One of the most well known bits of theology that make Lutherans Lutheran is our idea of faith vs. works, most notably our insistence on justification by faith. Even though I had heard the words thrown around in various sermons through the years, I didn’t really start learning and thinking about this concept until my Church History class in college. I have wrestled with this concept ever since. I wonder if it may be one of the root causes of the inactivity I see in some churches, especially in regards to service to the community and around the world. In my own mind (perhaps over-simplifying it all) I wondered, “Well if works don’t get me to heaven, why bother?!” Now perhaps most believers don’t think like this… but what if this simple misinterpretation of theology did somehow encourage the church to be disengaged in the world?
Over the years I’ve witnessed many churches whose main focus was directed within the walls of the church. These focuses can range from trying to pay for the building, discussing the layout of worship or decorating for various holidays. Don’t get me wrong, these are important aspects of a worshipping community but I genuinely believe that being a follower of Christ, and specifically being Lutheran, means being able to reach out into our community and around the world as well. A few years ago World Vision conducted a survey among parish pastors across various denominations. They wanted to find out what these pastors’ and their congregations’ highest priorities were. The results, which are outlined in Richard Stearns’ (the current president of World Vision) book The Hole in Our Gospel, concluded that 79% saw worship as a high priority while only 18% saw “helping the poor and disadvantage people overseas” as a high priority for the church.
This is distressing especially since scripture portrays a very different priority list for Christians. James 1:26-27 advocates that religion that is pure and undefiled before God is one that looks after the least, the lost and the forgotten. Isaiah 1:10-17 says basically the same thing. God doesn’t want us to just go through the motions. Although maintaining the status quo might be the easiest thing to do, it is not the way to engage in deep committed relationship with Christ that God is looking for. The best way to do this, I think, is to show one’s faith in and love for God, is to show God’s love tangibly to others through compassion and by seeking justice in the world.
This August the church-wide assembly’s theme “Freed in Christ to Serve” echoes those hopes for the ELCA. The theme comes from Galatians 5:1, 13: “For freedom Christ has set us free … only do not use this freedom as an occasion for self-indulgence, but serve one another in love.” The concept behind the theme is that we are “bound to be free from the power of sin, death and the devil, and free to be bound to God in faith and to our neighbor in service.” By the grace of God through Christ’s death on the cross we have been liberated from the powers that separate us from God and one another. The ELCA is a “church that roles up its sleeves” to work together for the common good. The “common good” will perhaps take form in the new Malaria Campaign that the church will be voting on or other ministries of ELCA World Hunger and other Lutheran organizations. No matter the form it takes, this is our “faith and our way of life.”
As always, I would love to hear your comments. I’m aware that not everyone agrees with some of the things I’ve said in this blog and I would love to have open dialog so we can all have our opinions on the table. Thanks!