By Paul Koch –
The smorgasbord that is American Christianity is a plethora of material for running jokes and cultural commentary. Not only is there a conflict between people of the Christian faith and those outside the Church, but there is also an ongoing conflict within Christianity. The Baptists are pretty sure that the Catholics are going to hell, the Lutherans continually frustrate and confuse the Presbyterians (but let’s be honest that’s not hard to do), the Catholics think everyone else is just throwing a temper tantrum and will come home eventually, and on it goes.
The other day, as I was sitting in the beautiful LA traffic talking with my bride about our own slice of the market of American Christianity, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I came to a realization. I don’t love the LCMS. I don’t much care about the politics of this church body or the power struggles for direction and leadership. I shake my head at the made-up controversies that often get attention among the clergy, as I think most of them are the result of bureaucratic influence and not theological conviction.
I know that I’m a bit late to the game on this, but for so long I didn’t see much difference between the bureaucratic enterprise of a group of congregations and the confession of those congregations. The thing is, I LOVE the confessions embraced by the LCMS. To me, they are a brilliant and wonderful light that continues to faithfully guide me in my vocation as a preacher and teacher of the Word of God. The confessions of the church impact the actual work I do. They help shape and form the congregation that I serve by clarifying her identity and the truth upon which she stands. But the confessions are not the bureaucracy.
As we were slowly making our way north on the 405, my wife had asked me if there was any reason that I would consider leaving the LCMS—anything outside of doctrinal heresy, that is. And as I thought honestly about it, I thought sure, I would leave. I would leave if the bureaucracy became so tiresome that it was better to just go somewhere else. I suppose this means that I would leave just because I got tired and didn’t want to fight anymore. Now, to be honest, I don’t think that is really in my character, but it was surprising to me to admit that I might consider leaving.
But what I realized in saying that I would (theoretically) leave the LCMS is that I couldn’t see myself leaving the members of my congregation. While I have no special love the bureaucracy of the national church body in which I hold membership, I do have a great deal of love for the men and women to whom I preach every Sunday. I love their hurts and their triumphs, their struggles and their bold victories. I love their families and their confessions. I truly count them as my brothers and sisters. I pray for them and weep for them and cheer them on.
What I’m getting at is there is something profound and life changing about loving the people with whom you gather to receive the gifts of Christ. But those people, those actual faces that you see when you gather together are not a national church body or a cultural sign post of statistics or a political lobbying force, are the living breathing body of Christ in this place and at this time. And I love them for all their blemishes and stains. I would fight for them and them for me.
Don’t get too caught up with loving the church if by the church you mean a particular constitution and set of bylaws over and against another group. For they are not the Church. The Church is those who gather alongside of you, who confess the faith with you, who receive the gifts of Christ with you, defend, and protect you. While they may employ a bureaucratic system at times, they are not defined by it. Remember what you love, for it just may be the difference between a new bondage and freedom.