Deconstructing Lutheran Identity

lutheranA recent blog comment by Rev. John Hannah, President of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, stated a good bit of truth and got me to thinking. He writes: I believe that the strong desire within the LCMS to look like Evangelicals on Sunday morning stems from a very strong aversion to Roman Catholicism and to mainline Protestantism (which includes Episcopalians). . . . We became totally admiring of Billy Graham and his evangelizing method during his [Graham’s] heyday. . . . If those aversions are deeply rooted it will be a long time before we overcome the desire to appear with a pronounced Evangelical face. I don’t know how to change it. Peace, JOHN (click here for original comment and context ).

I can’t say I agree with all of Pastor Hannah’s analysis, but that is okay. What he says in the quote above is the truth that he and I can agree on, and it is becoming more and more evident that this is what is happening to the Lutheran identity of the Missouri Synod, its pastors, and its congregations. Here is how I analyze what is happening.

Evangelical wannabes in the Missouri Synod, whether laymen, pastors, or entire congregations, have justified their imitation of American Evangelicalism through arguing that we can imitate Evangelical “style” so long as we retain Lutheran “substance.” This argument was developed by David Luecke in his popular book: Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance: Facing America’s Mission Challenge (St Louis: CPH, 1988). I gave a response to Luecke’s arguments in my article “The Christian Philosophy and the Christian Religion,” LOGIA 4 #2 (April 1995):43-48 (click here for free PDF of that issue).

Since 1995, I have expanded my analysis of this problem, partly by reading about the challenges of Pietism in the 18th century and partly with my own study in semiotics. What is going on in the Missouri Synod is that Evangelical wannabes are undermining, yes, even deconstructing Lutheran identity a piece at a time, by replacing cultural “identifying symbols” of the Lutheran church with those of the Evangelical churches.

Evangelical identifying-symbols since the 1970s have included, in the realm of worship: worship-leader-pastors clad in polo shirt and khakis, pop band and pop music (with Christianized lyrics), pop-star wireless microphones, soundboards in the nave (attached to hefty amplifiers), and projection screens. In Evangelical wannabe congregations, the following Lutheran identifying-symbols are absent: clergy collars, traditional vestments and paraments, hymnals, pipe organs, traditional Protestant hymns, traditional Lutheran liturgy, and in many cases, any sort of liturgical art or cross. Members, guests, and visitors look at the Evangelical identifying-symbols and think, “Hey, I am in an Evangelical mega-church.” This Evangelical symbol-system then drives out the good (i.e., genuine Lutherans) and attracts the bad (i.e., Evangelical-minded folk).

Evangelical wannabes claim this is all “adiaphora,” but that is not entirely true. Dr. Robert Kolb, Professor Emeritus of the Concordia Seminary—Saint Louis wrote perceptively about the 16th century Adiaphoristic Controversy in his Confessing the Faith: Reformers Define the Church, 1530-1580 (St Louis: CPH, 1991): The leaders of the Philippist party were largely professors who could be satisfied with abstract formulations; the Gnesio-Lutherans were for the most part parish pastors, who felt the implications of those formulations in the lives of the people who would be affected by them in daily life. Their pastoral sensitivity led them to defend the precious heritage which Luther had given them through bold confession of the faith. (p. 81).

Those of us who have been parish pastors for the last thirty years or so—I was ordained in 1984—know exactly what this change in symbol-system is doing to our congregations and our people. Our laymen know who they are mostly by the symbols that they see around them in worship. True, they should be able to ignore all the symbolism, and hear only the word—but only a few folks do that. The vast majority relate to the church through its religious symbol-system. Our confessions speak to this issue clearly: We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the appearance or . . . are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papist religion or that their religion were not completely contrary to ours (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, X, 5; Kolb/Wengert, 636).

Does the Lutheran religion differ greatly from the Evangelical religion? YES. The theology that is actually preached from Evangelical pulpits is all about drunkards, drug-addicts, and adulterers getting their social skills in order. It is also about turning a disordered life into an ordered one that is useful to family, neighbors, and community. Nothing wrong with that—but that is the Evangelical notion of “salvation.” “Sin” for Evangelicals is seen as overt crimes and anti-social behaviors. If you can refrain from that, you can be saved. This is gross Pelagianism, which even the Roman Catholics back away from. How much more do Lutherans, in the grand Augustinian tradition, find this whole Evangelical religion not only lacking, but completely contrary to ours.

Those Missouri Synod folks who change from Lutheran symbol-systems to Evangelical symbol-systems argue that what they preach, teach, sing, and pray is pure Lutheran doctrine. In many cases, this is true, so it is hard to fault those particular folks; but in many other cases it is not true. How do we analyze this complexity? The key terms here are “usually” and “sometimes.”

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to the abandonment of Lutheran liturgy, historic liturgical elements, and historic hymns, but not in every case.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to a less active congregation in worship, i.e., they become more of a passive audience than a participating, speaking, and singing group, but not in every case. If this happens, they can no longer claim that their Lutheran church is “the singing church.”

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to a growing pop-star mentality by the preacher, but not in every case.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to changes in the pastor’s daily work activities. He relinquishes or abandons duties in catechesis, religious education, visitation of sick and shut-ins, and the giving of prayers and devotions in various auxiliaries and groups, but not in every case. He then replaces these duties with the work of a business CEO, with business meetings and administrative stuff, which always expands to fill a vacuum.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations sometimes leads to the loss of the Lutheran name in the congregation. Examples of ones that I know of are Saint John Church in Ellisville, MO and Crosspoint Church in Katy, TX. This name-change usually leads to the abandonment of other Lutheran-identity resources, like the Small Catechism, the Book of Concord, and publications from Concordia Publishing House and other Lutheran publishers, but not in every case.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations sometimes leads to the adoption of autocratic forms of congregational government, as found for example in the “Transforming Congregations Network” group.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations sometimes leads to the abandonment of Lutheran theology altogether, the transfer of the pastor and/or lay members to a non-Lutheran denomination, sometimes the complete dismantlement and “death” of a congregation through loss of members, income, and assets.

Some of us pastors and laymen have been writing and speaking about these trends in the Missouri Synod; and some have submitted overtures to their district and synod conventions with the hope that the trends would stop. But things seem to keep getting worse, not better. This is not the fault of the current synodical President, Matthew Harrison, who is doing everything he can according to the powers given him by the constitution and bylaws, to stem the Evangelical-wannabe tide. It is the fault of some district presidents, some former synod presidents, and other high-up leaders who are doing everything they can to defeat Harrison and his work, and so reclaim the Missouri Synod for the Evangelical wannabes.

I have been writing about this subject, in a critical way, since my first article against Evangelical wannabes: “The Perils of Pauline Christianity Today,” Affirm 14 #1 (Feb. 1990):10-12. For nearly twenty-five years, I have been publishing scores of articles against the Evangelical wannabes in Affirm, Christian News, LOGIA, Credo, Lutheran Clarion, Steadfast Quarterly, and more recently on the web-blogs of BLOGIA and Brothers of John the Steadfast.

Of course, this made me some enemies. In September 2007 at the first meeting of the new board of Concordia Historical Institute, of which I was Director, a new member of the board who was the wife of the president of the “Jesus First” organization, said she would make me “accountable” (this was witnessed by all board members). Although not explaining what that meant at that time, it became clear when I was terminated by the board (involuntary resignation) in May 2008. It is clear to me now that I was terminated because of my defense of Lutheran theology and practice in the LCMS in those articles and speeches that criticized the Evangelical wannabes. Fortunately for Concordia Historical Institute, that woman and her allies are no longer on that board, and the new Director, Dr. Daniel Harmelink, is a good man and genuine Lutheran.

It is also clear to me now that I will not stop my criticism of the Evangelical wannabes in the LCMS until I give up writing and speaking altogether. Why? Because the identity of the Lutheran Church is at stake, not only in the LCMS, but also among all those churches around the world who look to us for inspiration, guidance, and assistance.

What can you do?

  1. Become better informed about the issues affecting our church-body.
  2. Read the print publications, like Lutheran Clarion, LOGIA, and Christian News.
  3. Read the web-blogs-publications, like BLOGIA and Brothers of John the Steadfast.
  4. Listen to Issues, Etc.
  5. Attend good conferences in your region, if you can afford the time and expense.
  6. Elect delegates to district and national conventions who are solidly Lutheran.
  7. Send overtures that address the issues of Evangelical-influence.
  8. Be careful when calling a new pastor to your parish.
  9. Share what you have learned with your Lutheran friends.
  10. Support with your dollars those organizations and publications that want to keep our synod true to its original vision, i.e, a church normed by the canonical Scriptures and the Book of Concord.
  11. Pray for the Lutheran church, that our Lord would keep her true to the vision and witness of Martin Luther, until Jesus returns.

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