A long while ago, I was very distressed about the divisions in the church.
Except I actually wasn’t. Divisions in the church distress me no more than Pepsi machines not dispensing Vanilla Coke (on the other hand, Coke machines not dispensing Vanilla Coke is very sad indeed).
Humans are flawed. Humans are unique. Their flaws, therefore, tend to spread out in a wide variety of patterns. Short of direct brainwashing from God, denominations are inevitable. This has never disturbed me.
But it does disturb people I care about, and I, in a quest for affirmation that I didn’t actually need (but thought I needed), was forced into a position of actual emotional distress by the fact that distinctive differences between doctrine are a necessary result of living in a fallen world, and these differences cannot be resolved or worked around unless we are willing to acknowledge they exist and give them names, and the fact that the family I was worshiping believes that letting little things like doctrine get in the way of unity is the ultimate evil.
Which is a doctrine that gets in the way of unity. Honestly, if we really believe that unity is more important than doctrine, we should all just go Roman Catholic. They can draw a fairly straight line, historically, from Peter to the latest Pope. Any non-Roman is non-Roman either because he believes that while the historical line is straight, the doctrinal line diverges, or else because Christianity is in no way actually meaningful to the person.
No? Not going back to Rome? Then you obviously either believe there is at least one doctrine worth standing your ground over, or else that sect supersedes creed in some way (i.e. brand loyalty).
Anyway, the tension in my post was not a genuine tension, but an excellent example of self-deceit. I am not even slightly uncomfortable with the disagreement that exists within the church. My true discomfort was that my open-eyed devotion to the quest for truth would be seen by the Family as offensive, and I did not want to offend them.
But it is definitely true that I dislike being called Lutheran. I don’t like the implication that I follow Luther, when really I am trying to follow Christ to the best of my ability. I draw my doctrine from the Scriptures, not from the Book of Concord. But then I turn to Concordia and discover that it’s already printed there.
I don’t even think Luther’s Small Catechism is a superlative summary of the faith. I think in many ways it’s dated, making statements that were clear in its time, but which have been rendered ambiguous by the proliferation of the modern and post-modern salesman/entrepreneur brands of Christianity. I think it could certainly have been done better, and it absolutely was not inspired by God. But I lack the skill to do better myself, and I find that if I take the text as the author intended (rather than as a modern American would first see it), I cannot much disagree with it, so I continue to use the Small Catechism.
While the Lutheran’s I’ve run into have often seemed quite happy with the label, I’ve always found it’s chafed.
Then, I learned that the official position of the Lutheran church is it does chafe.
We wanted to be called Roman Catholic. The Pope kicked us out.
Then we wanted to be called Evangelical, as our distinguishing doctrine was salvation by the work of Christ alone and not ourselves — truly good news for anyone who has tried to do something good and honestly examined the results.
But other Reformation splinters were also calling themselves Evangelical, even though they had entirely different beliefs.
We tried Reformed. Same problem.
But if you said “Lutheran,” everyone knew what you meant. It was an insult — “you follow Luther, not Christ”, but it was a clear identifier, and you need clear identifiers to have meaningful conversations about something. So eventually, we went with it.
This bit of history helps, for me, because it makes ‘Lutheran’ a category on the same level as ‘Thomist’. A Thomist is a Roman Catholic who accepts most (but not necessarily all) of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theological explanations. A Lutheran is a Roman Catholic who accepts most (but not necessarily all) of Martin Luther’s theological explanations. And sure, Rome has disowned us. And sure, much of modern Lutheranism, steeped as it is in salesmanship and liberalism, would not go back if Rome, er, reformed; but a true Lutheran (that is, one for whom the name ‘Lutheran’ is a reference to Luther, and not a reference to the local ELCA church) is a Roman Catholic without a Pope. A Roman Catholic who would gladly follow the Pope, if only the Pope went back to the role of Head Bishop instead of allowing his flock to trust in Him rather than Jesus.
Of course, it’s not that easy. Doctrinal distinctions have only multiplied, and I very much doubt the church will be unified until Christ Himself comes back to do it by hand.
Nor will I be very surprised, when that happens, to learn my beliefs on several fronts are inaccurate.
But I now understand that Lutheran is not shorthand for ‘follower of the church of Luther’, but ‘Luther’s fellow Roman Catholic who cannot stand for the abuses within the church.’ Or, for short, Lutheran Catholic.
It’s a small distinction, and one I don’t recommend using in conversation, as it will only serve to confuse the issue for anyone who hasn’t followed this train of thought (which is almost everyone), but it is a mental shorthand for a great deal of weight off my chest. My faith did not start in Germany. I am simply a Catholic whose understanding of a bunch of Greek letters and biographies lines up in large measure with the understanding of a German Augustinian monk.