By Justin Rossow
Reformation is a day Lutherans celebrate what makes Lutherans unique. Which is good, as far as it goes, unless the day becomes a pat on our denominational back that celebrates disunity and disagreement in the Church. Reformation, it turns out, never was meant to celebrate division! Luther’s favorite author, the Apostle Paul, wrote to the church in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
Faithful Lutherans, from the very beginning, have mourned division in the Church. Reformation doesn’t celebrate division; Reformation celebrates the Gospel. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone! That’s the truth of the Gospel found authoritatively in Scripture alone.
Reformation at its heart, then and now, is not about division. It’s about the Gospel. And the Gospel not only unifies, it can also divide. The same Paul who sternly exhorts us to agree with one another also says, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be anathema—let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:6-10.) There isn’t a stronger division than that!
Celebrating Reformation poses a unique challenge. We are caught between two words from God that both have a claim on our lives. There is a tension between unity and division, a tension that is necessary for our Christian walk. If we let go of either side of this tension, we risk losing our Christian walk altogether. So if we are going to move forward on this journey of faith, we need to recognize this tension between unity and division and ask how we can maintain this tension without falling off on either side.
You could imagine this tension as a kind of tightrope, connected to one side of a chasm by a call to faithful unity, and anchored on the other side by a call to faithful division. Anyone who want to make it across that divide is going to need to keep the tension on both sides of the chasm; otherwise the tightrope will be a loose-rope; no good at all for moving forward in faith.
You also want to make sure you are tied into a safety line. In this case, the Gospel can give us a safe place to stand as we navigate the tension between Christian unity and faithful division.
On one side of the tension, Paul calls us to hold onto the unity we have in the fellowship of Jesus Christ. And in fact, Lutheran theology has always recognized the unity we have in Jesus: there is only one Christian and apostolic Church, one communion of saints united by their faith in Jesus and His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.
That unity in the Gospel is something we already share here and now, but it’s also something that is hidden, for now. (That’s why we call it the Invisible Church.) I can’t look into your heart, you can’t look into mine to see if I trust Jesus as Savior or not. I also can’t look into the hearts of those who call themselves Baptist, or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, and see if they have saving faith in Jesus or not. So there is a hidden unity and an external division, and that external division tempts us to loosen the tension on the unity side of our Gospel tightrope. What does that look like?
My home denomination, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, expressed what we think it looks like to lose sight of the unity we have as one Christian Church on earth. In 1983 our Synod in convention passed a resolution with the title: “To Strive for External Unity in the Church.” In it, the members of the LC—MS resolved,
“… that we exhort one another to true and genuine contrition and repentance for this sins of prejudice, ridicule, caricature, separatism, pride, [and] lack of Christian charity toward Christian people of other denominations.”
Over three decades ago our church body admitted that we have a problem with loosening the tension on the side of Christian unity. As individuals, we too are guilty of “prejudice, ridicule, caricature, separatism, pride, [and] lack of Christian charity toward Christian people of other denominations.” What does that look like in your life?
Do you have a habit of bad-mouthing believers from different denominations? Do you usually treat others who don’t share your views as if they are evil or stupid? Does a difference of opinion fuel bad feelings, bad blood, bad behavior? How have your political posts on Facebook been trending? Do you celebrate Reformation as if it were a good thing the Church is divided?
If we loosen the tension on the side of unity, we can’t move forward. In fact, if we loosen it too much, we can even fall off! So what do you do if you find yourself guilty of letting go of Christian unity? “We exhort one another to true and genuine contrition and repentance.” In other words, you run to the Gospel. You trust that salvation is by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake alone. You aren’t going to get this Christian walk perfectly right, but you have this truth to stand on: your sins of separatism and disunity are covered by the blood of Christ! In that confidence, you can get back to the task of living out our joint calling as the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church on earth, professing the Good News of God’s work for us in Jesus Christ.
But let’s not stop there. We need two anchor points to maintain tension. Because we have not yet arrived at the perfect unity that will be ours when Jesus comes again, there is still a necessary division that come from our desire to remain faithful to God’s Word. Paul says, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be anathema—let him be eternally condemned!”
So we want to recognize and express our Christian unity, but we dare not seek external unity at all costs. If we cover over serious differences in how we read the Bible or understand the Gospel, we aren’t moving toward unity. In fact, losing clear expression of the Gospel amounts to jumping off the rope all together. If we’re going to move forward, we need a place to stand.
So what does losing the division side of the tension look like in your life? Do you repeatedly NOT talk theology with friends or family because it’s just plain easier to get along that way? Do you typically cover over serious differences in order to seem loving and welcoming? Do you habitually avoid certain topics about the Bible or the Gospel because not everyone agrees? There comes a time when you have to stand up and say clearly what you believe; do you regularly see that time come and pass without rocking the boat?
If we loosen the tension on the side of division, we can’t move forward. In fact, if we loosen it too much, we can even fall off! So what do you do if you find yourself guilty of letting go of a clear expression of the Gospel? You run back to the Gospel.
You trust that salvation is by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake alone. You aren’t going to get this Christian walk perfectly right, but you have this truth to stand on: your sins of sins of silence and accommodation are covered by the blood of Christ! In that confidence, you can get back to the task of living out our joint calling as the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church on earth, professing the Good News of God’s work for us in Jesus Christ.
On Reformation we are called to celebrate the Gospel. At the same time, we are called to maintain the tension between faithful unity and faithful division, all the while realizing our ultimate destination is on the side of eternal unity with Christ, and with each other.
We go out into the world recognizing other Christians of all kinds as our true brothers and sisters in Christ. We speak well of them, seek points of unity with them, and ask how we can better serve our God and our community side by side rather than separately.
We also hold on to the clear proclamation of salvation by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake alone, turning to Scripture alone as our ultimate authority. And when our brothers and sisters in Christ say or do things that go contrary to our understanding of the Word of God, we commit ourselves to the long journey of walking together toward Christian unity. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend there aren’t serious differences between Christians. But we can’t let those differences stand in the way of our witness to Christ for the sake of the world.
We’re stuck on the tight rope between faithful unity and faithful division. Thank God we have a place to stand! Thank God we can move forward in confidence! And thank God that Jesus will one day bring us into the complete unity He has promised. I can’t wait!