One of the wonderful things I get to do by virtue of my day off is spend time at a coffee shop near where my wife works. I hang out there for a variety of reasons: the people, the coffee, the opportunity to read in silence if I so choose. It is also a place where people do not know me, a place where there is no pretext, a place where I can just blend in and sometimes that is just what I need to recharge. But in that anonymity I am reminded that such a thing is not always possible, and sometimes it isn’t even desirable. The coffee shop is a place where I can blend in and disappear, the church is not, nor should it be. The church of Christ is place where we shouldn’t feel the need to hide but should be open with who we are and what it is we hold true, Christ himself crucified for the world.
It seems to me that there are times when the church, or the local expression of it, is a place we treat like my coffee shop. A place where we hide who we are because it is just easier that way. I may not have the answer to fix that problem, but I do know that it isn’t a new one. The church has always struggled with holding its doctrine and practice in tension with charity toward others. A voice I read this morning in that very coffee shop may be even more helpful now than he tried to be four decades ago.
“How a church body reacts to crises, especially in the field of doctrine, tells what that church body really is. Here is the test whether a church body is essentially different from other social institutions or whether it is truly church in the sense of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. This is what makes the struggle in Missouri such a significant issue for evangelical Christianity. Precisely because doctrine is important, a church body professes its confession by what it does as well as by what it says.
Missouri faces special difficulties because Biblical doctrines have played such a dominant role in the Synod’s life. Until the last quarter century Missouri was more of an interested spectator than a participant in theological issues within ecumenical circles. Overwhelmed by changes in the church and in society, many members have become fearful and insecure. Accusations and misunderstanding have only heightened the difficulties.
A constant threat to Missouri is found in the temptation to resort to legalism of various kinds to keep its doctrinal platform and its house in order. This legalism takes many forms, but it always betrays ultimately the fact that the church’s trust is in something else than in a gracious and faithful GOd who still rules through His Word. Theological issues cannot be resolved by making the Scriptures say more or less than they say or to mean something other than what they mean. To do this is to try to capture God rather than to be held captive by His Word. Theological issues are not resolved by power, whether exercised through votes of friends or by resolutions adopted in solemn assembly.
Fear and insecurity also tear at the bonds which hold the church’s membership together. The nature of heresy is that it affects the body of Christ even as it affects the doctrine of Christ. Missouri has been blessed with an unusual kind of unity. But the unity of our common roots is not to be confused with the unity which we have in Christ. Nor is the gift of our unity in Christ to be tampered with. Legalistic discipline cannot accomplish what the Gospel alone produces in terms of unity.”
– Oliver R. Harms, “Beyond the One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Anniversary,” Concordia Theological Monthly XLIII , No 4, (April 1972), 249-250.
(Rev. Dr. Harms was President of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod 1962-1969)
There is much there to think about, especially today, as we think about what it means to be united in Christ. It is unity that does not lead to anonymity, but one that leads to love and concern for one another because it proceeds not from doctrine or practice but Christ Himself.