As most Lutherans (and many others) are well aware by now, the Year of our Lord 2017 will mark the five hundredth anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, at least as conventionally calculated from Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on All Hallows’ Eve, 1517. By sheer coincidence, 2017 will also mark the fiftieth anniversary of my own confirmation. To be sure, the Rite of Confirmation has diminished considerably in its significance over the past half-century, and rightly so. For Lutherans, at least, it is not a distinct sacrament, but rather an opportunity for the “Affirmation of Baptism” (a title that has in some circles replaced “Confirmation”), and it no longer marks the occasion of first Communion, as it did “back in the day.” And, goodness knows, we are all better off for backing away from the event as some kind of “graduation” from formal Christian education. Still, for me at least, it is the occasion for some reflection on what has happened in Lutheranism in America since 1967, as that date remains the first occasion on which I made a public profession of faith specifically as a Lutheran Christian.
Most dramatically, if I may be direct: the Lutheran Church that even then I intended to serve as a pastor no longer exists. I grew up in two Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregations in Maryland, but I was not unaware that there was at least one other sort of Lutheran: the Lutheran Church in America (or LCA). So far as I knew then, the only significant difference between the LCMS and the LCA was that in the LCMS you had to quit the Masons before you could join the church, while in the LCA, you could join first, after which your pastor would try to wean you from the Masons. (This issue was a personal one, as my beloved aunt was simultaneously a born-and-bred LCMS Lutheran and an unapologetic member of the Order of the Eastern Star, the women’s Masonic order.)
In retrospect, it was an extraordinary time to be coming of age as a Lutheran in America. Pan-Lutheran organizations flourished, above all the Lutheran Council in the USA (or “le-CU-sa,” as it was known); I recall having earned a religious medal in the Boy Scouts under their auspices. The LCMS had proposed the production of a common hymnal, and the two other major church bodies, the LCA and the American Lutheran Church (ALC) had accepted. My father, an active lay leader in our congregation, came home speaking of “comity agreements,” whereby the three church bodies divided up underserved mission territories (in the US) for development. In sum, as a teenager in the LCMS, I was tutored thoroughly in Lutheran worship practices and doctrine (I’ll never forget having to memorize the “Table of Duties” from the Small Catechism), but I also had a sense of personal engagement with an enterprise that was on the move and moving forward.
Soon enough, I learned that the situation was more complex. During the summer of 1973, between my graduation (as a college sophomore) from Concordia College in Bronxville, NY, and my enrollment at Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, IN, a veritable civil war erupted within the LCMS in full public view at its convention in New Orleans. That this was neither a sudden development nor a bottom-up rebellion of the faithful against an effete, progressive elite has been amply and irrefutably demonstrated by an LCMS professor from Concordia University Wisconsin, James C. Burkee in Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity (Fortress 2011). It was power politics at its most raw and brutal, which I experienced personally when the traditionalist forces succeeded in closing my alma mater in Fort Wayne, in order to hand over the campus to the Synod’s second seminary in Springfield, IL. During my seminary years (in 1977), the Synod backed away from the now-complete joint hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). I could only suspect that some feared that allowing a common hymnal would lead laypeople to assume that the Synod was not as distinct from other Lutherans as those leaders felt it should be and was. Climactically (at least in 20/20 hindsight), the LCMS sealed the fate of anything resembling a united American Lutheranism when it broke fellowship with the centrist ALC in 1981, thereby driving the latter into the arms of the more liberal (and, interestingly enough, more hierarchical) LCA. The upshot was the present status quo: an increasingly sectarian and self-absorbed LCMS and a larger, more diffuse, and indisputably Mainline Protestant Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
To return to my own story, after twenty-eight years as an LCMS pastor, professor, and finally university president, in 2007 I underwent a year-long process of “entrancing” (and various other denominative gerunds) to the pastoral roster of the ELCA. Ironically, I arrived just in time for that church body to undergo a schism of its own, only this time precipitated from the left, as the “2009 sexuality decisions” (as they became known in shorthand reference) led upward of 10 percent of the denomination’s congregations to depart, including at least some pastors who had left the LCMS thirty-five years earlier under pressure from the right. Meanwhile, my own wife, who had completed a seminary degree in 2007, waited seven years for a call. Both she and I remain profoundly grateful for the hospitality and opportunities for ministry that we have found within the ELCA. But without excessive parade of personal specifics, I will say that we have learned that a pastor can be abused as fully and as well in the ELCA as in the LCMS.
I include these personal details only as illustrative anecdotes for my larger point: that over the past fifty years we who have been the stewards of the Lutheran heritage in America have fallen far short of our calling. While I see no necessary benefit in organizational unity (as the ELCA has demonstrated from time to time), I do see as tragic the dramatic decrease in interaction of nearly any sort across the Lutheran spectrum. Indeed worse, my sense is that we are drifting apart: I have often depicted my own sensation as a Lutheran these days as like unto a boy with a foot on the dock and a foot on a boat, while the boat is pulling away. Thus, for example, the venerable organization of Lutheran college and university presidents, the Lutheran Educational Conference of North America (LECNA), is on life-support at this moment. Thus, both the LCMS and the ELCA published in 2006 their own new hymnals, each of which is in its own way a profoundly political document (in addition to the undoubted positive of contributing numerous and varied new hymns to the Lutheran congregational repertoire), exaggerating the distinctive tendencies—for good and ill—of each church body. Neither book, in my fallible opinion, is blessed with the theological balance and aesthetic beauty of the LBW that had been jointly produced a generation earlier. Thirdly, all the while, both church bodies report steadily declining membership statistics. Whatever else may be said of the change, the conversion of the largest Lutheran fraternal insurance company from “Thrivent Financial for Lutherans” to “Thrivent Financial” is a cold-eyed assessment that all is not well in American Lutheranism.
My purpose in offering these reflections is not to wallow in a jeremiad (“ain’t it awful”), nor to long for lost days or lost opportunities, nor to assign blame for where we stand: God knows, there is plenty of that to be shared around. Rather, I write for three purposes. The first is addressed to my students (this is, after all, a university publication): learn from our errors. Learn that majorities rule, but that they also err. Learn that time taken to talk and seek consensus is time well-spent. Learn that the ways of secular politics sometimes produce desired results but always produce unintended and often horrific consequences. My second purpose is an appeal to the booming Lutheran churches of Africa: “Come over and help us” (cf. Acts 16:9). Your way of doing Lutheran is no more immediately transferable to our culture than ours ever was to yours. But surely we have much to learn from you, above all, from your passion to share the Gospel in fresh and outward-focused ways. My third and final purpose (for now) is to appeal to my own generation in what should be our most productive years as pastors and teachers of the church. Can we not step back and view our lives and work sub specie aeternitatis—in view of the truly long run—as we would be content to read of them in our obituaries or even lay them at the feet of God? What can we yet do to ensure that the chief Lutheran charism—that all good things are finally God’s doing and free gift—retains a voice in Christianity’s witness in the world? A final decade or two focused on that, and we might dare to join in words that stirred the world half a millennium ago: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
George C. Heider serves as chair of the Department of Theology at Valparaiso University.