What if the times were like this: Lutherans are saying that while there may have been historic merit in the Lutheran Confessions, the fact is the old doctrines and practices no longer make sense to people in our day, and the church must change to fit the times, adopting new measures if it is to draw people to Christ, and leave the old things to former times, things like liturgy and sacraments and concern for doctrine.
Huh? Aren't the times exactly like this? Well, thing is, the times I have in mind in this description are two centuries ago, Lutheranism in the US in the 1800s! If they sound just like our times, and they do, that is because, to borrow Bishop Sheen's phrase, there are no new errors, just old errors with new labels, so they look new to us and take us in.
The fact is, the circumstances and condition of Lutheranism at the time of the formation of our beloved synod are exactly those of our own. And now with the added twist that in our times even within our beloved synod one hears the very same old errors, now with new labels, the synod was formed to counter, and instead offer solid, orthodox Lutheranism grounded in the Confessions of the Lutheran faith, our Concordia, so that not only the book but the synod may present in our teaching and liturgical practice with one heart, as the name Concordia means, the faith of Christ correctly stated in them.
So on this "feast day" of CFW Walther, our first synodical president, instead of offering something about him, I'm offering his own words about that which he was all about offering. Well, his own words translated from German, with a few notes from me indicated like [this].
We know and firmly hold that the character, the soul of Lutheranism, is not found in outward observances but in the pure doctrine. If a congregation had the most beautiful ceremonies in the very best order, but did not have the pure doctrine, it would be anything but Lutheran. We have from the beginning spoken earnestly of good ceremonies, not as though the important thing were outward forms, but rather to make use of our liberty in these things. For true Lutherans know that although one does not have to have these things (because there is no divine command to have them), one may nevertheless have them because good ceremonies are lovely and beautiful and are not forbidden in the Word of God. Therefore the Lutheran church has not abolished "outward ornaments, candles, altar cloths, statues and similar ornaments," [AP XXIV] but has left them free. The sects proceeded differently because they did not know how to distinguish between what is commanded, forbidden, and left free in the Word of God. We remind only of the mad actions of Carlstadt and of his adherents and followers in Germany and in Switzerland. We on our part have retained the ceremonies and church ornaments in order to prove by our actions that we have a correct understanding of Christian liberty, and know how to conduct ourselves in things which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God.
We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them. The Roman antichristendom enslaves poor consciences by imposing human ordinances on them with the command: "You must keep such and such a thing!"; the sects enslave consciences by forbidding and branding as sin what God has left free. Unfortunately, also many of our Lutheran Christians are still without a true understanding of their liberty. This is demonstrated by their aversion to ceremonies.
It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when a person sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American denominations just so they won’t accuse us of being Roman Catholic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist [on what "Methodist" means here, see the note below], who perverts the saving Word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that they can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them?
It is too bad that such entirely different ceremonies prevail in our Synod, and that no liturgy at all has yet been introduced in many congregations. The prejudice especially against the responsive chanting of pastor and congregations is of course still very great with many people — this does not, however, alter the fact that it is very foolish. The pious church father Augustine said, "Qui cantat, bis orat–he who sings prays twice."
This finds its application also in the matter of the liturgy. Why should congregations or individuals in the congregation want to retain their prejudices? How foolish that would be! For first of all it is clear from the words of St. Paul (1 Cor. 14:16) that the congregations of his time had a similar custom. It has been the custom in the Lutheran Church for 250 years [this is now about 400 years]. It creates a solemn impression on the Christian mind when one is reminded by the their joy in such a lovely manner.
We are not insisting that there be uniformity in perception or feeling or taste among all believing Christians-neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which Christians serve the great God publicly before the world.
Uniformity of ceremonies (perhaps according to the Saxon Church order published by the Synod, which is the simplest among the many Lutheran church orders) would be highly desirable because of its usefulness. A poor slave of the pope finds one and same form of service, no matter where he goes, by which he at once recognizes his church.
With us it is different. Whoever comes from Germany without a true understanding of the doctrine often has to look for his church for a long time, and many have already been lost to our church because of this search [just as true now of those born right here but also without such an understanding]. How different it would be if the entire Lutheran church had a uniform form of worship! This would, of course, first of all yield only an external advantage, however, one which is by no means unimportant. Has not many a Lutheran already kept his distance from the sects because he saw at the Lord’s Supper they broke the bread instead of distributing wafers?
The objection: "What would be the use of uniformity of ceremonies?" was answered with the counter question, "What is the use of a flag on the battlefield? Even though a soldier cannot defeat the enemy with it, he nevertheless sees by the flag where he belongs. We ought not to refuse to walk in the footsteps of our fathers. They were so far removed from being ashamed of the good ceremonies that they publicly confess in the passage quoted: "It is not true that we do away with all such external ornaments".
(C.F.W. Walther, Explanation of Thesis XVIII, D, Adiaphora, of the book The True Visible Church, delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, beginning August 9, 1871, at the 16th Central District Convention, translated by Fred Kramer, printed in Essays for the Church [CPH: 1992], I:193-194).
Note. His reference to "Methodist" should not be confused with the present United Methodist Church, a body formed in 1968 from the union of the Evangelical United Brethren and the The Methodist Church, which itself was formed in 1939 from a reunion of three groups originating in the Methodist Episcopal Church. However, the conflation of the Holiness Movement with the Social Gospel is characteristic throughout, with the emphasis on personal feeling of sanctification in living still prominent in "evangelical" churches to-day and Pietism in our own history.
Hat tip to Pastor Paul T McCain, on whose excellent Cyberbrethren blog I saw this excerpt.