A Lutheran Lady on Denomination and Division

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The confused-looking kid who just got baptized is me.  Trinity Lutheran Church, somewhere in Arkansas, 1976.

My Baptism
According to the handwritten note in my baby album, I was baptized in a Trinity Lutheran Church (somewhere in Arkansas) when I was 18 months old.  I don’t have any recollection of that day or that church.  I don’t remember anything at all about my baptism, and nothing rings any bells in this photograph except the faces of my very young parents.  This is actually the only photo I possess with both of my parents in it.  Until rather recently, my baptism picture seemed like something wholly disconnected from my reality, and I’ve rarely had a reason to think of it through the years.

My baptism as a Lutheran is a very odd coincidence because neither of my parents were Lutheran, and I don’t think we ever set foot inside another Lutheran church after I got baptized.  I grew up knowing nothing about the Lutheran tradition or what made it distinct from other denominations.  My mother’s family were all fresh-off-the-boat German immigrants, and I suspect that my baptism was mostly about honoring their wishes.  Mom later became a Roman Catholic and Daddy returned to his Baptist roots.  I had a lot of religion in my childhood, but Lutheranism wasn’t a part of it.

Even so, my baptism stuck like glue.

My husband and I became members of our local Lutheran church in 2017, and the circumstances of my baptism came up during that process.  I hadn’t thought about it in years at that point, and we all had a nice giggle at the way it made everything feel neat and right.  God knew where I would end up from the beginning.

I Love Being Lutheran, But It’s Not My Main Thing
I haven’t talked much about being a Lutheran on this blog.  I think that’s because I don’t really think about my chosen tradition very often.  I mean, when people ask me about my faith, I don’t reply with, “I’m a Lutheran.”  I reply with, “I’m a Christian.”  If Lutheranism enters the conversation at all, it’s generally somewhere much farther down the list.

The Lutheran signage on my church building doesn’t matter to me all that much, and one of the heartbreaks I’ve had since coming to know Christ is realizing that for a lot of Christians, that signage matters a lot.  To many Christians (my extended family are in this number), Catholicism or Pentecostalism or Baptist-ism or whatever-else-ism is a crucial part of their religious identity. The distinctives that set their denomination apart from other traditions are dear and deep.  To those people, their denomination is holy (that’s what “set apart” means).

Please don’t mistake me here.  I am a Lutheran, and that was a considered choice my husband and I made together.  We chose it for a reason (more than one, actually).  Stable doctrine rooted in Scripture is very important.  Doctrinal differences and divergent ideas about authority are at the root of why I am Lutheran instead of Roman Catholic like my mother or Missionary Baptist like my father.  So, I get it.  I’m not trying to shame anyone for having a true attachment to denomination and confidence in doctrine.  I like being a Lutheran.  I love watching my parents, my extended family, and my Christian friends enjoy their own faith traditions.  They are all living under grace through faith, and they all know what Christ has done for them.  I hope you really like being whatever flavor of Christianity you practice, too.

I also hope you understand that you and I are in this together, whether you’re a Lutheran like me…or something else entirely. 

If you are a Christian, then you and I have placed our hope in the same Gospel.  Our salvation was purchased by the same (and only) Christ.  Our faith is informed by the same Bible.  We both proclaim belief in every point of the Apostle’s Creed (whether or not you’re in a credal tradition).  You and I both belong to Jesus, and that means all of our differences pale in comparison to what we share.  The differences cannot touch the most important thing.  We are family in Christ. We are one.

I kneel when I worship.  My praise is fervent but typically silent.  Maybe you jump up and down with your body totally open and your hands raised.  I have never prayed in any language but my own.  Maybe you’ve experienced the gift of tongues.  I generally lift my face when I pray.  Maybe you usually bow your head down.  It makes no difference.  We are one.  It feels crucial to me for all of us to understand that.  It is the heart that matters, and it is the Jesus of the Gospel who saved us both.  We might “do faith” differently on the outside, but we are one, nonetheless.

I feel like I should be breaking out Scripture here, but there are so many passages that speak about our oneness, I have trouble choosing where to begin.  It’s all over the New Testament!  John 17 might be a good place to start, but it’s everywhere.  The book of Acts highlights this truth over and over again.  Paul talks about it in his letters.  Peter, who struggled to accept the truth of our oneness, came to understand the importance of unity, and he preached it to the early Christians (1 Peter 3).

Being Lutheran isn’t my main thing.  Jesus is my main thing.

Doctrinal Division Saji
“Tom’s Doubts, #14,” by Saji George, a pastor and brilliant cartoonist.  His website seems to be down, but you can visit his Twitter profile (dormant since 2012) here.

Denominational Divisions Make Me Deeply Sad…and if I’m Being Honest, They Make Me Angry, Sometimes, Too.
Denomination–or tradition, which I prefer as a term–is important.  We worship differently in my culture than the peoples of South and Central America or the peoples of Asia or the peoples of Africa.  How we worship on the outside is largely a human and cultural expression.  It matters.  It matters, but very few of the differences we see are “better” or “worse.”  They are just differences.  Some of us dance.  Some of us shout.  Some of us use pipe organs while others use drum sets and electric guitars.  Some of us worship in buildings with pews.  Some of us worship outside in a local gathering spot.  Some of us gather in places consecrated for worship while others gather in someone’s living room on folding chairs or a beat-up sofa.  These are differences that appeal for a variety of reasons, and they hold varying levels of importance for the believers who practice them, but they don’t change the oneness–the unity–of who we are in Christ.

I chose the Lutheran church after reading books and comparing belief statements on church websites back in 2005.  The more I learned about Luther’s ideas and theological statements, the more convinced I became that the Lutheran tradition was a good place for me to be.  I didn’t actually find true faith until 2017, but I was seeking–and I was seeking hard–for all of those years.  When the gift of faith was bestowed upon me as I studied Leviticus in my bedroom, it wasn’t Martin Luther who showed up.  It wasn’t John Calvin.  It wasn’t Saint Rose of Lima or even Paul the Apostle.  It was God.

God showed up, and he didn’t show up because I was raised in the Latin Mass.  He didn’t show up because I went to Baptist Sunday School and VBS.  He didn’t show up because I was baptized as a Lutheran in 1976, and he didn’t show up because I attend a Lutheran church today.

He showed up because I was seeking him, and those who seek…find. (Jeremiah 29:13)

It’s Not Supposed to Be Like This
I see so much division in the American church.  I feel safe in saying that this doesn’t please the Lord.  I feel safe saying that because the Bible says it.  Over and over again…God says we’re not supposed to be divided like this. When I think about it too much, it makes me ache with wanting our division to end.  How powerful would it be if we were unified?  How powerful would it be if the image we projected had no squabbling, no arrogance, no disdain, and no condemnation amongst ourselves (2Tim 2)?  How powerful could it be if we simply accepted one another with gentle tolerance, unified (Eph. 4, Rom. 15:5-6, 1Pet 3:8) as Jesus prayed we would be (John 17)?

There is a right way to advocate for doctrinal preference, and there is a wrong way.  We must be very careful to remember that the pursuit of correct teaching is secondary to Christian love for one another.  You can love Luther.  You can love Calvin.  You can love Saint Augustine. You can love your secondary doctrinal positions and cling to them as a vital and life-giving part of your faith. But our first loyalty must be to Christ and His church.  His church?  That’s me.  That’s you.  That’s all of us.  The Pentecostals and the Methodists and the Presbyterians and–brace yourselves–the Catholics (breathe, my beloved Baptist brothers…breathe).  We’re all in this together.

Church Unity Saji
Another one by Saji George, “Tom’s Doubts, #13”

As I looked for a tradition, in the years when I was still seeking, I came across what Luther and Calvin had to say about women, and I didn’t much care for either one of them at the time.  Their vaunted intellects and “father of the faith” status were called into question by their callous, unbiblical, and casual dismissal of my cognitive abilities, my spiritual inferiority, and my questionable status as a member of their very species.  I eventually learned to look past the flaws–all the things they got wrong–and appreciate the good things their gifts produced. God used these men and others like them to spread the Gospel and correct generations of bad teaching, but they weren’t God; they were just men.  So…trust me when I tell you that John Calvin didn’t give you your faith.  Martin Luther didn’t give you your faith.  God the Holy Spirit gave you your faith.  God is the one who took up residence inside of us and turned our bodies into sacred space, and that is what makes us family.

I’ve said all of this because I am exhorting with everything in me that anyone who reads this scribble will consider whether, just maybe, we’ve lifted tradition over true faith.  Examine whether you’ve allowed your doctrine to become an idol.  Pray about whether your advocacy for doctrinal teaching, which comes from a desire to be obedient to God, went wrong somewhere.  Consider whether you’ve lowered rather than lifted.  Has your pursuit of correct teaching contributed to division rather than unity?  Has it damaged the universal witness of the church by condemning rather than providing hope? Has your zeal for doctrine been allowed to stand between you and true intimacy with our God?  If you look under the hood and find that you’ve got some broken parts…please try to repair it.  Please try to lead with love.

Like Jesus with the woman at the well, look upon the sinners around you and love them.  Don’t condemn them; speak life into them.  Tell them the truth as you’ve had it revealed to you, but draw them near rather than driving them away. Jesus didn’t threaten that woman with Hell.  He didn’t call her names or mock her understanding of theology.  He didn’t question her faith for being a Samaritan.  He gave her gentleness.  He gave her respect.  He gave her life.  He made that gentile woman the first evangelist for Jesus, and he gave her the honor of being first to hear his true identity.  He didn’t choose Gamaliel, a man who understood Scripture deeply and rightly.  He chose a Samaritan woman who was wrong about almost everything.  She believed in Jesus, and that was enough.

I will get a lot wrong as I write about the Bible and about God and about faith.  I know I will, and I try to stay open to correction at all times.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I haven’t read, that I still haven’t learned.  I’m right about this, though.  In the main point of it, I’m pretty sure I’m right.

We are one. Whether we like it or not, we are one. It is high time we remember that and start living like we believe it.

 

 

 


2 thoughts on “A Lutheran Lady on Denomination and Division

  1. A very wise pastor I once met told me “Theology divides; Christ unites.” At the time I was [silently] skeptical, because I was still pretty willing to try to argue people out of theirs. The older I get, the wiser he seems.

    1. Ain’t that always the way? I find myself FINALLY learning to let go of my grip on self-sufficiency and my reliance on academic answers for everything. The thing I cling to is, “Don’t put God in a box because He won’t fit.”

      It’s a shame we’re all so stubborn in youth. Oh, to have wisdom AND an energetic body that hasn’t been worn down. We’d all be Superman.

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