I’m pretty sure that the first time I ever heard of the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, I heard it from Dr. Rosenbladt. Later, there were stories he told that my mind filed under that heading. When I told him about the series, and asked him about one of the occasions, he remembered it, but it had a different point to it than I remembered. Which is not uncommon, for various reasons.

Sometimes my own memory will find a different use for a story, and sometimes I think a story has taken on a different meaning for the one who lived it. We even find in the Gospels stories that have a different emphasis for one writer than another. In any case, I was really happy with what I was reading when I got the reply, as were friends that I shared it with. So here is Dr. Rosenbladt's e-mail description of a night when some laymen got together to discuss doctrine:


In my memory, the incident you describe actually had to do with my Dad and his blue-collar Baptist friend contending over Baptism (Bibles open all over the table, my Mom supplying coffee late into the night). Finally, I had to head off for bed, but the conversation went on into the wee hours, I think?

The "take away" that made it always stick in my memory was that theology was that important to a physician/surgeon. It helped take things out of that horrible world of "churchy" for a young boy, placarded it in real time. Serious searching of the Scriptures between two laymen—as if such things were important. My impression as a young boy was not that the Faith was somehow not true (doubts about that came later), but that it existed in a "strange realm" all its own: that is, in the "church." That evening gave me images that went up against that "strange realm."

Now I had thought I remembered this as a group of Lutheran laymen from his church. In any case, this does illustrate how important it is to have the laity put high value on such conversations during our life together and not leave them to the clergy. If they are left to the clergy, the children begin to imagine that all those questions belong to a totally different world, and not a real one at that.

For the next situation, my error was in reverse. I had thought Dr. Rosenbladt was telling me about what his evangelical friends had done, and it turned out these guys were Lutherans:

Same thing later on as those two Lutheran guys were attempting to answer all of my questions after my Father died. The thing that stuck out was that guys my age and in college carried a New Testament with them (not like Baptists bringing their Bibles to church with them, but as if it could actually function in the normal world). I had never seen that—not with high school or college students. And basic as it was to have them searching for some passage on a subject, I had only seen that sort of thing [again] in the church!

The fact that they distinguished between "personal speculations" and what the NT text actually said was brand new to me. I had never seen someone my age, someone I thought was "normal," carry a NT and use it as if it were important, true, defining outside the church.

This was one I had heard him talk about many times. And it pertains directly to mutual conversation and consolation.

In our day, consolation often carries a solely emotional sense. Just saying something to make someone feel better, with the emphasis on the change in feeling. When this turns to vinegar, it is what journalist H.L. Mencken called “uplift.” Attempting to brighten somebody’s day with a lie. Joel Osteen has made a career of it.

On the internet you know you’re being exposed to it when the note has lots of furry little creatures on it. (A pastor friend of mine said after getting one too many of these from members of his congregation that it made him want to go out and harpoon kittens!)

This conversation with these Lutheran laymen was different. They weren’t yanking verses out of context that they could apply to Rosenbladt that in truth had nothing to do with his situation. They were consoling him with promises whose content they could argue.

They might have to flip to another passage to show how it didn’t contradict what they were arguing. Truth was at issue. If they couldn’t make it stick, feelings would not change. This might sound a bit colder to some. But I know from the inside, this is much better. When people are not good at consolation, their goodwill might still be of some benefit. I feel better for an hour or a day. But the old problem comes back and eats at me.

When your friends can argue the point, they might be able to put it to rest. Their willingness to think alongside is ultimately more helpful to good feeling in a long term sense than any “uplift.” When I see a lot of “uplift” going around, I suspect strongly that knowledge of the Scriptures is shallow. Since nobody knows how to fix your hull, they send a thousand little Dixie cups to try to bail you out. It is well-intended. But there is better to be had. Real consolation often has some argument in it, and it aims for a deeper fix.

To carry this back to an earlier discussion of the key verse on the subject (Matt. 18:20), when Luther discussed the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, he took what could have been a narrow church discipline conversation and broadened it to the conversations that keep up the health of the church. The father of a layman died, and two laymen stepped in to console.

In many congregations, people might imagine only a pastor could do this. They would be wrong. Sometimes the pastor does have a role here, and sometimes, for various reasons, the pastor is not the right one to do this. Even if there is a visit, there might not be the ease of conversation that laymen have with each other. And sometimes the layman is just more gifted for the occasion.

Whether or not Romans 12:8 is talking about exhortation or encouragement (The two come together in a St. Crispin’s Day speech), we know that encouragement is something some do better than others. (I cite the incident with Katrina at the beginning of The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz as an example.) Those who are able should be about this kind of work. This keeps the sheep from wandering off, and often regathers those who have wandered.

What the practice of the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren looks like is not really something we can tamp down in any final fashion. Luther was a little loose in his citation of the key verse on the subject, though I think this involved deep reading and meditation on its place within the broader teaching of Scripture. So it is good to discuss our own images of how this works.

Different circles of Christians have often developed different gifts at different levels. Sometimes this ability of laymen to wield Bibles has fallen into disuse. But I know from my reading of Reformation history that this kind of discussion was common in Reformation times, especially in the early days of the printing of the Luther Bible. For the reasons Rosenbladt listed, and many others, this kind of practice needs to be common among us.