By David Benke
As a lad in Old Milwaukee, when drivers’ licenses were available at the tender age of sixteen, the only place to be and the only thing to do on a summer Saturday night was “bombin’ down the Avenue.” Wisconsin Avenue, that is. Slow driving down the straight wide center of the city. Gives you a tingle, doesn’t it?
So it is with orthodoxy, properly considered. Three simple Greek words spell it out.
· Orthos is Greek for “straight.” Your orthodontist is a teeth-straightener. To be an orthodox Lutheran Christian means to walk, run, drive or swim straight down the middle of the road, path, highway or lane. “Make straight the path of the Lord” is the prophetic strain in Isaiah’s and later John’s cry in the wilderness.
· Doxy is Greek for “praise” or “glory.” “Straight praise,” then, is what we shoot for, as in Romans 12:1, 2. We are living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. That is our liturgy of praise on the road. Straight praise means holiness from the Holy One in action. Soli deo gloria is our living signature.
· ‘Odos is Greek for “road.” To be in synOD nationally or regionally is to be walking down the ROAD together. The Way or Road is Christ. He said it Himself: “I am the ‘Odos.” (John 14:6) I am the Way. We are in Him, and He is in us. He is the source of holiness. We are crucified with Him. We walk down the road in newness of life in Him, for He is the life.
The trick is to keep the orthodox road straight without narrowing it to a single file path or widening it into “the way of destruction.” The best Lutheran theology is well suited to the straight middle track, where the road is wide enough for friends to share and discerning enough to know friends from the enemy list–the devil, the world and our own sinful flesh. In Christ the church, living “between the times” from here to eternity, calls that theological middle “the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.”
Where have we gone wrong? We’ve ditched the middle for the culverts, it would seem.
The one group over-steers into the right channel, ferociously gripping the wheel as though on steroids a la the old-time Schwarzeneggerish-Lutheran Matthius Flacius. In the right ditch the church rises or falls on women’s suffrage or women holding various lay offices, opportunities for service that are viewed as prohibited ironically by Reformed theological principles. The church falls if a hymn or song not on the pre-approved formulary shows up in the worship folder as rigidity obliterates pastoral parish practice. A pastor exercising discretion in admission to the Lord’s Table? Only if the would-be communicant is on her deathbed and then maybe not, rendering discretion an invalid concept. Communio in sacris, the long-standing Lutheran church fellowship border-boundary, is raised to sharing table grace or prayers at public events, walling off the world, the neighbors, maybe even Uncle Lou, maybe even you! This isn’t about the “straight and narrow.” It’s about the right being wrong, dismembering the church in isolationist zeal. It’s about veering off the right edge of the road.
The crew in the left ditch seems to have forsaken the Law-Gospel distinction for a fudged version of “whatever you think makes you happy.” Accusations of anti-nomianism are not misplaced in the left-land of political correctness. The Law can’t be distinguished from the Gospel because it’s indistinguishable from whatever the culture has borne. Clarity is more than fudged when there is agony over the decision to engage in the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The very teaching authority of the church is compromised. Social justice trumps spiritual destiny on the placards and promotions. A “This-Side” religion removes the Head from the church, dismembering it as obsession with the penultimate prevents the cosmic Christ from uniquely and ultimately resolving the issue of eternal destiny. It’s one thing to read the signs of the times. It’s quite another to be captive to the spirit of the age, the ever-crooked generation, and that’s the strong impression often promoted in the left culvert.
For many of us, the sainted Pastor Arthur Carl Piepkorn understood the vital, renewing nature of the orthodox middle. Navigating that middle zone amid the buffeting forces of the edges makes it a narrow ground, as the Lord states, “Narrow is the way that leads to life.” However in the gracious connection in truth to life through the Way – Christ Himself, the revelation of the universal breadth of divine love is made manifest.
The church is ordained to carry the Living Christ, “the Gospel and all its articles” who IS the Straight Road and Sacrificial Lamb. The church offers ambassadorially the w-i-d-e-ness of God’s mercy in the once-for-all-time reconciling activity of God in Christ to a fallen world that has already been reconciled. The Law accuses, terrorizes, kills. The Gospel makes alive. Brought through the means of grace administered by the church through the office of the holy ministry, the apostles’ teaching is vital through the ages despite and in the face of the spirit of any particular age.
The doctrinal, salvific assurance of the authentic, straight middle is profound. The eschatological temblors smooth out every rough edge, elevate every valley, drop down every mountain on the Broadway journey to the Promised Land. Solely dependent on grace baptismally received, the middle is the place from which proceeds authentic, powerful engagement with the principalities and powers of this age, reaching with righteousness the human needs of the unwashed and unjustly treated.
The theological “middle” speaking for Lutheran Christians is then the lived and breathed articulation of a genuine, dynamic, catholic and evangelical Means of Grace. It is the revelation of the mission of God in and for the world through the church and its proclamation of the Gospel (Law and Gospel) and administration of the sacraments. The Lord’s Meal and the Lord’s Mission are intimately connected; the community nourished and ordered, forgiven and strengthened, lives sacrificially and joyfully lived in the world with the presence of the Lamb slain and now worthy in them and in the midst of them individually and communally. We are an ordered and purposeful community in Word and service, humble in understanding the limits of both boundaries and opportunities but always open to direction and discernment and full participation from the Fount and Source of our Trinitarian authority.
Is that wide enough? Is it narrow enough? I pray so. I believe that it is straight. The heavy-handed wheel-turners to the left and right threaten to over-steer the Lutheran movement to the point of a fatal crash on either side of the road. Resist! Our middle is rooted and grounded and roadworthy especially in troubled times. It’s high time to bomb down the Avenue!
Dr. David Benke is president of the Atlantic District.