Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Mess We Call Lutheranism. . .

The shot heard around the world issued forth from a sleepy little village and a new university.  Until then, the man behind the pen was unknown to everyone.  Afterward, he would become an iconic figure -- sometimes vilified and sometimes worshiped as a hero.  He began with a call to reform which was forged in the kiln of  corruption and produced a vision of idealism.  Luther was not much of a realist when it came to church politics.  He actually thought that there would be a time and a place for the issues he raised to be honestly confronted.  He was not much of a realist when it came to the consequences of a call to reform.  He was actually shocked that people wanted to venture beyond his relatively modest proposals for renewal and reject nearly everything in the process (from the sacraments to the adornment of the church building).  He had hopes for a better church.  Don't we all.

The truth is that Lutheranism is a mess.  It is filled with problems.  Some have become like the radical reformers Luther opposed and cast off all shackles of moral truth and doctrinal integrity to mirror what is going on in the culture.  Some of them have rejected the conservative approach of Luther and turned Sunday morning into a guessing game, a variety show, and a unholy means of holy entertainment.  Lutheranism is a mess in both theory and practice.  Only a fool would deny it.

Some have left Lutheranism in pursuit of a better option.  They have exchanged the theory of Lutheranism for Rome or Constantinople.  I have to admit that in theory it seems like a better deal -- clearer lines of authority, a more uniform tradition of doctrine and practice, and unifying figures to draw the fringes back to the center.  But in practice neither Rome nor Constantinople is in much better shape.  There are strange things happening in the Mass on Sunday morning and there are more folks who were Roman Catholic than who are.  On the other hand, Constantinople often exchanges the particularity of its individual ethnic components for real catholicity.  The Greeks do not get along with the Russians and they respond in kind.  Jurisdiction is a big issue for the Orthodox and in America, anyway, it is a structural mess.

We all have cafeteria folks who pick and choose at the plates of tradition and identity put before them, building a church of their own creation, more about what they oppose than what they advocate.  Yes, Lutheranism is a mess.  Rome is also a mess and Constantinople is not far behind.

Some despair of everything and have given up "church" for an individualistic faith barely one person wide and deep.  Some have become private Christians whose faith is private and solitary.  Some have become the perennial complainers (perhaps you think me one of them) who enjoy picking at the Church as vultures pick away at a rotting carcass.  Some have given everything to remaking the Church, new for every age and generation without much to connect her to her past and bequeathing little but generality to the future.

If for the Church we believe, or perhaps more faithfully, in the Church we believe, it is hard not to give up.  But the Church will always be an imperfect creation moving too slowly toward the promise of her future.  The Church will always be filled with sinners, some better and some worse at resisting temptation.  The Church will always be better in theory than in practice.  Jesus knew this and so He prayed for her in His high priestly prayer.  But we have more than Jesus' prayers, as good as they are, we have the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  Christ is not theory to us but enfleshed in the ordinary of water, word, bread, and wine.  Therefore we have hope.  Therefore we do not despair.  Therefore we do not give up.

Fight or flight.  That is the choice -- on the grand scale of choosing the tradition, on the large scale of choosing the denomination, and on the small scale of the local parish or congregation.  Some have chosen flight.  They are no longer Lutheran or pick another set of letters that define what kind of Lutheran they are or they move from one parish to another.  I will not condemn them though I wish they would choose to fight -- fight for Lutheranism in practice that matches the theory in our Confessions.  This is my option.  I will go down fighting for virtue, for the cause of the Gospel, and for Lutheran practice consistent with Lutheran Confessional identity.

Yes Lutheranism is a mess.  Shoot, Christianity is a mess.  But I do not believe in or hang my hopes on an ism.  The Lord of the Church comes to set His table in the presence of our enemies for those who are sinful and unclean and therefore unworthy of a place at the table.  Christ, the suffering Savior who is obedient unto death on the cross, is our confidence and our hope.  As long as the Word and Sacraments are there, I refuse to flee, to give up, or to give in. 

I am not interested in a purity cult that sees doctrine as a litmus test.  I am not interested in the rule of reason or majority vote to determine what we will believe.  I am not interested in success defined by numbers or moral improvement.  I am a sinner -- and a big one at that.  As much as I loathe who I am and lament my flawed and failed life, my heart hopes in the God who has come for sinners.  My repentance does not prove me worthy or prepare me for the Kingdom but it does enable me to confess my sin, to desire what only the blood of Christ can purchase, and to pray that what God has declared me to be, I may also become.

I understand those who cannot fight anymore and who have flown the coop, so to speak.  But I am here to fight.  I will never be fully happy or at ease with this thing called Lutheranism or the particular variety of Lutheran I am but that is not because I have found something better.  It is because I am an idealist formed by the reality of grace for sinners, Christ present in the means of grace, and the promise that what He began, He will not abandon.  No, I am not happy with the mess that is Lutheranism but neither will I exchange one set of rags for another.  Until we obtain heaven and its glory, the bride of Christ will look pretty raggedy.  Recently Pope Francis said in a homily that the Church appears like widow (though she is not one) -- weak and lonely.  I get what he was saying.  I also get what Luther said about simil justus et peccator.  Much as I wish it were not so, that is where we are and where we shall be until we individually close our eyes in death or see Christ come to bring all things to their consummation in Him.  At some point in time I learned that this was enough even though the Church seems like a mess.  I hope you come to the same conclusion.


Unknown said...

Fellow Christians:

Please listen to this 35 minute audio message:
It is the first of a series of five messages named “DIY: Sharing Jesus”
You may see the entire list of messages at:
Questions or comments may be directed to me at
Or Pastor Dion Garrett at
Please and thank you

Fellow Sinner said...

Thank you. I needed this!