the label of senior pastor, but they both essentially have the same job.  In team ministry, the pastors have different roles on the team – their jobs are vastly different, which is how it is on sports teams.  The pitcher is not the catcher.

ministry teams

From Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson’s book, Leading from the Second Chair, two paradoxes of being an associate pastor stood out to me.  They are the seeming contradictions of being both a leader and a subordinate at the same time and being called to have a narrow, specifically focused ministry while also being involved in the breadth of all the ministries in the church.  Concerning the paradox of being a subordinate-leader, I found the section on testing my subordination to be the most helpful and eye-opening.  As a teacher, when administration made decisions that had a direct negative impact on my role and ability to meet my teaching goals, I would typically openly disagree and directly challenge their decision, or I’d simply continue with my job, frustrated and angry, which of course would impact my teaching ability.  I rarely could stay involved without confrontation or without being eaten up with bitterness.  I also did not do a good job of hiding my feelings and thoughts even when not speaking.

All of these struggles I have in subordination could stem from my ESTP personality (which has been defined as a “laws don’t apply to me” personality), my Eagle-Disc personality, and political leadership style, but after reading Leading from the Second Chair, and from hearing Pastor King speak on his relationship of being Pastor Christiansen’s second chair, I have walked away much more comfortable being a second chair pastor (if that is where God will place me) knowing how my strengths can be utilized in this position of leadership, while having a better understanding of what to do with my weaknesses.

For instance, I work well in an environment where my strengths are recognized and my opinion is respected and held in high value.  I also do well when I’m given freedom to rule, lead, and reign in my assigned job task with little to no interference from my administrators, as long as I keep meeting or exceeding my administrator’s set target marks for my job.  As an associate pastor, I’ll be given the opportunity to excel and be respected for my expertise in a particular focus of ministry, while at the same time have the opportunity to have influence across the entire breadth of the church’s ministry.  I’ve also noticed that my previous administrators would come to me for input and guidance on certain key decisions that they knew I’d be able to provide valuable input as well as being recruited a few times to be a source of influence for getting other teachers on board with big changes they had decided to make or to serve as a helper in the transition.  Looking back, I can see how poisonous I was when the executive decision didn’t go as I had wanted.  Now, I see the value of letting some decisions go and never speaking ill publicly of such decisions and just take the lumps, knowing that the lead chair takes the brunt of all the hits for the team when the team misses the mark or fails.

AWA and Its Impact on Church Culture

Church denominations vary wildly in many aspects, such as doctrinal teaching, polity, roles of the pastor, roles of the laity, and the order and purpose of church services.  This statement stands as being obviously true to the vast majority of Christian believers, even to those who haven’t had the personal experience of visiting many denominations.  But what might stand as more of a shock to one’s system is realizing that even within a denomination that confessionally, or even on paper, contractually, holds all of these aspects in unity among its congregations, the culture present in each local body of believers can differ significantly to the point a worshipper might feel like a foreigner even in his own denomination.  This cultural difference isn’t in reference to expected differences that could arise from geographical variants, such as between Wisconsin Lutherans and Californian Lutherans.  This cultural shift lies within the church body itself and the change arises from the size of the church body’s Sunday average worship attendance (AWA).  Recognizing this cultural distinction is important for each congregation to be the best that it can be.

awa

In Gary L. McIntosh’s book, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church, he makes three cultural categories for churches based on the size of their AWA: small (15-200 AWA), medium (201-400 AWA), and large (401+ AWA).  From McIntosh, I learned that small churches have a relational orientation (everyone knows everyone and the pastor has personal a relationship with everyone), medium churches have a programmatical orientation (people mostly know others who are in the same program, group, or class and the pastor works more closely with the leaders of those groups and doesn’t know everyone in the church while still knowing a decent percentage of the congregation personally), and large churches have an organizational orientation (primarily the orientation comes through the senior pastor and the board’s vision and the pastor rarely interacts personally with people who are not part of the paid staff or under his specific ministry branch if he’s not the senior pastor).  In a class presentation by Dr. Peter on this information, I also learned about Arkub Riytgayge’s division of the cultural size differences which contains four groups: family size (1-50 AWA), pastoral size (51-150 AWA), program size (150-350 AWA), and corporate size (350-500+ AWA).  The differentiation between these sizes were very similar to McIntosh’s model, except here, the size divisions also created two additional divisions, that between the homogeneous congregation and heterogeneous congregation and between the group-centered church and the pastor-centered church, as demonstrated in the table below:

Pastor Centered

 

Pastoral Size
51-150
(Pastor knows everyone so it is homogenous)
Corporate Size
400-1000
Group Centered

 

Family Size
0-50
 

Program Size
151-400
(Varied worship services and groups, but the groups make it group focused)

Homogeneous
Organism

Heterogeneous

Organization

From McIntosh’s book, I learned that if a pastor tries to lead his congregation outside the bounds of his congregation’s size-culture, he will frustrate his congregation and himself.  The example in One Size Fits All was that of a pastor of a small (family) church who was leading as if he was a pastor of a large (corporate) church.  He was making all the decisions and creating new programs that were flopping.  He was vision casting and dreaming numerical growth strategies five to ten years into the future to people that only cared about the present state of the family (the church body).  He was doing all of this on his own initiative.  This could be fine if he was the senior pastor at a large congregation, but he wasn’t, and since he was at a small church, he really was doing all of this on his own.  Even in the large church, the senior pastor doesn’t do all the functional, nuts and bolts work, since he has a team of leaders that he directs and holds accountable, while they manage and work out their assigned ministry tasks with their teams.  For his setting, the pastor learned that he needed to be more relational, meeting with the members one on one, face to face, throughout the week, while saddling up next to the members who have primary influential sway within the congregation to get their approval for any new initiatives he’d like to implement before launching away with his plans.  As a lay member of congregations, I also learned that my previous experience being a part of a small church soured my understanding and expectations of the last congregations I’ve been a member.  They were medium sized churches that ran programmatically, and I wasn’t entrenched in any of the programs, while wanting to know everyone and have relationship with everyone like I did in the small congregation.  The result was that I hardly knew anyone and I felt as if the churches were failing to meet their most basic role in my life.

From that last point, I have had in mind more of a pastor-centered, pastoral congregation size setting for how I would lead as a pastor.  I have had plans in mind to be a pastor (shepherd) that goes to my sheep.  I’d want to meet with every man in the congregation one on one at least once a year, by meeting them for breakfast before their work day starts or going to their job site, meeting them at lunch breaks, for prayer, counsel, and basic relational bonding, as well as for encouraging and equipping them in using their gifts and talents in the congregation and in their day to day interactions.  My wife and I have discussed having a family over for dinner once a week or every other week for the same purposes, so that I could I get to know and minister to the women and children in the congregation too while protecting my marriage (following the Mike Pence rule!).  Now, from what I have learned about congregational size dynamics, I know that this approach to leadership will likely work wonders in a small church setting and help me build much trust and authority and influence to lead the church, but such work won’t be so helpful in a medium or large church.

In a medium sized church, I’d have to adjust this relational leadership plan to be focused on meeting with the leaders of all the congregation’s programs and boards:  Sunday School Director and teachers, praise band leader, elders, mission team leaders, small group leaders, and other key members.  McIntosh also mentioned that medium sized churches expect strong teaching and well-prepared sermons from their pastors, which is an element that I find appealing and I think I can excel at from my previous experience and evaluation feedback from being a teacher for the past twelve years.  It is through solid Sunday presentations that those in the congregation I don’t know will be connected to me, and based on the culture of the medium sized church, they’re fine with not personally knowing me as long as I deliver the goods on Sunday morning with excellence.  This means that in the medium-sized congregation, devoting more time to sermon and teaching preparation will be understood by the congregation, as long as I am generating quality material to justify that time allocation for those purposes.  Being a pastor at a medium-sized church might be up my alley, since I could still have much of the relational ministry element I desire, as well as the freedom to emphasize teaching in my pastoral ministry.

In a large sized church, I’d have to adjust my relational leadership by reducing my focus to the other pastors under my care if I’m the senior pastor, as well as the plethora of other staff, and of course the board of directors.  I’d also have to find the most influential members in the congregation and work and meet with them almost exclusively from out of all the members in the church.  Again, this is the culture of a large, corporate church setting, so this would be expected by the bulk of the congregation’s members, and it is what would be necessary for the church to thrive.  In many respects, this could be a very fulfilling position for me, since the relationships will be fewer and almost exclusively focused on the mission, vision, and work of the congregation – something that does fit well my political style of leadership.

In closing, after discovering the different culture dynamics that accompany the size of each congregation, and the necessity for the pastoral leadership methods to shift based on these dynamics, I’ve discovered that my one on one relational approach to ministry has a place in all sized congregations, but that the focus of who I should be relating with personally and ministerially will have to change depending on the size of the congregation.

Metallica – “Broken, beat, and scarred. We die hard.”

“Broken, beat, and scarred.  We die hard.  What doesn’t kill us, makes us more strong.  We rise, we fall, we get up again.  What doesn’t kill us makes us more strong.  Broken, beat, and scarred.  We die hard!!!”

Some pretty intense lyrics if we think about them.  They come from the Metallica song, “Broken, beat, and scarred.”

metallica

When I read the writings of the apostle Paul and hear about his flogging, stonings, and imprisonments, I think that I surely haven’t suffered much for my Christian faith.  Despite all of Paul’s persecutions he kept rising up again.  Forget John McClane – The Apostle Paul knew what it meant to “Die Hard.”  I have not yet shed blood for my faith in Jesus in Christ.  I might never do so, but the words of Paul still ring true for me and all of us when he says that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.  And hope doesn’t disappoint us.

Yet, I know I complain a lot about my present sufferings.  I think most of us do.  But here, coming from Metallica, I am reminded that what doesn’t kill us makes us more strong.  I think of Paul when he said, “When I am weak, I am strong.”  When he’s weak, he has no choice but to cling to God!  When he is holding on to God, then he is strong.

One complaint against Christianity is the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  It’s easy to say “what doesn’t kill us makes us more strong” when it’s simple sufferings, broken arm a bad breakup, but what about genocide, rape, a four-year old with cancer.  We tend to want to wave our fist at God!  What’s your problem???  Why didn’t you stop this.  We can’t see the good that can come from it.  What loving Father would allow such a thing to his children – stronger – yea right!

The answer lies in Jesus.  Being God, perfect and sinless, he still suffered.  He suffered on our behalf, because of our shortcomings.  It lies in God’s patience with us!  Does he want pain and suffering for us – no!  But he allows it.  If he were to intervene now, what would that mean for everyone who doesn’t know him.  He is patient in his return, waiting for more people to come to repentance?  It’s his will that no man should eternally perish – sadly, we are set to face a physical death as our exodus from this life.  The answer won’t satisfy everybody and I hope and pray that I stand firm in the faith and trust God’s plan of redemption when the worst of the worst hits my life.  In the end, at Christ’s return, those of us who died in Christ will be raised to new life with bodies that will never be broken, beat, or scarred.