Four Branches – December 2021

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Exegetical Theology:  Historical Gaps – What is the idea?

Words in one language don’t “mean” words in another language. For example, עֵץ, δένδρον, arbor, Baum, and tree all can refer to the same physical entity, but strictly speaking, none of these words “mean” each other. And speakers of these different languages, used to seeing different kinds of trees based on their own geography, probably all have different kinds of trees called to mind when they hear their word.

Now, is much gained exegetically from realizing that these words, despite glossing each other, all call to mind somewhat differing pictures of trees? Not really, because we’re still talking about fairly concrete and easily identifiable entities—trees. But the more abstract a word’s meaning is, the more its meaning might potentially differ from what its glosses mean in other languages. So reading secular literature can help us understand how those more abstract words were used within a culture.

We see an example of this in Philippians 4:5 (Epistle for Advent 3): “Let your ἐπιεικές be known to all people. The Lord is near.” ἐπιεικές has been glossed with words like moderation, gentleness, reasonableness, graciousness, considerateness, and forebearance. But what idea would this word have evoked for the Philippians?

Thucydides (1.76.4) uses ἐπιεικές to speak of the Athenian practice of allowing legal rights to the weaker members of the Delian League, despite the fact that Athens could have easily used its greater military strength to impose its will on them. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 1137-8) speaks of being ἐπιεικές as sometimes being better—and even more just—than being just, as an ἐπιεικές judge will take consideration of the case and not always punish as strictly as the general law allows, and an ἐπιεικές individual will not inappropriately insist on his rights but happily take less than what legally could be his. Plutarch (Caesar 57.3), writing about fifty years after Philippians about something which happened about one hundred years before Philippians, speaks of a temple being dedicated to Julius Caesar named Ἐπιείκεια in honor of how he pardoned many of his enemies and even honored some of them after defeating them in the civil war. From this brief historical survey, we see that an ἐπιεικές person has the kind of high status and rights they could invoke but instead chooses not to for the greater good.

So in Philippians 4:5 that is the quality which we are called upon to display in front of the world. Despite our high status in our exalted Lord and our divinely-given rights as sons of God, we let the world see us in a humble, unassuming posture, bearing persecution and putting the needs of others before ourselves. In fact, we can do those things not only despite our high status and divinely-given rights, but because of them, knowing we can more than afford to live in such a humble, patient way right now—the Lord is near.

Blessings, brothers, as you continue to humbly serve and endure, confident of your high eternal status in the Lord!

Rev. Aaron Jensen serves as pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monticello, MN.

Systematic Theology:  The Theology of the Cross and Civil Affairs: A Powerful Combination

A number of years ago I was visiting with a retired pastor shortly after Holy Week.  As we talked, he complained about the use of the Great Litany as part of the Maundy Thursday service.  Instead of the expected complaint about its length, this now sainted pastor complained about having to pray for the president.  He did not want to pray for the president at that time because he did not like many of that president’s political stances.  Would it be safe to assume this pastor is not the only one who has ever had such a complaint?  Are there saints in your pews (or maybe even one in your pulpit), who find it hard to pray for a president who is not of their preferred political persuasion?

It would be easy to tell Christians struggling with such complaints to man up and do what God commands by praying for those in authority whether you like them or not (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  While the Old Adam in each of us may need such a swift kick in the rear at times, the New Man finds his strength to live the faith from the cross.

Therefore, it is good to remember that the power of the gospel comes from God, not from the civil authorities, no matter how powerful they appear.  The truth that the power of the gospel comes from God’s working is exactly why Luther observed in theses 20 and 22 of the Heidelberg Disputation: “He deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross… That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.”  The Christian firmly grounded in the power of the cross is able to see more clearly the limits of civil authority, and remain unshaken when civil authority abuses its God-given authority.

Perhaps that is why orthodox Christians under the Roman government endured abuse rather than rebel.  Perhaps that is why orthodox Lutherans in the Reformation era always seemed more hesitant than the Reformed to reach for the sword. As Tertullian aptly observed, “But why dwell longer on the reverence and sacred respect of Christians to the emperor, whom we cannot but look up to as called by our Lord to his office?  So that on valid grounds I might say Caesar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him.  Therefore, as having this propriety in him, I do more than you for his welfare…because I ask it of him who can give it.”

And so, as we find ourselves living in a world more and more divided, may we keep our focus on the cross and the unity it brings.  May we remember the blessings that God gives us under the cross.  May we also use the powerful privilege of prayer that is ours through the cross.

Rev. Joshua Becker serves as pastor at Christ Lutheran in Saginaw, MI.

Historical Theology:  Ancient Catechumenate in the 21st Century, Part 3

Some congregations have adopted the philosophy that the Church’s ancient catechumenate is still a valuable model today.

Pastors in the resources listed below talk about a shift in the congregation’s approach.  It’s a move from focus on the destination as “becoming a member” to the focus on the beginning of “life as a disciple”. I think most pastors are thinking about and working hard to assimilate new members in the life of the church.  Maybe the ancient process and its rites has something to offer?

For example, most pastors I know would agree that while one of our great strengths in Lutheranism is personal pastoral care that can also be a weakness.  There’s a bond that forms between pastor and inquirer through an adult instruction course and personal spiritual interest and care.  It’s wonderful and plays to our strength.  On the flip side, a relationship mostly or only with the pastor can leave a newcomer with very little connection to the rest of the body of Christ in that time and place.   A strength of the catechumenate may be that it can involve the congregation early on with rites of welcome, and/or rites of enrollment, and/or lay-leaders and sponsors.

The actual process may look like the following example, currently used at a Lutheran church:


In this stage, held in the Fall (Oct, Nov, Dec), those who have inquired or been visitors or transfers from other congregations throughout the summer are hosted on Sunday evenings, with a meal and childcare (or youth Bible study). Groups of 6 or 8 separate out with trained lay-leaders or pastors and consider the texts and sermons from that morning in worship by way of leading questions.  It is an honest period of inquiry and addressing questions with no obligation.


In this stage, just after Christmas and lasting until Lent, those who are interested in digging deeper are introduced to the congregation on Sunday morning in a rite of welcome.  They are given a Bible, signed with the cross and assigned a sponsor to be side by side with them through the rest of the process.  This stage is still open to newcomers. The group studies continue on Sunday evenings with reflections on worship and prayer and one’s own story in light of the biblical story.

Intense Baptismal Preparation

At the beginning of Lent, the process is closed to newcomers who will need to wait until the next round begins (which may be in the fall or at various times of the year). Those who are planning to be baptized (or have an affirmation of their baptisms or simply join the congregation) are presented to the congregation in the rite of enrollment.  This will be a time of building on the previous months in the Scripture. They are given a catechism that they’ll study with the pastor and open the treasures of what baptism means for them and for their life of serving others.  The group will meet on Sunday evenings and perhaps have a retreat.

The Easter Vigil is the place of the gift of baptism and confirmation in the Lutheran faith. Sponsors and families and congregation members join that night to celebrate the dying and rising of Christ and these Christians.

Baptismal Living for the weeks from Easter to Pentecost the newly initiated will continue in study of life as the baptized in their vocations and find their places of service to the Lord in the mission of His church.

The ancient catechumenate emerged in a church that believes a new creation had begun in the resurrection of Jesus.  That church understood itself as participating in God’s promised and emerging reign of reconciliation, justice, and peace.  The catechumenate became the process by which those coming to faith were resocialized to live by this new order.” (Go Make Disciples – An Invitation to Baptismal Living, pg. 159, referenced below)

Resources on the Ancient Catechumenate:

A newer Lutheran (LCMS) initiative, and great place to start:

Books with ideas for trying or questions about implementing a catechumenate:

Faith Forming Faith: Bringing New Christians to Baptism and Beyond – Paul E. Hoffman.

Go Make Disciples: An Invitation to Baptismal Living – Augsburg Fortress Press.

Books with historical research into the ancient catechumenate:

The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation – Maxwell Johnson.

The Hallelujah Highway: A History of the Catechumenate – Paul Turner.

Rev. Tyler Peil serves as pastor at Prince of Peace in Salt Lake City, UT.

Practical Theology:  Online Ministry

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

A generation ago we needed to send missionaries into the foreign fields in order to share the Gospel. A generation ago there was great emphasis put on bringing Bibles into countries that didn’t have them.

Things have changed. Today, if you have internet you have access to missionaries and many pastors to share the Gospel with you. If you have a phone you most likely have an app with a Bible in your language.

COVID brought many changes to the church. Chief among them is that it pushed the church online. We were forced to broadcast a message to people who could not come in to church. We were forced to think about what community looks like if it can’t be in person. And while there are many disadvantages to this that we are still wrestling with, the bottomline is that the message of Jesus flooded the internet.

A year later the question is – what is the state of online ministry in your church? If you’re like me the first couple weeks you used your cell phone to stream what you could. Has it stayed that way? If you’re like me at first Facebook was a great way to connect with your at home members. Is it still, and if so what are you doing about it?

There are theories about the post-COVID church. Some say church will never go back to the way it used to be when it comes to physical attendance. Others say there will be a resurgence. Regardless, online ministry is here to stay. It has been and will be the front door for your church. Your online reach may even become exponentially greater than your in-person reach going forward.

Here then are just a few considerations for enhanced online ministry

– Create a digital strategy – We create plans and strategies for outreach and discipleship, it’s time we have one for online ministry. Is that plan to livestream service only? Will we make use of social media? If so, which platforms? Knowing consistency is key, how often will we create content? Is our branding representative of who we are, what impression is our branding giving off? Is our website up to date? Who are we targeting with our various platforms?

Continue to evaluate and refine – I don’t know of a pastor who likes to watch himself preach. Do it anyway. In fact, ask others for their honest feed back. Continual evaluation is especially important if you are live-streaming. How is the lighting and the audio? How engaging is the video presentation? With the technology available, here is an area that you can always improve!

Share devotions online – We all have content we use at a moment’s notice for hospital visits. We love to share certain Psalms and sections of Scripture for good reason. If you’ve pastored for 5 years or more you have quite a bit in the barrel. So share it online. It’s interesting how many members can be present on Facebook. If a third or half of your congregation was meeting regularly at a coffee shop would you go there to say hello? Why not enter in with the Word of God to where they already are.

Invest in it and delegate – Here’s the good news. All of this great, timely, Gospel ministry doesn’t have to be what you do. Invite a college-aged person to help you with it, perhaps pay them hourly. Make use of graphic designers and web experts to help you publish online. As you look at your church budget, plan for it and know that it is a valid use of resources. You don’t have to do all the work or be a technology guru, but as a steward of today’s opportunities, it’s wise for us to recognize the need for this ministry to be done well and plan accordingly.

Rev. Dustin Blumer serves as pastor at Amazing Love Lutheran in Joliet, IL.