Last month was the first in a series of articles to help you answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” We began by saying that Lutherans are “evangelical.” We use that word not in the way the rest of the world usually understands it. Most people think of Bible-believing conservative Christians when they hear the word “Evangelical.” Rather, to be “evangelical” as Lutherans is to be focused on the Gospel, the good news that Christ died for our sins and rose to life again, and that all who trust in his finished work at the cross have eternal life as a gift of grace. All that we do and say as Lutheran Christians revolves around and flows from that central truth.
This month our word is “catholic.” I can hear the cries of resistance already: “What? What do you mean we are catholic? I thought we broke away from the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.”
Well, first we need to remember that Luther never intended to “break away” from the Catholic Church. He was excommunicated. Secondly, there is a difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the “catholic” Church. The Roman Catholic Church is that church which recognizes the bishop of Rome, the Pope, as the head pastor of the Church with “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 234). The “catholic” Church, on the other hand, refers to the universal nature of the Church. That is, after all, the meaning of the word “catholic”: universal, the Church of all times and all places, the entire body of believers in Jesus Christ. It is taken directly from the Greek word katholikos, which means “whole” or “complete.”
If the Church is truly “catholic,” then what are the implications for us as Lutherans? It means that we do not claim to be nor teach anything other than what the Church has always taught when it has been faithful to the Scriptures. At the end of the first section of the Augsburg Confession, the primary document which defined what the Lutheran Church believes and teaches, it says, “As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church or the church of Rome, in so far as the ancient church is known to us from its writers.” (Tappert, p. 47) That being said, the Augsburg Confession had clarified the beliefs of the Lutherans in contrast to Rome, in addition to addressing assorted abuses that had arisen and needed to be corrected.
To be “catholic” also means to be concerned with how the Church has worshiped in the past. We use historic forms of worship and hymns which show our connection to Christians who have gone before us. That doesn’t mean we do not add new songs to our “repertoire” written in the last 30 years or so, or which remain to be written. It does mean that we are careful to make sure that our new songs agree with the catholic faith, and that we don’t jettison the old simply for the sake of the new. Again, the Augsburg Confession says, “We on our part also retain many ceremonies and traditions (such as the liturgy of the Mass and various canticles, festivals, and the like) which serve to preserve order in the church.” (AC XXVI.40; Tappert, p. 69)
Being “catholic” also means being concerned about not only the universality of the Church but also the unity of the Church. It is a sad state of affairs that there are so many denominations and schisms. We should always be looking for ways to change this situation, but always on the basis of a common confession of what Holy Scripture teaches. We seek unity not for the sake of unity, but for the sake of the truth. That’s what the confessors who compiled the Book of Concord expressed when they wrote, “it was our intention to remain and abide loyally by the truth once recognized and confessed at Augsburg in the year 1530 ... and that other good-hearted people would have been reminded and stimulated by this our reiterated and repeated confession the more seriously to investigate the truth of the divine Word that alone gives salvation, to commit themselves to it, and for the salvation of their souls and their eternal welfare to abide by it and persist in it in a Christian way without any further disputation and dissension.” (Preface to the Book of Concord, Tappert, pp. 5-6) To this end, our Missouri Synod and her representatives are constantly seeking ways to confess the whole of Christian doctrine with other church bodies around the world. When it is discovered that we share a common confession of that doctrine, then altar and pulpit fellowship is declared. Missouri Synod Lutherans have often been accused of being separatistic, but that is simply not the case. We have always been interested in expressing the “catholic” nature of the Christian faith while maintaining a vigorous defense of the truth of God’s Word.
In Christ’s service and yours,