Great Stuff — Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world

Authored by BJS author Mollie Hemingway on (GetReligion):


There is nothing more fun about being a confessional Lutheran than explaining our position on syncretistic worship to those who aren’t.

I kid, it’s not fun at all. See, the world embraces syncretism. The general idea is, it goes without saying, that all religions are good and valid and different paths to understanding the same truth. If you don’t ascribe to that notion, you are probably a bad guy.

Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. One of the most important aspects of American civil religion is participation in interfaith — or syncretistic — worship services. These worship services used to be more about “unionism” — the blending of Christian worship — whereas now they explicitly blend in groups that reject Christianity. It turns out that confessional Lutherans not only don’t support unionism and syncretism but it’s a big part of our story about how we came to America. The head of Germany was forcing joint worship (with the Reformed Christians) on confessional Lutherans and we took our doctrinal beliefs so seriously that we were forced to flee.

It’s a very serious issue for us. And one that most of our fellow Americans don’t understand (though they’ve graciously allowed us in and allowed us to practice our doctrinal beliefs).

We don’t do interfaith worship because of our understanding of the First Commandment, which is a demand for, as one of our scholars puts it, “a radical and absolute exclusivity in our relationship with the realm of divine beings.” And since the first duty of the believer is to worship, this is most clearly expressed in how we worship.

If you are a journalist who is genuinely interested in this topic and why we believe what we do, I’d encourage the book “The Anonymous God: The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society.” It’s a highly readable, succinct explanation of our doctrines and how American culture is hostile to our views. If you’re going for the quick and dirty version, I’d recommend (sorry …) my own Wall Street Journal piece on the matter the last time this became a big issue in the media, after a clergy member was suspended for his participation in interfaith worship:

In late June, the church suspended the Rev. David Benke, the president of its Atlantic District and the pastor of a Brooklyn church, for praying with clerics who don’t share the Christian faith.

Naturally, the suspension caused all hell to break loose. From the New York Times’ editors to FoxNews’ Bill O’Reilly, pundits and commentators chided the Lutherans for their intolerance. Mr. O’Reilly, not otherwise known for theological expertise, even accused the church of “not following Jesus.” A column in Newsday said Mr. Benke’s accusers were “advocating religious isolationism.” …

To participate in an interfaith service is, as the synod announced upon suspending Mr. Benke, “a serious offense” strictly forbidden by tradition and church law. But the source of the prohibition is Christ’s own words. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). As the Rev. Charles Henrickson, a Lutheran minister in St. Louis, explains: “The gospel is not served, it is not confessed — indeed, the gospel is eviscerated — when Jesus Christ is presented as one of many options from which to choose on a smorgasbord of spirituality.”

Basically we think it’s fine to set aside differences to work together in many things unless the thing we’re supposed to agree to disagree on is Jesus and the context is worship.

Another issue arose when a Lutheran pastor who everyone agrees is doing a great job ministering to his congregation in Newton in all sorts of ways took part in a syncretistic worship service. He explained why he thought it was ok, but many Lutherans thought it not, it was becoming a bit of a “scandal” (in the church sense of the term), and his supervisors asked him to speak a word of apology. He did. The President basically told both the people who thought his apology didn’t go far enough and those who want to change church teaching on syncretism that they should work together in love and compassion. While it’s not a huge issue within the church body, some folks have been pushing for secular media coverage of same since that’s a much more favorable climate for changing church teaching on this matter.

So if you thought it was less than enjoyable to have your patriotism questioned after 9/11, you can imagine how easy it is to explain your church doctrine on the First and Second Commandments in the subtle and unpolarized aftermath of the Newtown massacre. The headlines and stories have been full of outrage. Some of that is to be expected for anything as countercultural as our doctrine on this matter. Some of it isjust not the best work.

Or as Vanity Fair‘s Kurt Eichenwald put it:

Truth: Lutherans angry at minister 4 praying w/ a Rabbi 4 a dead Jewish boy wouldve been angry 4 prayers at the Crucifiction of Jesus, a Jew


I’m sure that whatever our differences on this matter, our favorite part of that tweet is the spelling of Crucifixion. But Eichenwald’s Bill O’Reilly-level of theological acumen is off the mark. Would we worship at Jesus’ Crucifixion with those who worshiped a different God? We would consider it something of an ontological impossibility. Not that I necessarily expect most reporters to even understand what I mean by that.

So first and foremost, I will say to you what I said to the New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer when he sent out a mildly snarky tweet about my church body’s doctrine. If you are a reporter and you have any questions about our doctrines, feel free to ask me about it. I know that the Newtown pastor, his District President and the Synodical President have all agreed not to speak with the media. Further, those who are eager to speak on the matter are, quite understandably, those seeking to change the church position. That makes it very difficult to understand support for a topic that is already probably hard for you to understand. I’m just a layperson with no formal theological training, but I have read up on syncretism and our church teaching on the matter and am happy to do my best to explain this doctrinal topic that is so far outside the mainstream of American religious expression. Perhaps I can point you to authors whose works I’ve read or to church historians who can explain the controversy.

As one Lutheran pastor put it:

The national media have picked up on LCMS President Matthew Harrison’s response to the participation of Pastor Robert Morris in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Connecticut. The interfaith service took place on December 16, a letter from Pastor Morris regarding his participation was issued on January 31, and a letter from President Harrison on his handling of the situation was issued on February 1. Now, in the last 24 hours, an article by Caleb Bell of Religion News Service (RNS), “Lutheran pastor apologizes for praying at Newtown vigil,” has appeared in the Washington Post and other news outlets. And an article by Rachel Zoll of Associated Press (AP), “Newtown Pastor Reprimanded Over Prayer Vigil,” has appeared on ABC News and elsewhere…

Of course, do not expect the coverage and commentary to understand or approve of what is going on. Even though, in my view, President Harrison’s letter is excellent, and his handling of the situation has been very balanced and pastoral–both evangelical and confessional–the media voices will not “get it.” To disapprove of interfaith services in our day is unpopular. It goes against American civil religion and political correctness. The prevailing notion in our culture is that “all roads lead to God,” and the spiritual smorgasbord that interfaith services offer falls right in line with that false belief. Even if a clergy participant is well-intentioned, and his portion of the service contains no false doctrine per se, the unavoidable effect is to support the “whatever works for you” overarching message.

Anyway, I wanted to also note that the New York Times handled this story well (“Lutheran Minister Explains Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service“). It may come off as harsh to some of us who are confessional Lutheran, but it is a reasonable presentation of the issues.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world — 6 Comments

  1. When Bill O’Reilly is your enemy, consider yourself in good company. Look what that guy did to Ron Paul, the only true conservative.

    Also, given Bill O’Reilly is a Papist, he should really read the Council of Trent which is still binding as far as ecumenicism goes.

    Remember also Glenn Beck said that: “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword” is ugly and hateful. Ron Paul was just quoting Jesus again in reference to sniper Chris Kyle. Man it is as if these ‘conservatives’ are not really ‘Bible believing’ Christians after all. The Word scandalizes you. Don’t be surprised if you quote scripture, that even people who you think are on your side will condemn you.

    How dare we maintain objective truth of scripture!!! That is what the world says.

    I am glad President Harrison is our leader. He is truly a man of God. I commend him for his courage. I see only good things happening from here. Don’t let the World get you down you all. We are going to win this fight because it was already won for us on the Cross.

  2. Connect the dots: “While it’s not a huge issue within the church body, some folks have been pushing for secular media coverage of same since that’s a much more favorable climate for changing church teaching on this matter… I know that the Newtown pastor, his District President and the Synodical President have all agreed not to speak with the media. Further, those who are eager to speak on the matter are, quite understandably, those seeking to change the church position… Anyway, I wanted to also note that the New York Times handled this story well…” [then Mollie references this edition,, which has this:]

    “Asked for comment on the Newtown situation on Thursday, Mr. Benke said he did not agree with the denomination’s decision to ask Mr. Morris to apologize. “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it,” he said. “If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

  3. @Pastor Ted Crandall #2

    Gospel reductionism at its finest.

    If they want to spread a counterfeit Gospel, fine, but not in our name.

    If they want a Church like that, go to the ELCA, how come we have to bend to their wishes.

    Seriously, how come?

  4. The tweet referenced in the post is a great example of liberal elites’ near complete ignorance of even the most basic tenets of Christianity. This gentleman no doubt feels he’s delivered a devastating zinger but has succeeded only in highlighting his own embarrassing lack of understanding. It really is so that most condescending liberals have no idea how much they simply don’t know.

  5. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Mrs. Hemingway does it again! Great job, Mollie!

    I think it might be helpful to point out how and why the media plays these things the way they do. I think Mrs. Hemingway has explained this before, either here at BJS or at her blog “Get Religion.” I will defer to whatever she says on the topic of religious journalism and will accept correction from her, since this is her “beat.”

    Generally, the people that do religion topics or articles in the media are not adequately-trained. After all, how can they understand the inner workings and complicated arguments of hundreds of religious faiths and sects in America? They are lucky if they get one straight! The “Religious News Associates” is an organization that tries to increase knowledge of religion and encourage fair reporting–I think they are connected somehow to RNS–but even they fall off the track sometimes.

    That is why the blog “Get Religion” is so interesting, because its writers show where the main media errs–and there are “howlers” every week! (see ).

    Journalists in print, radio, and video media generally defer–and rightly so–to experts on religion at the universities. The problem with that is that these “experts” are almost all, in every case, hostile to traditional religions. There used to be a sense of tolerance toward traditional religions during the years of the “Protestant establishment”, but that has long passed away 50 years ago–a victim of the 1960s radicalization of the universities.

    Union Theological Seminary–New York used to have the highest number of graduates, out of all the large divinity schools, in university and college positions in the field of religious studies (I don’t know current statistics). I can tell you from four years of personal experience that the students and faculty of UTS-New York have no love and absolutely no respect for conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics. Students and faculty at UTS-New York are all “intolerant-liberals”. That is where things stand today.

    So what happens is that you have this supposed “expertise” and feigned “objectivity” in very smart people deemed to be “experts”, and when the journalists go to these experts, they get what is considered the objective truth. And if anyone questions that journalist on what he reported, he will say “But she is the expert on the subject.”

    So my take on this is: Give the journalists a pass, they are usually doing the best that they can. Help educate them, when you can, about the important facts about your religion.

    Yes, you can have a journalist with a chip on his or her shoulder who gives a biased or bad report. But if they do too much of that, they know they will lose their job.

    If you really want to put the blame where it belongs, blame the “intolerant-liberal” university religion professors who are graduates of Union Theological Seminary-New York, Harvard Divinity School, University of Chicago Divinity School, etc. They sit on top of the “thrones of culture” with no real competition from anyone. C.S. Lewis wrote about the same phenomenon in his day in his novel “That Hideous Strength,” which is a parable of what goes on around the “thrones of culture.” I know. I lived there.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  6. Nebraska has one of the largest populations of LCMS members of any state, both in sheer numbers and per capita. In yesterday’s Omaha World-Herald this matter received only a brief mention, less than 100 words:

    “A conservative Lutheran group has reprimanded a Newtown, Conn., pastor for participating in an interfaith vigil after the Sandy Hook School massacre.

    “The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said the Rev. Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church inadvertently gave the impression that he condoned joint worship by offering the benediction at a Dec. 16 event with other religious leaders for the school shooting victims.

    “The church constitution bars clergy from praying with representatives from other religions, including some other Lutheran groups, for fear of giving the appearance that theological differences about salvation and other doctrines aren’t significant.”

    From my perspective that is a pretty fair article which presents our position and summarizes the situation without prejudice. If this is all the attention this matter receives in Nebraska, externally it is a non-issue. In any case, the media have now turned their attention to the storm on the east coast and they are never again going to revisit this issue.

    Internally, because Pastor Morris has apologized and President Harrison has accepted his apology and urged others to do the same, and because this matter was handled by President Harrison in a way that the vast majority of LCMS clergy and laity will not only approve of but thankfully welcome—including many who otherwise might not agree with President Harrison on every issue—it is those who inexplicably continue to harp on a settled issue that has been resolved in such a fraternal and God-pleasing manner who will be deemed by the vast majority of the Synod as unloving and divisive.

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