This series of articles was included in successive issues of “Der Lutheraner” in the year 1884, under the title “Welches sind die vornehmsten Kennzeichen eines gesunden und kräftigen Gemeindelebens in der lutherischen Kirche hiesigen Landes?” The author is Wilhelm Sihler, who was instrumental in the founding of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne in 1846 and also a longtime instructor there. He was also elected vice president of the Missouri Synod at its founding in 1847.
I offer these translations not as rigid prescriptions for Missouri Synod congregations in the year 2020, but as a window to a blessed past and useful guidance for those pastors and congregational leaders who want to see their congregations thrive. – R.L.L.
What Are the Primary Indications of a Healthy and Strong Congregational Life in the Lutheran Church of this Land? (Part 3 of 4)
The third indication of a strong and healthy congregational life is this, that God’s Word is diligently used in individual families, and the housefather faithfully executes his duty as priest in his home. This happens in the reading of the Divine Word, and also in the instruction/questioning of the Catechism. The more he realizes that he is a true cleric and priest before God in his calling as father, the more skilled he will be in offering his spiritual sacrifice. He will be more skilled in offering the members of his household their proper portion, whether it be teaching or admonishment, punishment or comfort. St. Paul encompasses all this in a broad sense in his words from Colossians 3:16, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” And of course, just as the practice is in the church, so also it is in the individual homes, “in petition, prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving.” The congregation in Jerusalem as described in Acts 2:42 also puts forward this practice as pattern for us, not only in the public gathering to hear of “the teaching of the apostles.” It also surely was included in the homes of the individual Christian families.
Where in otherwise orthodox Lutheran congregations this home worship only takes place sparingly or sporadically, it would be a sad indication that the majority of the housefathers are not upright converted Christians. Because for such men it should be impossible, that while they can feed their families three times a day with earthly bread, the same cannot nourish them at least once a day with the spiritual bread of the Divine Word. Now it could be that their pastors have not expended enough energy to set this home worship in motion. They must do this through their public preaching and soul-care to individual members.
The fourth indication of a healthy and strong congregational life is the rich exercise of faith in brotherly and general love, the good works within and outside of the individual congregation.
To be sure, this involves the congregations own spiritual self-preservation and support. It must lay on their heart to keep church and school in good standing and to support the same.
Much is involved here. First of all, a congregation must see to it that the pure teaching of the divine Word holds sway. It must do so without fostering an unjustified mistrust against the pastor or school teacher(s).
So the congregation is obligated to compensate and care for its servants in church and school. It is not necessary that they have the same yearly income as the richer and more wealthy members of the congregation. Yes, if they are of the right attitude, so the pastors in smaller, younger, and poorer congregations will gladly follow the poor life of Christ. They will even be content to be poor, even if they must eat only potatoes and cornbread three times a day for their food.
It is also fitting for more well-off, older congregations to support their servants of the Word that they may live similarly to their average members. They should expect support of their calling without care or worry, and they also should be “models of the congregation” in their own giving.
After the self-preservation in the care of church and school, the next obligation of an orthodox congregation is the support of institutions and schools for the training of pastors and teachers. Most of all this would be the salaries of teachers in said institutions.
If members of congregations build houses and plant fruit trees for their children and posterity, so much more must it be their urgent care and concern, that their children and grandchildren also have the pure Word of God and the uncorrupted Sacraments. For what do money and goods benefit them, if they must go without these treasures, without which the true faith and salvation are impossible? If they do not have God’s Word and Sacraments, posterity will not use their inheritance to the glory of God and for the service of neighbor, but they will use them against both, in the service of unbelief and selfishness, whether it be in avarice or squander, in the pursuit of lucre or pleasure.
While congregations are duty-bound to support the teaching institutions of the synod also in the higher preparatory schools, another task is bound up in this: they ought to be helpful to young, God-fearing, and gifted youth, whose parents are poor, that they may enter such institutions to be educated for service in the church.
God would also be pleased when such boys would find faithful patrons, for whom the spiritual sacrifice “of doing good and sharing” is a desire. Still, it is better when the congregation opens its motherly heart, that it takes the care and provision of its own into its own hands, especially when such youth spring from its own bosom.
No less every orthodox congregation as synodical member should support the printing of the Small Catechism, an orthodox hymnal, and appropriate textbooks and devotional books. They also should support the printing of magazines, tracts, and useful synodical reports out of its sacrificial love.
Next to these works of love for the spiritual self-preservation and support of itself and posterity, orthodox Lutheran congregations of this land have no more important and pressing “labor of love” than to support their own faith- and country-folk who are settling this country in the far west, northwest, and southwest, to bring them the pure Word of God.
To be sure, the newly planted and awakened Lutheran Church of this time and place carries a great twofold debt of love towards the great stream of immigrants coming in. It is true, that the Lutheran Church of this land is a watcher and protector of the pure doctrine, but unfortunately until this point it has not been so industrious and zealous for the propagation of this doctrine as it should have been, especially among its faith- and country-folk both near and far.
Unfortunately it has come to this, that the earlier-immigrated Lutherans have either become spiritually withered and decayed and slaves of the great god mammon, dull and unreceptive to the divine truth of their souls’ salvation, or they have been flattered and swallowed up by the Methodists. For the leaders of this touchy-feely, sickly, and convert-thirsty movement, who give nothing of the pure salvation teaching of the Word of God, they have no conscience qualms when they send out schmoozers and blatherers of their kind to the immigrants.
Every one of these fellows is supposedly an authentic and well-prepared Baptist or Methodist preacher, schooled by the Holy Spirit himself. Each knows well how to report the time and drama of his supposed conversion, his inner struggles, revelations, and illuminations. He can throw together Bible verses and hymn verses like kraut and carrots, knows how to drop the names of those converted through him, and he is skilled at starting Christian conversations. He is supposed to have the gift of making spiritual applications practical by using examples from everyday life, but it is usually confusing chatter, only having the appearance of godliness. Finally he announces that awesome compulsion of love in his heart, his desire to convert his beloved people both near and far. For these men well-know where Lutherans have a preacher of their own church, especially one who is orthodox. The Methodists sneak into houses, contrary to God’s Word and the calling of his servants. And through suspicion of the legitimate pastor, they “lead captive weak women,” and where possible they make them into Methodists. For they think, “Who else could be a truly converted Christian, except a Methodist?” So this then is the chief long-term objective of these swarming hirelings, to turn Lutherans and others into Methodists.
Now it is true, they also preach of Christ. They preach him as God’s and Mary’s son, and they preach of faith in him as necessary for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In that respect they preaching is essentially different from the Rationalists and similar unbelievers, who emphatically deny the divinity of Christ and salvation in him. But because they do not recognize a pure evangelical teaching of salvation, they do not consider this teaching powerful and useful to teach to others. Therefore the dangerous damage cannot stay away, that in their sermons they confuse the individual articles of the faith. They do not follow the counsel of St. Paul to Timothy to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” In their sermons Law and Gospel, faith and works, justification and sanctification are all hopelessly confused. Therefore in the best case they are only able to instill a sickly faith based on feelings. It is not a faith which is rooted in the word of grace and grows through cross and trial.
In the face of this circumstance, it is of the utmost importance, that the Lutheran Church of this land send its best young powers as circuit riders to its faith- and country-folk, in order to bring them the pure Word of God in the oral sermon, and through God’s grace and blessing to establish healthy Lutheran congregations in the scattered settlements.
This is the most important “labor of love” which takes place on the outside, which the orthodox Lutheran synods can afford. With prayer and petition, as well as a helping hand of love towards its circuit riders – no older, bigger, or well-off congregations of our synod should be skipping out on this work. This type of work can only have a salutary and refreshing repercussion on the congregation. They will perceive, that through the faithful service of its evangelists, the Word of God will generate its converting power anew. It will call healthy and fresh daughter- and sister-congregations into life.
How fine and pleasant it is, when many members of individual congregations occupy themselves in various works of general brotherly live, proving themselves living and active. And as citizens of this land, citizens of cities and regions there is much opportunity to show common love. Everywhere and at all times there is opportunity also for individuals, to show love for those both inside and outside the congregation in various “doing good and sharing.” In doing so they fulfill their Christian calling, to which God’s Word so often admonishes us. For also in the neglect of these things, sometimes God lets his plagues and punishments spread out over entire cities and regions, in order that his helpful and saving love may come from another place. It can come from individuals and also from entire congregations. This was also the case last year as Lutheran congregations in Germany helped us richly.
(continuation to follow)