I am fond of saying that I have been a pastor long enough that no one seeks to offer me advice anymore and not quite long enough for anyone to ask my advice on anything of importance. The church is full of pastors such as me, free to move along unnoticed by most, doing pretty much whatever we see fit in our little kingdoms we’ve managed to cobble together, far from the prying eyes of any interested party. It is a good time, probably a little dangerous, and no doubt worrisome to quite a few.
But in such a position I have found that I operate with a great amount of freedom. Freedom not simply applied to what happens at my congregation but freedom in what I read, think and discuss with my colleagues and friends. What I have noticed is that such unchecked freedom allows me to explore things a younger version of myself didn’t care too much about, or at least to consider things I not long ago would have dismissed out of hand. And this has been good. Good for my sanity, good for the people to whom I’m to preach, good for the ongoing confession of the church.
I can still remember when a youth leader put in my hands the Book of Concord. I recall the joy and confidence I found in the pages of our church’s great confessional documents. I was willing to talk to anyone who would listen about this incredible gift hidden away in our church’s library. Lines were drawn in the sand; what we believe, teach, and confess was laid out plainly and also what we condemned was clearly stated. No concern for hurt feelings, no hesitation to state the truth. There it was, clear as day. Everything I needed and desired, I longed to make this confession my own. And about eight years later I did just that. Before a gathering of friends and family, before colleagues all wearing their red stoles, before a congregation of God’s children, I boldly stated, “I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God.”
However, I must admit that I don’t think I understood them rightly. Not that I didn’t study their words or their implications. But I saw the confessions of the church like an electric fence designed to keep the masses inline. They were to keep the pastors in line, keep the congregations of our synod in line. They were the staff used to strike the wayward and contain the life of the church. And I was eager to use them as such, but this was wrong. The confessions don’t function as a fence, they are more like a light set on a hill. They are the the beacon that allows us to explore and engage with new ideas and old. They mark orthodoxy and the rule of faith by which we read the Word and so they provide what we need to read both Origen of Alexandria and The Jagged Word.
See, a pastor in the hinterland of freedom has the pleasure to see the church a little more clearly. I am member of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. I love this church and am grateful for its faithful stand on the Word of God which flows from its serious subscription to the confessional documents. What I don’t love, what none of us ought to love, is the bureaucracy that comes along with such an organization. Now I know that some form of bureaucracy is always necessary, but I fear that when it is attached to the church, we cease to be critical of it. The function of bureaucracy is to mitigate variance, to bring uniformity, and generally keep the boat steady. And so, the bureaucracy promotes itself, or at least will always lean towards its own continuation. And if the bureaucracy controls to some extend the publishing, educational and missional work of a church you can be sure that along the way they will give precedent to what is self-serving. And if all you digest is what it provides you would never be the wiser.
Which brings me to the organization we know as 1517. My friend Scott Keith is not only a contributor here on The Jagged Word (in fact was one of the first friends that joined me in this endeavor over 7 years ago), but he is the executive director of 1517. Now Scott was one of the first people I ever knew who took the confessions of the church seriously. He is a major reason that I ended up becoming a pastor, and a pastor who in turn takes his confessional subscription seriously. This was no casual thing for him. He would work diligently from the critical text of the Book of Concord (Die Bekenntnisschriften) and possesses a profound understanding of the reasoning and arguments drawn from the text. And when I step back these days to see what he oversees at 1517, what I find is wonderful and worthy of our praise. For the beauty of it is not just in the conferences they put on or the resources that they provide online or the options for print publication. It’s that it stands as an alternative to the established bureaucracy. Not as a direct challenge to it, for it has a different purpose altogether. And as such, it can be a place for the rest of us to recall the light on the hill and go exploring while we strive to be faithful in our vocations.
Writing and speaking and discussions where the only coercion is the persuasion of the Word is something we ought to celebrate, not run from. I am proud to know them, and it has helped me help others in ways previously reserved for those with bureaucratic power or the right lineage. Now no doubt they have their own bureaucracy with their own guiding principle and will eventually suffer from the same defects all bureaucracies face. But for the meantime it allows for creative input, for exploration, for both success and failure. Something the older bureaucrats cannot tolerate.
It may not always be safe, it may not always be refined, but it is a welcome avenue for our continued confession of the faith. Check them out at 1517.org