Fellowship in Church Culture – Part 3 of 3

Let’s explore the implications of fellowship a little more deeply. It means that gospel centered ministry should be the center of the larger organization’s and its leadership’s existence. But not its own gospel ministry (it has none) but the gospel ministry of the local congregations. And those in leadership positions in the organization who are clergy are still simply “stewards of the mysteries of God” (ministers of the gospel) and have no reason for existence except to ensure that the pure gospel is effectively proclaimed by pastors and local congregations and to support this ministry. It means that the larger organization has no importance apart from its support for the gospel ministry of the local congregations. It has no importance in itself and if it fails in its support of the local congregations, or goes off in its own direction apart from the local congregations, or starts to support things that are not gospel centered ministry, or inflates its own importance and starts to suck money from local congregations to support its own existence, then the larger organization has lost the reason for its existence and is no longer useful, and may even be detrimental, to the gospel ministry of the local congregation. In short, when the culture of the larger organization strays from a truly gospel centered ministry in support of local congregations and wanders into its own imaginings and tries to redefine the purpose for its own existence on its own terms, then this can only be detrimental to the lives of the local congregations and the organization may have either outlived its usefulness or else require a radical overhaul of its defining culture. Local congregations do not need synods or districts for their existence and there are always other confessional church bodies which can provide the support that a local congregation may want.

The culture of the church presented here is a culture which is at strict variance with the culture of the world and is counter-cultural to it. The culture of the world is centered in fulfilling the felt needs, wants and desires of people which is centered in the self, even if these needs and desires include wholesome things like loving and supporting communities. This is also true of the culture of modern Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is also centered in fulfilling the felt needs, wants and desires of people, at least in its practical application to their lives. They just see Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) as the means of fulfilling those felt needs and so forth and as the way of having a full, happy, and self-fulfilled life in the here and now (a theology of glory) rather than a life hidden in the cross and suffering. This is what a true culture of the church centered in the gospel entails. It entails a life hidden in the cross of Christ where there is little glory in terms of what this world desires or hopes for. It is a culture centered in dying to self and simply receiving everything as gifts from God centered in the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ given through the means of grace.

This means that extreme caution is required when trying to import anything into the church from the world or from Evangelicalism. We must ensure that anything which breathes a contrary spirit or brings with it cultural connotations which are contrary to the pure gospel are not allowed to infect our church. Our church must look different from the world (or Evangelicalism) because the culture of our church is different from the world (or Evangelicalism.) If our church starts to look no different from the world then it is a danger sign that we have lost the true culture of the church. When the world looks at the church it should see something mysterious and different and which it does not comprehend but about which it wonders. If we try to make the church look like the world or make it understandable to the world in order to attract the world (same kind of music, same kinds of messages to address their felt needs and so forth – just like the Evangelicals have done) then we are in trouble. If we start to say to the world that they should just come and join us because we are really no different than they are, except that we have the real answer to all their felt needs and desires, then we have lost it all. Then we have become just one more alternative among the worlds many other alternatives offering the same thing and people will just move on when we no longer offer what they want in the moment.

What the true culture of the church offers is contrary to what the world desires and which the world can only reject when it looks at it on its own terms. What the world wants is the aggrandizement of the self. It wants the solution to all problems to be found in the self. It wants itself to be part of the solution to its own salvation. It wants the glorification of what the self can contribute to the good of society. But the culture of the church speaks counter to this. It says to the world, “You are nothing and worth nothing. You are a worm. There is no good in you but only evil. There is nothing good you can ever contribute to anything.” And then into the midst of this despair it speaks the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. And when this message is grasped and believed by the power of the Holy Spirit then, despite having and being nothing in oneself, suddenly one has everything “in Jesus Christ.”

Let us ensure that this true gospel centered culture is always the culture of our church.

Gordon Schulz is a layman and life long Lutheran who lives in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. He’s a member at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vernon, BC. He studies and writes on issues of faith and theology.

4 thoughts on “Fellowship in Church Culture – Part 3 of 3

  1. ANO

    But the culture of the church speaks counter to this. It says to the world, “You are nothing and worth nothing. You are a worm. There is no good in you but only evil. There is nothing good you can ever contribute to anything.”

    Wow – if I talked like this with my un-believing friends, they wouldn’t be friends much longer, nor would they have anything to do with me. Scripturally speaking, this kind of language is typically used in situations where cities and countries have been judged unredeemable and sentence was about to be executed or religious authorities that were abusing their position and their charges instead of caring for them the way a shepherd cares for their sheep.

    The Holy Spirit is the one that convicts people of their sin before working faith in them, not harsh and abusive language on our part.

    • Gordon Schultz

      Thanks for the clarification ANO. I agree the language I used here is too harsh. One has to gently guide people into seeing the reality of sin in their lives and in the world. What I was trying to say here is that this is the church’s ultimate understanding of what the world actually is in itself without Christ, and not that this is how to effectively speak law and gospel into the world. The point I was trying to make was that since the fall into sin there is nothing good that can be found in human kind from God’s perspective (coram deo) and that all good comes only through Christ and the cross. The church can’t pretend to find at least a tiny bit of good in all people (as if many people truly want to do good and seek God but just can’t seem to be able to do it) which can somehow be nurtured and made to grow with God’s help like the Evangelicals often try do and which is simply conforming with world’s culture. Perhaps instead saying that “it says to the world” I should have said that this is what the church understands the world to truly be in itself.

      • ANO

        I’d be cautious about even saying ‘gently guide’ when it comes to people of the world as they have no way to grasp what can only be discerned by faith. Fellow believers can be gently guided to improve what they already have or brought back into the straight and narrow when they fall astray. Those outside the faith the Holy Spirit has to work faith in before any guidance can take place which means all we can do is give an account for the hope we have and trust the HS for the rest.

        With respect to us being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – I think it’d be more instructive to establish what your standard of ‘good’ is. Compared to God’s perfection all have fallen short of the glory of God, all our supposedly good deeds are but menstrual rags in comparison to His perfection. All creation is also His which means that nothing we have, can make, or do can offer Him something that isn’t already His.

        This leaves us standing naked and alone, with no way to pay the price for our sins short of the price His perfect justice demands. Can we do good? Relative to each other – yes. Relative to God – absolutely not. And you know what? That’s ok because Christ took care of the “measuring up to God” part and in so doing enables His followers to appear clean and pleasing in God’s sight.

        And here’s something I think we as Lutherans suffer from is a matter of course – namely our perspective on the relationship between us and our Maker. I grew up reciting the old “I a poor, miserable, sinner..” – and cannot remember once hearing the flip side – that we belong to an awesome and majestic God who owns everything and everyone and has literally moved heaven and earth to rescue us from the sin-sick nature we came into this world with, and care for us as only He can.

        Now -is it any wonder that people that’ve internalized “poor, miserable, sinner” to the point that when they go out into the world they are timid and fearful of giving account for their faith? Because after all, who’d want what I have?

        And, seriously – are we really ‘poor, miserable, sinners’? I’d hope we’d all admit to being sinners. As for the “poor” and “miserable” parts – I’d prefer to look at it as thanks be to God that we are rich in Christ and that because of His atoning work we can walk in the joy that comes with knowing we’re precious in God’s sight and that He has, continues to, and will always love and care for us. Sure we’re going to mess up – that’s what sinners do. And that’s why one of the gifts Christ gave was the people in the pastoral office to stand in His stead, minister to His flock, and if need be apply correction – until that time when we’re all united in the church triumphant.

        • Gordon Schultz

          One can indeed guide non-Christian people to the knowledge of their sin and of their condemned state which they can grasp even without faith. It is in fact necessary. It is through the office of the law that the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sin and works contrition in their hearts which is simply the terror and despair that results when they realize the wretched state they are in and this must happen before the Holy Spirit will work faith in their hearts through the gospel and give them the forgiveness of their sins.

          I give a long quote from what Luther says in the Smalcald Articles, starting at the end of the section “Concerning the Law” and extending into the section “Concerning Repentance”
          where he is speaking about the law.

          “It shows human beings into what utter depths their nature has fallen and how completely corrupt it is…. This is something they would not have believed before without the law. Thus they are terrified, humbled, despondent, and despairing. They anxiously desire help but do not know where to find it; they start to be enemies of God, to murmur, etc…. Now this is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which he destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair. This is the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks: ‘My word is a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” [Jer.23:29]. This is not ‘active contrition,’ a contrived remorse, but ‘passive contrition,’ true affliction of the heart, suffering and the pain of death…. To this office of the law, however, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the gospel. But where the law exercises such an office alone, without the addition of the gospel there is death and hell, and the human creature must despair.”

          As to what standard of good and bad it’s only God’s that ultimately counts. It is true that before the world (coram mundo) anyone can be externally good (good by some external measure of law) and in human societies that’s right and necessary so that those societies can function well. But human measures of good and bad are ultimately not true measures (good and bad are never relative) because they can never measure what’s in the heart. Any external good that is done without Christ is ultimately rooted in the self and its evil (selfish) will and not in Christ and so it is evil by God’s true measure even if it is externally good and used by God to work good in the world. We must agree with what Luther says in his commentary on Psalm 51 where he asserts “that whatever is reason and will in man is condemned and evil” [AE/LW Vol.12 p.357]. And yes, now that we are in Christ everything we do appears clean before God because of Christ and our old corrupt natures are cover by Christ’s righteousness.

          But we still have those completely corrupt natures within us and so we are still poor miserable sinners as well being new creations in Christ. We need to be constantly reminded of this so that we constantly flee (from the terror of who we are in ourselves) to the cross for refuge to be forgiven and renewed and so our new natures can be constantly strengthened in their battle against our old natures. It keeps us always focused on the cross and never on ourselves. Every time we see sin in our lives or the desire to sin rises up in us, the law should immediately show us that in ourselves, apart from Christ, we are still poor miserable sinners so that we flee to the means of grace so that we can cling to the cross with all our might (or rather that Christ can enfold us in his arms with all his might.) It is this constant rhythm of law and gospel (with of course the gospel predominating) which builds up and strengthens the Christian (beats down the old corrupt man and empowers the new man within us) and moves him or her to do God’s will in the world. It is only this knowledge that, even though we are poor miserable sinners in ourselves, that in Christ and the cross we are completely forgiven and renewed, through which the Holy Spirit brings us comfort and joy and moves us with the desire to speak the gospel in order to save other poor miserable sinners.

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