Pressure Points (December)

With Dr. Bruce Hartung

Several readers were really unhappy with my reply in the October column to the pastor struggling with his parishioners’ disinterest in doctrine.  My plan is to use this month’s column and the next to address some of these concerns.  I very much appreciate the concerns expressed by readers, and hope that we will all learn and grow from the dialog they elicit.

Before we get to the doctrine question, I first want to answer responses (not questions) from readers.

Response: I appreciate your effort, but unfortunately believe you have totally missed the point, perhaps trying to please everyone.

A: It is quite possible that I missed the point.  Points are missed all the time.  That is open to discussion.  But my point is this: take the position of a learner andHartung, Bruce find out from parishioners what their concerns are, as they pertain to studying doctrine — especially as doctrine emerges from the study of the Scriptures, the ecumenical creeds, and our Lutheran Book of Concord.

Taking the position of a learner requires that I open myself to feedback about how I have been approaching both the topic and the people I want to teach.  To that end, I suggested that the pastor go to his parishioners, asking them to give him specific feedback about how he has been approaching this issue.  Perhaps there is a more helpful way to do this.  But clearly, a teaching alliance must be developed in order for people to learn together.

Does this miss the point?  It may very well.  What about the following alternative, as another writer suggests:

R: [You] could have directed this “mentally exhausted” pastor to the strength and comfort that God’s Word offers specifically to those serving in the only office in the church instituted by Christ Himself — the Holy Ministry. True, it can be a hazardous occupation for those faithful to its requirements (see 2 Cor. 11:23-38).

A: This point — and perhaps more points missed — will be engaged in future columns.

I have more trouble, though, with the first responder’s ending comment, because it imputes a possible motive to my answer.

My encouragement to everyone — especially to those who are workers in the church — is to avoid such imputation of motives.  Besides being problematic from the point of view of the Eighth Commandment, such imputations tend to poison the conversation.  In this case, all conversation about the point I was making could simply be ignored, because I was seen to be “perhaps trying to please everyone.”

Attribution of motivation and name-calling is as old as sin itself.  In 21st century America, it is a way of life.  If I can label someone negatively or even suggest such a label, I can stop listening.  What suffers is the capacity of people to discuss points of difference without being questioned about their personal motivations. What also suffers is the capacity to actually have dialog around important points of difference, because the conversation becomes personalized.  Once personalized, almost all conversation about the “points” stops.

So — again — are we going to talk about the points raised, or are we going to talk about the imputed motivation for the point?

I strongly encourage that we all avoid tactics that raise questions about the motivation of a person. Whether that is in church conflict, political campaigns, or discussion of doctrine, attention to respect for each other as members of the Body of Christ demands that we work hard to put the best construction on the discourse of our neighbor.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation for Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  He can be reached at

Posted Nov. 29, 2007

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