I have had thoughts lately again about vocational matters in my life. A number of different circumstances have come about in which I’ve considered making a few changes — nothing related to my full-time employment at this time, but to things which may determine direction in the future. These kinds of situations come up a few times each year, and when they do I have to take some time to think about them, talk to my wife, consider various ways certain choices might impact our family, get counsel from people I respect, and so on.
One of the searches that has been ongoing throughout my ministerial career has involved denominational affiliation. For some reason, I have never been able to connect to a group and serve within that organization. My early Christian experience discouraged that, as I ministered in the non-denominational world. When I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, they were affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America, and one of the reasons I chose Trinity was because at that time I was attracted to the denomination and hoped to have them issue my credentials. To make a long story short, it never happened for a variety of reasons. We ended up moving to the Indianapolis area and becoming part of a non-denominational “community church” movement. I served in churches in that movement for thirteen years, and was ordained through my local congregation.
Even during those years, however, I had this nagging question. I longed to be part of a faith tradition that went deeper than the last church plant. I did a small bit of exploration, talked to a few people, but never seriously pursued anything during those years because we had a stable ministry and we were crazy busy raising kids and just doing life.
Then came my severance from local church ministry, my involvement in hospice chaplaincy, my acquaintance with Michael Spencer (who faced similar frustrations throughout his career), our decision to join a Lutheran church, and this ongoing trek through the post-evangelical wilderness.
We’re still there, but it may be time to make some decisions.
Ever since I have become a member of an Evangelical Lutheran Church, I have had people ask how I could do that. In spite of some my free-thinking, contrarian ways, I have always been known as a fairly conservative person. I take the Bible seriously, and have always seen “learning, loving, and living the Bible” (a mission statement I developed for one of my churches) as central to who I am and what I’m called to do in life. Yet some people see that as incompatible with membership in a church or denomination like the ELCA. I guess they would see them as too “liberal” for a Bible-believing Christian. This came up again this week in the comments to our post on Scot McKnight’s book.
(Some of that is just plain misunderstanding, but some of it, I think, grows out of a failure to understand what I want to write about in this post.)
All of this has led me to do some thinking about how I view the Church, denominations, and local churches. Here is a summary of what I’m concluding:
I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. This confession from the Nicene Creed is my confession. There is only one Church. There are many expressions, but one Body of Christ, one Bride, one Holy Nation, one People of God. Wherever I serve and live out my vocation in life, it will be for the building up of God’s Church.
I believe there are streams of tradition within the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. There are pre-denominational streams of tradition. Broadly speaking, we can identify the eastern and western traditions. At the Council of Nicea, the preeminent eastern bishops were from Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Rome led the west. Today we can speak generally of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the primary representatives of those pre-denominational streams.
There are also the Reformation churches. Again, broadly speaking we list the Lutherans, the Reformed churches, and the Anabaptists. Protestant and evangelical churches down to the present day arose from this stream of tradition.
However, I must also mention that during the past 200 years there has been such an explosion of congregations and groups growing out of the Revivalist awakenings, especially in America, that they have become a legitimate third category of church tradition. This is what we broadly call “evangelicalism” here on Internet Monk. What is important to note is that they are only tangentially related to the “historic” churches — which is what I call the churches in the first two streams of tradition.
I believe that each tradition serves as a broad umbrella under which there is a spectrum of belief and practice. In a recent discussion, one of our commenters decried the fact that “Lutherans” are all seen by some as believing and practicing the same things. This is simply uninformed. There are many different kinds of Lutherans. The ELCA would be on what some would call the “liberal” end of the spectrum, but they are nevertheless Lutheran and Christian. There are more conservative churches — The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) — and churches at the far end of the conservative spectrum, for example, the Church of the Lutheran Confession, which broke off from the Wisconsin Synod (very conservative) because they viewed them as not conservative enough. I had one of their pastors as a patient once. He would not let me pray for him because he did not believe my ordination was legitimate. He only believed in having fellowship with those who believed exactly as his group did.
Here is a key thing to understand: ALL traditions contain a spectrum of belief and practice, nevertheless the individuals, groups, and churches along that spectrum within the tradition may be (should be, in my opinion) considered legitimate expressions of that tradition.
Don’t ever let someone tell you, “This is what Catholics believe,” and take that as a statement of what ALL Roman Catholics believe. Of course, there is a Catechism, and the current Pope is a conservative. But Hans Küng is also a Roman Catholic, and so is Garry Wills. The Roman Church is not monolithic! It is not divided into denominations, but it has a variety of orders that view and practice the faith differently. And though the official position of the church is pro-life, and it views homosexuality as a sin, there are RC groups like DignityUSA which represents LBGT Catholics, and Catholics for Choice, groups made up of legitimate Roman Catholic Christian believers. And I have found that doctrinal and moral emphases vary from parish to parish in Roman Catholicism every bit as much as they do from one Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or evangelical church to another.
So then, I am starting to conclude this: What is most important is that one aligns with a tradition.
The reason I can feel comfortable in the ELCA is not necessarily because I think the ELCA is a perfect denomination, with all its theological and organizational “t’s” crossed and “i’s” dotted. Rather, I can feel comfortable there because it is a legitimate expression of the Lutheran tradition. The elements of that tradition that attracted me — Luther himself, justification by grace through faith, Word and Table worship, a love for the Bible, glorious music and hymnody, a strong emphasis on pastoral ministry, the theology of vocation for all believers — I can and do find all these things within an ELCA congregation.
Are there things I don’t like and don’t agree with? Yes. But I can’t see any of them binding my conscience or inhibiting my ministry, no matter where or at what level I might serve.
Some of you have asked, “Well, why don’t you consider joining a group like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod?” I have a great deal of respect for them as another legitimate expression of the Lutheran tradition. However, if I were ever to make a decision to seek vocational ministry in the LCMS, there would be things that would bind my conscience and not allow me freedom to serve. For example, seven day-creationism is the official position of the LCMS. I think you know what I think about that. That is not equivalent to the homosexual issue in the ELCA, which is an issue of practice and left to the discretion of each local congregation. In the LCMS my ability to teach the Bible according to my beliefs would be constrained at the outset.
I think, on the other hand, that I could affiliate with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, understanding that it too is flawed and that there will be many aspects of the group with which I disagree. But I also believe that it is a legitimate expression of the Lutheran tradition and one in which I could serve freely, retaining freedom of conscience to teach the Scriptures and participate in the life of the church.
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I think what I have decided is that I am a Lutheran. For the past couple of years, when people would ask me about my faith and church community, I would say something like, “I’m a Christian and right now I attend a Lutheran church. I’m not sure if that is where we will ultimately end up, but we like it for a variety of reasons, and it is an oasis in the wilderness for the time being.”
I think what I would say today is, “I’m a Christian, and I practice my faith in the Lutheran tradition.”