We arrived at Confessional Lutheranism much as the Ethiopian Eunuch became a Christian – we needed a properly trained theologian to come alongside us and reveal the Scriptural truth we were blind to. Before describing that process, it’s necessary to retrace some history.
Growing up African
Our backgrounds in South Africa resembled a gathering of the World Council of Churches. My parents are Baptist and come from lineages that were pietistic Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Anglican, Salvation Army, and Arminian.
Growing up, the Baptist church delivered a combination of Spurgeon and Moody, but mostly Moody. Involvement in the life of the church was taken seriously and with great reverence for Scripture and legalistic adherence. For high school, I attended a nominally Baptist boarding school that practiced YWAM-style evangelicalism. School was followed by conscription to the South African army where I was in a minority that was identified in church parades as “Englishmen, soccer players, and Methodists”. Indeed, Methodism was the only option provided until we deployed to operational areas where the chaplains who attended us were uniformly Dutch Reformed with crippled English.
My wife, Wanita, was born into a lapsed Baptist and Dutch Reformed household that dabbled with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Rosicrucianism. Her upbringing was primarily pagan until her middle school years, when her mother fell headlong into the Word of Faith movement thanks to a Rhema import from Oklahoma. It was hardly an ideal place to discover Christianity, and yet she came away from it with a remarkable knowledge of Scripture, though not doctrine.
On graduation from university we married, and only drifted back to church after our first child was born, having given the prior years of Sundays to leisure. We found a Baptist influenced non-denominational church.
It was a clear indication that we didn’t have a clue about the purpose and function of church, only that there was some amorphous need for it. We never got the chance to settle in after receiving the opportunity to emigrate to the United States in 2000.
The trans-Atlantic hop produced substantial culture shock, especially in searching for a church. Our reflex was to find something “Baptist” only to discover that there were several dozen strains of Baptist just in central New Jersey. Since it was impossible to reliably sort out which was which, we tried a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church on the recommendation of acquaintances. It was on the leading edge of the seeker-friendly mega church wave, and repulsed us with its shallowness and relentless merchandising.
Eventually, exhausted after months of pew itinerancy and hungry for assimilation, we took up space at an Assemblies of God church in a beautiful building across from Princeton University. As AoG churches go, it was remarkably tame with few of the charismatic eccentricities the denomination is known for. But we never settled, despite making dear friends.
When our eldest daughter needed to start school, we selected a local Christian school affiliated with a “Bible” church – our first exposure to narrow Fundamentalism. Inevitably, we left the AoG church for the Bible church where there was no praise band to grind our teeth against, and the preaching was as sound as it could be in the circumstances.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now understand that we were being dosed with law-gospel-law. The gospel proclamation was clear and regular, but it would subsequently be smothered with relentless exhortations to live transformed lives. Ironically, the pastors urged the congregation to be certain of their salvation in Christ alone, only to undermine that assurance with stories of failed sanctification that proved that the culprit had made a false confession of faith to begin with.
A job offer took us from New Jersey to St. Louis, MO where the church search drama began all over again. We ran through a seemingly endless number of churches in North County before giving up and choosing a Bible church with a “quiet” style that inclined to hymns rather than happy-clappy enthusiasm.
Although we had enrolled our son at a local LCMS early learning center, our reaction to attending services there was, “this is Roman Catholicism”. We had been conditioned all our lives to regard any liturgical display as the spawn of Rome.
Despite the variety of churches we cycled through over the years, they all had a core mashup heterodox theology:
- Decision theology with four chief parts:
- Choosing Jesus as Lord following remorse about sin. Radical conversion from deviancy is somewhat prized since it provides the narrative for a “personal testimony”. Testimonies are leveraged as an irresistible means of evangelism and an irrefutable apologetics tool.
- Full immersion baptism accompanied by saccharine sentiment to advertise the sincerity of the individual’s commitment to be a Jesus follower.
- Cultivating “relationship with Jesus” through spiritual disciplines, mission trips, and doing nice things for others. Those are used as mile markers for sanctification which must be visible to be valid.
- Periodic revitalizations to balance the despair at being unable to keep the law. This can involve repeated baptisms in case the prior ones did not take for an unrecognized lack of sincerity.
- A rejection of the sacraments in favor public and private acts of obedience.
- Reading Scripture eisegetically and analogously in a relentless quest for personal application.
- Dispensational eschatology with a heavy influence on supporting Israel in order to achieve a sympathetic alignment with end-times prophecy.
- Continuationism that produces prideful demonstrations of piety and proof of a personal relationship with Jesus.
A confluence of events broke the theological logjam we were in.
It started with a sermon where a pastor preached from a text that included a reference to baptism. He paused to tell us that the text did not mean what it plainly said, but had another meaning that preserved baptism as merely an ordinance. It was shocking and unsettling to hear that we should suspend our ability to comprehend the plainest meaning of a text.
At the same time I was developing serious objections to Dispensationalism following a sermon series on Revelation that was off kilter. The disagreement was mostly rational rather than theological, but researching the theology surfaced Calvinists of the Young, Restless, and Reformed variety. Lutherans did not pop-up because Lutherans tend to say very little about eschatology.
That initial contact started to bring us deeper into the five-point Calvinist orbit. That network was serious about doctrine in a way that we had never heard before. That was at least responsible for tracking us toward monergism.
As this was developing, I had become involved in “children’s ministries”. In searching for a curriculum for a new school year, it became obvious that there was nothing salutary from the usual publishers the church relied upon. All the material was focused on inculcating obedience and upholding Jesus as a moral example rather than a savior.
To test my suspicions, I conducted an informal survey of church kids who were regulars on Sundays, at VBS, Summer camps, and Wednesday night clubs – deeply immersed in the life and teaching of the congregation.
The question was simple: “Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?”
The answers were disheartening in their near uniformity, “because he loves me.” Repentance and the forgiveness of sins was a thousand miles away – we were deep in Veggie Tales territory. When the survey was extended to adults the responses were hardly different.
The church had a very weak soteriology, and a deformed Christology. It celebrated grace and forgiveness without any notion of the means of grace. Grace was something you were responsible for taking hold of and developing.
It so happened that in the search for a new curriculum I came across Concordia Publishing House’s Growing with Christ materials. It was exactly what we needed, but it was Lutheran… that was a problem because it kept referencing justification in objective, sacramental terms. We could not teach the material because baptism was something you performed as a faith proof, and communion was a measure of sincerity. In both instances they could only be undertaken with parental consent.
Compelled to undertake some research on the sacraments we were suddenly flooded with Confessional resources. Until we knew what to look for Lutheran theology had been veiled, but became a refreshing well-spring that was technical, precise and uncompromising in its terminology and language. Lutherans refused to shy away from big words and complex topics – the goal was truth before instant comprehension.
Serious theological topics brought us within range of the White Horse Inn / Modern Reformation, Pirate Christian Radio, Table Talk Radio, Issues Etc, and a host of blogs that eventually turned the tide. Our resistance to pure doctrine had ebbed away for lack of reasonable or rational objections.
Ironically, at much the same time as these developments, our former pastor went on sabbatical. During his absence the adult Sunday school used a Reformed study of law and gospel. That resulted in yet more research and study where the best answers were again produced by Confessional Lutherans who consistently belonged to the LCMS. Indeed, the more we listened to White Horse Inn the more logical Lutheranism seemed despite its voice being a minority on the broadcast.
We had to confront the sacraments more directly when our then 10-year old daughter asked to be baptized before we moved to Denver for a new job. The church asked her to prepare a testimony. We asked her to study Scripture with us. The result was an alert to the church that she would have no testimony, only a statement of the benefits of baptism per Scripture based on Lutheran doctrine. To their credit, the pastors did not object, and baptized her. It brought the issue home for us when the person who was baptized following her gave a testimony about it being the third immersion, but this time he was sure it would work because he had read his Bible for three months straight.
As we prepared to relocate to Denver, it was clear that we were no longer evangelicals in any sense. We were going to have to find a Lutheran home. Providentially, we rented a home across the street from a family that attended a Confessional LCMS church in south Denver. They invited us to worship with them, and we accepted.
The response of the pastor amazed us. We were contacted immediately after our first visit, and he set up a time to meet with us and plan our catechesis. For some 12 weeks thereafter, he showed up at our home every Thursday evening in his clericals to patiently instruct us whilst suffering the unwanted attention of an exuberant dog, and the distractions of a busy household. There were no shortcuts to hurry our offering into the plate and our names into membership.
We had never come across a sole pastor willing to invest so much time into one family without any expectation of a return. It was also clear that the pastor was exceptionally well trained. He was able to clarify doctrine from Scripture and the Confessions with little hesitation, and it was wholly consistent with what he preached every Sunday, and fully supported by the liturgy that was also catechizing us each week.
We had to leave Missouri to find it, but we finally have peace and joy in Christ because a faithful remnant was unwilling to compromise sound doctrine. Long may it be preserved in, by and for the sake of Christ. The challenge now is to ensure that the remnant grows rather than shrinks.