A Survey Of The Religious Landscape In America 20173
Below I will give my take of the religious and theological landscape in America as I perceive it to be today, with a special emphasis of what Lutheranism brings to the table in this 500th anniversary year of the Lutheran Reformation.
The largest, and most influential, Christian denomination in America is the Roman Catholic (RC). Some of it's greatest strengths are as follows. It is a liturgical and sacramental church, one that respects history and tradition. Further Rome holds the right view on important moral and theological issues, especially: abortion, artifical birth control, marriage, homosexuality and the male-only clergy. I consider its baptism to be true and valid, as well as its Eucharist though we have important disagreements on this last point (most of which are not apparant to the laity).
On the negative side the RC church has institutionalized the invocation of Mary and the saints. In so doing they set up another High Priest and Mediator between God and Man, besides the one and only High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ. He who is our heavenly Intercessor (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25, Hebrews 9:24, 1 Timothy 2:4) and there can be no other.
Now to be sure, RC's don't see it that way, and they arrive at their practice with what they consider plausible explantions. Namely that asking the Blessed Virgin, or saints to pray for you, is the same as asking any fellow Christian to pray for you. Also, that if you can't get to the Intercessor (this assumes he does not want to hear your prayers), his heart can be softened by going to him through his Mother. Lutherans simply cannot accept this rationale or practice.
As to the latter it assumes that our Savior is a stern judge, rather than a beloved and dear Savior who invites us to pray to the Father in his name directly; and who makes good and true promises to hear us!
As to the former there is not a single Biblical command, example, or even the slightest hint that the baptized should pray in any other way, except to their heavenly Father, in the name of their High Priest Jesus Christ. Is it over-stating the case to call such practice at least soft-idolatry if not worse? A practice that dimishes the glory of the Lord of Glory, and puts faith in danger?
I am hesitant to make such strong statements because I don't want to scandalize RC's who hold the simple, child-like faith that the Lord so highly praises in the gospels.
Further, whatever we might say at this late date, the practice is institutionalized, and could not be eliminated without shredding the entire fabric of the RC faith.
Also in the lose column I must put celibate clergy. The sins of impurity that this practice has bred, and the scandals and damage it has done are gigantic! Nor are they anything new or recent. The case against celibacy was nicely made in 1530 by the Lutheran Reformers in Article XXIII of the Augsburg Confession.
The Eastern Orthodox Church (EO) also has a list of strengths and weaknesses.
In the plus column the EO confesses the doctrine held by the church catholic throughout the ages. The Triniy, the Divinity of Christ, Redemption by the cross and Resurrection, and the Sacraments to name a few. As with Rome I consider her baptism and Eucharist to be valid and true. (I would not re-baptize a person who came to Lutheranism from Rome or EO.) She is the champion of liturgical tradition, and her houses of worship set the standard for which all churches should strive! Here are a people who understand the transcendence and glory of God.
Like Rome the EO hold to a male only clergy, and take a strong, if less public, moral stand on the important disputed issues of the day as does Rome.
On the flip side of the EO coin it, too, has institutionalized the invocation of Mary and the saints, to which Lutherans have a strong negative reaction for the same reasons as stated above. To learn more about our faith on this matter see Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession.
I also think that while the EO proclaim the divinity of Christ in the strongest possible terms that, for them, he is more an awesome judge, than a beautiful Savior. More to be feared, than loved and trusted. That's my impression. I am open to correction.
PROTESTANTS AND FUNDAMENTALISTS (excluding Lutherans)
The Protestant Reformation was long in coming, and badly needed. The Roman church had turned the most decisive matters of a person's life -- the forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and eternal salvation -- into a for-profit business pure and simple. The carnage to souls was deplorable, and like the holocaust, it should never be forgotten.
That said, the Protestant Reformation also spawned the greatest balkanization of the Christian church in its history, while doing little if anything to reform Rome. (Indeed, in many ways it made Rome even more fractious.)
While the history of the Reformation churches, and the Counter-Reformation is important and fascinating, here I am dealing with the current religious scene. Today we have, essentially, Protestants and Fundamentalists. (I will speak of Lutherans in a separate category below.)
PROTESTANTS: In my view Protestants in the late 20th and 21st century are those Christian denominations that have swapped theology for politics. That embrace the liberal causes current in western culture such as: feminism, homosexuality, socialism, ecology, lionizing of minorities and demonizing of the white race especially males. While many still have some interest in theology, the things of God and matters of the soul, these are trumped by political considerations and political correctness. (I sadly include among these denomination the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.)
I can't think of anything good to say about Protestant churches as they are configured today, but much that is non-complimentary instead as they use religion to obliterate the traditional moral fabric of Western (Christian) Culture. When they do engage in theology it is to show the unreliability of the Scriptures, and to diminish traditional Christian faith, thought and morality. And so they are sowers of doubt rather than faith in the all glorious and holy Trinity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
FUNDAMENTALISTS: I define Fundamentalists as those Christian sects and denominations that deny the Gospel by way of the Sacraments. As opposed to Protestants, Fundamentalists have a strong interest in things theological. But their religion is undestood very differently than that of the Sacramental and Liturgical churches (RC, EO and Classical Lutherans. I don't have a good read on Anglicans these days, and so I say nothing of them here.)
On the plus side Fundamentalists make good citizens and good neighbors. They subscribe to traditional Christian morality, and wish to enforce it in society if possible. They are a powerful voice in American politics. As such they serve as a much-needed antidote to the Protestantism described above.
In the loss column their faith leaves much to be desired. It is largely a head faith. One that consists of learning and assenting to a system of doctrine. This is not to deny their zeal to live out their faith day by day. But it is missing valid baptism. Because as far as Fundamentalists are concerned baptism is something that people do for God, rather than the primary blessing that God has for sinful man. The traffic, in other words, flows in the wrong direction. Yet holy baptism is the church's primary sacrament. That gift (Romans 6:23 b) by which those are born of flesh, and destined to eternal judgment for their sins, are begotten from above, and born anew by water and the Holy Spirit. This is the Christ-instituted sacrament that delivers from death and the devil and gives eternal life to all who believe. (Mark 16:15)
Also missing is the essential element of Christian worship, the Eucharist, which is the one and only form of worship that Jesus gave his church. The only prescribed worship of the New Testament. Indeed Jesus says: "This cup IS the New Testament in my blood." This means that the New Testament consists of the celebration of this Sacrament. For in holy communion the baptized commune with the holy. Literally. For it is not just bread and wine, but the body and blood of Christ in, with and under the bread and wine.
As for biblical interpretation, Fundamentalists consider the Bible to be a datebase of doctrinal teachings and moral instructions. Scripture does contain both of those things. But they proceed from worship (John 4:24, Matthew 28:17) which comes first. Thus the Bible must first be understood as a liturgical document to be used in the church, by the church, and for the church in her Eucharistic worship. (For more on this subject see my essay: How To Read The Bible Like A Lutheran And Not Like A Fundamentalist. Also How To Read The Bible Like A Lutheran And Not Like A Fundamentalist: Part 2
Lastly in this little survey I treat Lutheranism naming both its positive and negative aspects. When I speak of Lutheranism I mean classical, historical Lutheranism as practiced by the Fathers of the Lutheran (not Radical) Reformation. This is something that is not often found in America today.
That said Lutherans bring much to the ecclesiastical table. First Lutherans are committed to Christian doctrine carefully thought out, and clearly written. Lutherans confess all the major teachings of the church catholic and church orthodox, that is the church of the ages (not EO or RC). We are thoroughly liturgical and sacramental. We celebrate the holy Eucharist every Sunday, this is not optional. We pray the traditional liturgy of the Western church, minus the RC and EO errors, such as invocation of Mary and the Saints.
In keeping with such faith we teach and urge the baptized to live a life of good works, and to avoid the temptations of the devil, the culture and the flesh. As such we oppose most of what the no-longer-Christian-culture champions: abortion, sexual intimacy outside of marriage, homsexuality, nature worship, female clergy and feminism to name a few.
Finally, Lutheranism is the keeper and expositor of the all-important doctrine that sinners are justified before God by faith in Christ crucified and raised again. This is not simply notional faith, but the Spirit-born faith that is instilled in us in holy baptism rightly taught and administered among us. And faith that is kept alive in us by the church's Eucharistic worship. As St. Paul declares, "For it is by grace that you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) This teaching, which is part and parcel of baptism and the Eucharist, imparts the greatest possible confidence and consolation to troubled consciences.
On the negative side there are still too many Lutheran churches in America, maybe even the majoritiy, that don't understand that the Lord's Supper is not optional, but is the very definition of Christian worship and life in Christ. Thus we have parishes that observe the Sacrament but once or twice a month, thus denying the Lord access to this people, and his people access to him. In this respect too many Lutherans have been strongly influenced by Fundamentalists who practice a notional v. and incarnational faith. But the holy Christian religion is nothing if not incarnational from top to bottom. From Alpha to Omega, even as the Son of God became incarnate for us!
There are also too many Lutheran parishes that are convinced they have the right to worship according to their own chosen form; rather than to "glorify God with one voice" (Romans 15:6) by praying the liturgy common to the church of the ages. This is sectarianism, and sectarianism is a sin. But there are other problems as well. Their forms are always Fundamentalist in nature, and thus unable to convey the Gospel of Jesus Christ, much less teach people reverence for God and for holy things. This is wrong because the worship of of heaven as taught in Scripture, is liturgical and ordered worship. It is never spontaneous, or the brain-child of a man or committee. It is Christ-given. Christ, who is our true liturgist according to Hebrews 8:2.
The last weakness I will mention among Lutherans is their ignorance of (and uninformed hostility towards) the Eucharistic Prayer. It is possible that the concerted and broad study of this prayer might lead Lutherans to return to weekly Eucharist. In this vein I am also happy to report that more and more Lutheran parishes are restoring the Sunday Eucharist, and that gives me great hope.
All this said, our chiief strengths and weaknesses exposed, classical Lutherans have a great deal to bring to the ecclesiastical table. Indeed I can think of no church that is healthier for one's soul. None that can impart the remission of sins, life and salvation so sinners; also comfort in distress, courage in opposition, consolation in sorrow and wisdom for daily living, with unflinching power. Why is this? Because no other has so many elements of the true faith, while avoiding the striking errors and weaknesses listed above. While many sects and denominations live below the theological poverty line, classical Lutherans live in spiritual splendor. We are dressed in the garments of Christ's own rightesouness, and dine on a "... feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined." Isaiah 25:6. God be praised!