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Indisputable standards

by Pastor Paul Andell (Saint James, Philadelphia, PA, WordAlone board member)

August 2, 2004

It was a field trip day to places of importance. So while visiting the Philadelphia seminary library with my confirmands this spring, we happened upon an excellent pictorial exhibit about Luther and the Reformation.

It was a teaching moment as the displays so ably presented the places, people and events Lutherans have always considered important. Just beyond, however, at the librarian’s work area, I read a sign on the wall that immediately reminded me of the tension some of us feel in the church we serve. It read, “The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.”

Those of us who work the field of ministry know these words reflect a present cultural reality. In it, there is no one standard or truth. Jesus Christ isn’t the way, just one way. Pluralism and accommodation are to be celebrated. Whimsical as it may be, I wonder if that poster doesn’t speak to the loss of clarity in our church. Sometimes it isn’t what you say but what you don’t say that matters.

There is a small book by ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson that I had chosen not to read. It's title, “Faithful Yet Changing” had bothered me because it suggested more of the same churchly doubletalk that is eroding the integrity of both our leadership and our witness. Still, curious about how anything faithful can be changing, I picked up the book and read it. I was surprised to discover that I agreed with most of his pastoral concerns. I was heartened to note that he longs for us to be a Christ-centered, spirit-filled, and gospel-preaching church. And in a world he recognizes to be increasingly pluralistic, he invites us to “greater clarity about what it means to be Lutheran Christians.”

I am committed to that, too, and to Bishop Hanson’s belief that we “need to be a church grounded in the scriptures and Lutheran confessions.” But are they our indisputable standards? If they are that for us, and not simply politically correct, dismissible words, then they must define our conversations with the culture, our sense of self and our agreements with other churches. Our witness is our teaching moment.

Mark Hanson states, “We are not a church searching for an identity.” Why, then, Mark, do so many of us feel those are wishful and questionable words? We still look for clarity and faithfulness. Faithfulness to a standard should always come first.

No church can be faithful and yet changing which is all over the waterfront theologically, socially and culturally. All you have to do is look at some of our ecumenical partners and read between the lines.