Pastor Shawn Neider and I discussed our way through Martin Luther's “Small Catechism,” spring of 2013. He remains a tolerant friend and patient interlocutor. He took time for this interview during last October's 500th anniversary commemoration of the reformation.
Could you describe your growing up experience and how you became a Lutheran pastor?
My father was Roman Catholic. My mother was Lutheran. They felt that it was important to attend church together so they planned to go back and forth through life.
I was born while they were Lutheran and baptized by a pastoral friend at home as an infant.
While I was young, another Lutheran pastor helped my father to understand that saved by faith alone meant that he didn't have to hope that he was a good enough person, but his hope was in Jesus's death and resurrection and promises.
So we stayed in the Lutheran church. Faith life, devotions, bible reading, and the church were very important in our life.
My dad had considered the priesthood as a boy but wasn't willing to take the vow. As a Lutheran now, he could be ordained; so he entered Concordia Seminary in St. Louis when I was in 5th grade.
I watched him work through the classes and thought that I would never want to move to a city again or go through that myself, but as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. So while I didn't want to go through the experience, God was planting seeds.
I was confirmed in 8th grade, part of the Lutheran tradition, before my Dad was called to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Ontonagon, Mich. Life was not too different than before he went to seminary except that now church life was also his career. We still did daily family devotions and participated in many activities at church.
After high school, I studied forestry at Michigan Technological University on an Army ROTC scholarship. The Lutheran campus house was one of the first places that I visited, and many of us were active in the local congregation, in Sunday School and choir, as well as our own activities at the house.
I also started reading the Bible on my own, continuing what my parents taught me, and as I was reading through Romans 15 one morning, the words struck me: how can they believe unless they hear and how can they hear unless somebody preaches to them.
I could do that, even though I wasn't a natural public speaker. I wasn't comfortable in front of people, but how could they believe unless they hear? My girlfriend wasn't interested in that idea, and I liked forestry and working in the woods, away from people, so I dismissed the idea.
We got married, and I worked in forestry for several years. The Army was reducing in size, and I had lost interest in that, so it was easy for me to ignore my commitment to them.
With my work and my wife's school and work, we spent a lot of time apart and didn't develop a shared routine of devotions....
She decided that we had grown apart, left me, and asked for a divorce. We tried counseling, but she had made up her mind already. So I moved away and took a job for the Forest Service in Washington state.
Regular bible reading became very important to me during that time, and I decided that whether we could reconcile or not, I would look into going to seminary, after a couple of years of fighting forest fires.... We couldn't reconcile.
I met Tonya who had grown up Lutheran, but had stopped believing and practicing in college. We started attending church when we were together. She wasn't real excited about my idea of being a pastor either, but she had an experience that brought her back to faith, and she was reluctantly willing to be a pastor's wife with me.
That was about the time that the Army called to remind me of my commitment to them in the reserves.... I looked into becoming a chaplain, but that process involved seminary and would take longer than simply serving my time, so I stayed where I was.
Tonya and I got married with the understanding that we would work in Winthrop, [Wash.] for 2 years before we made the move to seminary.
Six months later, I was activated to Fort McCoy, Wis. to support the mobilization effort there. I was there for almost 2 years, not loving the Army, but there was a great church in Tomah, [Wis.] with several Bible studies and an active faith community.
Tonya spent several months each year in Winthrop so that she wouldn't lose her job...uncertain of how long I would be on active duty. But we talked everyday, and our faith was central in our life.
Finally, we were able to spend those 2 years in Winthrop, working for the Forest Service. And I studied Greek to prepare for seminary.
My brother left active duty with the Navy, and we talked about trying to go to seminary together, but I had promised Tonya 2 years. So he went ahead without me.
Then he was called up to active duty during his second year [of seminary so that when I arrived on campus, my commitment to the army finished, he was in Kuwait.
The third year of seminary is normally vicarage, a practical internship away from campus. He returned early in the fall and then delayed his vicarage a year so that we ended up spending 2 years together at Seminary.
I didn't love the city, but the academic work wasn't so bad. It was harder than I realized watching my dad go through it, but easier than I had imagined since I wanted to learn the material. I followed the traditional path of 2 years of study, I had passed the greek entrance exam from my self study. So I started with Hebrew class.
Besides the languages, we studied doctrine, systematic theology, history, and practical theology. And each student was assigned to a local church in the area for practical experience. My third year was vicarage back in Washington state so that Tonya was able to support us with her job that she had continued working about 6 months a year while I was studying.
And finally I finished school and received a call to Grand Coulee and Coulee City, [Wash.] where Tonya was able to transfer to a position with the Park Service and continue her career.
As I look back, I can see where God was planting seeds and preparing me all along, and I kept saying I wasn't ready. Then when I thought that I was ready, God said, no, you have commitments to keep first. Finally, my timing and God's timing lined up and things fell into place.
You mentioned your father finding hope in Jesus's death, resurrection, and promises, and you mentioned your wife's return to faith. What doubts have you experienced?
I had a day when I was about 5 when I wondered if the Bible had been written by a couple of brothers but decided that it was too complicated for that to have worked out. That was my deepest doubt, and there is a lot more evidence to prove that the Bible really is God's word and Jesus really did come, live, die, and rise again as we know.
I've had moments when I am closer to God or farther away...but I just remind myself of all of the evidence to support the Bible's claims, that it is too complicated to be made up. Faith is a gift from God, and I would say that the Holy Spirit has blessed me with a steady, lifelong faith.
I watched PBS's "Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World." How do you relate to Martin Luther? He is to me at once relatable in his experience of shame and depression, remote in his certainty of things, and confounding in his effect on the relationship between conscience and tradition.
Yes, I often feel the same. Would I have liked him if I was living at that time?
I doubt that I would have stood up and spoken out publicly if I had been in the same position, or remained steadfast if I was challenged by the highest authorities when I did.
We must all struggle with the relationship between conscience and tradition.... We should examine what our motivations were in the past and determine—even if the intention was good—were the actions of our tradition wrong.
The church must constantly be working through the same process.... Tradition wasn't necessarily wrong. They started something based on the influences of their time, but times have changed....
We have to understand the traditions and evaluate them against God’s word which doesn't change, to determine if the traditions need to be retained or adapted or abandoned. It isn't good to get rid...or blindly follow [traditions], without understanding them.
There are some things that Martin Luther wrote that we don't agree with today or [that] need to be understood in his context but not repeated...today....
What are some examples of things Luther wrote that we would disagree with now or that need to be understood in his context?
The simplest example would be that Luther believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, but even he said that he wouldn't hold anyone else to that.
The most popular example would be his treatise against the Jews from 1543, which was used by the Nazis to justify their actions. I would bet that even he wishes that he hadn't written that.
...most people don't realize that 20 years earlier, he had written two treatises encouraging Christians to befriend the Jews and welcome them and try to tell them about Jesus, the Messiah. He...seems to have been disappointed that they refused to see the gospel fulfilled in Jesus...so it was a life of frustration coming out, not towards an ethnic group, but to try to get them to believe in Jesus.
Unfortunately it is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied writings, and continues to be a stumbling block for us to witness to Jews today. So we try to understand why he wrote this, and obviously...we wish that he didn't think, or say, or write these later things and had only left his earlier writings.
What do you make of the continuing divisions in protestantism since Luther's time?
The division of the church today is a very sad thing. Certainly God wants us to be united, but we are also all sinners. So we do not properly understand scripture or the other group's understanding of it.
Paul did write that it was necessary for there to be divisions so that it could be shown who had the truth. So the different churches are often times closer together than some think, but also farther apart than many others think. Some churches minimize the differences in order to sign agreements, overlooking true differences, while others make theological points out of unimportant things.
This has been going on for the entire history of the church when you look at the church councils from Nicaea.... There were always discussions between the different churches and bishops and regions dealing with different issues and cultures, but they did hold things together, taking months to talk things out.
Today we can communicate all over the world instantly but we hardly listen enough to understand each other. The church is too often, a reflexion of the world that we live in.
On the other hand, I think that the nondenominational, independent churches only add to the divisions and lack of union between Christians rather than rising above the denominational issues.
It is nice to imagine the benefits of one united worldwide church, but few people take time to consider the challenges.
It's a good thing that God uses our sins and mistakes and keeps moving his kingdom forward, even when we try to get in the way.
Luther's Small Catechism sees Jesus as “the heart and center of scripture and therefore the key to its true meaning.” And as you know, the distinction—or tension—between law and gospel is something I struggle to find a satisfying resolution for. Could you unpack how seeing Jesus as central to scripture relates to the distinction between law and gospel?
Both Law and Gospel can be found throughout scripture.
The Law has three functions: First, to show us our sin and point us to our need for forgiveness and a savior. We call this a mirror, to see our own sin.
Second, even for unbelievers, to behave in a moral way either because it is the right thing to do or to avoid punishment. We call this a curb, as a curb on the road keeps your car going straight either because you steer to avoid hitting it or it bumps you back in line after you hit it.
Third, for believers, to show us how God wants us to live. When we want to live as God's people, we need a guide to show us how to love God and our neighbor.
Gospel is the promise of God's grace and forgiveness.
So this can be seen in Genesis 2 and 3. After God creates the earth and man, he sets a law, don't eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die. So he sets it as a guide for them and also a curb, if they don't follow it out of love and trust, then follow it to avoid being punished.
They decide to break the law so God returns and pronounces on them the punishments that He had warned them of, but He also promises to send a savior to fix all of this.
That promise is the first Gospel [and] is repeated to Abram/Abraham, and Moses, and David, and the prophets.
Since God always keeps his promise, the faith in God's promise that he would send this savior is the same faith that we have now that Jesus was that promised savior. [Believers] before and after are believing in the same promise for God to provide the way of forgiveness from sin and to eternal life, undoing the curses brought on us by Adam and Eve.
Some scripture is just historical story.
Sometimes whether a passage is law or gospel depends on your perspective. “I am with you always, even until the end of the earth.” As a believer, that sounds good, except when I want to sin and don't want God with me. For an unbeliever, that always sounds like law, a policeman following them around, writing down every sin that they commit....
Your friendship and a growing appreciation for the sacraments was what attracted me to Lutheranism. What unique contributions do you believe Lutherans can make to other Christians and the culture today?
We hold a connection to the older tradition that many newer churches have lost and a faithfulness to scripture unbound by human reason, particularly with God working in the sacraments....
We see the sacraments as God working through the physical elements, not as our own works.... As physical beings, we need physical reminders of God's work of forgiveness. In the water of baptism, God is washing us clean of our sins and preparing us to be clothed in the robes of righteousness on the last day. In communion, we receive Jesus body and blood also to forgive our sins, washed again in his blood, and to be strengthen in our faith that he is with us always. When we feel like he is far away, we can go to communion and be physically reminded of the spiritual truth. Yes he is there. I tasted it.
I don't need to make up any other ways to help my doubts, God has already given me these.
Also, our focus on law and gospel reminds us that even though we may not feel it or think it, we need to be regularly reminded of our sin, our need for a savior, and that God has kept his promise. He did send his own son, and he will take us to be with him.
I think that can be lost at other churches.
I think that being connected to the older traditions can give us an opportunity to disconnect from the world of immediacy and quickly changing fads and remind us of the things that are timeless, even before Christ. In a more and more hectic world, hopefully, an hour a week can give us an opportunity to let God refill us with his peace and grace.
If you were going to recommend three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?
First off would be the Bible, where God has revealed himself to us. Especially his son whom John calls the Word. God is bigger than the Bible, but everything that we need to know he has revealed to us in his Word.
Second would be “The Book of Concord.” The Lutheran confessions that guide us to understand the Bible. They help to cut through the confusion and put forth what the Bible teaches and what it does not, starting with Luther’s “Small Catechism,” which can be read separately and is usually presented as the starting place for young and new believers.
It is hard for me to choose another book that represents my understanding anywhere close to those two, but I do enjoy C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. He interweaves the atoning death of Jesus into the story of the wardrobe. He also drops other Easter eggs of theology throughout the books, baptism in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and eschatology in “The Last Battle.”