Tag Archives: Office of the Keys

10 Theses on the Office of the Keys and Today’s Church

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

1. When Bonhoeffer thought about “religionless Christianity” what he meant was a church that did not have the authority to bind.

2. Even into the 20th century, for large numbers of western people the church maintained the ability to discipline which is the ability to bind

3. That ability existed regardless of the state of one’s faith. The unbelieving libertine would face the binding authority of social stigma.

4. The upheavals of the 20th century have left the church not only unable to bind non-believers, but believers as well are unbound.

5. Believers are unbound in that the church is a personal choice. One might bind themselves but nobody is bound to pope or creed without consent.

6. The state and the family remain the only binding authorities, and the family is disintegrating fast.

7. In this religionless Christianity, the church is suffering a state of humiliation as Her Lord suffered.

8. The state of humiliation did not change the fact that Jesus was the eternal son.

9. Likewise the church’s humiliation does not change the eternal facts of the office of the keys. What is bound remains bound.

10. What it will make clear is that the motivations of binding words are love, not power.

Doubting Thomas Through the Ages

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Biblical Text: John 20:19-31
Full Sermon Draft

A traditional theological education is usually divided into four areas: Bible, Doctrine, History and Practice. They of course are meshed together, but the point really is to acknowledge that we have different primary lenses through which we can reflect. I tend to default to the Bible which I think leads me to a couple of quirks compared to the LCMS in general which is a Doctrine first body predominately. I’d just say the difference is between messy and clean. Doctrine is clean;the Bible can be messy. Doctrine is the math proof that leaves out a few steps as “obvious” that are not at all obvious to the layman or student. Practice tends to be the warm fuzzy pile where we are reminded it is not about the bible or the book of doctrine but the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The one that gets lost is History. Partly because it takes study. You have to read it. Partly because even if you read it you have to figure out how to preach it. And partly because if the bible is messy, try history.

This sermon is an attempt to look at how different ages of the church read and reacted to Doubting Thomas. Every age has their own fascinations and trials. This text is a sharp example of that which I think gave itself to a method of actually preaching Jesus. I’d invite you to have a listen or give it a read.

Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber – A Book Review

Pastrix Book CoverFirst the who, what, where and why facts. The author of Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is an ELCA pastor at a church plant in Colorado called House for All Sinners and Saints. You could say she is a second career minister if you accept a prodigal life as a first career. The cover photo gives you the arm tats and the general ancient-future vibe by using the illuminated bible artwork. Pastor Bolz-Weber and her congregation are an interesting blend of that no longer useful word emergent and liturgical churches. She planted this congregation about the same time I arrived at St. Mark’s and started with roughly the same number in worship on an average Sunday. Just that horrible comparable intersection makes the book necessary reading for me; we are sharing a path of building congregations. The other portion that makes the book, for me at least, necessary reading is that when I read or hear her preaching, I hear many of the same Lutheran-ish concepts. I can hear the gospel and find myself saying Amen. Hearing the gospel as clearly as I can from her preaching is not an everyday thing. And yet she and I would not see eye-to-eye on many things. And that would not, at least from my viewpoint, be caused by general political ideology. (She is a creature of the left, and I am in general a man of the right). We would seem to share the same low anthropology and high Christology that is a reformation and Lutheran must. (One political comment, I don’t know how you can be of the left and hold a reformation anthropology. Being progressive would seem to mean that you think we can progress. The low anthropology of the reformation would say back – “no, you are a sinner, you may change the sins you indulge, but still the same”. My politics of the right really starts from that point; it is a politics of managing the crooked timber which in general means creating as many break-walls as possible. My political nightmare is large scale uniformity which always ends in large scale tyranny and misery.) Back to the book, sharing that theology, I was hoping to see how she makes it work in a completely different way. I wanted to be able to write a review that was more glowing. Instead I have that quizzical and queasy feeling when people are using important words with strangely different definitions.

There are three points that stuck out to me a stumbling blocks or scandals to just shouting Amen at the end. First, while Pastor Bolz-Weber is able to say some nice things about people like her parents or like the LCMS, she seems oblivious to the difference in how she treats them verses how they treat her. She almost always goes back to “beating the fundy” to maintain her differentiation, while they display love. Stringing a couple of such situations together.

I knew that I had to get out. I was a strong, smart and smart-mouthed girl, and the church I was raised in had no place for that kind of thing even though they loved me. (loc 170)… Church, for all its faults, was the only place outside of my own home where people didn’t gawk at me or make fun of me. I could go to church and be greeted with my actual name and not a taunt. I could go to church and be part of the youth group. I could go to church and no one stared (loc 278)… But I soon learned that there was actually a whole world of Christians who take Matthew 25 seriously, who believe that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick, we do so to Jesus’ own self. They weren’t magical fantasy creatures, they were just a kind of Christian I had never heard of. (loc 487)

It goes on like that throughout the whole book. What she gives and acknowledges with one hand she punches and takes back with the other. What she says she wants to be, her parents are – welcoming the stranger, even when the stranger is your own little girl. When she actually says something that offends her erstwhile political allies, it is mean old LCMS’er Chris Rosebrough who calls and who flat out stops the attacks and calls her friend. While she is worried about hurts thousands of miles away that we can’t really do anything about, it is “the mean people” who love what is given to them. That is one Lutheran concept that Pastor Bolz-Weber did not pick up. What is our vocation? Do what is in front of us.

The second item, and the queasiest I got, circled around her pastoral and liturgical reactions to a transgendered parishioner. What Pastor Bolz-Weber did you would not find even in the ELCA agenda book (at least not yet). They set up a “shrine to himself as a girl (loc 1430)” which is populated with pictures of this person as a young child in dresses and pigtail and they put a candle in the middle “which caused the (given) name to move and change hue”. “We decided that at Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we would include within the liturgy a naming rite. Mary would become Asher in the midst of a liturgy where Jesus was named “Son” and “Beloved (loc 1435).””

My first reaction here was simply pagan, the setting up a shrine to our ancestors but in our narcissistic age the shrine becomes to ourselves and how we want to mold ourselves. Turning more theological I thought about the day they chose. When Jesus was baptized what he does is two-fold. First he is declaring his solidarity with sinners, with us. Jesus stands under those waters of repentance not needing them, but taking them for us. The second thing he does is declare his own blessing on the incarnation. It is speculation to think about those 30 silent years, but here in Jordan’s waters Jesus declares that he is messiah. This body, this incarnation, is God standing with and for His people. The Father affirms this with the voice from heaven – “This is my son” – and the Spirit descends as a grant of truth. This created liturgical rite denies the incarnation. The body that was created for this child of God would be denied. That beautiful name, Mary, would be obliterated. It is somewhat surprising that the written name wasn’t burned in the candle. Mary to Asher or Mary to Ash. Instead of following Jesus and being incarnations, God’s creation is denied and the blessings declared on it are appropriated for our own higher spiritual conception.

In what was one of the largest discordant notes, Pastor Balz-Weber first does what we see in the first point. She bashes the fundies. Mary/Asher came from the same Church of Christ tradition as she. First bash, “not unlike soldiers who survived the same bloody battle”. Attempting to live the Christian life, Mary/Asher saw a “Christian” therapist who instead of following repentance and absolution as many as 70 * 7 (i.e. infinite), prescribes behavioral therapy – when you have homosexual thoughts snap yourself with a rubber band. Aristotle might agree with such therapy, but Chrsitian? No way. After bashing the silly fundamentalists, she turns to justifying by interpreting the lives of Paul and Luther. Her interpretation of Paul:

And then he went from Saul to Paul, from being the best at being a Jew to being the best at being a Christian. Only, at some point he realized that no one could really pull that off. That’s when Paul finally understood grace. (Loc 1444)

As far as I can read Galatians and Acts that pretty much gets everything backward. Paul insists that he understands grace because of his Damascus Road vision of the living Christ. Paul tells the story himself in Galatians 1:11-2:2. Paul would never claim to be a “super-christian” as she says, although he would say things like follow me as I follow Christ much later than Galatians. She takes a true inner change – the meeting of the living Christ where everything that came before is worthless – and applies it to an outer change (female to male) so that the person feels like who they have always been. Likewise she appropriates the Luther story as “standing up to the angry vengeful God from the church”. As far as I can tell, the grace on offer to Mary/Asher was: you are who you feel you are, stay who you feel you are, and God will complete it. That is scarily close to the medieval church’s, “do what you can and buy the indulgence and trust the saints”. The dependence upon God’s action is the gospel, but the proclamation to just be what you think yourself to be is of this world.

And that brings me to what I might call the third idol in the book. Pastor Bolz-Weber consistently and rightly sees that she falls in love with an image of herself. The one she keeps returning to is the romantic idea of dying young. She is in love with the idea of herself as a “bad-ass”. This is something that she has recognized and worked on. Toward the end of the memoir she states what might be the mission statement of House for All Sinners and Saints. If it is not the formal one, it is a guiding idea. “When one of the main messages of the church is that Jesus bids you come and die (die to self, die to your old ideas, die to self-reliance), people don’t tend to line the block for that shit.” The problem with that is I never actually see her pastoring her people in that way. She is constantly bleeding for people far away – Haiti, New Orleans. She is constantly patting herself on the back for her welcoming the stranger. She herself has experience a dying and a rising – alcoholism, her dreams of what HFASS is and should be (her story of “rally day” is one that pierces me). But she never proclaims this to “her people”. She doesn’t say to poor Mary that maybe your conception of yourself as a man is what needs to die, and you will struggle with that your entire life, unless God agrees to remove the thorn. She wants to say that HFASS is “a place where difficult truths can be spoken and everyone is welcome, and where we pray for each other (loc 604)”, but “The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority (loc 542).” That is an opening not only for denying the difficult truth, but for the substitution of lies in the form of truth. She says she believes in portents but only in retrospect (loc 669), but her life is full of portents that she still doesn’t get. Her parents’ constant love and that of all those evil bad benighted fundies. Pastor Bolz-Weber still has an image of herself she is in love with. It is one shared by most of her church as the real loving ones and not those hateful sectarians. The trouble is that it’s an idol. As she herself says, “every single time I die to something—my notions of my own specialness, my plans and desires for something to be a very particular way—every single time I fight it and yet every single time I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted (loc 1987).”

Even given those serious troubles, I can still hear the gospel through Pastor Bolz-Weber. And I think it might go back to her calling story. “It was long before I went to seminary and got ordained, but doing PJ’s funeral—as his only “religious” friend—was the first time I realized that God was calling me to be a pastor to my people. (Loc 1736).” What I must confront is the experience of hearing the gospel in a place that is exceedingly heterodox. We are not privy to the counsels of the most high. While the actions might grate and the bible be dismissed and all kinds of error not only accepted by endorsed, that might be as close to the gospel as “her people” can get. And Jesus might have said, “it’s enough”. And as much as I could be like Peter complaining pointing at John – “what about him”, the answer is that is none of my business, work your field. And, Love covers a multitude. If there is one thing you can’t deny, it is that Pastor Bolz-Weber loves “her people”. Yes, I wish she loved them enough to share a little more truth, but she is sharing what she knows. And we must wrestle with the fact that it sounds like the gospel.

When every earthly prop gives way…the problem of authority

Young Luther (and by young I’m talking 37, one of my personal quibbles with Luther scholars is that I don’t think they comprehend age very well, a man of 37, especially in an age of shorter lifespans, was bordering on old, not young, even today we’d say he’s approaching middle age, anyway), Young Luther in the Freedom of a Christian would pine for theodidacti, those taught by God. Old Luther (and by that I mean 42 year old) would get grumpy and complain that the peasants were revolting. Little gripes about the “true gospel” and other complaints about people just not following it would creep in until very late life ugly stuff about Jews. It is a famous question among Lutheran theologians – are you a young Luther or an old Luther gal? What that really means is: what are you views on authority? Are you looking to God alone, or have you been mugged by reality? Are you willing to live with the chaos of people not getting the lesson right, or do you want things settled even if it takes a good strong hand not from the right hand of the Father?

Two things bring that to mind that I want to ponder here. First is Rod Dreher with his typical wind-y post but with a tough core question – Aren’t we all Protestants now?.

No, what’s startling and troubling to me about this is not that American Catholics fail to live up to the demands of their faith, but that in very large numbers, they reject the binding Authority of the Church on their consciences. I don’t see any other way to read this. For them, the Church doesn’t command, because it doesn’t have the authority to command; the Church only suggests.

The second thing is a typography of younger “leavers” of the church from Barna Group. It is extracted from a larger book you can find following the link, but the typography breaks 18 to 29 year old’s into three groups in relation to the church. 3 out of 10 stay in the church they were brought up in. 2 out of 10 they label exiles which means they have left the church for cause (i.e. the church did or continued to do something they couldn’t stomach but they “still like Jesus”). 4 out of 10 are nomads which means they have just wandered away from the church without any real passion or judgment about it. And 1 out of 9 (there must be a remainder who never had contact at all) they label prodigals which means they have outright rejected the church and its teachings.

Both of those items to me point to a question or a problem with the foundations of authority or epistemology (how do you know? How do you know you know?). Barna’s typology reflects Dreher’s question. All the groups – I’d say even most on the stay pile – are just going to what already mirrors their own outlook. The only authority or maybe I should say the trump authority is my reason and gut. As a more young Luther guy, I’m not terribly upset about that. I’m part of a tradition that trumpets being convinced by “scripture and plain reason” and which says “it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience”. (Luther @ Worms).

It’s the scripture part that is troubling. Read Matthew 16:19 then Matthew 18:18 then John 20:23. Those are all the “keys” passages about binding and loosing sins. To whom was that authority given? The Lutheran answer is to the church. The church (or local congregation) when it calls a pastor gives those keys to the pastor for public use. That is why you would see me say things like “by virtue of my office…I forgive you your sins”. Well and good, the church has the authority to forgive and to bind. But that is in general not how we act. If I were to stand up and say – “you there, hiding in the corner, I know that you are cheating on your wife, I’m binding that sin until you make good and change” – what do you think the response would be? {@!?$&!} But isn’t that what those keys passages say?

And the pastor doesn’t get off scot-free. The episcopal way would be to say the pastor is under a bishop or needs to be with a fellow pastor, but that never struck me a making sense. That just passes the problem up until you find a Pope. The pastor is bound and loosed by the congregation, think the body of Elders. A Walther way of explaining it is that in each congregation you have the incarnation of the full church. The full powers of the church are inherent in each congregation.

But all of that flies in the face of 9/10th of 18-29 year olds and probably a similar number of the those older. They just aren’t as free to walk. Read Isaiah 22:22 and Revelation 3:7. Who holds the key in the final analysis? Jesus. Who did Jesus give the key to? Whether you answer Peter (Roman Catholics), the apostles (Eastern Orthodox), the church (Protestants), if you believe scripture is a true witness, then the church is authoritative in morals. How do we live or receive that statement? Especially as a Lutheran?

I’ll continue this in the next post.

The Office of the Keys


Full Text

The office of the Keys is all about who has the authority, responsibility and accountability to forgive and bind sins. The good news in Lutheran doctrine is that Christ himself rules the kingdom of the gospel. If sins are forgiven here, they have already been forgiven in heaven. Heaven acts first. And heaven acts through the means of grace – baptism, Lord’s supper, confession/absolution, preaching. In those methods the grace of God through Jesus Christ is proclaimed; it is announced. The words have power and are received simply by faith.

That faith is given or revealed by the Father (in the son and through the work of the Spirit to complete the Trinitarian formula). We are not left without proof. Faith itself is a proof. The work of Jesus is the greatest revelation. But faith is a revelation. Peter did not confess Christ by flesh and blood but by the revelation of the Father. Same with us. Hard teaching or pure comfort. Either God is still at work on an hourly basis and involved personally with you, or faith is something you can’t accept.