Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Being Lutheran In Spite of Ourselves

The thing about being Lutheran is, we never are. 

It's really odd, we're one of the few global Christian movements named after its founder. Except Luther isn't our founder, and he never wanted a movement named after him.

So we're Lutheran, but shouldn't be, or can't be. Yet we are. It's a paradox.

Well, at least on this point we're all good, because if Lutherans like anything, it's a good paradox.
"We are simultaneously saints and sinners." 
"A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."
"We are Lutheran, and we aren't."
Here we are, these five centuries later, calling ourselves Lutheran, in spite of ourselves. In fact, we are gearing up to celebrate once again, at the end of October, Reformation Day. In 2017 we'll even celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the LutherJahre.

I find myself, as a "confessional" Lutheran, repeatedly in the awkward position of wanting to claim, for the sake of transparency, my perspective as a Lutheran, while also disclaiming it because this movement, whatever its origins and reasons, has introduced and widened the conflicts in Christian community of which we are all heirs.

I regret so very much the ways my own confessionalism has contributed to schism or lack of unity in the body of Christ. I desire so very much that the Christian community as a whole could lead with unity. 

Yet like the other paradox, of being Lutheran, so Christian unity is one. Much of what passes as unity is no such thing, it is a brutal unity. And sometimes those who divide the church do so for the sake of its unity.

Even those forms of church that attempt to transcend disunity--I am thinking here of non-denominational, post-denominational, or undenominational church--are themselves always, in another sense, also schismatic, typically because they are so very congregational, and also because they are almost always baptist (small b). 

Non-denominational Christianity is like an elephant wearing a sign that reads, "I'm not an elephant."

But lest I get all self-righteous as an ELCA style Lutheran whose denomination is in full communion with many other denominations, I have to remember that although we're in full communion with over half a dozen, there are dozens more with whom we have considerable tensions.

Peace in the Christian communion seems about as difficult as the camel threading of the eye of that needle. Impossible for us. Possible only for God.

I am thankful for some of the resources coming out of the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland, and the joint work between the LWF and the Vatican. Each of them in their own way carefully includes confession of sin and lament as proper aspects of any observance that will truly honor reform.

In our own context, our conference of ELCA congregations here in Western Arkansas is gathering the Sunday prior to Reformation Day for a Reformation Festival. As we do so, I'm trying to keep Philip Pfatteicher's insights into Reformation Day at the center of our planning and remembrance.
[Reformation Day] is to be understood and observed not as a triumphalist celebration as though all error was purged from the church forever in 1517. Rather, it is a day of humble recollection of the revolutionary and cleansing word of God, which is continually reforming and renewing God's church. It is a day that reminds God's people of the provisional nature of all that is less than God, and of the sovereignty of God alone, who is always free to tear up and destroy in order to build and plant anew. Reform and renewal is not a once-for-all-event, nor even an occasional eruption, but rather a continuing condition of the church.
This is a theme Lutherans aren't always particularly good at remembering. Except when we do.


  1. Clint -- one of your best posts ever. Love the clarity and passion herein.

  2. I don't understand what is so wrong with being congregational.

    1. Albert, that's a good point, and lots of folks would agree with you. I myself am probably a practicing "congregationalist" in the sense that the majority of my/our focus is at that level, at the level of the congregation.

      On the other hand, communio-ecclesiology and other movements had convinced me that thinking more widely and ecumenically is pretty central to Scripture and theology.

  3. Good post. I grew up and experienced multiple denominations (Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, and Presbyterian). In my experience, each seemed more concerned about what the "other" was doing or not doing well. I once heard a minister lament that as Christians in the "full armor of God," we seemed to be more busy with shining our armor or fighting amongst ourselves.