Despite our many differences, we Missouri Synod Lutherans consider ourselves closer theologically to the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Church than we do to any of our other Protestant brothers and sisters. We disagree with the Catholic Church over matters such as the Office of the Papacy, the role of repentance, the function of God’s grace, the existence of Purgatory, the role of the saints, and many other issues. All of these issues are points we are generally in agreement with other Protestants, who will, almost across the board, reject everything the Catholic Church teaches on these topics, just like we do.
That makes the areas where we are in agreement that much more noteworthy. “Where are we in agreement?” you ask. The primary place is in the sacraments. We don’t even agree as to the purpose and function of the sacraments, but even that is secondary. We Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox, will all agree God is truly present and active in and through the sacraments and that He carries out this work in the life of the Church.
That’s how important this one point is and why our discussions with other Protestants is so fraught with difficulty. The sacraments speak to God’s gracious and merciful work. They tell us what it means to be both disciple and an apostle. They help us understand evangelism, both in why we do it and how to do it. They help us visualize the promises God makes to us. They define what it means to be God’s people.
As Moses says when speaking to God in Exodus 33, it is His presence among us that sets us apart from all other people in the world. This is the heart of Communion, God’s presence among His people. When the sacraments are discarded or turned into memorials and such that we do for our own benefit, the essence of God’s gift is lost. The very things that make the church separate, unique, and holy are lost.
There is the principle from the early church, “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which roughly means “how you worship will define what you believe.” This can be taken too far sometimes and some of what Luther was doing in the Reformation was applying Scripture to correct false worship practices. Nevertheless, the statement does prove true. If my worship practices show that God is truly present with His people in grace and mercy, my theology will flow out of that. If God is not truly present, then my theology will reflect that as well.
The gracious presence of God in the sacraments was something Luther found he could not budge on in his debates with Zwingli, Calvin, and others. Losing the presence of God and His grace in the sacraments changes everything about who the church is and what we do. It changes the goal of our evangelism and what our service consists of. It changes our identity in this world and how we relate to the world around us. It changes what makes us different from everyone else. This is why Missouri Synod Lutherans take the sacraments so seriously and consider them non-negotiable. This is why our dialogue with Catholics and Orthodox is so different from that of Protestants. If someone asks whether God is truly here in this place, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox need only point to the sacraments as proof that God is truly present and active.