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Absolute Truth?

by Gwen Sayler
We were right and those who differed from us were wrong.Within the narrow confines of our worldview, life was that black and white.There was no middle ground.

My Lutheran nephew John and his wife, Esther, were married in a Roman Catholic church. The Marty Haugen liturgy used for the wedding mass was familiar to Catholics and Lutherans alike. True to stereotype, the Lutheran side of the congregation sang lustily, while the Catholic side tended (to Lutheran ears) to mumble rather than sing. It was a joyful, inclusive worship—until the time for Holy Communion. After the words of institution, the Catholic priest brusquely instructed “Members of the church come forward to commune—the rest of you sit down.” Seated, we Lutherans sang “One bread one body…through all the earth, we are one body in the one Lord” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 496) while our
Catholic brothers and sisters communed.

For those of us in John’s extended family, exclusion from the table of our Lord hit a doubly painful nerve because it reminded us of a part of our past that we would rather forget.

We were raised in a Lutheran denomination that practiced what we called “close communion.” Only
members of that particular church body were allowed to commune; all others, including other Lutherans,
were excluded. In many congregations, if unwary nonmembers happened to come forward to commune, they were turned away at the altar.

Taught as children that we were the only “true” Lutherans, we were proud of this practice. It was core to our identity, distancing and distinguishing us from would-be Lutherans and other Christian denominations.
Reflecting back on those days, I remember the earnestness with which I held my black-and-white exclusionary convictions. Unquestioningly trusting my pastor, I sincerely believed that those who communed improperly did so to their damnation. It was my pastor’s responsibility to stop them before they made that terrible mistake. It was my responsibility to stand firm in my faith by refusing to participate in anything that could be construed as prayer or worship with Christians or non-Christians outside my denomination.

In many ways, membership in that church body was quite comfortable. Confident that we alone knew the truth proclaimed in the Scripture because we alone possessed true doctrine, we were assured that salvation was ours. All we need do was apply the proper doctrinal sound-bite to any given situation. Everything was clear; nothing was ambiguous. We were right and those who differed from us were wrong. Within the narrow confines of our worldview, life was that black and white. There was no middle ground.

The Rev. Gwen Sayler is professor of Bible at Wartburg Theological Seminary and a proud member of the Valpo Lutheran Deaconess Class of ’71.

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