I write the following not as a justification or explanation of myself (as if that were possible), but as an earnest solicitation of opinions, counsel, and commentary from those who have such to give on this rather delicate topic.
On a separate note, I apologize without explanation or excuse for my excessive laziness in posting this summer. Thanks for still reading!
“Sometimes we have trouble applying the Gospel to our lives not because we don’t understand the Gospel, but because we don’t understand our lives.”
How true! Not to say that there aren’t tricky passages in the Bible, or that any person with a second-grade reading level can become a top-notch theologian, or that everyone who reads the Bible will get the same message out of it (more on that later). And certainly not to say that I’m a top-notch theologian or that I have every passage and doctrine in the Bible worked out. Nevertheless, the clarity of Scripture is a certainly a doctrine that gives us much comfort as we wrestle with difficult passages, struggle to unravel complex subordinate clauses and look carefully at various shades of meaning for unfamiliar technical Greek vocables. Despite the ambiguity inherent in some passages of Scripture, we can always rest assured that the unus simplex sensus of the message is sounded forth loud and clear in other passages, bringing the whole counsel of God together in that glorious revelation we call the Analogy of Faith.
If only our life were the same. If only we had a promise of God that everything that happened in our lives would make sense, or that every situation in which we found ourselves would come with a well-defined set of Scriptural instructions to follow, or that every question we asked or were asked would have an unambiguous answer “straight from God’s brain to our mouth.”
One example: God’s word is abundantly clear on the matter of perseverance vs. preservation of the saints. The Bible contains promise after promise that those whom God has called (and He wants all to be saved!) will never be snatched away from him, that Satan has no ultimate power over those who have faith in Christ, and that our eternal security rests in the objective facts of Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection. God’s word is likewise abundantly clear on the matter of falling away from the faith. The Bible contains warning after warning that those who despise preaching and the Word are in danger of weakening in their faith, that those who neglect the Sacraments are starving themselves to death spiritually, and that those who regularly allow themselves to fall into temptation will end up being led by the Tempter into faith-destroying sin and unbelief.
The tricky part of this doctrine is not actually the doctrine, but its application. To whom do you apply the sweet comforts of the Gospel? To whom do you prescribe the harsh warnings of the Law? To the soul in distress, who is weak in his faith and wondering if the promises of God apply to him, you apply the Gospel, pointing the struggling person to Christ and what He has done in our place. To the proud, arrogant, or carnally-secure soul, you preach the Law in all its fury, reminding that person of the very real danger of falling away from faith, not because of a lack of faithfulness on God’s part, but through our own willful sin. Warnings or promises? Threats or comforts?
The problem is magnified exponentially when you’re dealing with yourself. When do I need the warnings? When do I need the promises? The Bible verse that brought me so much comfort last week might be the “excuse” I need this week to click on that naughty web link. The warning that curbed my sinful appetites yesterday might cause me today to try to put too much emphasis on myself and my own “good” deeds and forget that Christ is both the Author and Finisher of my salvation. Warnings and promises. The doctrines are clear; God’s word is unambiguous on both counts. It’s not hard to understand the Word on this point. What’s hard is understanding our lives enough to apply the Word correctly. What’s hard is understanding my life.
Nowhere is this distinction more difficult to draw (for me at least) than in the doctrine that Lutherans call “fellowship.” The Bible unambiguously promises that the Last Days will bring people who teach false doctrine, wolves in sheep’s clothing who mix the truth of God’s Word with the lies of men and who corrupt people by giving them what their itching ears what to hear. The Bible is likewise clear when it tells us to avoid such false teachers and their lies, and also calls upon us to give clear testimony to the truth. Understanding the Gospel (taken in the broad sense as the entire message of Scripture) on this point is not the problem.
Understanding my life, however, is not so easy. Like the perseverance/preservation distinction made above, the application of a specific doctrine depends as much on my situation as on the doctrine itself. Is the situation in which I find myself one where the Lord calls me to separate from those who are teaching false doctrine? Or is my duty to remain in the situation in which I find myself and give a clear testimony to the truth in the face of opposition? The history of Lutheranism in America is full of such vexing situations, and my own life (like your own, I’d wager) is similarly thorny at times. Which message should I preach? Sometimes the clearest message I can send is an appropriate Bible verse, doctrinal explanation, or a clear witness to the truth. Sometimes the clearest sermon I can deliver is to simply walk away.
Jesus asked in his High-Priestly prayer that believers would be made “one,” just as Jesus and the Father are One. There truly is “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” against which the gates of hell will not prevail. We “believe in” it using the same words we use when we say we “believe in” the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sadly, due to sin and sinful men, the earthly church has fractured into thousands of different denominations, each smaller and pickier than the last. Even more sadly, those denominations have in the past few decades started to shed their pickiness (and therefore their distinctiveness) and ban together, trying desperately to find a shred of common ground, no matter how small or generic, on which to stand together. It’s like a thousand glass bottles were smashed onto a concrete floor and the scattered shards tried to fit themselves together; green joins blue, and the two of them find a yellow, they take in a few stray slivers of brown and a jagged bit of clear, and pretty soon they fancy themselves a stained-glass window. The problem is that the result is neither useful like the bottles were, nor is it particularly pretty as a stained glass window, because the only light that manages to come through is a sickly shade of off-grey.
Today, there are groups teaching false doctrine, groups teaching pure doctrine, and groups teaching no doctrine (which is really the falsest doctrine of all). A person might be Methodist, Pentecostal, “non-denominational,” or even Lutheran, and may or may not believe the same things as others with the same denominational appellation and may actually be closer theologically to those who consider themselves members of “differently-branded” churches. What happened to “One” Church? A better question yet is, “what should a believer do about it?”
Should an earnest Christian with a zeal for the truth continue to separate himself further and further from those who do not believe the truth as he understands it, in order to protect the doctrinal heritage that he has been given? Jesus’ Parable of the Talents suggests that this might not be the correct attitude to have. “Sir, we know that you are a harsh master,” complains the lazy servant who takes his talent and buries it, and the Master reprimands the servant for not putting what he has been given to work, earning interest. Similarly, I believe the call to us is not to jealously hoard the sacred trust passed on to us, but to “invest” it, share it with others, plant it so that it might bear much good fruit. We Lutherans have arguably the best car on the road of American Protestantism. Let’s not stand beside the racetrack sipping coffee and saying, “Yup, we could beat them, them, and them.” Let’s take our theology out for a spin and see what it can do.
But should an earnest Christian with a zeal for the truth dive headfirst into the midst of those false teachers and try to win them all, by hook or by crook, back to the pure Biblical theology of the Reformation? The Apostle Paul’s words to us in Romans chapter 16 suggest that that is not the correct attitude to have. We are to “mark and avoid” those who teach false doctrines persistently, and to separate from them in order to give clear testimony to the truth and to avoid having our message and faith corrupted by their errors. Our car won’t long stay the best on the road if we continually give it the bland pabulum of generic “evangelicalism” and park it on the street in the winter. Let’s treat our theology with the honor and jealousy that it deserves.
Where is the balance? How can/should I decide which Scriptural injunction applies to me? The balance can only be struck when I understand my life enough to know what side of the line I fall on.
Am I in danger of losing my distinctive “Lutheranness” in the tasteless lukewarm bucket of spit that mainline Protestantism has become? Am I in danger of being mistaken for part of that wanna-be stained-glass window that the ecumenical movement is trying to foist upon America and the world? Am I in danger of letting someone think that our theological differences are just about “silly stuff” and encouraging them to ignore the Biblical Jesus in search of a relativistic and subjective “personal relationship” with the Jesus of their self-help fantasies? Am I in danger of allowing someone to misunderstand Lutheranism as one of those “we all believe the same thing” theologies that end up being “least common denominator Christianity,” rather than true “mere Christianity?” If so, then I need to heed the warnings of Romans 16, et. al., and give a clear testimony to the truth by separating myself from error.
Or am I in danger of being so focused on abstract doctrinal purity that I forget that Christ called us to serve real, live, non-theoretical people in this life? Am I in danger of a having pharisaical mindset that says the WELS has it right and everyone else can (and will) go to hell? Am I in danger of becoming too proud of my doctrinal books and catechisms, my Concordia Self-Study Bible and the degree on the wall of my pastor’s study to imagine that there are things to learn and be shown (even theologically!) outside of our little circle? Am I spiritually or intellectually lazy? Unconcerned about the fate of others? So afraid of falling away that I dare not expose myself to even the slightest bit of theology without the 2929 imprimatur? So insecure about my critical-thinking skills that I think I won’t be able to distinguish truth from error? If so, then I need to pray for guidance and strength, keep close to the Word daily, and dig up my talent and put my money where my mouth is.
One of the major reasons for the “strict” fellowship principles to which the WELS adheres is to avoid giving the impression of agreeing with an error, or saying that doctrinal differences are not really that important. When I am put into a position where I am working side-by-side with other Christians as Christians, I need to be careful that our joint efforts are not seen as a joint declaration of faith. This is simple honesty: we don’t actually believe the same things about everything, and it’s dishonest to let people assume that we do. But it’s also more than that: it’s love. If I truly believe that what my church body believes, teaches, and confesses is true (and I do!), then by definition some of what other Christians’ church bodies believe, teach, and confess is false. And by any definition, false teaching is sin. In love, then, I seek to speak the truth about what the Bible says, and not allow misunderstandings and misinterpretations to weaken or endanger the faith of others. But again, I am confronted with choices: should I simply not work together with other Christians as Christians, or should I do so with the careful deliberation outlined above?
Confession time. I teach at a non-denominational Christian school (gasp!). I started teaching there knowing that I would be in a position every day of working side-by-side with people who believed differently than I do about very important theological issues. But the reason I finally signed the contract is that it was made clear to me that those differences would be respected, that complete conformity was not expected, and that no assumptions were made about agreement in doctrinal issues. No one sees me in faculty devotions and assumes I believe everything the leader believes. No one sees me standing in the back of chapel and assumes that we all believe the same thing because we’re all in the same room together. I do my best to avoid that false impression, and I daresay that some of my colleagues are already getting tired of hearing about how Lutherans are different.
Yes, it’s quite possible that I’m violating a “fellowship principle” or two by teaching where I do. I bow my head and say a prayer with a fellow Christian whose beliefs I do not completely share. I listen to a word of instruction from a person whose theological grounding is a bit shaky. I work together with people who believe that faith in Christ is enough to unify people for a common purpose. But I also direct a troubled soul to the cross of Christ and His empty tomb, instead of their own decision and piety. I give a clear testimony to the efficacy of the Sacraments to a student who asks why Lutherans baptize babies, which turns into a full-blown discussion on justification by faith alone. I have chance after chance to give an answer to people who ask me, “are Lutherans the same as Christians?” and then tell them why.
Am I correctly applying the Gospel to my life? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe I misunderstand the Gospel in this situation. Maybe I also misunderstand the situation itself. After a year, and as I start thinking about next year, I’m beginning to think I’m doing the right thing. Perhaps I’m wrong. We leave it to God, as we do all things.
Coffee-in-hand: Starbucks House Blend (hey, it was a birthday present…)