Biblical Foundations for Synodical Ministry
Rev. Michael K. Girlinghouse
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Jesus begins his ministry in the Gospel of Mark with this declaration that the Kingdom of God has drawn near. For Mark, Jesus’ declaration of the Reign of God, and his invitation to return to fidelity to God is programmatic. It is at the center of Jesus’ whole mission and ministry. It is the content of the Good News Jesus brought into the world. In the Gospel, Jesus proclaims this Reign in his teaching, preaching, parables and lessons. Jesus lives out the Reign of God in his healing, and in his welcome of lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Throughout Mark, it is Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God which elicits a response in his hearers. Some, like the disciples, leave everything and follow. Others resist the message, refusing to hear what Jesus is offering. As we search for and examine Biblical models for Synodical Ministry as part of our strategic planning process, what better place to begin than the place where our Lord began?
When I agreed to write this essay at the first meeting of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod Strategic Planning Task Force, I thought I knew what I was being asked to do. After several false-starts, and the contemplation of several texts, I am much less certain about the task. I have more questions now than I did when I started. For example, “How is a biblical foundation for Synodical Ministry different than the biblical foundation for any of the expressions of the Church?” “Is there unique guidance in scripture for what a Synod does or is supposed to do?” “Do we start with what we already know about Synodical ministry and discuss how it reflects scriptural mandates, or do we start with scripture about the mission and ministry of the church and then see what mandates emerge for Synodical ministry?”
As I pondered these questions, I kept coming back to Jesus’ words at the beginning of Mark.
If Jesus’ words were programmatic for his ministry, shouldn’t they also be programmatic for our own mission and ministry? In my opinion, the proclamation of the Reign of God and the invitation to fidelity must continue to inform the mission and ministry of the church or we will quickly lose track of who we are. I would go so far as to suggest that this proclamation and invitation needs to be central to the mission and ministry of the church. It is the Gospel, the Good News. When it has been faithful to its calling, the Church of Jesus Christ has always proclaimed the Reign of God and invited people to faithfulness. We do that in many different ways. The Reign of God is declared from pulpits and sung in hymns; it is learned in Bible study groups and Sunday School classrooms, it is shared in hospital rooms and living rooms and on the street corners. Whenever God’s Word is preached, studied, meditated upon, shared or prayed over the Reign of God is both explored and experienced. The Reign of God is made manifest in the world whenever the Church cares for the poor and the powerless, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, welcomes the stranger or responds to a crisis, tragedy or disaster.
As the Church carries out this central mission and ministry, its message (which is Jesus’ message) is greeted with the same mixed reactions as our Lord’s: some respond with fidelity, some with resistance, and some with hostility. Some will be eager to join in our Gospel work. Others will walk away. Some will hear what we have to say as good news, others will find our message disturbing and challenging. Our faithfulness of the church comes in our commitment to proclaiming the message. We need to trust that the Holy Spirit will nurture and kindle the response.
The Synodical expression of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America both resources congregations for carrying out this mission and ministry in their local setting and also invites congregations and individual Christians to participate in the larger work of mission and ministry in the world. As we develop a strategic plan for our Synod and its ministry, we need to consider how the Reign of God will be embodied and proclaimed in word and deed through what we do and what we say. We can start by examining all the ways the Synod already embodies that Reign in our present structure and activity. We also need to be honest about how our current structure and activities may actually be getting in the way of the proclamation of the Reign of God. We need to listen carefully and reflect on how the Spirit may be calling us to embody God’s Reign in new and creative ways.
This reflection upon the ways Synodical ministry embodies the Reign of God in the world and continues the Gospel work of our Lord to invite people to participate in that Reign, can provide us with guidance and direction as we seek out Biblical foundations for our mission and ministry. Before we can begin to develop a strategic plan and structure our work together as a Synod, we need to examine how our Lord Jesus calls us to participate in his Gospel work. Traditionally, the Church has understood his invitation to participate in the mission and ministry of the Reign of God to be summed up in the Great Command and the Great Commission.
I. Command and Commission
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
Jesus began his ministry declaring the Reign of God and calling people to renewed fidelity to that Reign. Before we can discuss how the Synod participates in this ministry, we need to explore the content and meaning of the Reign of God and why it is such good news for the world.
The meaning of the Reign of God is contained in this simple yet profound command from the Gospel of John. The content of the Reign of God is to be found in the love of God which Jesus embodied in his life, death and resurrection. As John tells us earlier in his Gospel,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
Jesus himself declares that love is the summation of God’s Torah,
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Matthew 12:28-31)
Paul too taught the centrality of love to the mission and ministry of the Church,
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
The ministry and mission of the Church begins and ends in the love of God made known to us through Jesus Christ. Jesus demonstrated that love as he welcomed outcasts and strangers, healed the sick and the suffering, fed the multitudes, taught those who yearned for hope and freedom, and challenged self-centeredness and self- righteousness. Jesus demonstrated that love as he gave up his life on the cross rather than turn his back on that love. Jesus demonstrated the power of that love as he rose from the dead.
The Reign of God is the reign of God’s love in the world. This is the Good News that the world needs to hear. The world has always been torn by hatred, bloodshed, war, greed, self-centeredness, desire, pridefulness and the pain and suffering that results. In our desire to be in control and to have power over our own lives we often crush others underfoot in ways small and large.
In Jesus, we see demonstrated a love more powerful than all the hatred, brokenness, and destruction we humans perpetrate on one another and on the creation. A love more powerful than death itself. In Jesus we find a way of life that brings life rather than destroying it.
As the body of Christ in the world today, the Church must embody that same kind of transformational and redemptive love. As we consider strategies for mission and ministry at every level of the Church, we need to continue asking ourselves, “how does this reflect God’s love or further the embodiment of that love in the world?” If we cannot come up with an answer, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.
As we seek out new models for doing ministry together as a Synod, we need to keep the ministry of God’s love front and center in our deliberations.
We began this essay reflecting on the programmatic statement of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus rooted his ministry in the proclamation of the reign of God’s love and the invitation to renew our fidelity to that love. As we consider how we continue that ministry and mission in our own day, we turn to the programmatic statement which Jesus makes at the end of the Gospel of Matthew:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)
With these words, Jesus commissions his eleven remaining disciples and sends them out into the world to continue his Gospel work. Jesus’ commission contains three distinct charges. First, Jesus charges his disciples with making new disciples. But, what does it mean to “make disciples”? Again, we can look to Jesus himself for guidance. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes disciples by invitation and by example. As he begins his ministry, Jesus meets Simon, James and John along the shorelines of the Sea of Galilee and invites them to follow him (Matthew 4:18-22). Why did they choose to follow? Matthew’s text doesn’t say. Jesus simply invites and they respond. Other Gospels suggest that Jesus had previous experience with these men.
The Gospel of John indicates that there was some connection between these men and those who had witnessed Jesus’ baptism (John 1:35-42) and Luke connects their call to a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11). But, Matthew suggests that the mere presence of Jesus was compelling enough to move these men to drop everything and follow. As the Church invites people into the reign of God’s love and to become followers of the way of Jesus Christ, we too base that invitation both experientially and on the compelling person of Jesus. Unfortunately, today, we have two thousand years of history which sometimes works against us! People outside the Church often have negative stereotypes of the Church and its mission. Sometimes those negative stereotypes are deserved. The challenge for the Church today is to help people experience the Reign of God in their lives and discover what is compelling about Jesus. The good news is that the Church does not have to create either of these things. God is already at work in the world. The Spirit continues to move hearts and minds as people hear the story of Jesus. The question is: how do we participate in that ongoing work?
In Matthew, Jesus calls his disciples and they follow. Even more, they continue to follow. The invitation is not the end of the process of “making disciples”. During the ensuing years, Jesus teaches these disciples through his preaching, teaching, and example. Though they do not fully grasp who Jesus is and what he is about until after the Resurrection. As they follow him during his earthly ministry, they come to understand that he is more than just an ordinary rabbi or miracle worker. As they listen to Jesus and witness his compassion and care for those in need, they are prepared for their own work of ministry. Jesus’ second charge to the disciples is that they teach those who respond to the invitation to follow, in the same way Jesus taught them. As the Church invites people to follow Jesus and become disciples, we continue to have the same charge. Teaching and equipping disciples for mission and ministry continues to be an essential part of the Church’s work. This means more than just offering Bible Studies and Sunday School classes. It means drawing people into the practices of Jesus and into his way of life. It means learning what it means to be a disciple through living as a disciple and acting as a disciple.
The third charge that Jesus gives to this disciples at the end of Matthew is that they baptize those who respond to the invitation to discipleship. While baptism comes in the middle of the passage in Matthew, we consider it third because it is what connects the invitation to follow and the teaching of the Way of Jesus. Baptism establishes the disciple’s relationship with God and draws the disciple into the relational nature of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through this ritual, the individual is joined to the mission and ministry of Jesus and, as Paul teaches, becomes a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). It is within this body that our relationship with God is nurtured, and our fidelity is strengthened, supported and encouraged. Through baptism, we become a part of the team that continues the Gospel work of Jesus in the world.
The implications of this passage for Synodical ministry are many. The Great Commission teaches us that any model for ministry which we adopt should be invitational, inclusive and instructional. In the same way that congregational ministry must be focused outward, inviting people to participate in the Reign of God, so too, the ministry of the Synod must look beyond itself at the world where God is at work. Mere survival can never be the goal of any ministry done in the name of Jesus.
The Synod can and should be about the business of strategizing, coordinating and supporting the work of inviting the world to participate in the Reign of God. The vision which Jesus lifts up for the disciples in the Great Commission is an inclusive one. The Greek word translated here as “nations” is ethnos and is also translated as “gentiles”. Within Judaism, the ethnos were all those outside of Judaism. Jesus sends us to the ethnos of our world – the outsiders -- to declare to them the love, grace and mercy of the Reign of God and to help them see the God who is already at work in their lives. Like Jesus, we reach out to the poor and powerless, the lost and lonely, the sick and suffering, the rejected and marginalized. The ministry of the Gospel is not about us. It is always about the other. We are nurtured in communities of faith so that we are prepared, equipped and strengthened to do the work of ministry we have been commissioned to do. We are instructed in the way of Jesus so that we can live in the way of Jesus. A strategy for Synodical ministry needs to include plans for reaching out to those who need to hear the Good News of God’s Reign of love and grace, and for equipping congregations and individuals for carrying out that work.
II. Gifts and Guidance
There is very little in the New Testament in the way of specific guidelines for structuring the Church. For the most part, the writings of the New Testament come from the time before defined institutional structures had emerged in the life of the community of faith. In those early days, the Gospel of Jesus Christ fueled a movement, not an organization. However, in the writings of Paul we do get glimpses of how the early Church was organized and functioned. Paul and the other New Testament writers do give the nascent Christian communities they founded advice and encouragement on how to live and work together in their new life in Christ. In these words of advice and encouragement, we can begin to build a model for mission and ministry as we seek to proclaim the Reign of God and embody the love which characterizes that reign.
In Romans 12, Paul begins to spell out the implications of the Gospel of grace that he articulated in the first eleven chapters of his letter. This chapter draws together in one place the advice and counsel Paul gives in his other letters and provides us with some guidance as we think about how we might structure our own life together as the Church.
Paul begins Romans 12 by writing,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
When looking for models for ministry, it is easy to look to the world around us. The Church has adopted models from business, government, and other social institutions for shaping its life. Sometimes, these models have helped us become more effective in our proclamation of the Gospel. At other times, the models we have chosen have co- opted the Gospel and corrupted its message. The question is... how can we tell the difference? One of the strengths of our Reformation Heritage as Lutherans continues to be our willingness to keep asking if the present state of the Church is still aiding in the mission of the Church. If it is, good. If it is not, then Reformation is required once more. These questions can only be answered through a process of prayer, discernment, reflection and more prayer. As we consider the structure of our Synodical ministry for the future, we need to be open to the possibility that God is calling us into something new and different. We may need to cautiously explore new models from the world around us so that we are renewed without being conformed. This conversation must be carried out with both boldness and humility, always seeking the Spirit’s guidance as we move forward.
Paul continues a few verses later:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. (Romans 12:4-5)
This passage is a summary of the longer discussion of the Body of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit found in 1 Corinthians 12. Discovering unity in the midst of diversity has always been one of the challenges faced by the Church. From the beginning, followers of Jesus Christ sometimes disagreed about how things should be done. Though Jesus prayed for unity (John 17) that unity has often been tested. And yet, the Gospel has continued to be
proclaimed, disciples have been baptized and the way of Jesus taught for almost 2000 years. Being open to diversity in the midst of our unity has also proved challenging. How do we celebrate the gifts we all bring to the table? How do we identify the gifts God has given us and others? As we develop our plans for the Synod we will need to acknowledge those things that unify us, celebrate our uniqueness, and be open to who God is lifting up among us as leaders. Because of this, there is no “one size fits all” program, event or structure that will address all our needs and challenges. The Synod plan needs to reflect both our unity in the Gospel and the uniqueness of our local ministry settings. The complexity of our diverse settings for ministry across this Synod will need to be reflected in the complexity of the vision we cast for the future of our work together. The simplicity of our unity in the love of Christ needs to be reflected in the focus we give to our strategic plan.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)
Once again, we see how Christian ministry flows from love. In these verses, Paul suggests several ways that love can take concrete form within the community of faith. Paul’s teaching is still summed up best in the words of old Sunday School song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” How can we foster that love within and among our communities of faith? How do we rise above suspicion, jealousy, and competiveness as congregations and fall in love with one another? How do we honor the unique gifts that each congregation, and each member, brings to this Synod? Those are challenging questions! Paul offers the solution in the following two sentences. As long as we find our zeal in the service of the Lord, and root ourselves in prayer, we will come a long way in our love for one another.
The final sentence in this passage suggests a key dynamic for Synodical Ministry. Here, Paul reminds us that the ministry “direction arrow” always points two ways. We are to care for one another as we “contribute to the needs of the saints” and we are to care for the other as we “extend hospitality to strangers.” Both are necessary. Synodical ministry can and should coordinate our efforts to “contribute to the needs of the saints” both within our synod and in the wider church. Can we find ways to help the stronger congregations support the vital ministry of congregations who are struggling by developing mission partnerships as part of our strategy? The Synod also needs to foster new and creative ways of “extending hospitality to strangers” by establishing new ministries and continuing to encourage renewal in existing ones. To neglect the first “direction” of ministry will result in the collapse of the center and the loss of our moorings, and to neglect the second “direction” will result in us turning in on ourselves and an atrophy of the mission and ministry to which we are called. Both will lead to death.
Finally, Paul writes,
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:14-18)
As we explore and discuss how God is calling us to move forward as a Synod, we need to do so with great humility and patience. Not everyone is going to agree with us. We are not always going to be right in the decisions we make. There will be false starts. Because of this, we do need to listen care-fully to one another. We need to hear one another’s concerns, fears and struggles. We need to hear one another’s hopes, dreams and joys. We need to celebrate that which is going well, and reform that which is in need of reformation. We need to forgive one another and encourage one another. The way of love is never easy, but it is far better than the alternative.
III. Doing and Being
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing. (James 1:22-25)
The risk of any strategic planning process is the failure to implement it. More than one organization has spent hours and hours developing a strategic plan only to put it on a shelf and forget about it. Ultimately, all the talk in the world is useless if it does not translate into specific, concrete doing.
Throughout this essay, I have chosen to talk about the “Reign of God” rather than the “Kingdom of God.” I did that intentionally. “Reign” is a dynamic word which, I think, better captures the sense of the Greek word used in Mark 1. “Kingdom” is a static word that implies place rather than action. In the same way, words like “church” and “synod” have become static. For many, “church” is a place where we gather for worship. “Synod” is an office in Tulsa.
James warns us not to become static in our ministry and our mission. To participate in the Reign of God is to be doers of the word. It means that we stop gazing at ourselves in the mirror and look out the window to see where Spirit is inviting us to join in God’s Gospel work. We need to turn the words “Church” and “Synod” back into verbs. Doing words. Words which imply action, engagement and energy in people’s ears. Words which invite individual Christians into the work of inviting, including and instructing the world in God’s love, grace and mercy. Words which summon all people to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.
If, in our planning, we can encourage and motivate the doing of the Gospel, then, as James promises, we will be blessed. If we persevere in our task, we can be confident that God will draw us forward into the liberty and the joy and the abundant life which is the Reign of God. As God’s people, as those who are committed to participating in the Reign of God, we need not fear the future, because God is already there preparing a way for us, inviting us to follow and drawing us forward into the fullness and fulfillment of all God has promised us in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.