Here’s a story which may or may not be completely metaphorical.
Pseudonymous pastors Kris and Theo were overseers of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church, in nearby countries. Both professed allegiance to the Old Roman Creed, and believed that the words of Jesus, as handed to us in the writings of the Apostles, were the foundation of their life and teaching, in which we read:
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” -John 11:35
“As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. -Luke 6:31
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” -John 14:15
Pastor Theo, by virtue of the authority given him in his ecclesiastical position, changed some theological terminology in such a way that altered the church’s historic verbiage, because he believed his alternative to be “reasonable.” Pastor Kris was offended, and dug his heels into the claim that Theo’s doctrinal innovations changed the Gospel given them by Christ. Pastor Kris approached Pastor Theo about the issue, and a robust dialogue and debate of epic proportions ensued. However, despite the tears and pleading of Kris, Theo remains unconvinced, insisting that his use of theological terminology accurately reflects the teaching of Jesus.
So naturally, being unable to resolve the technicality, they bring several friends, including Pastors George, Alex, Mark, Max, Paul, Greg, and a few others into the conversation. These, in turn, invite more of their brothers in the ministry from an even wider geographical region until a sizable convocation has been assembled to partake in the semantical dialogue. Despite the multitude of councilors, the matter remains unresolved: Kris is still convinced that Theo has made a terrible mistake, and Theo is transparent about being unable to recant without violating his conscience.
All avenues of inquiry, reasoning, and rhetoric were exhausted in the matter. Theo even tried singing his defense to make it more compelling. At this point, should a head of the church settle the matter definitively, one of these two bishops would be left out of the church over this issue.
What can be done? There seems no path forward in the reconciliation of these mutually exclusive dogmatic positions under the same religious banner.
Except that this story has played out in history countless times. And each time, things actually ended well so long as the bishops involved:
- Demonstrated love to each other by being nice
- Avoided belittling one another
- Dealt with the matter directly and personally, instead of politicking behind closed doors
- Sought to understand one another rather than yell louder than their opposition
- Gave each other plenteous benefit of the doubt
- Recognized the territorial authority of each’s diocese
- Were willing to confess and forsake which ever errs they could be convinced of, and
- Were able to not take the conflict personally or hold it against their brother.
The words of Christ are still living and active despite the disparity of perspectives. Those words always bring life!
…except for when the above criteria were completely disregarded and Kris (Kringle, that is) got so frustrated that he struck Theo’s friend and sympathizer (Arius) in the face. Whoops! How is the good, true, and beautiful supposed to triumph in THAT situation?
Well, Arius and Theophilus (the Ethiopian) were simply wrong, and the truth had to prevail, even at the cost of the above. It does not matter how nice you are if Jesus isn’t truly the Son of God! If his death does not rescue us from ours, if there is no hope beyond the grave, we should eat, drink, and be merry, but remember that all we’re left with is a dog eat dog world.
I’m certainly not saying violence is an acceptable resort (and neither did Saint Nicholas! He confessed his sin and repented). The above criteria are indeed good ideas. If we are to take the teaching of Jesus seriously, we ought to be marked by our kindness to one another. But were such definition of kindness given priority by the early church over and against whether Kris or Theo was actually correct, we would not today have the Nicene creed. Nor would we be reaping the benefits of the immense scope of unity this common confession has afforded between Christians of all denominations!
Arius can assert until he is blue in the face that he is every bit as much a valid part of the Holy, Christian, and Apostolic church as Nicholas, Athanasius, and Augustine, but the fact of the matter is that he would be absolutely incorrect to say so, and this is true regardless of whether Arius understands or accepts it.
There is a time to “agree to disagree,” and there is a time where this approach has its limits. We must be willing to see these limits and call a thing what it is, even if somebody takes it like a slap in the face. Otherwise, all we are left with is a “terminal niceness” that gives a false appearance of unity based on the tranquility of mannerisms rather than uniformity in confession. It is not our politeness that brings unity to the church, it is the Gospel, and thus, the reality of whether or not a change in terminology, teaching, or practices “impinges on the Gospel” is actually a matter of utmost importance which ought to be resolved whenever possible. For the unity of the church.
This is not to say that every alteration to the order of worship is tantamount to forsaking Trinitarian orthodoxy. And I am absolutely NOT trying to imply this is what certain others are trying to say. There is room for all kinds of diversity in doxological practices among confessional Lutherans, and differing perspectives on certain issues. Some hold that the one-year lectionary has greater didactic success, while others insist that the three-year teaches more the full counsel of the Word of God. Some sing the Psalm, others stick with the Gradual. Some churches can precisely execute the Paschal Triduum by the book, whilst others have not yet even heard of it and are convinced that Christ and his Apostles observed an Easter sunrise service. (Well, at least the ladies did!)
My point is simply this: You cannot simply abandon wholesale the liturgy and hymnody of the historic Lutheran church, as some of our congregations have, along with the common doxological property of every historic expression of Western Christendom, simply on the basis of pastoral discretion, and insist that you are teaching precisely the same thing as confessional Lutherans in stodgy traditional churches. When you adopt wholesale the liturgy of enthusiast charismatic traditions and the trendy hymnody of revivalist Evangelicalism, those respective doctrines will be confessed by your worship services. It is not an issue of style vs. substance: the pattern of words you are using are identical to theirs and thus express the same unsound ideals. To claim otherwise only reveals ignorance of the actual purpose and value of both our historic worship patterns, AND the charismatic and revivalist origins of what is so often called “contemporary worship.” (You can listen to Dr. Lester Ruth tell you all about it here.)
Need more proof? Whenever people leave our contemporary congregations, for whatever reason good or bad, they usually do not seek out another faithful congregation of the Lutheran confession in spite of their lack of comfortability or familiarity with traditional Lutheran worship. No, they will find their way into a church that worships the same way as what they left, looks the same, sounds the same, and feels the same, even if this means their children will not be baptized or confirmed, communion will be very infrequent, preaching comes nowhere close to rightly dividing law and gospel, and the scriptures themselves are systematically eradicated from prominence in the assembly. We can say “quia” until we are blue in the face, but these methods and results factually reveal otherwise, whether or not we all understand or are convinced of it.
We have plenty of self-delusion masquerading as “good reason,” and it isn’t nice or unifying for the church to pretend otherwise.