Background: Hope hosted this year's community Good Friday service. Unlike years past where all the members of the ministerial alliance, because we are not in pulpit fellowship with other churches in town, I was the only one presiding at the service, which was the same Tenebrae Vespers we do every year. The only difference is that this year other congregations invited themselves to our service.
Why are we now participating with the ministerial alliance? For years we couldn’t participate.
Ecumenism is the working together of Christians of differing confessions toward Christian unity. There are two approaches to ecumenism. One is to ignore or downplay the theological differences that have historically divided Christians in favor of presenting a unified front. The other is to be honest and forthright about what divides Christians and to work toward a common confession of the faith by resolving these differences.
The first approach is not helpful. It takes a “can’t we all just get along” attitude and quips “unity not uniformity.” The problem is that the theological differences that divide Christians are not insignificant. They are huge. And they involve the proper confession of the Gospel. Since the Gospel cannot be compromised, we must not ignore, gloss over, or downplay these differences. Leaders of different denominations can and should have conversations together that acknowledge these differences and seek to come to a common understanding. This is the second approach.
Lutherans of the Missouri Synod have always preferred this second approach to ecumenism. It’s more difficult, to be sure, to be honest and upfront about how our different confessions of the faith. But because we care about the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must. So the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has always taken a careful approach when she engages with Christians of other confessions. In most clergy alliances, that looks like this: we can participate together and cooperate in service toward the community, but, because we believe differently and refuse to ignore those differences, we cannot cooperate in matters of worship.
We are always been clear in our interactions with other Christians about the limits of our fellowship. We may cooperate in serving the community, but—until we are in agreement in all matters of theology—we cannot cooperate in worship. Although we are not in altar and pulpit fellowship with other congregations in town, we were happy to have the community invite itself to our Good Friday service of Tenebrae vespers. (For that matter, the community is invited to all of Hope’s worship services.)
This was ecumenism done correctly. The service and the preaching were unapologetically Lutheran. And no one was welcome to preside in the liturgy who was not in full agreement with us.
I don’t know what pastors have done in the past. Because genuine ecumenism is so difficult in a culture that tries to downplay differences between Christian denominations, deciding not to participate at all is completely understandable. But there’s a benefit to be reaped from being in conversation with other Christians and from serving our community together significant enough to make this kind of ecumenism worth the effort.