Preach Doctrine … Always - by Kazimierz Bem
I was having lunch with a clergy colleague, and the subject was bound to come up.
“What are you preaching on this coming Sunday?” she asked.
“Predestination,” I answered.
“Yeah! That’s what my parishioners really want to hear in the summer,” she joked.
“And what season of the year, pray tell, would be a good time?”
My friend had no wish to argue: “Oh, Kaz! My congregation wouldn’t let me preach doctrine.” And she quickly changed the subject.
As I’ve observed it, not preaching Christian doctrine is a badge of honor among many colleagues. Marilynne Robinson says as much: “When I say Calvinism has faded, I am speaking of the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their own origins, theology, culture, and tradition. … What has taken the place of Calvinism in the mainline churches? With all due respect, not much.”1
Since the shocking 2016 presidential election result, I keep hearing from clergy the anguished question: “How could it happen?” We should rather ask: “Why are we surprised it did happen?”
Instead of identifying Christianity with this or that political party, and watching the faith disappear in a competition with constant news updates and partisan outrage, it is time to re-teach our congregations truths of the Reformation. Christ and Christ alone saves us, and only God should command our ultimate loyalty. More than ever, are we not called to preach about the Providence of God – that “we belong not to ourselves, but in life and in death, in body and soul to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” as the Heidelberg Catechism put it in 1563?
Many of us in the US mainline church long, I think, for the days when Reinhold Niebuhr was on the cover of Time. When The New York Times recently published a sympathetic piece on the religious left, most of my colleagues shared it.2 Yes! We finally made the front page of the Times! We are back, baby! I, too, was glad that Christianity was for once viewed through a lens other than Jerry Falwell Jr. or Joel Osteen. But maybe instead of trying to outdo Franklin Graham in partisan punditry, it would do us more good if we paid attention to the other Niebuhr brother – H. Richard Niebuhr. His stinging caricature of institutional US Protestant belief that a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” is as piercing today as it was nearly a century ago.3
As I write, the US has just been rocked by the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, and a terrorist attack has traumatized Barcelona. That same week I read with my congregation two 20th-century faith statements: the 1913 Kansas City Statement of Faith and the 1934 Barmen Declaration. The first one now looks naïve in its belief in “the progress of knowledge” and “realization of human brotherhood.” The second one, written only 20 years later in the shadow of the Nazi rise, reveals a spiritual resilience deeply rooted in the signers’ confessional Lutheran and Reformed identities. It echoes the thunder of the Word of God when it states: “We reject the false doctrine …” Most powerfully, it re-states serious Reformation truths: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” It ultimately declares: “the Word of God endures forever.”
Days before the lunch with my friend, I returned from a visit to former East Germany, which had been ravaged by the mad ideologies of Nazism and Communism. Once 95 percent Lutheran, today it is the most secularized area of Germany. Pockets of stronger churchgoing correlate with areas where the Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration held sway. At Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig, I noticed a large crucifix hanging opposite the pulpit. The local Lutheran pastor explained: Every minister should have before his eyes when preaching, the subject of his sermon and our ultimate hope. Christ crucified.
Let’s preach doctrine. Always.
Kazimierz Bem ’10 M.Div., ’11 S.T.M. has been pastor of First Church in Marlborough (Congregational) UCC, in Marlborough, MA., since 2011. He also holds a Ph.D. from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Netherlands, focusing on international refugee law.
1 Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), pp. 100-101.
2 “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game,” by Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, June 10. 2017, p. 1.
3 The Kingdom of God in America (Harper & Row, 1959), p. 193. The book was first published in 1937.