When Disagreements Arise

July 25, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


LCMS Convention

Credit: LCMS / Michael Scheurmann

A week ago, the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, held its triennial convention.  As with every denomination, mine has its share of disagreements and squabbles, many of which were on display at this convention.  At issue was everything from the way ecclesiastical supervision is practiced when a pastor is accused of teaching falsely to whether certain congregations can continue to be served in Word and Sacrament ministry by someone who is not an ordained pastor.

As I listened to these debates, I was reminded of how the earliest Lutherans dealt with differences among themselves and with other Christian bodies.

The Augsburg Confession is a statement of confessional standards for Lutherans worldwide.  In it, differences with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as with other nascent Protestant bodies, are outlined.  But before the drafters of the Augsburg Confession enumerated their differences with other Christians, they began with some points of agreement.  They opened their confession with a restatement of the three ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.  This was intentional, for the confessors wanted all those who read the Augsburg Confession to understand that its drafters did not stand outside the historic Christian faith; they stood squarely and solidly in it.  From there, the confessors went on to elaborate on their agreement with the historic Christian teaching on the nature of God:

Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true.  It is to be believed without doubt.  God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness…Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[1]

The confessors began their confession of faith with a point on which all Christians could agree.  Indeed, when the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Augsburg Confession, for all the things over which they registered their disagreement, when it came to the Lutherans’ confession of the Trinity, the Catholics wrote simply, “This is to be accepted.”[2]

The confessors, of course, did not only speak of where they agreed with Rome.  They had plenty to say about where they disagreed.  But where they began, I believe, is informative for us as we seek to address disagreements among ourselves.  Celebrating our agreements first is often the best way to find resolutions to our disagreements later.

One of the things I have long appreciated about the American Evangelical movement of the last several decades is that it has been able to engage many different church bodies – from Lutherans to Methodists to Presbyterians to Baptists to non-denominational congregations – by appealing to what these bodies share in common while still being honest about where they differ.  The National Association of Evangelicals, for instance, espouses a Statement of Faith that has broad resonance with nearly any confessional, Christ-centered, Bible-based church body.  Its statement of faith includes a recognition of the Bible as God’s Word, the two natures in Christ, the return of Christ, and the necessity of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s salvation.  In crafting confessional statements like these, the Evangelical movement has been able to highlight and celebrate just how much Christians across the world hold in common.

My church body can sometimes – and sometimes unfairly – be known more for where it disagrees with itself rather than being known for what it confesses together with a unified voice.  We can sometimes be thought of more as sectarian than as confessional.  This is why when disagreements do arise among us and become hot, as they inevitably will, I pray that we would return to and remind ourselves of all that we hold in common, for there is a lot.  I also pray that, as Lutheran Christians, we would seek to find places where we can work together with other Christians on the basis of what we share even as we continue to rigorously and truthfully litigate our differences.  Indeed, one of the highlights of this past convention was an address from Ryan T. Anderson, a Catholic intellectual, on the challenges Christians face with regard to human sexuality and religious liberty.  It was a joy to see people from two theological traditions that are generally at odds with each other in Lutheranism and Catholicism come together to think through some of the important ethical and philosophical issues of our day.

Why do I so adamantly pray that we would be known for our unity rather than for our division?  Because this, finally, is not a prayer that originated with me.  It originated with Jesus.  And to pray for anything less would be to crucify other Christians for their differences with us rather than to extol Christ crucified for us (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).  To pray for anything less would be to diminish, or even to deny, the amazing unity that Christ has given His Church.

Again, do not misunderstand me:  I am not saying that we should never tend to and seek to reconcile differences, but I am saying that we should be intentionally and continually thankful for where Christ has given us unity in spite of ourselves.  And He has given us plenty.

Let’s not neglect that gift.

__________________________

[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, Paul T. McCain, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 31 (AC I 1-3).

[2] “The Confutation of the Augsburg Confession,” Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord, Robert Kolb, James A. Nestingen, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 107 (Confutation I).

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