Joint Statement of Catholic and Lutheran Leaders

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Credit: Bishop Munib Younan and Pope Francis (Michael Campanella/Getty Images)

A matter of interest that occurred on Reformation Day came to my attention after the fact. Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a Joint Statement at this year’s Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation at the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund, Sweden.

The statement begins: “With this Joint Statement, we express joyful gratitude to God for this moment of common prayer in the Cathedral of Lund, as we begin the year commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Fifty years of sustained and fruitful ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans have helped us to overcome many differences, and have deepened our mutual understanding and trust…Through dialogue and shared witness we are no longer strangers. Rather, we have learned that what unites us is greater than what divides us.”

For the full text of the statement go to: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/10/31/full-text-joint-declaration-for-the-500th-anniversary-of-reformation/.

The 16th century Reformation spawned documents known collectively as Lutheran Confessions. One of them, The Smalcald Articles: Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, was completed February 17, 1537. Written by Philip Melanchthon, it states in part: “… the pope is the real Antichrist who has raised himself over and set himself against Christ…” (Art. II) and “… the doctrine of the pope conflicts in many ways with the Gospel…” (Art. XI). Those statements make unity difficult.

Arguably, those and other confessional comments could be considered descriptive of popes who lived and ruled centuries ago but may not be accurate assessments of all popes since that time. Some in the LCMS and the rest of Christendom might strongly disagree with the application of those words to more recent popes, including John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis.

Be that as it may, here are my perspectives:

  1. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian body in the world with 1.2 billion members. It has many commendable beliefs and practices, yet numerous theological points are problematic, including the doctrine of justification, the authority of the pope, the sacraments, the veneration of saints, the holiness of Mary, and the use of indulgences.
  1. The worldwide Lutheran Church is much smaller in number. About 74 million members are scattered among 160 different Lutheran bodies, 145 of which belong to The Lutheran World Federation. Any healing of the wounds between Lutherans and Catholics that have existed before, during, and since the Reformation would most likely occur at that level. The rest of Lutheranism, including The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, would need to make independent decisions regarding setting aside the differences that have existed for nearly 500 years. It would take a miracle for that to happen in my lifetime.
  1. The overwhelming majority of Christians, including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, some Baptists, and other Christians confess in the Apostles’ Creed a belief in “the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints …” While that term means different things to different people, my hope, prayer, and conviction is that those who confess the truths of the Apostles’ Creed are the folks I’ll see in heaven, even though we disagree on points of doctrine and practice here on earth. Such disagreement fostered the Reformation and continues to make the kind of unity envisioned by the Joint Statement signed last month a difficult alliance to achieve, assuming it is based entirely on genuine agreement on basic articles of faith and life.

Motivation for genuine unity in the Body of Christ must be based on the words of Jesus himself:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent… I am not asking on behalf of them alone, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:1-3, 20-21)

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The Papal Visit

Pope Francis at UNPope Francis has concluded his visit to America, which in some ways seemed longer than the six days he actually spent in our country. The reception he received in the cities on his itinerary was warm and enthusiastic. His pastoral touch was obvious, as he paused en route to touch and bless individuals, particularly children with special needs, their families and caregivers.

While comments could be made about each of the pope’s speeches, I’ll share here a few thoughts about Saturday’s 90-minute worship service at Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Philadelphia. It was carried live, in its entirety, on Fox News and a couple other national networks.

Watching such a service brings to mind more similarities between Catholicism and Lutheranism. Both are fundamentally liturgical and sacramental. Clergy vestments, Scripture readings, homily, hymns sung by congregation and choir to organ and orchestra accompaniment are quite familiar. Seminarians later visited briefly by the pope sang the familiar “Lift High the Cross.”

Yet some of the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations were also obvious, including a somewhat appealing use of incense and the repeated veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s obvious that Catholics still pray to Mary and consider her holy and a perpetual virgin. They often and properly identified her as the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, thankfully making generous reference to his work of redemption on Calvary’s cross.

The publicity, news and TV coverage received by the Catholic Church last week was worth millions and likely will catalyze, at least temporarily, a resurgence of interest in Catholicism. The negative image of the church resulting from sexual abuse scandals of the past may perhaps be somewhat mitigated by this pope’s messages and non-self-aggrandizing sense of humility.

That humility was emphasized, intentionally, in simple yet significant ways. One of the most visible was his ground transportation in the U.S., provided not in a limousine or even a Chevrolet Suburban, but sometimes in the Popemobile, at other times in a much smaller Fiat. By the way, the Vatican vehicle registration plate for the Popemobile and all official Vatican vehicles, begins with the letters “SCV” (an acronym of the Latin Status Civitatis Vaticanae “Vatican City State”) followed by the vehicle fleet number. In this case the plate read SCV-1.

Summarily, Pope Francis should feel very good about his visit to the U.S. And so should the Roman Catholic Church. The visibility and news coverage received by both provided publicity beyond the hopes, not to mention the dreams, of the rest of Christendom.

I pray that the result of this papal visit will be fruitful for the kingdom. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, perhaps even our own church will experience resurgence from the apathetic atrophy in which we seem to be stuck. Time will tell. Lord, help us!

When Christians Love Theology More than People

Love NeighborRecently I came across an article posted on the Internet by Stephen Mattson, on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. While it may make the reader a bit uncomfortable, there’s a lot of truth in what he writes:

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When Christians Love Theology More than People

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that do matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

  • When I’m sick, and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.
  • When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.
  • When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.
  • When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.
  • When you’re kind enough to shovel my parent’s driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.
  • When you give my friend a lift when [his or her] car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.
  • When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.
  • When you protect my kids from getting hit by a car when they’re running across the street, I don’t care who your favorite theologian is.
  • When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.
  • When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.
  • When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways — nothing else really matters.

But when you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion.

You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.

The practical application of your love is just as important as the theology behind it. Our faith is evidenced by how we treat others. Does the reality of your life reflect the theory behind your spiritual beliefs?

We should never give up on theology, academic study, or the pursuit of understanding God, the Bible, and the history and traditions of the church, but these things should inspire us to emulate Christ — to selflessly, sacrificially, and holistically love others. Theology should reinforce our motivation for doing things to make the world a better place — not serve as platforms to berate, criticize, and attack others.

But too often, we’re guilty of failing to practically apply our beliefs in tangible ways that actually help others. In the end, this is what matters most to the world around us: that we simply love as Christ loved.

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No doubt I’ll be criticized for agreeing with someone who may appear to be less interested in things theological than those of us in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod profess to be. Nevertheless, these words from this brother in Christ make a lot of sense to me.

And I believe Jesus would approve. That’s why he said: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory … [he] will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you invited me into your home, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you visited me…. I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.’” (Matt. 25:31-36)

Opposition and Proposition

Credit: casarosada.gob.ar

Credit: casarosada.gob.ar

Statistics show a growing increase in the percentage of U.S. population who declare no religious preference. Other statistics reflect radical disagreement on controversial issues of social and sexual significance. These realities challenge the Christian church to think and act proactively in presenting the claims of Christianity in a way that compels greater attention and response.

That’s why a recent Austin American Statesman article attributing quotes to Pope Francis drew significant attention. The Pope is quoted as saying: “The Roman Catholic church has grown obsessed with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception. I have chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.”

Pope Francis sought to “set a new tone for the church” by saying it should be “a home for all and not a small chapel focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings. It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

He continued: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance. Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” The very next day the very same man reiterated, in unmistakable terms, the church’s position against abortion. And I’m glad he did!

For unless and until convinced that God has not spoken clearly on controversial contemporary issues, we cannot and should not try to change what we believe God has said regarding such matters. We have a duty to state clearly what we believe God’s will mandates we must oppose. That should be done unequivocally and unapologetically, at appropriate times and places. Yet in the process of expressing opposition, we dare not obfuscate our primary purpose of proposition.

That propositional purpose is the powerful proclamation of God’s love in Christ, law and gospel, sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, justification and sanctification. That’s the message that touches the hearts of people and brings them to the foot of the cross! That’s the message with which we must lead! For people need to hear what the church proposes much more loudly and clearly than only what the church opposes!