Yesterday we blogged about how Christians have their identity in Christ, through their baptism. Supporting this, traditionally, has been the secondary identities that we have in our families and in the church.
In our congregation, I teach a post-confirmation class. The young people who attend have been confirmed, so they have been well educated in the Catechism and in the Bible, knowing the Law and the Gospel, the Word and the Sacraments. Upon their confirmation, they were asked a series of questions about their faith, culminating in this:
Pastor: Do you intend to stand firm in this denomination and this Church and suffer everything, even death, rather than walk away from it?
Answer: I do, by the grace of God.
Despite this commitment, many confirmands abandoned this confession and this church at the end of the rite. I have better hopes for my class members. But it has occurred to me that many Lutherans are oblivious to their ancestors who did suffer death rather than renounce this confession. And many Lutherans, not just young people but also adults, know very little about their Church and why it is worth suffering.
In the course, I teach these young people the history of the Church in general and of their Lutheran Church in particular. I try to help them learn and appreciate their spiritual heritage and realize their place in it. My goal is to build their Christian identity by helping them cultivate a Lutheran identity.
Denominations are out of fashion in contemporary Christianity, both because of the “ecumenical movement” in liberal Protestantism and the “non-denominational movement” among evangelicals. So much so that even congregations that belong to specific denominations often downplay their idiosyncrasies and make themselves appear as non-denominational as possible.
But that led to generic Christianity, with minimal doctrine and little theology. Conversely, the great theological traditions that the denominations exemplified are on the verge of being forgotten, even though their insights could help Christians navigate the issues they face today. As a result, contemporary Christianity is weakened in the face of militant secularism.
The word “denomination” derives from a word meaning “to name”. There’s nothing wrong with a church body having a name; that is to say, to have an identity. And the members of this church – insofar as they belong to a common community, with a common history and common beliefs – share this identity. This should reinforce their primary identity that they have in Christ.
In class, we began by studying the early church, which was cruelly persecuted until it converted the persecutors. We talked about the heresies that have arisen and how the Creeds we recite every Sunday were composed to counter them. We discussed the fall of Rome to the barbarians, how the church preserved literature and knowledge, and ultimately converted the barbarians.
We studied the Middle Ages, its great achievements but also how, at the height of the power of the Church, the authority of the Scriptures was eclipsed by the human authority of the pope and how the gospel of salvation through Christ was obscured by salvation through good works. We talked about the popular notion that a soul must spend three years in the fires of purgatory for each sin – a “temporal penalty” even for sins that had been confessed and absolved – and how ordinary Christians faced the prospect to be punished for thousands of people. years until they can earn heaven. And how the church has fallen into corruption by monetizing such beliefs through the sale of indulgences.
Which led to the Reformation. My class had heard a lot about Luther. But, in addition to the Lutheran martyrs, we also talked about other reformers who felt that Luther had not gone far enough. Luther wanted to “reform” the Church by refocusing it around the Gospel of Christ and the Scriptures, eliminating only those elements that pointed in other directions. But many in the medieval church did points to Christ, and were therefore retained. Other Protestants, however, would try to start the church again, more or less from scratch, accusing the Lutheran liturgy, the liturgical year and its artistic representations of being “too Catholic”. I wanted my students to understand why Lutherans do what they do and why they are different from other Protestants.
My students knew little about what happened after Luther’s death, how the emperor decided to eradicate Lutheranism and the Reformation once and for all. How the Lutheran princes united in the Smalcald League and were defeated by the Emperor, through their betrayal by Duke Moritz of Saxony, a Lutheran tempted into treachery by the Emperor’s offer of land and the title of ‘elector’, taking him from the line of Frederick the Wise so that he could be one of the seven electors who elected the next emperor. Catholicism was reimposed and Lutheranism was forced underground. Until Moritz, having betrayed his fellow Lutherans, then betrayed the Emperor and defeated him in battle, leading to the Peace of Augsburg and the legalization of Lutheranism!
We have studied the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, with its achievements (such as its music, like Bach, plus some of the hymns we sing every Sunday), and its problems, such as “Lutheran” heresies. The students held in their hands the Book of Concord, assembled to be the definitive statement of Lutheran theology, and we talked about each of the denominations and their purpose. (The Augsburg Confession, showing how Lutheranism is continuous with historical Christianity; the Smalcald Articles, showing how it is different from Catholicism; the Formula of Concord, showing how it is different from Protestantism, etc.) . We also talked about the challenges of pietism and the Enlightenment.
We studied Lutheranism in America. We talked about Samuel Schmucker, who argued with early German and Scandinavian immigrants that they needed to compromise their theology so that it would fit in with the Christianity of their new homeland. “Nope!” said my students. But he illustrated the eternal temptation of American Lutheranism, which repeatedly swung to revivalism, liberal theology, the charismatic movement, evangelism and the church growth movement, back to Lutheran orthodoxy in no time.
We then explained how, back in Germany, King Friedrich Wilhelm III, in addition to cultivating Prussian militarism and replacing the classical university with the new science-based “research institutions”, put himself in his head to combine all Protestant churches into a generic state church, in which its subjects could be illuminated by sermons on such topics as “modern agricultural techniques”. Some Lutherans who resisted this “Prussian Union” were arrested, and more resolved to leave behind their extended families, livelihoods, and homelands in order to regain religious freedom. They therefore emigrated to Canada, Australia and, above all, to the United States. Here they settled in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas and Missouri, often building log cabins and facing the hardships of pioneers. I have pointed out how this heritage is the reason that Missouri Synod Lutherans do not embrace “ecumenical” movements or “trade unionism” of any kind.
I knew full well that the young people in my class were descended from some of these religious refugees. They were Wends who left their homeland so they could worship with the Lutheran liturgy and stick to the doctrines of the Book of Concord. They were ready to “suffer everything” because “this denomination and this Church” were worth everything. I pointed out to my class that this is why you live here in America, because your great-great-but-several-great-grandparents valued their faith so highly.
These settlers would meet, under the leadership of pastors like CFW Walther, in the Missouri Synod. We talked about her growth as she evangelized other immigrants, her suffering under anti-German mobs during World War I, her tremendous growth after World War II, her creative use of media in the radio show The Lutheran Hour, then of the Seminex schism.
We did other things, like walking through the divine service, along the lines of my recent post on what visitors should know about it.
And the students ate it all. They liked to hear about the battles. The Martyrs. The commitment. They picked up the themes – the Schmuckerian temptation of cultural conformity, patterns of failure followed by rebirth, trust in Word and sacraments, “Here I am” integrity. They felt part of it all. This is their church. They embraced their Lutheran identity.
Churches of all stripes are trying to figure out how to keep their young people in church. All denominations and theological traditions – and non-denominational congregations have their own theological tradition – have their own histories and identities. To continue these stories, churches must pass on their identity to the next generation. At a time when young people are looking—sometimes in the wrong place—for identity, they can find identity in the Church, which, in turn, can give them identity in Christ.
Illustration: Luther’s seal (Luther’s rose) [see this for the meaning] by Daniel Csörföly (from Budapest, Hungary), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3111920