Anecdotal evidence indicates that the average LCMS pew-dweller has a superficial grasp of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, mixed with a distaste for Synodical machinations. What happens to this half of the Synod membership when they are confused by the careless “cooperation in externals” by LCMS entities?
This is not a call to play to the lowest common denominator (our seminaries, synodocrats, and pastors have a duty to fix the catechism problem). It is a plea to take greater care lest we weaken or destroy the faith of others by ‘disappearing’ what is essential for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Unfortunately, our leadership and institutions can be too casual in dismissing objections to their activities as the wailings of fragile pietists, or pharisaism, or a lack of education and sophistication, or the old favorite – breaking the Eighth Commandment.
It is attractive to dwell on “Christian unity” where it focuses on areas of agreement whilst sweeping disagreements under the rug. The problem is that the disagreements invariably reduce to blaming doctrine, and the people who desire to uphold pure doctrine, as divisive. Pure doctrine becomes the problem rather than the solution it is.
In November 1974 the CTCR published A Lutheran Stance Toward Ecumenism. It makes many fine points, and the Preface has this zinger about what the church is, and what its mission is:
The Lutheran Confessions speak in plain and simple terms about the nature and mission of the church. “Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (SA III, xii, 2). Through this community on earth, the Holy Spirit “speaks and does all his work” (LC II, 61). “It is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God” (LC II, 42). In these words the Confessions describe the church’s mission in the world, namely, to make disciples of all nations through the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, for “through these, as through means, he [God] gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith.” (AC V, 2)
The “missional / discipling” faction within the LCMS has deformed the plain and simple understanding of the church such that a seven-year-old child needs a business school degree to recognize it. Within this church growth movement there is a strong inclination to ecumenism. There is also an inclination to a peculiar inter-“Lutheran” fraternalism in the LCMS’s human care institutions. This amounts to a creeping disavowal of our identity. We would do well to heed the CTCR in this regard:
The preservation of confessional unanimity within our own church body ought by all means to head the list of priorities. Whenever fellowship in our own immediate community is threatened by disagreement and dissension, our efforts must be focused on pursuing peace and harmony within our own household. Unless we have agreement among ourselves it is difficult, if not impossible, to form any clear conception of the kind and degree of agreement we seek with other Christians outside our church body.
Just as our human care priority must be for those within the church, so must our doctrinal priority be “full confessional unanimity throughout Christendom with respect to all the articles of faith… It is in the interest of preserving the pure teaching of the Gospel that Lutherans seek by the light and power of the Gospel to reach full agreement in all the articles of faith.”
We have an obligation to consistently confess the truth and expose error; first for ourselves and then for others, which is exactly as our Confessions are structured.
Whilst a conference or a relief organization is not the church, it would be tendentious to argue that we set aside AC V or AC VII just because we left church on Sunday. For example, many of our “not church” institutions deliberately employ ordained ministers for their senior ranks, and we accept this as a form of the call. In so doing there is clearly the intent and desire to communicate and transmit our articles of faith through their respective activities. Likewise, we confess AC IV on Sundays as well as Monday through Saturday. Our formal and material principles are evergreen.
Suggesting that our Confessions are not compromised by “cooperation in externals”, especially with organizations that reject the Gospel, leaves us dancing on the head of a pin. The pin has consequences as it pierces the faith of the weak or collapses genuine Lutheran evangelism.
Our Synod demands that churches seeking altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS should jump through all manner of hoops to get the St. Louis nod. What must those seeking fellowship think when they see the LCMS splashing its money around with heterodox groups, some of which literally hate the Gospel?
Here are some recent examples of the threats to our identity and confession:
Lutheran World Relief
The LCMS says that its human care activities must take place in close proximity to Word and Sacrament ministry. Yet LWR, funded by the LCMS and ELCA (a wildly heterodox tax-exempt agency), has severed any connection to AC IV as it performs human care around the world.
The organization describes itself thusly: “Lutheran World Relief is a non-profit organization that works with local partners to provide lasting solutions to poverty, injustice and human suffering.”
That description is so generic that it fits a thousand NGOs in the same line of work. Yet the LCMS is not directly partnered with any of them; only with the“Lutheran” one. Therefore, “Lutheran” must be valued by the LCMS as having a specific import in connection with “World Relief”. There is a reason the LCMS does not pursue partnership with Samaritan’s Purse or the Red Crescent – it is not interested primarily in performance or competence, but in identity and association.
Don’t go looking for Lutheran distinctives at LWR though. Rather, you’ll get sappy universalism:
As Lutherans, we wholeheartedly believe that true justice, authentic dignity and holistic peace cannot be externally imposed. The life of Jesus is our model for accompaniment, and we strive to walk with others as he did — openly, with compassion and understanding, encouraging one another. [emphasis original]
Alternatively, you can enjoy blasphemy like this: “If you and your family support LWR with your money, you will be helping Jesus to satisfy a person’s real thirst.”
How do we answer someone who points to these words as Lutheran doctrine? Do we tell them that it is inconsequential “external” Lutheran theology, but that “internal” Lutheran theology is the real deal? What do we do with the Synod member who imbibes LWR’s social gospel on the basis that it has been endorsed by the fact of LCMS’s partnership? Should she also assume that the indirect partnership with the politically-driven ACT Alliance encompasses the LCMS worldview?
Concordia University Irvine Great Commission Summit
CUI seems to have sidelined the original partners for its Great Commission Summit which included an AME Church and the Catholic Diocese of Orange. Mariner’s Church remains involved, and it has very little in common with CUI’s supposed Lutheran identity.
The CUI conference partners send a signal to the lightly informed that Lutherans generally, and the LCMS specifically, have an “all-roads lead to heaven” insouciance. Does it rise to the level of false ecumenism? Probably not, but we cannot have catholicity with denominations that deny the Gospel, and we should not be papering over the cracks with conferences like this.
CUI’s apparent permissiveness is accentuated by the selection of keynote speakers. The first, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and a social gospel advocate whose Liberality is confirmed by a seat on the Board of Sojourners (which cannot even abide Jesus in its mission statement).
The second speaker is Ed Stetzer. He is a Director of Lifeway and Executive Director of its propagation division, LifeWay Research. He is also pastor of Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. All are Southern Baptist Convention entities, and Stetzer is at the center of the SBC’s internecine war over its future as a primarily Calvinist or Arminian denomination. LifeWay’s publishing business is certainly guilty of false ecumenism and a case of outright deception.
Can these speakers really convey the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments better than Confessional Lutherans can? Even if you agree with CUI’s premise for the conference (that foreigners will replace Americans in church) are there really no Lutheran resources qualified to teach on the topic? Should we risk a single Lutheran thinking that Lifeway book stores are purveyors of sound doctrine?
Tullian Tchividjian at Concordia Seminary St. Louis
Our Seminaries (and universities) have a difficult task balancing academic freedom and enquiry with faithfulness to the Lutheran Confessions and the teachings of the LCMS. If our Seminaries get it wrong then the entire Synod is jeopardized since Pastors may carry false doctrine and new measures to the flock. Consequently, the Seminaries and their faculty need to be under the brightest spotlight and tightly reined at all times, and they should certainly not chafe against this oversight.
When a Seminary provides a non- or heterodox Lutheran with a platform we have to be especially mindful of the consequences. A lecture on homiletics can be neutral ground, but a presentation on Law & Gospel absent the sacraments is not.
That is the confusion surrounding Tchividjian speaking at the Reformation500 series at CSL. Oddly, CSL describes Tchividjian as “an important voice within American evangelicalism”. Tchividjian is a Reformed Presbyterian who is quite disliked by American evangelicals because he is regarded as promoting antinomianism.
CSL described the purpose of the lecture as “hearing his perspective on the challenges and opportunities that the theology of the Reformation brings to the contemporary American religious landscape.”
That is incredibly confusing to the poorly catechized or “new” Lutherans . It implies that the Reformation was a homogeneous event with a single outcome. Yet Tchividjian represents Calvinism which we reject as sectarian for many reasons, not the least of which is the dispute over the sacraments.
Tchividjian’s good grasp of Law & Gospel makes him attractive to Lutherans. Yet, what good is a proper distinction of Law & Gospel it if we disagree on the means of grace that changes L&G from a hermeneutic to the actual salvation of the sinner?
To academics and the well catechized this is petty. What of the majority that will have a very hard time understanding that Tchividjian in fact rejects the means of grace even as he embraces Law & Gospel, and hails Luther as a hero? How has CSL helped to make it clear that, say, on a vacation in Florida, Joe & Susie Lutheran should not go to Coral Ridge and take communion?
Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services
LIRS has nearly identical problems to LWR that we have documented previously. So we will not reprise the issues here save to say that the LCMS has an unreserved and uncritical relationship with LIRS that needs to be dealt with.
We struggle continually with syncretism and unionism questions, but the Small Catechism keeps it simple. It teaches: “we should avoid false teachers, false churches, and all organizations that promote a religion that is contrary to God’s Word” (Question 179, Answer C).
The SC makes it clear that our standard for “collaboration in externals” is not whether full altar and pulpit fellowship is being pursued, but simply to avoid false teachers, churches and organizations.
There are too many instances where we run toward them and embrace them. Our LCMS institutions can be far too careless with the articles of faith when it is convenient. That has a great cost.