-Wir sein pettler. Hoc est verum.--"We are beggars. This is true."--Martin Luther-

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Is the Point of Religion?

I meant to write a original post today, but never got around to it. So...I'm stealing a post from Cruising Down the Coast of the High Barbaree called What is the Point of Religion. I'll let the Fearsome Pirate do most of the talking, but I thought there was a strong parallel between this post and what J.P. Koehler talks about. Mainly I mean when Koehler emphasizes that when anything replaces the clear testimony of the gospel and when we recieve our motivations from the flesh rather than the gospel, this unfaillingly leads to death and stagnation in the church.

Here is the post:

The Newman post was not an isolated incident. For the last month or two, I have been thinking fairly continuously about the ruin of religion, more specifically the Christian religion, and what causes it. By "ruin," I don't mean "death." I mean that steep decline from cultural institution to niche, from a church of generations to a church of white heads, from a church of conversion to a church of self-preservation.

My own assesment of the sharp decline of Christianity under Islam is something I've mentioned before and something many people disagree with. When I first learned of it, my first question was, "Why could the martyr church thrive under and eventually topple pagan Rome, but could not under the sultans and caliphs?" Some people argue that the Muslims were simply much more effective persecutors than the Romans. But I saw an active element that was not present in the 1st century--bishops with social and political responsibility and the accumulation of priceless assets and artifacts. Part of the problem, in my opinion, was that the bishops and other key players forgot what the point of this religion is, thinking instead that social order and the protection of shrines and artifacts is the point.

I think whenever you see a church stumble and collapse, you will that some misdirected vision has already broken its knees. The Church is in the business of preaching the Gospel to all nations. There are things that come along for the ride, things that may or may not get connected to that, but those things are not the point. For example, a church may be a haven for immigrants of a certain nation, but if that church starts to believe and act like it exists primarily as a preserver of ethnic identity, it's just a matter of time before a significant collapse. The same goes when a church decides its fundamental business is in high culture, respectable academia, social reform, or glitzy entertainment.

In modern American Lutheranism, many "confessional" Lutherans have made the quest for internal purity, whether doctrinal or liturgical, the chief business of the Church. Judging by the vigorous missional activity of the early LCMS side-by-side with its doctrinal rigor, the early LCMS saw doctrine as serving Gospel proclamation and the making of disciples. But when you get to the 1970s and beyond, doctrinal purity is made an end in itself, breeding a culture of suspicion that is exemplified in orthodox policemen rapidly and aggressively shutting down missional activity whenever they hold the reins of power. And like anyone who has completely lost focus, the claim that the new center of the Church is indeed the Gospel itself. Doctrinal purity is the Gospel. Liturgical rules are the Gospel. The hierarchy is the Gospel. Church growth is the Gospel. Ancient religious culture is the Gospel.

If any of them read the above paragraph, they will tar me as one of those "mission over doctrine" folks. Quite the opposite--doctrine serves mission. But what I see among confessional Lutherans, what I saw at seminary, is more along the lines of "doctrine equals mission," or among folks more enchanted with dress-making, "liturgy equals mission." As a fellow student once sneered, "We have the Divine Service every Sunday. How much more missional can you get?"

The business of the Church is preaching Christ to all nations, teaching his words and commandments, baptizing, and making disciples. You can't cut out the "all nations" and "making disciples," as Lutherans are wont to do. You can't eliminate that part about teaching Christ's words, as liberals and post-Vatican II Catholics tend to do (I am not saying that the teaching of Rome prior to Newman was the same as Christ's--but at least it claimed to be). I think you will find that replacing that basic commission with something else is at the root of the decline of many churches throughout the ages.

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