Swim the Mississippi: Why Conservative Lutheranism is the Faith Tradition Many Evangelicals Seek
A lot of evangelicals are swimming these days. They’re slipping on their metaphorical fins and masks and churning their way across bodies of water to emerge on the other shore as members of a different faith community. Those that move from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism are said to swim the Tiber; those that become Orthodox swim the Bosporus.
Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism.
Church-switching among evangelicals has always been popular. It’s become even more so now that so much of the conservative Protestant world has fled so purposely from symbolic architecture and time-honored aesthetics, and has chosen to worship in big boxy rooms with giant worship screens, all-enveloping sound systems, and Chris Tomlin-wannabes singing from the stage. Catholicism and Orthodoxy certainly offer something different from what goes on in that environment.
But evangelicals interested in “swimming” to a different tradition should consider traversing a body of water much closer to home: the Mississippi River, on which is located St. Louis, Missouri, and the headquarters of the premier conservative Lutheran church body in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Evangelicals who value tradition and history may not know that in conservative Lutheranism they will find the same critical elements of Christianity for which the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are known. Retaining membership in the true church, celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper in all their power, singing the historic liturgy–the very things many evangelicals seek when they turn to the east–are all found in conservative Lutheranism.
First, though, a word about the idea that in adopting the new faith, evangelicals move from an inferior entity to the real thing. Converts to Roman Catholicism frequently cite their desire to return to “original” Christianity, the “mother” church, which they equate with Catholicism. The Church of Rome asserts that if one wishes to most correctly follow Christ’s intention for the church, one joins the Roman Church–this is the form of church Jesus wanted his followers to inhabit. It is and has been the “true” church from the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 to Vatican II, from Peter to Paul VI, and on to the current pope, Francis. Luther and the other Reformers broke away and started their own apostate institutions. That’s the view from the Vatican.
But Jesus does not lay out a proper form for his church. A true church, as limned in the New Testament, is one whose ministers teach the gospel purely and administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper rightly, according to Christ’s institution and mandate. That’s all. If your church does that–and the Missouri Synod hangs its hat on this directive–you belong to the true church.
Martin Luther, a monk in the Catholic Church of the fifteenth century and an official in what was considered the holy, apostolic church, did not break away from that church but renewed it to its previous position. He reversed the heresies of the previous couple of centuries and brought the one holy church back in line. Rome chose not to heed the rediscovery of the biblical gospel.
Also appealing to evangelicals making the move east are the ceremonies of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Lutheranism is sacramental as well; it narrowed the Catholic seven sacraments to two–the two instituted in Scripture, which are baptism and the Eucharist–but left intact their power to remove sins. Luther did not allow them to be interpreted representationally, as others in the Reform did. Thus, they are termed “means of grace”: spiritual vehicles whereby sins are forgiven. Like Catholics and Orthodox believers, we hold to the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, that Christ is physically present in the elements, and to the sacramental power of this means of grace–our sins are actually forgiven in the eating and drinking.
Other rituals were either retained or abandoned on the basis of Scripture. One such is the historic liturgy. You probably won’t find full-on smells and bells in conservative Lutheran churches, but our pastors wear robes and there’s plenty of stand-up-sit-down in our services. Luther kept the historic liturgy in his renewal of the church, both because it did not run counter to Scripture and because the people were accustomed to it, enriched by it, and comforted by it. It was their vehicle for accessing the gospel.
The hymnals used by conservative Lutheran churches feature this centuries-old historic liturgy, much of which harks back to the biblical witness. They also contain the millennia-old ecumenical creeds, one of which is confessed every Sunday, and the books are organized around the liturgical calendar–from Advent to Pentecost–which rehearses, yearly, the entire history of salvation.
Historically, Lutheranism has contributed significantly to the beautiful and meaningful music that makes up those hymnals. Luther himself wrote dozens of hymns; the most famous Lutheran hymn writer, Paul Gerhardt, is among the all-time great sacred poets. His hymns, as well as the best of Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Catherine Winkworth, among many others, highlight our worship. Many of the faith’s most inspirational and meaningful hymns were spawned by the Reformation, which period of church history is not exactly favored by Rome and Constantinople.
From Luther onward, Lutherans have boasted a history of congregational singing. In Roman Catholic churches, the hymnals stay in the pew racks while a cantor at a microphone dominates the sound. Orthodox parishioners chant and sing the liturgy, but don’t sing too many hymns. Congregational singing is such an uplifting part of the faith, and zesty singing by the people is an integral part of Lutheran worship.
When you swim the Tiber, you are not vacating an inadequate, imperfect form of Christianity for the true, historic version instituted by Christ himself. You are not switching teams; you are, at best, merely switching positions on the same team or, at worst, trading a biblical iteration of church for a version that lifts the opinion of human beings above the clear word of Scripture.
Conservative Lutheranism retains the Bible as the sole religious authority. Certainly, the Bible plays a role in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but it isn’t the supreme authority in doctrine and practice. When the Bible is forced off center stage, bowing to tradition or reason, the door is opened to theological error. The history of the Church of Rome is replete with examples of this.
Conservative Lutherans also believe Scripture to be sufficient for salvation. Simple, clear faith need not be augmented by rituals (fasting, or even attending church) and beliefs (intercession of saints, the immaculate conception of Mary, etc.) not required by the Bible. We also hold that Scripture is clear enough that all Christians can read it and benefit from it; we need not “ask Father” to interpret every little thing.
Before evangelicals jump into the Tiber or the Bosporus in their quest for true Christian faith, they might want to consider swimming the Mississippi. It’s muddy, true, but it’s closer to home, in more ways than one.