The Need for Reform in the Church Today

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I am sharing with you portions of an article I was asked to write about the need for reform in the Church today.

While our context is different, the issues that necessitated the Reformation are evident as the Church continues in a state of decline, especially in the West. I believe our pathway forward will necessitate a return to the heart of the Reformation and a sacrificial embracing of the nature and authority of Scripture.

Martin Luther understood the Scriptures as the ultimate authority for faith and for life. It is from the Scriptures that the Church obtains its authority, as the Scriptures bring the Church into existence and sustain it. Luther’s sense of the holiness and transcendent nature of Scripture is as profound as his love for it.

In his lectures on the Psalms, Luther writes,

What pasture is to the beast, the nest for the birds, the stream for fish, the Scriptures are for believing souls. To the arrogant, of course, they are a stumbling block; he will have nothing to do with them, since they offer him nothing. But to him who approaches the Scriptures with humility they open themselves and themselves produce humility, change man from a desperate sinner into a child of God. They give everything which the soul needs, and it is to tempt God, if anyone will not be satisfied with the Scriptures. They are the fountain from which one must dip. Each word of the same is a source which affords an inexhaustible abundance of water to everyone who thirsts after the saving doctrine. God’s will is completely contained therein, so that we must constantly go back to them. Nothing should be presented which is not confirmed by the authority of both Testaments and agrees with them. It cannot be otherwise, for the Scriptures are divine; in them God speaks and they are his Word.

In his lectures on the Psalms, Luther regards the expressions, “God speaks,” and “the Scriptures speak,” as convertible. To hear or to read the Scriptures is nothing else than to hear God. They are his sanctuary in which he is present. Therefore we dare not despise one single word of the Scripture for “all its words are weighed, counted and measured.” (J. Michael Reu, Luther and the Scriptures, pp. 5-6)

This understanding of the authoritative and transcendent nature of the Scripture as the norm for all matters of life and faith must again be asserted as the foundation for reform and renewal in the Church today. This authority must be understood to transcend all other competing authoritative sources in our culture.

In reflecting on the first Reformation, many applauded Luther’s efforts in moving the Bible from the cathedral to the kitchen table of every believer’s home. Today it must be reassembled in its totality from the trash heaps of those who have engaged in minimalism, deconstruction, and revisionist techniques for minimizing its normative influence. It must be pulled away from those who deny its truth and power while asserting contemporary human wisdom as more authoritative and relevant to our needs.

This transcendent truth must find its way back into the daily devotional life of every Christian — a guide to every relationship, the foundation of the faith we believe, and the inspiration to engage in Christ’s mission that provides direction and purpose for living.

While clergy play an important role in providing the clear proclamation of the Scripture as they engage in Word and Sacrament ministry and in catechesis — faithfully teaching the truth contained in the Scripture — the power of this new or continuing reformation will be the role of the laity, what I believe was Luther’s original intention. This focus is the nature of discipleship, which is just beginning to impact our life together.

Our understanding of Word and Sacrament propels us into discipleship, a life of following Jesus. What we receive in worship we carry with us into the world. In Baptism, we receive Christ and his kingdom. We take on a new identity as a child of God, a citizen of the Kingdom Jesus came to proclaim. To our own name is added the name “Christian.” We become a child of God, an inheritor of his Kingdom.

Parents, along with the Christian community, take on the responsibility of discipling the child to become a follower of Jesus, maturing in the faith until they, too, are able to share their faith in Jesus with others and disciple them. Unfortunately, we have often abandoned those children and families after the sacramental act is concluded.

We have failed to ask the far deeper Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” What are the implications for parents and sponsors? How have we trained mentors to disciple the parents or to walk with both the parents and their children in an intentional process toward becoming a mature follower of Jesus Christ?

Asking those questions would insure that we understand the implications of Baptism, leading us to a mature understanding of the Priesthood of all Believers, as well as a more complete understanding of Christian vocation. Such an understanding of Baptism would include time for daily confession, forgiveness and repentance, making good use of the promises received in Baptism. Private confession with another brother or sister in Christ would not seem foreign to our life but a treasure that unbinds and frees us.

This understanding of discipleship moves us from the Word read and proclaimed at worship into a life of daily reading, reflection, study and meditation on the Word, providing time for Christ to speak through his Word as he is present in it.

This discipline is more than a personal and privatized endeavor. Disciples must come together to reflect on Scripture, share insight and meaning, offer encouragement and care through the mutual consolation in the Word.

The primacy of prayer in our worship compels us to lead a life of daily prayer. Luther encourages us to pray prior to our reading and reflection on the Scripture so that Christ will be our teacher through the Holy Spirit, who comes to us in our prayers. Failure to begin with prayer means that we will be our own teachers and miss what Christ would have us learn.

This life of prayer draws us ever closer to Christ and is a powerful resource in guiding and directing our decisions. Intercession for others is equally important as an expression of our love and care for them. Even the offering should not only remind us of Christ’s sacrificial love during worship but inspire us to invest our lives in the lives of others.

That is the commitment of discipleship, to invest our lives in the lives of others. While we gather as a community, the love of Christ we receive is to be invested in the lives of all those with whom we share a relationship.

The creed should remind us to grow in our understanding of the faith we possess. Teaching the faith is a primary component in equipping the laity as disciples of Jesus. Christian education must begin at the earliest possible moment and never end. We must teach and be open in our learning to fully embrace Jesus, not according to our own preconceived understandings but according to his revealed identity in the Word. He is who he claims to be: the Lord of Life; the Savior of the world; the Messiah; the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Teaching the faith transforms our worldview from our secular culture to a biblical worldview of the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus came to proclaim. Only in this worldview do we glimpse how the world looks from God’s perspective.

Confessing the creed together reminds us that our learning equips disciples to confess their faith in Christ Jesus, to bear witness to Christ not only during worship but also in the world. Christian education not only helps us mature in our faith but also equips us to pass on what we have learned in every relationship.

The challenge in Christian education is not the mere accumulation of information as though we are designed to be a reservoir of information. Rather, we are to intentionally pass on what we are learning immediately, as we learn it, as though we are a pipeline through whom God’s Word enters the lives of others. Learning to share the content is as important as the content itself.

The Eucharist does not end in consuming the bread and the wine. The presence of Christ we have received in the Sacrament creates a longing to share Christ’s presence through caring for and demonstrating Christian community to others, both within and beyond the Body of Christ.

We see the nature of that Christian community described in Acts 2:42-47. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

These verses create a powerful glimpse into Christian community. Discipleship invites us to ask the question, “What does this mean?” Disciples are challenged to mature not only in their understanding but also in their application of the faith to daily living. The nature of this community is one that bears witness to the profound love of Jesus Christ. This community is incarnational, highly relational, and reflective of Christ’s love that demands mutual responsibility and accountability. This is the nature of life-to-life discipleship that is our greatest resource for reform and renewal today.

This is only a partial list of the connections that one can easily make between our Lutheran identity in the centrality of worship and discipleship. I began with worship not only because of its centrality in our life together but also because its foundation is the Scripture from beginning to end.

The Word of God alone is powerful enough to bring the reform and renewal the Church needs. Probing the depth of the Word of God when we regard it as transcendent and authoritative truth opens us to its life-giving and transforming power. It transforms our values, understandings and behaviors, equipping us to invest our life in Christ in the lives of others through catechesis, or teaching the faith, and vocation, or modeling and living the faith, in the context of a Christian community committed to love expressed in mutual responsibility and accountability.

It is the Word of God in Holy Scripture that defines and describes this process as Jesus discipled his first followers. While the world debates absolute truth and relative truth, objective truth and subjective truth, ultimate truth and situational truth, universal truth and cultural truth, for the sake of its own renewal and for the sake of the world, the Church must boldly proclaim the transcendent truth of Sacred Scripture. We do so not simply to argue for its acceptance as one among many understandings of the truth, but in word and deed we regard it as the norm above all other norms for all matters of life and faith, believing it, confessing it and living it. It is our only hope for the reform and renewal that is so desperately needed now.

With you being reformed and renewed in Christ Jesus,

Bishop John Bradosky

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