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That they may be one

by Prof. Gracia Grindal (Professor, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN;WordAlone board member)

May 13, 2003

"For dissensions are necessary if only to show which of your members are sound." I Cor.11:19

Just before the apostle Paul advises his congregation in Corinth on issues surrounding the Lord's Supper, he notes that its meetings are disagreeable, the meetings actually "tend to do more harm than good." Any veteran of congregational meetings knows exactly what the apostle is talking about. People inside and outside of the church marvel that the church has endured more than two millennia given the rancorous nature of its members. How is it that people who confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ, one who urged his followers to love one another, can be so contentious?

Paul is teaching us something very important here. Even though he is wearied by the conflicts, he notes that these dissensions (the Greek is the word for heresy) help because they reveal the truth. In other words, conflict is necessary to the discovery of the truth.

As a battle-scarred veteran of many a church fight I have always loved good theological battles. They teach. In order to enter into the lists, one has to consult Scripture, the Augsburg Confession, our theological tradition. The command to love one another does not mean there should be no conflict. Conflict, even between loving Christians, helps us discern the truth. It keeps us from error and cleanses the church. Efforts by church leaders to stifle the conflict, ultimately, can be one of the devil's most effective tools. Satan loves a church at peace, or, as the leaders of old used to say: “Asleep.”

Even though it has caused me a great deal of personal grief, I don't regret the fight over Called to Common Mission (CCM), the full-communion agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church USA. It has been the occasion for us to discern the core of our faith. Pastors whom I know marvel that the debate has sent some of their laity back to the sources: Scripture, the confessions, the tradition, to learn what is at stake in this issue. Learning what is at stake does not necessarily assure harmony, however. It can be disruptive to the congregation, synod, or wider church. But to me these happenings are signs of life, no matter how disruptive. It all makes me think differently about my nostalgia for the church of the 1950s.

The peaceful times we remember may in fact be the cause of the current turmoil. Maybe because we chose not to fight about basic issues some decades ago, we lost our definition as a confessional church and let the ecumenical and liturgical movements of the time have their day without much discussion.

Today we are reaping the whirlwind. Long suppressed arguments are rising up with new fury. Jesus told Nicodemus that the wind blows where it wills. When I read or hear what is going on in several reform movements gathering strength in other mainline churches, as well as our own, I sense a fierce wind beginning to blow through the dry land, pushing down dead trees, breaking dead branches from healthy trees and bringing water to nourish the roots of the young ones. Commentators such as Colleen Carroll in her book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyala Press, 2002) among many others are beginning to mark these movements.

Remember this side comment from Paul as you take your concerns to your congregational or synodical leadership. You are probably furthering the truth of the Gospel. Do it in love, but do not fear the blowback from either the leadership or those who accuse you of breaking what Prof. Emeritus George Forell has called Commandment One in the ELCA: Be nice. Jesus promises we will suffer in this life, and then bestows on us a peace so deep the world cannot understand it. He does this in order to encourage us as we suffer for his sake.

The devil loves the kind of peace that results from apathy and timidity, or that does not ruffle feathers. When we awaken, he begins to roar around and seeks to devour us. One of his best tricks is quoting Scripture against our contention and disruption. Don’t listen to that voice.

Rather, take courage in the voice of Jesus who has promised us everything and gives it to us through his innocent suffering and death on the cross so that we might “live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. . . . This is most certainly true,” – Luther’s Small Catechism. Pray God for the strength to endure, nay, even rejoice, in the fierce cleansing gale of the Holy Spirit among us.