Friday, January 14, 2011

Theology and Practice Cannot Be Separated

Here is an encouraging post by LCMS First Vice President, Rev. Herbert C. Mueller, Jr., regarding the "Koinonia Project," which will soon be commenced in our synod, the goal of which will be to meet around the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions to settle the divisions which exist among us.  The "Koinonia Project" was introduced by LCMS President Rev. Matthew Harrison in his essay, "It's Time," a while back, wherein he posited that we should follow the approach of our Lutheran forefathers which led to the Formula of Concord, namely to establish the controverted issues among us, determine, based on the clear Word of God and our Confessions, what we confess and what we reject regarding those issues, and agree to live together accordingly.  After years of being told how blissfully united our synod was, and that our divisions were not doctrinal, but merely practical, then President-elect Harrison's essay was (and remains) a breath of fresh air to all who know better.

What is especially encouraging about 1VP Mueller's post is this sentence:
Some would say the differences are usually only matters of practice, yet theology and practice cannot be separated. 
What stands at the core of all our synodical divisions is the argument over whether or not theology (doctrine) and practice can be separated.  It has always amazed me to hear Lutherans arguing that they can be separated.  I remember a synodical official telling me that he disagreed with the notion that doctrine and practice are two sides of the same coin.  "There is more than one way to skin a cat," he said.  My wife can attest to this, as she was standing beside me when he said this to me.  He went on to talk about how wonderful he thought it was that Lutherans were "finally breaking free from their old shackles" and "using all means and methods at their disposal to win the lost for Jesus."  He cited several examples of growing congregations in our district, crediting their growth to the willingness of their pastors and people to think and act "outside of the Lutheran box."  He was very adamant in expressing his belief that doctrine and practice can be separated.  Indeed, it was his earnest contention that they must be separated.

Or, there was the time when I was at seminary and my Field Work supervisor warned me not to allow the seminary to brainwash me into believing that doctrine and practice cannot be separated.  "You'll learn great theology at the seminary," he said, "but you need to be open to a variety of ways of putting that theology into practice when you get into the parish.  Doctrine and practice are not the same thing, regardless of what your seminary profs teach you!"  Within this same conversation, he told me something that I'll never forget, that he believed that Joyce Meyer was an example Lutherans would be wise to emulate.  He must have noted the shock (and disgust) on my face, since he went on to say, "I know that sounds crazy, and I'm certainly not saying that her theology is always correct, but I think we could learn a great deal from her, and from many others, in how to get the message out that our people desperately need to hear."  He capped the conversation off by saying, "We Lutherans must not let our theology bog us down, but we need to remain open to new ways and new methods of getting the unchanging message of the Gospel out there."

I include these examples merely to highlight the fact that the idea that doctrine and practice can be separated (indeed, should be separated for the sake of reaching the lost) is definitely held by many among us today.  I could also point to the book, "Waking the Sleeping Giant," by former LCMS President Gerald Kieschnick, which was released last year and is basically a manifesto for the endorsement and promotion of this idea.

But, the idea is false.  1VP Mueller is correct.  Theology (doctrine) and practice cannot be separated.  As 1VP Mueller goes on to note, "A pastor’s teaching will be reflected in his practice and a pastor’s practice is his theology in action."  This should be self-evident.  This is not rocket science; it's not even rock science.  Practice IS theology (doctrine) in action.  That's just an objective fact and is not open for debate.  Lutherans cannot practice like Methobapticostals or "Americanized" Evangelicals and maintain their Lutheran theology, since, well, they're putting a different theology into action, and it is that different theology that informs and teaches the people they serve.  Lutheran practice is Lutheran theology in action.  Baptist practice is Baptist theology in action.  Methodist practice is Methodist theology in action.  And so forth.

Imagine the surprise you would experience if you attended a Baptist congregation for worship and you saw and heard Lutheran theology being practiced.  I'm betting that you are having a hard time picturing such a thing.  There's a reason for that.  Baptists are not going to put Lutheran theology into practice.  You're not going to hear a Baptist pastor say, "Upon this your confession . . . I forgive you all your sins . . ."; you're not going to hear a Baptist pastor preach a Christ-centered, Cross-focused, Law and Gospel sermon; you're not going to hear that Christ is Really Present in His Holy Word and Sacraments to Gift you with forgiveness, life, and salvation through these blessed means of grace.  What you're going to witness in a Baptist church is Baptist theology put into practice.  And, I would contend that the same would hold true in all of the Protestant denominations - you just don't see Protestants putting Lutheran theology into practice; they're content with putting their own theology into practice, as well they should be.  In making that claim, I am not saying that it has never happened that Protestants put Lutheran theology into practice, but that, if it has happened, it is so rare that it is hard to even imagine.  Not so the other way around, which gives one furiously to think.

Anyway, it is encouraging to hear our synodical leaders stating objectively that theology (doctrine) and practice cannot be separated.  However, given the fact that not everyone among us is convinced that this is objectively true, as amazing as that it is, it may be that this will have to be the first controverted issue to be addressed in the "Koinonia Project."  We can hardly expect to gain much traction in settling other controverted issues if we are not operating from the same understanding that theology (doctrine) and practice are inseparable.  Thus, Article I of the "Koinonia Project" should probably be titled, "The Relationship of Doctrine and Practice."  As sad as it is that we would have to waste time on this, I don't see a way around it.  How can we possibly address other controverted issues if we don't first address this one?

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