Free to be Flexible

Allow me to state the obvious. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod does not operate a seminary for the sake of operating a seminary. Our forebears didn’t establish a seminary in 1863 to provide the fledgling church body with some legitimacy as a “player” on the Lutheran scene in North America. The goal was much simpler. God’s people desired faithful Lutheran pastors. Those who went before us prayed that the Lord, through the seminary, would provide pastors who would be ready, eager, and able to preach the gospel of Christ in the synod’s congregations and mission fields.

In some respects, the work of the seminary remains the same 160 years later: the formation of gospel-centered pastors who will consistently point people to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The seminary faculty recognizes that those who will serve as pastors need to know the Scriptures inside and out. The professors, all of whom have served in parish ministry, realize the importance of providing practical tools for ministry, so that the men they recommend for
service in the church are ready to handle the tasks commonly asked of a pastor. However, the faculty aims to do more than transmit important information about the Bible and share helpful
techniques for day-to-day ministry.

Pastoral ministry requires more than knowledge of the Scriptures and proficiency in ministerial duties like teaching, preaching, and outreach. At the heart of faithful service as a pastor is a sincere and living faith in Christ, which is entirely a gift of God’s Spirit. Knowing that the Lord has chosen to
work through the gospel in word and sacrament to effect faith, the gospel is at the heart of life on the seminary campus. Each day, the members of the campus family gather in the chapel to hear the Lord speak to them through one of his servants. Every class has the living and active Word of God at its center. In addition, students and faculty seek to spend time alone with the Scriptures in private meditation. All of that is done with confidence in the Lord’s promise, that his word will not
return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11).

While it’s true that the essential task of the seminary remains unchanged, the environment in which the graduates of the seminary will serve has changed significantly since the seminary’s founding. In fact, change will remain a ministry constant for as long as the Lord continues to sustain this
present world. The recent pandemic has certainly altered the context in which pastors will serve. To be faithful to its mission, the seminary needs to prepare pastors who can serve in “the new normal,” whatever form that may take.

The Apostle Paul serves as an excellent model for any who want to be faithful gospel proclaimers in a changed and changing ministry context. Let’s start with this: he was zealous to preach Christ crucified to all. The Savior’s love so overwhelmed him that he simply couldn’t stop sharing the good news of forgiveness in Christ. Because the Lord had addressed his greatest need, freeing him from the punishment he deserved, Paul could center his life on reaching people with the gospel. He was free to serve without fear. The Apostle speaks of that freedom as he summarizes his approach to ministry in these familiar words: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings”
(1 Corinthians 9:22b–23).

This is not to say that Paul acted like a chameleon. He didn’t “change his colors” to blend in with the people he met. He didn’t alter his teaching to find acceptance in different contexts. Changing doctrine wasn’t a viable option, because it was the Lord’s teaching, not his. It’s rather that the Apostle wasn’t much concerned about his personal preferences or his individual comfort. How else does one explain his willing endurance of the significant persecution he received for proclaiming
Christ? When he might have waved the white flag and resigned from gospel ministry because of the abuse he experienced, he kept fighting the good fight. With energy the Lord provided, he gave himself fully to the work of the Lord in many different contexts, confident that his labor in the Lord would never be in vain.

In the freedom of the gospel, the Apostle felt no need to demand his rights. The Lord taught him to think less about himself and more about others, to view himself as “less than the least of all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 3:8). Because he looked up at everyone, valuing others above himself, he centered his attention on how best to serve them in Christ. God’s love in Christ had transformed Paul’s heart and altered the trajectory of his life. His focus changed from protecting himself and pursuing personal desires to trusting the Lord to work through him and seeking to reach people with the gospel. He longed to be the Lord’s instrument to save some from everlasting punishment.

The Lord who raised up the Apostle Paul for ministry set him free to be selfless. Or, to say it another way, using an expression often mentioned on the seminary campus, the Lord made him “appropriately flexible.” Through the gospel the Lord not only led Paul to trust Christ as his Savior, but also enabled him to serve others selflessly. That God-worked selflessness prepared him for changing ministry contexts. He could alter his approach, because his changed heart was set on reaching people in changing circumstances with the heart-changing word of Christ. As the Lord works through his Word proclaimed each day on the seminary campus, he prepares men for the new normal. He assures them of his unending delight in them, based not on their performance but on his declaration of them in Christ. In so doing, he sets them free to think of others more than
themselves and to be consumed with the salvation of sinners, rather than their rights or preferences. He fills them with confidence in his power to work in them and through them,
regardless of their ministry setting.

As the Lord sets men free by his promise of unconditional love and continual forgiveness, he empowers them to be appropriately flexible, ready to serve selflessly. The Lord equips them to adapt so that they are ready to be his instruments to bless and save people, wherever he calls to
them to serve.

Earle Treptow serves as president of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and teaches courses in systematic theology.