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Bad Bottles: Divisions in Confessionalism

Transfiguration Sunday 2/22/2004


*What is the problem in Confessional Lutheranism today?*


The cry, ‘Why can’t you folks just quit attacking one another,’ is heard from the liberal side, ‘Quit troubling us with incessant doctrinal purification!’  Is there substance to this and similar complaints? 


I must admit the yes answer.


There have been, are and will continue to be errors of judgment, errors of application, and errors of misinterpretation of Scripture.  As long as there have been men on earth that old satan has sown doubt, “Yea, hath God said…” to steal away or weaken the effect of the Word of God.  Make no mistake, this continues today.  Additionally, we bring our failed humanity into every situation, coloring our discernment with the various shades of self-interest and the theology of glory.  No amount of good intentioned, self-disciplined study and discussion can ever bring us completely, perfectly out of such error; these are bred into us since the fall in the garden.  The tempter cannot be overcome by our doing.  But God calls and empowers us to long and strive for that perfection.


We do have differences among confessional Lutherans.


There are real differences with which confessional Lutherans must deal.  There ARE differences between confessional Lutherans in both synodical and local praxis and profession; these differences may well continue to require separations in fellowship, but these do NOT, I believe, preclude our entry or continuance in discussion.


The very premise of The Concordia Society states our basis for exchange of ideas:

Each member of the Society accepts the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God, and as the only infallible rule and norm in all matters of doctrine, faith, and life. Each member of the Society also accepts the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as contained in the Book of Concord of 1580, as a correct presentation and exposition of the pure doctrine of the Word of God.

Surely with this solid common confession these differences can be outlined, clarified, and where necessary, adjusted that they more nearly conform to our confession.


There are differences among those who claim the proud name, Lutheran.  Some (though not all) differences indicate error.  Some of these errors are subject for repentance (i.e. change of direction) in incongruity between intent and practice, some errors are based upon misunderstanding of our confession.  Rev. Klemet Preus accurately identifies and separates two kinds of error in his paper, “Pure doctrine: Does it matter in our mission?”

“But if I show partiality, then you must be patient and forgiving with me. If you take credit for what God has done in missions then I will be patient with you. If we pit pastor against people or otherwise cause distraction, then love constrains us to patient leniency. We repent of our pride, our impartiality our distractedness our competitiveness. This is life. It is sin. It is inevitable. But we must never, ever repent our theology. Our failings and shortcomings will never destroy our fellowship which we have in Christ and in His forgiveness. Faulty life destroys neither church nor fellowship. But doctrinal aberrations destroy both the church and her fellowship”


As long as we hold the Holy Scriptures and the correct understandings drawn from them in the Lutheran Confessions, there remains a means of rectification for errors local and national in praxis and profession.  These remaining differences, in my mind, demand our continued discussion. 


Some Barriers and God’s Provision


God has provided for the ‘Life-Sins’ identified in Pastor Preus’ work cited above.  Many and insidious are the sins we commit IN THE CHURCH.  The Reformation, you see, is like the promise of salvation, a ‘Now and Not Yet’ matter.  We are ‘simul iustus et peccator,’ fully counted as just, yet fully sinful beings.  The very real animosities that build up in the refinings of this life and the strivings for doctrinal faithfulness often result in pharisaical blindness.  We start with good intent, but fail to rely on God, instead taking parts of the cause in our own strength.  As the battlecry of the Reformation reminds us,

            “Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing.”  SBH, 1958

And we have, and we do, and, God forgive us, we will.  He knows we will; He has provided for this.


Our God, the Savior, realizing the limitations of our mortal frame, added the covering of His Blood, the sacrifice all-sufficient for not only the past and present sins and shortcomings but also for those He knew that we will yet commit.  Having borne for a while this mortality, He triumphed over all the temptations of the devil and the flesh then willingly laid down His Life for us.  As the writer of Hebrews put it, Jesus died in our place:

      2:9b “…so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.”

And that tasting was complete atonement:

1:3b  “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”


Seeing that this provided purification would be our needed cleansing for the taint of humanity, Jesus gave us means: Word and sacrament.  Jesus himself explained the effect of the Word to the apostles on the very night He was betrayed, as recorded by John:

            15:3  You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you.

Mark recorded this promise:

            16:16  He who believes and is baptized will be saved;


Our God, ‘the only wise,’ of course, had seen this situation beforehand and made rich and ample provision for it.  The Word of God is sufficient.  Promised are correction and restoration which will allow the frail men to succeed against even such foes.  Paul wrote of this in 1Corinthians:

 10:13  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.


Even so, with covering and escape available, we fall into sin.  In redundant provision, God left us with a self correcting system: the Church.  Through the teaching-pastorate He gives us His Living Faith: the inner man under discipline (for that is what makes a disciple), His Life growing in us, begotten in Holy Baptism, built up in hearing His Word (both read and preached) and visibly bound to us in the sacrament of the altar.  Paul tells us of this provision in his letter to Ephesus:

4:11-12 (excerpt)  And his gifts were that some should be …some pastors-and-teachers, to equip the saints…,


How rich His provision; yet more abundantly has He endowed his Church!  He remains among us, lifting up the fallen, restoring the errant.  The provision of correction is also ours.  The steps of correction written by Matthew are for restoration, not condemnation:

18:15-17  "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (emphasis, mine)


So then, what shall we do?  We have established rules and norms that protect us and defend doctrine; these are like bottles that contain.  They keep us inside norms, they keep contaminants outside.  Synodical rules preclude, for example, joint worship and prayer among adherents not in fellowship. This is good.  A sharp blade plunged into the dirt will soon dull.  The good, however, is not sufficient; we NEED one another: steel sharpens steel.  The writer of Hebrews seems to call for BOTH actions:

10:23  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

We can and, by the very nature and stated convictions and principles of The Concordia Society, will maintain synodical integrity among confessional Lutherans even as we converse and offer and ask clarification.  Even as at 11 A.M. on a given Sunday many of us, in our separate assemblies, might simultaneously speak and pray the very same liturgy, yet not break understood rules of fellowship, so can we ‘work together separately’ for a common good. 


A Way of Escape, a Pathway Back


One answer employed by American Lutherans through their existence has been the ‘free conference.’  These gatherings have allowed controlled contacts and discussions between Lutherans not in fellowship.  The ‘free conference’ that we had hoped to coordinate last year in the Puget Sound area was intended to address these issues.  The plan was to bring together plenary speakers from two major synods with a panel made up of pastors from several of the confessional ‘micro-synods.’  Such a conference was intended to penetrate some of the artificial wall of separation that has not only firmed, but ossified in the present generation.


A new and modern-gadgetry-enabled answer is the ‘Electronic Free Conference.’  The ad hoc, real-time availability to confer offers relief from the expensive and time-consuming requirements of travel and housing requisite for a traditional free conference.  As such, the immediacy of access, the lower ‘effective reaction time,’ allows more timely clarification or redress of surfacing issues among us.


But now even the exchange of ideas among confessionals is made questionable; such groups as ‘The Concordia Society” is under attack.  ‘This is unionism,’ some aver, ‘verboten.’   I disagree.  I have always understood unionism and syncretism to apply to worship activities, the practice of our faith, rather than discussion.  Certainly Luther and later icons of the Lutheran Church have met for discussion, have issued papers asking and offering clarification of our beliefs.  Such testimony, in some ways, may even required. 

1Peter 3:15(b)  Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence;

Surely there is such fraternal obligation among confessionals!

Romans 14:21  it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.

And I believe we are called, at least implicitly, to keep watch upon one another. 

1John 5:16(a)  If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal.


Taking Back the Promised Land


We cannot allow the enemy to hold sway like this.  The exchange of ideas is NOT forbidden.  Those who hold similar pledge to the Lutheran Confessions must not be artificially divided by our fears; to do so is to deny the efficacy of the very Word we seek to uphold.  If God has joined us to Himself in a most holy faith (and He has,) we must not sever our links to one another.  The oneness of the true Church, though it be invisible, IS present among Confessional Lutherans.   We ARE one, joined at the Head.  The ‘rules of men,’ be they recorded in synodical bylaws, early synodical writings or simply our traditions must not be so raised to the status of the Confessions, must NOT be allowed to divide us. 

               Mark 10:9  What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."


Yet, as jealous and zealous as Coke and Pepsi, we fight for the wrong things.

We insist on a particular practice, though it be neither required nor forbidden by “as though it were not free to the congregation.” (FCX, 12)


 We demand the wrong ‘rights.’  We have this treasure NOT to keep it only for personal use.  Pastors are ‘STEWARDS.’  The steward is not the king.  Some act as though they were; as a layman said of the local District President, “Give that man a RED HAT!”  The treasure is inside, it is the content, not the container.  We, by forgetting this, become ‘bad bottles.’


Unfortunately these ‘bad bottles’ also distort the contents.  Like the distinctive coke bottle, the irregularities of the glass and even the very form of the bottle become the perceived content.  This is decidedly ‘unbecoming’ in a Christian.

Such focus on the packaging sinfully distracts from attention to the contents.  There are nuggets of gold in the writings of Walther and Pieper and others up to the present.  Where our distinctive synodical traditions have made differences apparent, we must talk.  We should do so viewing our early writers’ pronouncements in the light of the Confessions and the Light of the Holy Scriptures, NOT the reverse. 


 Our battles are often over the ‘bottle,’ not the filling.  Surely this is the basic problem in Confessional Lutheran discussions.  Some have withdrawn contact with the brethren, citing opinions and ordinances of their respective synods. ‘You can meet, but not publicly,’ or ‘You can meet publicly, but not pray,’ some say.  Others draw the wrath of these by openly or covertly violating such provisions.    Do we think the other confessionals ARE their bottles?  We do err!

As Luke in Acts, recorded God’s answer to Peter:

10:15  And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common."


Remember the TREASURE.


– Duane Smalley