Article 24 Matters!
As a recovering Baptist, let me give you my testimony.
Before I begin, I should preface my remarks with gratitude for Baptists. My parents were non-churchgoing Baptists, my beloved great-grandmother was a devout and practicing Baptist, and I went to church with my Baptist next door neighbors. It was in the Baptist Church that I learned about Jesus and the Bible, the cross, and the Gospel. And though I did indeed come to embrace the Lutheran tradition, I think we Lutherans are sometimes a little too enamored of ourselves and ought to pursue an honest and healthy ecumenism that doesn’t compromise our faith.
Two of my childhood friends are today Baptist pastors. Our local Baptist seminary has outstanding Apologetics conferences. Many of my colleagues in the chaplaincy of the fire service and the Civil Air Patrol are Baptist ministers.
I had a funny exchange with a fellow fire chaplain. He was raised in the LCMS, but converted to the Baptist Church, and became a pastor. My journey was the exact opposite. He teased me, “I was a Lutheran, and then I got saved.” I retorted, “I was a Baptist, and then I got baptized.” We both had a good laugh.
Many of my dearest and closest brothers and sisters in the Church are not Lutherans. Many of them are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and various shades of Protestant. In many cases, I am closer to my traditionalist brethren with whom I cannot commune than many within my own communion and denomination. We can be both fraternal and ecumenical, while at the same time, honest and truly committed to our own confession. That’s how I strive to be.
At any rate, I attended a Baptist church for many years as a child up until about junior high school. We had Sunday school and worship services, Wednesday prayer meetings, and I did attend AWANA meetings once in a while (I think those were on Thursdays), though I didn’t really get into it. We did have a club for really young kids, and we wore red vests and accumulated charms for Bible memory work using the KJV. I was among the first group that received a trophy for completing the course. I was also a regular at Vacation Bible School, and played in the church softball league.
Thanks to bullies in the public junior high school, I ended up attending an all-boys Roman Catholic high school run by the Jesuit order. Back in those days, the Jesuits were politically leftist, but not full-blown feminist and pro-gay commies as many of them are today. Many of my teachers were Jesuit priests, brothers, and scholastics (men who were yet laymen but under vows as they studied for ordination). I took a liking to them, and they were fantastic teachers. I am pleased to report that when the huge list of Jesuit molesters was released, none of my teachers were on it, thanks be to God.
I studied theology (straight As) and loved our classes in the Bible, Church History, and the Sacraments. As a Baptist, I knew the Bible better than all of my classmates. We had great discussions in class. I learned about sacraments, liturgy, and the long chain of Christian history – none of which I was taught in the Baptist Church. We had Mass every week in chapel. My rough-and-tumble classmates became reverent during Mass. They genuflected and crossed themselves. They folded their hands and humbly bowed while my teachers, clad in vestments, led what seemed to me a formal service. The focus was on Jesus, and this was owing to the belief that Jesus was miraculously present in the sacramental elements. They did not believe this symbolically or metaphorically, but literally. Christ was present in the flesh, and He gave Himself to the communicants. My classmates may have been swaggering in the gym or flexing muscles on the football field, rigorously competing academically in the classroom, and jockeying for social position as teen boys are wont to do, but in the chapel, they were humble and reverent.
The reverence was the part that really made an impression on me.
This was different than the Baptist service. Not that it was irreverent. It wasn’t. But it certainly had a more casual feel (and this was still when they were using organs and hymns instead of guitars and praise choruses). The Baptist sanctuary was laid out like a lecture hall, with the pulpit predominating. The sermon was usually about 45 minutes, and was a Bible study. We brought our own Bibles to church, and the pastor led us through a kind of detailed Bible study as we sat in the pews and highlighted and wrote in our Bibles. The Scriptures were never prayed or chanted; but were rather studied and memorized. There was an emphasis on morality, on “being good.” The walls were devoid of art. Aside from a plain cross at the front and on the pulpit, the U.S. and “Christian” flags up front, and a velvety curtain drawn across the baptistery, there was not much to look at.
And speaking of baptism: in all my years as a professing Baptist, I had never seen the curtain drawn. I had never witnessed a baptism. I myself had never been invited to take the plunge. Similarly, I think because we had Sunday School concurrent with part of the church service, I had never seen a communion service in a Baptist church. These things were just not that important.
By contrast, the Roman Catholic Mass had the actual words of Scripture being sung by priest and people. There was a structure, a dialogue between the pastor and laity, a great conversation that had been going on for centuries. And the liturgy was not limited to this room. It was a universal liturgy, one that was celebrated all over the world, and even transcended time. The saints in heaven, it was said, worshiped with us. We listened to the Bible readings. We rose for the Gospel. We sang hymns (sadly, this was when the Saint Louis Jesuits were all the rage). We recited the ancient Creed. My classmates made their way to the altar to partake of communion. They reverently ate and drank and made the sign of the cross during the service. They returned to the pew and bent their heads in prayer.
On the downside, the sermons were no great shakes, and my classmates didn’t seem to know much about the Bible. But the Jesuits were great educators and espoused a serious spirituality that emphasized prayer and study and service. I joined a student group devoted to prayer called “The Way.” We went on a winter retreat to a Jesuit retreat house where we played football in the snow, passed hours alone in our cells to pray, worshiped in chapel, gathered for meals, and listened to lectures by the Jesuits. It was a much different expression of Christianity than I had found in the Baptist tradition.
In our studies of Church history, we got to the Reformation. The Jesuits were actually quite sympathetic to Luther. I began to wonder how the Lutheran Church differed from both the Baptist and Roman Catholic Churches.
At the age of 17, I showed up at the local LCMS congregation, found the pastor, and asked, “What do Lutherans believe?” The pastor, a soft-spoken kindly middle-aged man who generally sported a tie during the week and a collar on Sundays, gave me the Augsburg Confession. I devoured it. I also read the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and other books that I could find. I read Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. As a college freshman, I dug into Luther’s works in the library. I was baptized, confirmed, and took my first communion at age 18 – and was assisting with teaching confirmation class within a few months.
What I found in my studies was that Lutheranism was actually an expression of Catholic Christianity. With only a few deletions of problematic accretions, the Lutherans retained the ancient Western Catholic Mass, including the ceremonial aspects. They confessed the Real Presence. They confessed baptismal regeneration. They saw themselves in continuity with the ancient Church. And yet, they were as focused on the Bible (which they interpreted literally and saw as inerrant) as the Baptists. The musical heritage of the Lutherans included the magnificence of Bach, and the hymns were intellectually and spiritually stimulating and chock full of the raw confession of the faith. The pastors absolved us and traced the sign of the cross upon us multiple times during the Divine Service, or “Mass” as our Augsburg Confession called it.
Our real-world worship, however, didn’t quite measure up to what I had read in the Augsburg Confession and other historical books. I was one of very few who made the sign of the cross. Our congregation did not have communion at every service (I was able to take communion every Sunday by flip-flopping between the 8:30 and 11:00 service; but on the fifth Sundays, we did Matins with no Eucharist). We had no chalice, and our pastors sometimes wore an alb over a shirt-and tie (which struck me as a kind-of pharmacist look). Most people took the Lord’s body in the hand, and all used shot glasses to drink the Lord’s blood. The pastors did not chant. They gave constant instructions about page numbers. It was all so distracting compared to how the Roman Catholics celebrated the Mass, which flowed much more naturally.
The preaching was different than both the Bible studies of the Baptists and the free-form off-the-cuff homilies of the Roman Catholics. The soft-spoken associate pastor who had catechized me preached in a classic, low-key law-and-gospel style. The senior pastor was more, as we might say today, “dynamic” – and I preferred the more low-key preaching of the associate pastor.
Early on, I checked out the other Lutheran church a block away. It was part of one of the church bodies that would later become the ELCA. They used the new green Lutheran Book of Worship. They were more liturgical. I very much liked their liturgy, but something drew me back to the LCMS church and its more overall traditional 1941 Lutheran Hymnal.
I found it odd that the Lutherans had this magnificent treasure of the liturgy, but had allowed it to become weak and bland, almost drifting back to the Baptist style of worship in some ways. The congregation had also begun to experiment with “contemporary” worship. We used the Chicago Folk Service on occasion – which I found trite and contrived and cringe-inducing. Sometimes flutes and acoustic guitars replaced the organ. I found this rather horrifying. When the campfire song “Pass It On” (which sounds to me like medical advice about a kidney stone) was treated as a hymn, there was a couple that shouted out one of the lines in the song in response as if we were kids on a bus trip. Why did they do this? I was a long-haired teenager who rode a motorcycle, and I related to the chest-rattling organ and our bombastic chorales instead of the folksy, cheesy pop tunes and breathy flute ensembles inevitably played by little girls at the front of the church. I was supposedly the demographic they were trying to reach, but I found it a turn-off. Sometimes I wondered if I had made a mistake.
After completing my education and taking consulting assignments out of state, I returned home whenever I could for worship – as often as every other week. Many years later, I returned to the sanctuary to visit the font at which I was baptized. It was, in fact, twenty years to the day, and I was then a seminarian. The sanctuary had been monkeyed with to make it look less traditional. The Lutheran school had been rebranded as a “Christian” school. The services had become a smorgasbord of various “contemporary” offerings – one service being held in the school gym - with one traditional service retained in the early morning slot. The pastors of my youth were long gone.
Visiting the congregation one year for Christmas (again as a seminarian), it was all that I could do not to walk out. The sermon was terrible. The liturgy was butchered. In fact, I never went back. When I would visit my dad, my wife and I would attend an Anglican Catholic Church (ACC) congregation instead. We struck up a friendship with the parish priest (now sainted) and his wife. We did not commune there, but otherwise were treated as if we were members. One year, on a Sunday that fell on October 31, the pastor spontaneously changed the closing hymn to “A Mighty Fortress.” The preaching was not of the Lutheran proclamation that I was used to, but the liturgy was the Western Catholic Mass, done extremely well and reverently. Is that too much to ask for a Lutheran church?
Apparently, it often is.
Before having any inclination to attend seminary, my wife Grace and I had moved to a large Southern city after Grace graduated from college. Upon moving, we went “church shopping.” We must have visited a dozen LCMS congregations, and found just about every abomination imaginable. It was scandalous and disheartening. Our previous congregation in Philadelphia had been a small, traditional parish served by the Rev. Dr. Fred Baue. He was a gifted preacher and liturgist.
The congregation that was closest to where we lived after our move South was located in a posh suburb, and featured full-blown contemporary-worship. It wasn’t just high school girls playing wispy flute music while baby-boomers strummed guitars. No, this wealthy church had a stage that featured a lounge-singer-style duo singing and playing piano, a comedy sketch that featured guys sitting around the altar in ball caps picking their fingernails, and assembly-line style communion standing up while the pastor was cutting up and joking with people. There were hands raised in the air and praise songs. I nearly did not commune. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have. When I checked with the hipster elder upon entering about communing, he assured me that “it didn’t matter” because “Pastor was cool.”
Grace and I could not wait to get out of there. My poor wife had only recently become a Lutheran and was utterly scandalized. I made an offhand comment that I might have to become a pastor myself. Yes, God has a sense of humor. After I emailed a description of the service to Pastor Baue, he filled me in on the “Church Growth Movement.” The pastor at the first congregation we visited was actually one of his classmates. Without me saying anything to him about my offhand comment, after a few emails, Pastor Baue suggested that I might want to look into seminary.
Finding a decent liturgy at that time and place was the classic needle in a haystack. We settled on a rather liberal congregation that used the Lutheran Book of Worship and at least offered a fairly traditional service each Sunday (with some monkeying) – though communion rotated between the “contemporary” and “traditional” services. We did go to the “contemporary” service once, and even sang “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” It was horrid.
Not long after we settled in, two seminary recruiters came to our area: one from Fort Wayne, and one from St. Louis. I was blown away by what I had learned about Fort Wayne. “We don’t have praise bands. We only use the traditional liturgy,” the recruiter told me. He gave me a CD of the seminary Kantorei – of which I was to become a member myself! Here was genuine, authentic, reverent Lutheran worship without the monkeyshines. Could it be that the seminaries actually taught pastors to believe, teach, and confess the Book of Concord - and actually live it out in the parish and in the world? From what I had been seeing, I was skeptical.
Long story short, I entered seminary in 2000 and graduated from Fort Wayne in 2004 at the age of 40. I loved my experience at seminary. It was a little like being around the Jesuits, but only better. Seminary life was a life of prayer, study, worship, and fellowship. It was an intense and joyful crucible. It was like a combination university fraternity and monastery. On my first day on campus, I remarked to my wife (who had a job on campus), “I was born for this” (which is not characteristic of how I usually speak). I did my field education at the historic Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. The Rev. Matthew Harrison was my pastor and field work supervisor. Zion was a beautifully traditional congregation both in its architecture and people. The music and liturgy were (and remain) authentically Lutheran. I was ordained there and was sent to my first call as a campus pastor at a Lutheran high school in the deep South.
I was told by the school’s board of control that the school had become rather generically Protestant over the years. Several confessional pastors were elected to the board and wanted to see a change in direction. I was charged with making Lutheran High Lutheran again. And I think someone actually said that – though there was no red hat! So, I re-instituted traditional worship in chapel. I considered offering the Eucharist at chapel, but was told by the principal that I could not do that. In the classroom, taught from the catechism and the Bible. We read great works by C.S. Lewis and Lutheran classics like Bishop Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God and Dr. Veith’s Spirituality of the Cross.
But early in the year, the political situation changed, and the faction of the board that gave me my marching orders became the minority. Things quickly got ugly. In what surely was a coincidence, my pregnant wife’s health insurance was yanked. I had to moonlight at a video store to buy health insurance. The principal relegated me to leading chapel services twice a month. Sometimes he himself (a layman) led the service – often with gimmicks like a large Sponge Bob doll. One time, a DCE brought in a boom box and led a “worship service” that featured Eminem music – only with some religious references replacing the f-bombs. My students were appalled. One of our newly-minted rostered teachers, a guy barely in his twenties, led a service and preached (he showed up in all black with a white tie). When my son was born, I was forbidden (by the principal) to baptize him at chapel, so I baptized him in the hospital. During one meeting with the principal in his office, we stood nose to nose, and I was truly expecting to take a punch. To say that this was a trying time would be an understatement.
I asked the principal why he was preaching in light of Article 14. He retorted that he “had a call” just like I did. When I asked the young teacher the same question, he shrugged and told me that they did this at the Concordia University that he had attended, and besides, they didn’t really study the Book of Concord that much. It didn’t seem to matter.
When I petitioned the board regarding the difference between the duties I was told to perform verses the addendum to the call document that I was presented with upon accepting their call, the board sided (predictably) with the principal – who often came to work wearing WWJD? ties. At one point, he sanctioned our participation in a Pray Around the Flagpole event – without my input or even knowledge. A hurricane evacuation intervened, and the event never happened.
At my meeting with the board, one lady member said, and this is an exact quote: “These kids don’t need all that Book of Concord stuff. They just need to know that Jesus loves them.” The only “Book of Concord stuff” I was teaching them was the Small Catechism. Apparently, even that was too much Lutheranism for her taste. Another suggested that instead of hymns from the hymnal, we sing songs like “Father Abraham” in chapel. Mind you, some of these students were eighteen years old. Many of them were driving nicer cars than I was. Just what message did she want to convey to our students? I taught them in the classroom, and I knew these kids. I knew what they were capable of learning. Why was there such a vicious and visceral reaction to our traditional liturgy? I suspect it was the fact that most of the board members were Baby Boomers whose demographic marching orders appear to be essentially to destroy Western Civilization one church and one institution at a time. But I’m sure they meant well.
With two days left in the school year, with a mortgage and a newborn, I was called into a meeting with the principal and a board member (a pastor’s wife) and was summarily fired. I received no severance, and not so much as a phone call from anyone at district. I was amazed, considering my previous career with Fortune 500 companies as a consultant. I was never treated as shabbily or as duplicitously as I was by the church. It was shocking. And frankly, most of the motivation for this ungodly treatment was my adherence to liturgical worship. It is like garlic to a vampire.
After working a summer job, I was called to my current congregation, Salem Lutheran Church in Gretna, Louisiana. I received my call two weeks before Hurricane Katrina, and was installed a couple months later (after our electricity was restored). I’m now in my fifteenth year of service to Salem. I’m glad to say that we are a traditional congregation. Our services are authentically Lutheran and our hymnody is right out of the hymnal. I’m blessed with a talented organist. My predecessors catechized the congregation well.
What’s the Matter?
But over the years, I have noticed that an alarming number of our congregations, with the apparent blessing of many District Presidents and Synod Presidents, have ditched the traditional liturgy. Various programs and groups pushing back against traditional worship rise and fall like the empires of the world - only faster. Over the years, I have seen traditional pastors have a rough go of it. Sometimes they are fired. Sometimes they are accused of mental problems and have to endure a Gulag-like process of reinstatement only to be cleared by mental health professionals after their reputations have been called into question and their income hamstrung for months. Some pastors come back from this, and some don’t. Having read Vladimir Bukovsky’s autobiographical To Build a Castle, I’m not a fan of this Room 101 approach to pastoral oversight.
YouTube and Facebook have shown the vast diversity of worship practices in our synod. Any traditionalist who has ever gone on vacation and just tried visiting an LCMS church has probably been confronted by emotion- and entertainment-based worship practices instead of what we have all agreed to by virtue of our constitutions and ordination vows: the traditional liturgical forms of the Mass – as we confess in Article 24 of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology.
Sadly, a lot of the pastors and lay congregational leaders who experiment with these various worship forms are cradle Lutherans. It is as though they take their treasure for granted, trading their birthright for a bowl of slop. Sometimes it takes us converts to be the watchmen on the wall, to beg them to polish off the tarnish and take a second look at the magnificence that they are keeping hidden in the attic.
These pastors and congregations have bought the line that by ditching the liturgy, by wearing khakis and golf shirts – or hipster attire – by bringing in gimmicks that sometimes even include rock music and dancing girls, by downplaying the Eucharist, by imitating the worship style of the local non-denominational or Pentecostal megachurch (if not the secular world) – somehow this will bring more people to church – especially “the youth.”
And it is as though Article 24 has been Memory Holed. It certainly doesn’t matter to them.
In one online discussion with a pastor who not only championed “contemporary worship,” he also disparaged traditional liturgical practices as “imitating the Catholics” and “driving people away,” I thought I would be a little cheeky. I asked him if he could support the following proposed resolution to the synod convention: “In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc.”
He was emphatic that he could not.
I assumed that he didn’t recognize where this had come from. Maybe he didn’t, or maybe he did. But I shared with him that he was already committed to this statement by virtue of being a Lutheran pastor. He had taken vows to norm his practice by the Book of Concord. Moreover, in the LCMS, our vows include a “quia” (“because”) as opposed to a more flexible “quatenus” (“insofar as”) subscription to the Symbols. In other words, we commit to the Book of Concord in its entirety because it is a faithful exposition of Scripture, as opposed to parsing out various parts that we deem to not be in agreement with Scripture (as the ELCA does). C.F.W. Walther pointed out that the “quatenus” subscription was so loose that a Christian could actually subscribe to the Koran under a “quatenus” condition.
This pastor replied that Article 24 is “no longer binding” on Lutherans. He didn’t really explain how he came to this conclusion. I was reminded of the old joke about President Bill Clinton and the “Nine Commandments.” In my two courses on the Lutheran Confessions with the sainted Professor Kurt Marquart, I don’t recall any of our theologians arguing that Article 24 had an expiration date on it.
The Augsburg Confession (which converted me to Lutheranism) contains 21 articles of faith, joined by a sort-of addendum of seven articles of practical reforms that had been made by the early reformers (Articles 22-28). Of these seven articles, one entire article (24) is devoted to the practicalities and theology of worship under the title “Of the Mass.” There are 41 paragraphs devoted in the Augustana to article 24.
The opening of the article according to the German (as translated by Tappert) reads: “We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass.” A footnote indicates: “E.g. by [papal theologian and opponent of Luther] John Eck” in his “404 Theses, Nos. 269-278. This article makes it clear, of course, that retention of the Mass does not mean retention of abuses.” Article 24 continues, “Without boasting, it is manifest that the Mass is observed among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents…. Meanwhile no conspicuous changes have been made in the public ceremonies of the Mass, except” the use of the vernacular language in the form of German hymns.
The opening according to the Latin reads: “Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. Actually, the Mass is retained among us and is celebrated with the greatest reverence.”
The German avers the need for ceremonies “to teach the people what they need to know about Christ.” The Latin says, “Accordingly, it does not appear that the Mass is observed with more devotion among our adversaries than among us.”
Thus, the reason for the inclusion of Article 24 is the false accusation of abolishing the Mass. This was a charge that Melanchthon and the reformers believed needed to be corrected. They spoke up boldly about the practice (not just the doctrine) of our churches, and why that practice is crucial for Christians to be brought to Christ and taught the faith. There is no hint of “Well, we all have different practices and we do whatever we want.” There is a real sense of commitment to the traditional ceremony of the Western Mass, and any suggestion to the contrary was execrable and in need of correction.
Just imagine what Melanchthon would say if he saw some of the worship practices in some of our churches today!
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession continues to argue how Lutherans worship in its Article 24 that goes on for 99 paragraphs, beginning with: “To begin with, we must repeat the prefatory statement that we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it.” This is followed by my above-quoted passage: “In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc.” Refutation of the charge of having ditched the traditional Mass with its lectionary, vestments, every-Sunday communion, and only communing those who have been “examined and absolved” was important enough to the reformers to include Article 24 and explain its presence as an emphatic denial of the false charge.
Of course, if Eck and Melanchthon were to visit many of our churches today, Eck would be laughing and saying, “Aha, I was right!” while Melanchthon would have to create a new “variata” version. I suspect that Luther’s reaction would be unprintable in a family-friendly publication.
So how do modern Lutherans gainsay this clear confession of Article 24 in both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology?
There is the “no longer binding” argument as outlined above. This hermeneutic simply disregards something inconvenient in the Book of Concord, not unlike Thomas Jefferson’s literal removal of Bible passages that he did not agree with.
Another option is the “de facto quatenus” argument, in other words: “Where is that in the Bible?” This approach drives a convenient wedge between the Bible (norma normans - “norming norm”) and the confessions (norma normata - “normed norm”) – pitting the two against each other, and virtually demanding that any passage in the Book of Concord without an explicit proof text must be disregarded (a funny conclusion drawn by some of the same people who authoritatively and reverently quote the synodical bylaws and handbook as if they were also normae and carry the force of obedience due to Scripture).
Some have parsed Article 24 out of service by declaring it to be “descriptive, not prescriptive.” I have given a lot of thought and have written and spoken on this topic. I believe that Article 24 is indeed descriptive and not prescriptive. In fact, the entire Book of Concord and all of the creeds are descriptive: they describe the faith we hold, in the words of the Augsburg Confession, “in doctrine and in ceremonies.” Article 24 describes an authentically Lutheran church. And if it doesn’t describe your church, there is something wrong to be corrected. None of our Book of Concord is “prescriptive.” That is the stuff of canon law (which we don’t have) or the synodical bylaws – which lists the rules and regulations that we must do in order to remain in the synod, rules like calling pastors who have been certified by the synod, filling out reports, and paying our assessments (church taxes) to the district and synod. Failing these prescriptions could result in losing synod status, but even these kinds of things would not remove us from the Church.
Even things like the creedal confession of the Trinity are actually descriptive. This is why our creeds and confessions are “Symbols,” they are like battle-flags that are flown and identify us as catholic Christians within the Lutheran tradition. For one cannot compel belief. One cannot use force to make someone genuinely say, “I believe” or “We believe, teach, and confess.” These cannot be prescribed, but must actually be believed. Our creeds and confessions are descriptive of the faith we (often described in our confessions as “our churches” and “our priests”) confess. Those who do not confess the Trinity are simply not part of “our churches.” The Symbols don’t compel; they simply draw a boundary. You are either in or out.
A similar technique is the “doctrine vs. practice” ploy. So this trick goes, we are committed to the doctrine, but not the practice, of the Book of Concord. This ploy is exposed by the statement “We’re just like you” or something similar. A congregation might have a full-blown Sunday hootenanny that looks nothing like a Lutheran liturgy as described by our confessions, but as long as the pastor teaches the confirmands with the Small Catechism and says the right words in the classroom, they will gaslight you that what we say is what counts, not what we do. Of course, this is nonsense. Fifty-five percent of all human communication is non-verbal. You can say, “This is most certainly true” all you want, but if your behavior in the chancel sends a message that we don’t believe that we are actually in the presence of the King of the Universe, you are actually teaching something else. When I was a campus pastor, one of my brightest high school students, a lifelong Lutheran who was confirmed at one of our local congregations that worshiped in the gymnasium (and not because they were hurting financially), was shocked to hear me point out in my class that Lutherans believe that Christ is physically present in Holy Communion. She actually said something like, “Isn’t that what Catholics believe? We believe that the bread and wine are symbols.” And like I said, this was one of my top students. I don’t believe her pastor taught her that kind of false doctrine in confirmation class, but when a congregation puts all of its money into a parochial school and relegates the Sunday worship to whatever is left, when the altar is on wheels and the casual, contemporary service takes place with the backdrop of a scoreboard that says “home” and “visitors,” well, that sends a message – a message of dissonance. What was she supposed to infer from this behavior?
And our confessions most certainly do not drive a wedge between doctrine and ceremonies – which is why our Augsburg Confession concludes with this unequivocal statement of purpose: “It was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches” (emphasis added).
This “ungodly doctrine creep” certainly came to my star pupil in her belief that Lutherans deny the Real Presence. And this is why our wise forbears did not separate doctrine and ceremonies. As pointed out in Article 24, ceremonies teach the people what they need to know about Christ. Article 24 indeed matters.
Another technique is a kind of Muslim hermeneutic. In Islam, the Koran is read so that later passages override earlier ones. So in the case of a contradiction, the later passage is deemed true. Some Lutherans similarly pit Article 10 of the Formula of Concord against Article 24 of the Augustana and Apologia, and since the Formula of Concord (1577) came nearly fifty years after the two previous confessions, they must have gotten it right there. After all, progressivism teaches that we are evolving and getting better in time. The 1530 Lutherans were still shackled by primitive Roman superstitions, so might go the argument. Fifty years later, we weren’t so “Catholic” any more.
A similar technique is to muddy the waters by pitting Article 24 against Article 7 (Latin: “For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere”). Article 7 is sometimes played as a trump card, like the right bower in a hand of Euchre to take the trick. But this is a logical sleight-of-hand not unlike resolving the tension between Sts. Paul and James.
For the New Testament writings of both Paul (who emphasizes grace) and James (who emphasizes works) are true. To allow Paul to trump James is to head toward antinomianism. To let James trump Paul is to fall into works-righteousness. Only a synthesis of both will protect against both Scylla and Charybdis. The same is true with our Book of Concord.
Of course, Article 7 is true. And so is Article 10 of the Formula. So how do we uphold them in concert with Article 24? The historic practice of the church shows the way. Our forebears did not have a lockstep top-down enforced universal liturgy. Latin was used among the educated. More ceremony was used in large cities. Less ceremony was used in country churches. Some churches were more ornate, and some less. There was variation between regions of Germany and Scandinavia. And at the same time, there was enforced local uniformity in the various regions by “superintendents” and other overseers that recognized the value of shared traditional practice.
Thus a large city church might have a cantor and choir, whereas a small church may not. A congregation in a university might have Gregorian chant, whereas among the less educated, the hymnody may be exclusively German. A modern example might be that some of our churches use purple for Advent, while others use blue. Or in one congregation, the pastor might chant the collect, whereas in another, he might speak it. One congregation might have a processional cross, whereas another may begin the service in the chancel. One congregation may have chasubles, whereas another does not. These are all adiaphora within Christian liberty. Abolishing the liturgy may not make one no longer Christian, but it certainly removes one from authentic Lutheran practice as confessed by our Augsburg Confession. Our confessions draw a boundary. You are either in or out.
Our current hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, for good or for ill, provides for a good bit of variations: five settings of the Divine Service, options to chant or speak the prayers, options for the prayers and responses themselves, placement of the Creed, etc. And so all of these variations can be employed while upholding all of the passages in our confessions that pertain to worship.
The same cannot be said for abolishing the Sunday Mass with communion (e.g. regularly scheduled “non-communion Sundays”), offering communion to those who have not been examined (i.e. “open communion”), ditching the vestments, the lectionary, or the traditional liturgical elements that are part of our received tradition (i.e. “contemporary worship”).
In other words, we don’t rob James to pay Paul. We don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to Articles 7 and 10 while crossing our fingers or holding our nose at 24.
Another technique is to appeal to bylaws and synodical resolutions. Insofar as these resolutions do not infringe on the Scripture and the confessions, we do enjoy a great deal of Christian liberty concerning policies and the day to day running of our congregations. Having said that, as Luther pointed out, popes and councils have erred, and sometimes contradict one another - and yes, this also applies to parliamentary majorities and the solemn pronouncements of church bureaucrats. Indeed, we are to abide by the synod’s decretals as members of synod, but when our decretals violate the confessions (such as the 1989 Wichita “amendment to the Augsburg Confession” as Professor Marquart called it, when laymen, in violation of Article 14 were authorized to “consecrate” the elements of Holy Communion), such decretals are better described in good Lutheran polemical form as “excretals.” Any resolution that violates Scripture and confessions are null and void.
One such example in our synodical history involves life insurance. At one time, in accordance with the decree of a convention, buying life insurance was considered sinful. A later convention overturned that decision. Surely, buying life insurance wasn’t sinful all those years, only to become unsinful, and perhaps even godly, just because a parliamentary body took a vote on it. We have not, in fact, always been at war with Eastasia.
Article 24 Matters!
No matter how you slice it, Article 24 matters. It mattered to the Lutherans of 1530 and 1580. It mattered to the Golden Age generation of Lutherans whose “supervisors” (which is essentially what the Greek word for “bishops” is) who even went so far as to enforce local uniformity in their districts. It mattered to our forebears who left Germany rather than submit to Unionism, who brought their liturgy to America, and to C.F.W. Walther, who clung to the liturgy even in the midst of pressure to conform to the American religious culture.
Article 24 did not matter to those Lutheran churches that sought growth to the detriment of confession, to the unionists whose heirs one finds in the ELCA today. For their crowd-pleasing cafeteria approach to the confessions not only enabled them to enter into communion with the Reformed, but even with the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ – not to mention blessing same sex unions and claiming to ordain women.
Article 24 mattered greatly to the Russian Lutherans whose churches were demolished by Stalin, whose pastors were shot and whose laity were exiled to Siberia by Communists. For in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Lutheranism was being rebooted in Siberia, the SELC (Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church - with whom we in the LCMS share altar and pulpit fellowship) established the exclusive use of traditional, liturgical worship. In the SELC, there are no churches that have abolished the Mass. In fact, even in their poverty and with all of the hurdles thrown at them by the dominant culture and the state, the Siberian Lutherans are always reverent and traditional in their liturgical practice, even allowing for natural differences owing to circumstances of ethnicity, poverty and lack of ownership of vestments, incense, candles, a regular place to worship, etc. there is still a remarkable unity among the congregations. I was honored to take the body and blood of Christ from my beloved brother in arms under the cross, Father Vladislav Ivanov in Chelyabinsk – at a makeshift altar set up in a closed beauty salon. There was no organ, no chasuble, no baptismal font. There were no kneelers or communion rail. There were no hymnals. And yet, there, amid the barber chairs and sinks and hair dryers, surrounded by towels and bottles of shampoo, we celebrated the Mass with reverence and devotion in accordance with Article 24 and with all of the Book of Concord. Christ was present for us, and we savored the miracle of drawing together from half a world apart to worship together, and to reverently and joyfully partake of the most holy Sacrament.
Perhaps the Siberian Christians, who know the meaning of persecution (their bishop wears a pectoral cross that belonged to a martyr), have no time of day for entertainment worship and whining about church not being fun or relevant or acceptable to the whims of millennials, or any of the other things that seem to occupy and obsess the American church scene. They don’t pit one quote from our Symbols against another, nor argue about whether or not we have to follow this article, or whether that article is binding. They are too busy being authentically Lutheran in trying circumstances, true to their confession, to join the shameful American conversation.
And it is shameful to even have to come to the defense of Article 24. For Melanchthon had to create an Apology for our Confession against Eck and the followers of the Pope and Emperor. But here we are today engaging in Apologetics against fellow Lutherans who are ironically making the same papal argument as Eck that we Lutherans have indeed abolished the Mass, that we are not bound to examine and absolve our communicants, and that we no longer observe traditional forms such as lessons, prayers, and vestments.
Now, as much as at any time in our history, Article 24 matters!