A Church of Cowards?

By Paul Koch

For the first six years after I was ordained, I gathered every summer with an incredible group of friends for what we called the Conviviumm Theologicum. It was, for all intents and purposes, the best possible pastors conference ever created. We only invited pastors we liked hanging out with and their wives. Then we brought out a professor from one of the seminaries along with his wife for a few days of teaching, drinking, eating, and great conversation. We did everything from swimming in the freezing waters of the Hood Canal in Washington to taking a tour of the Okefenokee Swamp in Southern Georgia. The tagline for our adventures each year was the same. We gathered to “worry the bureaucrats and annoy the pietists.”

Little did I know it at the time, but both of those things are extremely easy to accomplish. And it doesn’t take much imagination to pull it off.

Yet, as I write this on the eve of the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, I have come to see that it is perhaps the bureaucracy that is the far greater hindrance to the work of the Church than pietism. Pietists usually just get all puffed up and try to make you feel ashamed. Then they retreat to whatever rice-cake existence they came from. On the other hand, bureaucrats will use the power of the Church’s bureaucracy to censor and malign those who don’t fit into their neat and tidy understanding of all things meet, right, and salutary.

A bureaucracy, by its nature is, I think, an internally focused thing. Its greatest good is to promote the health and wellbeing of the bureaucracy. This means that it must control the variables. The things that don’t quite fit or don’t promote the goals of the bureaucracy must be either pushed out or cut off or silenced in some way. We see this at work with every form of bureaucracy we encounter, and we encounter a lot of them. It is a natural byproduct of any time we work together with other people to try and achieve a common goal. And it can be a wonderful, comforting, and God-pleasing endeavor.

Bureaucracy works to achieve what individuals cannot do on their own. A congregation, with its constitution and bylaws and voter’s meetings, provides crucial resources for the proclamation of the Word. A district or synod enables us to walk together to achieve even greater impact nationally and internationally. Since bureaucracy is not the Word and Sacraments of our Lord but a human creation formed around reasonable patterns of organization, it is always vulnerable to sinful twisting and perversion.

The great danger we see is that Church bureaucracy (not unlike any other bureaucracy) values the fragile and therefore elevates cowardice.

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The 95 Theses nailed to the door of the Castle Church by Luther 499 years ago this Halloween was an open invitation to debate. The goal was to not remain silent or go with the status quo but to challenge, examine, and wrestle with some serious ideas and teachings. They were an unpredictable variable to the bureaucracy of the time; they upset the status quo and according the bureaucrats put the fragile (the unlearned) at risk. The response of the bureaucracy is one that I would characterize as cowardice. It wasn’t to engage or risk being wrong and corrected; it was to silence through strength and intimidation.

The Gospel wasn’t the issue; the wellbeing of the bureaucracy and all that was needed to support it was the issue.

While today we may not be in great danger of returning to Rome’s perversion of the doctrine of Justification, we are always in danger of elevating the bureaucracy over the Gospel. How tempting is it to use the strength of the bureaucracy to silence voices we dislike? How easy is it to confuse voices of heresy for voices that simply don’t support the bureaucracy itself? What do we lose when we silence or censor them?

But, my friends, the Church is not fragile. And you, in Christ, are never cowards. Perhaps from time to time we ought to take a break from hunting down the dissenting voices. Instead, we ought to lift our heads and spend a few moments to keep the bureaucracy in check so that the proclamation of the Word is not so sheltered and protected that it becomes weak and fragile.

“As true as God’s own Word is true,

Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew

Against us shall prevail.

Their might? A joke, a mere façade!

God is with us and we with God

– our victory cannot fail”

 Jacob Fabricius, O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe (LSB #666)

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