By Robert Schmidt
The 46th Convention of the LCMS passed this resolution in 1965: “Resolved, That we affirm as Lutheran Christians that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is chiefly a confessional movement within the total body of Christ rather than a denomination emphasizing institutional barriers of separation.” In the intervening years that resolution has been challenged again and again by people calling themselves “Confessional Lutherans.” The implication of that label is that the people who voted for the resolution or approve of it are either less “Confessional” or less “Lutheran.” In reality, however, these are simply “Grouches” who behave as members of a denomination emphasizing institutional barriers of separation.
The resolution was passed as a part of the Mission Affirmations hammered out by Dr. Martin Kretzmann with the help of nearly every one of the LCMS foreign missionaries, who sent him over 1,100 pages of testimony. They told stories of working with other Christians in Africa, India and around the globe. No, it simply was not possible to work in isolation from others who confessed Christ in hostile surroundings. They did work together on common concerns, took each other to the hospital, went to conferences together, yes, and prayed together.
Was there a Lutheran contribution to this joint work? Yes, of course there was. Lutherans emphasized God’s grace in Christ through faith for salvation. They were the “Gracelings” in attendance. When other missionaries and native pastors emphasized rules and regulations, the “Lutheran Gracelings” kept talking about what God had done and was still doing through Christ. Then, when Christians from other traditions confessed their faith in Christ and his marvelous grace, a wonderful sense of unity was forged. Here were other “Gracelings,” brothers and sisters in Christ.
Were these missionaries truly “Confessional Lutherans”? In his book Mission in the Making recounting the history of mission work in the LCMS, Dean Lueking makes the distinction between “evangelical confessionalism” and “scholastic confessionalism.” Evangelical confessionalism emphasized that the Gospel was not just one doctrine among others but informed all others. It is the doctrine which makes audible the very heartbeat of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Evangelical confessionalism represented by Wilhelm Loehe of Neuendettelsau emphasized the tangible character of the one true church wherever the word and sacraments called people to faith. This was opposed to the 16th and 17th century dogmatician’s terminology of visible-invisible in describing the church. Word and sacraments as well as the people receiving them were not simply an ideal but were real and tangible.
Evangelical confessionalism also had a profound sense of the Lutheran Confessions, not as a barrier to fellowship with other Christians, but rather as a bridge. Was not the Augsburg Confession originally written as a reconciliation document to reach out to fellow Christians in the Romanist camp? Wasn’t the whole point of the Formula of Concord to bring peace and harmony among Lutheran Christians? Did not Luther put it eloquently in the Small Catechism that those coming to the sacrament were truly worthy and well prepared who had faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins”? Profoundly rooted in justification by grace and branching out through other doctrines, the Confessions provided the shade where Christians could rest together. Here they would be protected from the accusations of Satan and their own consciences so that they would be renewed for their common Christian mission in the world.
Scholastic confessionalism sees in the Lutheran Confessions a web of interconnected doctrines, each one of which is vitally important to the truth of justification by grace through faith in Christ. It disagrees with the straightforward meaning of the Augsburg Confession Article VII, “For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity of the divine Word.” It understands the “pure understanding” to include issues of close communion, women’s ordination, praying with other Christians and holding joint worship services with anyone who differs from the public doctrine of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Rather than seeing the Church as all people gathered around word and sacraments, scholastic confessionalism distinguishes between the invisible and visible church. Since we can never be sure about who belongs to the invisible church, there can be no church fellowship on that level. Fellowship can only take place within the “true visible” church, which by definition is The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and those few churches with whom it is in altar and pulpit fellowship.
Because of the influence of scholastic confessionalism in the LCMS, the mission of the church was not only to proclaim the Gospel to unbelievers but was to be in mission to fellow believers who were “theologically incorrect.” While at first this meant joining in conversations with people who were “heterodox,” more recently it has meant just “avoiding” them. Can there be a wedding jointly conducted by two Lutheran pastors of different synods? No, that is not possible. Can Grandma Erickson of the ELCA commune with her LCMS daughter. No, not really. Might the LCMS join the Lutheran World Federation as have many of our mission churches in Africa and Asia? Again the answer is no. “Confessional Lutheranism” has come to mean saying no to all ecumenical contacts, all fellowship events and all joint worship services. Is it any wonder that most other Christians see the LCMS as a bunch of “Grouches”?
What might happen if we embraced the evangelical confessionalism that is part of our heritage and the way most of our missionaries have worked around the world? Rather than seeing ourselves as a staunch but cloistered minority, we looked at ourselves as being the center of the grace-filled wheel of Christ’s church with gospel spokes radiating in all directions?
From the center of Christ’s grace we share with evangelicals that profound tool of Biblical interpretation that the Scriptures are the swaddling clothes holding the Christ child. From the gospel we share with liturgical churches the marvelous grace of God in the proclaimed word and humble reception of the sacrament. With our Pentecostal friends we share the Scriptural insight that the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is faith itself. The true Lutheran Confessional identity is not that of another little sect that thinks it is the only one that is right. Rather, it is a naturally generous body sharing its gospel riches with all.
From the perspective of evangelical confessionalism Christ would reach out to all Christians and all people through us. Evangelical confessionalism is not just about following those who at great risk confessed their faith in times past. It is an invitation to confess again, even at great risk, in all those dark places that need the light of the gospel.
Dr. Robert Schmidt is the emeritus chairperson of the Department of Theology at Concordia University, Portland, Oregon