by Rev. E.B. Holschuh
Woody: I love you, Kelly. That’s why I’m now a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Just like you.
Kelly: Oh, Woody! You saved our marriage…What a wonderful sacrifice! Now when we die and go to heaven, we won’t be separated by barbed wire and barking dogs…What was it exactly that saved you, Woody?
Woody: Something Dr. Crane said.
Kelly: …That thing about how true love can overcome all differences?
Woody: Not exactly. He took me aside and said that I’d better get used to giving in to you on every point for the rest of our lives if I ever want to see you naked again.
–from Cheers episode The Beer Is Always Greener (1992)
There are more than 1,000 different Christian church branches in the U.S. (depending on who you ask), each professing many diverse and conflicting beliefs. As one researcher put it, “It would be an understatement to say that Christianity is a severely divided faith.” This sad fact made its way into the plot of a sitcom episode in 1992, and the conflict was between two “different” Lutherans.
The dialogue above is from the well-known TV series, Cheers. The entire episode is great, but the Lutheran troubles between Woody, who is Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS, as am I), and Kelly, who is Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), steal the show (along with the “counseling” they receive from Frasier and Lilith Crane). It’s funny, yeah, but it’s also sad because of the sheer number of disagreeing Lutheran church bodies, separated by doctrine (mostly). The ELCA is the largest Lutheran body in the U.S., followed by the LCMS, and then the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod making up “the big three.” Believe it or not, there are about 30 Lutheran bodies in North America, depending on one’s definition of church, congregation, synod, etc. A short (4:28), edited clip on YouTube highlights the Lutheran controversy, but the whole episode is worth a look! (I should add that a familiarity with the main characters will help with the humor, particularly the character of Diane Chambers, who was written out of the series in season 5, as well as some knowledge of the ELCA and LCMS.)
Comedy aside, this episode showcases the very real issue of marital compatibility, and religion too often becomes a fulcrum point, especially when children are involved. However. I would balk at the use of a sitcom to broaden one’s theological horizons. (And some people already think Lutherans are some kind of cult with branch offices, or, worse, that we’re Catholic Lite.)
How did we become so divided? Christianity—the Christian Church—has become fractured into tens of thousands of denominations, sects, and faith groups as individuals and groups continue to interpret the Bible in their own ways. Throughout history, Mankind has (again, sadly) divided itself; differing religious views continue to breed intolerance, contempt, and incompatibility, even among non-churchgoers. Nowadays, a disagreement among church members leads to fracture rather than dialogue. A disagreement about marital values and expectations leads to divorce rather than reconciliation. And berating another’s politics, lifestyle, or opinion in the public stockade that is social media has become fashionable rather than reprehensible.
Broken church. Broken nation. Broken marriages. Hardly the stuff of sitcoms.
And no, when we die and go to heaven, we won’t be separated by barbed wire and barking dogs.
Thankfully, we have a Savior. (And plenty of churches in this country in which to find Him. I know of one in Alamo—on South Alamo Road, across the street from Willie’s BBQ. Come by, and I’ll introduce you!)
Pastor E.B. Holschuh serves at Zion Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Alamo. He is a retired Navy senior chief and former English and Russian teacher.