Saturday, March 29, 2008

Confessional Stewardship

Here's the Logia Forum article I penned, mentioned in the previous post:

Echoes of autumn stewardship programs and drives have probably trailed off by now. Other programs may be pressing for volunteers and donors in our congregations during the Epiphany and Lent seasons. Now, however, may be as good a time as any to consider stewardship from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

“Stewardship” occurs in the Book of Concord in inverse proportion to the number of times it is found in many current church publications. The only occurrence appears in the last article of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession dealing with Ecclesiastical Power. The complaint cited there is that church leaders have grown quite wealthy while congregations and people suffer poverty. God undoubtedly sees and hears them, and it is to him that you will some day have to give account of your stewardship (xxviii, Tappert p. 281 f.).

The word stewardship might not have made it into the Book of Concord at all if the Papists had not misunderstood article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession. The question about good stewardship was not really germane to the issue at hand (for in this article we have been arguing about something different). Melanchthon digresses, saying in effect, “We weren’t really talking about stewardship, but now that you mention it, you haven’t been such good stewards.” Then he quickly goes on to discuss the real concern.

Was stewardship so insignificant in the sixteenth century that it received so little attention when the Lutheran Confessions were penned? Was stewardship only conceived of in terms of indulgence trafficking and state funding or was there another view quietly maintained among the faithful? Has the Christian Church ever in its history seen the likes of the stewardship programs, campaigns and emphases which are pressed upon us today from every corner? If not, why not?

Perhaps such materials thrive in our century and culture in a way which would not be appropriate in any other. Is the stewardship with which most of us are familiar the necessary form shaped by a Western democracy in the late twentieth century? In any case, these materials are urged upon us presumably because there are so few good stewards. Judge by the statistics apparent in many congregations: 60-70% of the members give less than two dollars per week. They spend twice as much for a single trip to McDonald’s as they do on a weekly visit to the Lord’s house.

Our synod’s problems often seem to be measured in the shortage of dollars. Fund-raising phone-a-thons from our colleges and seminaries smell so very much like manipulative techniques with heavy doses of air freshener, sprayed in hopes of squeezing more cash from members. But even when there are attempts to see self-management in terms of something other than dollars, i.e., in terms of talents and time, the figures are not much better: 10% of the members seem to do 90% of the work.

What procedure could turn these tragic figures around? In the current program-minded approach to stewardship, the Lutheran Confessions seem to have nothing to offer. There are no special worship services, no clever fund-raising suggestions, and no well-produced audio-visual materials. In spite of that, however, the Book of Concord remains one of the best textbooks on stewardship available.

A program approach to stewardship often begins with the assumption that what we need is a better biblical understanding about stewardship. If people understand stewardship better, they will become better stewards. The Confessions do not speculate thus about people. What the Confessions do best for stewardship is when stewardship is not mentioned at all. One does not effect good works by talking about good works. Good works are the consequent fruits of faith.

Broadly speaking, we might say that the Confessions speak in a way that bears stewardship fruits in three ways when it:

1) Removes obligation as a response to gospel gifts,
2) Rejects a partnership understanding of God’s relationship with us, and
3) Remands us to the theology of grace as opposed to a theology of success and glory.

First of all, the obligation of good works is removed from the saving gospel. In our own day, we sometimes get a take-off on the familiar John F. Kennedy quotation: Ask not what Jesus can do for you, but ask what you can do for Jesus. The idea is that Jesus has done so much for you, you ought to be doing something (i.e., giving something) for him. What a commingling of law and gospel in one fell swoop! Now that the gospel has been used to urge obligation, what is left for comfort and joy? That which is to be for peace of mind has been turned into something that incites guilt. What is left to do the work of the gospel when the gospel is doing the work of the law?

Such insidious ideas have slipped into our hymnals. For example, in the hymn “I Gave My Life for Thee” (TLH 405), these words are put into Jesus’ mouth by Frances Havergal:

I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed,
That thou might’st ransomed be
And quickened from the dead.
I gave My life for thee;
What hast thou giv’n for Me?

I suffered much for thee,
More than My tongue can tell,
Of bitt’rest agony,
To rescue thee from hell.
I suffered much for thee;
What canst thou bear for Me?

Here, even what Christ has done for us seems to have strings attached to it. Perhaps this hymn would work well as a strong dosage of law, but how can any gospel be proclaimed since the Savior who has done all and given all seems to be expecting all in response?

In this way God’s gospel gifts in Christ are made to seem like the times when we get an unexpected Christmas gift from someone. But I didn’t get you anything. The guilt which ensues may prompt us to exit quickly and return with a gift of near or equal value. We don’t like being given to when we have nothing to offer in return. We feel under obligation to repay the love shown to us even though we don’t like it if those positions are reversed. We particularly resent the thought that someone’s just doing it because they felt they had to. You wouldn’t have gotten me this gift if I hadn’t given you one first.

In Christ, however, we are simply given to. God is completely satisfied with the obedient faithfulness He has received from his Son, Jesus Christ. In forgiveness, we have the gift of forgiveness, Jesus Christ himself for us. That gift is not something static—it is life itself! What He gives by grace is a new heart and life. It is not up to us whether or not we will choose to do something for God in response to his love. Even our will and abilities are the result of his gifts in Christ (Phil 2:13). Works follow faith as we note in the Apology, Articles IV and XX, in the Large Catechism on the Creed, and in the Formula of Concord, Articles IV and XX.

Secondly, the Lutheran Confessions dismiss a partem-partem view of our relationship with God. That is to say, in no area of life can we mete things out as if this part is God’s part and what remains is our part. Pelagianism divvies up responsibilities with regard to our justification: God does his part for our salvation, now we must do our part.

Similarly, with regard to our sanctification, we do not suggest that God is doing his part in assisting us whenever we feel like we need some help doing our part. It is not as though we as Christians can now act on our own, calling on God only when we need a little divine assistance. Our entire life and salvation depends on the Lord being gracious through his gifts via the means of grace.

When AC VI [The New Obedience] states that such faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, we ask, From whence comes the will and the ability to do what we must? Is it not the working of God through faith rather than an act of the human will apart from faith? This point was a stumbling block to the likes of George Major and Nicolaus von Amsdorf as handled in FC IV.

Furthermore, the question of whether sanctification is monergistic or synergistic comes into play here as well. If we view stewardship synergistically, we easily take God’s part for granted and our programs become efforts to get us to do our part. While the Confessions do speak at times of cooperation (FC Ep, 18, 19), other portions describe more dearly what is meant Holy Scriptures ascribe conversion, faith in Christ, regeneration, renewal, and everything that belongs to its real beginning and completion in no way to the human powers of the natural free will, be it entirely or one-half or the least and tiniest part, but altogether and alone to the divine operation and the Holy Spirit (FC SD, II 25; see also: LC, The Third Article of the Apostles Creed, paragraph 58, 59; FC SD, III, 28; FC SD, III, 41).

As Adolf Koeberle states in his Quest for Holiness, p. 95, The other and more important result is the fact that sanctification must also be understood as an exclusive act of God. Just as forgiveness is exclusively God’s work and every cooperation or conditioning activity on man’s part is completely excluded, so regeneration is an energy that comes simply out of Christ’s victory and does not require our supplementary efforts. It is not fitting to teach justification evangelically and then in the doctrine of sanctification to turn synergistic.

Possession of time and material goods is not exclusive: “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come all are yours, and you are of Christ and Christ is of God” (1 Cor 3:21-23). We cannot divide between God’s portion and our portion. The earth is the Lord’s and all that dwells therein. In Christ, we have the blessed communion with the Lord God Almighty, even though it is only seen in this life by faith and not by sight. We cannot think of time as though one day a week were set aside for God while the rest of the week is for ourselves to do with as we please. We must not think of our income in terms of 10% is God’s and 90% is mine. We are Christ’s and He is ours.

God is no “Indian giver.” He doesn’t give us what we have and then ask for some of it back while we keep the rest to spend as we please. By his Holy Spirit at work through word and sacrament, all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do serves the vocation into which He has been pleased to call us in Christ.

Where the gospel is living and active, there stewardship will be living and active. Where the gospel is not taught purely and the sacraments not administered rightly, stewardship also will be on shaky ground. Copious offerings and numerous volunteers may be solicited by artificial means and by the promptings of the law. One must not mistake this, however, for the stewardship which is the result of the gospel.

Thirdly, a theology of success and glory is nowhere apparent in the Confessions. Where faith by God’s grace is living and active, stewardship will be happening even though it be unnoticed. The widow’s last two mites were not especially noteworthy to any but the eyes of Christ who gave his disciples eyes to see what he had seen. Our successes are not measured in terms of dollars and cents, days and hours, or numbers of people. Our successes are measured in Christ and his cross.

In times of plenty and in times of want we know what it means to be satisfied and content, both as individuals and as congregations. We simply rejoice by faith which does not look at statistics and things that are seen, but that the Lord is at work.

If we can be happy to build a large administration, we can also be happy to disassemble a large administration. ff we acquire a large worship facility and many automated gadgets, we will also be happy to lose them all as long as word and sacrament are not taken from us. This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong about large administrations, buildings, and gadgets. Sometimes they can serve the gospel well. At other times they can distract us and rob us of time and freedom to be students of the word and servants of one another. In the end, however, the gospel is what moves Christians—not budgets, programs, or motivational seminars.

Stewardship is not talking people into doing what they don’t want to do. It is not coercing people to give what they don’t want to give. Stewardship is simply a fruit of the gospel stewardship will be found wherever the church and faith are found—and the Church and faith will be found wherever the word is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered.

This can be stultified and stifled by turning stewardship over to a program mentality. It happens easily enough. Since our congregations have Boards of Stewardship, the pastors have to find something for them to do. Why not a program? Since we are paying men to be stewardship executives at the synod and district levels, it is only reasonable that they earn their keep by developing stewardship programs.

What the Lutheran Confessions do for stewardship is to provide for pure preaching and right administering of God’s gospel gifts in Christ. Therein our hearts rejoice—new life is ours—and stewardship commences like heart beating and lungs breathing. And He who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God (2 Cor 9:10,11).

In our day, we may never know what the Christian life was like before programs. We may never know what the Christian life would be like if stewardship were mentioned as rarely in our church publications as in the Confessions, but our confessional symbols do point to a time when something else was esteemed—something to which a quiet few still cling today.

Kyrie eleison: O Lord, as You continually provide for all our needs in body and soul and as You support and sustain Your holy bride, the Church, until such time as You shall gather Your dear people into the mansions which You have prepared, grant that by Your grace we may heartily participate in true stewardship with such gifts and efforts as You have enlivened within us by Your Holy Spirit at work through the Means of Grace.

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