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Conquering False Choices in Ministry

A Personal Story

I can remember many years ago when I started my professional work with Christ Greenfield. I was hired as a part-time business manager. In fact, I was the first business manager Christ Greenfield ever put on their payroll. Before that, all the work was done on a volunteer basis, and I was one of those volunteers.

I quickly realized I had entered a sticky situation. The finances of the church were in really bad shape. We had borrowed too much, and we had spent too much. The church had taken on around ten million dollars in debt, which was being secured by approximately $750,000 in annual giving. It took us forever to pay our bills and cash was extremely tight. At one point, I estimated that we were about 90 days past due on every bill. We even had to do a special appeal to the congregation to “adopt” the bills in our accounts payable.

I got hired into this role because I had established myself as someone who had a strong reputation for financial management and creative problem-solving. I quickly learned the leadership culture of our church was somewhat hostile toward the principles of good financial stewardship. There was a camp of people that fervently believed we had to make a choice between embracing stewardship or being ministry-focused. Their mantra was, “We need to step out in faith.” What I discovered this really meant was, “We need to ignore our fiscal constraints and just commit to funding the necessary staff and programs. God will figure out the details.”

This approach had been tried for over a decade, and the proverbial “house of cards” was now collapsing. I did not need to speculate on the consequences of poor stewardship. I was living through it in real-time. And yet, despite all the evidence, many people still insisted that a choice for stewardship was a choice against the ministry.

Dissecting the Problem

My friends, this is what we call a false dichotomy or a false dilemma. Simply defined, a false dilemma is intended to motivate people towards a specific end by using a faulty argument between two options that need not be contrary. Here are some examples:

  • I need to get married now, or I will be alone for the rest of my life.

  • If you don’t use our beauty products, you’ll never look youthful.

In the particular case of Christ Greenfield, the dichotomy was not just false, it was extremely false. The truth is, that a healthy ministry demanded good stewardship. Because the finances had been managed poorly, there was a lack of trust. This lack of trust deeply suppressed generosity. Suppressed generosity left the ministry severely underfunded, even though there were plenty of resources to fund the ministry at a much healthier level.

A Bigger Looming Issue—Missional vs. Confessional

While I have witnessed false dichotomies at the local level, I’ve come to discover they exist at the national level as well. Recently, a friend of ours (Rev. Joe Beran) produced a short video, The Upcoming LCMS Crisis, describing the urgent problems the LCMS faces regarding pastor shortages as well as some creative solutions we are exploring to address the issue. This video got posted on a Facebook group and it generated hundreds of views and comments. Most of them were curious or supportive, but a few of them were vicious in their condemnation.

The heart of this condemnation seems to come from an idea that, as Lutherans, we should be “confessional” and not identify ourselves as “missional.” Somehow these two things were incompatible. Frankly, this struck me as bizarre. What is the purpose of the Lutheran Confessions other than to give us a true exposition of Scripture? And who can legitimately claim from Scripture that the overriding story is anything other than that of a loving God who is on a mission to redeem us by faith? (i.e. the Missio Dei, John 3:16-18) Finally, who can deny that Christ invites believers to join Him in His mission of love to bring all people of this world from the darkness of unbelief to the light of salvation given through the waters of baptism? (Mathew 9:35-38, Matthew 28:16-20)

However, out of respect for others, I wanted to at least try to understand where someone might create this false dichotomy between “confession” and “mission.” Here is my best construction of their argument. Someone might say there are three types of sinners and every person fits into one of these categories.

  • Group A = Sinners who do not believe in Christ. They may be so deep in their unbelief that they don’t even consider themselves to be sinners, or even acknowledge that sin exists. Unfortunately, this type of group is becoming bigger and bigger in a “post-Christian” America.

  • Group B = Sinners who believe in Christ but are not well-grounded in truthful Biblical confessions. These people may be saved by Christ, but it is also possible that their poor theology guides them to believe in a version of Christ so distorted they are essentially believing in a different God than the one clearly given to us in the Bible. Some examples might include the Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but in some extreme cases might also include some Catholics, Baptists, Calvinists, and yes, even some Lutherans. In a worst-case scenario, their salvation is in jeopardy. In a best-case scenario, their spiritual care is greatly diminished through weak Confessions that constantly cause them to question God’s saving grace.

  • Groups C = Sinners who believe in Christ and are well-grounded in truthful Biblical Confessions. Not only do they believe Christ is the person He says He is, but they also believe His words and promises to us are true. We are sinners, but we also have faith. We are made confident through Confessions that Christ has justified us through faith, apart from any of our works.

If we think about the Lutheran Confessions and the time and place they were compiled (the mid-1500s in Western Europe), one could say there were very few people, if anyone, who existed in Group A. Every single person, with rare exceptions, would have been taught to believe in Christ from birth. The question was, “What version of Christ?” This was the overriding dialog of the time, and bloody wars were fought over the answer to this question. In the end, the Confessions do incredible work grounding people into Group C and challenging people in Group B. But they speak little about the work required to challenge those people in Group A, simply because there were not many people in Group A at that time and place in history.

Instead, we see folks in Group B, perhaps out of love, but also perhaps compelled out of

legalism, investing themselves tremendously in mission work towards non-Christians. We also find that sometimes a version of the gospel proclaimed by Group B is more attractive because it suggests people can somehow contribute to their salvation.

When people in Group B are successful at their mission goals, it can make people in Group C anxious. What good is it to have missionaries who invite people from Group A into Group B? Isn’t it even worse for them to come to faith in a false Christ? If this causes your reservations against being “missional,” then as an adult convert to the LCMS, I can totally understand and sympathize. However, I urge you to avoid creating this false dichotomy. You belong to the “Priesthood of All Believers,” and this means your neighbor is counting on you to show them love and truth regardless of their current group status.

Some people use computers to watch pornography, and others use them to write incredible Bible studies and sermons. So are computers good or bad? Does possible abuse override beneficial use? The reality that "mission" might be abused by some does not invalidate God’s mission. It simply means we must learn missional strategies from those who have been successful and apply this knowledge in a winsome and truthful direction to proclaim the true gospel to unbelievers. This should be the mindset of anyone who truly cares about raising up future Confessional believers. That is our goal in the Unite Leadership Collective.

In our post-Christian context, if you are a part of the LCMS, then I strongly urge you to resist false dichotomies. We are all “Missional” AND “Confessional.” If you feel this assessment is wrong or incomplete, we welcome your words of accountability and challenge rooted in God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions. Let's start the discussion in the comments below!

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1 Comment

Chris James
Chris James
Jun 13, 2022

Thank you for this contribution to the conversation. I have never heard of that kind of Group A/B/C distinction. Clear, replicable, and poignant. Thanks Jack.

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