A new Bible study and DVD presentation, Witness, Mercy, Life Together [Witness Mercy Life Together Bible Study by Albert B. Collver, Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 64 pages. $5.99.]
has been published as a rally-cry-educational-let’s-work-together piece by Dr. Albert Collver and the LCMS President Matthew Harrison. Many pastors who receive it in the mail will have a conditioned response, ‘we’ve seen this before.’ Every publishing house, every administration, and (it seems) most pastors seek to build the church into a savvy social organization using marketing surveys, demographic insights, and the effective use of technology. Slogans and catch phrases inform believers about the church’s core competencies, strategic goals, and mission. Books and “Bible Studies” show how theirs is really the Lord’s plan updated and informed by the insights of the modern mind. How strange and welcome therefore is the new Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod theme and emphasis, which is built on something altogether different. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” is the new Synodical emphasis put forward by LCMS President Matthew Harrison and his administrative staff. The emphasis is not a focus-group-tested slogan set forth to move forward with strategic objectives. “Witness,” “Mercy,” and “Life Together” are words the Lord has spoken describing the work of His church. The church is purest and most beautiful when she is defined and described by the Lord. Through his eyes she stands as “a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). It is indescribably refreshing to the weary to hear those words applied to us. That is the point of the new study by Dr. Albert Collver: to hear what the Lord has said about his church and embrace it as a gift. From the start one can tell this theme and Bible study are much different than the usual “grow more, give more, get more” fare.
The difference becomes obvious in Lesson One, “Witness.” In the church-speak world the word witness has become shorthand for an intentional conversation by which believers help an unbeliever make a decision for Christ and therefore grow the kingdom. “Lesson One” should really be called “Round One” because Collver gently wrestles the word back to its biblical intent: “The Lord saves souls, but He locates His saving Gospel in the Church, and He uses people within the Church as his instruments to proclaim the Gospel” (p.14). The leader’s guide, the accompanying Steven Starke hymn, and the impressive concordance of biblical usage thoroughly equip students and leaders to complete the journey that brings the word “witness” back from law to gospel.
“Round Two,” builds on this gift and extends it. Throughout history, well-intended but misguided people have declared that pure doctrine and the desire to save the lost are antagonistic goals. Systematicians have sometimes made doctrine devoid of proclamation. Mysticism, pietism, and the theological descendants of Dwight Moody decry doctrinal and confessional subscription as anti-missional. The LCMS is certainly no stranger to this battle. Collver however beautifully and convincingly demonstrates that these two stand together in the Lord’s church: “A witness that does not confess what Jesus taught is not a Christian witness. Likewise, a confession that does not witness is not a New Testament confession. . .Telling about Jesus and doctrine go together” (p.18). The leaders’ guide to this section is especially strong. As Collver presents a precisely written and beautiful summary of how true doctrine is manifest in Christ coming to us according to his promise—which is the only hope of the world. With very little modification the leader's guide could become a great Christmas sermon.
Lesson three wrestles the word “mercy” (his translation of the Greek word diakonia) back into its biblical sense: “Being rooted in the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won for us on the cross, mercy means feeding the poor, taking care of the sick, and caring for the orphans and widows. Diakonia, then is caring for our neighbor in concrete and effective ways because of what Jesus has done for us” (p.22). Collver does not speak of himself, but his experience as a parish pastor and as an executive in LCMS World Relief and Human Care fills this far-too-brief study with an authenticity and understanding that is known by one who has “done the hard work” (Proverbs 14:23).
Lesson four, “Life Together” leads through a study of the biblical word koinonia. Once again the word is rescued and revived from its more unworthy uses. In common usage koinonia and its common translation "fellowship" have lost their biblical, sacramental foundation and have come to refer to donuts. Collver’s study and leader’s guide demonstrates with great skill that our fellowship and unity are not founded on liking each other (think of St. Paul and Barnabas) but on a doctrinal and sacramental unity that transcends men, personalities, and time. If the LCMS (or any denomination) would escape their bondage to bickering and infighting it will only be as people who have a bond that is deeper than human affronts and leadership cults. “Life Together” rightly teaches divine fellowship that flows from the gospel as the hope and substance of churchly interaction. Reconciliation with Christ through His cross enables reconciliation with others. Individual gifts find their fruit and proper use through their incorporation in the Body of Christ.
Lesson five, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” speaks of the history of conflict in the days of the apostles. The obvious conclusion is that the unity of the church has always been under assault from without and from within. The only proper response and the only faithful response of the church is to return to the mission that can be summarized by the Bible’s words witness, mercy, and life together. It is indeed commendable that the author would take this approach to a topic so important at this stage of the LCMS’s life. The approach is biblical, evangelical, and draws us to the gospel and the need for the faithful administration of the word and sacraments.
The accompanying DVD shows LCMS President Harrison presenting these same doctrines in a way that is winsome, pastoral, and humorous. He demonstrates a tremendous grasp of the practical application of Lutheran theology. While the production quality is not wonderful, it is hard to imagine a faithful non-partisan who could fail to be edified and delighted by Harrison’s presentations.
The study is designed to be used in any adult or teen level Bible class and can be used with great profit. Pastors may find that its most enduring value will be as a “new member’s” class or a follow-up to Catechism and confirmation classes. Many congregations offer special classes for those who wish to join by transfer or reaffirmation of faith; it is hard to imagine a better study for such use.
The Bible studies, leader's guide, and DVD are not fundraising, team building, or leadership training devices that use pop psychology and marketing techniques to win hearts. They are biblical, sacramental, genuine, doctrinally solid studies on the nature of the church. It is easily the most useful item to come out of the Synodical Office Building since the sainted A. L. Barry’s What About series; and in many ways, it is more important. One can pray that the biblical emphases in these studies will come to mark President Harrison’s term of office. If so, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is entering a period of great importance in this dark and fallen world. “The world is longing for what we have,” Harrison cries out in the presentation. If the LCMS and her leaders can maintain a strong biblical witness, shown forth in mercy and lived out in our life together, she will truly be, “a radiant church.”
Robert Zagore is Senior Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and School, Traverse City, MI.