Bishop and Christian*, May 2017

How would you identify yourself—your confession, your belief “system,” your religion—to someone who is not a Christian? If asked, of course you would identify yourself as a Christian. Christian—even with all the assumed baggage that Christianity carries in the United States—means that you belong to Christ. You do not belong to Buddha, or Mohammed, or Krishna, or to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or to any of their books. You belong to Christ and so you live by the Words (the Scriptures) that testify to Him. You do not belong to Luther any more than you belong to any other Christian teacher. No matter who the person is, ancient or modern, the Scriptures are the ruler by which you measure any human being’s teaching.

It is good to recognize in a world that barely knows Christianity—let alone its various stripes and differences—that our identity is always and only in Christ and not in any man, certainly not in Luther. But this can sometimes mislead us. Perhaps we will say, “I am a Lutheran-Christian,” where “Lutheran” modifies “Christian” to tell us what kind of Christian we are. Or perhaps we will say it another way: “I am a Christian first and a Lutheran second.” On the one hand, this is a good impulse: we want to be identified by what belongs to Christ, and not what belongs to human beings. But, on the other hand, it can mislead us. Such statements can very easily assume that Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic are additions to Christianity. In other words, we assume that there is a core of what we call “Christianity,” and then various people added various, other, more secondary teachings to the central Christian faith. It very well might be the case that human beings have built wood, hay, or straw onto the precious foundation of Christ. But it is not necessarily so.

Perhaps we might remember C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, and think that it describes the center of Christianity and then all the denominations added their own spin and human traditions. But even Lewis describes his book as a hallway in a house. “But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”

There are certainly things that all Christians share in common. We might point to the ecumenical, or common, Creeds as the summary of those teachings. But you are just as likely to hear something along the lines of, “Why do the people who put together the creeds, or you, or anyone else get to tell me what it means to be a Christian? I feel like I’m just as much a Christian as you are, even though I don’t believe half those things.”

But when it comes to actual, lived Christian experience, there is no such thing as “mere” Christianity. Different traditions are simply different ways of seeing. And since you have to see, the only question is, how are you going to see? How are you going to see Christ and the Scriptures and faith and salvation? As soon as you touch on or answer any of those questions, you are going to find yourself in one tradition or another. If those churches called “Lutheran” have indeed added something to Christ or the Scriptures, then you ought not to be a Lutheran. Likewise, if any other tradition has added or removed things from Christ’s word, you ought not to be in a church of that tradition either. If I believed that the Book of Concord is anything other than a true summary of what the Scriptures teach, not only would I not be a Lutheran pastor; I wouldn’t be a Lutheran at all.

Lutherans—if they truly are Lutherans—will not be bound to anything but Christ’s word, adding nothing to it, and taking nothing away from it. We believe the Book of Concord does exactly that, which is why its writings are listed in our constitution and is the secondary basis of every one of our pastor’s ordination and installation vows. There is no congregation that is merely Christian. Non-denominational churches are just as much denominations as any other (usually Baptist in their theology). But every single Christian has to examine the Scriptures and decide which tradition teaches those Scriptures truly. This, of course, depends on Christ being faithful to His word and preserving His Church at all times and all places, even in our age.

Finally, even if someone decides that Lutherans truly teach the Scriptures (as I, of course, do), that does not mean that Lutherans know everything about God or that there is nothing to learn from other traditions and teachers. We don’t claim to know God completely; we only claim to teach truly what God has given us to know—and, certainly, individuals are fallible and error-prone, and will not always teach Christ correctly in all points, no matter what tradition they claim.

There should be both confidence and humility in our confession: confidence in the Christ who has taught His Apostles His own life-giving Word; confidence in the Christ who has made promises to us in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution and His Holy Supper; but humility in realizing that we have nothing that hasn’t been given to us. It’s all gift, and we do not “own” it, anymore than we own our bodies, or our children, or anything else in this creation with which God has freely blessed us.

So we give our Lutheran confession freely, because we believe it whole-heartedly, and we continue to pray fervently for unity under the Word that we confess. Everything else is outside our control and, finally, we will know the unity for which we pray only in the fulfillment of all things in the new creation.

Pr. Winterstein

*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”

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