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.

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