Beards and Confessionalism

By Paul Koch

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When one is in possession of a truly glorious beard, one is prepared for truly grand adventures.

Okay perhaps that isn’t true, but as one who has a beard I can tell you that it does impact your life. My beard certainly isn’t the biggest beard or the most cleverly shaped beard but it is mine and I’ve have had it long before our hipster friends made them popular again. Over the years it has become a part of me and I like what it has given me; it demands attention, is a conversation starter, it makes me more difficult to forget, and even gives the illusion of wisdom to the words I speak. My beard imparts confidence and I’m thankful for it.

However this same beard which I love and enjoy at home has a very different reaction when abroad. When entering into the old city of Jerusalem past a line of young and well-armed Israeli police officers, my bearded face was not met with nods of approval but with glares of distrust. When trying to fly out of Istanbul two days after suicide bombers attacked a peace rally in the capital of Turkey my beard meant that more than once I was “randomly selected” for extra security screening.

The same beard on the same face can, of course, be treated very different depending on the circumstances. Where I may see it as a symbol of freedom and joy in the land of the free and home of the brave, it can become a symbol of oppression in a land of fear and control. In fact if I made my home in such places I might very well think twice about my choice of facial hair.

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As I think about these things I wonder if there might be a correlation with the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. When I was ordained as a pastor in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod I made a particular vow regarding the confessions found in the 1580 Book of Concord. It went like this:

P:    Do you believe and confess the three Ecumenical Creeds, namely the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, as faithful testimonies to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and do you reject all the errors which they condemn?

R:    Yes, I believe and confess the three Ecumenical Creeds because they are in accord with the Word of God. I also reject all the errors they condemn.

P:    Do you confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession to be a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? And do you confess that the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord—as these are contained in the Book of Concord—are also in agreement with this one scriptural faith?

R:    Yes, I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God.

P:    Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?

R:    Yes, I promise, with the help of God.

So the promise is that I make the confessions my own confession because they are in accord with the Word of God; and I promise to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments in accordance with them.

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Now this is all well and good and pretty straight forward. Nothing too shocking about this for any Lutheran who happens to be reading, nor anyone who has been to an ordination or installation of a pastor in this tradition; you have heard this very thing recited word for word. The issue then, to quote Luther, is “What does this mean?” Or perhaps even better, “What does this look like?”

Allow me to give a few observations from my own experience. Much like my glorious beard, these confessions have become a part of me. They give me confidence and courage and strength. They shape the baggage that I carry with me to the text of the Holy Scripture and in forming my understanding they guide me to faithful proclamation. Without them, I fear I would be lost, consumed by the winds and waves of our age.

Yet even these great confessions can be used different ways. They can be wielded in the way of the Law or the way of the Gospel. They can be a tool for freedom and hope or an instrument of fear and control. I believe there are two prevalent ways in which we have answered the “What does this look like?” question regarding our confessions; the electric fence or the lighthouse.

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The electric fence seems straight forward. The confessions operate as a box in which we are allowed to play. Go ahead and have fun, go ahead and explore, go ahead and be yourself: just stay in the box. If you get too close to the edge, if you wander a bit too far you’ll be shocked and reminded of where true orthodoxy lies (inside the box). The doctrine confessed in the Book of Concord is our limit and we are to spend our days making sure we stay inside the box. I think this view of the confessions is born of fear. The confessions which were joyfully confessed by the pastor now become reigns of control to make sure everyone stays in line.

On the other hand there is the view that the confessions operate like a lighthouse. That is, unlike the fence which seeks to keep us in, the confessions of the church are a shining light on a hill giving us the freedom to safely explore. They are the sure thing, the confident thing, the thing that we know will always lead to safety. But that means we are free to roam as well. Most of the time we won’t roam very far, but at times we may dive in to the darker and more unstable areas. The confessions are our commonplace of assurance. In my opinion, this view keeps the joy and in fact accomplishes the very thing the confessions desire to do.

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Like my beard, context will impact how our confessions are embraced. And at times, no doubt, the electric fence will be needed. But perhaps we too often operate in the land of fear and control instead of rejoicing in the freedom of a joyous confession that bears light in the darkness.

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