Monday, August 2, 2010

Narrow or Wide or Neither

There are many today who would argue that the path of orthodoxy and faithfulness is a broad and wide road, with room for great diversity of belief and practice.  They see unity as a higher goal and purpose than holding to a rigid or, in their view, narrow orthodoxy that will inevitably appear sectarian to the world and to large parts of Christendom.  These are the folks who would declare communion fellowship with those who disagree about the nature and manner of Christ's presence in the Sacrament.  These are the folks who would agree to disagree as long as they agree that it won't cause a problem for either side.  These are the folks who allow practices to vary as long as on paper sufficient agreement is declared.  The ELCA is case in point.  Communion fellowship exists by declaration and not by agreement and orthodoxy is wide enough to allow disparate and different points of view to co-exist.

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.


Pr. Chris Hinkle said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I truly appreciate this post and I am thankful that you see that the road has shoulders.

I just finished reading the BJS blog comments about the ACELC's stated purposes and their action to send letters to every LCMS congregation.

I came away painfully aware of how many are blind to the numerous scriptures that would warn them about their blindness to their own unwholesome attitudes and behaviors in this mess. They seem oblivious to the kind of spirit that is willing to sacrifice unknown numbers of people in the name of a militant folly that seeks a utopian, doctrinal perfection that is not possible here on earth. Nor, does it seem to matter to them that they are alienating those who would like to agree with them, much less do they seem to care about those who they wish to excoriate in an 'us versus them' style shoot-out at the OK Corral. It doesn't seem to dawn upon them the words "until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" includes them.

May God have mercy upon all of us and may God grant Pastor Harrison and the new administration extra measures of all good things needed in this mess.

Pr. D. Bestul said...

It seems to me, brother, that your generous orthodoxy is ambiguous enough to ensure that the synod of the future is little different from the synod of today...with the exception that we will have agreed to disagree about those things which have divided us.

All within our fellowship subscribe, unconditionally, to the Lutheran Confessions. That isn't the issue. How confessional Lutheran doctrine is put into practice ---how the substance of our Confessions impacts congregational practices and its worship style in such a way that practice is the consistent extension of doctrine--- is what needs to be addressed and defined by mutual agreement if the synod of tomorrow is going to be different than the synod today.

The vast diversity of pastoral and congregational PRACTICES has made us so theologically schizophrenic that we don't know who we are any more.

Concern: What --according to "generous orthodoxy"-- is the "common form and content" of a congregational service to be? How will its implementation create a more unified synod than we have today? If the 'form and content' of generous orthodoxy' is so broad as to include the worship form and content of the 2010 LCMS Youth Gathering, it's an inch deep theologically and a mile wide in what it endorses.....and that will be too 'generous' for many of us who are apparently too narrow-minded for generous orthodoxy.

I'm usually very appreciative of your insights. Perhaps I've misunderstood you, but this article gives me concern. Your advocacy of 'generous orthodoxy' seems to me to be so generous that the adjective will negate the noun.

Pastor Peters said...

The common form is the Mass with its ordinary and pericopes. This is what the Confessions received and commend (cleansed from the accretions that stole its sacramental focus)... We have this form and its content in the hymnals of Church, with its most current and richest form in LSB. No, this orthodoxy is not ambiguous. It is as specific as the received tradition and the very words of the Confessions but it is not a rigid orthodoxy that seeks to narrow the way further than the Confessions chart its course. My great fear is that we will not dig into the Confessions to define what is orthodox but will substitute the words of Lutheran theologians (which are well and good but not binding upon the Church). My other great fear is that we will go well beyond the Confessions in an attempt to bind orthodoxy to one particular expression -- when the Confessions do not themselves speak of this.

As an example, Missouri has spoken much about the call and little about ordination. So we have the effect of lay people authorized to serve in Word and Sacrament ministry -- a form of call yet without ordination. Such is foreign to the Confessions which speak much of ordination and little about the call and therefore preclude such lay "ministry."

ErnestO said...

I agree with Pastor Peters which to me means understanding the ordained office and what it does and does not confer, but also understanding our dignity as baptized laypeople and our own absolutely vital place in the Church and, most especially, in the world. At the altar, the pastor rightly presides. His proper sphere is the sanctuary and the rightly ordered worship of the Church. But in the world (that is, the 99.99999% of human life that happens outside the sanctuary), we laypeople preside. It is time we stopped fighting over the tiny amount of real estate that is not given to us by God and focused our energies on our monumental task of bringing the gospel to people no pastor, bishop or synod president will ever meet—the people we see every day.

Pr. Bestul said...

Thanks, brother, for your clarification. It's appreciated.

There's been such a rush as of late to put down confessional brothers who have fought the battle for so long and are, perhaps, a bit more zealous than necessary to bring about needed change in Missouri.

Many of us who have been pastors for three decades and more have seen so many years of our ministry overseen by the "Let's TALK together" agenda...'ad nauseam.' We long to be a part of a synod driven by a positive and energetic "Let's CONFESS together" agenda.

The hope of many is that those days may be seen during the days of the Harrison presidency.

Patience with the zealots of "Let's confess together" is as needed as it has been with those of 'let's talk together...some more."