Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 5, 2009

Schroeder on Adiaphora

I have been assigned a paper for this fall’s WELS Arizona-California District Pastoral Conference titled, “Luther, Adiaphora, and Worship.”  In reality, this will not be a new paper, but a revised version of an essay I wrote for an independent study course while I was enrolled at Santa Clara University.  The paper will need some revision, as it was originally written for a professor/advisor with little knowledge about the WELS, but will now be presented before the WELS pastors of our Arizona-California District.  To get a feel for the content of the paper, take a look at this previous post, a collection of Luther quotes related to adiaphora (Christian freedom) and worship that I gathered in preparation for the essay.

WELS logo newOn the opening day of last week’s WELS Convention, our Synod’s President, Pastor Mark Schroeder, addressed the delegates regarding a wide variety of convention- and synod-related issues.  At one point in his address, Pres. Schroeder dealt with the matter of adiaphora in church practices.  As I listened to Pres. Schroeder’s address online, with thoughts about my upcoming paper in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but observe that Schroeder’s comments are quite similar to the comments Luther offered regarding adiaphora.  Schroeder’s complete address is available at this link, but I’d like to share with you his specific comments regarding adiaphora and church practice here.

As Confessional Lutherans, we emphasize and agree that it is the gospel in Word and sacrament that is the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). We proclaim Christ crucified. The message of the cross was not the message that itching ears wanted to hear in Paul’s day, and it is not a message that finds favor in the ears of today’s postmodern, self‐gratifying, self‐centered unbeliever. As Confessional Lutherans we will look for every opportunity to proclaim God’s law in all its harshness, and we will be zealous to share the sweet message of the gospel to every sinner convicted by God’s law. But we will never adjust or hide or downplay a single word of God’s truth in order to make it somehow more attractive. To do that is to empty the gospel of its power and to lose the gospel itself.

Confessional Lutherans also recognize that Christ has set us free from the law and its demands. The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, regulating all areas of life for Old Testament believers, have been fulfilled and removed. In Christ, all things not decided by the Word of God are, as Paul says, “permissible” (1 Corinthians 10:23).

But confessional Lutherans are also well aware that just because something may be done does not mean that it should be done. Immediately after asserting that all things are permissible, Paul went on to say, “But not everything is beneficial . . . not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). In other words, when something is determined to be an adiaphoron, that’s not where the discussion ends; that is when discussion among Christians begins. It’s a discussion which asks important questions: “This may be permissible. But how does this particular practice affect my fellow Christians—both inside and outside of our fellowship? Does this practice reflect clearly what we believe, or does it send an unclear or blurred message? What impact does this have on the church today, and what long-term ramifications might this have? Is there the potential of offense or misunderstanding? Does a practice sacrifice a connection with the church of the ages for the sake of mere innovation? Will such a practice build up and express our unity or will it fracture and diffuse it?”

It’s interesting to note that in almost all cases when the New Testament addresses the matter of Christian freedom, the focus is not on the Christian’s right to exercise that freedom. More often the New Testament talks about the importance of refraining from exercising my Christian freedom if doing so will potentially cause harm to others or to the mission of the church.

In asserting their right to act in Christian freedom, especially in a desire to reach the lost, people often cite these words of Paul: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). But the context of those words clearly indicates that Paul is not making the case for an “anything goes” approach to mission work and worship practices. On the contrary, Paul prefaced those words with this statement: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.” In other words, even though he may have every right to exercise his freedom, for the sake of the gospel and Christian love he does not do that. He refrains from using his freedom for the sake of the message and for the sake of those who hear his message. Professor John Brug of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary put it this way: “Paul’s way of being all things to all people was preaching the same clear gospel to all, not trying to tailor a message that would be offensive to none.” (Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, v. 106, #3, p. 220)

Faithfulness to God’s Word and to the Lutheran Confessions is the responsibility of every called worker and lay member of our synod. We have also given to the Conference of Presidents (COP) the responsibility of overseeing supervising doctrine and practice in our synod. Mindful of that solemn duty, the COP states in its report to this convention: “The COP has also discussed issues relating to forms and practices in the areas of worship, outreach, and congregational organization. The COP maintains that our practice in all of these areas should always be consistent with our doctrine and should reflect a unified understanding of scriptural principles.” The COP then resolved to initiate scriptural studies and brotherly discussions of these matters throughout the synod.

The COP recognizes that doctrine shapes practice in worship, outreach methodology, and congregational organization. Likewise, the COP is aware from the lessons of church history that practice can influence doctrinal beliefs—often unintentionally. Doctrine and practice are intimately related to each other. Therefore, it’s essential that we be wary of methods and practices that have their roots in evangelical and reformed theology and that may inherently reflect that theology. For example, these “theological underpinnings” can show themselves in worship and outreach methods that emphasizes subjective feelings over the proclamation of God’s objective gospel truth; or that gives the impression that prayer is a means of grace; or that emphasizes the role of praise over against the centrality of the Word proclaimed and the sacraments administered.

It is equally important for us as Confessional Lutherans is to guard against formalism or empty traditionalism. We will be careful not to say, “This is what God says,” when he has not spoken. To do so would restrict and deny the wonderful Christian freedom that God has given us.

All of this has serious implications for our approach to our God‐given mission. Will we look for all possible ways to communicate that message to an unbelieving world? Absolutely. Will we strive to understand the thinking and the world view of the culture in which we live? Undoubtedly. Will we communicate God’s truths in a way that people can understand? Certainly. Will we have a burning love to reach the lost with the precious news of a Savior from sin? Without question. But in doing all of those things, we will want to insure that we do not back away in the slightest from a faithful and full proclamation of Law and Gospel. We will be careful not to hide our identity as a Confessional Lutheran church in favor of a more appealing, and less “intimidating” brand of Christianity. We will not model ourselves after outwardly popular and successful non‐denominational or pan‐denominational churches in which adherence to clear biblical doctrine gives way to a generic, feel‐good, popular Christianity that seeks to remove barriers by setting aside the offense of the cross. We will value the time‐tested heritage passed down to us through the generations, while recognizing that God has not established a New Testament ceremonial law. We will ask God for the zeal to apply law and gospel to the heart of hearers and to trust in the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to do what we could never do: to change a heart.

Ever since the Reformation, Lutherans have not hesitated to agree that certain practices, even though not necessarily determined by the Word of God, are good to be followed or avoided in a unified way. In order to improve the quality and consistency of worship practices among Lutherans, Martin Luther produced the German Mass. Lutherans have consistently agreed that baptism would typically be performed among us by sprinkling or pouring, as a clear witness against those who claim that immersion is the only proper method. In our own synod, we have adopted constitutions and bylaws, which are nothing more than agreements freely made to follow certain procedures and practices. We have agreed on practical procedures for issuing calls assigning ministerial graduates. We have produced hymnals and catechisms to unify our worship and instruction. Among our WELS family, we have a history of brotherly discussion of what things are truly beneficial and constructive and have achieved a remarkable consistency in practice from congregation to congregation. We have also displayed a willingness to listen to loving words of concern, caution, and admonition.

This is the nature of the discussion that the Conference of Presidents has in mind. The intent of the COP is not to approach these matters legalistically or with a desire to place undue restrictions on the freedom that we have in Christ. There is a desire to foster a greater unity in our approach to mission and ministry among us. The intent is that these discussions will be based on a discussion of biblical truths and principles, in a spirit of brotherly love, and with a desire to maintain the blessing of Confessional unity among us.

I would expect that every member of the synod will applaud the COP’s desire to have these issues discussed among us. We will also continue to pray that God will strengthen our unity in doctrine and practice, our ability to articulate our beliefs clearly, and our commitment to proclaiming the timeless ths that God has entrusted to us.

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