THE CHURCH IS A WHORE, BUT SHE IS MY MOTHER
The above phrase, regardless of who actually said it, encapsulates a reality too easily dismissed as a plausible representation of the relationship between the individual and the church. In an age when the latest trends espouse an escape from the church and organized religion for the sake of following Jesus, such an idea seems more than preposterous. After all, the church is the one that causes wars, ignores the poor, and cares only for the sake of its survival. While people of both society and the church recognize the latter’s shortcomings, those inadequacies serve as justification for the wholesale rejection of the church rather than a continued embrace of it. This is why a phrase like the one above is so difficult to swallow; it is as if the call of today is, “The church is a whore, so let’s have no part in her.”
That sentiment is one with which I can empathize. Having grown up within the fold of a conservative, confessional, liturgical church body, the church has simultaneously been the place of my greatest joy and worst frustrations. In the summer of 2010, after spending two years studying at my church body’s seminary, I quit. I was exhausted and frustrated, angry and cynical, and I wanted nothing to do with the church that I perceived turned me into a shell of my former self. Walking away was difficult because of my connection to the church body. In almost every way, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is the only home I have ever known. Yet despite my deep connections to the LCMS, wholesale rejection of her was exactly what I thought the right course of action was given the hypocrisy I had experienced at the seminary level. As fate would have it, however, the home to which I never thought I could return is precisely the place of my future.
The question must be asked, why? What is it that has caused me not to reject completely the church I know to be a whore? This is often a difficult question to answer because of the personal convictions required to take such a step. Although it is possible for me to hold beliefs in accord with the LCMS, and yet not be a part of her, to do so would be inauthentic. Recognizing that as a Christian I hold to the Lutheran perspective, moreover a Missouri Synod perspective, here I stand, I can do no other. It was from her womb I was born in the waters of baptism. It was in her house, hearing words from her mouth that I took my first steps in the faith. It was at her table I joined my entire family, past, present, and future in the family meal. And it is her faith I know to be my own. Not taking my place within my family would be denying that which I know to be true, regardless of disagreements or reservations that continue to exist. This is why the controversial phrase that society will have trouble understanding encapsulates my reality. The church is a whore, but she is my mother.
The faith that has been passed on to me carries with it the responsibility of being faithful as those before me had once been. Sainted church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once quipped, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name” (Pelikan, Vindication of Tradition). Being faithful is not a matter of repeating what once was said for the sake of its survival, it is embodying the faith of the past in the present for the sake of the future. The question then presents itself; what is the faith of the past? “This, however, is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” This phrase from the Athanasian Creed serves to define that which is orthodox and catholic concerning the confession of the church. In reality, this is how creeds function. “Such repetitiveness is, of course, no accident. It is intended to condemn those who “rashly seek novelties and expositions of another faith,” and above all to document—even actually to celebrate—the continuity of these creeds and confessions of faith not only with the other orthodox creeds and confessions that have preceded them but above all with what is cherished as the authentic apostolic tradition” (Pelikan, Credo). Creeds, and confessions of faith, are not simply static documents or sayings to be repeated so as to become an end in and of themselves. Rather, they serve to establish and define the border within the which the church lives.
Faith does not belong to the individual. Across the centuries faith has been passed down, gifted from one generation to another through the work of the Spirit. This point cannot be overstated; no Christian comes to faith apart from the Church that came before. The Spirit, through the marks of the Church, works to call, gather, and enlighten; without the Church, no one would believe. To the American ear, who would prefer to do things in the way of Frank Sinatra , a statement such as that one is bitter. Faith is often understood, in practice if not in theory, as intellectual ascent. “I accepted Jesus Christ,” becomes the phrase by which a person espouses their personal belief, as if belief could exist apart from the community that came before. But that phraseology and ideology are, at best, individualistic, and at worst, ignore the generations upon generations who were gifted belief through the work of the Spirit. It is a shared belief, a shared faith. In the Athanasian formulation, the catholic faith is “worship [of] one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity.” This is precisely why creeds are important, because they form and inform the individual and the community at the same time, fostering recognition of shared belief across the ages.
Because faith does not belong to the individual, neither can a statement of faith. While it is true that one must own the confession they profess, regardless of the creedal formulation, it cannot exist in contradistinction to the creeds and confessions that have come before. In this vein stands this statement of faith. Creedal and confessional formulations are designed to form and inform the boundaries of orthodoxy and catholicity while recognizing the shared faith across generations, those that have passed and those that will come. This is the golden thread, the theological motif, and that which binds together the voice of a Lutheran with the voice of the church. Hermann Sasse encapsulates this idea when he writes,
“Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is the original confession of the church. With it the Christian faith once entered world history. To understand the sense of this confession ever more deeply is the great, yes, basically the only task of all Christian theology. To repeat this confession, to speak it in ever new forms, to translate it into the language of all times and peoples, to protect it against misunderstandings and reinterpretations, and to understand its meaning for all areas of life–that is the task of all confession building within Christendom. No later confession of the church can and wants to be anything else than a renewal of the original confession to Jesus as Christ and Lord. This is true of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the confessional writings of the Reformation, and any confession in which the Christendom of the future may want to speak its faith. As this confession stood at the beginning of the church’s history, so it will stand at the end. Then will be fulfilled that great world of the apostle: “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10f).