Charm, Politics, Waiting Games, and the Vanishing Gospel

[NOTE: This article was written before the recent announcement by Dr. Mathew L. Becker that his ecclesiastical supervisor, the District President of the Northwest District of the LCMS, had initiated procedures to expel him from synod following a charge by Rev. President Terry Forke of the Montana District that, until Dr. Becker announced it, had not been publicly known, and further that this article is not about only Dr. Becker.]

When a member of synod is engaged in public false teaching, the confessional brothers must call that erring one to repentance. If he repents, wonderful. If he relentlessly continues in public false teaching, he must be removed from the synod. That won’t stop him from continuing to publicly teach falsely, but it will removed the leaven from the loaf of the synod, and it will make clear what the synod teaches. Otherwise, our tongue is forked.

The Missouri Synod has notorious cases of public false teaching and so far, synod has failed in disciplining the false teachers and those who provide them disciplinary sanctuary. Meanwhile, the confessional brothers among the leadership of synod continue trying to do something, but alas, for all that can be seen, all their efforts (with a few great exceptions) are merely tactical, not strategic.

One of the methods that has been tried and still is being tried is the charm offensive. I have to temper my use of that term. A charm offensive is a campaign of flattery and friendliness designed to achieve the support or agreement of others. I do not accuse anyone of using flattery. Nothing insincere is being done. But we do see a campaign of friendliness that is both sincere and aimed at gaining support for synodical discipline of false teachers and their protectors. It doesn’t work.

Another method is politics. Here, again, I must temper my use of this term. I am not implying any of the negative connotations of the word politics. The church is populated by humans and, to boot, sinners. So it is unavoidable that we must have polity and politics. I am referring only to a dependence on conventions, elections, overtures, bylaws, and so forth to remedy the problem. The hope is to take the time for such things as triennial district conventions to do things like change the composition of the Council of Presidents. It doesn’t work.

Another method is temporizing. Some people believe that many of Dr. Matthew L. Becker’s supporters who have signed public letters of support for him are elderly. They view many of the supporters as remnants from the Seminex days. That makes it tempting to just let the course of nature work the magic of attrition on his support demographic. But by teaching as a professor, he is reproducing, and not all of his supporters are old. It doesn’t work.

A common denominator in all these approaches – charm, politics, and temporizing – is that all of them are works of man. They are all human efforts. That puts a ceiling on the level at which they operate. At the highest, they can be only tactical, if that. No human work can achieve the level of strategy. None of these well intended efforts are strategies.

This is not to say that we should not identify and recruit good candidates for district president, and so forth. But we should not fear, love, and trust in such things either. In corporations and civil government, one might depend on things like that. In the church, however, to reach the strategic level, we need acts not of man, but of the Holy Spirit.

We call the second half of Luke’s writing the Acts of the Apostles. That is a good name for it. An equally good name, however, would be the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Consider Acts again from this perspective. Keep in mind Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed. Everything is about what we cannot do and what the Holy Spirit does.

As soon as we start thinking this way, two apparent and related problems seem to arise. First, we become pessimistic because the Spirit’s ways are mysterious. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8 Second, we realize that we cannot compel the Spirit to act by any mode of invocation of him. “The Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God.” Augsburg Confession, Article V.

But these are not real problems. The fact that the acts of the Spirit are mysterious does not mean that we know nothing about his acts. He is the “Spirit of truth.” John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6. He uses the means of the Word of truth, the Gospel, to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian church. To the statement of the Augsburg Confession just quoted, it is added that the Holy Spirit works faith “in them that hear the Gospel.” The acts of the Holy Spirit coincide with preaching, teaching, and hearing the Gospel.

In other words, we don’t invoke the Holy Spirit. It is just the other way around. He is calling us, and He is calling us to launch the truth offensive. He is calling us to play the theology card rather than the charm card, the politics card, or the temporizing card. I do not know how much the Holy Spirit cares about charm. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, so, yeah, maybe. But I don’t know. I don’t know how much the Holy Spirit cares about conventions. Maybe He does. I just don’t know.

But we know that the Holy Spirit cares about the truth and that the proclamation of the Gospel is one of his chosen instruments for his acts. This is enough for us to see what we should be doing and what effort has any possibility of becoming strategic.

Most, if not all, of the cases of false teaching involve gospel reductionism. This is the narrowing or shrinking of the Word of God down to just the gospel. Gospel reductionism does not allow anything else in Scripture to be normative, and it denies that many things in Scripture are even true, let alone normative.

This eliminates the Law, and that is bad enough. It has terrible, cruel consequences. But even more, and directly related to the matter of getting onto the strategic level in disciplining false teachers, what also goes missing in gospel reductionism is the Gospel! In the name of making only the Gospel normative, the Gospel itself is discarded. What is left is not the Gospel, and that is why I have not capitalized the word gospel whenever I have spoken here about the gospel as it is in gospel reductionism.

Theologians and doctors of the church must launch a theological offensive on two fronts that shows how the false teachers are robbing the people of the Gospel. One front is writing and speaking for an audience of other theologians, pastors, and teachers. The other front is for the laity. Strategy requires that the truth about how gospel reductionism eliminates the Gospel be made plain and simple for lay people. Refuting heresy always has been a part of the Church’s preaching of the Gospel. The refutation clarifies what the Gospel is.

For example, some gospel reductionists cast doubt on the virgin birth of Christ. In this, the Gospel is lost. The work of Christ cannot be divorced from the person of Christ. The birth of Christ is part of the identity of his person without which, in his crucifixion, he joins the hundreds of thousands of unknown others who were crucified. None of their crosses atoned for their own sins, let alone for yours and mine. The reason the cross of Christ atones is that it was Christ, the virgin-born, only begotten Son of God who was crucified. That’s an essential part of what makes his suffering holy, innocent, bitter, vicarious, and atoning.

For another example, some gospel reductionists reject the resurrection of Christ. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury is reported to have said, “I can tell you frankly that while we can be absolutely sure that Jesus lived and that He was crucified on the Cross, we cannot know that He was raised by God from the dead.” Paul teaches that without the resurrection, the Gospel collapses.

If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. … And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Under gospel reductionism, the momentum of reduction or shrinkage of Scripture does not stop at eliminating the Law. As momentum, it carries on past that to eliminating the Gospel. Its motion reaches the vanishing point of the Gospel where the Gospel disappears. Really what is left is the opinions and druthers of the reductionist.

By this, false teachers rob the people of the Gospel. This is every bit as bad as indulgences, the portrayal of the Mass as a sacrifice man offers to God rather than as a sacrament that Christ gives to us, and all the other Gospel-robbing errors of the Roman church in the day of Luther.

So far, most among even the most confessional of the laity perceive the problem of the false teachers as only being about the Law and historical or scientific issues such as miracles, creation, and the like. That’s good as far as it goes, but it is insufficient for the strategic needs in purging heresy.

It is time for the theologians and leaders of the synod to launch the truth offensive, to play the theological card. They must explain that we are losing the Gospel.

About T. R. Halvorson

T. R. Halvorson was born in Sidney, Montana on July 14, 1953, baptized at Pella Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sidney, Montana on November 8, 1953, and confirmed at First Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota in 1968. He and his wife, Marilyn, are members of Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Sidney, Montana. They have three sons and six grandchildren. T. R. farms at Wildrose, North Dakota, and is Deputy County Attorney in Sidney, Montana. He has been a computer programmer; and an author, conference speaker, instructor, and consultant to industry in online legal information. He is among the authors of the religion column in the Sidney Herald at Sidney, Montana. He is the Editor of


Charm, Politics, Waiting Games, and the Vanishing Gospel — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this great post TR. Today in Rev. Dr. Scott Murray’s devotion he states,

    ‘Much of our presently decayed cultural situation is due to the inability of the churches to confess the faith and defend that confession.’

    The laity do not know what the Lutheran Church believes, teaches and confesses. Our catechism classes have been watered down for children and adults. This has been shown to me in Bible classes I have attended over the years. The words – justification, sanctification, real presence plus many others or not used regularly in sermons. Our people spend too much time listening to so-called christian radio with the watered down theology of American Evangelicalism. If the laity do not know what they confess when they attend a Lutheran church, how are they to spot gospel reductionism?

    In Christ,

  2. @Rev. John Frahm #2

    Interestingly from the Second Wall – ‘Instead the synod allowed a large number of its pastors, who had been poorly trained under the higher critical method and unduly influenced by pietism and Reformed theology to remain in theological ignorance’.

    I was a student at River Forest in 1967. In my Intro. to Old Testament class I first encountered this higher critical method. Being 17 at the time, I didn’t have a clue what the professor was talking about when he discussed Genesis in a way I had never heard before. It was only years later that I recalled what my dear pastor said to me before I left for my freshman year. He said, ‘Diane, just remember what you were taught in confirmation class.’ He knew what was happening at the St. Louis seminary.

    Then after Seminex and the Battle for the Bible, what did the synod do? They sent everyone who wanted to go out to the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena to learn what? REFORMED THEOLOGY! We are reaping what we have sown.

    Lord have mercy!

    In Christ,

  3. While Becker is just the latest example, there are other on-going and notorious cases that have not been dealt with. Take the case of Rev. Frederich Niedner as documented in the ACELC’s “Evidence of Errors” – Unionism & Syncretism paper:

    The case of unionism regarding Rev. Dr. Frederick Niedner who participated in a unionistic worship service held on July 12, 2001, Holy Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal), Kansas City, MO. To wit, the report of a meeting held at Valparaiso with Rev. Niedner and others with the LCMS being represented by Rev. Daniel Preus, First Vice President of the LCMS:

    Meeting with Fredrick Niedner Faith Memorial Church, Valparaiso, IN, April 29, 2004

    Dr. Fredrick Niedner;
    Rev. Daniel Preus, First Vice President;
    Reverend John Albers, Circuit Counselor, Valparaiso Circuit;
    Reverend Kenneth Mangelsdorf, witness requested by Fredrick Niedner; Reverend Charles Varsogea, original complainant;
    Reverend Chad Trouten, original complainant.

    The meeting began with a prayer by Reverend Albers. Approximately two hours were then spent in discussion of the original charges and Dr. Niedner’s explanation of his participation in the worship service that gave rise to the charges against him. This service took place on Thursday, July 12, 2001, at 3:00 p.m. at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) Kansas City, MO. The service took place in connection with a meeting of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. Dr. Niedner preached. The celebrant was Reverend Susan R. Briehl, a clergy person on the roster of the ELCA. The Lord’s Supper was given to all in attendance regardless of denominational affiliation. Dr. Niedner assis- ted in the distribution. These facts were affirmed by Dr. Niedner prior to our meeting by letter and again in person at our meeting.
    The meeting began with a few remarks about how we would proceed and then with an observation by Reverend Preus that the parties should remember that since this matter is presently being adjudicated, neither party should give publicity to the matter. Most of the discussion dealt with the doctrine of fellowship and the fellowship practice of The Luth- eran ChurchMissouri Synod. Toward the beginning of our discussions, Dr. Niedner indicated his belief that the present “close(d) communion” practice of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod is of relatively recent origin. Reverend Preus disagreed, pointing out that it had been the almost universal practice of all Christian church bodies since the Apostolic Age to close their altars to those with whom they did not share doctrinal agreement and that it was not until the 20th Century that many churches began practicing what we see today as “open communion.”

    In reference to the decision of the 2001 Convention to declare that the ELCA was not an “orthodox Lutheran church body,” Dr. Niedner declared his disagreement and indicated his belief that the Convention’s decision was purely political. He does not believe that his
    participation in the service in which a female clergy person presided over the distribution of the Lord’s Supper was wrong. He realizes that there are those who disagree but that when it comes to fellowship, agreement on the Gospel in the narrow sense should be all that matters. In regard to giving the Lord’s Supper to those who are members of the ELCA he stated his belief that we are in agreement on paper with the ELCA and we cannot investigate Lutheran’s hearts.

    Dr. Niedner accepted the position that he should be held to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions but does not believe that communing members of the ELCA or participating in a worship service with an ELCA clergy person is in violation of the Lutheran Confessions. When asked regarding the ELCA’s declaration of fellowship with three Reformed church bodies, Dr. Niedner expressed his opinion that the declarations of fellowship by the ELCA with Reformed church bodies in no way implies that their (Reformed) understanding of the Lord’s Supper is correct. He simply does not draw the lines in the same way that others do. He expressed his position that the current fellowship practice seems to be the result of a majority vote rather than the application of truly Lutheran theology.

    Dr. Niedner expressed the same view on the matter of women’s ordination. He does not see any reason why women cannot be pastors and views the Synod’s position that women may not be ordained into the holy ministry as one that proceeds out of political considera- tions rather than out of biblical teaching.

    When asked again if he recognized what he had done as wrong, he indicated that he did not believe it was, although he did understand the difficulties it created for those who disagreed with him. When asked if he intended to stop engaging in this kind of practice, Dr. Niedner indicated that he would do it again and that he did indeed participate in a similar service just recently. This service took place in connection with the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. The opening of the Institute included a worship service that took place at the Chapel of the Resurrection in Valparaiso. The presiding minister was again a clergy person belonging to the ELCA named Barbara Berry-Bailey. Once again, Fredrick Niedner was the preacher and assisted with the distribution of the Lord’s Supper.
    All of the discussions that took place between the parties present were cordial, although in many ways sad. There is little question that Dr. Niedner has violated the fellowship practice of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod as outlined in Article VI of the LCMS Constitution. It also seems that he will continue to take a position in disagreement with that of his church body.

    Daniel Preus May 26, 2004
    (Note: Rev. Niedner remains on the clergy roster of the LCMS to this day.)

  4. Thank you,thank you. June 2012 I became a comunicate member in the LMSC and this message is needed to be proclaimed everywhere. I am not a theologian but God by the working of the Holy Spirit has given to me a desire to read,with the Holy Spirit giving understanding His Word. Every day I thank God for His living Word. I think I shall print this message and pass it out to others in my church, trusting to be read and be taught. I am past the 80 mark, and the word of God, His. Promises keeps me everyday. Thank you

  5. More than individual members, there are also “notorious cases” involving opinions of the CCM. For example in its “Interpretation of Constitution Art. VI 2 b (11-2598),” in the CCM February 10–12, 2012, Minutes, Sect. 91, the CCM doctrinally nuanced that a synodical member partaking in the Lord’s Supper at a heterodox church (now CTCR-declared as embodying apostasy) is not “taking part” in a sacramental rite, as that phrase is used in Article VI, paragraph 2 b of the Constitution. The CCM even went so far as to claim:

    “However, a district president (ecclesiastical supervisor) cannot use constitutional Article VI 2 b as the cause for an action to expel (Article XIII) a member from the Synod for simply attending worship, Holy Communion, a wedding, and/or a funeral in a non-LCMS church.”

    More details, including a review of the ‘hot potato’ juggling between the CCM and CTCR, are given in:

    BJS June 25, 2013, blog, “Word of God Determines Doctrine, Not Commission on Constitutional Matters.
    BLS July 3, 2013, article, “What’s Wrong with the Commission on Constitutional Matters?.”
    June 3, 2012, LQ post A and June 3, 2012, LQ post B.

  6. @Diane #1

    Our people spend too much time listening to so-called “christian” radio with the watered down theology of American Evangelicalism. If the laity do not know what they confess when they attend a Lutheran church, how are they to spot gospel reductionism?

    Too many of our people do, possibly, with the result you mention, but please do not make such a blanket statement as, “The laity…”
    Are you something else than “laity”? … in LCMS?

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