I need a moment to offer a bit of perspective. Anyone who reads this blog may very easily get the impression that I’m a bitter, bothered, joyless curmudgeon who goes to great lengths and takes great pleasure to find the very worst in the church(es) and blog about them. If you’re one of them, I understand where you’re coming from. Having reread much of what I’ve lately written, I get where you’re coming from.
I’m not turning about on anything that I’ve written. Indeed, I’m about to go there again. But I wanted to preface this latest lament with something positive—if not for balance, at least for perspective.
I love it when I see the lights come on for someone in terms of a new understanding of God or a fresh dose of the Gospel—in a bible class, in catechism class, in the comments after church (not the “Good sermon, pastor” kind, but the less frequent ones where it’s clear that it spoke to them). I am elated when a breakthrough is made in a troubled marriage; when the estranged kid comes home; when a broken heart is bound up again by the sweet Gospel of Christ; when someone actually takes me up on the offer of individual private confession and Absolution; when I have the honor of being the officiant in God’s baptizing a new Christian; when I give God’s people His crucified and resurrected body and blood to eat and drink. In short, I really dig the Gospel.
And now for something completely different: my lament. I should also add that I’m really tired. I’m exhausted by it all. The exhaustion likely comes through in the disjointedness of the following.
I regularly get a front row seat at the show that I, for lack of a better name, shall call, “Why the LCMS is dying from within.” I don’t have anything profound to add to the many arguments and observations made by others. I simply get to see it firsthand. And I’m a lonely, oft-ignored, oft-disregarded voice in my neck of the woods. It’s draining. Most of the time it’s simply lurking out there, but in the winkel it’s in my face. Being generally ignored, I have generally taken to keeping my own counsel. But my thoughts go somewhere in the spirit of Jeremiah when he said, “For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 208-9). (Indeed, I take some comfort from the verses after: “But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me.”) I keep my mouth shut as long as I can, but generally I find myself bound to speak. I do it evangelically and gently, but what I’ve been given to speak (I’d argue, what they’ve been given to speak as well) is not a popular message. In some ways it doesn’t really matter how it’s presented. It’s treated as naïve, irrelevant, passé.
The message is, in short, that God is God and we are not (props to Dr. Joel Okamoto), and the doctrine He has given us is a treasure. We’ve been given a real gift to bring to the table—indeed, to bring to the people of God and to the Church at large. There is no avoiding the fact that there is something really right about the Lutheran Confessions’ intensely Biblical, beautiful understanding of God, the cosmos, and eternity. And I’m sick to the heart of me of working alongside men who have pledged to take up the mantle of that ministry while functionally militating against it. I would that we would all take seriously Paul’s description of his ministry in 1 Cor. 1123: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” Or in Dr. Norman Nagel’s words, “We speak what the Lord’s given us to speak.”
But there is this shame that has so embedded itself and is festering in the institution of the LCMS that moves some to turn away from the solid life-giving message we have been given by the Lord of the Church and instead to engage in a watered-down, wishy-washy, sociologically-driven self-help agenda so that we can get give the people what they crave instead of what they desperately need. This is not to cast aspersion on helpful things in which the Church may rightly be engaged—things peripheral to or supportive of the proclamation that God has given His Church. But they’re not a substitute for the Gospel.
The institution of the LCMS is dying from within because a number of its clergy are ashamed of the distinctiveness of Lutheran doctrine. They’ve bought into the notion that doctrine is a dirty word—deeds, not creeds. They’ve missed the point, that God has given us doctrine, and that doctrine is the means by which He saves us. Doctrine is life! They’ve sold out the treasure that is Lutheran cross theology for the mess (and I do mean mess!) o’ pottage that is the overwhelming majority of Evangelical Christianity’s pursuit of glory. They actually go so far as to publicly denigrate the very core of what it is to be Lutheran. And as they have given it up, so also they are infecting their congregations with such things. This is not faithful ministry.
In one example from the winkel one Lutheran pastor recalled with great bitterness that he burned his Catechism and never looked back. Others nodded along sympathetically while continuing to decry such things as catechesis, doctrine, and anything more than “Jesus-n-me theology” as counter to “meeting people where they are.” This is where the LCMS dies. This is the festering rot of laziness and misplaced or mammonic priorities that will be the end of the LCMS. Meeting the people where they are is fine and good. The problem is when we meet them where they are and leave them there while tailoring a custom-fit Christian experience around them. The point is to give them something altogether better.
Give up on the doctrine and you end up withholding all those good things from God’s people. Ignore, disregard, or denigrate the doctrine that God has give His Church and the ministry will be severely lacking at best. Trade the noble, often difficult, task of ministering to God’s people according to what He has revealed in Scripture for the wildly popular glory road, and it becomes less about substance and more about appearance. Make it about the individual instead of about Christ and eventually the center will crumble, leaving the individual spiritually bankrupt.
So the institution will die. Maybe in a year; in ten; in twenty. Thank God it’s bigger than that. I take heart, and God grants courage and sustainment in the fact that God is faithful and Christ is risen from the dead; and His words will never pass away, even if (as) the Synod does. My prayer is that it wouldn’t come to that—that God would grant us repentance and reverse this trend. God, grant it for the sake of Christ.