Saturday, May 15, 2010
Can we not agree?
We Lutherans should be in a better position to answer these questions -- better than a Presbyterian or Methodist or Anglican -- since we are a confessional Church. We have a book of Confessions that speak over time and in every age the same tenets of what is believed and what is condemned. Because of this book of Confessions, we are less subject to the opinions or feelings or trends of the age or moment but more anchored and grounded in words that speak clearly. At least you might think so.
What has happened is that the clear words of those Confessions have become merely a starting point for discussion and not a ending point of our statement of what we believe, teach, and confess. Much as what has been done with Scripture over time, has been done by Lutherans to their own Confessions. For example, just as easily as it is for a church body to say about what Scripture clearly says But that is not what it means so it is easy for Lutherans to read their Confessions and then insist But that is not what it means,
As an example, the Confessions speak of Scripture not as a book, or rules, or knowledge, or principles, but the living voice of God who speaks and things happen (as He did in creation). Yet Lutherans have tried to adopt the Fundamentalist understanding of a word that is primarily a set of propositions that must be accepted and believed. Or Lutherans have learned the language of the Evangelicals in order to speak of Scripture as a guide book toward better marriages, better children, better families, better jobs, better life today. Scripture has become a motivational book, a psychology text, and inspirational story which you can apply to your life to achieve your hopes and dreams. Or Lutherans have learned the language of the Protestant mainline folks who use Scripture as a principle of love, acceptance, tolerance, and freedom to justify things that stand in radical opposition to the clear word of the text of the Bible. So, therefore, the Gospel principle is used to reshape morality, identity, and Christian purpose in this world with justice, liberation, and advocacy replacing the proclamation of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ.
We might also speak of worship in the same way. Where the Confessions speak conservatively of the form of the Western Mass (the Ordo) as being that which is not abolished but observed with greater devotion than their opponents and of the keeping of ceremonies and ritual and church usages (the Church Year for example) that do not distract from or deny the Gospel, Lutherans have heard generic principles to justify just about everything. The Great Commission and the need to fill the pews has led some Lutherans to do whatever works on Sunday morning. Others have made personal preference for content and style as the major criteria for what happens on Sunday morning so that the music sounds like what folks hear on the radio and do what they do in the movie theater or in front of the TV -- watch. Others have made the drama of the liturgy its most important point and do a fine job with aesthetics yet without confidence that the liturgy is the means of grace (where the Word and Sacrament do what they can and have been established to do and impart to us Jesus Christ and all His gifts).
Or we might speak of the way Lutherans talk of ministry as if it had nothing to do with the Office appointed by Christ to impart the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments, and more to do with what people like to do, feel they can do well, and therefore must be given a place to do (generally within the Sunday morning setting).
Or we might speak of music as the servant of the Word now become at least as important as the Word or even more important than the Word so that how something sounds to the folks in the pews becomes determinative of its use more than what it says.
So if we know it when we see it, we should also know it when we do not see it. At least you'd think so. And this is the crisis of our Lutheran Church today -- that our understanding of what is Lutheran and what is not has shifted away from the Confessions and dwells more in the realm of personal identity, choice, and preference. What we like is Lutheran and what we don't like is not.
For about 50-60 years, Lutherans have been in a period of confessional and liturgical renewal that has born much fruit. We have rediscovered our evangelical and catholic identity by seeing who we are and how that is manifest on Sunday morning through the lens of the Confessions. With all of this rediscovery and its renewal of our faith and life, we have Lutherans shopping in surrounding churches for what looks or feels good to them (or what they think will improve the numbers). I am sad that we are willing to jettison what we have spend decades rediscovering. I am sad that we have elevated earthly success over faithfulness in doctrine and practice. I am sad that what we are left with is such a confusing mess, that Lutherans are doing what seems good in their own eyes and the rest of us cannot even agree on what should NOT be done in the name of Lutheran, much less what SHOULD be done...