Time for Lutherans to be more Ecumenical

By Graham Glover

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We who belong to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are not particularly known for our ecumenical resolve. It’s not that we don’t like other Christians or desire unity among God’s people. We do. Honestly.

But we Missouri Synod Lutherans take the Lutheran Confessions seriously. We actually believe what they say and to the best of our limited and sinful ability, trust that they are a true explanation of the Holy Scriptures. This is why we Missourians don’t participate in anything that smacks of unionism or syncretism. Lest we give the impression that we are in full agreement with other Christians or that all religions confess the one, true God, the Missouri Synod does not co-celebrate services with other Christians or those from other faiths. This lack of participation does not mean we are sectarian or that we refuse to work alongside those outside our confessions. What it does mean however is that when it comes to our faith, the LCMS takes theology seriously and under most circumstances will not back down from its doctrinal decrees.

As a pastor in the LCMS I understand why my denomination keeps such resolve. More and more it seems Christians are willing to compromise on central teachings of the faith, all in the name of unity. This unity is cheap and does little more than give a false veneer of agreement among other denominations or religions. Or, this compromise is done because doctrine is not something people like to adhere to much these days.

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The problem for the Missouri Synod is that our strong stance against unionism and syncretism has often meant we are not eager or willing to participate in ecumenical dialogues or activities. We have a tendency (understandably so) of being perceived as an inward-looking denomination that already has the answers – to everything. It’s no wonder then that the LCMS has never been the one directing traffic on the ecumenical highway. Those we believe to be heterodox in their theology need not have the ability to influence the purity of our doctrine.

Again, I get it. I’m not suggesting that the LCMS open itself up to doctrinal change. We never have and I pray, never will. But the LCMS can and should seriously reconsider its participation in ecumenism.

It shouldn’t do this for selfish purposes (i.e., because we think it will “grow” our congregations…whatever that means), or because we naïvely think it will be the cause of mass conversions to Lutheranism. Rather, we should do this because the Missouri Synod has something to offer Christendom and those who do not confess Christ as Savior. And without a seat at the “ecumenical” table, our voice will never be heard, and the dialogues and agreements that do occur will do so without any of our theological influence. For the sake of Truth, this cannot continue any longer. It must change.

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Oftentimes I grow impatient with the Chaplain Corps. More often than I like, I am lumped together with other Protestants and expected to act like them. Explaining why Lutherans are different, especially with respect to worship, is a conversation I’ve had countless times over the past 7 years and one I fully expect to have on a regular basis so long as I serve in the Army. To be sure, there have been times when this lumping together has become so problematic that I have considered resigning my commission, returning to the civilian parish. Yet one of the many reasons I remain in the Chaplain Corps is my firm belief that the LCMS cannot lose its voice among the hundreds of thousands of men and women that serve in our nation’s Armed Forces. It would be easy to step away from this bastion of ecumenism – a Corps that can be wrought with people willing to compromise without a second thought. But the LCMS has a long and storied history in this realm and again, for the sake of Truth – for the benefit of Soldiers souls – we must remain engaged.

Last Sunday I taught the Adult Bible Class at an Episcopalian church. The parish is decidedly progressive on many theological and political issues – much more than I am and the LCMS. It was obvious as soon as the dialogue began (and shortly after I was introduced by the female “priest”) that there are many, many areas where our denominations diverge. I pray that my 45 minute class was fruitful for those who attended. For me, however, it was a fresh realization of why the LCMS must engage the ecumenical movement. Those in attendance and at the service that followed (yes, I worshiped with Episcopalians!) desire to know God. They want, even when they are theologically flawed, to do well by their neighbor and serve the Lord. Some of their church doctrines are in error, but they are still children of God, baptized in His Holy Name. Some of their lifestyles are clearly objectionable, but they still need to hear the Gospel and know that God loves and forgives them. In my short 2 hours with them last week I learned much about their worldview on many things and heard anew what drives their proclamations and actions.

However, had I not sat down at the table with them, I would not – I could not – understand or appreciate who they are and the beliefs they confess.

I don’t have a roadmap on how the LCMS should engage other Christian denominations and/or other religions. I’m sure such dialogue will be sticky and oftentimes, uncomfortable. But our stubbornness to freely and actively engage those outside our Synod should end. It’s long past time for Lutherans to be more ecumenical.

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