Thesis 7: Obeisance, Not Obedience

This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.

7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
It's difficult to trace its source, but my generation (I'm 37) has a pervasive mistrust of authority, even maybe to the point of unhelpful anarchic tendencies (Get at me, Bobby Ray!). We could guess that it began with our Baby Boomer parents' cultural revolution of the 1960's and beyond rubbing off on us, having witnessed Watergate and the fall of Nixon.. When I started kindergarten, Woodstock was only a thirteen-year-old memory, similar to how today's kindergarteners might in the future think of the Y2K scare. Think about that! We could also point to the culture of the early 90's for young, suburban white folks like me, with its anti-establishment rhetoric in movies and music (Reality Bites, Nirvana).

Whatever the source, we are intensely skeptical of people in charge, even if they seem to be generally good people. Sure, we could blame ourselves for this worldview, but what else have we been taught?

The number of my friends who grew up in a mainline or evangelical church who could tell you a story of a pastor sleeping with the church secretary, or a youth pastor molesting a high school kid, would astound you. Or maybe it wouldn't. Actually, it probably wouldn't. That's the problem. Those are our expectations. When it doesn't happen, we are pleasantly surprised.

When these kinds of churches were growing by leaps and bounds in the second half of the 20th Century, and particularly in the 80's and 90's, they began taking their cues from our thriving capitalist economy. Clinton was creating a budget surplus for our country. Liberal arts colleges like mine were charging exorbitant rates for a university education, and we were paying them. Churches followed suit. Sanctuaries had to have mega-TV screens. Pastors' sermons were piped in from elsewhere. Multiplication became the name of the game, rather than deepening. Growth via tithing was the primary focus, rather than growth by a logical outgrowth of a focus on discipleship. In many ways, we are still in this phase.

Luther understood that remitting (literally "replacing") of one's sins by God must necessarily accompany a sense of humbleness. A new and refreshed proximity with God means humbling oneself before God and before his representative on the earth, the priest.

Do you trust your priest or pastor enough to be in subjection to him or her? Does that subjection to him or her come out of love and relationship (obeisance), or out of submission to human power (obedience)?

Instead of our pastors being the CEO's of our churches, let's dialogue with them about becoming pastors ("shepherds") again. There are so many good speakers, administrators, and visionaries in our churches. Why do we leave so much of that work to one (almost always) man, who is the focus of the public life of the church?

Both a friend and a recent book by Richard Rohr have recently put this problem into focus for me with this simple metaphor:

Religion (or the religion's leaders) should be a finger pointing at the Moon (God). Why are we so intent on paying attention only to the pointer or to the finger, rather than to the beautiful Mystery being pointed at?


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