A Rose by Any Other Name…

[This post is a response to Father Hoppe’s post concerning the title “Lutheran” which can be read here.]

A rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t be a rose. A god by any other name is no god at all. Names matter. To illustrate this I used the title “father” in the above expository. The title “father” elicits a response because it means something. Names don’t make a thing what it is but all things are known by their name. A thing’s name defines it. I can describe a cup – holds liquid, is usually round, has a bottom and an opening on the top, has some depth to it, etc. – or I can say “cup” and everyone knows (with context) exactly what I mean.  My name doesn’t make me who I am, but without a name I am nobody.  Certainly a thing is well more than a name, but without a name it is nothing. Even the Knights-Who-Say-“Ni” are in fact the Knights-Who-Say-Ni!

Names matter.

However, not all names matter in every context. In the context of my daily life, it doesn’t matter if a pulsar is a pulsar or a really-bright-star. The name has no bearing on my life. I don’t care what the internal parts of my car’s engine are called because I don’t deal with them. But I do care that my mechanic knows. And if I were forced to repair my own car, I would greatly lament not knowing!  Try explaining in a manly way to the Auto Zone guy that you need a thing-a-ma-jiggy for your car’s hose; you know, the big hose that goes from the front thingy to the back thingy. You know, the dirty one.

So it is with the name “Lutheran”. It matters, but maybe not in every situation. This, I believe, is Pr. Hoppe’s point. And I agree.  But there’s more to it than simply calling ourselves “Christian” or taking “Lutheran” off our church signs.

Pr. Hoppe (and others) wants to rightly promote that we Lutherans are first and foremost Christian. Certainly I sympathize with this. But the reality is that not all named “Christian” are alike. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a Christian by the same name may stink to high heaven. The reality is that there are catholic, orthodox Christians, and there are heterdox, heretical Christians (who may call themselves “Catholic” and “Orthodox”!).  The name “Christian” means – simply – a follower of Christ, or at least one who believes in God. But it doesn’t mean “one who meets with God at the Divine Liturgy” or “one who denounces his works and clings to Christ alone”. It doesn’t mean “Lutheran”, though “Lutheran” does mean Christian.  All boys are male, but not all males are boys (some are men and others are animals).

The trouble is not in the desire to be known simply as “Christian” or even the desire to lessen the use of “Lutheran”. The trouble lies deeper.  We will never promote a lasting unity just by changing our name or swapping one name for another.  The names “Christian” and “Lutheran” aren’t the problem and they aren’t always synonymous.  I propose that the real trouble is grander. The real problem maker is shiftier and more common.

The real problem is the word “church”.

I suggest that instead of removing “Lutheran” or inserting “Christian” on our signs or in our language, we stop using the word “church”.  It certainly wouldn’t take any more effort than swapping Christian for Lutheran, and getting rid of it won’t cause near the stir and controversy that getting rid of “Lutheran” causes.  This word, I submit, is the real thorn in our side. Proper use of this word is no use of this word. Moreover, the cessation of this word would put both “Christian” and “Lutheran” in their proper contexts. If we stop using “church” we can more easily reclaim “catholic”. If we stop using “church” we can reclaim “orthodox”.

Because not every person called Christian can be compared as apples to apples but often like apples to oranges, we simply can’t forgo the use of the name “Lutheran”.  The band-aid solution of dropping “Lutheran” to a bare minimum would only serve to cause greater problems because our problem is not that people don’t know what a Lutheran is but that they actually think that there are churches (plural) and that they go to church and that they belong to a church and that there is some invisible church!  What chaos!

Instead of calling our parishes “churches” we should call them parishes or congregations, as they have been until modern times.  Instead of calling our synod a church, we should call it a synod (and, yes, take the time to explain what a synod is: a bunch of congregations working in agreement for the good of all), which immediately answers the question of whether Synod is church.  Instead of saying we’re going to church or encourage others to go to church, we should say we are attending the Lord’s gathering and we should encourage others that they need to attend the Lord’s gathering, and that in no place does the gathering of the Lord have any other practice (1 Corinthians).

Using the words “Lutheran” and “Christian” in their proper context is good and salutary. Using the word “church” is just lazy. Besides, dropping the word “church” from our vocabulary is far easier than dropping the name Lutheran or trying to swap it with Christian.  In truth, we don’t need the name “church”, which is generic and unfruitful. Better are the words “gathering” or “assembly”.  Then when we are proselytizing and catechizing we can say to our catechumen that we are disciples of and follow Jesus who is the Way of life. And in so doing we confess the orthodox, catholic faith, which some men have called “Lutheran” to distinguish it from heterodox and heretical confessions such as the Methodists, Baptists, and papists.  And these differences are important because not all teaching will produce fruit (1 Cor. 3).

Names matter. Some more than others. We should call a thing what it is. A rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, but the gathering is not church, the assembly is not church, the collection of all the saints is not church.  They are the gathering, the assembly, and the collection of all saints, the elect.  We are not the Lutheran Church, we are Lutherans, those who confess and adhere to the confession made at Augsburg in 1530 before Emperor Charles V.  We are Christians, those who follow the Christ. And we gather to our Lord in the assembly of the righteous among the elect of God.


3 Responses

  1. Mark,

    I appreciate your thorough response to my post. I have a couple thoughts of my own. First, a lot of people have responded to my post by noting how many things the word Christian can entail. And I certainly can’t argue with that. However, the main reason that Christian or Catholic is no longer a great choice for us is because we gave it up so long ago. We became content in been good Lutherans and telling others the same. Had we contended for the name Christian or Catholic, we would not be where we are. The name would mean something else.

    The only advantage with the name Christian in our day is that people when hearing it did not necessarily attach specific doctrines or practices to it. It is in their mind a broad term which can encompass many things.perhaps I’m being Naïve, but I think we have a better chance to reclaim that term than any other and fill it up with specific doctrines and practices in the minds of the people. Calling ourselves Lutherans is linguistically sectarian. And language often creates reality. I believe it has in many ways. I believe that for many Lutherans there is no concern for the wider church. As long as our congregations are Lutheran, we are satisfied. We cannot remain there. Our Lord bids us to do otherwise.

    I’m certainly not just trying to say we should all stop using the word Lutheran tomorrow. But I am saying the beginning today we should stop acting as if “Lutheranicty” is the judge of all things.

    As far as your suggestion about the use of the word church, I think I agree with you. Although you did not say it, I’m assuming that you are fine with using the word church to refer to the body of Christ at large, just not the assembly of the believers. If so, your suggestion may be helpful to getting people to think outside of the four walls of their congregation when it comes to kingdom matters. if I misunderstood your point about church, please correct me.

    • “However, the main reason that Christian or Catholic is no longer a great choice for us is because we gave it up so long ago. We became content in been good Lutherans and telling others the same. Had we contended for the name Christian or Catholic, we would not be where we are. The name would mean something else.”
      Yes, I agree. But I don’t think reclaiming Christian would be easier than reclaiming catholic, except in our own circles, but that’s a matter of teaching. “Christian” is not the same as “catholic” and we exchange one problem for another when we treat them similar.

      And, yes, I meant to exercise the word “church” from all dialogue, even of the Body of Christ at large. Why not call it the Body of Christ? Or the elect of God? To use your own argument, to modern ears “church” means organization. I suppose we could say the “church of God”. But never “church” by itself.

      This is quite thought provoking. I look forward to exploring it more with you and the rest of the Body of Christ! 🙂

  2. To say that I am Lutheran is to say that I am a cathloic Christian. The world may not know what this means and so as I continue to use these words I wll also continue to answer the blessed question, “What does this mean?”, a quiestion that must be asked each step of the way. A rose is a rose. What does this mean? Though I do get a little frustrated at times I truly enjoy the give and take conversations of Fathers Hoppe and Lovett by which I am challenged and blessed as I sturggle with my favorite question. Larry

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