I was recently asked, “What sets apart Lutherans from other Christians? Not that we are better or worse – but what makes us distinct?” This particular person said they enjoyed the congregation we are a part of, the people in it, the emphases on faith and life, but wanted to know, “What makes us Lutherans instead of something else?”
This is a great question with many potential answers.
Here is my take:
Our namesake – Martin Luther, the 16th century monk who defied the ecclesiastical powers of the time with his critique of the sale of indulgences and eventually led a reform movement that became the Protestant branch of Christianity has a certain celebrity status among us. But many other Protestants also recognize Luther too, and even our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers sing “A Mighty Fortress” once and a while. Life Magazine’s “Top 100 People of the Last Millennium” lists Martin Luther as number 3 – behind Thomas Edison and Christopher Columbus. (http://www.tostepharmd.net/hissoc/top100people.html). Luther has a wider appeal than the exclusive interest of those who bear his name on their church doors. What made Luther so effective as a leader was his use of the printing press. In our age taking advantage of new digital means of communication is paramount in continuing that legacy, but we are for more than the heirs of Luther. The whole church and culture is in the midst of a digital transformation., and none of us knows exactly what that means.
We could identify our ethnic heritage as key features of who we are as a people. We are Lutherans in North America primarily because Lutherans from Europe came to settle here. When the Reformation took hold in the 16th Century, it culturally took on a Northern European foothold. In the centuries since then, people from Germany, Slovakia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and elsewhere emigrated from their homelands to settle in North America. Like many others, they brought their faith with them building communities, churches, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and denominational structures to support them. As English became the primary language of these communities across subsequent generations, mergers of like-minded groups formed larger structures. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), as one example, is the combination of many of these mergers – the most recent taking place in the late 1980s. But this history is not what defines Lutheran Christianity. Today, there are more Lutherans in Tanzania than in North America, and the Lutheran Christians in all of Africa far outnumber those in Europe. There are growing communities of Lutheran Christians in South East Asia, Central and South America. According to the Lutheran World Federation, there are approximately 70.5 million Lutherans worldwide in 79 different countries, representing 143 church bodies (http://www.lutheranworld.org/lwf/index.php/who-we-are). History teaches that communities are fluid. Heritage alone is not what defines Lutheran Christianity in the 21st Century.
We could also name the Lutheran emphasis on scripture, liturgy, the sacraments, the understanding that God’s grace is central to who God is in Jesus Christ as key things that define our Christian practice. These things are also far from exclusive to Lutherans. Quite the contrary! One of the great contributions of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church was the coming together of Christians of various backgrounds and denominational ties to renew the whole church. There is still much work to be done, but for decades on the ground – church to church, neighbor to neighbor, family member to family member, people have been coming together to see one another as friends in the faith rather than as enemies. As many things remain divided, we also have never worked closer together. Lutherans have been leaders within the ecumenical movement, but it is not the key attribute that gives us a distinct Lutheran flavor to the Christian faith.
Many church bodies are named after a particular church structure – Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, etc. Lutherans have enjoyed a variety of different structures across five centuries, but whatever form we have utilized, collaboration has been a constant priority. In the ELCA, collaboration over a few centuries built and sustains 26 colleges and universities, 8 seminaries, 145 outdoor ministries 193 campus ministries, along with many emerging centers of mission. The ELCA continues to collaborate among our almost 10,000 congregations around a Malaria Initiative and Hunger Appeal. Our partnership with other Lutheran bodies in Lutheran Social Services and Lutheran World Relief helps reach the most vulnerable at home and abroad. Yet collaboration is not the sole identifier of the Lutheran expression of Christian faith.
A Way of Talking
In many ways all of the above ways shape a growing understanding of who Lutherans are today. Yet I would say what defines Lutheran Christianity is that we have a particular way of talking. Lutherans utilize a certain grammar that other Christians just don’t seem to use (or use that much). Other Christians talk about Jesus, they talk about what Jesus does, and they talk about why it matters. Lutherans do too. However, most Christians proclaim Jesus into the midst of the world and then discuss how we should best respond. Lutherans do the opposite – we proclaim the world as it is: created good but broken, sinful, and unclean. Into a broken, sinful and unclean world we proclaim what God promises to do about it as Jesus Christ enters the mess and turns us loose to join him.
Catch the subtle difference?
-It is not naming Jesus as our savior with a prescribed call to holy living; but naming clearly what should be (but is not that way), and then naming Jesus as our savior in the midst of this broken, sinful, and unclean world.
-Rather than asserting we can improve our humanity with the right choices in order to crawl out of the mire; we assert our place in the mire of our humanity, and the only way to change it is the action of another – Jesus Christ – who dies for us that we might live.
-We don’t claim that we can get our (morality, piety, theology) right on the road to better living, better faithfulness, and better treatment of others. Instead, we believe, teach and confess that only God gets things right (as hard as we may try or fail to understand), because we are in constant need of redemption. Even when there are glimmers of saintliness among us we always are and will always remain sinners.
It is a subtle difference, but in my view it makes all the difference in the world. Calling a thing what it is changes the way we hear God’s Word and live our lives of faith. The Word of God isn’t just medicine that makes you better if you follow the right regimen. God’s Word is the strangest kind of medicine: it actually kills you, and then raises you in Christ from the dead.
For Lutherans, Christ does everything to save us and the meaning of “good works” has changed. Doing good, helping others, and leading a moral life are not discouraged or unimportant. But Lutherans understand that these things won’t get us anywhere with God, since there is nothing we can do that is moral enough, helpful enough, holy enough, pious enough, or redemptive enough to change our sinful and broken humanity. We help others because we can. We strive to be better stewards, work hard and make the most of the opportunities to serve in front of us because they are God’s gifts to us. We understand that we often get things wrong and ask for forgiveness. Faith, in the midst of these challenges believes that God’s promise is true: Even though we don’t deserve it, in Christ we are made free – and he opens to you and me a whole new frontier!
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:1-6)