The assigned sermon hymn in the one year series for Lutherans using Lutheran Service Book for this past Sunday was a beloved modern American piece entitled "The Church's One Foundation."
Written in 1866 AD, this hymn proclaims the mysteries of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In the first stanza alone, the author 1) proclaims the centrality and the divinity of the divine person of Jesus Christ to the Church - linking the theological disciplines of christology and ecclesiology, 2) joins together eschatology ("new creation") and sacramentology in a biblical baptismal reference ("by water and the Word"), 3) invokes the incarnation, the monergism of grace, and the mystery of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and 4) introduces the sacrificial theme of the atonement.
And that's just stanza one.
The third stanza, however, is painfully poignant today. The author speaks of the Church "oppressed." Surprisingly, the author is not speaking of external persecution in the worldly sense (e.g. the Roman arena and cross, Communism, Islam), but rather "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed."
For this is how the Church is truly oppressed, internally, by her most vicious enemy: the devil.
Luther considered the "cross" - that is persecution, to be a "mark of the Church." If Satan is not working night and day to destoy you, you have become uninteresting to him. Only one who is hopelessly lost has that kind of "luxury." As long as the Bride of Christ endures in the fallen world (and our Lord promises that not even the gates of hell will prevail against her) the true Church will suffer the assaults of schism and heresy bubbling up from within.
This reality is of great comfort when we see encroachments of the secular world upon the Church. For if she were not the Church, Satan wouldn't care to attack her.
No part, jurisdiction, denomination, or confession within the Church Catholic is exempt from such internal discord - though some feel the need to put forth the illusion that their particular denomination is free from such schisms and heresies.
The conservative element of my own confession, known historically as "Lutheranism," is particularly prone to triumphalism and false security because on the surface, we have resisted much of the world's encroachment. Our church body is unabashedly pro-life, we only ordain men to the pastoral office, we openly teach that homosexuality is a sin and not in accordance with God's created order, and we hold unequivocally to the inerrancy of the Bible. Our particular church body also clings without reservation to the 1580 Book of Concord - at least on paper.
All of this can make Lutherans - especially those from conservative American branches of Lutheranism - obnoxiously smug and arrogant. But we have much to keep in mind before we get on our high horses. We have utter confusion about who is authorized to officiate in Word and Sacrament ministry - and are subjected to an endless parade of Bible studies, CTCR reports, votes at conventions, opinions of bureaucratic boards and seminary faculties - all to figure out what the heck the office of the ministry is. If we don't know after 2,000 years, something is wrong.
As expatriots from our synod have rightly pointed out, we have aberrations and abominations regarding the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, whether it is served amid terrible irreverence which belies our confession of the Real Presence, or involves the substitution of foreign elements for the bread and wine used by our Lord. There are disagreements among us over whether or not the Lord's Presence expires from the elements, and whether the Real Presence exists from the time of consecration or only begins when the element is orally received.
We can't even find commonality in such externals as the liturgical forms used in worship.
And in spite of our official positions regarding women's ordination, there are lay members, pastors, and even high ranking church officials who believe women's ordination is not proscribed by Scripture. Many of our young people, according to surveys, believe in premarital sex, homosexual unions, and the legitimacy of abortion. We do not even have consensus as to whom should be communed at our altars.
World Lutheranism suffers from different schisms and heresies - such as a militant established advocacy of women's ordination and the encroachment of the homosexual movement upon theology.
Some see our church body "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies oppressed" and conclude that this cannot be the Church. For certainly, the Church, the true Church, would not be rent and distressed. For such people, the cross is not a mark of the Church, but rather a mark of not being Church.
Some flee to Anglicanism - which shares the Lutheran historical tradition of the western Reformation, and indeed much of our theology and hymnody - certainly our Anglo-Saxon liturgical tradition and western Catholicism. And yet, if there is any communion that typifies being rent asunder and distressed by schism and heresy, it is Anglicanism. There seems to be a special hatred seething in the heart of Satan for the Anglican communion, having used every trick in the book to rend and distress them, many identical issues to that which plague world Lutheranism: women's priestly and episcopal orders and the normalization of homosexuality being chief among them - all stemming from a claimed mastery over, rather than submission to, Holy Scripture.
Some take refuge in Rome, whose heavy hierarchical structure and authoritarianism (as well as gravitas of historical tradition) would seem to make that communion immune from some of the individualism plaguing the heirs of the Reformation. And yet, in the Roman Church, even under a conservative pope, there are still schisms and heresies biting and growling every which way. Feminism and secularism have made horrific inroads into mainstream Roman Catholicism - as well as irreverent entertainment-based liturgies, including clowns, rock music, and dancing girls; an almost flippant view of private confession, and preaching that is overwhelmingly the stuff of Marx and not of Christ. And yet, the Church is still there, for why would Satan be so keen to corrupt those who are not Christ's holy bride?
Many of the same battles are being waged within Reformed Christianity and among the heirs of the Anabaptist movement. American Christianity in particular has become a trainwreck of greed-motivated positive thinking combined with lurid professional wrestling-style showmanship and Madison avenue manipulation.
Many people see the schisms embedded in historic Protestantism and the heresies lurking among their Roman cousins, and begin to look to the East. In fact, "looking East" has an almost poetic and romantic sound to it, to look to the rising sun, facing the orient, keeping one's eyes to where our Lord both ascended and will descend, to take one's theology "ad fontes" - to the source.
And like Lutherans, many of those who have gone to the East are keen to present to non-Orthodox a squeaky-clean schism-and-heresy-free brand of Christianity (which is whet restless "home seeking" converts to Eastern Orthodoxy often seem to be after). The paradox is this: without the cross, there is no Church. Without the devil's constant attacks, there is no Bride of Christ. A perfect Church is no Church at all. And yet, Christians do find their perfection "in Christ," He who is the vine to our branches.
But thanks be to God the propaganda of zealous Orthodox converts is really not true at all. For Eastern Orthodoxy is indeed the Church - as are Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Protestantism where the Gospel is proclaimed in sermon and liturgy and where the Sacraments are administered.
And while Eastern Orthodoxy - especially here in the U.S., where they have been somewhat isolated from the larger culture - has done a remarkable job of keeping modernism and postmodernism at bay, the more "mainstream" Orthodoxy becomes, the more converts from Protestantism she takes in, the more she is integrated with American life - the more she too will be "by schisms rent asunder" and "by heresies distressed."
Just as homosexuality is often the cause of much of the rending asunder and distress within mainline churches, one can find gay and lesbian advocacy within Orthodoxy, especially in California, whose culture has great power in shaping young minds. The freedom of speech and anonymity of blogging can only result in even more previously-suppressed diversity of viewpoints regarding homosexuality within Eastern Orthodoxy.
Similarly, Eastern Orthodoxy is not without feminist influences. Indeed, there are even those pushing for women's ordination using Eastern church history as a basis. There are radical Orthodox women theologians pressing a feminist theological perspective. And again, the world of blogging makes access to dissenting views within Orthodoxy regarding feminism more readily available than in times past.
The St. Nina Quarterly is a feminist theological journal from within Eastern Orthodoxy. The late Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, a prominent radical feminist Orthodox theologian, served on their board of directors. Here is a review of her now-out-of-print book The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church, which incidentally, was co-written by Bishop Kallistos Ware - whose book The Orthodox Church has become a standard introduction to Orthodoxy to converts (both Ware and Behr-Sigel are converts from Protestantism). [The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church can be had, though as of this writing, they're rather scarce and a used copy will set you back more than $70.00 at Amazon.]
Syndesmos: The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth sings the praises of Behr-Sigel, including her iconoclastic views of the male priesthood, in a newsletter that goes so far as to declare her to be a "father in the faith."
In her Times-Online obituary, Behr-Sigel, a former Protestant "pastor", is praised for her work as an Orthodox theologian:
She also argued for the possibility of re-establishing the ordained ministry of the deaconess — a ministry still in evidence well into the early medieval period and even, very occasionally, in modern times.
She sought to re-imagine what she called a “new humanism”; one that would not only fully embrace the feminine dimension of human experience but also balance and correct the “aggressive masculinity” that tends to dominate human affairs.
Her book, The Ministry of Women in the Church, which is in print, is available here.
Bishop Ware, for his part, is not without criticism for holding some rather shocking theological views. Here is a traditionalist critique of his famous book The Orthodox Church. Bishop Ware, comes across as being somewhat open to women's ordination - like (as asserted by the author) the Patriarch of Alexandria, Parthenos III, who openly endorsed the idea (not to mention the idea that non-Christian religions were "paths to God"). Patriarch Parthenos was indeed criticized by his successor Peter VII - but for being "too conservative."
These are the kinds of things that converts, and those seeking converts, are not eager to discuss - any more than we Lutherans are too keen on talking about the blasphemous abominations that occur in places bearing the name "Lutheran". These things are painful and grievous, but the Church, East and West, has always been "rent asunder" and "distressed" by both internal "schisms" and even by "heresies" emerging from within.
But these things in no way negate the faithful remnants within Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Protestantism as being constituent parts of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In fact, the East's long history of struggles - theological and political - only serve to confirm that she, like the rest of the Church Catholic, is an enemy of the devil - because she is most certainly a part of the Bride of Christ.
While there is a place for theological debate, and even at times, polemics - we Christians would do well not to lose sight of who our real enemy is, as well as who our faithful Husband shall always be.
All Christians can indeed sing together stanza five of "The Church's One Foundation":
Yet she on earth has union
With God, the Three in One.
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.
O blessed heav'nly chorus!
Lord, save us by Your grace
That we, like saints before us,
May see you face to face.