The continuum of left versus right in American politics is often an oversimplification and obfuscation, as the battle lines shift from issue to issue and from decade to decade. To know American politics requires the ability to quantify a platform according to multiple dimensions. But in the Church, there really is a place for thinking in terms of left and right.
Consider the French Revolutionary origin of the concept: those who were loyal to the king and the church were on the right, and those opposed to both were on the left. To put it briefly: in the Church, the right wing stands for the promulgation of the ancient traditions, the liturgy, the pastoral office, the cherished symbolism, respect for the Scriptures, and the repudiation of the world. The left stands for capitulation to the world, compromise, ongoing development of doctrines to match the times, the uprooting of ancient tradition, and the like. And yes, tradition has a lower-case “t”, because the Papists have abused tradition. But just because the Papists abuse tradition and we know not to elevate it to an authority equal to or above Scripture doesn’t mean that we ignore or throw tradition out entirely.
It should go without saying that confessional Lutherans are very intentionally on the right of this continuum. That was, after all, the argument of the Lutheran Reformation: We aren’t teaching anything the Church hasn’t already been teaching. The Roman Counter-Reformation and the Protestant Radical (from the Latin word for “root”, because it involved the uprooting of so much Church tradition) Reformation were both left-wing ecclesiastical movements.
Trying to hold together an intentionally traditionalist (i.e., right-wing) church body is extremely difficult, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
First of all, it is a rule of nature that any organization which is not explicitly right-wing will eventually become left-wing. That means that a church body which is not in a constant state of maintaining and watching over its traditions will, over time, start to allow those traditions either to die or to be pulled up by Jacobins.
Second, there can never be a big-tent for traditionalists. Big tents require tons of compromise, and compromise is antithetical to tradition. To find out why, read the previous paragraph.
Third, the traditionalist will watch for intruders from without and from within. He will never fully trust institutions to do the job of watching for invading Jacobins who would disrupt the sacred deposit of the faith. This is why, for example, telling a traditionalist to trust the Synod’s dispute resolution process, CTCR, CoP, or seminary faculties to handle a major problem of doctrine is a waste of time. It’s also why the word “conservative” doesn’t really work well for confessional Lutherans. If time and indifference have caused the structures around us to rot and fall apart, we don’t want to preserve (conserve) the rotten, dilapidated structure to hand down to our children. We must get to work either repairing or rebuilding.
Here’s where this idea becomes very important to understand: as the General Apostasy of the West accelerates, it will necessarily require more and more vigilance to maintain the traditions of the Church for us and for our children. And it also means that the generations who join the cause of traditional, confessional Lutheranism after us may be even more zealous than we ourselves are. This is no theoretical matter; within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod right now, there is a near-crisis of men who were at the very right-wing and fighting the decline of the synod into generic stand-for-nothing Protestantism who now find a new generation of young men standing well to their own right.
A couple of questions arise:
How does a man slide from the very right-wing to a more moderate position over time? There can be a couple of answers. For starters, note well the age of many of the church reformers when they took up their task: St. Athanasius was 29 when the Council of Nicea was convened. Luther was 34 when he nailed the 95 theses to the door. CFW Walther was 27 at the Saxon Migration, and 36 when he was made the first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, for a few examples. Reforming the Church is a task for the energy of youth.
It is in the nature of man to moderate over time. Sometimes it is because the older man has found his position to be comfortable, and perhaps he has taken a place of honor within the Church which he does not want to risk by challenging those around and above him. Often, though, this is a very good thing, as it can prevent overzealousness to consume younger men. Young men, even bright young traditionalists, ought to look to and respect the wisdom of their elders. To ignore this godly advice is foolishness. At the same time, the older and wiser men ought not to be too quick to dismiss the zeal of the younger men, even if they show up to their right.
How do we deal with this seemingly inescapable tendency? The easy response is to run to conserve falling, dilapidated structures like synods and bylaws and “we’ve always done it that way”s. The instinctual response of the older confessional is to punch right, and he must resist this urge with every fiber of his being. This cannot be said too forcefully, too loudly, or too often. When the young traditionalist sees that the older men have no use for his energy and zeal, he will continue without them. If there is any desire among the older men to preserve any kind of political alliances, intergenerational cooperation, or simply to temper the zeal of the young traditionalists to be more useful and focused for the fight against the theological Jacobins, punching right is the surest way to see that none of it will ever happen.
What can we do? There are men out there who have, through a lifetime of consistent application of confessional principles, managed to remain solidly confessional and zealous, neither burning out in a flame of self-righteousness nor capitulating to love of fame and status and ease. These men ought to be the role models both for young and old Lutheran traditionalists.
We can all work together — the zeal of the young and the wisdom of the old each complementing the other. We must find a way to do it, if we wish to leave an intact and thriving tradition for the generations who come after us. The Lord has promised that the gates of Hell will never overcome His Church, but there is no such promise given to synods, schools, or other man-made institutions. We must work hard to repair and build up the institutions we want to pass down to our posterity, and we must do this together and without compromising principles.