Can Orthodoxy Be Missional?

John J. Bombaro
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

If you know someone heading out of seminary or a graduate school of theology eager to apply that confessional missionary zeal of their denominational fathers to a calling parish, then it's likely they will be in for a rude awakening rather than a great one.

Increasingly throughout Reformation orthodoxy, greenhorn pastors like myself-as well as aspiring ministers-are faced with a dilemma once we depart from the assumed safe haven of seminaries where the Augsburg, Heidelberg, and Westminster Confessions hold stock. We face a decision either go the route of "church growth" movements for assurances in mission enterprises-where missions are principally done in and through seeker-sensitive worship services-or, alternatively, chance the application of missional orthodoxy amid a North American church culture dominated by neo-evangelical standards, and thus fall out of step with the prevailing contemporary Christian scene. We quickly come to see that the promise of the former is bound up with a manageable method-ology, user-friendly techniques, and the allure of a charismatic personality, all the while boasting of inspiring data to vouchsafe its present legitimacy and hope for the future. The promise of the latter is bound up with impenetrable pneumatology, clunky liturgical repetition, and the churchly mundane, showing instead a disconcerting multigenerational trend of declension. Sales and statistics evidence that evangelical "church growth" is increasing. Reformation orthodoxy isn't, at least not in the same way or in the same numbers. The quandary tells all that serious risk-taking is involved with orthodoxy, compelling us to ask: Can orthodoxy really be missional in the twenty-first century and, if so, why should it be preferred over thriving other-than-orthodox beliefs and schemes?

As a rookie minister, I found myself asking this question not as an academic exercise with the expectation of mouthing nostalgic aphorisms from yesteryear's systematicians, but because of pressures from both outside and inside the parish. Most vicars, first-call pastors, and the like will feel acute pressure too. Outside encroachments come by way of the local megachurch campus looming its shadow over their modest parish, parachurch spam glutting their inbox, and the omnipresence of Calvary Chapel radio. Inside the church, it must be asked if the seminary itself might be part of the capitulation problem. Then there will be head counting at each service, while the church treasurer crunches numbers for a hand-wringing parish. Finally, they can count on expectations from everybody for the pastor to bring in new believers.

Again, fresh from seminary, with a vision of missional activity hermetically sealed in the ages of Johannes Bugenhagen and Jonathan Edwards, their first commitments are likely to be destabilized by trends within their own ranks. They'll be surprised to see seasoned ministers unceremoniously dumping their subordinate standard and liturgy like Enron shares, only to adopt "organic worship" or "coffee house worship" as justifiable alternatives for missional worship. Certain parishioners and a vocal segment of their ministerium will undermine their confessional holdings: from pundits broadcasting the need to implement a contemporary service "if this church is to survive," to those with an agenda peddling inclusivity in Table fellowship, church membership, and the office of holy ministry itself in order to get the church "growing." The better part of our confessional communions is already envious, if not altogether covetous, of the packed parking lot of Insert Name Here Community Church down the street. Our churches want dynamic ministers to lead them into the Promised Land of bulging statistics, where collection plates flow with milk and money-just like down the street. Armed with the latest insights and applications garnered from Gallup and Barna, young pastors will be expected to get the church to thrive, not merely survive with proof-is-in-the-pudding seeker-sensitive styles of evangelistic worship. They'll hear the mantra that a new day has dawned that requires contemporizing even their heritage. So why hold on to that verbose confession and those monochrome sacraments when it comes to doing missions in the digitally enhanced twenty-first century? If the proof is in the evangelistic pudding, then why retain unfashionable orthodoxy, especially its theology-laden liturgy, when it comes to the contemporary mission? Let's face it-orthodoxy isn't sexy; an organic coffee ministry is. As long as we retain the Word and sacraments, then it's all the same in the end, right?

Though church growth innovators within our ranks are correct in thinking that what takes place during the assembly of believers has great import for missions and indeed is a, if not the, principal place our churches interface the gospel with unbelievers, yet there is a misnomer to address. One cannot appeal, as so frequently is the case, to the church growth movement's retention of "Word and sacrament" as the principal bond to a confessional identity as an "Anglican," "Lutheran," or "Presbyterian," and thereby tout one's vindication in departing from the inherited liturgy.

I've quickly learned that the Lutheran identity, for example, is forged, retained, and perpetuated through the rites codified within our confession of faith. In other words, one cannot be genuinely Lutheran and claim confessional allegiance if one does not retain the very liturgical rites by which gospel orthodoxy is expressed in the confession and manifest in church. It is the rites spoken of within the Augsburg Confession and Apology that distinguish authentic Lutheran Word and sacrament orthodoxy as such from, say, "statement of faith" minimalists or pan-confessionalists or non-confessing types, whoever they may be.

Lutheranism or Presbyterianism or Anglicanism become denominational nominalism (that is, just another shade of white in the American evangelical landscape of snow) when a reductionistic approach to orthodoxy-as expressed through the liturgical rites-is the order of the day. It is the liturgical rites themselves, which facilitate and articulate Word and sacrament ministry, that in turn establish the line of demarcation between orthodox belief and neo-orthodox, heterodox, or heretical beliefs. Compromise here and it is no wonder our one-time catechumens hemorrhaging from our midst feel right at home in non-confessional churches. What's the difference between the contemporary "Lutheran" service and the "worship experiences" of other traditions that they are emulating? Not much, former parishioners say. They feel right at home elsewhere because the vehicle of confessional doctrines-the rites themselves-were eviscerated from their confessional conscience by becoming "things indifferent." But for the Reformers, the things that were indifferent were not the rites of the liturgy but supposedly binding ceremonies. The Reformers said that the ceremonies of traditionalism could change (in many cases, should change) or be discarded, but not the rites that bore the Bible's core liturgy of God's Word and sacraments. They were nonnegotiable items of the tradition. For when the rites are lost, the meaning is lost, and when the meaning is lost, so is the significance. This is why it can hardly be said that such and such Lutheran church is engaged in confessional, orthodox missional enterprise through Word and sacrament ministry when the manifestation of missional orthopraxy (that is, "right practice") is altogether unrecognizable or indiscernible from non-confessional practices and beliefs. It's not just remembering the past but being part of the past that makes us truly confessional missionaries to the present.

But outside of these considerations of valued confessional identity, heritage, and tradition, there are two basic biblical and theological reasons for retaining past orthodoxy for present and future missional endeavors. First, it is to be embraced and extolled because it is within orthodoxy-within that theology-laden liturgy-that God has been pleased to commit his promises to make his gospel and Word and sacraments efficacious for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. This should be enough, but both Scripture and history give us further confidence in the second reason: God keeps his word. This means that not only can orthodoxy be missional, it is inherently so by God's trustworthy character, as well as its God-given gospel content and design. That gospel content and design, as has been suggested, is the Divine Liturgy.

To be sure then, there is risk involved with orthodoxy, but it is the risk of faith on our part, the risk of trusting the promise-making God to be promise-keeping in Christ through the means he himself has ordained to accomplish his own redeeming purposes. But it is also this risk of orthodoxy embraced that the Scriptures and later the church and Reformation fathers dub "the wisdom of God" (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). And since it is a matter of leaning on God's wisdom rather than our own cunning, all of our doubts and fears should be put to rest when it comes to orthodox missiology. I can offer, therefore, no better advice than that which my own father confessor told me after a frustrating first year of ministry where I had been beset by the aforementioned missional dilemma: "Have confidence that in the liturgy God has his say," he advised. "And when God has his say, have confidence that his Word and sacraments bestow precisely what he says." These words lifted the burden of performance-based ministry off of my shoulders and wholly freed me to love and shepherd God's people with confessional integrity, while the Holy Spirit busied himself with saving and sanctifying sinners in need of grace and mercy.

In The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Thomas C. Oden defines orthodoxy as the "integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual period" or, more simply, the "ancient consensual scriptural teaching." (1) And of what, exactly, did orthodoxy consist? If nothing else, from St. Luke to St. Augustine and beyond, orthodoxy consisted of the Divine Liturgy. An umbrella with some breadth, the Divine Liturgy entails everything from "the apostles' teaching and the fellowship in the breaking of the bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42) to baptizing and teaching disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). The Bible's liturgy is the means of divine grace behind which and through which God himself is the acting agent to save and sanctify through the application of the redemptive benefits of Christ crucified and resurrected. In other words, the liturgy is essentially God's sacramental actions of self-giving and justifying speech-acts through Jesus the Son, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. In both Scripture and the ancient church we learn that the liturgy given by God was not merely the vehicle of sanctification for believers but salvation for unbelievers.

Oden has given us a good starting point, but one that leaves many uncomfortable. Something ancient, some-thing settled in terms of content and meaning, is not easily domesticated and only diminishes when altered. Consequently, one cannot readily fit the settled Christian synthesis of revamped synagogue worship and a reconstituted Paschal meal (i.e., the liturgy of Acts 2:42) into modern categories of altar calls and skit evangelism. For those committed to the Reformation confessions, this "ancient consensual scriptural teaching" of the Patristic period is the creedal orthodoxy behind confessional orthodoxy and, as Luther would vigorously contend, has a greater degree of missional pudding-proof than means unbounded to such orthodoxy. Indeed, Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer all argued that within the ancient theology-laden liturgy, one finds God's multifaceted means for efficacious missional enterprise. This is because the liturgy, as they saw it, was not a style of worship but a theology of missional worship through which God is present for the sinner in the promise of the gospel.

We therefore get it wrong when we think of orthodoxy as if it was only about a canon of right belief. It is not. It entails and is expressed through God's liturgical actions, all of which, in the new covenant, are gospel gifts to us.

Philipp Melanchthon had no time for any doctrine that did not keep the gospel good news. For him, new covenant doctrines were only those that met a dual criterion: they must extol the necessity of Christ's blood atonement and comfort the soul therewith. Luther referred to Melanchthon's criterion as a theological dung detector that goes off when an alleged new covenant doctrine consists of a "If you/then God" scenario. Law dressed up as gospel stinks of death, and the dung of human sin and feigned righteousness is sniffed out. The sweet scent of orthodoxy says, "When God/then you" or, as in Ephesians 2:4, "But God/now you." The Wittenberg tandem was making the point that new covenant orthodoxy consists of doctrines and a liturgy that is exclusively gospel-oriented-and if gospel-oriented, then inherently missional for the ingathering of sinners and the sanctifying of saints. For in the gospel means of grace, God holds out his promised gifts in Christ to be received in faith by all.

The gospel then is never something inward and neither is it an in-house possession reserved for scholastic debate or popular piety. Instead, the gospel is always outward: it goes out into the church and marketplace, establishing the forum of salvation in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bring a rule of grace and peace to bear on those in need of justification by another. Simply put, the gospel is for proclamation or-to say the same thing-that which orthodoxy proclaims. The new covenant liturgy thus ensures gospel proclamation in Word and sacrament. In other words, the liturgy itself is inherently missional because orthodoxy, by its very nature, proclaims good news to the entire world. Whether in the public reading of the gospels, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, pronouncing holy absolution, baptizing, or partaking in Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy is orthodoxy in the act of mission. God, it seems, has engineered orthodoxy with a content that cannot be anything else but missional because its message is always good news for the public domain.

Since the doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Jesus Christ alone were most clearly articulated and presented by multifaceted liturgical expressions designed by God himself, Luther and Melanchthon were eager to see people brought to church. In their thinking, what could be more intrinsically missional and outreach-oriented than the proclaimed gospel through the divine means given to do so? Confidence therefore ran high among the first, second, and third generations of reformers concerning the missional nature of orthodoxy, and it should do so among us as well: for every facet of the liturgy offers mission and evangelism tethered to the promises, presence, and activity of God.

In the Old Testament, for example, the missional enterprise of God's people was carried out through doxology built in to the liturgy. (2) Psalm 105 is one of scores of texts where the outward and mission thrust of liturgical participation is manifest.

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of Abraham, his servant,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones!

In this song of praise, the imperative carries with it an indicative: "Make known his deeds among the peoples." The "deeds" that are to be made known to the Gentile nations (i.e., unbelieving peoples) are God's gracious deeds, particularly his covenant of grace established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (vv. 8-11).

How is the gospel to be made known to the nations? It is proclaimed amid liturgical song by doxological "singing" and "praising," but also by liturgical responses like antiphonal "telling" and the confessional "remembering" of God's gospel deeds. Calvin comments on this psalm by saying the church is uniquely distinguished from unbelievers precisely by its privilege of rejoicing in the name of God before the nations of the world. (3) This aspect of the liturgy then is not a style of worship but a theology of worshipful evangelism. When praising God in the assembly of believers through a doxological liturgy, there is the proclamation of the character and deeds of God in the hearing of all present, and in this case unbelievers are especially in view.

So, too, in the New Testament: "unbelievers or outsiders" are not merely invited into the worship of God by his people, they are expected to be there, just as we find them in 1 Corinthians 14:22-25. There Paul assumes their presence and anticipates their response to liturgical features of the gathered church. In the efficacious hearing of God's Word, the "unbeliever or outsider…is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you." That which evokes the awe, conversion, and worship of sinners saved by grace is the Lord forgiving the sins of his people and comforting them with his Word and sacrament presence (1 Cor. 1:18-31, 10:16-22, 11:20-29).

It has to be said that the most explosive means of God-inspired, theology-laden, liturgical missional activity comes by way of holy baptism. It has not been going door-to-door nor having the tent revival nor even the stadium crusade that has been greatest vehicle of Christian evangelization. In every age of the church, baptism-particularly infant baptism-has been the overwhelmingly greatest means of expanding the church. Christ has built into the covenant of grace itself an evangelistic liturgical feature that ensures the propagation of the faith in such a fashion that the Lord does all the work and receives all the glory-the baptizing of adults and children alike. If you desire to see the church grow, then break out your baptismal liturgy and start asking people in your church, neighborhood, and workplace if they or their children have been baptized, and you will find a great deal of gospel discussion taking place.

A rigorous theology and practice of baptism keeps the church mission-minded and thoroughly evangelistic, for nothing else but baptism defines Christian as such. No standard of law, no decisional reliance, no self-evaluation, nothing but God's outward, objective sacrament speech-act makes and defines persons as sons and daughters of God. The evangelism of baptism covers all persons within its scope, just as in the Old Testament, but this time bringing the fulfillment of the promises of grace. Unbelievers, like Gentiles of old, come to believe the gospel and are baptized into the covenant (Mark 16:16), while the children of believers inherit the gospel benefits by way of God's promise (Acts 2:39; Luke 19:15). Either way, the liturgical rite of baptism engenders query and conversation, even self-evaluation by unbelievers, especially when it is regularly taking place during church and its remembrance is constantly on the lips and at the fingertips of believers (for those who make the sign of the cross).

I am ever amazed at the openness of people to enjoin discussions that move from baptism to Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-11). All of my best evangelistic moments have started with asking either of these simple questions: Are you baptized? Has your child been baptized? Mission strategies have to take into account the obvious confessional direction offered in biblical baptism evangelism.

Paired with baptism in Matthew 28:18-20, of course, is the necessity of catechetical teaching. Per the mandate of our Lord, the mission of the church consists of making disciples through baptism and teaching. In large part, baptizing and teaching are the mission of orthodoxy and the very means of the mission itself. In both, God has in-built an outward mission thrust to baptism and catechesis. Disciples are made by passing through the waters of holy baptism and by being immersed in the sacred teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:38-42). But due to the fact that baptism without the accompanying teaching frequently leads to poor discipleship, the church busies itself with teaching to the font and from the font.

In fact, Luther nor Calvin nor Cranmer would allow their auditors to understand that the missional endeavor of orthodoxy entails evangelism only. It stretches well beyond baptism to include catechetical discipleship; indeed, that being mission-minded means engaging in the theological art of making lifelong disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Put differently, "missional" never means merely head-counting at the crusade or baptistery, but a corresponding life of discipleship yielded as the fruit of an engendered faith through Word and sacrament. Consequently, not only is the sacrament of holy baptism at play here but also catechesis, holy absolution (in Reformed communions: declaration of pardon) and Holy Communion. An orthodox faith that is authentically missional is possessed and formed by the real voice of God and the real presence of Christ in the Word and sacrament ministry of the church. Unless we abandon Jesus' great commission, then the Word and sacrament ministry of the church must be embraced as the twin engines of orthodox missiology, not only in ages past but also by the promise and presence of God remaining so until the end of the age.

Likewise, Holy Communion is deeply missional, especially when it retains its rightful place in weekly Eucharistic celebrations. If the Lord's Supper is an objective means of divine gospel grace, then we have no more liberty to withhold it from God's people than we do preaching the gospel or pronouncing absolution. The Eucharist brings the gospel to bear in the pure, unadulterated gospel words of institution. What is more, there is the profound and mysterious aesthetic dynamic to Holy Communion-the gospel made visible to all who are present: believers engaged in an incarnational encounter with their redeeming Lord; unbelievers witnessing how God is present with his people, feeding and healing them through the life-giving blood of Christ. The Divine Liturgy is the Eucharist liturgy-Christ's death being proclaimed in the theater of mission.

Ultimately, orthodoxy is missional because of the divine promise of the Parakletos and the work of the Parakletos (John 15:26-27) in accomplishing the divine will to save and to sanctify. A simple reliance upon the Holy Spirit to render efficacious the means of grace defines the mission statement of confessional orthodoxy. We look to the fulfillment of the Parakletos in Acts 2 and there we find liturgical proliferation (preaching, baptizing, praising, gathering around the apostles' teaching, fellowship in the breaking of bread, the prayers) and the Holy Spirit adding to the church "day by day those who were being saved" (2:47). Thus, along with the Resurrection, Pentecost is celebrated weekly though a Divine Liturgy as the Holy Spirit faithfully does his work since the days the gospel moved out from Jerusalem to spread throughout the entire world. Only the person, promise, and means of God garner the orthodox response of faith and the confidence of the faithful.

In response to the Sunday morning Pentecost happenings of the Spirit that we experience, the focus of the renewed church is to do mission through vocation Monday through Saturday, to invite others to "come and see" (John 1:46). By God's design, orthodoxy begets a culture of biblically formed orthopraxis, and this includes a missional dynamic to our various vocations to family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

A confident faith in God's Word, will, and presence frees ministers and parishioners alike from the bondage of the missional Zeitgeist, which is the endless pursuit of the contemporary and relevant silver-bullet evangelistic program. We need not busy ourselves with missional approaches employing the latest fads, gimmicks, skits, video dramas, demographic pandering, and the like, in an attempt to artificially replicate what the liturgy does so naturally and with the promises of God and power of the Holy Spirit permanently affixed. Orthodoxy simply does not allow us to see the liturgy as an order of service, but rather Scripture and the ancient consensual scriptural interpretation compel us to trust it as the God-given vehicle by which the Holy Spirit is cut loose in the midst of believers and unbelievers alike. Have confidence that in the liturgy God has his say and in having his say he bestows precisely what he says. Maybe then the risk of orthodoxy will appear no more risky than the spiritual discipline of faith in the promise-keeping God of our fathers.

1 [ Back ] Thomas C. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 29.
2 [ Back ] I thank Brian Thomas for this insight and following reflection.
3 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book Company, 2003), 6:173.
Photo of John J. Bombaro
John J. Bombaro
Rev. John J. Bombaro (PhD, King’s College London) is senior pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Lafayette, Indiana, and special projects supervisor at the US Naval Chaplaincy School, Newport, Rhode Island.
Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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