The Alley and the Meaning of Words, by Klemet Preus

Lately I have been musing over the disappointing decision of the MNS district in allowing a congregation called the Alley into the synod despite the fact that the congregation assiduously avoids the name Lutheran in its publicity and promotional materials. One more consideration is below.


Anyone who has read the primary or secondary sources of postmodernism knows that one of the key differences between the world of the first half of the twentieth century and the postmodern world of today is over this question: “Do words have meaning? Or do people have meaning?” Christians believe the former. But recently a generation of people have been taught and many have accepted the idea that “not words, but people have meaning.” The assertion suggests that words and language – including the words and language of the Bible – do not have meaning within themselves. Rather language has meaning only when someone provides an interpretation to it. People give meaning to the words and these meanings vary from culture to culture and even from individual to individual.


The goal of communication in this model is to anticipate the meanings that your audience will put upon certain words or concepts and adjust your language accordingly. For example, let’s say that the word “Father,” if spoken to an abused child, conjures up very negative feelings. You need to accept the child’s understanding of “Father” and avoid that word since the word itself has no meaning except that which the child has placed upon it. OK. That sounds like a sensitive and sensible approach.


But what if you want to teach the Lord’s Prayer – The Our Father – to such a child? Do you alter the words of the prayer so as not to alarm the child? Or do you attempt to teach the child that the word “father” is a good and godly word? Do you teach that the child’s abusive father not only hurt his child but also stole from him the gracious word “Father?”


What’s at stake are not only the feelings of the child but the possibility of objective communication. If we cannot use words because they may be misunderstood or may even evoke pain then we will soon be unable to use any words at all.


The word “Father” has evoked pain. The word “Christian” has as well. If you don’t think so visit your local bookstore and check out all the books which attack Christianity for her many atrocities imagined or real. But shall we stop using the word “Christian?” The word “justify” has been used by Romanists to tyrannize souls and create godless doubt in the hearts of Christians. It was used by Wesley to describe a process which neither he nor his followers could attain and is subsequently held in contempt or misunderstood by many American Evangelicals. But should we stop using the word “justify?” So also the word “Lutheran” has caused consternation in the hearts of some because it is associated with mainstream Christianity which has often been indifferent to human pain. It is understood in New York, I am told, to be associated with the gay rights movement. It is understood in Sweden to be associated with the pagan state church which persecutes true Christians. The name “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod” is viewed by many, especially in Minnesota dominated as we are by the ELCA, to be associated with a wooden, doctrinaire, intolerant, uptight, self-righteous, insufferable hubris. Should we abandon our birthright because other Lutherans have vilified us? No.


The way we learned to talk was when our mothers pointed to a certain thing and spoke its name. When we emulated them, they affirmed or corrected us. That is how Christians learn to talk the unique langue of the faith. This learning process often involves unlearning the wrong definitions of words, words which forces hostile to God have imposed upon those words.


When congregations do not use the name “Lutheran” because the word has been vilified or misunderstood, these congregations fall into the trap of post-modernism whether they realize it or not. They accept some else’s wrong definition of a word or someone else’s emotive import to that word. And they sacrifice its use in order to gain the ear of the other person. The name “Lutheran” is considered expendable in the greater goal of saving souls.


But what happens when the name of “Jesus” suffers the same cultural fate? It has and will happen. It’s happened to the name “Jesus,” the word “Christian,” and even the display of the cross or crucifix. These have been vilified and misunderstood by the world. Of course the people of The Alley would not sacrifice the name of our Lord. Instead they will be forced to do what Christians have always done; properly define this holy and precious name to those who have a sour taste in their mouths because it has been used as a weapon or otherwise abused – much like the word “Lutheran.” And when the people from the Alley watch with horror as their neighbors erase the name of Jesus from their literature, all in the quest to save souls, then they will know how others feel about their reluctance to use the word “Lutheran.”


Of course now I will be accused of elevating the word “Lutheran” to the level of our Lord. This I have not done. I merely provide an analogy. There is not a Christian group alive today, nor has there ever been one, that does not suffer the galling fate of having their words redefined by enemies. I for one am not going to let the name “Lutheran” go without some protest. It’s a hill worth fighting on. It’s a china shop into which the bull should be released.    


Besides there is that nagging issue of the distinction between fides qua and fides quae.





About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


The Alley and the Meaning of Words, by Klemet Preus — 16 Comments

  1. I don’t know about this. “Alley” has negative connotations, like “back-alley abortions” or “alley-cat.” Maybe they should change their name to “The Club” or something less pejorative than Alley. Just a thought.
    Pogo was right.

  2. “The name “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod” is viewed by many, especially in Minnesota dominated as we are by the ELCA, to be associated with a wooden, doctrinaire, intolerant, uptight, self-righteous, insufferable hubris.”

    Wow! What do they think of the Wisconsin Synod?

  3. This was a PERFECT article! Pastor Preus, thank you from the bottom of my heart! I rarely hear this said, at least here in the States, let alone in church! Wonderful analogy about the abused child, what has not the world done to hurt and harm? The church does not and NEVER SHOULD operate by the law of supply and demand. As to your comment about being accused of placing “Lutheran” above the level of our Lord, NO ONE, who read this truthfully, or has experienced this, could possibly do so! If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. Sadly, most grievously, we now are. Awake o sleeper, awake! Our Lord and His church have need of thee. As a Lutheran child of Christ, I say, “HERE AM I, SEND ME, SEND ME!!!!”

  4. Ironically, this conundrum of words and their association has happened to us in another sense, one which has robbed us of an additional kind of identity, “evangelical.” As we know, there was a time when the church-of-the-reformation in Europe was not called Lutheran, but Evangelical. By the time German Christians began migrating to the United States, they had begun calling themselves Lutherans (mostly to differentiate themselves from the Reformed), but were careful to retain evangelical in the name of their local congregations. It was often included along with the biblical or local name of the buildings where they worshiped, on the marquee, cornerstone, etc.

    These days, though, “evangelical” is frequently used in a pejorative way, especially by confessional Lutheran and Reformed, to describe those American protestants who practice synergistic soteriology, baptize only adults, preach a works-based sanctification, etc. Granted, we can probably thank the Pietists for much of this, but it’s sad on many levels.

    I like the word, but it is difficult to use it without incurring scorn from some or undesirable inclusiveness from others. Church growth specialists (and most recently emergent, it would seem) like George Barna use “evangelical” to differentiate between those who have had a born-again “experience” and everyone else under the banner of protestantism.

    We can thank the “christian press,” CT in particular, for warping and changing the meaning of this word to mean something different than it did originally. Yet, even within the sphere of “Lutheranism” we have the ELCA vs. WELS/ELS, representing polar opposites in their faithfulness to scripture and the historical confessions, yet both retaining “evangelical” in their group identity.
    So we have now come to the point where usage of the word requires careful explanation in order to avoid association with unwanted images.

    Comment #2. “Wow! What do they [Minnesota ELCA] of the Wisconsin Synod?” – My experience has been that they think very little of the WELS or ELS, dismissing them as rigid, overly strict, separatists, because of “closed communion”. (And I am saying this as the result of my direct experience with people I have known over the years from that state, not just by assumption). There must be something in the water or bedrock up there, or maybe they’ve just eaten too much lutefisk, because MN has always been a hot bed of Lutheran liberalism. In fact, the Twin Cities will be hosting ELCA’s national convention next month where I am told that the ordination of gay clergy will almost certainly pass resolution. And they have purposely chosen MN as the state for that conference because they know that protests and picking will be less likely up there as they make this unscriptural decision.

  5. “In fact, the Twin Cities will be hosting ELCA’s national convention next month where I am told that the ordination of gay clergy will almost certainly pass resolution.”

    This, through weight of numbers and the publicity it brings,
    is what it means to be Lutheran in our culture except to the very few who still know what it meant/means historically. Even making a dent in that perception will be a long, hard road. I’m not convinced that we should spend any time or effort trying to make those who have little interest in anything truly Lutheran use the name. Let the
    “Lutherans in Name Only” become “Not Even Lutheran in Name”.
    Each one will be one less misleading proclamation to skew the meaning further.

  6. As their theology and praxis seem so far gone, perhaps we should let out a sigh of relief that the Alley isn’t peddling their worldly wares under the name of Lutheran. It certainly makes it easier to distance ourselves from their act.
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  7. Good reflections on the meaning of words. As your examples from the church history show, you needn’t run to Postmodernism (overrated theory anyway, IMHO) to find out that this is what people do: they define the meaning of words to suit their needs and wishes, since we live in a fallen world. Before the fall in paradise, yes, Adam named an animal, and that was its fitting, proper name. In our families, with our parents we still have a bit left of that when it comes to stuff like stoves and balls etc. All good there, as far as that goes, for not all parents are Lutherans; so the big language confusion when it comes to God starts in families too.

    The case of the Alley church reminds me of another paradigm often observed in church history, e.g., in the 16th century when Lutheranism, the Augsburg Confession, had achieved toleration in the Holy Roman Empire, but not Calvinism. You had the phenomenon of Crypto-Calvinism: people using all the right words, in order to pass political muster, but then, in private, among the in-people, they all know that they give different meanings to those words and ultimately mean totally different things, as, e.g., when the Reformed speak of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper: yes, he is there — but we can’t tell you how he’s there, because if we told you, you’d notice that we and you mean different things when we talk about the “Lord’s presence” in the Sacrament. Lutherans in the day used to quote Augustine who said: the words sound right, if we didn’t know who said them. In other words, it’s sometimes safe to assume that the words spoken by an interlocutor will not have the right meaning, given that interlocutor’s known track-record.

    How did the Lutherans back then deal with this cunning deceitfulness? They forced their opponents into details. As long as one stays in the area of generalities, everybody can pass muster. Word and sacrament ministry? Sure, we do that. Using a liturgy? Sure, got that too. Confessional Lutheran? Hey, I took the same ordination vow as you! Saving the lost? That’s what we’re all about. Of course, these things, on this level of concreteness, have become quite meaningless, unfortunately.

    And as we know it’s kind of hard to FORCE somebody to put the cards on the table, here’s what the Lutherans really did: they waited. And in due time, their patience paid off: their opponents became more and more daring. They didn’t speak their mind only in their small circle of friends; they shouted it from the rooftops, so convinced about their false opinions had they become. And that’s when the time to act had come! Everybody then could see what their opponents had in mind when they used certain expressions that, in and by themselves, are prefectly acceptable. The Crypto-Calvinists had become open Calvinists.

    Of course, you unfortunately always lose people in this process. But I don’t see how you can prevent that from happening, since you can’t act prematurely. The Lord knows those who are his.

    So, what I’m saying is this: folks like the Alley still use the title Lutheran when they apply for funds from the LWML, but when it’s outreach time, then that name goes away. And it seems, more than just the name falls by the wayside. However, in communicating with Lutherans in the LCMS it still seems useful to use Lutheran lingo (get funds, material support, a pastor, a healthcare and retirement plan, etc.), while this otherwise is no longer used. Here we thus seem to have Crypto-Nondenominationalists (CN, no, not Christian News…) in our midst.

    We can teach only those who desire to be taught. Those we should teach publicly and unapologetically, and then we should also wait for those CNs to drop the C in their name and say outright what they mean. They will do that the safer they feel in the LCMS. Can’t we see signs of that already today? And: Just look at what the ELCA is capable of now, as compared to, say, 40 years back when they ordained their first female pastor.

  8. Wasn’t Lutheran originally an insult term forced on Luther’s Evangelicals by the Romans?

  9. @Holger Sonntag,

    I really like the analogy with Crypto-Calvinism.

    May I suggest Crypto-charismatics in lieu of crypto-nondenoms.

  10. Is there anyone else like me without any hint of moral conscience? Because we need to get on the side of “win” and infiltrate them with Crypto-Lutheranism. 😛

    “Oh sure, the organ is the MOST contemporary instrument, look at Deep Purple!”

    “Having the sacrament every Sunday will be our way of ‘acknowledging’ its relative unimportance!”

    “Wearing these beautiful vestments is our way of getting on board with the spirituality movement, it’s all about numbers baby!”

    I jest.

  11. What is remarkable about those who deny the objective meaning of words is that they want this verbal subjectivity to apply to the words of everyone except themselves. They want others to respect as objective the words with which they speak away objective meaning.

    The Sotomayor hearings are a perfect illustration. If I am not to regard the words of the constitution as having a fixed meaning, why on earth would I regard those of the judge writing an opinion as fixed?

    Bork’s book (The Tempting of America)goes into this at length in the introduction. He is talking about the constitution but his comments there are extremely applicable to divine doctrine.

  12. I might as well add this: “The Alley” is very worried about the negative connotation of “Lutheran” to those outside the church. They care apparently little for what anyone within the church might think of “The Alley.” From the latter, of course, they expect financial sustenance.

  13. Foolishly, confessional congregations still support “The Alley” (and the rest) out of mistaken loyalty to a synod which is sharpening the knife to cut our throats.

    One Pastor is forced to resign here, another there, so that the outcry is not too great and even the confessionals will say, “Well, he must have done something wrong.” Last year, a radio program was enough to rally the troops. [This year, a long running print/on line column is not.]
    Pity those whose only credential is faithfulness to their calling! Very few even know who they are, and fewer I know are wondering what happens to them “afterward.”

    No doubt the ‘deposed’ was a sinner. The Elders/voters of the congregation involved are something else?

  14. I find it funny that so many people are so concerned with the title of the church – The Alley is simply trying to reach out to people, how can you all be so negative about that? Isn’t that our calling? To go and make disciples? And no Klemet, that’s not a job ESPECIALLY for pastors, it’s a job for all! Yikes … Klemet, you’re the guy who wrote that “people ignore the Divine Service to their own peril” – talk about disappointing. I think ya’ll need to form your own synod – call it the, “We keep Jesus in a box” synod.” … So unwilling to try new things. Preus, you’re the dude who said using drums in church wasn’t good either. Dang, I remember scripture talking about praising God with “resounding cymbals” … sounds loud! … I know I sure enjoy praising the Lord while I play drums as I participate in Christian rock bands – is that bad? I’m so glad I found this blog, I can’t wait to read the other garbage you guys have up here! It’s all about Jesus folks, not the DS, not the ordinaries, and certainly not a church’s name – it’s about Jesus.

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