ARC Pastors’ Retreat, Fall 2017
Larry J. Walker
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-20, ESV)
Some of you who are older may remember the name of Pastor E. Edward Tornow. I believe he was part of the AFLC for a brief time, but he didn’t play well with others.
I knew Pastor Tornow as the head of a Bible camp called Dakota Youth Ranch, near Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. My pastor down in Kenyon was a friend of Tornow’s, so that’s where we went for camp every summer. For me it was heaven on earth, the best time of the year.
One particular year, a young pastor was there as a speaker. I got to know him a little, and he had interesting stories to tell about his ministry. And it occurred to me, for the first time in my life, that being a pastor might be something to think about.
What makes this anecdote less boring than most of the events in my life is that I dealt with it the right way, which is pretty rare. During that week at camp I’d learned a new Bible study technique – going deep. I would read a passage, and re-read it, and re-read it again. I’d read it until it got boring, and I’d keep on. Somewhere on the other side of the boredom, illumination would usually come.
After I got back from camp, I started practicing that technique daily. And one day, as I was reading the passage that’s my text today, God spoke to me through the Word.
He told me NOT to be a pastor.
Of course it’s dangerous to insist on one’s personal interpretation of any Scripture passage. But I have never had reason to question that revelation. I don’t have the gifts to be a pastor. I would have been a disaster as a pastor. God saved me from great frustration and failure, and any churches I might have served from some bad pastoring, by giving me that warning at an early age.
When I was asked to speak to the pastors’ retreat, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had to say. I certainly can’t tell you anything about doing your job, which is above my wisdom; I cannot attain to it. And my pastor can tell you I’m no star as a layman either. So I figured I’d go to one of the tiny fields where I do know something – the origins of our AFLC in the Lutheran Free Church.
It will probably come as a surprise to many of you when I tell you that, in their time and place, Georg Sverdrup and Sven Oftedal, the fathers of the Lutheran Free Church, our predecessor body, were considered crazy liberals. Don’t misunderstand me. In the 19th Century the lines between liberal and conservative were drawn in very different places than they are today.
In the 1880s, the liberal-conservative divide had nothing to do with views about the authority of Scripture. Both the Free Lutherans and their United Church opponents (the conservatives) had the same high view of the Bible. They didn’t disagree about sexual morality or even much about the size of government.
The difference between Lutheran liberals and conservatives in the 1880s was all about what the role of the common people should be, in church and society.
The conservatives believed that each person was born into the station or class where God intended them to live their lives. If you were the son of a farmer, you should be a farmer yourself – or if you couldn’t inherit the farm, you should do something appropriate to that station, like becoming a sailor or a woodcutter. If you were the son of a pastor or a government official, you had been endowed by God with the wisdom to rule and guide the lower classes.
The liberals, like Sverdrup and Oftedal, believed that God gave His gifts as He chose – just as Jesus’ apostles were not chosen from the upper classes of society, He could choose His leaders today out of any social class He liked. All we need to do is to give everybody a decent education and opportunity, and the cream will rise to the top.
Churchmen on both sides of the disagreement looked at 1 Corinthians 12 and saw different things. “Liberals” like Sverdrup and Oftedal believed that we should keep our churches open to whatever the Holy Spirit might do, in terms of giving gifts to members for the building up of the body of Christ. Gifts might be bestowed on anyone, even the poor. Conservatives believed there were only two kinds of gifts, and we already knew where they had been bestowed. Pastors had been given the gifts of leadership, preaching, and administration. Lay people had been given the gifts of obedience and financial giving. Any other gifts must have passed away.
I might pause for a moment here to note that Sverdrup and Oftedal pretty much won that argument. I think that even among the most conservative Missouri Synod teachers today, they’re not going to tell you that a layman can’t lead a Bible study or pray extemporaneously in front of a group when the pastor isn’t present. That’s precisely what the conservatives argued in Sverdup’s day.
The key to understanding Sverdrup’s view is a word we use a lot in the Georg Sverdrup Society. It’s a Norwegian word, barnelærdom. And I can see your eyes glazing over as I say it, but bear with me. Barnelærdom is one of those words that don’t translate directly – there’s no exact English equivalent. Literally it means “children’s education.” But what it meant in the 1880s was the kind of Christian education you would get growing up in a Lutheran church, an education centered on the Bible, Luther’s Small Catechism, and the Explanation to the Catechism.
Here’s why barnelærdom matters. Imagine you’re a free Lutheran, sitting down with a Missouri Lutheran to discuss how a church should be run.
You say, “I think the lay people should have a big role in running the church. They should be able to teach Bible classes and lead Bible studies, and do counseling, and even preach when the pastor’s out of town.”
The Missourian answers, “Don’t you see how dangerous that is? Look at all the crazy laymen running around preaching heresy. Look at the Mormons. Look at the Millerites. Look at all the smaller cults. They start because some individual – usually a lay person – thinks they have some kind of personal revelation from God, and gets others to follow them. This happens because uneducated lay people are allowed to teach outside the supervision of a trained pastor. Preaching and teaching should be restricted to pastors, who’ve been educated and tested under the authority of the church. Otherwise, it will lead to chaos.”
The basic question for the pastor is, how much education is necessary for a lay person to minister in the congregation without serious danger of heresy? The Lutheran Free Church taught that barnelærdom was enough. If you had barnelærdom, you had sufficient training to keep you true to the Lutheran faith. If barnelærdom is not enough – if congregation leadership and teaching require seminary training and ordination – then the Lutheran Free Church project cannot work. The Lutheran Free Church stands or falls on barnelærdom.
What we have here is two different, defensible models for the life of the church. One is based on the model we observe in Scripture. The other is based on the practical experience of pastors and churches with actual, cranky lay people.
The whole Lutheran Free Church project depended, frankly, on a miracle of grace, on having faith that God would bless a church body that allowed lay people to exercise their spiritual gifts. That He would protect that church from falling into error.
All this, of course, can be very frustrating for a pastor. Although I’ve never been a pastor, I worked for eleven years in a congregation’s office in Florida. And one thing I noticed is that in general there are two kinds of lay people – people who don’t want to be leaders, who you wish would be, and people who love to be leaders, and you wish they wouldn’t.
One of the things I’ve said more than once in the Georg Sverdrup Society is that we’re a church body based on a belief in miracles. Sverdrup believed that if you provided the right conditions, faithfully ministering the Word and sacraments, God would miraculously raise up members to exercise their spiritual gifts.
This is the point in the sermon where I’m supposed to give you advice about how to achieve the goal I’ve just described.
And that’s ridiculous. You know your jobs; I don’t. I can only make a suggestion, which you may use or throw away, like a free sample that comes in the mail.
Looking back on my years in the Florida church, I worked under a pastor who had many fine gifts. He was an older man, conservative, with a heart for evangelism. And he worked hard. Both he and his wife worked very, very hard.
Too hard, in my opinion. I used to wonder how he could preach on keeping the Sabbath, when he himself never actually took a day of rest.
He and his wife were always there. At every meeting. In the middle of every project. Everything that got done in that church (and a lot got done) was done under their personal supervision.
If you suggested that he delegate responsibility, his answer was always the same – “I try to get people to do those jobs, but they always quit.”
As an employee, I knew why they quit. I wanted to quit all the time. He was terrible at giving coherent instructions.
But the point of this story is not to criticize a brother in faith who’s gone to be with the Lord now. The point is what happened when he retired.
The next pastor who came to that church was not a workaholic. He believed in nurturing lay leadership. He found very little lay leadership in that church to nurture. Everyone was spoiled. They were used to having the pastor do all the work. They resented being asked to pitch in.
It seems to me that a pastor has two choices, essentially. One is to take the United Church position and have the pastor do pretty much everything, maybe with the limited help of a few favored lay people. The other is to take the Free Lutheran position, and delegate. Which is the scary way to do ministry. Because you and I both know – if the lay people mess it up, it’s not them who’ll be blamed. It’ll be you.
A parable that haunts me is the parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. As I read it, it’s a parable about faith – but faith, in practical terms, is another word for courage.
And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’
But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.
‘Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have will be taken away….”
The master in the parable is going away. He can’t look after his property. He has to put his trust in his servants.
They don’t all deserve his trust.
Two of them do OK. They invest what they’ve been given, and make a proportional profit.
But the third servant is overcautious. His focus isn’t on what he can earn. It’s on what he might lose. He interprets his responsibility to be that of protecting what he’s been given. So he plays it safe. He buries the money. Can’t lose anything that way, can you?
But the master doesn’t care about safety. He wants risk-takers on his staff. I used to wonder, when I was younger, what would have happened to the third servant if he’d invested his talent and lost it all.
Nowadays I think the answer is obvious. The master clearly delights in risk-takers. He’s a risk-taker himself, as he proves by leaving his property in his servants’ care in the first place. The lazy servant isn’t punished for losing a theoretical profit. He’s punished for playing it safe.
May I say – with great fear and trembling, because I myself am a terrible coward; too much a coward to ever do what you do – that the lay people you’ve got right now are the talents God has placed in your care? The question is, will you take a risk with them, or will you play it safe?
There are no guarantees. The Lutheran Free Church way is a dangerous way.
I will say this, something I have believed since I was a teenager studying 1 Corinthians 12 – the world is waiting to see the Body of Christ. It is waiting to see the New Testament church. It is waiting to see the Free Congregation.