The outcry over the censuring of a Lutheran pastor for participating in the Newtown interfaith prayer vigil has re-opened a nagging theological can of worms, one centered around this question: how do we determine who is worshiping the true God?
My first church upon graduating from seminary was conservative by any standard. So I was surprised one Sunday when a trusted and highly respected elder flagged me down in the hallway to announce, “Pastor, I figured out the Trinity!”
“Great,” I responded. “Please share.”
“Well,” he explained, “I’m a painter, a husband and an American citizen. Three in one!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was a heresy the church had debunked some time ago. But does this mean the elder and I weren’t worshiping the same God?
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Nicholas Wolterstorff was asked on PBS whether Muslims believe in the same God as Christians. He responded that since they, like us, hold the Hebrew Scriptures sacred, yes, they believe in the same God, “though they misconstrue the nature of God and His relationship to Jesus.”
Should we administer an annual exam to ensure each is worshiping the right God?
I was taken aback at first. It was my understanding that Muslims, Mormons and even Jews worship a different God since they are not Trinitarian. In fact, I remember pastors from my childhood who wondered out loud whether Roman Catholics (some pray to Mary, you know) and Arminians (weak on the sovereignty of God) believe in the same God. We were warned not to pray The Lord’s Prayer in a mixed crowd. Those who have a corner on the true God are an elite group, I guess.
Then I thought about the early church. Not until the fourth-century councils of Nicaea and Constantinople did the church begin to settle on the historic formulation of the Trinity and the relationship of its three persons. Does that mean thousands of early Christians who did not hold that formulation died worshiping the wrong God? And all since who didn’t get it right? I wonder how many church members today could define the Trinity with Athanasian precision. Should we administer an annual exam to ensure each is worshiping the right God?
There’s nothing dearer to my heart than correct doctrine. I’ve dedicated my life to it. The task entrusted to the church’s ministers and theologians is to protect and proclaim the truth of God's Word. But to judge that people worship a different God because some of their beliefs may be at odds with mine takes it too far. At the very least, as Wolterstorff says, “It’s a conversational non-starter.”
So let’s keep catechizing our congregants and others who will listen. And let's listen. We will hold fast to sound doctrine and “gently” instruct those who oppose, whether they are sisters and brothers inside or outside our church. I’m pretty sure there are more folks than we realize, including my dear elder, who are worshipping the same God - the God whose heart beats with the love of Jesus.