Huck Finn and Impostor Preachers

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows up often in lists of the most important, and most influential, American novels. No doubt its exploration of the issue of slavery through the character of Huck’s friend “old Jim” makes this an important work. But even more perturbing is the novel’s exposé of the “characters” that make up a big part of the American character, i.e., America’s con men, hucksters, and impostors.

In a recent essay in the journal Claremont Review of Books (Vol. 13 No. 2 [Spring 2013]: 44-49), Professor Paul A. Cantor at the University of Virginia explores this aspect of Mark Twain’s novel, and includes a look at impostor preachers. In America, Cantor notes “it becomes difficult to distinguish the genuinely self-made man from the con man. . . . The democratic world is filled with impostors.” (p. 45). Cantor points to the character of “the duke” in Twain’s novel as an example of the impostor preacher. Talking confidentially to one of his friends, the “duke” explains:

I’ve done considerble in the doctoring way in my time. Layin’ on o’ hands is my best holt—for cancer and paralysis, and sich things; an I k’n tell a future pretty good when I’ve got somebody along to find out the facts for me. Preachin’s my line, too; and workin’ camp-meetin’s, and missionaryin around (e.g., see Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [UK: Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax Ltd., 2006], p. 109 [chap. 19]).

Cantor explains about the “duke,” and his friend the “king,” that:

In their shameless impostures, they represent the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise. . . . They have a temperance scam, in which they play upon the moral fervor of their spellbound audience in order to extract donations for the noble cause of teetotalism. Americans, as part of their democratic character, like to think the best of people. This is no doubt an admirable trait, but again, it makes them especially susceptible to con games. They love to hear stories of religious conversion, of criminals who discover the evil of their ways and confess their sins. That is why the king and the duke include preaching among their swindles. Their ability to exploit religion for financial gain is the dark side of the genuine power of evangelical movements in the United States. With no established church in America, anybody can set himself up as a preacher. In the absence of any official form of validation, preaching must become self-validating and therefore rely on the preacher’s charisma. Unable to count on a captive audience, preachers must create their own congregations. (Claremont Review of Books (Vol. 13 No. 2 [Spring 2013]: 46).

How does the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod look through the eyes of Huck Finn? On the one hand, it has a number of characteristics that has helped it resist “the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise.” The LC—MS does have an “official form of validation” for preachers, namely, synodically-established-clergy-training systems, certification, ordination, installation, and an “arm’s length” form of supervision in the Circuit Counselor. Lay control of finances in congregations, and corporate-board control of finances at district and synod levels, prevents financial abuse. And, most significantly, the synod requires of its clergy that they vow to teach in accord with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions unconditionally—known as quia subscription, and they can be removed for failing to keep those vows.

On the other hand, many of these important “clergy controls” are eroding. The 1989 Wichita convention created the “district-licensed lay deacon” (hereafter DLLD), which “deacons” ascend the pulpit without most of the vetting process that takes place for ordained clergy. There are now 600 DLLDs in synod, about 10% of all active clergy. Lay control of finances in congregations, i.e., control independent of clergy influence, has been jettisoned in the “Accountable Leadership Model” of the Transforming Congregations Network. Most disturbing to me is when I see seminary graduates throwing away their Book of Concord, or existing LC—MS pastors denigrating our doctrinal standards, as if they know better.

The “American spirit of enterprise” is perhaps the most subtle and insidious force creeping into the synod. How else can you explain the former synodical president’s goal of 2000 new mission starts and 50 million witness events by 2017 (see Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures, 2007, 63rd Regular Convention, The LCMS, Houston, TX, July 14-19, 2007 [St Louis: LCMS, 2007], p. 5)? How else can you explain so many congregations, pastors, and laymen who got “suckered” into the false promises of the “church-growth movement”? At best, such congregations just lost the money they paid to the church-growth con men. At worst, such congregations are gone, and their lay members are alienated from the church until their dying day—and there are many cases like this.

The laymen and pastors of the LC—MS need to be aware of “the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise.” We need to keep the “clergy controls” we have in our seminary training programs, synodical-level certification, ordination, installation, and visitation by Circuit Counselors. When people attack the Lutheran doctrine of the call and ordination, as that doctrine is explained by such luminaries as C. F. W. Walther and Johann Gerhard, we have to ask whether they are, in fact, “wolves trying break down the gate to the sheep pen,” i.e., con men with evil designs. When pastors try to weasel their way into the financial aspects of a congregation, we have to ask what they are really up to—and whether there are sufficient “financial controls” to prevent abuse. When pastors, professors, and other teachers of the Word are not willing to be subject to the Scriptures and Book of Concord, we need to tell them firmly that Lutheran theology does not allow an entrepreneurial spirit in its doctrines or doctrinal principles; and if they disagree, we need to give them the “boot.”

This also teaches laymen something very important. If they have a pastor who submits to the Scriptures and the Book of Concord; who does not try to impress people with fancy cars or fancy clothes—thus not a lover of money; who is not an impostor, huckster, or con man; but is rather modest, conscientious, and otherwise described by the Timothean virtues (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1-13), they have a rara avis, i.e., a rare bird to be cared for and respected. As a rule, our LC—MS clergy are rare birds compared to the typical American preacher. If our Lutheran laymen allow bullies or hucksters to drive out their good pastors, then they deserve nothing else but what is standard fare in the American religious diet—the impostor preacher.

[If you are interested in subscribing to the Claremont Review of Books, you may call: 909-621-6825; or contact: [email protected] Their website is: Prices are $6.95 per copy; $27.80 for a one-year subscription in the US. The journal is published by the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 937 West Foothill Blvd., Suite E, Claremont, CA, 91711. Individual copies might be available at the newsstand at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore; or your public library].


Huck Finn and Impostor Preachers — 11 Comments

  1. Should “District-Licensed Lay Deacons” even exist in its current form? I don’t mind if we call some of ordained pastors as deacons, nor would I mind lay deacons if they didn’t usurp the Office of the Ministry. However, in this form, it shouldn’t exist.

  2. What a good article. I pray for our church and its Pastors and Leaders all the time. I love this church.

  3. Another important sentence in the Claremont article: “In the absence of any official form of validation, preaching must become self-validating and therefore rely on the preacher’s charisma.”

    “Self-validating preaching” sounds almost Lutheran, but for the natural religiosity in a democratic society, trust in the power of God’s Word is apparently replaced by trust in the preacher’s personality or charisma, like in: “The young pastor will attract the young people to our church…” Or: “The new pastor will draw new members …” Or: “We like this person’s vision for the church…”

    That might be flattering to the old Adam at first, but, as we all know, there’s the dark side of that false trust: Whoever’s disappointed that trust must go.

    In other words, when it comes to the church, trust in people crushes — both those who trust and those who are trusted in.

    Thought-provoking reflection, Pr. Noland.

  4. Holger, I too was struck by the sentence you cite above, “In the absence of any official form of validation, preaching must become self-validating and therefore rely on the preacher’s charisma.” This reminded me of the chapter in Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer on “The Fuhrer Principle”, or Leader principle prevalent in Germany at the turn of the last century and imbibed fully by Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s critique of this principle is actually quite simple: “The Leader is completely divorced from any office, he is essentially and only the ‘the Leader'”. Bonhoeffer points out that “office” restricts any leader from acting on his own accord, or charisma because the man who fills the office is accountable before “penultimate authorities” such as “Reich or state” which are all accountable to God. The purpose of any office, political or ecclesial, is to be of service. But once, as in the Fuhrer Principle, the great divorce between man and office occurs:

    “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself.”

    This idolatry has become endemic in a media age. So-called ‘evangelists’ have so-called ‘ministries’ with their names before the word “ministry”. I have thought “Mark Schroeder Ministries” has a great alliterative ring to it and it does. The Old Adam wants others to be attached to the personality and so control others by the dark urges of unregenerated flesh. Now at first this all appears to be “good”. The congregation wants a pastor with a winsome personality, a charismatic presence in the pulpit (or walking up and down the aisles) who is a friend to all. The pastor buys into it. And so do presidential candidates: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” (Candidate Obama). Then with these idolatries of varying degree, the office is disregarded and this is “criminal”, breaking the Law of God and the laws of men. An important Scripture verse in regards to the purpose of the pastoral office in our day, as in was in the charismatic milieu of the Roman Empire is 2 Corinthians 4:5.

    Yes, Pr. Noland, the strictures of office must be taught in our age more than ever. Thank-you for this article.

  5. Joel Osteen would be a good example of
    an imposter preacher. He went to Oral
    Roberts University for one semester and
    dropped out. So he is basically a high
    school graduate with no theological
    education who is winging it.

  6. Great way to take a narrative and use it to inform a situation among us. Our synod has rigorous standards for training pastors to keep the deceivers and wanna-bes who would deceive people out of the picture.

  7. “The role of the pastor cannot be viewed in a reductionist way that only applies to the speaking of the words of consecration; the pastor is also responsible for admission/distribution. The practice of having the pastor speak the words of consecration and then have vicars, deacons, or lay persons distribute the sacrament at another time or place cannot be defended on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions.[6] If a layman assists in the distribution in the Divine Service, he should do so by serving the Lord’s blood as the pastor admits to the altar with the administration of the Lord’s body.”

    “The suggestion of the “Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Task Force” that perhaps the Synod establish an “ordained diaconate” where “perhaps they (the ordained deacons) could preach and baptize but not consecrate the elements” (Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures 2013, 417) splits apart what the Lord has joined together in the one, divinely instituted office. It amounts to attempting to fix one problem (laymen functioning as pastors) by creating another. A more careful solution is needed for which Lutheran theology has the resources.”

    Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

  8. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Thanks for all your insightful comments so far. Helen is right about the “loop-holes”, which is why some of us are trying to close the “loop-hole” for entry into pastoral ministry via DLLD programs.

    On the idea of an “ordained deaconate,” I agree with Prof. Pless that this will just lead to confusion. If you read Johan Gerhard on the ranks of ministers (On the Ministry, Part Two [CPH ed., 2012], he describes only two types of “deacons” that were found in the apostolic and early churches.

    1) “Some were in charge of the care of the poor and the management of church property,” which also included the management of church offerings and finances (ibid., p. 47).

    2) “Some had been joined to the bishops or presbyters in the office of teaching and the administering of the Sacraments in order to take their place and alleviate their labors. Thus they are connected to bishops in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8. . . consequently, the apostle requires in a deacon almost the same virtues as he requires in a bishop”(ibid., p. 47).

    The problem that I see in the second type of deacon is that modern-day readers think that such “deacons” can serve as the pastor of a parish. The way that I read Gerhard and the adduced texts is that, in the early church, deacons never operated semi-independently as our modern day pastors do. They always served the same congregation that a full-fledged pastor served, and they were under his direct-and-personally-present authority.

    Modern-day district-licensed-lay-deacons (DLLDs) generally serve (I don’t know if there are any exceptions) congregations where their supervisor is distant. So the authority from their supervisor is indirect, impersonal, and not-present. This is contrary to the pattern found in the apostolic and early church, and so the claim that they are just following the example of the early church is false. This is a modern innovation–from whence I don’t know–and it is detrimental to the unity of the church, the integrity of the pastoral office, and the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

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