The "Confessional" Debate

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Several responses to my blogs have recently underscored the very reason why ACT 3 is committed to the mission of the whole Church. Various comments you can read reflect the older "Reformed" or "Lutheran" confessionalism of the kind that divided evangelical churches over the "proper" theological understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

If you want to see specifically what I am talking about then read some of the comments from several Lutherans, of the LCMS family, that were posted last week. These are obviously fine people holding to a view that is still held by many such Lutherans. The issues they address are serious (especially to them) because they threaten the unity of a large and conservative Christian family. The LCMS has experienced turmoil over these issues before and this has gone on for many years.

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Some yeas ago I spent many hours talking with the late Dr. Robert D. Preus (1924-1995), a well-known former leader in the LCMS along with his brother Dr. J. A. O. Preus. We served together on a common project for about the last eighteen months of his life. We discussed Luther, Calvin, the sacraments and a host of interesting theological subjects. I found him deeply thoughtful and quite profound in the depth of his knowledge of Reformation theology. He was a Lutheran "confessionalist" if there ever was one! I entered into this world, which was not my own at all, by listening to this brother talk and debate. He hated the church growth movement, felt strongly that the LCMS had survived one scandal in terms of more liberal theology, and now had to face new struggles that would likely divide it again. He deeply longed for a stronger, purer, and more faithful LCMS. He believed, with all his being I would add, that the gospel was at stake in all these debates that moved through the LCMS in the 1980s and 1990s. These older debates are still moving through the LCMS but the form has clearly changed since Preus died thus the issues are not exactly the same now. (Still included, however, are the old issues related to ecumenism, charismatic gifts, etc.)

I say all of this because this "confessional" debate will not go away so long as there are people who truly believe that closing and fencing the Table, in this older Lutheran language and way, are essential to protecting the gospel. What often happens goes like this. People in these confessional settings look at more liberal churches who open the Table to all Christians and then reason that the result of this "open" communion always results in compromise and theological liberalism. The logic might seem impeccable but I do not buy it for a second. It is great so long as you stay in your small corner and I stay in mine. But in a world that is dying without Christ and in a culture where there are fewer and fewer real Christians one wonders if it is not time to seek out a new way to express our oneness within the whole family of Christ.

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I have said before that I would not try to force any congregation to admit me to the Table. I respect the Church too much to force anyone else to compromise their beliefs. But I also believe a new day is clearly coming, a day when our labels will not matter like they once did. I welcome this day. I want to first, and last, be known as a Christian, not as Reformed or Lutheran.

I believe what will matter, and does matter, is a robust missional faith that is rooted in ecumenical orthodoxy. This would mean that Lutherans can stop framing all their theology of the Table around their reaction to the Reformed. Both can stop the polemical fracas and truly learn from one another. It would mean that groups like the LCMS will have to honestly face their diversity and welcome what the Holy Spirit is doing to unite Lutherans with other Christians. The communion issue is not, therefore, central to progress. What is central is discovering that we are already one in Jesus Christ by union with him. The sacraments are a part of vital faith, thus they are not unimportant in the least. Downplaying them is no way to go forward. But I believe  that understanding them only in the strictest "confessional" terms is also not a option in an age where we are finding new ways to express ancient Christian faith with real theological integrity.

Kieschnicks
A friend send me a link to the blog of an LCMS pastor named Rev. Barry Kolb, who now serves as the pastor of First Lutheran Church, an LCMS congregation in Texarkana, Texas. Barry clearly grasps these issues quite well. You will note that he is quoting the present president of the LCMS, Dr. Jerry Kieschnick (seen in the photo to the left), in what he is saying in his blog. This blog, and the president’s comments to the LCMS, are a lot closer to where I believe this great band of Christians will go, and should go I believe if they are "always reforming" in the days ahead. But the tendencies to division will remain a real concern for all our Lutheran brothers and sisters as the posts on this site demonstrate. The president is a faithful Lutheran but he is not liked by many of the confessionalists, for the precise reasons that I am writing about. Rev. Kolb argues that the emphasis in the LCMS has been on "being right" rather than "doing right." This will anger some on his right but I believe the root of the matter is here. He is a real Lutheran and also willing to be a man for change and mission in the new century. The tensions that come with this will always be real in groups with the history of the LCMS.

I believe that in the LCMS there is a great deal of kingdom vision left. I am praying that this will be released with great power in the formation of many great missional congregations across America. Sadly, the "confessionalism" of the older sort will likely oppose these developments, as it has for so many decades. Let us pray for the peace of Christ to pervade in these Lutheran settings. Much is at stake and passions run very deeply on all these matters. There are fine Christians on both sides.

For missional theologians these issues are seen as historical debates that are ultimately not central to the ministry of the kingdom. For confessional theologians, who root their mind and life in the polemics of the 16th century so closely, these are "defining" issues to die for. There is, therefore, no easy simple solution. The best I think we can hope for is that more and more people will see the central issues and then have the grace to not attack those who differ from them because they sincerely believe their version of confessionalism is the only acceptable course for faithful Lutherans to take. Is it too much to pray and work for the peace of the Church while we still disagree about matters that relate to "being right?" I think so.

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