Theological Touchstones for Disagreeing in the Body of Christ

[1] Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism after traveling and observing how little of Christian teaching most people knew. Four hundred years later, one of us (Amy) had a Missouri Synod Lutheran grandmother who was not permitted to move from lower to upper Michigan with the rest of her family until she had finished memorizing the Small Catechism and been confirmed. To this day, many catechized Lutherans are fortified with a doctrinal framework out of which they can instinctively answer basic theological questions. But as a church, we have yet to deeply internalize habits of engaging across disagreements. If anything, the Protestant history of fracturing over disagreement has trained us into schism or—to avoid that path—shirking open conflict. How can we as Lutherans with differing biblical, theological, and cultural commitments learn how to disagree constructively with each other? In this essay we hope to contribute theologically to building up an ecclesial tradition of mindful disagreement that perceives communion even amid conflict. Our assumption is that disagreement is not necessarily destructive; in fact, it is necessary for working together towards truth and justice. Yet “working together while disagreeing” is a task and responsibility that requires some ground rules, namely the recognition that agreement is actually primary. It is only on the basis of agreement that we can learn how to disagree in ways that actually will help Lutherans better understand why and how different people think and believe, and, in the process of disagreement, come to greater appreciation of each other as human beings, as Lutherans, and as people serious about being Christians in today’s world.


[2] After describing some examples of ecclesial disagreement and how they nevertheless reflect the nature of the body of Christ, we describe three theological touchstones rooted in Word and Sacrament that illuminate and motivate our persistence in engaging across disagreement as we discern God’s Word as law and gospel together.


What Ecclesial Disagreement Tells Us About the Body of Christ


[3] The following story can be told with many variants—a story about frustrated efforts to ask a congregation or synod to support a particular public policy or advocacy position.


[4] Some years back, Amy brought to her church council a resolution to join a nationwide movement of congregations committed to advocacy about domestic violence. The movement was sponsored by the Faith Trust Institute, an ecumenical and interfaith organization that creates resources to help religious communities address child abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. Participation in the pledge of advocacy could be as simple as writing an annual letter to the editor about our church’s opposition to domestic violence. The ELCA Bishop at the time had signed on to this advocacy commitment; and Amy’s congregation’s council agreed to have it brought to the annual congregational meeting. But at that meeting, when Amy, as a church council member, spoke on behalf of the measure, a few members of the congregation voiced concerns. They didn’t know if other Lutheran churches supported it; they had never done anything like this; they worried they were signing on to some unknown larger political agenda. Annual meetings were usually mundane affairs, except where there were questions or debates about the budget. No one stood up to speak on behalf of the proposal—not the pastor, nor anyone else on the church council, despite the council ostensibly supporting it. Amy stood alone before the congregation and watched the proposal tabled.


[5] In thinking about the annual meeting, Amy came to perceive two narratives about what happened. In one, as the author of the proposal to advocate about domestic violence, Amy was stunned and disturbed. She thought that the congregation would, of course, oppose domestic violence. And having worked at a domestic violence shelter, Amy knew how much it could matter to hear a church publicly proclaim that domestic violence was wrong—especially when so many pastors avoided the topic in sermons. Or they told women to stay in abusive marriages because divorce was a sin and such a marriage was a way to bear their cross with Christ. So Amy felt frustrated that she was no longer in her former, more openly progressive urban congregation, where she didn’t feel like she stood alone on vital matters on which she thought the church should speak—such as domestic violence.


[6] A second narrative was provided at the potluck after the meeting by one of the retired men who had opposed signing on to the national pledge. He was someone Amy knew quite well. They disagreed about many things, theological and political, but he liked that Amy did not run off when he expressed his views. He told Amy that at another congregation he had proposed making changes to education in the church. He found out the hard way that even if an idea was eventually viewed as a good one, if it was unfamiliar, every person with a stake in the change needed to be consulted ahead of time. So in this narrative, resistance wasn’t only to becoming public advocates about domestic violence. Perhaps some worried that abusers would not feel welcome in church, if the church were to sign on to the Faith Trust Institute commitment. But a larger issue was about process. Amy’s retired friend thought that Amy had failed to talk with various members of the church (outside the council) long before the congregational meeting. He felt the annual meeting was not the place that most church members should first hear about something on which they will vote—especially when there is no history of voting on a pledge of commitment originating from an unknown national organization. Letting this sink in, Amy realized that while working full-time outside the church she did not sense in herself the time or inclination to invest in the kind of ground work that would be needed to find out if this congregation might consider becoming public advocates against domestic violence—especially when she felt like any allies in the congregation (including the pastor at the time) were waiting to be led, rather than stepping up to offer co-leadership.


[7] The tension between these two narratives is not irresolvable, but it does expose that what feels in the first narrative like an ecclesial drag on proclaiming a prophetic Word is the weight of the body of Christ itself—the very ecclesial reality that makes possible a space for hearing, pondering, and ultimately sharing a prophetic Word. The first narrative reflects the position of a church member who had long ago settled into the view that God’s prophetic Word names domestic violence a sin—and thereby interrupts the long history of associating Christian expectations with staying in a marriage at all costs. The second narrative reflects not so much a “no” to a prophetic Word against domestic violence as a corporate fear about being asked to commit the congregation to public advocacy, when there is no history or habit of having done so—much less of the congregation having thought together about domestic violence. Such fear and resistance may be said to reflect an immaturity on the part of the body of Christ (as it is localized in the congregation). But congregational fear and resistance to advocacy also reveal another truth: that to be right is not the same as to be in active relationship with one another. The one who speaks God’s Word is not herself the church, even if she speaks to the church that raised or received her.


[8] There is another dimension to this story that points to sharper conflicts between contemporary Lutherans. The conflict of different theological “cultures” is one that is painfully acute, and currently divides Lutherans. Some Lutherans are committed to social justice, insisting on the equality of women in the public sphere, fighting for LGBTQIA rights, and dismantling white supremacy. Other Lutherans hold up the discourse of biblical and doctrinal truth; they insist that the Word of God is sole source of faith and morals; they are committed to the theological task of explicating doctrine. To be sure, both approaches involve particular ways of translating God’s Word into action in church and world. Yet in recent decades, painful separations have resulted from different positions on theology and culture. While opposing sides cite God’s Word and Luther in support of their respective positions, many times the separation is so acute that conversation has stopped altogether.


[9] Yet, we believe that even today in a context of ecclesial and political division we can figure out how to disagree with each other. In fact, we think that we must begin to disagree with each other because disagreement means actual conversation with each other. Being human means to acknowledge each other as distinct persons, created and loved by God. To be sure, disagreement can deteriorate into the refusal to acknowledge the existence of the other person with whom one disagrees. This refusal is no longer disagreement but defiance. Silence vis-à-vis the other is an act of defiance against the other’s existence. But disagreement can also be productive. It can inspire conversation between different folk who each are created by God and have their own perspectives (however one might judge the truth of that perspective). Disagreement means recognizing the humanity of the other—that the other person is a human being, just like oneself, in spite of the differences.


[10] Thus we can think about disagreement as the responsibility of being human to each other as part of our transformation in Christ. We can think about disagreement in terms of how we can learn to be human to each other, or perhaps more appropriately, we can learn ways of becoming more human to each other. Because humanity, while a given, is also a goal. In theological terms, the goal of our existence is to become more like Christ. Christ chose the path of becoming human in order to show us what being human means (cf. Phil 2:5-11). When thought about in this way, disagreement is a way in which humans can learn how to be human to each other. Through disagreement we can practice our humanity with each other.


[11] In order to appreciate how to think about disagreement as the practice of being human together in Christ, we are helped by recollecting particular theological touchstones. These touchstones can help us form habits for disagreeing with each other—especially in person. In what follows, we propose some of the theological groundings that Lutheran Christians already possess, as components of the ecclesial habits of conversation about matters that divide us. We are mindful that conversation is hard, that disagreement is disagreeable, and that emotions run high. But we have a choice: shall we choose to muddle our way together into the conflicts that matter for our life together? Because we are Lutheran theologians, we address theological touchstones that we think can remind us of why and how indeed we already share a life together, so that fleeing disagreement is not tenable (at least in the long term—including eschatologically). Practical resources for difficult conversations in congregations (and the church more widely)[i] may be even more effective when grounded in a theological framing of our shared life.


Three Theological Touchstones Rooted in Word and Sacrament


[12] “For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”[ii]


[13] Certainly, disagreements among Lutherans (like debates over women’s ordination and same-sex relationships) have led to denominational splits precisely because they are felt to touch upon the core of the gospel in some way. Yet those same splits are as painful as they are precisely because of all that we do share by way of the gospel and sacraments. The torn body of Christ is still rooted and formed in the One who has already been broken and mended for us. Because we live within the field of God’s own participation in brokenness and redemption in the covenantal history of Israel and in the crucified and risen Jesus, the church in every generation can know that our touchstones with God and with one another include a naming and transformative bearing of hard things,[iii] including uncertainty about how to name sin and its redress when we disagree about ethical issues.


[14] A primary touchstone amid conflict involves remembering our baptismal adoption as the covenantal framework for all ecclesial disagreement. Through our baptism we are adopted into the family of God, an ekklesia or gathering of those united to Christ that crisscrosses time and place. Unconditional belonging to one another in Christ is the condition of our feeling friction when we disagree, but also a condition of our working out our salvation, with fear and trembling, together.[iv]


[15] Our baptismal adoption signals that even if we withdraw from a particular congregation where we have known wounding or disagreements we could not navigate, we are still in the orbit of the church insofar as we belong to the corporate body of Christ. Such long-term, ultimately eschatological thinking assures us of two things amid disagreement: first, we can trust there is a home in the larger body of Christ for whatever we are feeling at any given moment about ecclesial disagreements; second, there is a Spirit-driven momentum to stay engaged and work through disagreements—even if we may need space and time apart from engaging them. Remembering our baptism, we can risk conflict because we know we belong to the family of God in Christ—freeing us to pause and to re-engage disagreements that threaten to tear us apart as fiercely today as they did in Paul’s day.


[16] A related sacramental touchstone amid disagreement concerns how, in communing at the Lord’s Table, eschatological trust infuses our current grappling with enduring conflicts. In announcing that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” we eat together amid multiple times at once; past, present, and future converge, reminding us once more that the promise of our covenant in Christ shapes our lives toward redemption. That is why, in sharing the body and blood of Christ with those gathered at the altar and with the larger communion of saints, we experience a “foretaste of the feast to come,” a proleptic sense that all will be well because all already is well in and through our sharing in Christ’s own life. This paradox is not an escapist one—as our disagreements themselves testify! What will be is not yet fully manifest. But the paradox that the fullness of redemption is already glimpsed now in communion means we can approach conflict by seeing one another in light of what we shall become together. Such sacramental seeing invites us away from the polemical assumption that those with whom we disagree do not belong until and unless they share our own ethical viewpoint. Even if we each believe that ultimately our ecclesial opponents will come around to our own point of view, our starting point is from the end, the telos: a dinner party at which we have together become the fullness of the body of Christ.


[17] Concern about the condition of our own or neighbor’s acceptance by God is addressed also by a third touchstone pertaining to the Word of God: a mindfulness about two orienting tendencies that take turns animating many expressions of sin: presumption of our own righteousness on one hand, and on the other, despair of divine mercy and of creation’s goodness. Inherited from the monastic tradition by way of Luther, discourse about presumption and despair energizes Lutheran discourse about the “law” as that particular dynamic of God’s Word that opens our hearts to the gospel by naming sin plainly—so that we cannot avoid a reckoning with it. This is why Luther encouraged daily remembrance of our baptism:[v] as a reframing antidote to the everyday onslaught of our awareness of sin in our individual lives and in the world as a whole. And with their minute attention to a multifaceted consciousness of sin, the monastic traditions bequeathed to all Christians a language Luther used repeatedly: a presumptuous assumption that we have earned God’s own favor followed (after a debunking of that assumption) by a dangerous despair that we and/or our world are so bad that nothing will ever be well with us.[vi]


[18] Why should mindfulness of presumption and despair matter for Christians who are trying to speak with one another across disagreement? Because it reminds us to be alert for ways that these twin temptations shape the emotional and attitudinal atmosphere of our address to our opponents. Presumption tempts us to presume that our own being in the right is sufficient for righteousness; presumptuous self-righteousness cares more about a personal identity of being in the right than it does about being in right relationship with those with whom we disagree. Presumptuously, we invest more in proclamation and denunciation than in bridge-building and seeking common ground. By contrast, when despair is directed not at our own sense of ourselves before God but toward those on the other side of debate, it tempts us to view those with whom we disagree as so hardened in their opposition that they will never change their minds. If our opponents’ policy positions are currently in force, we can despair also of the state of the world itself, which draws us easily to a dualistic sort of apocalyptic sensibility—an expectation that God will judge our opponents and vindicate our own view. Both presumption and despair feed into a polemical culture that sharpens boundaries between insiders and outsiders to what we are genuinely convinced is the proper Christian understanding of an ethical or political issue.


Speaking God’s Word While Disagreeing in the Body of Christ


[19] Disagreement between Lutherans can be guided by particular theological touchstones. We admit that each side has common theological commitments based on Luther’s Small Catechism. A common baptism is grounded in Christ’s grace that includes and affirms all within the ecclesial body. Sacramental participation follows Luther’s insistence that ingesting the body of Christ is necessary for personal and ecclesial life. The “church militant”[vii] is oriented to eschatological forgiveness by grace that flows from the sacrament. When the body of Christ is taken up into personal bodies, it is also a sign of the unity of the body of Christ. Or perhaps in more theologically compelling terms, participation in the Lord’s Supper creates the unity of Christ’s body. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are moments of grace that orient participants to mindful practices in which they recognize each other’s common humanity. Mindfulness includes paying attention to one’s own sin that hinders constructive disagreement. Luther insightfully discerned the human propensity to the two sinful extremes of presumption and despair. Mindfulness is also a practice in acknowledging the other person as representative of a shared humanity. The body of Christ is a concrete community in which members share humanity with each other. Word and sacraments inform and shape this active sharing of humanity together—within the humanity that is assumed by the Word of God.


[20] Ultimately, however, practicing our humanity in disagreement involves the risk of speaking out, of speaking God’s Word that brings truth into the world. God’s truth in the gospel, as Luther discovered, is Christ’s grace that edifies the broken-hearted, gives sight to the blind, frees the captives, and thereby creates a new community (cf. Luke 4:18-19). The gospel is the word of life that sustains life in its created goodness, even in the midst of fragility and brokenness—and disagreement. This word of grace invites us Lutherans to practice our shared humanity in the church. We acknowledge the divisions. But grace abounds as we practice embodying the word of grace in order to break through the echo chambers of our hearts and our group’s limitations. The gospel creates the Body of Christ. We participate in this creation of the “beloved community,” as Martin Luther King Jr. called the church, through mindful conversation with each other.


[21] To be sure, as Lutheran theologians agree, there is also the Word of God as law. Law exposes the untruths in our hearts and injustices in our communities. Law identifies echo chambers that defy the existence of the other; law points to places and systems where God’s grace is urgently needed. As we practice our embodiment within the Body of Christ, we learn how to speak God’s law in ways that are mindful of presumption and despair. We learn that law is the tool that prepares for God’s proper Word of grace. Law, as Lutheran theology teaches, is God’s alien word. It merely points to sin and evil; it is not efficacious in transforming a terrible situation into a work of goodness and beauty. That is the gospel’s work.


[22] We are called to speak God’s Word of law that identifies places of brokenness, misery, hate, and despair. It is into these places that as servants of the Word of God, we are called to speak the Word of the Gospel that transforms sin into redemption, death into life. A disposition of mindfulness is required for the practice of speaking these two Words, for negotiating between both for the purpose of serving the gospel.


[23] These words are practiced in conversation, in and through disagreement. Lutheran homiletician Kevin Vandiver suggests that it is precisely in conversing together—in figuring out how God’s Word can and must be spoken in the church today, and how that Word is God’s hope for the world—that Christ reveals himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus,[viii] and on the paths of our disagreements together.









[i] See, for example, Katie Day’s congregation-focused book Difficult Conversations: Taking Risks, Acting with Integrity (The Alban Institute, 2001). Thanks to Heidi Neumark for this suggestion.


[ii] Augsburg Confession, Article VII in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 32.


[iii] For a deeper engagement with how one Lutheran theologian—Dietrich Bonhoeffer—understands “social reality itself as ruptured or fragmented in terms of states of creation, sin, and reconciliation” (7), see Michael Mawson’s study of Bonhoeffer’s dissertation (Sanctorum Communio) in Christ Existing as Community: Bonhoeffer’s Ecclesiology (New York: Oxford, 2018).


[iv] Philippians 2:12. While many have drawn on the images in 1 Corinthian 12 of many gifts/one Spirit and of many parts/one body of Christ to express a harmonious view of diversely-gifted church members all pulling in the same direction, Pauline scholar Yung Suk Kim perceives that Paul encourages an “ethic of diversity and solidarity [rather than] one of imposed unity.” Kim, Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 101.


[v] “These two parts, being dipped into the water and emerging from it, indicate the power and effect of Baptism, which is simply the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man, both of which actions must continue in us our whole life. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued,” Luther, “Large Catechism,” in Book of Concord, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 445.


[vi] References to presumption and despair populate Luther’s writings. Here are a few examples from his commentaries on Genesis and Isaiah: “he is a true Christian who neither is presumptuous in his works nor despairs in his sins,” Luther, Lectures on Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, vol. 16 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and trans. Herbert J. A. Bouman (St. Louis: Concordia, 1969), 15. “The more a hypocrite has accustomed himself to his own righteousness, the more he is driven to despair; and the more a man falls outwardly and is wounded in his conscience, the more he lets go of himself and is driven to Christ,” ibid.,232. “[O]ne should not be presumptuous about anything, just as one should not despair either. But our nature is such that it is presumptuous when there is peace and despairs when there is war, although one should steer a middle course and not lose heart in dangers but should trust in God’s mercy,” Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 21-25, vol. 4 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and trans. George V. Schick (St. Louis: Concordia, 1964), 58.


[vii] In theology, the terminology of “ecclesia militans” (militant church), which is the church on earth, is used in contrast to the “ecclesia triumphans” (triumphant church), which is the church in heaven. Luther would have known and used this distinction.


[viii] Kevin Vandiver, Plenary on “New Research on the Call to Justice and Discipleship,” Convocation of Teaching Theologians of the ELCA, Augustana College, Rock Island, IL, July 31, 2019.

Christine Helmer

Christine Helmer is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, where she is also Professor of German and Religious Studies. She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on the philosophy and theology of Martin Luther and Friedrich Schleiermacher as well as on the nature of theology in the university. She founded the Lutheran Scholars Network, which includes a subgroup “Logic and Luther.” Her most recent monograph is How Luther Became the Reformer (Westminster John Knox 2019) and she is completing a book (with co-author Amy Carr), Justification and Justice: A Theology of Ordinary Faith.

Amy Carr

Amy Carr is Professor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University.