Splitting Hairs

by | Jun 5, 2024 | Uncategorized

As a Lutheran pastor, I often field questions about the theological differences between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. The most enjoyable dialogues usually occur with believers outside my church body, who surprisingly inquire about their own practices and traditions for comparative purposes.

When people learn I received my Master of Divinity from a Roman Catholic theological institution, I am quickly peppered with comparative religious questions. My oversimplified elevator speech explains that Roman Catholic theology weighs heavily upon both scripture and tradition, while Protestant faiths singularly emphasize scripture. Our faith tradition namesake, Martin Luther, was fond of a tagline, “solo scriptura,” which means the Bible is the sole infallible source of authority for the Christian faith. But, thankfully, the schism over issues between the Christian beliefs that occurred more than 500 years ago isn’t as great as it once was.

Yet, questions about differences remain. Here are some of my playful, tongue-in-cheek responses to my most common quizzes.

Q. Why don’t you follow the pope?
A. Pope Francis is a fantastic spiritual leader and theologian. The Catholic faithful interpret Jesus as giving St. Peter the keys to the kingdom, his selection to be the church’s leader on Earth (the first pope) following Jesus’ ascension. Protestants, however, believe Peter accepted the keys on behalf of all followers of Christ. We are all responsible for unlocking opportunities for everyone to enter the kingdom.

Q. How come your pastors can marry and priests can’t?
A. It’s that scriptural basis thing. Nowhere does the Bible say priests can’t marry. Additionally, Peter, supposedly the first pope, was married. Remember, Jesus healed his mother-in-law as one of his first miracles.

Q. Why don’t you believe in saints?
A. Really?!?! I’m the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and you’re asking me why we don’t believe in saints? Of course we do! The name hanging on the building should tell you so. The difference is in interpretation. Martin Luther teaches that each of us is both a sinner and a saint. Only Christ is sinless. Those glorified as saints are lifted up as examples for others to live the Christian faith. In addition, Protestants don’t pray to saints as Catholics practice because we do not believe they are mediators between Christ and ourselves. Consider us the precursor to Amazon – we cut out the retailers and go directly to the source.

Q. Do you believe in Mary?
A. Yep. Absolutely. How can you not recognize and glorify the mother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? An overlooked fact is Martin Luther was known for his fervent adoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sadly, though, those of the Reformation Movement tend to pack up Mary with the other holiday displays after Christmas and only bring her out again the next Advent Season.

Q. Why don’t you offer private confession?
A. We do. All you need to do is ask a pastor, who will be honored to listen to your confession and offer absolution. But a more common practice we offer is catholic confession. No, that’s not a snarky comment saying Roman Catholics need to confess more, but catholic means “universal.” We collectively, not just individually, fall away from God and need to, as a community, confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. Therefore, as a worshiping community, we typically begin worship with a corporate confession.

There are plenty of other questions and answers. The most important thing for us is to keep the dialogue going and focus on the commonality in Christ. What draws us all to Jesus? How can we serve the Lord together? Let’s not look at a house divided but one that stands with one foundation. Maybe we can pray about that as we gather in our respective houses of worship. This Sunday, June 9, we invite you to gather with us for worship at 9:30 AM at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 36 East John Street, Lindenhurst.

Pastor Marc

Rev. Marc Herbst
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
36 East John Street
Lindenhurst, NY 11757