Finding Our Place: Navigating Unionism and Sectarianism

September 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Marburg ColloquyLast week, I was answering some questions for a friend who is studying to become a pastor. His professor had given him two questions for me to answer as part of assignment. One of the questions really struck me: Where do you think Lutheranism fits within the wider Christian community?

This is an important question. After all, for some, it is not evident that Lutheranism does fit within the wider Christian community – at least in a way that encourages engagement with and learning from that community. Last week, I watched with an aching heart as some of my Lutheran brothers in ministry harshly and sometimes sarcastically criticized some of my other Lutheran brothers for engaging with and learning from people outside of my Lutheran community. These criticisms reminded me of how important questions about where Lutherans fit in the Church with a capital “C” really are.

In order to explore these questions, I think it’s important to note the Lutheran identity at its best is a confessional Lutheran identity. The word “confessional” is rooted in the Greek word homologeo, which means, “to say the same thing.” To be a confessional Lutheran, then, means to say the same thing as Jesus and His Word. It means to be devoted to a clear and accurate declaration and explanation of the gospel and sacred Scripture, which, I should point out, can be found in our community’s confessional documents.

When engaging the Christian community at large, this devotion to the gospel and Scripture means two things. First, it means that Lutherans eschew unionism. Unionists are those who conceal differences between Christian communities and pretend that all – or most all – Christians say the same thing about Jesus and His Word. At the same time confessional Lutheranism guards against unionism, however, it also stands against sectarianism. In other words, though Lutherans do not paper over differences between their confession of faith the confessions of other Christian communities, they also celebrate and affirm areas of agreement. Thus, Lutherans are very much a part of the wider Christian community, for they share many of the same theological commitments.

The most famous historical test case for the kind of confessional Lutheranism that abjures both unionism and sectarianism came in 1529 when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli met at Marburg to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement between their two reforming movements. At Marburg, they discovered they agreed on fourteen articles of faith spanning from the nature of the Trinity to justification by faith to the role of governing authorities. But they could not agree on one point: the character of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The dispute was formally summarized like this:

We all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the mass is not a work with which one can secure grace for someone else, whether he is dead or alive; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.[1]

This is a masterful statement. Luther and Zwingli carefully avoid unionism by clearly, winsomely, concernedly, and lovingly explaining where they disagree, but are also in no way sectarian, for they commit themselves to “show Christian love” and “diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding.” In other words, they unreservedly confess their positions while humbly asking the Lord to show them if and where they could be out of step with His Word. Here is confessional Lutheranism at its finest.

In a culture where truth is often either relegated to relativity or regarded as unimportant, confessional Lutheranism has not only much to say, but a time-tested strategy to offer. The ability to stand up for truth against error while also standing with the truth wherever it can be found is sorely needed not only in the Church, but in our world. So, as a confessional Lutheran, I will continue to be honest about areas of disagreement. But I will also never forget to look for areas of agreement. Finally, I will pray that those areas of agreement would continue to increase among others and myself until we all agree with Jesus. For agreeing with Him is what matters most.

__________________________________

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 38, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 88–89.

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