Questions on Church and Ministry

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I was just wondering if you could tell me about the symbolism of the candles on the Advent wreath, and of the wreath itself if it applies.

As with many long-standing customs, the origins of the Advent wreath are somewhat debated. Some histories of the advent wreath say that Christians simply adapted an even earlier custom from pre-Christian Germanic tribes. Supposedly, then, these pagan people tried to break the darkness of winter with candles and invoke the sun god to return with the warmth and light of spring. In addition, the evergreen wreath would remind them that there is still life and the circle of time would again come back to spring.

According to this viewpoint, Christians later placed new and Biblical meaning to the old customs. Now the candles pointed to Jesus, the Light of the world (John 3:17-21.) The evergreen wreath now reminded believers that our Savior God grants new and everlasting life in Jesus. The wreath was also a symbol of victory, for a garland wreath was often placed on victors in contests or conquests. So naturally, a Christian can think of the crown of life that Jesus has won for us. The four candles in an Advent wreath would then emphasize the four week period of penitance and preparation during Advent, as we eagerly await the coming of the Light of the world to bring new life and hope.

The advent wreath became quite popular in homes in post-Reformation Germany. It seems pretty certain that in many German homes families had a custom of lighting four candles during advent, candles placed in a wreath of evergreens. When these candles were lit, Scripture and prayer was part of the custom and the family devotion time was a time of instructing the children about Christ’s coming. Later, the custom crossed over different denominational lines and other faith traditions adapted its use. Today, you can find Advent wreathes in many Protestant and Roman churches.

Since the custom has seen so many different adaptations, you will also find numerous explanations of the four candles. (If there is a fifth, a white candle in the center, it is called the Christ Candle, and is lit on Christmas.) Some call the first candle the Prophecy Candle, or the Hope Candle, or the Expectation Candle. It reminded believers that God had promised throughout the Old Testament that he would send a Messiah, the Shepherd King, to save his people. The second candle is called the Bethlehem candle, or sometimes the Peace Candle. (Others call it the Preparation candle.) The third candle is sometimes called the shepherds’ candle or the joy candle. It was often a pink color. The fourth candle is called the angel candle or the love candle. Naturally, for all of these themes, appropriate Scripture references could be used to help hearers and worshippers consider the various Advent themes of preparation, repentance, fulfillment of promises, the joy of Christ’s coming.

The colors of the advent candles also vary. The oldest tradition had three purple candles, for purple was the color of royalty and repentance. How else would God’s people prepare for the coming of the King of kings? On the third Sunday in Advent the rose or pink candle was lit. This is the candle that emphasized the joy of the shepherds as they heard the news. More recently, one sees all four candles in a deep blue color, reflecting the liturgical color of Advent that is quite common now. Blue is the color that reminds us of heaven and the expectation we have that Jesus is coming again. Blue is quite common in Lutheran churches since Lutheran Christians often emphasize the meaning of Advent as the season of coming. The readings then remind us of Christ’s first coming in all humility. We remember also his promise that he will come again in glory. And we also pray that he come into our hearts through the Spirit’s gracious working with the Gospel, so that with the gift of faith we now are heirs of that heavenly glory through Christ. Notice how often Advent hymns interweave these three “comings” of Christ!

The four candles remind us that in the four weeks of Advent we are preparing for the coming of the Christ Child, who is the light of the world. The wreath of evergreen could also help a person think of the victory and the new and everlasting life we have in Jesus. Blessings on your Advent prepation to welcome the King, our Savior Jesus.

How is the Lenten Season celebrated/practiced in the Lutheran religion? Do you abstain from any certain types of foods on certain days? In the Catholic religion, it is customary to "give up" something for lent like chocolate or something that you really enjoy. Is this practiced in the Lutheran Religion?

Generally, Lutherans do not “give up” something for Lent, although the practice is not unknown among Lutherans. Going without something can be helpful when it reminds us on a daily basis that the Lord Jesus gave up his life so that we might be freed from the curse of our sins. St. Paul reminded the Corinthians: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (Corinthians 8:9). This is a good reason for what is sometimes called “Lenten self-denial.”

Lutherans tend to steer away from Lenten self-denial, however, because it has so often been abused in the Christian Church. Too many people “give something up” during Lent because they think they are making points with God, earning by their self-denial at least a little part of his forgiveness. The Bible rejects this thought completely. Peter wrote: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19). In the hymn “Rock of Ages” we sing, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”

Lutherans believe that the forgiveness of sins is God’s free gift to human beings. They believe that God forgives sins because Jesus met the demands God made of sinners. In the place of sinners, Jesus lived perfectly and obeyed all the laws God had set down for sinners. In the place of sinners, Jesus died, enduring the punishment God had decreed for sinners.

Because they believe that forgiveness is theirs because of Jesus’ life and death, Lutherans focus on Jesus’ life and death during the season of Lent. On the Sundays of Lent they watch as Jesus battles and overcomes Satan and his cohorts. During special services during the week, most Lutherans review the story of Jesus’ final days on earth–his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial.

What is the purpose of putting ashes on the forehead of Christians on Ash Wednesday? This is showy to me and very "Catholic" (where Catholics believe "good works" are essential for salvation) and can give the wrong message to unbelievers. I look at it as a distraction and unnecessary. During the time of Lent, I dearly love the focus on what Christ has done for me and all people by his death and resurrection while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:8) (John 3:16-17) Thank you.

The purpose is to have a visual reminder that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and death means our bodies return to dust from which Adam was made (Genesis 3:19).  As ashes are biblical pictures of repentance (Job 42:6; Matthew 11:21), the use of ashes eventually became associated with Lent, a penitential season of the church year.

As a church custom, the imposition of ashes (as it is called) is an adiaphoron.  God has not commanded it nor forbidden it.  In Christian freedom, we may utilize the practice or forego it.  If our conscience leads us to conclude that it would be wrong for us to participate in that custom, we need to refrain from taking part in it.  At the same time, we need to withhold judgment from those who participate in the practice for good and godly reasons.  Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 address how Christians are to view adiaphora.

The custom of putting ashes on the foreheads of Christians on Ash Wednesday has been in use for centuries.  While it is a practice that many still associate only with Roman Catholicism, it has grown in popularity with Protestant churches in recent years.

Your concern for the Lenten focus on Christ is well taken.  Those Protestants, including Lutherans, who endorse the practice would point out that ashes are put in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of worshipers.  The visual emphasis, then, is on the cross of Christ.

Regardless of people’s views on this custom, there is no getting around the “ash” of Ash Wednesday, is there?  Whether or not we implement that custom in our congregations, the terminology of the day reminds us of our natural and actual sinfulness, and the need to repent of our sins.  More than that, the season of Lent reveals clearly the love of Christ, who sacrificed himself to take away our sins.  God bless your Lenten worship.

Are there scriptural verses or examples that are the basis for not (generally speaking) doing funerals for non-believers and/or former members, besides Jesus saying "Let the dead bury their own dead."

The most pertinent passages would be those that are clustered about the so-called Great Commission (for example, Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16, and Luke 24:46-47). Also very applicable are all passages calling us to love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39, Romans Romans 13:8-10).

Assuming that the calling body has not spoken on this issue to forbid or encourage its pastor to officiate at funeral services of publicly identified unbelievers or non-members of the congregation, the pastor must ask a primary set of questions like these: “What am I doing here? What is my purpose or goal, and is this compatible with the faithful preaching of law and gospel to serve the souls of the survivors and onlookers? How will I glorify God and enrich souls here, and how might these purposes be jeopardized?”

For the funeral service of an unbeliever there is no comfort whatsoever we can offer. Faithful preaching of law and gospel to the loved ones of the deceased will most likely antagonize and bring anger rather than joy regarding the loved one who died. The temptation to compromise by neglecting pointed law and remaining silent on the damnable nature of unrepented sin is great, and to do so is ultimately loveless and reprehensible for a servant of the gospel and of souls. Merely to preach the gospel (narrowly defined) without the clear application of law is also unacceptable and invites false assumptions among the audience plus rationalizations about the fate of the deceased.

For the funeral of a non-member or former member, I’d have to know more about the circumstances as well as the spiritual condition of the deceased before I say much. Sample questions that may surface include these: Why would a pastor seek to serve a non-member, assuming the non-member has another pastor to serve? If there was no church membership anywhere, why was there such a public confession – a presumed neglect of the public use of the means of grace and Christian fellowship? What basis is there to assume the non-member had a meaningful confession of saving faith? Etc.

Also involved in this matter is the call to serve as spiritual shepherd of a flock. Pastors do not have calls to serve as pastors of a community or straying sheep in general. But there may be circumstances when we not only serve them but do well to publicly testify to their spiritual life in Christ — based on a private confession of faith known to the pastor — and explain straightforwardly why we are conducting the funeral service of a non-member in a God-glorifying way that will edify souls.

Could you explain to me how the call process for pastors and teachers works in WELS? Our pastor, whom we all love, currently has a call to another congregation, and of course we don't want to see him leave.

You are by no means the first church member who has had these kinds of thoughts. We are extremely grateful that you love your pastor and that the thought of losing him is emotionally unpleasant. No doubt it is equally and perhaps more unpleasant for the church that currently has no pastor and that has extended a call to your pastor to consider serving them at this time in his pastoral career.

Procedurally, the Bible does not give detailed instructions about how churches are to obtain their pastors, teachers, or staff ministers. The procedures that have been developed within our synod (and in many other church bodies as well) have served us well over the years and are an orderly and suitable way of going about filling public ministry positions that are vacant. I say this lest we give the impression that our way is the only way of doing this. But it is a good way, and you may be sure that other ways have been considered and minor changes to the way we do things have been implemented over the years.

Briefly stated, we entrust the task of filling vacancies among us to the 12 district presidents in our synod. Their task is to be familiar with the congregations and schools in their respective districts, so they know the challenges and opportunities that exist at a given place, and the desires and expectations of the calling group. They also have and keep informational records on all eligible called workers (pastors, teachers, staff ministers) so they have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses, skills and aptitudes of these trained public ministers. And they provide a list of suitable people for the calling church or organization to consider as they strive to fill their vacancy. In the case of your pastor, then, his background, skills, experience, etc., were seen as a suitable match for the vacant church; his name was placed on such a list by a district president; and the vacant church selected him from that list and extended a call to him. He must now prayerfully determine whether he can best serve where he currently is or at the other place at this particular time. And he will likely be receiving counsel and input from a variety of sources as he considered his two calls (the one, to his current parish and the other, to his potential future parish).

The task of assigning graduates from our seminary and college (pastoral, teacher, and staff ministry candidates) to their initial place of labor is also entrusted to the Conference of Presidents (COP) composed of the 12 district presidents in our synod. They receive help and guidance from school officers and administrators who serve to give them a good portrait of the strengths, weaknesses, and skills of the candidates. The district presidents then seek to assign the candidates to fitting churches and schools that provide a good match for their skills and aptitudes.

But remember that many churches and schools, because of their size and other circumstances, may not be a suitable place for an inexperienced worker to be assigned. So it’s not as simple as assigning graduates to any vacant place. Many places, due to their situation, need or desire an experienced pastor — like yours. So they extend a call to him even though there may be graduates available.

We are very much aware that many times a degree of turmoil and discomfort accompanies this process. At the same time, there is value in having churches, schools, pastors, and teachers undertake the self-appraisal and the thorough look at how the public ministry at a given place is going. There are definite blessings that come with the discomfort.

Every step of the way in this process we give mutual encouragement that we approach this important task prayerfully and with the confidence that the Holy Spirit will be guiding the district presidents, the churches and schools who are seeking workers, and the churches and schools who may eventually lose a beloved called worker if he or she accepts a call to another place. This is our prayer and confidence regarding your church and pastor as well.

Did Jesus have female disciples?

By etymology the word “disciple” (in Greek as well as in English) means “student.” In the New Testament its connotations aren’t quite so academic as our word “student,” and so maybe “follower” would be a better translation. Jesus certainly had (and has!) many women among his “disciples” (Matthew 28:19, Acts 6:1, Acts 11:26, etc.).

On the other hand, the word sometimes has the more restricted sense of “The Twelve” in the New Testament (Matthew 10:1 etc.). There was no woman among these.

Hello! Please explain how come sometimes we will stand for the readings during church service and other times we will not. Pastor says, "Out of respect for Jesus' words, please stand." But another reading will be from the Bible, etc. and we will not stand. Please explain. Thanks!

Christian Worship:  Manual, the “handbook” for our hymnal, explains:  “The congregation stands for the reading of the Gospel.  In the past soldiers put down their weapons and kings removed their crowns when the Gospel was read.  Christ—his life, his words of law and gospel, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his assignment to his Church, his promise to return—is the center of the Gospel.  The faithful have waited for this moment, this reading.  They stand in reverence. ” (pp. 173-174)

Through the gospel lesson Jesus—the Word (John 1), the Word of God (Revelation 19:13)—comes to us.  The gospel lesson relays the words and works of Christ.  For those reasons, we have retained an ancient practice of showing respect and awe for the Lord and his gospel by standing.

That practice of course falls into the category of adiaphora:  those things that God has neither commanded nor forbidden.  In Christian freedom we gladly include that posture in our liturgy.

I am in need of some answers to the hymn "The Old Rugged Cross." Being a lifetime Lutheran I have never seen it in TLH or CW. The message it portrays is that I am saved by a Rugged Cross. I don't think so. Would appreciate all the info you could send my way.

You are correct in noting that “The Old Rugged Cross” did not appear in The Lutheran Hymnal or Christian Worship.  Does the hymn portray that we are saved by a rugged cross?  One of the verses speaks of loving the “old cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain.”  Another verse states that “’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died To pardon and sanctify me.”  Those verses do speak of the cross as the instrument by which Jesus was put to death and punished for our sins.

Jesus is Savior.  Still, the cross is a beautiful symbol of our salvation and Jesus’ passive obedience.  God’s inspired writers held up the cross of Christ in high regard.  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).  “His [God’s] purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16).  God made “peace through his [Jesus’] blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).  In word and song there is beauty and meaning in Jesus’ cross.

So, this idea has been circling my head for a while and I just need to ask. What if I was to say I dislike worship services? Like the plain old every Sunday church services. Not because of I harbor hatred towards God's Word and Sacraments but because I dislike the format. I go mainly because it's one of the few places where I can receive the Means of Grace. I love Bible studies with friends and strangers, personal Bible study, and I even love it every time we use God's word to study in my school classes. However, the format and social standards in church turn me off. I hate sitting still, and that's one of the biggest social standards in church. I have gotten weird looks for bouncing my leg too much in church before... -_- I think I would benefit more if I could bring my own Bible and take notes or do something that makes me critically think, but I feel like I would get judged for that since I already get judged for bouncing my leg too much... Is it sinful for me to not find enjoyment out of regular church services?

Let me begin with this reminder about the challenges you and I face in worshiping our Lord in his house.

Our sinful nature presents one challenge.  “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1).  That is the new self in the Christian speaking.  The old self says, “I hate the house of the Lord.  I want nothing to do with it.  I don’t want to be there.”

Satan presents another challenge.  “A farmer went out to sow his seed.  As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up…When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.  This is the seed sown along the path” (Matthew 13:3-4, 19).  Satan will do what he can to try to uproot God’s word in our hearts and lives.  He uses many tactics and approaches to carry out his goal, including the idea that a worship service is just the “same old, same old.”

Other people present still another challenge.  “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33).  Other people may discourage, rather than encourage, us in our faith and in our desire to worship the Lord in his house.

You can see that we need God’s strength to overcome these obstacles and barriers to worship the Lord in his house with joy.

So can I like or dislike something about worship services?  Sure, and when I say that I recognize that I am speaking about personal preference and taste.  I may not like how something is done in a worship service or I may not particularly like the melody of a hymn, but I recognize those “likes” are just my opinions.  I realize that the worshiper sitting next to me may very well like what I dislike and vice-versa.  I myself realize, from the perspective of a worship planner and worship leader, that I cannot possibly please everyone when it comes to conducting a worship service.  So, perhaps, thinking of fellow worshipers might put your “likes” and “dislikes” into perspective.

So what can you do in connection with your questions and concerns?  Let me pass along some suggestions (not knowing whether or not you are already doing some of these things).

Pray before worship.  There are prayers in the hymnal for “Before Worship” (Christian Worship, page 10).  You can offer your own prayers—asking that God bless your worship in keeping you free from distractions and enabling you to stay focused on the worship service particulars.

Use the hymnal (or service folder) to follow the order of service.  Like many worshipers I can keep my hymnal closed and keep up with the liturgical responses, but I find greater meaning when I see what I am speaking.

Bring your Bible?  Yes.  I see fellow worshipers here and there with Bibles on-hand, and some even taking notes.  I can tell you from the vantage point of the pulpit that it is encouraging to see that.  I wouldn’t worry about reactions from others in bringing a Bible or taking notes.  Do what it takes to stay focused in the worship service.  Maybe your actions in these areas will give a fellow worshiper the idea to do the same.

Worship services are special times:  God comes to us through word and sacrament; we give God our praise.  In this life we recognize that our praise of God will always be imperfect.  If we recognize we have sinful attitudes toward worshiping God, we confess those sins and receive God’s forgiveness in faith.  And then we try to worship God with better efforts.

Finally, address your concerns and questions to your pastor.  He is in a position to explain the services that you attend.

All this effort is worth it because we do want to follow our new self especially in this area of life.  We do want this refrain to be a way of life:  “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1).   God bless your efforts.

What is the difference between a Synod and a Ministerium? What is meant by Unionism?

A ministerium is a group of ministers united for a common cause.  They only—and not their congregations—would belong to the ministerium.

A synod describes congregations, with its called workers and laity, joined together and committed to a common calling.

Unionism refers to joint worship and religious work of people who are not united in doctrine.

I understand that we need to be careful about asking others who are not of our fellowship to support our ministries. This is the reason often given for why we don’t have fundraisers outside of our own church family . . . bake sales, craft fairs, and the like. Yet many of our area Lutheran high schools are connected with thrift stores whose mission is to support those high schools. Is this okay? How can this practice be justified in light of the warning against seeking funding from those outside of our fellowship?

You are correct in noting that congregations are rightly concerned about the impression fundraising in the community can give to people in the community who are not part of the congregation.  Congregational fundraising in the community can reinforce what many wrongly think in the first place—that “all the church is concerned about is money.”  Congregational fundraising in the community can reinforce work-righteous thinking in some of the unchurched, leading them to think that “I’ve given to God, so I’ve done my duty.”  Congregational fundraising in the community can undermine a church’s efforts to encourage its members to grow in their management of God’s blessings if they grow instead in their reliance on community revenue.

There is reason for our area Lutheran high schools to have these same concerns about fundraising in the community.  And so, federations and associations of congregations do well to approach this matter of Christian freedom—and that is what fundraising in general is—with prayerful deliberation and application of scriptural principles in the best interests of its constituents and members of the community.

Federations and associations of congregations that have come to the conclusion that a thrift store fits well in their circumstances are exercising their Christian freedom.  As with any area of Christian freedom, people are bound to have differing thoughts and opinions.  That calls for patient discussion and listening on the part of those who are connected to an association/federation that operates a thrift store and non-judgmental Christian love on the part of those who are viewing such a venture from a distance.

When it comes to that which you asked about, as in any area of life where there is Christian freedom, we seek to do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).  We look to show love to our neighbor (Romans 13:9-10).  We want to be guided by faith and not doubt (Romans 14:23).

I was looking at the BORAM (Book of Reports and Memorials) and am wondering why do we call them memorials?

One of the dictionary definitions of “memorial” is:  “A written statement of facts presented to a sovereign, a legislative body, etc., as the ground of, or expressed in the form of, a petition or remonstrance.”  With that in mind, the Book of Reports and Memorials itself describes memorials as “formal requests to the convention to address specific issues” (Book of Reports and Memorials, “Foreword”).  It is a term that has been associated with conventions of our church body for decades.  For information’s sake, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod uses the same terminology.  The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod uses the term overture.

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