OK, can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (only in Lutheran circles, you understand) “What would Luther think about what you’re doing?” First, let me begin by saying that I think the first question ought to be: “What does Jesus think about what we’re doing?” What I know about Luther leads me to believe he’d feel the same. After we’ve answered that first question, I don’t suppose what Luther would think really matters.
But just for the sake of argument, (and because it strikes me that blogs need to be somewhat edgy in order to be interesting), “What would Luther think about the state of our Lutheran Church right now?”
First, I acknowledge that there would be a lot of problems bringing the good Dr. Luther up to date on some 500 years of history. But these problems are probably solvable; maybe we’d just send him away to watch the History Channel in German for a few days. I’m sure linguists could bring his German up to date and a few days with Fox News or CNN would bring his 16th century perspective current.
Maybe we’d start by trying to explain the dozen or so different Lutheran groups or denominations in the U.S. He always was an emotionally expressive guy, so he’d probably box our ears and yell at us for dividing the body of Christ.
When he learned that the big issue in the ELCA was whether or not to ordain practicing gay and lesbian pastors and blessing homosexual unions, he’d probably be looking for an ink well to throw at us. I suppose somebody would want to justify the position and Luther, being a Bible scholar and translator, would probably rip them to shreds. After all, neither of these concepts are biblically supportable and Luther was very concerned that the Bible should trump human tradition. He himself had seen first hand what happens when you let human opinion have the upper hand over Scripture. No doubt he’d have choice words for our bishops for allowing things to come to this.
He’d probably really have a hard time understanding our Full Communion agreements with the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church and the soon to be announced union with the United Methodist Church. Why? Because Luther had a very sacramental theology. Luther was also much more a fundamentalist than most Lutherans. (A truly odd thing, especially these days, to be a sacramental fundamentalist). He believed that when Jesus said, “This is my body” during the Last Supper, he was speaking literally and not figuratively. He believed in the Real Presence and theologically opposed the other reformers who favored a symbolic interpretation. I’d like to think that once he understood how hostile the world was to the Gospel he’d allow us some freedom in associating and being allied with other Christians but part of me wonders if he wouldn’t cling to his understanding of the sacrament and Scripture, even it it made him unpopular.
Luther would look at the state of our families and wonder why we allowed them to stop teaching the faith to their children at home. He’d probably mention that he wrote a Catechism to help families learn the faith together and yell at us for turning what was meant to be a life long daily practice into something that happens in church basements on Wednesday nights during the school year (if it isn’t too cold or too snowy). He would probably blame pastors like me for “allowing” families to fall apart because we hadn’t equipped men to be the heads of households nor did we do enough to “keep” the kids we confirmed from running away from church as fast as they could.
He probably wouldn’t be really happy with the way we do worship, either. He’d miss the mass and it’s structure in these times of contemporary worship. I’d like to think that after a while he’d warm to the idea of more freedom in worship but honestly, I’m not sure. He’d probably say there is a reason we did the creed every week, communion every week, confession every week. The only thing that I think might mitigate his diatribe would be when he looked around at our greater society and realized that we had a vast mission field of unchurched and dechurched people. I think he’d really struggle with comprehending the end of the Christendom concept that he’d known - that all people in the west were Christians. I think that the realization that we had such a high percentage of people with no church experience just might cause him to stop and think and consider... how do we teach them about Jesus?
It’s at that point that I wonder what he would come up with. In his day he put the language of the church service into the language of the people. What would that look like today? He wrote new hymns to new melodies so people would be comfortable to sing praises to God - what would that look like today? He pioneered the idea of different kinds of services for different kinds of people - the High Mass (in Latin) for the educated, the Low or Folk mass for the common people, and the Home Group or House Church for the true believers (although he could only speculate on this third group and didn’t feel enough existed during his day to make such a form of worship viable). What would Dr. Luther prescribe for us? Services for believers and other teaching services for those new to the faith? Would he make radical changes to what we consider “Lutheran Worship?”
Can you imagine what he’d do when he discovered the many different types of communication open to us? If the man filled 50 volumes in his relatively short life and translated the whole of Scripture, can you imagine what he could publish on line?
Finally, I wonder what Dr. Luther’s reappearance would mean for Lutheran ideas about how we organize the church and how we share the Gospel? Would he write 50 more volumes on the importance of sharing the Gospel with those around us? Would he propose new ways of organizing ourselves (that didn’t look so 16th century as they do currently) to accomplish mission and govern ourselves? I think he would and I think what he would come up with would make even those of us who consider ourselves on the cutting edge of the church growth movement look like we were 500 years out of date.