Linda was looking for a church in town. “Lutherans don’t really do that many Bible studies, do they?” were her first words. While trying to hide my shock and defensiveness, I quickly fumbled to lay my hands on a brochure that would suggest otherwise. But in thinking about her comment, I realized how important perceptions can be. This was a non-Lutheran’s perception of us.
I’m thinking also about another comment recently made by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson when he asked our synod assembly whether or not we—as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (ELCA)—want to be identified by what divides us or what unites us. Again, how do we want to be perceived and identified? While perceptions can be misleading and deceptive, they are not an altogether unimportant matter.
The historic ECUSA (The Episcopal Church USA) Convention and the 2003 ELCA Churchwide Assembly are now behind us. There was media frenzy over the actions of the Episcopal Convention. Perceptions abound. One editorial perceived a church that has gone off the cliff, while another suggested a bold move of gutsy leadership. And with this, speculations abound regarding what this means for the ELCA. Will we follow suit? Do the actions of the ECUSA affect our full communion agreement, "Called to Common Mission?"
In all of this, we can be sure of what many of us have known for some time now. We, as Lutherans, are at the crossroads. It’s time for leadership. It’s time for us to clarify what it means to be a confessional church guided by the Word of God.
Of course, it always sounds so good to say that we are a “biblical” and “confessional” church, but what does that look like? We can start by lifting up two beliefs that identify Lutherans: 1) All are priests; and 2) The Holy Spirit is attached to the Word of God.
Leadership begins and ends with these two identifying marks. Luther translated the Bible into German because he was convinced that once the Word was read and heard, Jesus Christ would come alive in the hearer. Luther was convinced that the Bible could be clearly read and understood by those who gathered around it (with or without an ordained priest who could translate Latin, Hebrew or Greek). Of course, this conviction began a reformation long ago. It can and will happen again. We must first make sure the comment of the visitor I met is not true of our own congregations.
It is always a temptation to fall into the trap of the “enthusiasts” of Luther’s day, of whom Luther said they swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all. How often has the Holy Spirit been employed (even at church conventions) as the revealer of truth apart from the Word of God? Here Luther never wavered. Luther acknowledged that while it is “possible” for the Holy Spirit to work without and apart from the Word, God chose otherwise. And who are we to inquire into God’s divine will?
Holy Spirit and Word are not to be separated.
Lutherans, for instance, could not make the claims of Rev. Edwin Bacon, an Episcopal rector in Pasadena, Calif., who told Bill O’Reilly in an interview following the ECUSA Convention that Episcopalians are not bound by scripture and that the Holy Spirit is not confined by what is written.
To make our way through the difficult times that lie before us, it will take leadership. But this is not the kind of leadership that begins with people who hold offices in the church, as much as with the leading of the Holy Spirit that begins when small groups of Christians commit themselves to the study of the Word of God.
There would be no need for groups like WordAlone if Lutherans were identified with and united by a clear and unwavering confidence in the truth of God’s Holy Word, revealed as law and gospel.
Leadership devoid of this will only leave us fumbling to answer the questions of other “Lindas,” hungry for the truth that the Word provides. But far worse than that, it will leave us with Luther’s haunting question: “Why do you stare with your eyes wide open at the devil’s signs, as if Christ would be somewhere where His Word is not?” God save us!