Friday, March 27, 2020

One of the differences between. . .

Every church body has its tensions. It seems that many of them are about worship, sex, and politics (secular and church).  But I have observed that there are some tendencies that seem to transcend the denominations.  Those who promote their denomination are generally called conservatives or even arch-conservatives or, in the case of Lutherans, confessional.  Often these have little to do with essential disagreement over doctrine and faith but center more upon practice and piety.  On the other hand, those who seem to minimize their denomination or confessional tradition are often called progressives or even liberals, or, in the case of Lutherans, missional.  They tend to find denominational structures, bylaws, and even the name itself.

You would be hard pressed to find a conservative Lutheran ditching the name Lutheran from their congregation's identity or omitting the hymnal or skipping the lectionary or eliminating fellowship arrangements in determining who communes or forgoing vestments or such.  It is not because these folks are company men but because they have confidence in their confession, they accept the wisdom of the church over the centuries, they are concerned about the tie between dogma and worship, they take equally seriously the words of Scripture that call us to mark divisions as they do the words of Scripture that call us to proclaim the Gospel. 

On the other hand, progressive Lutherans worry that the name Lutheran may be driving folks away and is not all that important anyway, that there are folks who do not like hymns or liturgy, that it is more important to be welcoming than to worry about communing worthily, that the traditions of the church are mere suggestions one is free to dismiss for whatever reason, and that the Gospel trumps everything in Scripture.  It is not because they have anything against their denomination but they see themselves pursuing a higher purpose -- not making members but bringing people into a personal relationship with Jesus.  This is their exclusive purpose and for the sake of this purpose, nearly anything and everything else takes a distant second place.

The Methodists are finding the tension between their own progressives and conservatives so impossible that they are ready to split.  Some Lutherans have already done so (from the ELCA to the NALC and LCMC).  Even Roman Catholics have serious tensions between those who want to see more openness to change and those who insist upon preserving not only the faith but the order of the past.  In some respects it is surprising that the LCMS has kept these competing tensions together (despite the fact that some on both sides would just as soon get rid of the other side).

In this respect, the words conservative and progressive seem to have less of a base in doctrinal difference (though a good case could be made that there are doctrinal differences between the positions) but have a great deal to do with how the church operates on Sunday morning and what things are important to the church's life and ministry.  In other words, these words and these differences are born of a presupposition that there is a difference between style and substance.  The Lutherans who are progressive insist that they are being true Lutherans (just as the conservative ones).  The same is true of the Methodists and Roman Catholics and, well, you insert the church body of your choice.  Yet that is precisely the problem.  Although nearly everyone seems to accept it, I am not at all sure that there is any truth or legitimacy to the idea that style and substance are different and can be separated.  In fact, I am pretty confident that the root of many of the problems we face across the scope of Christendom has to do with the idea that faith and practice, substance and style, doctrine and practice can be pealed apart and treated differently.  But then, as you probably know, most folks would call me a conservative or even arch-conservative.

1 comment:

John J. Flanagan said...

Often, when we look deeply into our values, we find that in some ways a conservative might lean liberal. The same thing with some progressives who may be conservative in certain areas. I consider myself conservative, but that is my default position mainly. I have to consider each situation and base my position on the merits. I think, as a Christian, we should look through the prism of God's word, which will help us keep things in a proper focus.