Here is a guest post written by Pastor Charles Lehmann and originally posted on his blog.
Until two days ago I knew next to nothing about Benedict Arnold. I knew that he was a revolutionary war figure whose name had become synonymous with treachery, but that’s about it. Then I read an article in Smithsonian Magazine that tried to explore his motivations a bit, but assumed that you knew the details of Arnold’s failed plot. Bad assumption in my case. So I asked my wife, “Do you know anything about Benedict Arnold?” And, of course, she did. She recommended a great biography, which over the past two days I utterly devoured.
The reason that I was so taken with the book is that I found Benedict Arnold to be an absolutely fascinating individual. Largely, this was because he reminded me of myself, and not in the most complimentary of ways.
Benedict was brilliant, brave, fortunate, prideful, arrogant, short-tempered, principled, slavishly devoted to his reputation, utterly incapable of recognizing his faults, and master of self-justification.
Despite his treachery, many historians believe that were it not for Arnold’s achievements in several pivotal battles of the war, our country simply would not exist. George Washington (probably the only real ally he ever had… and the object of his attempted betrayal) openly agreed with this assessment.
For my part, I’m not brilliant, and I have lousy luck. But I have had moments of courage, I’m definitely prone to fits of rage, I’m prideful and arrogant, and I do worry way too much about my reputation. Most of all, I’m very good at self-justification.
It kind of makes me glad I wasn’t in the Continental Army.
In any case, looking at the life of Arnold was like looking in the mirror, particularly where his faults are concerned. Fortunately, there are two big differences between Benedict Arnold and Charles Lehmann. First, I am not so good at self-deception to believe that I have no faults (though I know that I manage to keep myself unaware of many of them). Second, my wife checks my self-destructive behavior rather then steering me into it (as Peggy Arnold did).
At this point, I am going to be so bold as to make a very specific comparison between Benedict Arnold and some of my former colleagues in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.
There is a story that has repeated itself at least a dozen times over the past couple of decades in the synod. There are, of course, variations to the narrative, but it usually goes something like this:
A man of at least above average intelligence goes to seminary. In his study he begins to notice a huge gap between the theology of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions and the congregations he serves as a field worker, vicar, and eventually pastor. The more he studies the more discontent he becomes. He knows our confession, and he knows that the practice you find in many of our congregations violates it. Further, he finds that in his circuit, many of his brother pastors are aware of the problem and either don’t care, are too tired to fight, or don’t even think that the errors should be corrected.
Within his congregation, the pastor finds the same sorts of attitudes, and when he tries to introduce greater orthopraxy, he is persecuted. The congregation may openly oppose him or may just use side channels to communicate to the pastor that his idealism isn’t welcome or appreciated. They may leave the congregation. They may try to oust the pastor and get someone who’s willing to cooperate with their abberations. In any case, the pastor suffers. His family suffers. He just wants to be faithful to the confession he studied in seminary, and it’s not being allowed.
Back in seminary, this pastor loved to study the history of the church. In particular he loved the early church fathers. He read Elert’s Eucharistic Fellowship in the First Four Centuries and loved learning that closed communion was a matter of life and death in the early church. He read the sermons of Leo the Great. He loved Chrysostom. He read the early church liturgical work of Hippolytus, Augustine, and Gregory.
At some point he learned that there were churches where these ancient liturgies were still used and the early church fathers were revered on a level close to that of the holy apostles.
Five, ten, or twenty years later he found himself suffering. He had no support from his brother pastors or his congregation as he strove for orthodox doctrine and practice and he started looking East. The Orthodox Church didn’t mess with the liturgy. They didn’t allow the Lord’s body and blood to be thrown in the trash. They had discipline. Their clergy seemed unified in a way that we Missourians couldn’t dream.
So this pastor read the confessions again. He saw things that modern Lutherans ignore or reject. The semper virgo, the clauso utero, the idea of Mary and the saints praying for the church, prayer for the dead not being useless, virginity being a higher estate than marriage, etc. He saw these things being affirmed in Eastern Orthodoxy every bit as much as they were ignored in Lutheranism.
And so he did what Benedict Arnold did before him.
You see, Benedict saw a country that was so mired in political stupidity that it wouldn’t allow him to fight the war. And no matter how many battles he won, no matter how many times he fought off the British, he received no respect. His brother generals thought him a loon and a loose cannon. They poked at his faults and made more of them than they were. And it seemed that they were going to drag out the war forever and the cause of liberty was going to be extinguished. And, on top of all of that, he was suffering. He was financially destitute, accused falsely (and truly), and had to fight for any small accomplishment.
He started looking East too. If he went to the English, he could end the war and bring peace to the nation he loved. He convinced himself that betraying his one friend, George Washington, was the right thing to do. He convinced himself so completely that he razed towns and murdered civilians as a British general.
Back to our pastor… He starts to read Alexander Schmemann and the fathers again. He visits with local Orthodox priests. He sneaks to vespers services when his congregation won’t know. He starts catechesis. And, finally, he announces to his congregation his upcoming chrismation. He is convinced that by becoming Orthodox he’ll have the opportunity to practice true Lutheranism, the Lutheranism he learned in seminary.
He’s wrong. He’s self-deceived. He’s abandoning the chief article by which the church stands or falls so that he can pray for the dead, call Mary his mother, and have a pretty liturgy. He’s causing the people God called him to serve to stumble. He’s sending people to hell just as surely as British General Arnold burned American towns to the ground.
A little over ten years ago one of these pastors told me that I was too smart to stay a Lutheran. I responded that I hoped I’d always be just barely dumb enough. So far, so good. Intellectual arrogance combined with a penchant for self-deception is an extraordinarily bad thing, and that, my friends, is why Missouri Synod pastors go East.