Friday, October 19, 2007

The problem with the name "Lutheran"

There's a strain in American religious life that wants to pretend that at some point there were no denominations. And whatever strengths these folks have, this assertion is nonsense.

The Christian faith goes back some 6,000 years, back to when God warned the serpent of a coming Savior who would crush the serpent down. And through some 4,000 years of Old Testament history, there were various "parties" within the faith. The New Testament times were no different: the Pharisees and Sadducees were nothing if not denominational groups. The council in Acts 15 dealt with what would be termed denominational differences, if the event had occurred in 1983. Even that church body (Rome) which is secretly admired by many non-Roman Catholics as being undivided is split on what are most certainly denominational lines: Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.

Which brings us to the name Lutheran. "Lutheran" identifies a certain religious party within the Christian faith. How we are identified is worth pondering.

For most Protestants (and most Roman Catholics), Lutherans are simply a Protestant denomination. Nothing more. Some Lutherans like to imagine that our Baptist brethren think we are "too catholic." Maybe a few make that fine distinction, but most don't.

Those who have more opinions about the Lutheran brand identify us in ways I don't completely understand. It's the Garrison Keillor, Lake Woebegone kind of humor. What that is in reality, of course, is identifying Lutherans with a certain variety of Germanic or Scandinavian culture which has become rooted in the American Midwest.

Does "Lutheran" in the end mean anything at all? There are liturgical Lutheran churches, and those that use "Pass it on" as an offertory. Those who subscribe to the Book of Concord, and those (the Lutheran Brethren, among them) who adhere to a vastly smaller confessional corpus. Those who commune with wine, and those who commune with grape juice. Those who believe the Bible, and those who don't.

In North Carolina, saying I'm Lutheran means some explaining. To Baptists (57% of the North Carolina population) I usually have to explain that I'm not ELCA, that my church body doesn't ordain women, and that we take the Bible seriously. Similar, but modified responses are given to Roman Catholics or whatever.

(Such explaining usually causes me to sin, because I end up bragging that I am better than others. See Luke 18.11-13)

Which brings me to the question that I ponder a lot: why do we use the name Lutheran? If the name has no meaning (and I obviously think it doesn't) why not use something more descriptive of the reality going on here? If I make this point, someone's always there to say that "Lutheran" means one who unconditionally subscribes to the Book of Concord, and I'm good with that, but we've got to understand that this distinction is lost on at least 75% (I'm being generous) of folks in Missouri Synod pews, and virtually 100% of everyone else. And if this distinction is lost on all but a tiny group, of what value is it?

1 comment:

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

I prefer Evangelical Reformed Catholic Orthodox Lutheran...all properly interpreted, of course :)