Yesterday was the 476th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession¯an explanation of the proposed Lutheran reforms of the Church, written by Philip Melancthon and approved by Martin Luther¯to Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who, facing attack from without, was eager for unity within. This is the true birthday of the Lutheran Reformation. That this should be of little interest to non-Lutherans is perhaps understandable. That it should be of little interest to so many Lutherans is what threatens to reduce a denomination like the one I was raised in¯the Lutheran Church¯Missouri Synod¯to irrelevancy.
When I was growing up, back in the early 1970s, our church in Queens, New York, had two orders of worship: Matins and Holy Communion. In those days I had but one prayer: Let it be Matins. This was no indication of a nascent anti-sacramentalism. Rather, it was evidence of how supernaturally bored I was by the whole thing. Matins, you see, was the shorter of the two services.
Like many of my spiritually insentient friends, as soon as I made my Confirmation, I did not darken a church narthex again for a good long time. Our church, Trinity Lutheran, knew this, and so kept playing with the Confirmation age, hoping like pharaoh to postpone the exodus as long as possible. Other tactics to engage the younger generation included more clap-happy and improvised midweek chapel services in our affiliated parochial school. These proved simply annoying, as it was harder to sleep with all the noise.
I left my Lutheran high school a self-proclaimed atheist. I say self-proclaimed because I don’t think a real atheist would have accepted me as one of his clan. I simply was not capable of maintaining the blind faith necessary to juggle all those contradictory ideas and unanswered questions ("Why is there something rather than nothing ?"). Nor was I strong enough to keep sawing off the epistemological branch I was sitting on. ("There are no absolutes for apes whose brains simply grew too big." "Are you certain?" "Absolutely!")
When I came back to the faith (aided and abetted by C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Blaise Pascal), it was through the evangelical backdoor. From about 1982 to 2005, I attended Nazarene, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Reformed Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran, High-Church Episcopalian, evangelical Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches. I formally joined only one¯Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City¯and that was in 1997.
Redeemer captured my allegiance for eight years for three reasons: It was time to take a stand somewhere, having walked with one foot in the world and one in the kingdom for too long; I had become increasingly attracted to the incisive biblical expositions of John Calvin, and Redeemer was a church of the conservative Reformed/Calvinist school; and Redeemer was also a mega-ish church, averaging a few thousand attendees over four services every Sunday. So you could get lost in the crowd if you so chose. I so chose.
But deeper reading in Jonathan Edwards, Cornelius Van Til, and the Puritans began to shake not only that assurance of salvation that is the hallmark of evangelical religion but also my understanding of the nature of the God who did the saving. It became evident that there was a disconnect between the sermons I was hearing and what I was reading from the theological sources. On Sundays we were told that we were worse than we could ever believe but also more loved than we could imagine. This moved and reassured many in that considerable congregation, but it seemed to me to contradict Reformed theology. Some of those in attendance, surely, were loved more than they imagined. Those some were the elect, whose salvation was a given even before they came to faith¯this to show forth God’s grace and the truly gratuitous nature of that salvation. The rest of the crowd were destined for the other place, and had been brought into this world for that very purpose ¯this to show forth God’s justice in judging sin. Christ died not for sinners¯that is, for every last one of us¯but only for the elect. What did this say about His assumption of human nature, His role as the second Adam? Were those not elected less than human?
According this scheme, faith in and of itself was no reliable indication of anything; instead, the mysterious and apparently arbitrary decrees of God were everything. My personal faith in the saving power of Christ and His Cross may not, in fact, be saving faith but merely, in John Calvin’s words, "an inferior working of the Holy Spirit," intended to confound me until the time of my apostasy, which was always my destiny. This made nonsense of Luther’s much derided but ultimately liberating crie de cour "justification by faith alone!" which had been hammered into me all those many years of church, Sunday school, and religion classes.
So what was left? I went home to the Lutheran Church. Or so I thought. Trinity had long ago voted as a congregation to bolt the Missouri Synod for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a much more liberal conflation of several Lutheran churches. (And my former pastor is now a much beloved Roman Catholic priest.) The Missouri Synod numbered far fewer congregations in New York City, and those geographically closest to me either had no pastor or a pastor who was far too, shall we say, creative . I sat through puppet shows (children’s church being folded into the regular worship service), pastors strolling up and down the aisle culling prayer requests and improvising "stirring" appeals to the Almighty, guest preachers stopping cold in mid-sermon to turn on a boom box so they could break into song, praise bands fronted by garishly loud "cantors" as Powerpointed lyrics flashed on screens that now obscured the old wooden hymn boards¯in short, orders of worship that were neither orderly nor conducive to worship.
The historical resonance and dignity of the old liturgy that had struck torpor in my heart as a youth was the exact thing I was craving in my middle age¯but it was now history itself. What I could not appreciate as a shallow teen was now unavailable to me, the hymnal replaced by a bulletin, the means of grace downplayed for a more gregarious fellowship, the authentic traded in for pastiche and performance art. Even the sermon, reborn in the Lutheran Reformation as a means of grace, had now lapsed into emotionally manipulative entreaties, personality self-assessments, and quasi¯altar calls. Twenty-five stragglers on a good Sunday, Starbucks in hand, grumbling begrudgingly through another chorus of "He Shall Make Me Glad"¯this was the upshot of the new LCMS. Ah, sweet success!
I understand the drama of demographics in modern urban America: Missouri Synod churches could no longer count on families staying put, staying Lutheran, or even staying Christian from one generation to the next, and so it had to compete for spiritual consumers along with the Redeemer Presbyterians, the Times Square nondenominationals, and the pentecostal and Baptist storefronts. But rather than throwing open to the seeking, the emerging, and the skeptical something unique within the Church catholic¯something distinctly Lutheran¯Missouri Synod churches were too often settling for second-rate evangelical status in the name of ecumenism and in reaction to dwindling attendance, especially among the young. The grand paradoxes that Lutheran theology wrestled into neat but potent reflections of our faith in the God/man¯law/gospel, sinner/justified, bread and wine/body and blood, the kingdom of this world/the kingdom of God¯were rarely if ever mentioned, except perhaps as an occasional sop to the scarce old-school parishioners. But these dichotomies spoke to my life as a Christian, not merely as a Lutheran, which is why coming back to the Missouri Synod was no mere sentimental journey but a coming together of what had been fragmented as a mere evangelical.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Is it right even to cast blame? Surely everyone is doing what they believe is in the best interest of promoting the cause of Christ in an era of easy distractibility. And the Synod itself has only so much authority: having jettisoned the office of bishop early in its history, it embraced a congregational model. Individual congregations associate with the Synod on a voluntary basis. But one would think that such a congregation would do so for a very specific reason¯to reflect the unique character of the Missouri Synod Lutheran heritage. And one would also think that the district president, as close as the Missouri Synod now gets to a bishop, would exercise enough oversight and discipline to insist that such character be maintained. You would think.
What we don’t need is yet another Lutheran church (read sect). What we need is strict¯even mandatory ¯adherence to the Lutheran Service Book (the 1982 edition offers more than enough variety as it is). What we need is that catechism I was taught by my mother many years ago over our kitchen table. What we need is a Lutheran distinction between confessionalism and fundamentalism on the right, and between adiaphora (indifferent things) and heterodoxy on the left. What we need is our Reformation heritage. Let loose the old, unexpurgated liturgy¯from Confession to Benediction, it has proved to be a well-trodden path that is our spiritual pilgrimage in microcosm. Preach the Law and its insatiable, non-negotiable demands. Then preach the Gospel¯which is to say, preach Christ, our justification and our sanctification, who alone fulfilled the Law and banished its threats. Administer Holy Communion with reverence for the Real Presence and baptize acknowledging that it is the laver of regeneration. And finally, let the Holy Spirit take care of church growth. In the American religious estate are many mansions, including rooms for free-form, pastor-driven seeker and emerging assemblies. They have a role in bringing the unchurched and the anti-church back to some semblance of corporate worship. But we are not them .
So here I stoop, to paraphrase another cry of the heart, searching amid the rubble for what had been both an inheritance and a gift. I am comforted by two thoughts, though: Unlike those members of renewal movements within mainline denominations, I do not worry about the Trinity being invoked as Mother, Daughter, Midwife. I believe the Nicene Creed is here to stay at Missouri Synod as a touchstone of orthodoxy. Also, a quick survey of confessional Lutheran bloggers demonstrates that there are many who sit beside me in the same boat, clinging to that Augsburg confessional lifejacket, which declares that, despite differences, the Church remains "the congregation of saints and true believers" that will "continue forever" despite the "ministry of evil men."
Even imprudent men . . . and sleepy teenagers like me.
In addition to which :
Massachusetts demanded that Catholic Charities place adoptive children with same-sex couples, and, in response, Catholic Charities opted out of the important work of adoption. In the June/July issue of First Things , Gregory Popcak explains what went wrong and why it is both courageous and compassionate to insist that adoptive children have both a mother and a father. Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?