The life of a Christian isn’t always an easy one. Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14)? Not only that, but a cursory reading of the many letters of the New Testament, including Revelation 2 and 3, shows that life in the early Church was “everything” but idyllic. If that was the case 2000 years ago, why should it be any different today?
The challenges we face now, many of which we try to articulate and address at Lutheran CORE, are myriad: Critical Race Theory, soup-de-jour sexual ethics, finding a pitcher large enough to contain “gender fluidity,” the waning of Scriptural authority, substantial clergy shortages, a high degree of apathy among the “nones” in America (to say nothing about spiritual malaise among some of the faithful). Life in the Church today is everything but idyllic. The challenges we are facing seem, at times, overwhelming.
What if something else is amiss? What if we have gone too soft, lost our moxie, can’t find our “get up and go” because it “hurried up and went”? It’s easy to point fingers at many things out there, and there certainly are viruses more noxious than COVID-19 which have entered the bloodstream of American Lutheranism. But what if the fundamental issue isn’t out there but a problem with in here? C.S. Lewis wrote about “men without chests” in the Abolition of Man, a staggering assessment and stinging indictment on modern man (the 1940’s British man, at least) for their lack of character. Or to put it in another way, I’ve heard criticisms of a heartless or a mindless Christianity, but what about a spineless Christianity? The body of Christ surely has a spine, does it not? Surely we aren’t just a sagging bag of skin!
When I talk with some of the older members of the churches I currently serve and think about those saints I have served, one of the common comments I hear about pastors of ages past is how forthright they were. They weren’t forthright in a mean-spirited way, something akin to a rabid political protestor or a politician trying to show their constituents how righteous they are or (perhaps more likely) to show off the deep pockets that fund their ambitions. They were forthright in a pastoral, Christian way. Of course, the occasional mean, curmudgeon of a pastor would happen from time to time. But at least the coarse pastors got their point across clearly.
Perhaps we need to recapture or revamp that old “Herr Pastor” model of ministry. Those “Herr Pastors” had a strong backbone. The pastor spoke and led; the parish listened and followed (sometimes). The prophets and apostles spoke and led; Israel and the Church (sometimes) listened and (sometimes) followed. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, spoke and led and like the prophets before and the apostles after Him; some listened, some followed. This might not be considered the “perfect” way to lead a Church but it is a Biblical way to lead. It is a way to lead with a spine, a spine that is held steady and secure, like a good back brace, by God’s grace and power.
Perhaps this is the kind of moxie we should like to see in our pastors and church leaders. Forthright, yet tender; stern and loving, just like Jesus. Not domineering but also not flapping back and forth like a reed in the wind. Jovial without being trivial. Gentle (a fruit of the spirit!) while also having gravitas. And this is the kind of character we should like to see in the people of God, the flock of Christ’s pasture, is it not?
Think of the saints of the New Testament whose spines were strong because of the one true faith passed on to them through their preachers and pastors; Priscilla and Aquilla, Lydia, the authors of the Gospels, and all those names Paul often mentions at the end of his letters. Think of all those early Church fathers who wrote voluminously against heresy and paganism, even at the cost of their lives and livelihood. Think of all those faithful women through the ages who taught the faith to their children and, through their love and devotion, many of them became the means by which their unbelieving husbands came to be saved (1 Corinthians 7:16).
Like the Church today, they all no doubt had bouts of uncertainty, seeing an easy road to travel through compromise…if they only gave in just a little. But as we all know and have seen, especially in various denominations, when you give an inch, soon you will be giving up a mile. Perhaps those early Christians failed more than we realize as did those who lived during decades of swelling Church numbers in the 1940’s and 50’s. But they had a burly backbone, a strong spine.
We also know that we share in the same faith, the same baptism, the same Lord: Jesus who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus, the Lamb of God, has conquered the world (John 16:33) and will return to this weary world soon (Revelation 22:20). And Jesus has promised that even the gates of hell will never overwhelm the Church (Matthew 16:18), the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Because of Jesus and Him alone, can we have a spine capable of withstanding any backlash against the Church from wherever it may come. Because of Jesus can we witness to the truth of God “with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience” so that if we are slandered, those who “revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).