Thursday, February 3, 2011

"A Fellowship of Pastors" and a true story as parable

Since a letter from “A fellowship of Pastors” with a paper “Time For Something New” has been forwarded to many and there is a great deal of discussion about the paper, I would like to make a few comments.[1]

The pastors who have signed on to this paper are a wonderful group of saints. I respect each one of them. And they are to be thanked for starting such a conversation. As has been noted by some, others have also started the same conversation.[2] Much of what I read in the paper I agree with. For instance their understanding that “Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues.”

I agree with their humility that we all must take the blame for what is happening in our denomination. I agree with their desire to hold on to the essentials of the faith. I applaud their attempt to find a way to be a more faithful Church; that is a goal we must all pursue.

However, I disagree with a few of their ideas, one being that they will continue conversations with Louisville and the Covenant Network. As they put it “We hope to work together to see if some new alignment might serve the whole Church.” I am bothered that they have already met with Louisville and the Covenant Network, but are just now inviting their brothers and sisters to the conversation.

I offer here a true story with all of its theological twists and mean it for a parable. I think all of us will find ourselves both for good and ill in some of the story. It is about the theological meanderings of another broken church in another time and place. They wrote many papers, minor confessions and held many meetings and conferences. Finally in desperation they confessed Christ, they wrote the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

Although it happened in another place and a different era I believe it fits our situation. We are just now entering a time in our country’s history when the Church and individual believers may find themselves in unending conflict with laws that deal with both life issues and sexual morality. Some in all of the mainline denominations are preparing to acquiesce to a decadent culture.
Almost ten years ago I placed an essay on my web site. It was entitled “What gate of hell stands just ahead.” I began the article with this:

Theologian, Arthur C. Cochrane, writes of an interesting train ride taken by Karl Barth and Dr. Hermann Hesse. Dr. Hesse, who became a member of the Confessing Church Movement, was one of three in a committee writing a constitution for the German Evangelical Church, an attempt at a church union during the years of Hitler. Dr. Hesse and the two other theologians invited Ludwig Muller, an advocate, for the German Christians, the heretical movement of the day, to be a part of the group. They were attempting to protect the church by compromise. In the midst of all the politics and troubles Muller and the German Christians were creating, Hesse called on Barth. Hesse states:

“In my utter helplessness I telephoned Karl Barth and asked him to go with me to Berlin. It was July 3, 1933. We met in the train at Hamm. [This may refer to Hamburg] Barth put into my hand a pamphlet and said: `Read that!' … It was entitled Theological Existence Today. I read and read while the professor paced up and down the train. It was an attack upon us three men, upon the `German Christians,' and the Young Reformation Movement. All of us were accused because of our natural theology. As I read, the scales fell from my eyes. Here lay my mistake since my early days under Schlatter! Besides Holy Scripture, another side of revelation had been authoritative for me, namely, nature. When I had finished reading, I was deeply moved. I could only give the professor my hand and say: 'You are right! I am grateful to you for everything!' Then began for me through God's great grace a whole new era.”
When I wrote the article and quoted Hesse, I was interested in the difference between God’s revelation in Scripture and natural revelation and how that worked out in that era and now. For this posting I am instead interested in Barth’s insistence that Hesse and others had compromised their positions by attempting to workout constitutional issues with those whose theologies reflected unbiblical positions. I am also interested in some of his other replies to the church issues of his day.

The German Christians who were in opposition to the theology of those who became the Confessing Church pushed forward several explicitly unbiblical ideas. Of course the most troubling was the idea that God revealed himself in events such as the nationalism of Hitler thus bypassing proper Christology for a purportedly new movement of the spirit. Another horrific idea was that Jewish Christians could not be a part of the German Church. And for many German Christians this also meant the elimination of the importance of the Hebrew Bible. This was also an attack on Christology. (I wrote about these in the article I have linked to above.)

Another unbiblical idea was that the churches must do whatever they could to encourage Germans to enter the churches—for the sake of Germany. And, still another was the claim that the church must be wedded to the state and comply with whatever the state mandated as culturally proper for the German people. There was an insistence that a bishop be placed over all of the protestant churches and the German Christians advocated for a politician to fill that position. Finally, because of Hitler’s persistence that there be a union of the churches, there was, as mentioned above, the writing of the new constitution for the “German Evangelical Church,” which was the federation of the confessional churches of Germany.

Cochrane points out that the evangelical and reformed were disappointed with the constitution, not because of its wording, but because those with unchristian intent so easily bypassed its words. He writes:

The peace that many thought had been achieved by the formulation of a constitution was soon to be exposed as a spurious peace. For as Wilhelm Niemöller has observed: “The constitution was a contradiction in itself. On the one hand, it spoke about the gospel being the inviolable foundation of the Church, and on the other hand the Church’s order was regulated in a highly unevangelical manner.”
These are Barth’s answers to some of the problems which admittedly all connect in some way to Christology:

1. Collaborating on the future of the church with those who hold unbiblical views:

Of Mueller, the German Christian, and his collaboration with the three church members on the constitution, Barth wrote, “…where, in this business, remains the Church’s responsibility? Where, too, at this place, the inevitability of the inquiry as to Christian Truth?—an inevitability which could not be affected by any ‘brotherly love,’ so as to give scope and currency within the Church to this error [the German Christian error]. In view of the remarkable flabbiness with which the Church has been meeting the ‘German Christians,’ even in the Supreme Court of the Church itself, can anyone marvel at what the transaction has come to mean in the churches up and down the country?”

This is Barth’s views on trying to collaborate in unity for the sake of “brotherly love” over against the truth. He notes how it has affected most of the churches.

2. On the churches doing whatever they could to encourage Germans into the church:

Barth wrote, “The Church has not ‘to do everything’ so that the German people ‘may find again the way into the Church,’ but so that within the Church the people may find the Commandment and promise of the free and pure Word of God. … The German people [and all others] receive its vocation from Christ to Christ through the Word of God to be preached according to the Scriptures. The Church’s task is the preaching of the Word.”

3. On the issue of a head bishop, which in actuality deals with leadership in the Church:

“The German Evangelical Church, through her responsible representatives, has not comported herself as the Church which possesses her Leader, during these recent months. And yet He possesses her: as surely as we have to hear His law and His gospel ever again from Him. When it is recognized that He, and He alone, is the Leader, there is the possibility of theological existence. And then, in all deference, even if one be but an ever-so-insignificant theologian, or the obscure village pastor[3], or even not a pastor or theologian at all, but ‘merely’ somebody like a lay-elder, then one is himself the genuine Bishop, if he only knows his Bible and his Catechism: a ‘bishop as foreseen in Holy Writ.”(Italics Barth)
4. A church wedded to the state and forced to accept all that the state mandates culturally:

The Church believes in the Divine institution of the State as the guardian and administrator of public law and order. But she does not believe in any State … The Church preaches the Gospel in all the kingdoms of the world.” She preaches in the State, neither under it nor “in its spirit.”

But we are under obligation to be what we are, and true to the mission entrusted to us: to serve the Word of God within this nation. If we pursue other ideals and aims, which have not been committed to us, we sin, not only against God, but also against the people.

We need not expect any gratitude or glory; nor need we be surprised if from all sides we earn the very opposite from carrying on. Eventually we have to accept having to be alone, simply for the sake of the people’s fellowship. We should be sinning not only against God, but also against the people, if we were to go with the people, instead of standing for them.
I want to stress that all of these pastors have upheld the Church and the Gospel. They are brave men in a stressful time. I pray that the orthodox, the truly reformed, the evangelical in the PC(U.S.A.) can find ground to stand on that is faithful, biblical and filled with the fellowship of all of those who uphold Jesus Christ as Lord. I believe that Christ is leading his people. He is faithful.

[1] See, New PCUSA Schism Coming Up? (UPDATED) by David Fischler; “An Interesting Invitation and Some of my Preliminary Reactions by Steve Salyards at GA Junkie; Pastors release Signed Letter to PCUSA at the Layman; Pastors call for denomination to be ‘radically transformed’ by Jack Haberer at the Presbyterian Outlook.

[2] For instance the Biblical Presbyterian Network has in their call this, “We seek to bring hope to dark places and to bind our hearts together for the work of reformation in our time wherever God has placed us. We seek to reach out with gospel hope to church leaders and congregations within our denomination, to bring us into fellowship for the cooperative effort of reformation, according to the Word of God.”

[3] I know many obscure village and city pastors and I think of them when I read this.

*All Barth quotes taken from Theological Existence Today-published in 1933

1 comment:

Pat & Patti Watters said...

I recently spent some time away with a group of pastors in retreat. They represented PC/USA, Vineyard, ECC, Young Life and a couple non-denominational churches. It was a blessing to see and experience the "early church" aside from the division caused by differences in theology, doctrine, liturgy, etc. Lord have mercy and unite us once again.