Monday, August 2, 2010
Narrow or Wide or Neither
We have spoken long and pointedly as a Synod about such a broad orthodoxy, suggesting that it betrays what orthodoxy is and ultimately forsakes what Lutheranism believes, teaches, and confesses. Our unity as Lutherans is less a matter of agreement between parties than it is a common agreement on our Confessions, what they say and how they are lived out within the life of the Church. I do not believe that Missouri is in immanent danger of succumbing to the broad definition of orthodoxy that is practiced in the ELCA and to the diversity of beliefs and practices that the ELCA has declared no impediment to unity with others with whom they might disagree.
But there is another side to this. There are those who would say that the path of orthodoxy is very narrow with no shoulder along this road of belief and practice. They would see faithfulness as always more important than unity and do not care how that faithfulness is interpreted by the world. Some of them glory in being called sectarian and rigid. For some of these folks, the communion fellowship they are most comfortable with is only as long and as wide as the local congregation. They may be members of a church body but, in protest against some within that church body whose practices and beliefs differ, they refuse communion. These folks tend to make everything a confessional issue and an article on which the Church stands or falls.
The orthodoxy of these folks must be mirrored throughout the other congregations of their church body in the very same language, form, and practice in order form them to be satisfied. Some of them insist upon a particular hymnal or liturgical order as evidence of this orthodoxy. Some of them refuse to accept local, pastoral discretion in decisions of who will be admitted to the Lord's table or who participates in the Divine Service (lay, men, women, etc.) and to what degree they may serve the liturgy -- assisting the Pastor.
I do believe that there are those like these within Missouri who would like to control and dominate the discussion in such a way that there is no real conversation except a willingness to agree to their terms and terminology. I worry about those whose orthodoxy is so very narrow and who see the boundaries of fellowship as very close. I worry about the idea that this orthodoxy must be policed and enforced and that infractions must be publicized and punished. I worry about the lack of trust which makes people who are pretty much on the same side still suspect -- if there is but one area or one practice which deviates from their definition of what is good and right and faithful.
At the same time I would posit another choice. I believe that orthodoxy is not such a wide path that error must be tolerated or that diversity must be allowed for the sake of outward unity. I believe that orthodoxy is not so narrow that one particular moment in time is the glimpse of our glory. I believe that orthodoxy is clearly and carefully defined. That it is creedal and confessional and that this orthodoxy is wonderfully expressed and faithfully passed on in the Lutheran Confessions. I believe that the goal of unity is inherent in this confession -- not the false unity of conflicting beliefs which are ignored but common truth which is celebrated. I believe that these confessional documents attest to this unity not only with Scriptural passages but with the unity of early fathers of Christianity and throughout the generations who have spoken this truth with conviction but also with love.
Satis est... we say. It is enough. Agreement in the Gospel and its articles and the Sacraments and their usage. We can disagree about the usefulness of structures. Some may have bishops and some may not. We can allow for pastoral discretion to put these in place locally. That is not license for Pastors to do as they please but the trust of those who believe that in specific situations different choices may be made that do not break the bonds of fellowship. We can allow for different practices with respect to worship. Some may use bands and others organs -- as long as the common form and its content are in agreement.
I do not believe that the path of orthodoxy requires us to inform upon one another or make public the private disagreements that do arise. BUT I DO believe that we are bound to provide and accept the fraternal counsel of our brothers and sisters in this faith when our practices and beliefs move us to the fringes and threaten the bond of unity that exist. I do not believe that the path of orthodoxy is a given but the fruit of an ongoing conversation in which Scripture and the Confessions provide the direction and the boundaries of what will be accepted and what will not be tolerated. BUT I DO believe that the Scriptures and Confessions are not so vague and their interpretation so wide that there is no abiding truth and stance of Christian faith and orthodoxy. The catholic tradition of definition and practice is the legacy of faithfulness that speaks to and helps us restore what threatens our unity and identity today. I do not believe that the orthodoxy is framed by one set of terms or one snapshot of history that we must return to in order to be faithful. BUT I DO believe that history provides for us examples of how faithfulness was applied to specific challenges and needs in ways that can help us address the challenges and needs that arise in our own time and place.
I worry very much about those who would steal the Church away with a rigid ideal that must be conformed to by those who would walk together and I worry very much about those who flaunt their relationships with their brothers and sisters in this walk and do what they please. All things may be possible but not all things are beneficial. At times we restrain ourselves for the sake of the others. I believe in, what might best be described as a generous orthodoxy -- if I can steal a term away from Brian D. McLaren. (I am not endorsing his work or position but stealing the term from him.)
I believe this generous orthodoxy is best revealed in the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is best characterized by a collegiality of clergy, in honest conversation, and with a shared passion for and commitment to be the people of this vibrant and dynamic confession. It is this that I hope for in Missouri, though there are those on both sides of this path who are seeking even now to co-opt the agenda of our church body. It is my hope and prayer that those elected in Houston will be given the opportunity to put this conversation forward, to frame our orthodoxy within the generous face of grace, while being steadfast in faith and confession. And I believe this is the path toward our resurgence as individual congregations and a church body.