When to Fight, by Klemet Preus

It seems to me that most ecclesiastical wars are unavoidable. Battles might be avoidable but wars are not. What does this mean?

Currently our synod is seriously divided over issues which no single person or agency has thrust upon us. When the good folks in the MNS district made an issue of whether to accept a church into the synod which did not use the name Lutheran and assiduously avoided any of the Lutheran “markers” this was not a new thing. We did not decide to make an issue of whether a church should have a confessional identity or a pietistic one. That whole discussion has been going on for generations. I have written elsewhere:

Pietism stresses activity among Christians as the goal of Gospel. Pietism “emphasizes…the importance of Christian character and of Christian work. It is less theological in its preaching, making…less of doctrinal forms and definitions.” [1] What is paramount in Pietism is the faith of the individual and the less form it has, apparently, the better. So liturgy and Sacraments are important not as vehicles of the teaching of the gospel but only insofar as they can be expressed in the terms of personal faith. Pietism has a “tendency…to turn ceremonies performed by clergy that communicate divine grace, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, into symbolic gestures that express the faith of converts.” [2]

But in pietism,…we find a disparagement of the established church and the faith she confesses. This takes the form primarily of a type of denominational indifference “where forms and doctrines of the faith were secondary to real faith and obedience, and where denominational differences were simply petty quarrels among defensive clerics.” [3] “One of the most common traits of …pietism is the effort to define the Christian religion apart from its particularities and locate its essence in ‘the heart.'” [4] “Like its European antecedents, American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures, and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrast, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one that transformed individuals starting with their hearts and seeping into all walks of life.” [5] When religion was conceived as primarily “in the heart,” “strict denominational lines were blurred” in deference to “common religious patterns” as pietism “directed mainstream American Protestantism…away from the formal and corporate beliefs and practices of the church toward the informal settings and personal affairs of believers.” [6] The result was the increasingly “small role the institutional church plays in the religious life of the pietist.” [7] The clash between the established churches and pietism was inevitable as “traditionalist Protestants resisted” pietism because it “undermined the importance of creedal subscription, ordination and liturgical order…[and] spoke a different idiom, one that was individualistic, experiential and perfectionistic, as opposed to the corporate, doctrinal and liturgical idiom of historic Protestantism.” To Confessional Protestants, the Pietists blurred all denominational distinctives expecting a “generic” type of Christianity of “sincerity, zeal, and moral life.” [8]

You will find these comments in “Pietism in Missouri’s Mission from Mission Affirmations to Ablaze” published in: Mission Accomplished, The Luther Academy, St. Louis, 2008, 95-97.

You will notice that the above is really not mine but the comments of someone else, D. G. Hart, who has identified the parties in a conflict which has been going on for almost two centuries. The LCMS is just part of a larger conflict. So the war has been around long before the 2009 MNS convention and will continue long after all of us are dead.

Now, of course, every Lutheran pastor and leader is confronted, almost on a daily basis, with decisions which reflect this huge cultural/ecclesiastical struggle. And most of these little decisions are questions of alacrity and relative speed is usually not worth dying for and often not even worth getting hot over. Should I attempt to increase the number of times the sacrament is offered in my congregation now or later? Should I introduce the chalice? Should I require the kids to memorize the catechism completely when the congregation up until now has never used a catechism? How much? How quickly? Should I teach those great Lutheran hymns to my church when they have grown so accustomed to Watts and Wesley? How fast should I expect my church to move in a return to the confessional doctrine and practice?

These are questions of timing and no one would be too harsh in judging a pastor who proceeds at this pace or that in returning a congregation to a Lutheran posture.

But what should we do when the question is not the pace of salutary change? What should we do when the forces of pietism – and they are overwhelming in Minnesota – are coercing us to adjust yet again to their theologically aberrant ways. The issues may not always be obviously doctrinal but they are ignored at great peril. And even if the protestations against dropping the name Lutheran are not charming – in MNS they were made with great respect and restraint – they must be made. The movement to deny our heritage is too strong not to engage in this battle.

To me it’s like acknowledging your marriage in private to your spouse but allowing the world to draw a different conclusion. Those congregations which want to be considered Lutheran within the synod but keep their identity hidden to the world are like a husband who likes to flirt with other women. If your husband takes off his wedding ring every time he leaves the house and puts it back on before he comes inside I would suggest that your marriage is in trouble even if you don’t have positive proof of his philandering.

And that is a hill worth fighting upon. It’s a battle too important not to engage.


  1. D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, (Lanham, MD Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002) 5.
  2. Hart, p. 19.
  3. Hart, p. 14.
  4. Hart, p. 21.
  5. Hart, p. xxiii.
  6. Hart, p. 23.
  7. Hart, p. 21
  8. Hart, p. xxiv.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.