Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism, by Frederic W. Baue

Many in a previous generation of Missouri Synod theologians were persuaded by the blandishments of liberal scholars who argued that there was no Third Use of the Law. Lex semper accusat, they claimed. “The law always accuses.” The Christian is under no obligation to obey the law. Pastors should not preach sanctification. As long as you hold to the Gospel principle of love, you can do as you please.

John Warwick Montgomery called this “Gospel Reductionism.” Everything boiled down to one thing: the Gospel. Or at least the kind of Gospel where Jesus could say to the woman caught in adultery (John 8), “Neither do I condemn you,” but was forbidden to say, “Go and sin no more.”

This all coincided with Seminex and the Battle for the Bible. Praise God that battle was won, more or less, though no doubt a remnant of old Seminexers, like the graying hippies one still sees on California beaches, is still clinging to the principle of love, love, love.

But time marches on. Yesterday we fought the Battle for the Bible; today it is the Conflict over the Confessions.

Things were easier in the last war. People at least had heard of the Bible, even if they had never read it. So when Seminex came along and tried to take it away from them, they squawked. But many if not most of our laymen have never even heard of the Book of Concord, much less read it. Worse, many pastors who know what it is do not see it as normative for the daily life of the church. It was a book they had to study to graduate from seminary, but it’s no longer relevant. So it stays on the shelf, collecting dust.

What is relevant?

Missions!

That is, some pragmatic, easy-to-use program in a three-ring binder, sold by a church consultant, that will measurably increase membership and attendance, even if it is not Lutheran, even if it is not consistent with the Confessions to which we bind ourselves by sacred ordination vows.

And why is this?

It is because the world is going to hell in a hand basket, because souls are being lost, because immorality is rampant. Therefore we must be all things to all men. We must be culturally relevant. We must make the music in church like the music people listen to outside of church. We have only fifteen minutes to grab the attention of a first-time visitor or they won’t come back. People have short attention spans, so we must engage them with entertainment, and with narrative preaching that appeals to felt needs. We must be market-driven, not product-driven. Lest anyone think that I am making this up, the comments above are all things fellow pastors have told me personally.

Hence it is not surprising to hear the current slogan, “Mission is job one.” Or, “There are sins of omission, sins of commission, and sins of no mission.” Clever. To which we may add, paraphrasing Vince Lombardi (whose talks to businessmen on leadership are no doubt being read by PLI students), “Mission is not the main thing, it is the only thing.” There it is. If mission is the only thing, here is what we have:

Mission Reductionism.

May we discern similarities between Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism? Yes. Consider the following:

With Gospel Reductionism you could do as you liked as long as you adhered to, or at least gave lip service to, the first principle. With Mission Reductionism you can worship any way you like as long as you adhere to the first principle.

Gospel Reductionism was promoted by higher-ups in the church hierarchy who were not pastors and did not have to live with the consequences of immorality at the parish level. Mission Reductionism is being sold by upper-management Church Growth experts on the basis of theory, and keep their bureaucratic sinecures from one administration to the next no matter how many congregations and mission plants blow up as a result of their recommendations.

To illustrate, Ablaze! is being called a movement. But true movements start at the grass-roots level and move outward and upward. They develop organically, and their theoretical basis catches up with it later or, when the movement becomes established by the second generation. Ablaze is a top-down program that begins, like Communism or National Socialism, with a theoretical platform that is imposed mechanically upon followers.

Both Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism aim at conformity to the world—the one in regard to individual conduct, the other in regard to parish life.

Both Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism are reactive rather than proactive—the one over against the strictness of old German pastors and parents, the other over against the antinomianism that Gospel Mission Reductionism had brought about.

Neither Gospel Reductionism nor Mission Reductionism has much of a future. The first, part of the Battle for the Bible, was turned back in the 1970s by a lay-led movement that had a negative component—stopping the tide of liberalism in the LCMS—but more importantly a positive component, the restoration of the Bible as the sole source and norm of our doctrine and life. Thank God for the good work of those laymen! And subsequent developments in the poor ELCA, where the Battle for the Bible was never even fought, have shown what disaster results where Scripture is rejected.

Today, the  second part,  the Conflict over the Confessions, is being fought largely by clergy, especially the younger generation of parish pastors, many of whom have advanced degrees in theology but are happy in the pulpit. They have a negative component—to stop the tide of Baptist-style Evangelicalism in the LCMS—but more importantly a positive component, the restoration of the Lutheran Confessions as the norma normata, the defining articles of faith that make us distinctly and authentically Lutheran. Moreover, they are figuring out how to be authentic Lutherans in an English-speaking, American cultural context. This confessional renewal is a real movement. It began at the grass roots and is spreading outward and upward. Sooner or later it will make its mark politically, perhaps even as soon as the 2010 convention of Synod. Even if it does not, eventually it will, just as surely as the rising tide sweeps away all the castles built on sand—including Mission Reductionism—that were there and looked so promising only the day before.

 Rev. Frederic W. Baue, STS, Ph.D. is pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church, Fairview Heights, Illinois.

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