Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Good Shepherd Church of the Augsburg Confession

Today and yesterday in our congregational bible study of 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, I offered an analogy between Paul's complaint that some of the Corinthians were saying, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or even, "I follow Christ," and our own habit today of naming our denomination after a founding person or theological approach (in my case, Lutheran). Of course, not all "Lutheran" churches call themselves Lutheran. See, for example, the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia. Nevertheless, many churches name themselves after a person or an approach to church leadership, structure, or theological commitment, and even if they don't, they name themselves by their non-relationship to that approach, as non-denominational or even undenominational. 

The conundrum is deep and longstanding.

The Corinthians text indicates that often, even if we claim to not have a faction or group with which we associate, we still do. Thus he identifies a group claiming "I belong to Christ." Certainly all the Corinthian Christians would have attempted to claim that, while perhaps meaning different things. To make the claim in such a way becomes to divide Christ.

I hear something similar to this today when people say, "I don't have a specific way I read the bible--I just read the bible." Or, "We aren't a denomination, we're just Christian." Such a comment tends to elide and dismiss the historical narrative in which each of us is unavoidably situated, and the hermeneutical worldview that's operative in our lives.

This has left me thinking that perhaps we ought to begin naming ourselves by the confessional documents we use as our guiding hermeneutical approach to Scripture, rather than naming ourselves after Luther himself. An irony of calling ourselves Lutheran is that Luther himself hoped no one would use his name as the title of a movement. He wrote, “I ask that [people] make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then could I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have [people] call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold” (Luther’s Works, 45:70-71).

Luther’s sentiment on this point is a strong echo of John the Baptist’s declaration, “I am not the Messiah… I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:20, 27). Lutherans exercise a necessary humility about themselves as Lutherans in emulation of John the Baptist and Luther. Instead, “Lutherans exist primarily to do what the church catholic should seek to do in every time and place: shape the lives of Christian people in faithful obedience, and be the voice of Christ in and to the world" (Gilbert Meilaender, First Things, February 2011). That's about right, and whenever I say I'm Lutheran, what I really mean to say is that I'm catholic, small "c."

However, that being said, when I say I'm Lutheran, I think I am also celebrating some certain Lutheran distinctives, not least of which is that we are a group of Christians uniquely situated for, and passionate about, ecumenical conversation. We tend to have a lot in common with Roman Catholics as well as evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox and mainline protestant, and lots of groups in between and nearby. I love that about us, and think that by calling ourselves Lutheran, we aren't setting ourselves apart but being honestly who we are and therefore, surprisingly, more available to be Christian neighbors than if we tried to hide or disguise our Lutheran-ness.

I also kind of think Lutherans are eccentric, and there's not enough Christian eccentric-ness going around. Today I received a great bumper sticker in the mail from a Lutheran singer-songwriter, Nate Houge. It's now stuck to my laptop, and reads, "Keep Church Weird." That's just about right. Lutherans have a spiritual role in the wider eocumene of keeping church weird, not as religious as it might otherwise try to be, and therefore hopefully more honest and faithful.

But going back to the name itself, what if we got rid of "Lutheran" and honored Luther's wishes? This could be awkward, because my own congregation would have to become Good Shepherd Church of the Augsburg Confession, which is really long to write out and is unpronounceable as an acronym--GSCotAC. At some point, we'd probably have to pick a new and trendy name like "Reunion" or "New Song" or "Vintage Church" or "Prairie Home." That could become a long conversation!

Furthermore, it would be very confusing to many members of our denomination, the ELCA, because many Lutherans think Lutheranism is something like ethnicity, best served with lefse, and don't actually know that Lutherans are Lutherans because they are confessional, and confessional especially in their commitment to the unaltered Augsburg Confession together with a variety of other confessional texts located in our Book of Concord. In fact, I'd love to do an informal survey. When was the last time a congregation you know of conducted a study of the Augsburg Confession, and when was the last time you read it? My own answer: fall of 2009. And the last group I knew who studied it was the confirmation class during my internship.

All that being said, where Paul actually goes in his letter with this issue is to say that, for his money, he is going to know Christ and him crucified, and nothing else, with the Corinthians. If Paul has a denomination or confession, it is that Christ came and taught us that the foolishness of the gospel and the weakness of God is salvation and life. God is not where we expect, with the rich and powerful and successful. God is not even found through special signs or wisdom teaching us how to live our best life now. God is instead on that cross, that tired and abused man Jesus, and later continues in the world in solidarity with the weak and suffering ones through the power of that man's Spirit, the one God raised from the dead. I tend to think the flip side of this kind of confessionalism is a commitment to the Works of Mercy. But that for another post.


  1. Anonymous11:47 AM

    This post certainly shows the difference between the ELCA and the Missouri Synod churches. If I'm not mistaken, the ELCA does not elevate the Augsburg Confession or the Book of Concord to the status the LCMS does (equal to scripture). I'm not saying either one is right, but I agree, I wish Lutherans would begin identifying and seeking to understand their own historical documents rather than simple cultural stereotypes.

  2. I'd guess there are many, if not most, Lutherans who have never heard of the Confessions, or at least not laid eyes on even one word of them. I'm a dyed in the wool Lutheran, graduated from a Lutheran college, and the most I've ever read about them is when some Lutheran bloggers of another stripe use the confessions to slam the ELCA.

    Some time ago, a young couple who lived in our area because of a job at an ELCA related organization, were intending to join our congregation. They became very active, but would not officially join because they looked into what our constitution says. It talks about the Confessions. They refused to join something that bows to something besides the Bible.

    But do the rest of us in our pews, and in the pews of most Lutheran churches, know what we have "joined" when we belong to a congregation? I highly doubt it.