I must admit that it is a tantalizing question. Rome has both bellied up to Luther and distanced itself from him. Unfortunately, so have the Lutherans. In the wake of the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses, Lutherans have spent a goodly amount of time letting people know where they think Luther was wrong and where Luther needs to be clearly and unequivocally rejected (think Luther and the Jews here). In some respects, we are not sure what to do with Luther or which Luther we like best. He can be irritatingly, shall we say, earthy. He can be mind numbingly long winded. He can be strangely contradictory. He can be unfailingly bold. He can be catholic. He can be Protestant. He can be conservative. He can be radical. Is he the young Luther or the Luther of middle age or the old Luther? Such is the pursuit of academics attempting to systematize Luther and make him consistent (or consistently boring). As important as Luther is to the Lutherans (indeed to all Christians and to history itself), the Lutheran Church is not bound to his every word. We are bound to the Concordia, to the Book of Confessions. Luther is certainly a voice in those confessions and a figure who looms large over them but his writings are not the equivalent of the Book of Concord.
The next problem for Lutherans is what to do with the Book of Concord. We have argued for a very long time around Latin terms (quia and quatenus) because or insofaras. But perhaps the greater problem for us Lutherans is that our people are largely ignorant of these confessions so important that they inhabit the primary and unalterable articles of our constitutions and the pledges to them essential to both ordinations and installations of our clergy. How impactful can they be when we as a church body know them more by myth and legend than by sight or experience? This is even more true for clergy who promise fidelity to documents that they have read perhaps only once for a class and do not view as the guiding or boundaries words for them and their ministries. So if there is to be a viable Lutheran option it must be, well, Lutheran and it must flow from the foundational documents to which we have bound ourselves -- both on the level of the clergy and those in the congregations.
Along with this is the question of whether they describe or prescribe both faith and practice. There are many, even so-called conservatives, who insist that some, perhaps much, of what is proclaimed is descriptive of the Lutherans at the time and does not prescribe a practice that we ought to follow today. Herein lies the issue of the weekly Eucharist, the use of the liturgy, the church year, vestments, ceremonies, etc. While not really things indifferent, adiaphora have sparked more battles among us than the things that cannot be wished away or redefined. Yet even here remains a real question. Is the issue of the weekly Eucharist and the liturgy the same kind of question as vestments or how rich or simple the ceremonial that accompanies the Divine Service? Even some conservatives would insist that it is all wide open and rules cannot be written regarding their use even while they would affirm that these are indeed salutary.
While we are at it, the Lutherans also wrestle with those things that were not issues in the 16th century and so were not addressed directly within those confessional documents. While no one but an ignorant fool would challenge the idea that Luther and his followers presumed marriage of one man and one woman, that homosexual behavior was disordered and sinful, and that gender was not an indefinite concept defined by the individual, Lutherans have come down on different sides in modern times. Some might delight in writing off the more liberal brand as not really Lutheran but clearly they outnumber the confessional variety (at least in North America and Europe). Whether or not African Lutherans will swing the balance toward the confessional stance is a promising hope but not a certainty at this point. For now we Lutherans will have to deal with a landscape in which to those outside of Lutheranism the brand is socially and theological liberal. It may be a complaint of Missouri and Wisconsin and others that this is not the only form of Lutheranism but it is clear the numbers remain on the side of the Lutherans on the left.
Finally there is the issue of declining numbers. Whether you are in the ELCA and have seen a radical decline or in Missouri and seen a nominal decline, it is clear that the largest Lutheran body in America is those who used to be Lutheran (not all that different from many other denominational situations). Congregations are growing smaller but that is not the kind of growth that is sustainable. The ability of those congregations to maintain an full-time educated clergy is highly debated among us. The Lutheran birth rate is down about where it is for those who are not religious and this is not a good sign for churches that have historically depended upon growth through progeny. While few Lutherans are in the dark about the bleak forecast for our future, Lutherans passionately debate whether this can be rectified by being more Lutheran or less (with the less side seeming to be stronger now).
So, that might make you think I was pessimistic about our future. I am not. I believe that Lutheranism is viable not because we are doing a great job of making it viable but because this is the shape of catholic and evangelical faith. The Lutheran faith is in a stronger position than Lutheran jurisdictions and congregations. Rome is not in an enviable position. Orthodoxy isn't either. Protestantism is in chaos. Evangelicalism has become the domain of charlatans and is a sham of its once serious theological self. I am not sure that you can say that any of these as a faith is in a stronger position than its jurisdictions and congregations. Rome has the papacy for good or for ill and right now it is for ill. Orthodoxy is more an ethnic reflection than one of faith. Protestantism has caved in for lack of a real confession. Evangelicalism is more interested in numbers than faithfulness to Scripture, creed, or confession. I feel like Peter. "Lord, where can I go?"
So the end result is this. The Lutherans are correct. Where the Gospel is purely proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered, there is the Spirit calling, gathering, and enlightening the Church. Rome has been reformed over and over again and it has not corrected the abuses or the ills that Luther saw in his day or the cracks that Francis has made in its structure. To rush to Orthodoxy requires a culture transplant and without the ethnicity one remains somewhat on the outside and the curious problem of what to do with all the time that has passed since the last ecumenical council. I do not consider Protestantism or Evangelicalism worth a second look. So I will stick with Lutheranism and hope and pray that the Lutherans will give up their self-doubt and their isolationism and their tendency to borrow whatever seems to work from whomever appears successful in the moment, and try being Lutheran according to their Confessions. I will cast my lot in which those who are Lutheran heavy and not Lutheran lite (not because they hang on every word of Luther but because the Confessions do not merely describe a moment in time but expect and anticipate that those who confess like them will practice like them). Missouri is the last and best hope for Lutheranism in America and the African Lutherans seem to be coming to this judgment as well. So for all our problems, I am not ready to swim away. Even if Lutheran jurisdictions wither and die, Lutheranism will continue to survive. I just wish we Lutherans believed it enough to take it seriously on every level of our identity.
Now let me say, without equivocation, that the Lutherans cannot return to a pristine moment in time or look backward to find our anchor. The Confessions are not true simply in a historical sense but confess for then and now a faith that does not change. We cannot be our grandpa's church and face the future but neither can we be out of step with that past. We must face where we are and the issues before us and address them with the same confidence in our Confessions as did those of other times and places. Our future lies with a church renewed by her confessions, revitalized by the efficacious Word that accomplishes the purpose for which the Lord sends it, shaped by the Sacraments that deliver what they sign -- real presence and not a symbol alone, and a hope that compels us to live this new life as a holy vocation in but not of the world, doing the good that God has called us to do because of the good He has shown to us in Christ. When we begin doing that, our future will change. Yet, in any case, it is not institutional survival that is our goal but to live under Him in His Kingdom now and forevermore.