I was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on June 11, 1989, at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Abbottstown, PA. That was twenty-five years ago.
Ordination involves the setting apart of someone by laying on of hands and prayer who has been called to the ministry of preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, with the promise that God’s spirit will be with this person, giving them the gifts necessary to sustain them in this office. I have had hands laid on me other times, but I see those merely as affirmations of what was done that day.
I was only a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 3 1/2 years. I resigned on October 31, 1992, because I could not accept un-Biblical ideas on marriage that the new denomination was pushing (it came into being on Jan 1, 1988, as a merger between three other Lutheran churches). I’ve been in ministry consistently for the past 25 years, though, mostly focusing on teaching and mentoring young adults, but also serving as a congregational pastor and a military chaplain. And in trials that have come in ministry, I’ve remembered that day when those hands were laid on me and God’s promise invoked, and I’ve recalled Paul’s words to Timothy: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:6).
I haven’t always served in a Lutheran church, but my Lutheran formation is essential to who I am as a Christian and as a pastor. I first read Luther’s commentaries on Galatians and Romans while in high school, along with “Bondage of the Will.” It was at first filtered through 19th century Adventist pastors like A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, and Ellen White’s telling of the Reformation story in The Great Controversy (much of which was indebted to J. H. Merle d’Aubigné’s History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century). I began reading more widely in Luther while in college, and then in grad school at Loma Linda, and then at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
I have always believed in the essentials of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds (to which I’d first been introduced by an Adventist writer, Walter R. Beach, in The Creed That Changed the World). From Luther I learned that the “first and chief article” of the Christian faith is the good news of justification by faith alone, as proclaimed by Paul. As Luther put in the “Smalcald Articles”, this “first and chief article” is:
4] Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
5] Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.
Now, there was a time in my life that I thought the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics had been resolved. This was what some of my professors at Gettysburg Seminary had taught. Jaroslav Pelikan had taught that the Reformation was “a tragic necessity.” My professors, Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson, taught that the Reformation was intended as “a reforming movement within the church catholic.” And when it looked as if Lutherans and Catholics were able to agree on justification, folks like Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus argued there was no longer a reason to be separate. He and others sought reconciliation with Rome as individuals–as did I.
The 1985 US Lutheran/Catholic dialogue phrased the agreed “consensus” in these words:
our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the gospel whereby the good news of God’s merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God’s promise and saving work in Christ (para. 157).
The 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican agreed on one sentence: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” They agreed that issues remained: what are the implications for Catholic teaching on merit, satisfaction, and indulgences, whether Christians can be “simul justus et peculator,” and whether justification was “a” criterion to judge other doctrines or “the” criterion. I accepted the idea that these were open questions, and that there was enough wiggle room to allow someone to be Roman Catholic who still accepted Lutheran teaching on these points. Lots of people assured me it was true–I later came to see that it was impossible. The Gospel must criticize these areas of Catholic teaching today just as strongly as it did in Luther’s day. Justification cannot be one teaching among many, but must be the bright light that sheds light on all other teachings. (See here for more).
So, yes, I was a member of the Roman Catholic communion from November 1992 to April 2007. I never stopped believing in Lutheran teaching on justification by faith alone. I believed, as those involved in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogues had insisted, that one could believe this alongside Catholic teaching. I taught this in classes, and wrote about it on my blog (and got some opposition from some lay Catholic apologists, especially those who had converted from a Reformed Protestant background). But at the same time, Pope John Paul II was reiterating traditional Catholic teaching on indulgences, especially in connection with the Jubilee of the year 2000 (see this article). Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, though they spoke well of Luther at times, showed that Vatican 2 did not change Catholic dogma on the key issues at the heart of the Reformation.
Reconsideration of these and other issues brought an end to my Roman Catholic sojourn in 2007. I reaffirmed that justification by faith alone is the article of faith on which the church stands or falls, and that Scripture alone must be the touchstone for all Christian teaching.
I did not return to a Lutheran church in 2007, though. I returned to the church in which I was raised, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the church of my wife and family. It was here I first heard the message of the Reformation. It is a church that affirms the truth that is proclaimed by other churches (see George Vandeman, What I Like About …), and affirms the Biblical basis of the Reformation of the 16th Century.
So, as an Adventist pastor, I remain grateful to Luther, and the Lutheran Reformation. Having been formed in that tradition, I continue to speak and preach in Lutheran accents (as I have throughout my ministry). And I pray that the same God who began a good work on the day of my ordination, will continue it in the years to come.