Ahead of their time...and behind

by Frederick W. Baltz (Pastor, St. Matthew Lutheran, Galena, Ill.)

April 8, 2005

photo of Dr. Frederick Baltz

Dr. Fred Baltz

In his autobiography, “Just As I Am,” Billy Graham tells a story both fascinating and important for all who desire that God’s church would prosper. While traveling by train from Washington to New York Rev. Graham had just fallen asleep in his compartment when he heard a knock on the door.

He waited, exhausted, hoping whoever was there would simply go away. They didn’t. The knock came again. Graham politely opened the door. Standing there was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The two men had never met, but each was of course aware of the other’s work. Graham had been made nationally famous for his racially integrated crusades by William Randolph Hearst, who told his newspaper empire, “Puff [promote] Graham.” Graham had now turned to the new medium of television to preach the Gospel. Sheen was also among the most skilled artisans of television. His prime time program, Life is Worth Living, was once tied for top ratings with Milton Berle’s Texaco broadcast. (Berle quipped that both programs were sponsored by Sky Chief.)

“Billy, I know it’s late, but may I come in for a chat and a prayer?”

The two discussed their lives, their ministries and their commitment to evangelism. Graham told Sheen he admired his focus on Christ. They formed a friendship that lasted until Sheen’s death years later.

I wish I could say they had both read the Augsburg Confession. I don’t suppose they had. But they understood in their heads and hearts what the Confession says about true unity. If you hold to a proper understanding of the essentials, Word and Sacrament, a unity is already established. To be sure, Graham and Sheen held very different beliefs about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each would agree at least that the other’s belief was sincerely meant to honor Christ and further the Kingdom, and that it was based on an honest attempt to follow Scripture.

There was no formal Roman Catholic-Baptist agreement in pre-Vatican II America. There is none yet today. Still these remarkable men with equally remarkable differences could not only have a “chat and a prayer,” but encourage each other, speak well of each other and help each other. This was true only because the clear focus for each was Christ.

The WordAlone Network as a voice of the loyal opposition to Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leadership calls this church to remember what real unity is and is not. A unity based on Christ’s truth can flourish where no official documents have been adopted by voters in assemblies or clergy in conferences. It is far better to claim the unity that exists already with any who proclaim the Word and rightly administer the Sacraments than to assume that real unity is yet to be achieved through formal agreements. Formal agreements can masquerade as unity and undermine our identity.

Graham and Sheen turned their attention to the people who needed Christ; they brought all their energies and their profound skills to the task. That is what the ELCA needs to do if it is to reverse its continual decline.

When the news media cover the ELCA the public hears about criticism of elected officials and their policies, about sexuality questions, about a Middle East peace plan and about yet another ecumenical agreement. What they do not hear about is Christ up front and foremost. The public does not associate the ELCA with bringing Christ to the people as much as it does with social and political engineering. This is simply and profoundly wrong.

Once when Billy Graham had integrated his choir someone said he had set the church back 30 years. He replied he had hoped to set it back 2,000 years. Ahead of his time...or behind?

Billy Graham and Fulton J. Sheen experienced a unity in Christ. They were many decades ahead of their time in terms of ecumenism, because they were also 2,000 years behind.