Christians are often labeled judgmental. We’re often even judgmental about other Christians, even those within our own denomination. This is true of us in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. This is unfortunate. There is one judge, the Judge, who is coming back to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day. He is God and the only true Judge. I am not a very good judge. You probably aren’t either.
I was recently blessed to spend two days with the faculty and staff and students at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne (CTSFW), Indiana, a few weeks ago. I was at CTSFW for a gathering of pastors and church leaders called “Friends of the Ford.” My dad graduated from CTSFW in 1982. I was born during his internship (vicarage) year and then spent my first year of life at this fine institution of higher learning. I watched dads playing with toddlers on the seminary lawn and pictured my dad doing the same with me forty-one years ago. Sweet thoughts.
Some of you may have certain judgmental thoughts about what occurs at CTSFW. You may
label this institution as “ultra-conservative,” “overly pious,” or “remarkably liturgical.” I don’t think these judgments are entirely accurate. Many of the faculty and staff and students simply express their faith in different ways than I do. Yet, the core of our confession and practice is the same—we gather consistently around Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of our faith in service to our neighbor. Period.
I was also blessed to meet professors who taught my dad forty years ago! What amazing servants of the Lord!
I was blessed to eat lunch and listen to Dr. Ben Mayes read the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions in German with five seminarians. I was a bit worried he would ask me to translate. He saw my panic and confusion as a seminarian shared his screen with me. Thankfully, he refrained from asking me to read. I breathed a sigh of relief. My seminarian friend used his finger to help me follow the reading. I felt like I was in kindergarten, and loved every minute of it!
I was also blessed to meet Ph.D. students from Mekane Jesu Lutheran church in Ethiopia, which has over 10 million members. They are preparing to serve as professors at their growing seminary. They spoke with delight regarding their 30,000 churches, most started by evangelists. They even seemed a little sheepish when they said they only have 5,000 ordained pastors serving their 30,000 churches, served by mostly bi-vocational evangelists and deacons as they wait for communion once a month from an ordained pastor. There was certainly nothing to be sheepish about! Talk about lay leadership development. We have much to learn from them. Amazing. Praise Jesus!
I was also blessed to attend Wednesday chapel centered around the Lord’s Supper. When I entered their beautiful sanctuary, the smell of incense filled the air. The altar was adorned with paraments lifting high the body and blood of Christ. The service was largely chanted as the worship moved from the baptismal font in the back, processed to the front, with many invitations to make the sign of the cross upon our lips and hearts.
The preaching was much different than my style, more slow and measured, and with less volume. But the Gospel was preached, and the ears and hearts of the hearers were comforted.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper included traditions by the celebrant that reminded me more of Catholic Mass than my Lutheran remembrances of the celebration of the meal. Nonetheless, I was certainly not offended. It was beautiful, especially in their gorgeous sanctuary. There was no doubt of their love for and need of, the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. However, I would caution these students in replicating their seminary chapel experience at their first call. This could be a bad choice. Demanding churches “knee-jerk” change their worship customs is not usually a wise move for a first-year pastor.
It would be considered strange in my context for me to incorporate all of their liturgical traditions. I will incorporate some of them. I pray that if those who worship at CTSFW came to my house of worship they would find our traditions different, but beautiful in our own context. I pray we could agree that the core of our biblical confession of Christ through Word and Sacrament is the same, though our worship practices are liturgical and contextual, often with more modern instrumentation.
I believe we must take to heart Paul’s example in Romans 14.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:1-4).
Paul believed he could eat anything. He was free under the Gospel of Christ. He believed Peter’s vision—Christ had called all created things “clean.” Yet, he also did not want to give offense to the Jewish brother or sister who still considered certain food “clean” and others “unclean.” Paul did not see it as his role, nor the role of the Christians in Rome, to pass judgment on the practices of the other.
Paul’s context is not the same as our context. Obviously. Yet, the spirit of the Gospel-inspired invitation is the same. We can have different cultural practices and traditions and still have the same confession of faith. It is the Lord alone, by the power of His Word, that is able to keep us standing in the true faith centered in Christ Jesus.
My time at CTSFW taught me two things.
God is doing great things at CTSFW! The faculty and staff are so committed to sharing the truth of God’s Word. It is evident that the students and their families are deeply committed to serving the church! Praise be to God!
Judgmental stereotypes are lazy. They lead us to disparage and dismiss one another. I am grateful Jesus did not look at me with the judgmental stereotype of sinner and leave me in my sin. Jesus boldly pursued and won me through water and Word. I pray we follow the example of Jesus and pursue those who are different from us with curiosity, rather than condemnation. This is the way of Jesus, who did not come to condemn but to love.
In this situation, different is good, not bad. Unite as brothers and sisters in Christ, and rejoice in our unique expressions of our shared Christian faith. Please let the ULC know if we can join you on your mission to make Jesus known in your unique context! uniteleadership.org