When Talking with Non-Lutherans
(Editors Note: Paul R. Raabe is Professor Emeritus at Concordia Seminary and Professor in Biblical Studies at Grand Canyon University)
Someone asked me how to talk with non-Lutherans. That is a good question. Here are some thoughts for the readers of ConcordiaTheology.org to consider. On a daily basis I chat with Christians who are non-Lutheran. In these conversations I find myself emphasizing three points. First, I recommend that American Christians need to get to know each other. In the year 2021 America has umpteen (that is the technical term for it) church bodies and church groups. I am constantly amazed at how many there are. In a metro there seems to be some kind of church every six blocks. Even a small town has different churches. In the Phoenix area, churches are lined up on certain streets. One street has a line of car dealerships and another street a line of churches. It must be a zoning thing. I recommend that average Christians do research on what different churches believe, teach, confess, and practice. They are not all the same. We need to get to know each other.
Second, I try to describe a Lutheran church service in ways that are intelligible to non-Lutherans. The conversation might go something like this:
To an Evangelical visitor a Lutheran church service might look somewhat ‘Roman Catholic-ish.’ That is for reasons both biblical and church-historical. On the basis of the Scriptures, we emphasize baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Therefore you will see an altar and a baptismal font located in prominent places. A Lutheran pastor wears robes during the public worship service because he is functioning as a called and ordained servant of the Word and not merely as a private individual. The Lutheran church did not appear out of nowhere but is part of western church history. We seek to affirm positive things from the Early Church and the Middle Ages, and we follow certain traditional liturgical formats and customs in line with church history.
To a Roman Catholic visitor some things might appear rather ‘Evangelical-ish.’ Because we affirm the Scriptures as the sole source, rule, and judge for what the church should teach and practice, the pulpit occupies a prominent place. We emphasize the importance of preaching and teaching the Scriptures, and we emphasize the centrality of the biblical gospel for our sermons and worship service. Saving faith is sustained and strengthened from the biblical gospel. And in line with the Psalms, Ephesians 5:19, and other biblical texts, we encourage congregational singing.
There are, of course, many additional things that could and should be said, but that gives you the basic idea. We need to describe ourselves in ways intelligible to non-Lutherans.
We must explain the word “Lutheran” to Americans. In parts of the country the label “Lutheran” is readily understandable. In Minnesota, for example, when you say, “I’m Lutheran,” people respond, “What kind?” The state is crawling with Lutherans, or so it seems. But when you say, “I’m Lutheran” in Arizona, people respond, “What’s that?” The label “Lutheran” requires knowledge of church history, specifically European church history, and many Americans “don’t know much about” European church history. To a lot of people, the label “Lutheran” communicates about as much as the label “Mennonite.” It requires some specialized knowledge of church history. We should explain ourselves in ways intelligible to non-Lutherans.
Third, I like to suggest to people that churches in America should gravitate toward five magnets: 1) the pure gospel as taught according to the Scriptures; 2) baptism taught and practiced according to the Scriptures; 3) the Lord’s Supper taught and practiced according the Scriptures; 4) the teaching of all 66 biblical books in a way that is holistic and exegetically responsible; and 5) confessing the ancient catholic creeds. Of course, each magnet requires some serious discussion, identifying where we agree and disagree and working through the disagreements on the basis of the Scriptures. If American churches move toward these five magnets, there would be a God-pleasing convergence, and that would be good for Christ’s one hidden Church. According to Lutheran ecclesiology, our first concern is with the health and spread of Christ’s hidden Church, and that means the health and spread of the marks of the Church. One original intent of the Augsburg Confession was to serve as a confession for all of Christendom.
Missouri Synod Lutherans need to talk with non-Lutherans.