Some years ago, our “flagship” seminary had a spot of trouble. The one job they were given – training pastors to faithfully teach the Word of God to our parishes – became too much of a burden. Instead of faithfulness, they went whoring after the spirit of the age. This was such an unbelievable thing that at first the LCMS did the only logical thing in such a situation: they disbelieved it.
Early warning signs that something was wrong were ignored. The cowardly statement of the 44 should have been a wakeup call. Instead, it was the synod’s cue to continue whistling on their merry way. Unrecognized was that they were whistling past their own potential graveyard.
In the 1950’s, a young seminary student tried to sound the alarm. As is often the case with the vigor of youth, he did it rather injudiciously. The seminary – which had previously certified him for the pastoral ministry – took the unprecedented step of de-certifying him. A congregation called him to serve as their pastor despite the official disapproval. Disregarding their own doctrine of the call, synod officials refused to recognize him as a pastor. But the congregation could not be removed – there was no bylaw against what they had done. So, the synod passed the first of two eventual “Anti-Otten” bylaws. Too late. The parish could not be forced to remove him. For nearly four decades the synod refused to recognize his ministry. And the great irony is that the bylaw passed to work as a scalpel against him would later be used as cudgel against those who supported the false theology of the “faculty majority”.
But he did not need to be officially removed from his ministry. As they say “the process is the punishment”. Other would-be reformers were sent a clear and unmistakable message: Zeal for the Word of God is best kept to a respectable level. Speak, but not too forcefully, nor against the synod and her divinely elected leaders. Those who ignored that advice would pay the penalty. (See: Robert Preus) The synod was to be a place for churcmen. And those who used their love of the second commandment to inform their love for the eighth tended to cause unpleasant scenes at the synod Christmas party. Much better to handle everything quietly – when something was handled at all. More commonly, things were swept under synodical carpets, dealt with quietly and under cover of darkness. So, heretical books that were accidentally published were just quietly withdrawn. Rebuke of the author – who might still be peddling the heresies through other publishing houses – was left for someone else to handle. Of course, it never got handled. False teachings regarding worship, fellowship, syncretism were allowed to flourish. “Follow the process” people were told.
This led to the second of the “Anti-Otten” bylaws. The confessional majority got tired of the embarrassment occasioned by resolutions sent into synod calling for heresy trials of heretics. And so, rather than work to keep heresy out, it was easier to just make it so that such things were never published. A bylaw that called for rejection of any resolution containing “material error” was passed – it was a blatant attempt to keep a single parish’s resolutions off the books. Instead, the (now more liberal) administration censored entire districts. A mistake in even the smallest detail (wrong bylaw citation) would mean a resolution critical of the false theology of the administration would never see the light of day. Once again, a weapon intended as a scalpel was used as a cudgel.
Those who objected to false theology were told to follow the process, but then excluded from that process time and again. Those who brought charges were time and again frustrated to see “process” used to excuse clear heresy. The CCM, in a display of godlessness that would make King Ahab proud, ruled that men could not be held accountable for their own transgressions. The CTCR, in reporting on the 8th commandment, only acknowledges the teaching function of public rebuke in the most incidental way. The Koinonia Project showed how far we had fallen: An official amnesty had to be declared in order to even get people to begin talking. Any attempt to speak to false teaching publicly was frowned upon. Districts that attempted to do so when confronted with false doctrine were ignored, and chastised. Endless dialogue and patience was always implored. When even the President of Synod, according to his office and responsibility, spoke about a notorious false teacher, it was considered by many a scandal. The official procedures of synod were diabolically amended so that, upon filing charges, a pastor lost the ability to speak publicly about the false teaching. The CTCR, with a wave of its hand, made such a violation of God’s Law acceptable. Bylaws are separate from what God’s Word requires, they said. It was not that we continued sweeping things under various rugs. We now employed official rug-sweeper-unders to make sure that no bad news was ever to be heard about the LCMS.
A pious lay-woman who dared to question the orthodoxy of the synod based on false teaching she had observed, was pressured to repent for a week at a synod convention by district and university officials. They were more offended that she spoke about false teaching, than about the false teaching itself. There were now not only rug-sweepers, but those who considered it their sacred duty to silence anyone who had knowledge of what lay under the carpet.
Those who actually work in the day to day life of the church and see the devastation that false doctrine causes, and who dare to speak against publicly proclaimed false doctrine are quietly declared persona non grata. They are safely ignored by those who sit in castles of glass and stone and steel. And those who peddle innovative (false) doctrine in ivory towers have been protected from adverse consequences by constant calls for “process” “dialogue” and “patience.” “It’s complicated” we are told – as if the common parish pastor can not understand either the complexity of God’s Word, nor of the divinely inspired bylaws that are used to disregard that Word.
It is true that we should not rush to judgment. It is true that we should hear all sides and make certain that what is being taught is well and truly heresy before we publicly rebuke. But it is also true that we can not simply sit on the sidelines forever allowing more and more false teaching to be tolerated and promoted in the church. And that is what has been happening. Teaching toward faithfulness is only effective if it also contains warnings against unfaithfulness. Those have been few, far between, and mostly relegated only to cases so notorious that there was little political risk in doing so. We now have seminary graduates, rather than pledging their faithfulness to God’s Word, writing their own solemn vows that they will be nice to each other. We have worship services at colleges and a seminary that are based not on our rich theology of justification, but on the Baptistic pattern of decision theology. When questioned, we are told that future pastors and teachers will not attend services of the church that use a synodically approved hymnal. And everyone just seems ok with that. I guess the theory is that it’s better to have unfaithful pastors and teachers than no pastors and teachers. And actually teaching them what we believe would be too hard, even for a university or seminary who has been given that one job. Districts no longer meet for conferences at all because of doctrinal laxity. Pastors who practice closed communion are persecuted by district officials. Synodical Youth Gatherings more closely match the ancient definition of Bacchanalia than the Lutheran Gottesdienst. And those who speak against such things are called the troublers of Israel. The 8th commandment card is played by synod officials with such reckless abandon that no one dares say anything.
There are signs that all this may be changing. But in a synod as complacent about false teaching as ours has been, this will be a harsh wake up call. And the question is, are we too far gone now to wake up and speak the truth?