Editor’s Note: Last week we ran the introduction and overview of this paper. Today we are putting the paper out there for our readers to digest and ponder. The comments from the overview article certainly revealed at least three or four of these synods within a “synod”.
(Edited, updated, and really lengthened 7-16-18)
The Many Synods within the Synod
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:3–5 ESV).
The Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod, out of a love for numbers, a desire to chase after the world, and/or a host of other reasons is willing to be that teacher to suit your passions. She will create a synod with whatever doctrine you desire as long as you are willing to wear the name “Missouri Synod” upon your lapel. No myth is off limits and no doctrine too strange. The Missouri Synod will scratch any itch you want scratched just say the word and they will do it.
Some believe there is only one division within the Missouri Synod, others deny any division at all, I believe there are as many divisions as there are ears. What follows are my observations which led me to say such an awful thing.
The following is not a doctrinal thesis, nor is it biblical commentary. It is merely the observations of a young pastor within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS). It comes mostly from my experience as a pastor within the LC-MS, but it also comes from the thirty plus years prior as a layman within the LC-MS. It doesn’t need to be debated, rebuked, or recanted. It is simply ideas to open discussion in a virtuous, beneficial manner. Examples used in this essay are also extremes for dramatic effect. If you are offended by any of them, calm down. Your taking offense clearly means you are part of this synod; just accept it whether you self-identify as part of it or not. Laugh along with the rest of us and enjoy the experience. You won’t be the topic of discussion for long and soon enough you will be cheering with the rest of us against some other crowd which you do not like. I have attempted to be unbiased by attacking each group equally, some just make it easier than others. This essay didn’t begin as something scholarly and it only digressed as I went. Nevertheless, I had fun with it, so relax and have fun with it also.
A – Antinomian synod (aka Missional who are liturgical)
N – Nostalgia synod (aka Bronzers)
L – Liturgical synod (aka Chancel Prancers)
C – Confessional synod (aka Legalists)
M – Missional synod (aka Church Growthers)
S – Seminex synod (aka Libs)
There are the six shadow synods I have identified in the Missouri Synod. Most people will admit the LC-MS has been divided for some time. One could date it back to the Statement of the 44 in 1945, though that may be up for debate. Most people separate the synod into two divisions; conservatives and liberals, or as they like to call themselves, moderates. I, however, find that to be a little too clean, too neat, and too tidy. I believe the divisions are greater or at least different. One could argue for more or fewer divisions, but I have settled in on six. These divisions, or shadow synods as previously stated, wouldn’t be a problem if they all believed the same doctrine, but they don’t. They are truly different in such a way that many of them can’t rightly call themselves a synod with the other ones.
In construction material is poured into a form to create a foundation. Concrete goes into plywood backed with rebar to get the proper shape for the building to be built upon. Likewise, each church is built upon a certain material, which was cast from a certain form. The material principle is the substance out of which the foundation is made. In construction almost always concrete. In theology, it is a particular doctrine. That material principle was formed from another doctrine. This is called the formal principle. Different material principles and different formal principles create many different foundations for these many different synods to be built. They all claim to have built a Lutheran church upon their foundation, as construction teaches different materials and different forms create different foundations. Many are trying to build Lutheran churches on non-Lutheran foundations, which results in disaster. The house built on the rock will stand. The house built on the sand will fall (Matt. 7:24-27).
First is the Antinomian synod. This synod is closely related and in many ways looks like the confessional synod and the liturgical synod. These three have many things in common. Their pastors all vest and make use of the historic liturgy. They quote the scriptures and confessions ad nauseam. However, the antinomian synod’s material principle is all are free in Christ. Their formal principle is the gospel, in its narrower sense. This synod wants everyone to hear the gospel and wants everyone to feel the comfort of the gospel. They want Christians to never feel guilty, to never feel dirty, and to never feel sinful. The problem is that we are sinful. “The good I want to do I do not do, but the evil I do not want to do this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19). The gospel frees us, yes, but that does not mean sin does not still plague us. Luther said the old Adam still clings to us even after baptism. Therefore St. John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8 ESV). Therefore, even as Christians, we are still guilty of sinning and should always feel the weight of our sin, causing us to always turn to Christ in faith for forgiveness. This synod seems to want repentance to be a one-time thing and not a life-long venture. The danger of this synod is their rejection of the Law, which condemns sin and shows how a Christian ought to live. They want to live in freedom, not the freedom to serve God, but the freedom to sin without consequence. They want the freedom to ignore God’s rules for being His people and yet still be called God’s people. For example, the scriptures teach that a pastor must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2), yet the antinomian synod releases a pastor from this verse and allows him to divorce and remarry and remain in the ministry. This is something that was never permitted in the LC-MS before the most recent of years. This synod does not see the law as good as long as it is used lawfully (1 Tim 1:8). They see the law as an obstacle that must be overcome and abolished by the gospel. They do not see the law as serving the gospel, but impeding it. In this synod, any sin is permissible, as long as one dwells in the gospel. Rightly speaking the gospel fulfills the law. The antinomians teach the gospel abolishes the law. This synod would vehemently reject the idea that it is liberal, however, this synod seems to have much in common with the liberals of yesteryear, mainly what has become known as gospel reductionism, which is sited above as their formal principle. This confusion causes them to confuse law with gospel. Here is an example of the law being abolished by the gospel, “So, the Law is not first and foremost about us. It’s about Jesus! Jesus, who perfectly loves God the Father and who perfectly loves and serves His neighbor. The Law pointed to Jesus and it is kept and fulfilled by Jesus”. See how the law is destroyed by the gospel. The law is the command to love. This form of antinomianism is not a denial of the law, but a rejection of the third use of the law. Here Jesus not only fulfills the law, but He swallows it up so that there is nothing left for Christians to do. Christians have no need to love God or each other because, Jesus! This synod denies that Jesus creates clean hearts in us that want to keep the law. The Law is first and foremost about us; about us doing or not doing what God commanded; about the curb, mirror, and rule. The above quote removes the teeth of the law and attempts to turn it into gospel. Rightly speaking, the gospel points us to Jesus. The law points us to our sins and our duties to God and the neighbor. This quote, along with this synod confuses the law and the gospel because this synod does not understand the purpose of the law, since the formal principle has no place for the law.
Second is the Nostalgia synod. This synod is the faithful few who defended the Bible in the previous century. They fought for a noble cause, but this doesn’t mean they are without issues. This synod is very conservative and uses the bible to teach their conservative views. Their material principle is to be conservative in all moral and ethical matters. Their formal principle is the bible. Though this may sound great, the gospel in the narrower sense is seldom heard from their pulpits. They preach morals, and as long as you fall on the right side of all the hot-button ethical issues, then God is pleased with you. This synod has much in common with the Southern Baptist Convention and other Fundamentalists. They use the liturgy, but that is only because they don’t want to change to this new fancy music. Even though they use the liturgy, they are very much against any historical liturgical practices; such as genuflecting, the sign of the cross, or chanting. They prefer the good old hymns which they have always sung such as “Just as I am”, “Rock of Ages”, “Amazing Grace” and such. Their liturgical style would be that of a Methodist preacher from the 1890’s. Charles Merrill Smith captured the heart and soul of this synod in his book, “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious”; stating, “The weakness of your seminary training in the art of worship is that it was built on the assumption that public worship is the public worship of God… What your good Christian people want to worship is not God but themselves”. Smith goes on to discuss how to worship the worshipper in a sarcastic manner that captures the desires of this synod. They desire to be caught up in their feelings, most especially the feeling of nostalgia. This synod wants to feel as if they have stepped back in time to the era in which they believe everything was right. For example, they expect the worship experience to take them out of the dangerous world in which we now live and place them in a rerun of “Leave it to Beaver”. The nostalgia synod wants church to be nothing more than comfort food, just the way mom used to make it. “It is a valid working rule that most people, as they grow older find life increasingly complex, their responsibilities weighing heavier and heavier, and the years passing at an ever swift pace. This produces in them a longing for what they imagine, in retrospect, was a far simpler and happier period of their lives than in all probability it actually was. Freudian psychologists would consider this phenomenon a mild form of the subconscious desire to return to a prior condition of perfect security and contentment – that is, to return to the womb. As Shelly Berman has said, ‘Let’s face it – we all want to go back.’… So the ordering and execution of a public worship service is, at its best, an exercise in nostalgia.” Smith goes on to explain the best way to produce this feeling is through music. Something Luther himself learned. This is why the nostalgia synod wants to sing all the good ol’ hymns, like the stuff that was popular when they were children. They bristle at the thought of learning a new hymn, “It’s too hard!” despite the fact that the pastor taught it to the preschool in the course of an hour. “It’s too hard!” is really code for “Don’t change our faith, let us go back in time to that perfect era.”
The animated TV show, “South Park”, a heathen show no pious pastor should watch, spent much of the 2017 season devoted to this very topic. Instead of calling it nostalgia, they called it “’member berries”. A character on the show would eat these “‘member berries” and as if high on a drug they would be taken away from all the troubles of the present day and remember how much they enjoyed yesteryear. “‘member Star Wars? ‘Member Chewbacca?” and all of a sudden the characters can handle the stress of present-day life. Living in the past is, without doubt, a mark of the nostalgia synod. ‘Member the Walther league? ‘Member when the church was full? ‘Member when they preached the bible? ‘Member when we were children and we behaved, not like these kids today. ‘Member when we were in charge and had no sin? ‘Member when we saved the synod? ‘Member how we really want to worship ourselves and not God? “South Park” used “Star Wars” where the nostalgia synod uses “Amazing Grace”.
This synod loves them some tradition, even though they have no desire to ever learn the traditions of historic Lutheranism. The love their tradition, the traditions they grew up with. They believe Lutheranism was perfected at the time when they grew up in it and if Lutherans deviate to the left or right of what they did in the ’60s, then they are not being faithful Lutherans. While in the South Wisconsin District, I had a local pastor admit to me that in seminary he was taught that very thing: do not change anything. Any change is seen as a push toward liberalism; therefore, pastors are not to advocate any change at all. They must be compared to the Amish. The Amish believe Jesus wants all people to live as they did in the 17th century so they reject any practices either before or after this era. This synod believes the same of the Church, but not for the 17th century, of the early 20th century instead.
Doctrinally the nostalgia synod is conservative, but one must ask what does that mean? Conservative is a political word, so does it even have a place in the Church? To this synod it means the exact same as it does in the political sphere. It means on the right of all moral issues. There is next to no emphasis on the doctrines concerning God. There is little to no talk of God at all, really. They really only want to hear about man and how man must serve God according to the morals laid out in the bible. If there is talk of Jesus, it is normally exemplary. If there is talk of the cross, it is used as a motivation to amend one’s sinful ways, or as a footnote. The footnote gospel is simply tagged on to a long sermon on morality, because every good bible preacher mentions Jesus dying for our sins at some point, whether it fits the sermon or not. The gospel is never the central focus of the sermon; it doesn’t need to be. When the whole purpose of worship is to escape in time to an era when all was well (i.e. the time when we were good Christians, without sin because back then we feared God, not like these heathen Christians of today) the forgiveness of sins is not needed. They don’t need forgiveness today, they need to return to the time before the fall, or at least the time before sin was a problem for the church, which is in their minds is when they were young. I kid you not, I once had a half hour argument with a woman over the sinfulness of her pastor. She argued her pastor was not a sinner, I argued yes I was. I used scripture to try and prove my point, but she would not have it. Her pastor was above any and all reproach. I was almost driven to the point of confessing my sins to this woman just to prove I was sinful, but didn’t think winning the argument was worth destroying her faith, because if she knew some of my sins, I fear her faith would have been obliterated on a nuclear level.
The nostalgia synod is very much at odds with the antinomian synod. They do not agree in practice; the antinomians are far too historical and “High-Church” for the nostalgia synod, and they certainly do not agree on doctrine; one rejects the third use of the law, the other believes it is the article upon which the church stands or falls.
Third is the Liturgical Synod. As the name states, this synod’s greatest concern is the historic liturgy. This synod is most likely to have their pastors go east and it’s no one-der why. They aren’t too concerned with doctrine, just practice. This synod considers the marks of the church to be the length of your beard, the number of children you have, and how many times you genuflect during the mass. Properly, there is nothing wrong with any of these, they are all good and salutary things, but they are certainly not marks of the church according to the scriptures. The material principle for the liturgical synod is ceremonious, historic liturgy must be conducted. The formal principle is historic church tradition. “Just as I am” will not be found here. In fact, any hymn written during the reformation is considered contemporary. What will be found is “The Conduct of the Service” being put akin to the Book of Concord among this synod. They are caught up in the pageantry over and above anything else. They strongly believe “lex orendi, lex credendi”. The way they worship is the way they confess to the point that all doctrines are taught through rite and ceremony. The great danger here is that they will go against Lutheran doctrine for the sake of ceremony. For example, to elevate one’s position as celebrant, a single pastor will gladly allow laymen to perform pastoral duties during the divine service to free the celebrant to stand regally at the altar. In an effort to glorify the office through practice, they will deny the doctrines confessed about that very office. This synod considers matters of adiaphora hills to die upon and will gladly divide a congregation over the most minuscule of practices. If you want to find this synod, just fold your hands the wrong way and they will come out of the woodwork to correct you. You are free to conduct the service however you desire, as long as you can prove your practice is older or more reverent than the practice of the guy questioning you. “The host in the hand is reformed you must place it on the tongue.” “Rome started placing it on the tongue to keep people from taking it home, historically in the house churches it was placed in the hand.” See, the new practice was justified because it was really the old practice.
Doctrinally this synod is all over the board, which makes sense because doctrine is not that important. Therefore, some of this synod is as faithful to the scriptures and confessions as anyone can ask, these most likely also belong to the confessional synod, which will be discussed later. Others are as far left as the seminex synod, which will also be discussed later. It is important to remember the liturgical synod began in the LC-MS within the seminex synod, but later reformed out of the confessional synod. Therefore, members of this synod are greatly divided, and age is a good indicator of the person’s origins within the liturgical synod. Wherever this synod stands doctrinally it is important to remember their first concern is historic liturgical practice, so one may think they are friend or foe based on liturgical preference, but then they show they are not as soon as doctrinal issues arise. These are sympathetic to any doctrine as long as those teachings conform to the desired liturgical customs. Bear in mind, most of the older members of this synod left in the day, or were pushed out, so most of this synod is men in their thirties or younger being led by a few men in their fifties. Think Martin Stephen with his posse of young Saxon pastors.
As stated above many of these younger men also fit nicely into the confessional synod. There are a great many faithful Lutherans here. Nevertheless, one must be on guard. When the battle for justification arises, these men seem to falter. This synod doesn’t exactly fall, but it will stumble about a bit as if it can’t quite find its footing. The reason for this is that it spends all of its time reading The Apology article XV (Human traditions in the Church) and never bother to peruse the Apology article IV (Justification). Doctrinally, this synod will typically follow the confessional synod, but it can never lead the charge on its own. It does not have the systematic wherewithal. The emphasis on practice has made it weak on confession. Its love for the historic is what makes it willing to follow the confessional synod on doctrine. If Luther or Chemnitz said it, then it trumps the Erlangen theologians simply because it was older, but if you can show where a Church Father said it then the debate is over; the fathers tend to carry more authority than even the Book of Concord in the liturgical synod.
Fourth is the Confessional Synod. This synod looks very similar to the conservative and liturgical synods. It uses the historic liturgy with great reverence. Its clergy are almost always seen in black clericals, even while mowing the lawn. Though it has a great respect for liturgy due to “lex orendi, lex credendi”, dogma reigns supreme. The law must be preached in full sternness and the gospel must be preached in full sweetness (Walther, Law and Gospel, thesis XXV). Its pastors are faithful to the scriptures even if it makes people mad. The confessional synod’s material principle is justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. Its formal principle is the Bible (all of it).
The pastors within the confessional synod are most often hated and despised. The grand old Missouri leadership doesn’t like them because they are a constant thorn in the flesh. These men are nothing more than child-like tattletales. “So and so did this and that is contrary to scripture. This district did that which goes against Luther’s seventy-fifth thesis against the Pomeranians”. This synod is why the other synods can’t have any fun. This synod is why the antinomians are trying to preach the third use of the law. They are why the nostalgia synod can’t sing their favorite hymns. They are why the liturgical synod can’t bring $20,000 tabernacles in the LC-MS. They are why the missional synod failed to reach 17,000,000 people for Jesus. The confessional synod is stuck on confessing, with their mouths and in their actions exactly word for word what the Bible teaches and what the Book of Concord confesses.
Doctrine reigns supreme in this synod. They believe there is nothing more important than confessing the truth of scripture. This makes them incredibly unpopular with the laity as well. Grandma Olgenbauer hates them because they won’t commune her granddaughter, even though she was confirmed in this very LC-MS church just because she now worships at the Western Branch of American Reformed Presbylutheran community center. Jack and Diane don’t like them because they refuse to marry them just because they have been living together. I mean who are they to say Jack’s love for Diane is adulterous? They are just two American kids trying to grow up in the heartland, doing the best they can, why can’t this synod be like the synod down the road who will marry anyone to anything no questions asked. Why can’t this synod care more about meeting people where they are and bringing them to Jesus? They only care about being faithful unto the Lord their God. And they will do so at all cost. They don’t seem to care about money, fame, their children, or even their wives, they only care about doctrine. Many have said doctrines divide and the confessionals don’t even seem to care. They are more than willing to be divided from everyone, even their own mothers if they don’t agree on the minutest points of dogma. For example, the confessional synod won’t join in fellowship with someone just because the other group dresses up like vaginas and denies the resurrection.
This synod also has some of the most out of touch preaching. They never say anything relevant to the people, all they do is talk about sin and forgiveness and read bible verses from the pulpit. Come on confessionals! “Why study the book of numbers? Thirty-six chapters of self-centered people who whine every time they didn’t get their way. Give us something relevant.” This synod doesn’t preach like they used to, they don’t spend fifty minutes telling us how to be better people, they spend fifteen minutes destroying our self-esteem and then telling us that Jesus is the one we should look to. Though they do have some flashes when they preach as the conservatives do. This synod will tell you how to live, but even then the focus is still on Jesus. For example, “We do good works because Jesus has created new hearts in us.”
Liturgically as stated above, they are conservative, but not too Methodist. They are “High- Church” but not too high. This synod may or may not have chasubles, the horse blanket is not a hill to die on in this synod. The only hill to die on is the gospel, the pure and clear confession of Christ crucified to forensically justify sinners.
Fifth is the Missional synod. It is a daughter of the nostalgia synod and the seminex-ers. Though they take mostly after the bronzers, they didn’t inherit their never-gonna-change attitude. They are willing to change at the drop of a hat, for the mission of course. The missional synod used to go under the name “Church Growth”, but in order to stay relevant, a name change was required. Branding and rebranding are essential to survival in the missional synod. This synod is closest related to American evangelicalism. They have many of the bronzer’s morals, but they are willing to do anything to get people. Their material principle is to sell the organization. While their formal principle is any marketing strategy that works as long as you put “for Him” or “Kingdom” in the slogan. The greatest trait they inherited is gospel reductionism, which will be discussed later with the seminex synod. This synod believes in the Bible and isn’t afraid to shout it out loud while holding up their big floppy Bibles. But this stance on the Bible is all for show. They seem to rarely ever open their Bibles and if they do it is only to proof text their next church program. They are also willing to ignore any bible passage if it gets in the way of the mission. Every “Thou shall not” passage is removed if it keeps the people who broke that commandment from coming in the door. A more recent example of this is a congregation in Carmel, IN bringing into membership an openly transitioning man, something any Christian should know is contrary to God’s will. Some of the confessionals threw a hissy fit so the transgender man returned his membership so that congregation didn’t get in trouble. But the missionals justified such action by saying they wanted to reach out to him with the gospel. They let the mission trump the Bible. Which makes one question what is their mission? Where did they get it? Is it a different mission than the one of the apostles (see: Galatians 1)?
This synod is probably the most difficult to describe doctrinally because there is no set doctrine. They are much like the Baptists, who have no creed but Christ. What in the world does that even mean? It confesses nothing, or nothing of substance. This synod will teach anything that gets people in the door, so their doctrine is often the doctrine of the best-selling Christian book at the local no-denomination mega cool, supra-hip coffee brewery. This synod may be Methodist one day, Baptist the next, and then Anglican the week after that. All that matters is that that they are reaching people. They don’t seem to care what they are reaching people with as long as they are reaching people and the people are happy. Their success is not measured biblically, but numerically. As long as your numbers are growing and you are working on a building project then the mission is working.
Rev. Kevin Martin said the goal of missionals is to make the entire Missouri Synod non-denominational. This statement explains why Christians who have no desire to believe or worship as Lutherans historically have do not just leave the Missouri Synod for a non-denominational church body, or for one of those bodies listed above. It would make sense for them to leave. They could worship and believe how they want, but without any pushback from those confessionals. Rev. Martin’s statement explains why they don’t leave. They believe in the depths of their hearts the Arminian, enthusiastic theology and therefore believe all must embrace it to be saved. In misguided love for their neighbors, the missionals believe they are saving the synod from a dead faith, with schwarmer.
Practically they are very conservative, remember they are the spawn of the nostalgia synod, so it has to have a conservative feel. But at the same time, that can all be thrown out the window to bring people in, so it will also be new. That is the trouble with being a fad, fads change quickly, so the practices of the missional synod do as well. They must change from fad to fad to fad because if you aren’t relevant the people will be missioned at the missional center next door. If that happens how will they ever pay for that $15,000,000 worship center, complete with the spinning drum kit used by Tommy Lee in Motley Crue’s 1987 tour? The ’80s are hot right now and retro is all the rage, this will certainly advance the mission. Beyond the desire to be hip and cool the missional synod also steps away from its conservative father in its hermeneutic. Missionals have a tendency of only using the Bible to find verses to support their latest fab; this is isogesis. This isogesis does not seek the scriptures for God’s meaning but instead seeks the scriptures to support their own ideas. In doing this certain parts of scripture are ignored. This way of reading the Bible is not too different than the higher critical method is determining which parts of the bible you think are true and remove the part you do not think are true. Both hermeneutics only us passages that support their own agenda and never dig into the scriptures to hear God speak. This leads us to the next synod, the mother of the missionals.
Sixth is the Seminex synod, which began in the 1950s according to James C. Burkee and also a report put together by the Board of Control for Concordia Seminary . Though I would argue it started even before that, citing as proof the statement of the 44, in 1945. Even before the statement of the 44 troubles were on the horizon as seen by Francis Peiper’s concerns about “modern theologians” which can be found in his “Christian Dogmatics”. For the statement of the 44 to be released to be able to be openly issued these men must have believed much of the synod was in agreement that Missouri needed and wanted to be more liberal. As we know the liberal movement in Missouri climaxed in the 1970s with a synod convention and the walk-out in ’74. Though Missouri claims she won the battle for the Bible, she never expelled all those pastors who were taught to reject the bible. This synod is made up of all those men who were trained in higher criticism and love it. They have learned how to speak vaguely and to be very aloof as to appear to believe in the whole Bible, but everything is said with a wink, wink added to it, so to speak. The aloof language allows them to appear like the bronzers, but not believe in the Bible, morals, or ethics. They are experts at speaking in code. Their speech and especially the writing is never heretical. That way they can’t be condemned for false teaching, yet at the same time never make a clear confession that is easily understood. The wording is always done in such a manner as to leave the door open for the false teaching they secretly want everyone to believe. For example “Everyone a Minister” by Oscar E. Feucht never tells the laity to actually encroach upon the duties reserved for those called to the office of the holy ministry. However, it pushes the line as far as possible and I have been told by pastors who knew Dr. Feucht that privately he taught everyone a minister in the sense that every Christian should be performing the acts that the Evangelical Lutheran Church reserves for men called to the office of the holy ministry. Its material principle is the gospel. But what is the gospel? In The Hammer of God, Bo Giertz comments of one of his fictitious characters, “Nothing must violate freedom of conscience. After all, this is the very basic principle of the gospel.” Bishop Giertz explains that freedom of conscience is a purpose of Christianity and also that of Christ. The gospel according to scripture is Jesus’ atonement for the sins of mankind, but because of a demonic hermeneutic which affirms sin, the gospel must be changed. It has been changed into the freedom to sin as long as one feels it is acceptable. The “bound conscience” talk of the ELCA concerning their acceptance of that which God’s Word calls “sin” certainly helps to prove the point. One also hears this “conscience” talk among the seminex-ers and missionals. The seminex-ers formal principle is the gospel or more specifically “does it hurt the gospel or does the gospel require us to believe this or that other point of doctrine”.
Though the seminex synod’s whole theology could be summarized with John Lennon’s words “All you need is love”, there are some foundational thoughts which drive this synod. They are: “the manner of the creation of the universe by God, the authorship and literary form of any books of the Bible, the definition of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, the moral obligation of Christians in individual or corporate action, the question of factual error in the Bible and the role and authority of clergy in the church”. Many claim this synod has been eradicated within Missouri, but that is far from true; they have just gone underground and lurk in the shadows. It is seen in remnants in a hatred of the clergy and a desire for the laity to do the pastor’s job; in open communion; and in a desire of political action from the church among other things.
This synod seems to believe context is a key to practicing doctrinal positions. For example, “’What is the intent of the passage?’ While in itself a legitimate point in interpreting a text, the question could be raised in an illegitimate way. For instance, if one decided it was not the intent of a passage to give information of a factual, historical nature, one could then say that you accept the theological truth in the text as set forth, but deny that the event itself actually took place.” In more recent years context this has been taken to the next level saying, that doctrinal position applied only to those people in that place and in that time, but in our context; our place, our time, something new must be done. Although this is nothing new either. Samuel Simon Schmucker said the same thing when he came to America; “Lutheran sacraments worked in Europe, but in America decision theology is what will build the church”, therefore Schumucker wanted to rewrite the Augsburg confession to conform more to Baptist and Methodist theology and do away with Lutheran beliefs.
The seminex practice, which used to be very ceremonial and liturgical, as much as the liturgical synod of today, is now often seen in many forms, including the adoption of Pentecostal and Methodist practices. When the doctrine is to be happy, the practice changes in order to appease the people. The practice is often whatever the newest fad is among American Christianity.
Dr. Warwick Montgomery coined the phrase “gospel reductionism” during the heyday of seminex and this term greatly summarizes the doctrinal stance of the seminex synod. All that matters is the gospel in the narrowest sense. Thus the truth of scripture and history of scripture are rejected and found inconsequential because the only purpose of the bible for them is to tell of how God loves everyone. The greatest problem with gospel reductionism is that once the condemnation of sin has been removed all sins are permissible and if there is no sin no one needs saved from sin, so the gospel changes from “Jesus died to save you from your sin” to “Jesus loves you and wants you to be happy”. This was originally fought on the issue of women’s ordination and now is seen today in the issue of homosexual ordination. A rejection of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 allows the women to chase their dreams and be happy working in an occupation that God has said only men may do. And now it has further led to a rejection of God’s order for marriage and sexuality (Lev. 18, 1 Corinthians 6) and allowed open and unrepentant sinners not only to be “in good standing” Christians, but also ministers of God’s holy Word.
The central teaching which causes most to have a foot in several synods seems to be gospel reductionism as seen in the example above. Part of this gospel reductionism, which fits the missional, antinomian, and seminex synod is not just reductionism but a reversal of the material and formal principles. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has always, at least on paper, claimed the formal and material principles of the confessional synod. [The confessional synod’s material principle is justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. Its formal principle is the Bible (all of it).] An article from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis flips this around making the formal principle, or the principle which shapes all doctrine and practice the gospel. Then uses this reductionist formal principle to call the bible the material principle. The problem here is that that does not work. If the formal principle is reduced to the gospel only, the material principle cannot be any wider in scope than that same reductionist gospel.
Within these six synods is a large amount of overlap. The conservatives gave birth to the confessionals, missionals, liturgicals, and antinomians. While the seminex-ers gave birth to the antinomians and missionals. The liturgicals and confessionals overlap quite a bit, but a litmus test is paedo-communion. Confessionsals will turn red-faced and condemn it with gusto, while a liturgical will be accepting of the practice or at least not fly off the handle in explaining why it is not a desirable practice. The antinomians are essentially cryptic within the liturgicals and confessionals.
The overlap has caused some to switch synods without even knowing it. These pious laymen self-identify with a certain synod and then listen to the voices of people who claim to be in the same synod. Synodical loyalty causes these laymen to support their people blindly. But the speakers or leaders have feet in other synods to and as they walk from one synod to the other they take the laity with them. They laity never know they changed synods because they kept the same logo. For example, the St. Louis seminary under the liberals was investigated for false teaching on certain topics and this year (2018) the Wyoming district is meeting with St. Louis faculty to discuss four topics which were discussed in the 1970s. Yet, no one would consider St. Louis to be under the control of the liberals again. I believe the same may have happened with the Lutheran Hour, the LWML, and other organizations.
Rev. Tom Chryst is the first person I heard use the phrase, “mushy middle” and this term accurately describes those stuck in the overlap. There are small bands that have both feet firmly planted in one synod or another, clergy mostly with a few diehard laymen. However, most have one foot over here and another foot over there. An example is the article written by Concordia University, Irvine Professor, Daniel Deen, entitled “Thank God for Evolution”. The article argues for evolution, a seminex statement, in order to reach the lost with the gospel, a missional statement, and promotes the gospel as the only important part of the Bible, an antinomian and seminex statement.
A major problem is the mushy middle has no firm foundation and therefore sways to and fro with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). They will hear the missionals and determine that to be the way to save the Church and then they will hear a liturgical and say, “yes, yes we must use the hymnal”; so they end up believing you must use the hymnal, but the pastor can’t vest and process in with a crucifix and incense. Instead, he must dress up as Santa Claus and ride an artificial donkey down the aisle.
A fellow pastor once told me, “you go into seminary liking this professor and you leave liking that professor”. He was describing how he came to the seminary being a member of one synod and after years of reading, studying and listening to lectures became a member of another synod. He started over here and walked through the mushy middle to end over there. I have also learned that men in transition will often transition back if they leave a certain setting. For example, the man leaves the seminary headed one way and is placed in a district which is in the synod he left. Their influence brings him right back to the synod he just left, or puts him in another one. There is no solid foundation, no consistency in doctrine, just a chasing after the wind with any argument that sounds good, or is at least the flavor of the day. The culture is obsessed with “transgender”, the Missouri Synod is obsessed with “transsynod”. Many self-identify in one synod, but believe the exact same as another synod. For example the 2010 synod convention; it adopted all the resolutions of the Task Force, which were put forward by the seminex and missional synods, but then elected Matthew Harrison president, who was the beloved of the antinomian, nostalgia, liturgical and confessional synods. The letter “Q” for questioning could be added to the end of AN LC-MS because much of the mushy middle doesn’t know to which synod it belongs.
There is great danger in this dysphoria as Aaron Tippin taught us in a song, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything”. By not having a solid doctrinal foundation the mushy middle one day is confessional the next missional, one day part of seminex, the next full of nostalgia. There is no consistency and thus Missouri can’t be defined as one thing or the other, it all depends on the day, the topic, or the person speaking. This is seen when traveling, an LC-MS member goes to an LC-MS church and is appalled by what is happening there. It is nothing like their Church. That is because they went from one synod to another; from Lc-ms to lc-Ms. What is most frustrating about the mushy middle is those who don’t know where to stand so they lie down on their back putting one foot in one synod the other foot in another synod, each hand in a different synod and their head in another. These are often blind to the fact there are different synods within the synod. They claim unity when anyone can clearly see there is no unity.
Though all six synods do have much in common, they all operate under different material and formal principles and thus aren’t able to truly have unity despite the overlap. Unless someone starts to discipline the synods who teach differently, there will never be unity, but there will be only a continued battle for control of the cobalt cathedral in which every synod takes its turn pushing its teaching on the other synods and confusing the poor souls in the pews. Most of them don’t have a clue as to what synod they belong and they try to make sense of it all. But this is impossible because these poor laity don’t have a material or formal principle they have six.
President Harrison once called the Missouri Synod a ship, though the synod emphatically claims it is not Church. Nevertheless, using this analogy, the mushy middle is so busy swaying starboard to port, bow to stern that she is yawing all over the place and it is only a matter of time before it capsizes from the confusion. But, take comfort dear Christian, the good ship Missouri is not the Church. The Church is a ship that cannot be shaken; she is sound and secure, held fast by the teaching of our Lord found in the scriptures. Long after Missouri has sunk the Church will remain, Christ will not let her sink. He will rescue her from every storm and gale. He keeps her steady with the keel of the law and the prophets and she will not roll.
I personally plan to stay on the good ship Missouri until she capsizes or I am forced to walk the plank, and when that day happens I will not weep. I know the Church remains afloat, so I will swim to the most faithful Evangelical Lutheran Church body I can find, and I will keep my feet right where they are now, grounded in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. AN LCMS may not last into the ages but the Church endures forever; solely by the grace of God.
 Charles Merrill Smith. How to become a Bishop without being Religious. Doubleday and Company Inc. Garden City, NY, 1965, 37.
 Ibid, 76-77.
 James C. Burkee. Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2011, 18.
 Exodus from Concordia: A Report on the 1974 Walkout. The Board of Control, Concordia Seminary, 1977. 4, 5.
 Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, CPH 1952, Vol. 1, 86. (Note: though published in 1952 Dr. Pieper died in 1931, so the higher critical method was coming to the US before 1931.)
 Bo Giertz. The Hammer of God. Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2005, 299.
 Paul A. Zimmerman. A Seminary in Crisis. CPH, St. Louis, 2007, 54.
 Zimmerman, 30.
 Zimmerman, 54.