Why do there still need to be Lutherans? In a time when there is a noticeable decline in attendance and participation in the life of churches, wouldn’t it make sense for all Christian communities to consolidate? We are closer now than we have ever been since the start of the Reformation five hundred years ago. In fact, the idea of Justification by God’s grace through faith no longer separates Lutherans from Roman Catholics.
After decades of ecumenical work following the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Joint Declaration on Justification was issued by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. The following excerpt highlights the agreement:
“The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” (you can access the complete document through the following links: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html or https://www.lutheranworld.org/content/resource-joint-declaration-doctrine-justification.)
It was a big step toward restoring the unity of the church and a cause of celebration. Not only did the Lutherans and Roman Catholics come together on the very issue that sparked the division at the time of the Reformation but other Protestant denominations also followed suit. According to Wikipedia,
“The World Methodist Council adopted the Declaration on 18 July 2006. The World Communion of Reformed Churches (representing the "80 million members of Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting, and Waldensian churches"), adopted the Declaration in 2017…On 18 July 2006, the World Methodist Council, meeting in Seoul, South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt the document.” (reference)
With such widespread agreement, which in of itself is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, why do we still need to be worshiping in separate communities? Can’t we just all squeeze together into one big church with different pews? If we share common understandings then why not a merger?
Two thoughts come to my mind. First, historical traditions and customs remain important. Although not central to the teaching and preaching of the gospel, each denomination and expression of Christianity has its rich background. In a variety of cultures and experiences, Christians engaged the Incarnate Word. Christ became ‘enfleshed’ in very different ways in Europe, North America, South America, throughout the Pacific, and on the African continent. Of course, the process was imperfect. Still, within each expression, each theological universe, and each adaptation the Spirit moved and revealed something of God. What if the diversity that we have among Christians traditions is a not a defect but a divine blessing? In that case, to let go of the particularities of tradition would be to lose something that is precious. Instead of compromise, merger, and the inevitable ‘watered down expression,’ what if we celebrated and honored the diversity of traditions and customs deeply as the work of God? What if we continued within our traditions in such a way that we allowed ourselves the freedom to learn from and incorporate the wisdom/experience of other traditions? From the organic mixing and blending of Christian expressions, we would all participate in the ongoing work of the Spirit.
If a desire to celebrate and honor diversity is one reason not to seek a physical merger of all Christian communities into one megachurch, then the particularity of our separate witnesses is another. What I mean here is that each Christian church has a particular witness and focus. Even though all Christian churches would acknowledge that grace is an important theological concept, progressive Lutheran church bodies have placed grace at the center of teaching, ethical deliberation, proclamation, and welcome. By grace, we have struggled through hot topics such as the ordination of women, homosexuality, abortion, advocacy, etc. We don’t always agree – in fact, we are often in very different places when it comes to things. But – by grace – we remain in the community. Further, we seek to imitate God’s grace even as we know that we will fall short of all efforts.
When a denomination lives out the particularity of its witness to Jesus Christ, there is something that benefits the larger Christian church. For example, communities that have ordained women bear witness to the whole church that women are not only qualified to lead, preach, teach but also have a unique perspective that we all need to hear. Though needed by all, this witness comes as a challenge and invitation to those parts of the church that continue to refuse to ordain women. I could offer many similar examples. Within the ELCA, the church that I continue to serve proudly, we can benefit from the prophetic witness and example of other Christian communities that are more attuned to dealing with issues of systemic racism.
There is always something to learn (and be challenged by) from the cooperative interaction between church bodies that are moving in slightly different directions with different focuses and passions. As long as we honor each other and seek to learn from each other (jettisoning the denominational arrogance of the past), then we have much to benefit from continuing in the particularity of witness.
I yearn for the day that ecumenical interaction can result in the sharing of the sacraments – joining hands at the table as we share in communion. At that table, which will more clearly reflect the heavenly banquet in which God prepares a feast for all people (Isaiah 25:6-9), we will celebrate together that the thing that unites us is Jesus’ life and God undying love. Our unity will be found not in practice, tradition, or theology but rather in Christ above all things. Reformation needs to continue to get to the place of that dream and beyond.
Our particularity and diversity have the potential of being good building materials available to the Spirit for this important work. So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…. I mean, yes, there is a need for a Lutheran witness. There is also a need for the witness from Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, Congregationalists, etc. – each of these expressions bring something that would be lost if they no longer existed. Think of it as a complicated and wonderful jambalaya. We will miss something if one of the spices or ingredients are left out. Blending and working together, the ingredients lend depth and complexity that is flavorful.
I will continue to serve as a Lutheran sous chef in the mix. With Lutheran ‘spice’ (but not too spicy – wink) in hand, ready to season the Christian church’s witness to Jesus Christ.
Today’s scripture: Isaiah 61: 3c
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
Prayer: (from Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal)
Almighty God, we praise you for your servants, through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life. Raise up in our day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This entry concludes my Reformation commemoration blog series. I want to thank all those who accompanied me on this journey. The entire series is available in print form and reads from first entry to last (unlike the way that it is organized on the website). You can order printed copies through my website (click here).
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My next planned blog series will be in Advent. This year, Advent begins on December 3.
In Eucharistic joy, Walt.