Monday, February 24, 2020

We don't want to and you can't make us. . .

There is and has always been a little bit of a childish streak in Lutherans.  We are so loathe to have rules that sometimes we appear downright chaotic.  We are so adverse to requirements that our first inclination is to antinomianism.  Nowhere is the more true than when it comes to the ministry and the liturgy.

If the bishops would be true bishops [would rightly discharge their office], and would devote themselves to the Church and the Gospel, it might be granted to them for the sake of love and unity, but not from necessity, to ordain and confirm us and our preachers. . .Smalkald Articles; Part III, Article X. Of Ordination and the Call.  [emphasis added]

This is not from the pen of the more conciliatory Melancthon but from the fiery hand of Luther.  And yet it is clear. If bishops would be true bishops, we would have bishops  -- for the sake of love and unity.  But you cannot make us!  As soon as you say we must, we say we must not.  Now sometimes this is salutary.  Here the Reformers are making a point.  The distinction between bishops and priests evolved over time and was not the same in the early church as it had become at the time of Luther (or our own time!).  They would grant the evolution of the office and have bishops and even accept the Roman bishops if they would be real bishops.  Here Luther points to the essential role of chief teacher and preacher of the faith.  While some may quibble with the way Luther put it, historians would be hard pressed to disagree with how the office evolved over time.  As to whether the evolution of the office was of the bene esse of the church or the esse is another matter.

Yet as truthful as it might be to make this distinction, the idea has grown in Lutheranism that for the sake of love and unity is not all that important.  Some would bristle at the idea of bishops and insist that is not kosher for Lutherans.  Our divergent liturgical practice reveals that unity and love is second to individual expression (and here I am not talking about adding ceremonies to the liturgy but abandoning any hint of the liturgy and certainly not using the traditional hymnody of the church).  And, by the way, evangelical wannabes are not the only ones who do this.  Some of us traddies also appreciate our freedom to snub our noses as love and unity and do what we please.  Again, I am not all that concerned with additions to the Divine Service as much as I am omissions and, even worse, the elimination of the liturgy. 

To get a room full of Lutheran pastors to agree on anything is a monumental achievement when it comes to anything like vestments, liturgy, clerical collars, or the Office of the Pastor (and Bishop).  We are sometimes like a room full of rebellious children insisting that "you can't make me."  So what has happened?  Pastors dress their taste and their offices may not at all be evident from the way they look.  Congregations (led by pastors) worship according to their taste and their denominational identity may not at all be evident from what they do on Sunday morning.  Love and necessity apparently don't count for much and we all tend to do as we please.  But then we complain about the lack of brand loyalty among Lutherans and how hard it is to find a church that fits your taste. 

From where I sit, the old attitude of we don't want to and you can't make us has not born much good fruit for us and our great attempt to cover it with a grand theological word (adiaphora) has only hardened the divisions among us.  Kyrie Eleison.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Luther is saying that if Catholic bishops would teach the Gospel correctly, we might concede to allow them to ordain Lutheran pastors, as a human—yet not necessary—custom of the Catholic Church. To assert that Luther here means simply that if bishops teach correctly then we will have bishops is a gross misreading of the text.

Now, if we don’t have bishops, there is no love and unity involved in bringing them back. Luther’s appeal to unity is within the framework of Scripture’s mandate that there be no division among Christians. The reality was that Luther had already been excommunicated in 1521, an event that will be ironically “celebrated” jointly by the LWF and Catholic Church in 2021.

Our divergent liturgical practice simply reveals that we have no regional (Thuringian, Bavarian) or national (Swedish, Danish) living identity that defines us as Lutherans. This tabula rasa is disconcerting. We used to say, “Lutherans do such-and-so.” No longer. Some Lutherans want to worship like Nondenominationals. Some want to recreate 1517 Catholicism with Lutheran Justification thrown in. Neither makes perfect sense, since neither connects to what Lutheranism actually WAS for 500 years. Old Lutherans, Rationalists, and Unionists alike wore black vestments. Pietists wore chasubles. Swedes worshiped like Catholics, while banning incense and prayers to saints. One could argue that there is more “brand loyalty” today than among Lutherans as a whole in the past.