Church of the Lutheran Brethren? Chances are you haven’t heard of this small denomination. However, for me it has been all that I’ve known since infancy.
This denomination was founded in 1900 as five independent Lutheran congregations met in Wisconsin to form a new synod. These churches were not splitting from another synod or denomination but gathered together with the main purpose of compiling resources to send missionaries overseas.
Due to the focus on oversea missions, the denomination has about 116 churches in America and Canada, while there are approximately 1,600 congregations in Chad and Cameroon, 16 congregations in Taiwan and 29 in Japan.
For myself, I have often jokingly said that I am a spiritual mutt. I grew up in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, my Father is a practicing Roman Catholic and my Mother has roots in the American Lutheran Church. Through my childhood Christian education and youth group, as well as my college years of working at an Evangelical Christian Bookstore, I developed what I’ve come to call “Folk Lutheranism.” My Folk Lutheranism was a mixture of Lutheranism and Fundamentalistic Finneyism, coated with Evangelicalism and saturated with Pietism. Needless to say, I spent a lot of my time in legalism as well as constantly taking my spiritual temperature to see if I loved Jesus enough. I virtually had no assurance.
After college I applied to Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, MN. My intention for seminary was to jump through the necessary hoops in order to secure a full-time job in youth ministries. Frankly, I was unprepared for seminary and found myself crushed by the academic weight of the classes. Furthermore, the theology that I encountered also attacked my old nature and worldview. I can recall reading Pieper’s, “Christian Dogmatics,” and Walther’s, “Law and Gospel,” longing for the Gospel that they presented, yet warring with it in my mind. About this time in seminary I gravitated towards the Church Growth Movement and really sunk my teeth into Rick Warren’s books, “The Purpose Driven Life,” and, “The Purpose Driven Church.” Therefore, when I received a call right out of seminary to go to Rancho Cucamonga, California, I was a Fundamentalistic-Finneyistic Lutheran Pastor, coated by Evangelicalism, saturated with Pietism and driven by Purpose.
While in California, Rob Bell’s book, “Velvet Elvis,” and Brian McClaren’s book, “A Generous Orthodoxy,” were released and I embraced these too. Yes, add the Emergent Church Movement to my list. How can all these “isms” be embraced cohesively? They can’t, as much as I tried. All of the plethora of theologies were beginning to make up a perfect storm; that is to say, an epistemological crisis.
Things reached a breaking point not only due to my major epistemological crisis of faith, but also due to the church’s financial struggles as well as my personal struggles in my marriage. (Note: I learned the hard way that a pastor can’t work 70+ hours a week and neglect his wife for the sake of ministry and expect things to be hunky dory.) So what happened? I broke. I fell apart. I lost 10 lbs. I got ulcers in the back of my throat. I had high blood pressure. I resigned my call in California.
I can remember it like yesterday reading Matthew 9:10-12 during my struggle. “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” As I read this passage, the Word hit me. I… I am sick. Jesus came for me! It sounds so simple now, but you have to understand that from my Folk Lutheran perspective the Gospel was merely what got you “in.” I, like many others, held that the Gospel was for evangelism only and that once you were a Christian you had to move beyond the simplistic Gospel to more mature and meaty things like living the Christian life. I had carelessly assumed the Gospel, and at this point I was gracious delivered the Gospel. I was reminded that it was for me, a sick sinner who was confused, dead and broken. Thus my journey into Confessional Lutheranism had just begun.
In part two, I will discuss the painful collapse of my house of “isms” and how Confessional Lutheranism was fast becoming a new place to call home.