But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (ESV)
I cannot say what blessed Timothy found of the truth of these words but it should be apparent to most of us that those of whom St. Paul warned are more and more common among us. Some would call them the in name onlys who hold to the form and appearance of the faith they once believed and confessed but who have abandoned the faith into which they were catechized. They hold to the form because there is practical value still in American politics, society, culture, and religion to keep the name but long ago the content and what those names stand for have become political, societal, cultural, and even religious liabilities.
Personally I hate it when people, even commenters here, accuse folks of being Lutheran in name only. There is, after all, something essential self-righteous in policing who can rightfully bear the name. As we all know, the sins of others are always worse than our own sins -- even when it comes to such as this. Yet as the political season unfolds, it cannot be ignored that there are those who insist they are pious Roman Catholics and yet who countenance abortion. The old saw about being personally opposed but about governing with the national conscience is a rabbit hole. Either you are for or against life. But it is not only the baby in the womb who suffers the neglect of the politician. The aged in nursing homes, the mentally ill, and those who decide their lives are no longer worth living escape the protection of life's sacred character and are allowed latitude to end what is precious in the Lord's sight.
And as the society and culture around us splinter into advocacy and hate groups of one kind or another (the label may depend upon if you agree with them or not), we run the risk of increasing violence. It will be directed against those who hold to the teaching unless they are willing to countenance the catechesis of the Church as something private and ineffective in forming their own opinions on the matters before them. So the militant view of those who would normalize every kind of sexual orientation or attraction threaten to undo the easy peace churches and people have had with doctrine and truth. Soon those in name only will have to choose either the name or to be swept along with the flood of change and new normalcy that is being sought.
With respect to churches, the integrity of the confession is at risk for more than Lutherans. For much of Protestantism it is already long gone and the shell remains with the interior a mess of conflicting and confusing beliefs. For Rome, the once central unity with the Pope had covered differences in teaching and practice that are now threatening to overshadow papal authority. Even the East is not some monolithic rock of doctrine and faith. But my concern is Lutherans. While it is easy to mark the differences between the ELCA and the more conservative Lutheran branches, within every Lutheran body there is conflict and confusion. The ELCA tries to look catholic with bishops and the liturgy but scratch the surface and you find this is an appearance that masks a great disconnect with creed, confession, and doctrine of the faith of the fathers. Missouri tries to hold a theoretical unity that is challenged by more and larger congregations appearing evangelical in practice but we all know that we cannot long countenance a confession which is divorced from practice. We do not know what will happen among us but time is slipping away.
So in the end, the in name onlys are a real problem. They are a problem for all traditions and jurisdictions of Christianity. Far from encouraging unity in generalities, this hesitance to embrace specifics weakens all of Christianity and confuses the world as to who we are and what we believe and what we have to offer those not of the Kingdom. For too long we have attempted to keep the in name onlys if only for the sake of size and numbers and the continuance of the image that things are good in Jerusalem. That too is a problem. For as we attempt to paper over our differences, we weaken our commitment to the Word that endures forever.
Before I end, let me warn against the self-righteous who take it upon themselves to supervise the doctrine and practice of others. We do not need bounty hunters who work outside the structure. We need faithful episcopoi who will do their job. We also do not need to make the funnel any narrower than it must be or we will make the Church no larger than each of us and those we can convince to follow us. Such an individualistic and person centered approach cannot last either. No, we must be, as the Augsburg Confession reminds us, true to the catholic faith believed and practiced, suspicious of novelty and discerning of innovation, lest in the name of creativity we lose our claim to faithfulness.