What's in a Name?
A pastor of an LCMS congregation recently made a big production out of his congregation’s name change. They had previously excised the name “Lutheran”, but had retained the rest of the congregation’s original name after one of our Blessed Lord’s apostles. But now, in response to the disapproval of unbelievers, and based on focus groups and research, the pastor pushed for the congregation to adopt a completely non-traditional name that was actually the same as the brand name of an SUV. It has generated some humorous responses in the world of Lutheran social media and blogs.
The pastor’s name and the specific congregation involved are not the point of my article, but rather the concept of names - especially the name “Lutheran.”
The name “Lutheran” was not self-chosen. It doesn’t appear in the text of the Book of Concord. It was a strategy by the opponents of the Reformation to deny our catholicity and place us in the same category as Arians and Montanists and Valentinians. For instead of being “catholic” (according to the whole), heretics are followers of men: like Arius, Montanus, and Valentinus, not to mention “Luther.” Dr. Johann Maier von Eck coined the term at the Leipzig Debate in 1519, and it was a marketing coup.
Luther himself did not approve of the name “Lutheran.” Who would want churches of an entire reform movement named after oneself?
Of course, we are not “followers” of Martin Luther. We are often accused of treating Luther as an oracle of Scripture or as an alternative pope, but the fact of the matter is that what defines us as a confession is not Luther, but rather our allegiance to the theology of the Book of Concord - the chief document of which is the Augsburg Confession. For this reason, there are some Lutheran church bodies that do not have “Lutheran” in their name, but rather the “Church of the Augsburg Confession” (especially in Eastern Europe, although many of these churches were taken over by theological liberals during the period of Communist domination). The Book of Concord often just refers to “our churches.” And while our faith is never described as “Lutheran” in our confessions, it is described as “catholic.”
So when we hear of one of our fellow “churches of the Augsburg Confession” jettisoning the name “Lutheran,” shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration?
In the current culture and climate, it is the very opposite.
For five centuries have passed, and the name “Lutheran” has stuck as a universally-understood shorthand for the churches that adhere to the theology of the Book of Concord.
It is not unlike the name “American.” It’s origin lies in the name Amerigo Vespucci - an explorer who came to the new world after Columbus, but whose name stuck to our hemisphere’s continents. When the North American colonies of Great Britain declared independence in 1776, they named their confederation the “United States of America.” Since that time, our people have had the national identity as “American.” The name stuck with us.
Several hundred years later, in the present day, can you imagine a soldier, sailor, or marine of the United States of America deciding that he didn’t like the name “American” and would no longer call himself an “American"? He could cite the fact that non-Americans don’t have a good impression of Americans or their name. He might want non-Americans to have a higher view of our people, and might decide that he is just going to drop the name for marketing purposes.
I wonder what the military would say about that? What would his fellow Americans think of him? How would this reflect on his ancestors? What message would he send the world about his country and countrymen?
Or what if a large family had a son who decided to jettison the family name, arguing that the name has a bad reputation among outsiders? Would one expect the rest of the family to be overjoyed? Would it be unreasonable for them to see this as a rejection and a betrayal of the rest of the family and its heritage?
The name “Lutheran” has stuck with us, and it has a specific meaning as a confession within western catholic Christendom and the conservative reformation.
It is a bit like the term “Yankee” with which the British taunted the American “rebels.” The patriots wore the taunt as a badge of honor, and the name stuck. Similarly, the Confederates (whose origin as a nation lies in their argument, whether one agrees or disagrees, that secession is not rebellion) were labeled by their opponents as “rebels.” The Southerners wore the taunt as a badge of honor, and the name stuck. It seems that during the Arian crisis, Catholic Christians were sometimes called “Athanasians.” That time, the name did not stick.
But here we stand, having been labeled by friend and foe alike as “Lutherans.” And sure, sometimes we have to explain what “Lutheran” is and what it isn’t - and our opponents still lie about us. But with five centuries of water under the bridge, Luther’s protestations have been overcome by sheer inertia.
C.F.W. Walther addressed this same issue in 1844.
The name “Lutheran” is a cross to bear at times. Especially for our more conservative church bodies, like the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. We are often derided as flat-earth-fundamentalists, misogynists, racists, sexists, and homophobes. We are considered to the be the “extreme right wing” of Lutheranism. I’m surprised that we haven’t been tagged as “alt-right” yet, but we are on the radar of Right Wing Watch, and our Concordia University - Irvine made the Campus Pride Shame List as one of the “absolute worst campuses.” After all, we believe the Bible is actually true. In a culture that brooks no tolerance of dissent in matters of “gender” and non-biological “marriage,” there are times when it is tempting to let our nice progressive neighbors just assume that we’re sophisticated Episcopalians or inclusive Methodists or something, anything, other than knuckle-dragging Missouri Synod Lutherans.
But there are also great benefits to remaining within the LCMS: the Concordia health plan, retirement plan, access to some of the greatest seminary education in the world, a network of thousands of churches in the US, access to trained and certified pastors and lay church workers, and official altar and pulpit fellowship with dozens of communions worldwide. There may well be access to mission money, and other sources of income available to members of synod. Like the American Express card, “Membership has its privileges.”
We saw a similar conflicted motivation among the big banks and other massive corporations in the 2007 financial meltdown, with the strategy laid bare of privatizing the gains and socializing the losses. The big banks did not want government regulation when the money was rolling in, but wanted bailouts when their risky investments went bust.
I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing a similar motivation to profit on the name “Lutheran” when it is an asset (such as in access to pastors and church workers, as well as worker benefit plans), but to socialize when it becomes a liability (such as when the name is perceived as a “turnoff” to potential customers according to focus groups).
There is certainly a vested interest in retaining the relationship while denying the relationship through having a different name - having the milk without buying the cow - not unlike a married man who won’t wear a wedding ring, or a wife who chooses to retain her maiden name out of a perceived benefit of keeping her marriage on the down-low.
It is a way to have one’s cake and eat it.
But what are the rest of us to think? It’s a little hard not to feel used, as though our money is good enough, but not our family name. The sons of this world are more shrewd than the sons of light, as who can even imagine a local McDonald’s being permitted the benefits of the franchise without the obligation to display the name? Or what about a football player who decided to eschew the team’s uniform and name, while still wishing to hold on to the lucrative contract and the benefits of the downplayed relationship?
Of course, what one chooses to name a congregation is an adiaphoron. Usually. I mean, if a church wanted to call itself Islam Lutheran Church, or name itself after Satan, it wouldn’t be an adiaphoron. But if a church wishes to be St. Peter or St. Paul, Redeemer or Ascension, or even HappyClappy or SuperNewSong!!! - Holy Scripture doesn’t really speak to it one way or the other.
But having said that, names are important. And in a culture of religious pluralism and syncretism, we owe it to the unbelievers as well as to our brothers and sisters in the faith to be clear about what our confession is. For a confession is not really a confession unless it is confessed, and confessed clearly. Muddying the water and playing the chameleon violates the spirit of our Lord’s admonition to let our yes be yes, and our no, no.
We would do well to avoid surrendering to the opinions and whims of the world, the devil, and our own sinful nature. We should not succumb to the temptation to allow unbelievers to decide how our churches ought to be run. We would do well to hold the Bible, the Confessions, and our venerable conservative reformation tradition as the anchors and touchstones as to how we articulate our faith - including the way we speak about ourselves.
We are not marketers, but confessors. We are not selling cheapjacks’ wares, but rather giving away eternal life. We are not salesmen, showmen, or shamans - we are churchmen. We are Christians. We are catholics of the conservative reformation. We are Lutherans.
And for the sake of friend and foe alike, we ought to say so.