Is the Missouri Synod an Isolationist, Sectarian, or Legalistic Church-Body?

hateFormer Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) President Gerald Kieschnick recently commented on the responses to the Newtown, Connecticut interfaith prayer service held on December 16, 2012. He wrote:

The overwhelming majority of people both in and beyond the LCMS who hear the request for apology and/or removal shake their heads in disgust and dismay. For them the image of our church becomes one of isolationism, sectarianism, and legalism. That image is further fostered in the minds of people for whom perception becomes reality. (see “Dr. Jerry Kieschnick Perspectives”, vol. 4 #23 [February 7, 2013])

I, for one, did not call for that pastor’s removal. I, for one, waited to see what the officers of the church, in doing their normal duty, could accomplish. When they did their duty, the local pastor apologized to his fellow pastors and members of the LCMS. And we accepted and forgave him.

Sometimes we pastors do things that we later regret. Sometimes it happens because the right course of action is not clear, with conflicting claims of what is right and wrong. When that happens, we apologize, are forgiven, and move on together with our brethren in ministry to a lost and dying world.

We LCMS pastors apologize, because we know that Theological Principle Number One is: “I am a sinner.” That means we make mistakes too. By apologizing, this pastor did what we LCMS pastors should always do in difficult situations where we have offended people. I highly commend him for doing that. I also highly commend our church officers for dealing with a difficult and public situation in a caring and professional way. I give them all an “A+.”

But Kieschnick can’t leave “well enough alone.” Why? I don’t know and I won’t speculate. He said that, through such situations, the LCMS is perceived as being isolationist, sectarian, and legalistic.

What?! A pastor makes a mistake and apologizes, and is forgiven and received with joy and love by his fellow pastors, and thereafter some are perceived as being “isolationist, sectarian, and legalistic”?! By whom?

Church officers follow the constitution of the church, which they were elected to uphold, and they deal with a difficult and public situation in a caring and professional way, and are thereafter perceived as being “isolationist, sectarian and legalistic”?! By whom?

Come now, let’s be reasonable. Do Americans think that Jews are “legalistic” when they follow kosher laws? Anti-Semites probably do (see wikipedia), section on United States) . The rest of us say, “That’s their rules, that’s their religion” and let it go at that. That is the American “live and let live” form of tolerance that has made things work in this republic for over two hundred years.

Do Americans think that the Ethiopian Lutheran Church is “sectarian” because it just recently withdrew from fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Church of Sweden, and other Lutherans who approve of gay marriage? Gay-activists and ecumenical-activists, who are in many cases the same people, probably do (see Social Movements and Ecumenical Movement). The rest of us say, “The Ethiopians think gay and lesbian sex is wrong” and let it go at that.

Do people think that the Roman Catholic church is “isolationist” because it refuses to ordain women as priests? Feminists of both genders and anti-Catholics, who are in many cases the same people, probably do (see Feminist Movement and Anti-Catholicism). The rest of us say, “That’s their rules, that’s their religion” and let it go at that.

Come now, let’s be reasonable. The people who think the LCMS is “isolationist, sectarian, and legalistic” are those who disagree with LCMS Constitution Article VI.2: “Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following . . . Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description” (my emphasis). Some of those people are in our church-body, others are not.

There are probably hundreds of ecumenical-activists in the ELCA who hate the LCMS and its members for its constitutional position (i.e., LCMS Constitution Article VI.2). Hundreds of other members of the ELCA hate the LCMS because of our stance on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women, communism, and the authority of Scriptures. They will throw verbal bricks and stones at us any chance they get! Thankfully, other members of the ELCA are more reasonable and affable, as I can attest via many personal friendships and some relatives.

Why should we be surprised by this, or even care? You can’t please everyone. Many of those whom you can’t please, can and will say all sorts of nasty things about you. Didn’t your mom and dad explain that to you? Why does this bother Kieschnick? I don’t know and I won’t speculate.

The real question is not perception. The real question is not what ignorant or prejudiced people think or perceive as reality. The real question is whether or not the LCMS IS isolationist, sectarian, and/or legalistic.

Here is a short history to this question. Many of the synods that were the predecessor to the ELCA were ecumenical in orientation. In the nineteenth century, “ecumenical” meant joint worship between Lutherans and Reformed Protestants. That seems almost quaint today! The pastors from Ohio and Indiana who helped establish the Missouri Synod had been members of the Ohio Synod. One of the reasons that they left that synod in 1845 was their own “refusal to serve Reformed Lutheran congregations and the consequent approval of the false union of our time” (see C.S. Meyer, Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Missouri Synod [Saint Louis: CPH, 1964], p. 144; book still available in reprint for $34, or in Kindle at Amazon for $19). That was the origin of LCMS Constitution Article VI.2.

Because of its early foundations in Pietist theology, even the Wisconsin Synod thought that the Missouri Synod was “isolationist.” In 1862 some of the Wisconsin synod pastors accused “the Missourians of unchristian exclusiveness again and again because of their unasked-for tenacity to Lutheran doctrine and practice” (Meyer, p. 264). Any reading of the history of the relationship of the LCMS with other Lutheran synods will reveal that most of those other Lutheran church-bodies have always considered us to be, and called us, “isolationist, sectarian, and legalistic.” This has been going on for over 160 years! Nothing new here, folks!

The Missouri Synod managed to present a united front against these accusations until 1945, when the “Statement of the Forty-Four” was issued (see Meyer, pp. 422-424). That was when accusations of “isolationism, sectarianism, and legalism” were hurled by LCMS clergy at their own brother clergy, who correctly assumed that they were being targeted as having a “loveless attitude.” Ever since 1945 the LCMS has continued to witness some of its clergy hurl these insults at brother clergy, without ceasing. I say, “Enough already! We’re a family! Cut out the insults!”

The LCMS has consistently agreed in one point related to “church fellowship.” That was the question of whether LCMS pastors could participate in interfaith prayer services. “Interfaith” refers to when an LCMS pastor officially participates in a worship service with one or more non-Christian ministers-of-religion. In the 1965 Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) document Theology of Fellowship, interfaith prayer services were not even an issue, so the commission relegated that to a footnote which states “Joint prayer with non-Christians is to be avoided” (p. 46). That is an absolute statement. There are no qualifications or conditions, no “ifs-and-or-buts.” Just “Don’t do it!”

The official documents that followed from the CTCR on this topic all followed the same rule against interfaith prayer services. These documents in 1974, 1981, 1991, and 2000 all discussed the theology and practices of fellowship with respect to other Christians, mainly with regard to other Lutherans. There was no budging at all from the rule against interfaith prayer services, until Kieschnick approved a district president’s participation in the Yankee Stadium interfaith prayer service on September 23, 2001.

Come now, let’s be reasonable. A church officer who follows the Constitution of his church is not “legalistic,” he is simply loyal to his church and obedient to its laws, which he was elected to uphold. If you don’t like church laws and rules, join a church that doesn’t have any. Its as simple as that!

An LCMS pastor who does not volunteer to participate in an interfaith prayer service is not “sectarian,” he is simply following the rules of his church and is loyal to his synod. I think he is loyal to the Scriptures, too, e.g., 2 Corinthians 6: 14, 17.

An LCMS pastor who does not volunteer to participate in a community civic event, because other non-LCMS clergy will be officiating, is not “isolationist,” he is simply following the rules of his church and is loyal to his synod. I think he is loyal to Jesus, too.

Are the rules themselves, then, “isolationist, sectarian, or legalistic”? I don’t think so. I think they are a direct application of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article Ten:

We should not consider as matters of indifference, and we should avoid as forbidden by God, ceremonies which are basically contrary to the Word of God, even though they go under the name and guise of external adiaphora and are given a different color from their true one. Nor do we include among truly free adiaphora or things indifferent those ceremonies which give or (to avoid persecution) are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from that of the papists, or that we are not seriously opposed to it. Nor are such rites matters of indifference when these ceremonies are intended to create the illusion (or are demanded or agreed to with that intention) that these two opposing religions have been brought into agreement and become one body, or that a return to the papacy and an apostasy from the pure doctrine of the Gospel and from true religion has taken place or will allegedly result little by little from these ceremonies. In this case the words of Paul must be heeded: “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Therefore come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6: 14, 17) (FC SD X, 5-6; Tappert, p. 611).

Lutherans who have pledged their “unconditional subscription” to the Book of Concord have, thereby, embraced this statement as their own. If this was how Lutherans are to behave in Catholic-Lutheran relationships, how much more does it apply to Lutheran behavior toward churches that have no real sacraments (i.e., Reformed church-bodies), or which reject the foundation of faith in the canonical Scriptures (i.e., the Liberal Protestant church-bodies). How much more, to the nth degree, is this the case with non-Christian religions who absolutely reject Christ and the Trinity! “Old Missouri” simply followed the universal practice of Luther, the Luther reformers, and all the orthodox Lutherans who follow the Lutheran confessions.

In the passage just cited, the Formula of Concord recognizes that this issue often arises because of the fear of persecution. I am not afraid of persecution; though I do not welcome it. I survived one attempt, about twenty years ago, by an American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (ALPB) board member who tried to run me out of the ministry. I survived a similar attempt, at about the same time, by one of the disgruntled faculty members at CTS Fort Wayne, who later helped establish the “Jesus First” political organization. As far as I can tell, the whole purpose of the ALPB and Jesus First is to run out of the ministry faithful Lutheran pastors–at least that has been my experience and a few others that I know.

I did not survive another attack on my vocation in 2008. I was terminated-without-comment (technically, “involuntary resignation”) by five members of the board at CHI. And that was after receiving a performance review of “A-“ (on an A to F- scale)–go figure! I was C.R.M. for over year and was told that I probably wouldn’t get a call because I was over 50; but due to God’s mercy on me, my wife, and three daughters, I received another call and am still plugging away as an LCMS pastor.

For me the bottom line is: I will not change my unconditional commitment to our Lutheran confessions and the present LCMS constitution, no matter what comes or who hurls insults at me.

The question really is for you, dear reader. Will Kieschnick’s accusations of “isolationism, sectarianism, and legalism” frighten you with thoughts of persecution, within or without our church? Or will you decide to “take your lumps” like me and move on, steadfast to the end, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:3-4).

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