Respectful Theological Dialogue

“Are you a missional church?” “Are you a confessional church?” “Do you care about the lost?”  “Do you care about doctrine?” So goes the questions for those in the Lutheran churches of North America. This is especially so for pastors. The political climate within many North American churches has the tendency to create allegiances­, “us” and “them.” This is often the case in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). “Which side are you on?” “Who do you support?” Or even more fun, “We have the Lord on our side, how about you?” As if somehow the Lord can be bent to any such allegiance.

Last time I checked, it was the Lord who gets to be the “boss,” and the way He went about being “boss” was by suffering Himself up on the cross to die for our sins. Those who would come after Him are called to pick up their cross and follow Him—pastors, parishioners, and pagans alike.

However, it seems that the trouble comes among those in the Holy Christian Church (the LCMS included) when we begin defining what the church is—what it looks like and how it should be done.

Some say it is done through missions. Others say through faithful ministry. Some say through purity of doctrine.  Others say through impassioned outreach. Must they be pitted against one another? Must they be done to the exclusion of the other? Does not all ministry, all mission, all doctrine and all outreach come from “the Holy Christian Church”—a church that is, by the way, made up of real confessing and believing people, living real lives in the midst of a real culture, filled with real sins, real pain, and real joy?

In the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod this uneasy tension has been present for decades. As a pastor, circuit counselor, and practitioner of theology, (our congregations are locally divided into clusters called circuits, where the circuit counselors convene monthly meetings between the brother clergy),  it has been readily apparent that this tension remains.

But perhaps, in some ways, this is a good thing. The recognition of each extreme may help to maintain a healthy balance for those in the middle majority and continue to provide needed dialogue regarding the doctrine and practice of twenty-first century North American Lutheran congregations, pastors, and missionaries, as it relates to the mission of the Holy Christian Church.

However, the unfortunate practice has not always been to dialogue, but to take sides, label, break the 8th commandment, and ultimately, to jostle for the power to control the dialogue and the perception of the church’s mission.

I happen to be a proponent of lifting up the historic doctrine and practice of the evangelical Lutheran faith of the LCMS. But I am remiss to do so by way of (political) power or by bullying. Inevitably, to gain power over someone means one has to disempower someone else. When this occurs, anger, hostility, resentment, and the feeling of being disenfranchised, are bound to set in, until the control of power inevitably swings back the other way, and then does the same to those on the other side of the aisle.

Rather, what I hope for, and what I am advocating for here, is a return to collegial and honest theological dialogue. This would mean a return to mutually respectful and intentionally candid dialogue about genuine evangelical Lutheran theology—its history and practice—conducted in love and truth, for mutual edification and Christian celebration.

Thus, for you quiet LCMS readers out there, I encourage you to dialogue with your brother clergy (or sister congregational members). Don’t simply speak with those whom you feel you have the most in common. Whether you consider yourself to be “confessional” or “missional,” the labels of “Lutheran” and “Christian” are the ones that bear the common ground. And it is here where the dialogue can begin.

Seek to dialogue, avoid creating heated debates or instigating arguments you know will prove unfruitful and less than sanctifying. That doesn’t mean a person backs away from the truth. Rather, my aim is to promote healthy and helpful dialogue. As the Apostle Paul urges: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29).

Therefore, my plea for you is to be intentional about dialoging with brother clergy (or fellow LCMS Lutherans) of a different perspective. But do so with all love, respect, and patience, with the desire to understand, and yet with the goal of lifting up what it means to be a faithful 21st century Lutheran church that desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


2 responses to “Respectful Theological Dialogue

  1. This is a difficult request. I would assume that a lot of the opinions that exist within the LCMS aren’t present to intentionally offend another’s point of view. I’m not a confessional Lutheran so that I can pound to the ground my contemporary counterparts. Unfortunately in my experience with Lutherans and Non-Lutheran Christians a like the discussion always seems to travel in the wrong direction. Either I’m put in the position to defend what I believe to be the most appropriate way for the Church to conduct itself or I attempt to start the discussion only to see it get heated. So my reaction lately is to prevent any such discussion. When a person forms an opinion about how something should be conducted it is very difficult to convince them otherwise. I for one hated being Lutheran and now I’m confessional and hope to enter the seminary, unfortunately that turn doesn’t happen very often. And the more difficult thing a person has to deal with is the notion that offending someone is a sin or something. People automatically assume that a disagreement with what they believe is a judgment, which is hardly the case.

    Personally I think that some of these problems are surfacing because the face and the mission of the LCMS is not being clearly expressed to her lay people. I believe that parishioners are in the dark about what exactly sets the LCMS apart from the rest of the Christian world. Even down to the Sacraments or our understanding of how a person comes to faith. I’d say a majority of Lutherans don’t have a correct understanding of these things and so the assumption is that we are like other Christian churches and so the separation between who we are is a bit fuzzy.

    My Pastor spent over a year taking us through Divine Service setting 1, explaining where the liturgy comes from and for what theological purpose it is set up the way it is. Now I can’t explain the amount of benefit I receive from the Divine Service. I think the LCMS is afraid to just come out and say that we are in align with the Church throughout all generations and we believe, teach, and confess that our doctrine is in line with the Scriptures more purely than the other denominations. We some how imagine that that is sinful arrogance. But we know that we don’t suggest those things because we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to, we claim them because we believe God has brought and kept the Church in this state of theological correctness. Do Christians exist in other churches? OF COURSE! I don’t think anyone would suggest that, but what we do suggest is that we carry the Scripture in its purity and ALL false doctrine should be avoided, right down the the theology of worship.

    I hope that I am not coming off as a person who is not willing to have a discussion but I want to look at this from a realistic point of view. We can attempt to avoid offense, disagreement, and argument but in the end that just can’t take place if a person wants to stand for what they believe is right. Let us not forget that Martin Luther, in the face of Roman persecution, refused to combine forces with Zwingli on account of doctrine even to the point of saying “You have a different spirit than we.”

    “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”

    • Marcus,

      Thank you for your honesty. To be sure, I recognize it is a tall order, particularly given the divisive intensity that can come with it. And in my own practice of this I fully admit that it has made my stomach turn a time or two. No one likes disagreement, nor to be the one who facilitates potential animosity. But I try not to let that make me shy away from having a respectful and collegial dialogue. My aim is not to offend, but rather, when the opportunity arises (the right time, right setting, and right attitude), my approach has been to respectfully engage people (pastors and lay people alike) with the premise of why it is they are, or desire to be, “Lutheran.” It is not that I am pushing a “I am right and you are wrong” mentality. But rather, one that comes from and desires to talk about the historic understanding of what it is to be Lutheran. Thus, I attempt to remove “me” and my “rightness” from the dialogue, and let the historic practices of Lutheranism guide the way.

      When issues foreign or new to Lutheranism are identified, we can then explore whether they are an adiaphora (something neither commanded nor forbidden by God), whether they flow from the culture more than Scripture, if they are from a “movement” foreign to the Lutheran confession and practice of the faith, or if they flow from a perceived “methodology” rather than clear “theology.” From here, the dialogue can then move in a direction of why one might want these foreign issues in a Lutheran church and what it is about the historic doctrine and practice of Lutheranism that does not address what the foreign issue is hoping to address, as well as how such issues might be in conflict with a Lutheran understanding of the doctrine and practice of the church. In the end, if the desire is to retain such practices, the onus rests on one to provide an adequate (and theologically acceptable) rationale for their departure from the historic doctrine and practice of the Lutheran Church, and to recognize that, should they desire to continue in such practices, (and here is the hard thing to say) they may be better served by joining a denomination who holds to those practices and beliefs, rather than trying to mix and match them in a Lutheran denomination, creating confusion and a muddling of the Lutheran confession of faith.

      This in no way aims to create an elitist or exclusive environment, but simply an honest one. Namely, where Lutherans can be honest about what it is to be Lutheran Christians, and those desiring something different can be honest about that, and then move accordingly, rather than trying to change what it is to be Lutheran.

      I am sure this was not the most adequate response. And I am sure someone may misunderstand what I am saying. But I think it is a starting point nonetheless. Thanks for your thoughts. Continue in your studies! Blessings.


      Rev. Woodford

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