Why be Lutheran? What does it really mean to be Lutheran? Is it simply a meaningless, nominal designation for followers of Jesus Christ? Some contend that a better understanding would actually be that it’s really just a label for those who follow Martin Luther. There is some truth to this, but it misses the point of who Luther was and what he confessed.
But then, what about Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and the ever-present nondenominationals who say, “We are just Christian,” to name a few more?
If Jesus Christ is really the center of all “Christian” denominations, are such labels really necessary or even helpful? Why all the division? In the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”
It would be nice. It even sounds rather biblical, doesn’t it? But, as some are apt to point out, when the Bible is mentioned, there is no shortage of differences: from Augustine, Aquinas and Anselm, to Wesley, Walther and Warren (Rick), differences have been notably present among those who are called Christian. Today it remains the same.
In fact, there is a popular phrase now used by many Emergent Church members wherein they define themselves not as Christians, but rather, as “disciples who follow in the way of Jesus” (from a 2006 interview I had with emergent church author and guru Doug Pagitt).
Some even intentionally try not to talk about “Christianity.” (For example, see emergent author Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz). However, it appears that what the “way of Jesus” actually means depends on which Emergent Church thinker, speaker, or writer is talking. It seems having no labels has simply ended up creating more. (Phyllis Tickle notes the significant differences among “emerging” and “emergent” churches, and their respective leaders, in her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why)..
If that is the case, then Lutherans, being true to their denominational label, are simply Christian disciples who follow in the way of Martin Luther’s clear and distinct confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.
To be sure, with such a confession of faith comes the inherent standards of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) to which such a denomination or label subscribes. And putting it simply, deviating from these subscriptions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy betrays the beliefs associated with them.
What is interesting is that the early church was no stranger to such issues. In fact this is one of the central reasons why the creeds were first created. Arius had his followers, though they did not formalize into a denomination. Constantine didn’t let them. However, to counter Arius, the way of Nicaea was also the way of Jesus as “true man” and “true God”—“very God of very God.”
The council that convened at Nicaea probably did not originally have in mind developing the Nicene Creed as an outreach tool to seek and save the lost (though I am certain it could be used as one), but it certainly proved helpful against Arius, and, in the end, aided in the furthering of an orthodox faith nonetheless.
In a like manner, could an evaluation of the North American church, including those who claim the name Lutheran, be of any help to the church today? Is there any constructive value to undertaking such a task? Or, does the zeal for orthodoxy and orthopraxy only foster power struggles and animosity?
What value would there be in such an endeavor, particularly in a denomination that already has a tumultuous recent history of power and politics? (For a recent assessment on the nature of power and politics in the Missouri Synod, see historian James C. Burkee’s book Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity.)
Interestingly, in an article titled “What is a Post-Christian?” (found in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World), Lutheran author Robert Jenson has some provocative thoughts about doing just this: “First, we must purge our churches themselves of almost-nihilism and abstracted Christianity. Or rather, we must pray God to purge us of them, for we plainly are not going to do it voluntarily. If God is thus merciful, our churches will of course get much smaller than they are.” Some will see this as inflammatory, others as prophetic.
Regardless, what Jenson calls for now undoubtedly happened at Nicaea. And, no doubt, that process was probably rather painful and messy. Yet, if we value the tradition and purpose for which the creeds were created, would it not then be the responsibility of the church to take an honest assessment and even prune a few branches if necessary? Didn’t even Jesus have something to say about this?
Note the aim here is not to go head hunting or become vitriolic or inflammatory, but rather to offer an honest, thoughtful, and theological assessment of those movements within the North American church which, unfortunately, cause a blurring in the vision of the church (across denominations) to the point that the mission of God is no longer visible.
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).