Doctrine means nothing when Practice can mean anything.
Recently I was discussing some things with a fellow pastor and I uttered the phrase above. Many comments recently on this blog have been directed to the belief that solid Lutheran beliefs (expressed in the Book of Concord) can find their expression in a wide diversity of practices.
These things remind me of the Coexist bumper stickers you see on cars. The use a number of religious symbols to spell out the word. Would an LCMS bumper sticker say the same thing, using symbols of organs, praise bands, vested pastors, polo and khaki pastors, pastors in pulpit, pastors wandering around during sermons, women readers, communion rails under pastoral care, and drive-by open communion groups? How much of the discussion around needing such diversity and “broad consensus” stems not from theology but the general attitude that also produces the “coexist” bumper stickers?
While affirming that absolute uniformity in all ceremonies is not necessary in the Church, our fathers in the faith (including LCMS fathers) made uniformity something to be sought after. The knew the benefit in having practices that lined up with each other from parish to parish. They knew the comfort that would bring to people of all generations. They knew the catholic principle behind the church, that it is not trapped in a certain time or place. They also knew that doctrine informs practice and that practice informs doctrine.
Do we think we know better than our fathers? Do we really think that diversity of practices can still be upheld and still claim to have doctrinal unity? And this is now something in the LCMS over a generation old, which means in the flow of Lex Credendi, Lex Orandi, the practices that we have now tolerated have begun to affect our beliefs.
Diverse practices will come home to roost – and I wonder if the great disunity and disharmony today in the LCMS is only the fruit of a generation or better of allowing so many diverse practices to coexist under the banner of confessional Lutheranism. Too often now, we can find “lifelong Lutherans” with completely different ideas on what it means to be Lutheran, and this is the result of having so many different practices.
But that is another thing that diversity of practices does – it is no longer about beliefs or doctrine, but about practices. The focus has shifted. When practice can mean almost anything, doctrine means almost nothing.
Those who now seek after uniformity are accused of being legalistic and loveless, sinning against those whom they try to “impose” ceremonies upon. But behind the superficial accusation of sin (and the pious rebellion of the Old Adam), is the truth that uniformity serves Christ’s Church and that means Christians, real people who struggle in this life. Uniformity serves the next generation of Christians by not creating a destructive feedback loop of diverse practices lessening or changing doctrine. Those who strive for uniformity are trying to show love to those who are not just in front of them, but to those who come later, perhaps generations later.
The practical question is this: what does uniformity look like in the LCMS of 2012? I would suggest services of Lutheran Service Book, its Agenda and so forth (including vestments for clergy). The rites of LSB still resemble those that are common across the whole Evangelical Lutheran Church. But as of lately, even discussions here on BJS haven’t allowed such “broad consensus” – Is there really a unity of belief underlying this stubborn diversity?