What Should the LMCS Learn from the ELCA Apostasy? Some Thoughts from Rev. John Frahm

(Editor’s Note: We have been pointing out on this site that the message for the LCMS in light of the recent ELCA votes on sexuality is to note carefully how the ELCA has allowed itself to slowly succumb to the pull of the culture. The LCMS has been on that same path with such issues as contemporary worship, the role of women, purpose-driven preaching, and so forth. Rev. Frahm has written a good piece on this matter. Note particularly the seven point list in the middle of the post.)


A Few Thoughts on Commonalities Between the Modus Operandi Within ELCA and the LCMS, Rev. John A. Frahm


As many have pointed out since the historically tragic decisions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the task of those who desire to be faithful within The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is to examine ourselves and where we are traveling down the same path. What commonalities are there in the modus operandi between ELCA and the LCMS?   What commonalities are there in the rationale for changes that are promoted?


In Missouri Synod history, one of the most injurious theologies to arise during that chaotic era of the 1970s was called “Law-Gospel reductionism,” as  named by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, and was later shortened to “Gospel reductionism.”    Gospel reductionists declared that the Gospel rather than Scripture was the standard for doctrine and practice in the Church.  Scott R. Murray comments:

In the 1960s some theologians began to invoke Law-Gospel as the ruling or the only hermeneutical presupposition in Lutheran theology.   They adopted this hermeneutic as a replacement for the old inspiration [of Scripture] doctrine, which they had decisively abandoned in this period   [Scott R. Murray. Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002; p.103].


Part of the slippery nature of this controversy was that on the surface it sounded Lutheran — “Law and Gospel.” It also seemed to have a strong mission emphasis.   That’s good Lutheran terminology.     But that’s how it often happens when an error comes into the Church – use the standard terminology in a twisted sense [like Rome and the LWF did in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification].     This is called equivocation.   Murray also explains:

The simplicity of the principle of Gospel reductionism leads to abuse.   Because of its simplicity, theologians can easily use it to criticize central Christian teachings, such as the validity of the Law in the life of the Christian.   There is a serious threat of a severe reduction of Christian doctrine to a bare Gospel, which is no Gospel at all.     A further difficulty implied by the simplicity of the principle is that it can be radically interpreted so as to rule out significant and central Christian doctrines.     One person’s Law might be another person’s Gospel.   The lack of anchoring certainty troubled the critics of these Gospel reductionistic techniques [Murray, pp.106, 107].


The 1972 document of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, Gospel and Scripture: The Interrelationship of the Material and Formal Principles in Lutheran Theology states:

Whatever is truly Biblical does not negate the Gospel.   The true and genuine Gospel does not negate whatever is truly Biblical.  When one’s “gospel” is such that it makes void the Lord’s directives for his children’s individual and community life, it would seem that his “gospel” is different from the one taught by Paul and the Lutheran Symbols.   It is easy to see why such directives are incompatible with a “gospel” that speaks of redemption in terms of what God is doing now in the socio-political structures, instead of inviting us to trust in what He did once for all on Calvary.     When such a “gospel” supplants the Scriptures as norm of doctrine and life, then it is awkward to call anything wrong, since whatever is going on is somehow what God is doing now.     But it is not a denial of the Scriptural Gospel to teach that men ought to obey God and to hold that expressions of His will in the Sacred Scriptures are still normative for the behavior of His children and church [Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.   Gospel and Scripture.   Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972; pp7,8].


It is further stated by this CTCR document:   “The Gospel is not normative for theology in the sense that beginning with it as a fundamental premise, other items of the Christian system of doctrine are developed as provisional, historically conditioned responses to a given situation which will need to be revised for another situation” [p.9].     In other words theology is not reduced to Gospel plus pragmatism equals practice. The other articles of the faith are not merely appendages to the Gospel.     The body of doctrine is a whole, permeated by the Gospel.   In this sense “all theology is Christology” as David Scaer puts it.   We should properly speak of articles of the faith or articles of doctrine rather than disconnected or compartmentalized “doctrines.”  


The good news (justification by grace through faith) is the standard in the Scriptures in terms of being exclusive of salvation by our works or good intentions.     However, the Gospel cannot be said to be the standard if this means that the Gospel is used as a rationale to sanction a way of using the Bible to develop doctrine and practice which denies the inspiration, unity, authority, or clarity of the Scriptures.     As the CTCR document points out, it is an abuse of the Scriptures to argue that as long as the Law and Gospel are proclaimed the Bible may be used in such a way as to treat its doctrine merely as historically conditioned “from which no absolutely reliable historical information or permanently valid doctrine can be derived” [p.13].


And so we want to avoid confusing the function of the Gospel with the functions of the Scriptures.  We also want to avoid confusing the power or effectiveness of the Gospel for salvation with the authority of the Bible, as Robert Preus points out in his book, Getting Into the Theology of Concord (Concordia, 1977).    David Kuske points out regarding the Gospel reductionists in his book on biblical interpretation:

Many of the men who were the leaders of this movement later left the Missouri Synod to join the ELCA.     However, the great majority of the students whom they trained over several decades and who became pastors and teachers remained.   They continue to form a rather large and influential group within this church body at this time” [David Kuske.   Biblical Interpretation: The Only Right Way.   Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1995; pp.195, 196].


So while sounding “conservative” on the Bible, the way that the theological descendants use the Bible for doctrine and practice is derived from the liberal theology of the higher critics.   The Bible is taken to be a mix of human and divine.   The unfinished business of the 1960s and 1970s has come to fruition today in the Missouri Synod.   This is why some sad cases those who were known to be “conservative” in times past are no longer regarded as such – mostly not because their positions on the older issues have changed, but because new issues have illuminated the consequences of their compromised theology.


This brings us to some of the commonalities between the arguments for change in the ELCA and the LCMS.     The question for us is more to do with the rationale for the changes in the LCMS.  If one examines the arguments of Jesus First and DayStar types within the LCMS, the rationale is identical for their agenda.
1. The Bible needs to be updated or adapted to today (or at least “repackaged”).
2. We need to appeal to, attract, or adapt to the culture for the sake of
missions (a Trojan horse of error).
3. Emotional stories about someone or another who would like the change
4. Thorough-going gospel reductionism in the name of outreach, growth, etc.
5. The motive of letting “gifted” people use their gifts – a charismatic
sort of appeal.
6. A purely market-driven, sociological pragmatism into order to improve
budgets and the financial status of congregations, districts, and synod.
7. A lack of faith in the power of the Word of God to do what it says
(recognizing also that the Gospel is rejectable, since it is a gift).   The means of grace must be improved to entice, attract, or manipulate a certain attendance or response.

All the same arguments the ELCA used are present within the LCMS and that is horrifying.  We are implementing the same modus operandi completely.   In such a context, on the parish ministry level, ascertaining biblical doctrine and practice becomes a matter of finding what works in getting the “basic Gospel” to others.     In practice “pastoral discretion” (exceptions) would be the norm (rule).   Everything becomes a matter of casuistry or a series of “once in a life time events”.   Again, on the surface this sounds very “evangelical” and “pastoral” (two words that have changed in meaning in recent decades).   But the end result is the total wasting-away of Christian doctrine.   This is really the reason and origin of the style versus substance debate in regard to liturgy – a debate that can only occur when a Platonic mindset of dualism prevails.  (So long as the basic Gospel is “there” what does the “style” matter?)   It is also the reason for the move against the pastoral office in the so-called lay-ministry movement. (So long as someone is “doing” the Gospel of Word and Sacrament ministry, what does call and ordination matter?)   It is also the force behind ecumenism and open communion among us.   (Those other Christians believe in the Gospel, so why not give them more Gospel in the sacrament – assuming an ex opere operato view of the Eucharist and denying the possibility of communicatio indignorum.)   In some respects it also forms part of the rationale for the ordination of female pastors and feminist theology (along with a neo-gnosticism). (Laws, order of creation, cannot apply to someone who feels called or qualified.)   Perhaps those who espouse such things do not understand the connection, since it was likely taken in subconsciously.



Thus we see in those who espouse this position a rejection of the order of creation in regard to men and women, a rejection of God’s third way of using the law (the guide), and the assertion that all matters of worship are simply indifferent (adiaphora), a view that can hardly be maintained in view of Augustana and Apology XXIV’s definition of “liturgy.”     So in the end, so long as one’s subjective intention is somehow “Gospel” or “mission” or “evangelism” then the method, means, context, or form are indifferent matters, adiaphora (mitteldinge), and fair game for the imagination and creativity of the person involved.   For those seeking the ordination of women or giving women pastoral duties/functions, the matter is simply having the abilities and “feeling called” (a schwaermerei notion).   In such cases the order of creation or ontological considerations are casually dismissed as “legalism” or “old fashioned.”   And yet we are taught and confess in the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VI:

For this reason, too, believers require the teaching of the law: so that they do not fall back on their own holiness and piety and under the appearance of God’s Spirit establish their own service to God on the basis of their own choice, without God’s Word or command.   As it is written in Deuteronomy 12:8,28,32, “You shall not act all of us according to our own desires,” but “listen to the commands and laws which I command you,” and “you shall not add to them nor take anything form them.”     Furthermore believers also require the teaching of the law regarding their good works, for otherwise people can easily imagine that their works and life are completely pure and perfect [FC-SD VI, 20,21].


It is my hope that this short summary has been helpful in illuminating the issues involved and exposing the harmful presuppositions of new directions being proposed for our synod and its congregations.   What comes in the newest version of Gospel reductionism is evangelism at the expense of the Gospel.    We who gladly hold to a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions are called to continually confess the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.  When theological unity is established in reality (not merely on paper in the abstract) and recognized then trust will without compulsion or gimmicks be re-established.  It will not come the other way around, nor by “reconciled diversity.”    May God in His mercy grant us what we need and not what we deserve.   Let us repent lest we also perish.


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.


What Should the LMCS Learn from the ELCA Apostasy? Some Thoughts from Rev. John Frahm — 4 Comments

  1. Many have wondered how the ELCA could do such things. But these decisions were inevitable, the logical result of the basic principles they have held for many years. In that sense, no one should be surprised by what has taken place.

    These things cannot be stopped now, now is too late. The time to stop these things was many decades ago, when the new doctrines that led to these results were first adopted.

    Likewise in the LCMS, these things will be inevitable if the same basic erroneous doctrinal principles are allowed to rule. It won’t happen now, it may not happen for many years, but the battle is already lost if false doctrine reigns.

  2. I may be wrong here, but I don’t believe the ELCA views the Forumula (or anything but AC) as normative (if that’s the proper word). The Formula, etc., are “valid” but that’s about it. Here is is from their website:
    “This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it In faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.”

    “This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.”

    Such arguements often fall on deaf ears, but in this case, “preaching to the choir” is entirely appropriate, for we should indeed learn from what has happened in the ELCA. Sound warnings. Good stuff! Thank you!

  3. I am currently reading “The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Charles Porterfield Krauth, 1913 ed.). Krauth states (pp. 195-196):

    When error is admitted into the church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of others. ,,, Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. … From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points.”

    The LCMS seems to be in stage one – tolerating error. ELCA is somewhere between stages two and three – error and truth sharing equal authority and error asserting supremacy.

    As Matthew Harrison stated in his Issues, Etc. interview (my free paraphrase): Lutherans are like a train all hooked together and on the same track. ELCA is the engine and leading the way into change. The LCMS is in the middle of the train, following the lead of ELCA (about 10-20 years behind). The WELS is the caboose, changing more slowly, but changing nevertheless.

    Krauth, originally writing this 130 years ago, speaks like a prophet. CPH offers a reprint of his tome (published in 2007). It is well worth your read.

  4. #3 Tom,

    I heard it a little differently – the order of the cars are train are the same as you mentioned, but I think I heard Pr Harrison wrap it up by saying something like “we’ll all end up at the same place, we’ll just get there at different times”.

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