Interpreting Scripture is a fascinating experience, especially within a community of faith. Even a "plain text" reading can be an exercise in futility.
For instance: everyone agrees that when Jesus held the Last Supper, he uttered these words concerning the bread and wine given to the disciples, "This is my body given for you, and this is my blood shed for you."
Now, this would seem to be a straightforward statement by Jesus; however, because of the metaphoric language used, the interpretations vary.
1. You have the literal approach taken by the Roman Catholics, some Episcopalians, and the Eastern Orthodox. They believe the bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It makes sense reading the text in a literal fashion.
2. You have the opposite extreme best embodied in the Reformed tradition: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. Such folks read this statement as a metaphor. The bread and wine represents Jesus' body and blood. The language is totally symbolic. When one eats and drinks, one tastes bread and wine, and Jesus is present in the body of believers.
3. You have those of us who are in the middle. We believe in what is called con-substantiation. The bread and wine are indeed bread and wine; however, Jesus' real presence is "in, with, and under" the bread and the wine.
Question: which one is right? All three are based within Scripture. All three deal with the same exact wording. All three are different conclusions. Can they all be right? No.
Fortunately, I don't believe God is going to send anyone to hell for not believing how exactly Jesus is present in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; but there were those many years ago who believed He would! But, what does one believe?
Our communities of faith have chosen to put together doctrine to define ourselves. Such lists began appearing early in the Christian church to define what was Christan and what was not Christian. Believe it or not, the three great creeds of the church (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds) were statements defining the core Christian beliefs at the time of which they were written. As time progressed, more and more statements of definition were added to help the church define itself.
This is what happened during the Reformation. However, the church stopped calling them creeds and started calling them Confessions. There are many including the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, etc. Such statements are important once again because they help set the tone and identity for a church.
Confessions and Creeds help govern how we live out our Christian faith, and they help us interpret Scripture. For instance, in the Lutheran Church, we have a high appreciation of the Gospel in a nutshell, "We are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Not by any works that we do, but solely by the grace of God." As we read the rest of Scripture, we view it through this lens. It helps us deal with texts which contradict each other. It helps us understand certain passages within the context of the entire Biblical story.
Such an understanding is vitally important when it comes to the mission and ministry of the church. And, I would argue, it is invaluable in insuring the ship not only stops sinking but returns to sailing the seas with gusto.
What do I mean by that?
Well, if you have a ship that is built for one purpose, and you try to make it do something it's not intended to do, you might be in deep trouble. If you have a cruise ship, and you try to load it down with tons of cargo, everything might be o.k. for a while, but if the ship hits rough seas, you might lose the cargo or the ship might sink because it's not made to carry cargo.
Perhaps, and this is my opinion, the Lutheran Church--particularly the ELCA--has tried to become something it is not. It has forsaken many of the principles of the Lutheran faith and tried to become something else. As such it has lost its Lutheran identity and defined itself in a different way.
There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Self-definition is important. However, if by defining yourself, you find yourself sinking, you might want to re-think how you are defining yourself. You might want to re-think what you are becoming. You might want to readjust and change your focus--especially if you are getting away from what made you who you were in the first place.
Identity is important. Folks are drawn to those who know where they stand and what they stand for. They are also drawn to those who are self-assured and have well defined boundaries. This goes far beneath the close that one wears (appearance) or how the deck chairs are arranged. It goes deep down into the core.
That's where one starts.