President Matthew Harrison and First-Vice President Herbert Mueller have issued a report of their Koinonia Project to address the disunity and schisms in the LC-MS. On the surface this plan is nearly indistinguishable from every other plan to unite the synod of the past 10 years. It proposes the creation of discussion groups and urges everyone to be nice. Below the surface, there is something distinguishable: the tone. Mueller’s report oozes piety and sincerity. He knows there are problems. I suspect, though he leave it unstated, that he knows this process, if seriously engaged, will cause departures from the synod. But he isn’t instituting a purge, nor is he engaging in a bureaucratic cover up for false doctrine. He wants to win the brother and he is willing to look at the log in his own eye first. Gottesdienst serves the synod as a kind of think tank. And while I don’t speak for all the editors or readers, I think the Gottesdienst crowd needs to follow Mueller’s example. In short, everybody needs to calm down.
Those who are tired of the fighting and wish we would all just get along need to calm down. We live in the Church Militant. The Church has always fought within itself. Iron sharpens iron. It is good to care about eternal things. It is good to care about the details, about the lost, and about how we interact with each other and the world. Our fighting is caused by sin but refraining from fighting does not remove the sin. It only hides it. Our Lord does not call us to ignore the speck in our brother’s eye but to love him enough to take some risks and to try and help.
Next, if we are going to do this, we need some nomenclature. We have to drop “liberal” and “conservative.” They are not only pejorative, they are inaccurate. I like the label “confessional.” This doesn’t mean that I think I am the only one confessing. It simply means that this is my focus and identity. I suspect that this self-chosen description rightly fits and is comfortable on about 51% of the synod. The other side, the roughly 46% who supported the reelection of President Kieschnick, seem to have chosen the term “missional” for themselves. Just as I don't think that I am excluding others from confessing by calling myself a confessional, I do not think that the missionals are accusing me of being disinterested in missions, lazy, or complacent. They simply understand this as their particular focus and identity. If indeed this is the adjective they wish, I promise to use it respectfully. If this is the wrong term, or not accepted by all, I am sorry. For the time being at least, it seems to me to be what they have chosen - and it also seems accurate. When I am corrected and given a better self-description, I promise to use it. But we can’t impugn one another with conservative and liberal.
For years I have heard complaints from Jesus First and other proponents of the missional camp that there is a terrible danger and mis-emphasis among the confessionals on doctrinal purity. I think, in part, they are right. This charge has been too easily dismissed, as though being accused of being obsessed with doctrinal purity were akin to being accused of loving too much, having too much money, or being too good looking. We have been called to doctrinal purity. This is what God desires and demands. But it is not true to think that doctrinal purity trumps all else. Doctrine was made for man, not man for doctrine. David ate the showbread. The Lord’s disciples plucked grain and Jesus healed on the Sabbath. St. Paul allows the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Love is the ultimate principle behind the Law. So also, love is the ultimate principle, both in content and application, of doctrine. If doctrine does not serve love, or if it serves pride, it is false.
Some might rejoin that these are Law examples not Gospel examples. These are, however, ultimately arguments about the Law. The Law commands we evangelize. To fail to confess and witness is a sin. The Law also commands that we teach pure doctrine. False doctrine is a sin. It is possible to love a system of doctrine for its own beauty and reasonableness apart from its actual content. That was the sin of the Pharisees. The missionals do well to warn us of this danger.
We, the confessionals, need to calm down. We should not be issuing ultimatums. We should not be setting ourselves up as the judges of Israel. We should not be operating out of fear as though it is our duty to cleanse and purify the Church. And we should be careful in our language and criticisms so as not to hurt the feelings of our brothers.
We, the confessionals, need historic perspective on doctrinal purity. We sometimes speak and act as though there was a golden age in the Church to which we must return. There was no golden age. The history of the Church is a history of disunity, confusion, heresy, abuse, and schism. The history of the liturgy is equally messy. St. Gregory did much to foster unity but even then there were local customs and variances in almost every locality. Those who waited for and expected the Messiah at the time of Christ were divided between the Pharisees, the priests, the Essenes, the zealots, Gentile proselytes, and the quiet in the land. The Lord has provided amazingly clear and articulate voices from time to time. Athanasius was such a voice at the Council of Nicea. So also were Luther and then the Lutheran fathers in 1580. But they are few and far between. They are the exception. There does not look to be a great, charismatic, theological mind and voice in our age.
We are insignificant men in an insignificant synod in an insignificant time. The history of the Missouri Synod is not the history of great preachers, scholars, or obedient Germans. We are not a sleeping giant. We are a raging, self-important mouse. Our history is the history of fools plodding along without really knowing what they were doing. Pastors taught false doctrine from their ignorance. They got caught up in politics and culture. Missionaries instituted crazy practices. The synod grew by immigration and inertia. Members insisted on acting and looking like their neighbors. They stuck to the truth out of nostalgia as often as conviction. Yet the Lord provided. Babies were baptized. The Word of God was read. The Absolution and Body and Blood of Jesus were bestowed, and the half-hearted, confused prayers were heard by a gracious God. Sometimes the best thing we ever did was stick the name “Lutheran” on the sign. If nothing else, it forced us to use the Small Catechism and keep a copy of the American Edition of Luther’s Works and the Book of Concord on the pastor’s shelf. Then sometimes, somebody, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, no doubt, read them. The Lord doesn’t need us to purify or unite or fix or do anything to the Church. It is His Church. We confessionals need to calm down and stop acting as though every time a pastor does something stupidly or chooses a weak practice or even commits an unintentional heresy the walls are going to come crashing down. So what if they do? Calm down.
The line between doctrine and practice is blurry. That is because practice matters. It confesses and witnesses. But it is hard to talk about it, hard to critique. Just recently, I had a brief and casual exchange with a confessional brother in a theatre while we waited for Garrison Keillor to appear. He has switched, for many reasons, from the historic lectionary to the three year lectionary. He complained that some of the proponents of the historic lectionary, of which I am one, went too far and were dogmatic about its superiority. I thought that was a straw man and said so. I asked for an actual name and example. He named another confessional brother whom he claimed had denigrated the three-year lectionary. Then the curtain came up and the man in the red shoes began his shtick, so I never got to respond. If I had, I would have said that denigrating is not dogmatizing. We might well denigrate the three year lectionary and praise the historic lectionary. That is the way argument works. There are three possibilities: the three year lectionary is superior to the historic lectionary, the historic lectionary is superior to the three year lectionary, or they are completely equal in every way. If they are completely equal, then it is stupid to talk about it.
If we are to debate practices, and we must, then we will denigrate. This might be slightly painful, but it should be no surprise. Consider the matter of LSB hymnody. We must all surely know that its hymns are unequal. They all passed doctrinal review. Thus we trust that they are all free of blatant false teaching. But some are abysmally weak, have to be explained away from their original context, and do little to actually teach the faith. Others are confession, praise, and catechesis of the highest order. We may not agree on which hymns fall into which category, but we all know that some hymns are stronger than others. We all choose hymns in context. We don’t use the strongest hymn in the hymnal each Sunday. We vary hymns week to week. So also, not every hymn, regardless of its merits, is necessarily immediately accessible, while some hymns, weak as they are, are simply congregational favorites for sentimental reasons and for the sake of love we sing them. We don’t dogmatize the hymns of the day. But we certainly should teach both our pastors and laity to practice theological discernment in hymn choice and also encourage them to strive for stronger and stronger hymnody as they are able. A congregation or pastor without discernment, who chose hymns merely for entertainment or emotional value, deserves rebuke.
We confessionals need to admit that we all live with some level of compromise. No one has perfect practice. We need to stop trying to force our brothers into orthodoxy through legislation. It’d be blessedly nice if everyone in the synod would limit himself to the confines of our hymnals, but they don’t and they won’t, and we have to give a better reason than simply “we make the rules.” We need to be able to talk about what is allowable but weak, what is strong, and what is right out. We cannot pretend that everything the Commission on Worship has produced is equal.
The point of this is simply that we have to be careful in our speech and careful in our listening, and we have to be honest. This debate must center on practice. That is where our doctrine hits the road, where our confession and witness is actually made. But we can’t have real discussion and debate without denigration. We have had synodical attempts to brush over our real differences in the past. We have been told they are not real or significant, and we know that is not true. That fantasy didn’t create unity. It didn’t create trust. It was a waste of time and money. If all things are equal, then we are worse than fools to debate them. If this is all just splitting hairs, then those who determine that is the case ought to give in for the sake of us weaker brothers. But they won’t, will they? That is because these things are important. So they need to be not just discussed, but actually debated. And we have to take the risk that such debates could lead to division. It could well turn out that debating practices leads to the realization that we cannot abide one another’s doctrine and aren’t actually in fellowship.
I don’t say this to alarm anyone. My goal is to find the logs in my own eye. How have I failed in this process? How are the criticisms laid at my feet valid and invalid? But my desire is that everyone would calm down, speak carefully, and listen carefully. It will be hard. It will be slow. It will be frustrating. But we must try and pray God’s blessing
Now for the speck: evangelism. It seems to me that this is the over-arching principle and desire of the missional wing of the LCMS. Every offense taken by the confessionals, from contemporary worship services to unionism to bad hymnody and open communion seem to stem from the missional pastor’s self-described burning desire to reach the lost. This desire, of course, is God-given and God-pleasing. We are called to proclaim the Gospel to every creature. But fallen man can take any good thing and turn it to an idol or to his own selfish purpose. There should be no desperation or fear in us. We should and are rightly comforted by the doctrine of election. No one, except perhaps myself, goes to Hell because of my sin. None of the elect will be missing: I simply couldn't snatch them from Christ hands if I tried. Neither can we add to the number of the elect. So calm down. The Church is not called to growth or success but faithfulness. Part of that faithfulness is works of mercy, part of it is evangelism, and part of it is purity of doctrine.
The Synodical Convention in 2007 demonstrated the confusion of the missional wing of the LC-MS when one of us lost control of his emotions and grew visibly angry because the wording of a resolution was changed from making reaching the lost “the” top priority to “a” top priority. The man’s refusal of that language and verbal, emphatic rejection of the idea that there are other equal priorities in the church, such as worshipping God and taking care of those in need, both inside and outside of the Church, made evident a misplaced zeal and confusion. So also I was recently told by a very sincere and pious missional pastor that he was heartbroken because his 9-year old son didn’t know any non-Christians. Why would this break his heart unless the only good work that really matters, that which defines and makes a Christian a Christian is witnessing and saving the lost? The same pastor wasn’t in the least bit heartbroken that his 9-year old son didn’t know any starving people, any lepers, or those otherwise in need.
This must be addressed. It seems to me that my fellow Gottesdienst editor, Rev. Heath Curtis, has done us a great service with his paper, The Liturgy as Beacon for the Elect, on this topic and I suggest this as a start for missional pastors.
There also needs to be some agreement on Lutheran vocabulary. I think it is fair to expect that Lutheran pastors in the LCMS be conversant, if not completely fluent, in the Lutheran Confessions, Pieper, and the Lutheran Service Book. Words matter. Rick Warren and Rob Bell have a peculiar vocabulary that has grown out of their theology. So do we. If we are formed by their writings and use their categories and vocab, we will have their theology. At the same time, if we don’t know our own heritage and confession, how can we claim to be Lutheran?
Mueller has stated that he thinks we need to begin with a study of the first five articles of the Augustana. I admire the piety that suggests this, but fear it will be a wasted effort. Part of the problem is that the language is too familiar. The confessionals see this as a kind of trump card. These articles directly contradict the missional folks. But the missional folks stare blankly back. How is that we abhor one another's practices but think our doctrine is the same? They tell us that they love these words and agree completely. How can that be? One side or the other or both must be misunderstanding them. Obviously, we use the same words to mean different things and familiarity has made both sides deaf and unable to hear freshly. The Augustana has another weakness: it was written to be irenic. The ELCA all endorses and embraces it. It fails to get at the differences.
I suggest instead that our first step is to embark upon a synod-wide reading of the Luther’s Bondage of the Will. While every single pastor in the LC-MS has taken a vow to teach in accordance with this book, as the Formula of Concord names it as a fuller expression of Article XI, and has already read it, it is not as familiar as the Augustana. This slight distance means that we can read and hear it anew. It will give us a common authoritative text while also emphasizing and teaching a truly Lutheran though process and vocabulary.
In conclusion, calm down, pray, be nice, read Luther’s Bondage of the Will, and talk to one another. Maybe God will turn and bless us.