As October fast approaches and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation proper comes nearer, I am starting to cast a wider net in my ruminations about the influences of Martin Luther and Lutheranism today. And as I have been thinking this week, it has struck me that there is a definite struggle between what some might call the form versus substance of Lutheranism. It may take a few examples to explain what I mean by that.
You see, the form aspect is what looks like a Lutheran. Historically and typically that has been German, Norwegian, Swedish or perhaps a handful or other nationalities in background. That form has been in a fairly formal looking church setting with a high altar and high liturgy. That form has been with staunch and stately organ music accompanying staunch and stately choirs.
And that Lutheran stereotype has been led by a clerical collared, usually slightly overweight orator whose grasp of high theological lingo far surpasses any knowledge of what might be of any interest to any actual human being living on planet Earth!
Say it ain’t so! Well, it ain’t!
You see, the substance part of Lutheranism is alive and well long past this form version I just described (though I must admit the form is still out there and not as uncommon as one might imagine). The substance part is the theology that I have been writing about in this column for the past six months, and it can be found in as many forms and packages as you can imagine, and even some of them with the wrong labeling.
First off, there are those actual Lutheran congregations and colleagues of mine that I actually know who are ever faithful to Luther’s call from 500 years ago to declare the free grace of God in the Gospel to all who will hear with no strings attached but who look like all sorts of other phenomena.
I have one Lutheran mentor who started off looking more like a Roman Catholic priest, took a mission trip to El Salvador where he had an emotional and spiritual encounter that changed him to such a degree that now for all intents and purposes, he would appear in form to be Pentecostal because of his emphasis on spiritual gifts.
There are Lutheran churches that have started in tandem with Methodists and Presbyterians who in some ways look like those denominations. We have Lutheran mega-churches that for all intents and purposes appear to be like any other of the Walmart-sized nondenominational, fill-every-bill congregations.
All of those Lutheran congregations may LOOK like something else, but the theology that centers them is the same justification-filled message that Luther discovered in St. Paul 500 years ago!
But then there is another phenomenon that I have discovered through the years. It’s what I call the anonymous Lutheran.
I’ve kind of stolen that phrase from the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who would talk about anonymous Christianity. He would argue that there were people in the world who, without knowing it, morally live more like Christians than Christians who are supposed to know better.
Actually, the last time I experienced this was just a couple of weeks ago when one of my own members gave me the movie version of “The Shack” to watch with the comment that this was the first time he had ever seen a story evoke the same kind of image of God that he believed based on his understanding as a lifelong Lutheran.
I told him that when the book had come out, my congregation at the time had done an intense Bible study based on it and the intense emphasis on the unconditional love of God which is so at the heart of Luther’s message. And of course, the author of that book and producers had made an incredibly Lutheran story — without being Lutheran at all!
I also had a mentor when I was a teenager who was a Baptist minister whose wisdom still comes in handy to this day. It is only now after having gone to seminary and studying that I realize that much of what he said was right out of what Luther thought. And in parallel, one of my friends I grew up with who became a Baptist minister when in seminary told me rather excitedly, “Did you know how many of the great theologians were Lutherans?” He also many times sounds more like Luther than I do!
And my list goes on and on from the Episcopal priest and Presbyterian pastor whom I worked with in our community food pantry in my first call to the many pastors of all the various flavors of denominations, all of whom have seen that same God whose unconditional love has never seen a sin so big he could not forgive.
Anonymous Lutherans who are able to do that Luther-Think no matter where they serve!
Now, that should have probably been the last sentence for this, but for one final observation, dear reader, that you might have picked up on. You see, I’m sure some of these folk indeed did study Luther and his writings in seminary or history class, so maybe what I’m saying sticks.
Others, I’m sure, haven’t. But, what I bet they have done is read the same Bible as Luther. They read the same St. Paul as Luther. And they worship the same God as Luther. And maybe they just know the same truth as Luther.
And in the end, maybe my understanding of their Luther-Think is less about them knowing the same Luther I know and more about them knowing the same Jesus I know!
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.