An Accidental Saint

I don’t like Nadia Boltz-Weber.

Oh, it’s nothing personal. Well, maybe. My publisher asked her to read a galley copy of my book to blurb — it would have been nice to have — and, according to my editor, she never responded. Which doesn’t really surprise me. We had a hard time getting blurbs past Rod Dreher (the reason I had a book deal to begin with), and Nadia probably gets lots and lots and lots of requests. Who was I to merit her attention?

I’m not bothered by her style. Anyone who reads this blog know that I am no tea-totoalling pietist. We’ve met once, briefly, Nadia and I, when she spoke at the Lutheran School of theology while I was student there. I like her style, the way she speaks, the stories she tells, and she’s very personable even from behind the pulpit. I know people who know her, including a seminary colleague of mine who interned at her church, and he’s now involved in a church start-up in Texas. Nothing about her offends or rubs me the wrong way.

No, I don’t like Nadia Boltz-Weber because she is constant reminder to me that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the same church that tossed me out on my ass — is run by a bunch of hypocrites.

Nadia is hip and edgy and out there. And, alas, something of a token for the ELCA, an exception, rather than an example of how that church is changing. (And I also think she knows that.) ELCA Lutherans can point to her and say, “see, we get it!” whenever they are told they don’t. This will have some negative consequences in the future, as a number of people who have come up through churches and camps and colleges and into seminaries admiring the example of Nadia discover to their disappointment and frustration that, no, the ELCA hasn’t really changed, and no, you can’t be like Nadia. Because we don’t want or need any more people like her.

There’s a flip side to knowing people who know her — I also know a little bit more about her story. She married well, and it is my understanding that her husband has deep connections throughout the ELCA that likely bought her some space and time for people within the institution to take who she is, and the pastoral gifts she brought, a little more seriously. Because of that, she also had the support of a bishop — something I never had — who was willing to spend some time and figure out how to put her gifts, and her calling, to use.

And even with all that, she was forced (or given the freedom, depending on how you look at it) to start her own congregation. Which, of course, succeeded wildly. But had she been reliant on the ordinary church candidacy process without any attentive institutional support, she likely would have failed as spectacularly as I did, and probably for many of the same reasons.

So, it’s nothing personal, and I know that. She’s just a reminder of who I am not. I don’t know whether I will read her latest book or not. (She probably hasn’t read mine.)

But reviews of Nadia’a latest book like this one from Tim Challies just piss me off. They also show me what I’m up again as I seek to live out my call as a pastor and preacher of the gospel:

Let me say it candidly: Bolz-Weber has no business being a pastor and, therefore, no business writing as a pastor. She proves this on nearly every page of her book. Time and again she shows that she is woefully lacking in godly character. Her stories, her word choice, her interactions with her parishioners, her temper, her endlessly foul mouth, her novel interpretations of Scripture—they lead to the alarming and disturbing picture of a person who does not take the office seriously enough to ask if she is qualified to it.

And yet she boldly tells others how to live as Christians even while she is so obviously and braggingly deficient in godly character. See, somehow she equates transparency with suitability, as if her abundance of flaws, foibles, and outright sin serve as a résumé, as if they are evidence of godliness. But, biblically, nothing could be farther from the truth. This kind of transparency may masquerade as humility but is actually the very height of pride. She revels in the things God forbids and makes little of an office God holds sacred.

“[W]oefully lacking in godly character.” Bishop Wayne Miller of the ELCA’s Metro Chicago Synod said roughly the same thing about me, and no doubt Bishop Richard Graham of Metro Washington DC thought something very similar when that synod sent me packing as well. (So, maybe it’s true.)

In this review, Challies shows something deep at work in the American church, a piety and culture which demands near absolute sinlessness of its leaders, a sinlessness not grounded in the story of scripture. The Bible is full of sinners — David is my personal favorite, a man who rarely thought before he acted and, so far as I know, only repented twice — who are beloved of God in their sin. (I wonder what Challies would do if a Samson or Jephthah or even a Jeremiah were raised up to save the church? Clutch his Bible in doily-covered terror, I suspect, that folks so sinful were doing God’s work.)

Challies tosses around the qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter — qualifications I’ve seen in a lot a job adverts for churches looking for leaders — and yet it is never remembered who wrote those. Paul, who breathed murder and death at the church, who was present when Stephen was killed (and helped in his own way), who was on his way to Damascus with warrants in hand to arrest, torture and kill the followers of Jesus when the Lord intervened in his life. Peter, who betrayed Jesus, who could never do anything right except love his Lord, and who — like Paul — experienced that overwhelming call from Jesus to follow.

What would Challies and pietists like him make of rough-edged church leaders with pasts (and tongues) like Paul, or Peter, or Augustine, or even Martin Luther, if they came looking for institutional approval today? (Lutheran seminarians frequently joke that Martin Luther himself would not make it thought the ELCA’s candidacy process. And that’s probably true.)

I know the pastors, the overseers, the deacons, Challies wants. The people of “sparkling” character. They cannot look the suffering and sin of the world in the face without condemning it. They cannot walk with those who suffer without finding fault with them. Or, they flinch, their faith too dainty, to gentle, too demanding that the world conform, to speak with any love, compassion, or empathy to those wounded in and wounded by sin. That genteel and priggish pietism is, to me, not taking the office of pastor seriously.

“This is yet another in a long line of books meant to appeal to those who want to bear the name of Christ but without becoming like Christ,” Challies writes. But what does he mean by that? What does it mean to be “Christ-like,” but to meet the world where it is, love it, and offer it resurrection hope? It’s been my experience that such pastors as Challies wants and admires — whether Baptist or Lutheran — do not know how to love. And because of that, they don’t really know what hope is — true, sincere hope in the face of utter and complete hopelessness. They do not know what kind of a miserable place the world can be, how tough life really is, how much suffering some souls must bear, what awful things we are really capable of doing. They are the kinds of pastors who can quote Bible verses but have no idea what kind of story the Bible really is — that it is God’s unrelenting and unrequited love for a sinful people who God alone has redeemed.

Because we are utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves.

This is not merely a point of doctrine, a detail treated mainly as a theory that explains. It is our lives, our condition, and Nadia gets that in a way Challies does not and never will. Because she has lived in the midst of people told — by the likes Challies — that we are unloved and unlovable and must first get right with God in order to earn that love. Because she has been one of them. And understands, as a Lutheran ought to (though too many don’t), that she is still one of those people.

And we know, Nadia and me, and all the accidental saints in the world, that God does not work that way. God does not give us a list of demands that we must first satisfy in order to be worthy of being one of God’s people, or doing God’s work of speaking truth and love. God calls — the wayward, the wicked, the sinful — and makes us right with him in the call.

10 thoughts on “An Accidental Saint

  1. I went to graduate school with predominately atheists, secularists, liberals, and a few had a rabid and open dislike for Christianity. I saw one of those people post something about Nadia Bolz Weber the other day, in high praise. I truly do think people understand that to love people who are broken and who have done terrible things is at the heart of the Gospel. Unfortunately, those people don’t always run churches.

    St. John of the Cross said “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on love alone”. Bonhoeffer wrote a good sermon, pretty lofty, about how small everything else is compared to whether or not we love. There are probably plenty of people much closer to Jesus in that sense who do not go to church. I guess my point is, it’s too bad the criteria for pastors is often more superficial virtue. Repentance, love, a willingness to extend oneself to help others, those should be criteria instead of a resume.

  2. I guess sometimes I’m confused about worldliness anyway. It seems more worldly to care about respectability and right conduct than forgiveness and mercy. I’m not saying Bolz Weber, or myself, or anyone can’t improve our character. I’m sure we all could. I’m just not sure that’s the point.

  3. Excellent post. I’d point out that Challies is likely an avid proponent of the justification sola fide teaching you are applying here, though in conservative neo-Puritan circles this teaching is often acknowledged and seldom applied.

    I wish more people would take the qualification for pastoral office seriously. But it is completely ridiculous to analyze someone’s entire life by them. We take the people who have character now and a proven track record, not the people who were born with it. The ELCA is shooting itself in the foot to not take you, it seems. Perhaps they are also having some trouble working out the implications of justification sola fide. I hope you are able to find a successful path into ministry. I’d imagine you may not be entirely comfortable with the LCMS, but perhaps NACL, LCMC, or the Lutheran Brethren would be a little more receptive to your gifts and talents?

    • Hey Miguel, thanks for the response. While I’m theologically Lutheran, I am not culturally Lutheran, and that appears to be the problem with me. And as an anthropology professor once told me, when religion meets culture, culture *ALWAYS* wins. So, I’m going to start my own confessionally Lutheran worship community and see what happens.

      As for pastoral life and pastoral character, I agree that pastors and preachers need to behave well, and need to be Christ-like. At a minimum, to me, this means not treating others human beings (or themselves) as objects to exploit for pleasure or profit. No doubt Paul and Peter and Augustine and (maybe) Martin Luther behaved “pastorally” and with “godly character” after they were ordained and became pastors. Paul never stopped reminding people where he from, but he did not denounce his past either. But he knew who Jesus had made him, and he knew how knowing Jesus could change lives. He’s changed mine. I’m not who I was at 19. Pity that doesn’t seem to matter to some people.

  4. Honest questions/concerns:

    What kind of ongoing conduct/behaviors should disqualify someone from the position of pastor, or at least open them up to criticism, if we use the verses that Challies quotes as a guide? I cannot believe that I am defending Challies (someone with whom I usually disagree very strongly), but I don’t think that he is suggesting that people with sinful pasts cannot be pastors, so I don’t see how citing the examples of Peter and Paul strengthens your point. Didn’t they fundamentally change their behavior as the became mature leaders? And he’s not saying that pastors have to be virtually sinless. I think he’s trying to say that they should strive for a certain kind of respectable conduct, which seems fair to me. Do we really want to narrow the gap between the clergy and popstars that much?

    Your reading of what Challies wants (“The people of “sparkling” character. They cannot look the suffering and sin of the world in the face without condemning it…That genteel and priggish pietism…etc.) feels like an unnecessary caricature as well. And kind of insulting to people who believe that piety is important – how do you know that they are all prigs who cannot meet people in their suffering? Or am reading my own notion of mature, adult, Christian behavior into Challies’ view, which is much more priggish than my own? Given your reply to Miguel (7 Oct. 14:08), are you really that far from Challies’ position? You don’t seem to think that behavior doesn’t matter at all.

    I haven’t read Boltz-Weber’s book. I have read about her a few times and watched a sermon online. In all honestly, when I read the excerpts that Challies quoted, I rolled my eyes. She strikes me as a female version of Driscoll in the way she insists on a rebel posture that seems to think that decorum, for her, would be too inauthentic. Its just too much to ask of her. But isn’t that just another version of our present narcissism that deifies unfiltered self-expression?

    That’s my honest reaction to her and to Challies’ review and your response. What am I missing?

    • I think it depends upon what you mean as respectable conduct. But what counts as respectable conduct? I find too often the whole notion is very bourgeois, an appearance of a certain king of uprightness and rectitude, and perhaps that is what many Americans want of their pastors. I do think behavior matters — pastors should not be people who use themselves or use others, should not exploit others for pleasure or profit — but the behavior that matters is, I think, relational. Pietism, whether in its Lutheran or Baptist guises, tends not to be relational. It focuses on things that have nothing to do with how I treat myself or how I treat others. Too often, we are fixated on the appearance of virtue without actual virtue itself.

      As a friend of mine who was a longtime operative in GOP circles once told me, she found Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker much more congenial to her politics (as a liberal Republican), but preferred the company of Jesse Helms, whose politics she rarely agreed with. Helms was, in her words, a gentleman who treated everyone around him with some amount of respect and kindness, while Weicker was something of an asshole.

      It may be that Bolt-Weber insists on a rebel posture, but I also think a fair amount of that is authentic. Do rebels get to be pastors too? Or are we merely ministered to by people who condescend to us occasionally? (This matters to me, because I hear Challies saying that the likes of me cannot and should not be pastors because we have not, and do not, live the “right” kinds of “respectable” lives. And this is just as bad in the liberal mainline as it is in the conservative churches.) And yes, is my experience that a lot of solid, respectable pastors haven’t the faintest idea what to do with real suffering, or how to respond to it. It may be a caricature, but it’s based on a fair amount of experience. But maybe the world works for you in a way it does not for me.

      You are right — Paul and Peter did change who they were. Their encounter with Jesus changed who they were. Just as my encounter with Jesus changed who I am. And changed who Nadia was. But my experience of the church so far has generally been that must one never have been the kind of person who really, truly, utterly, completely needed God’s redeeming Grace. At least not more than theoretically or to prove a basic theological point that somehow, we are all sinners (even as some are clearly more sinful than others).

  5. Pingback: Charles Featherstone on Nadia Bolz-Weber | Everyone's Entitled to Joe's Opinion

  6. The Bible doesn’t demand sinless perfection, nor does it demand sinless pastors and deacons. It — and Jesus — do demand repentance from sin. And not just the sins we feel like repenting of. Every sin identified as such in the Bible, even the ones the world and mainline Protestantism have decided are no longer sins.

    Jesus said, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Nadia Bolz-Weber and today’s ELCA say, “Don’t repent. We voted in our church-wide conventions, after all, to overrule the Bible and recategorize sins that the world doesn’t want us preaching about anymore.”

    If it’s priggish pietism to warn people against soul-damning sin and a cheap-grace “gospel” that requires no repentance (or I-get-to-choose selective repentance), then the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther were chief among the prigs.

    Paul did write 1 Corinthians 6:9-13, whose condemnation of and warning against Kingdom-forfeiting unrepentant sin ends with the hopeful “And such WERE some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of
    our God.” At least some of his hearers heeded him (and Jesus) by repenting, not getting in God’s face and trying to justify their favorite sins. They came to God and saving Faith under His conditions.

    Martin Luther, never one to mince words, wrote,

    “. . .Nor may we in our works and in our daily life tolerate the yielding to the wantonness of the flesh and at the same boast the Gospel of Christ, as did the Corinthians, who stirred up among themselves divisions and disorder, even to the extent of one marrying his stepmother. In such matters as these, Paul says, a little leaven leavens and ruins the whole lump – the entire Christian life. These two things are not consistent with each other: to hold to the Christian faith and to live after the wantonness of the flesh, in sins and vices condemned by the conscience. Paul elsewhere warns (I Cor 6, 9-10): ”Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Again (Gal 5, 19-21): ”The works of the flesh are manifest . . . of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

    “Warrant is given here likewise for censuring and restraining the rash individuals who assert that men should not be terrified by the Law, nor surrendered to Satan. No! it is our duty to teach men to purge out the old leaven; we must tell them they are not Christians, but devoid of the faith, when they yield to the wantonness of the flesh and wilfully persevere in sin against the warning of conscience. We should teach that such sins are so much the more vicious and damnable when practiced under the name of the Gospel, under cover of Christian liberty; for that is despising and blaspheming the name of Christ and the Gospel: and therefore such conduct must be positively renounced and purged out, as irreconcilable with faith and a good conscience.” [Martin Luther, “Easter Sunday Sermon”: —pts. 9-10 ]

    Law and Gospel. Inseparable. Paul and Luther knew that, and they preached Law and Gospel. Today’s antinomian ELCA gives unrepentant sinners false assurances of salvation. There’s nothing loving about making you feel good about your impenitent self on your way to hell.

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