In what appears to be the final edition of his Perspectives, a weekly internet letter that Gerald Kieschnick has been writing for nearly a year now, the LCMS president shares some final thoughts on his service.
We highlight it here not to talk about the person of Jerry Kieschnick but to use it as an opportunity to talk about the approach to church that he represents. This is a helpful exercise because it alerts us to the different ways to “do church” that are out there and to compare them to the doctrine and practice revealed in Holy Scripture.
Rev. Harrison has now been elected and so the only remaining business with President Kieschnick is to write the history of his presidency and to identify any enduring issues that his presidency represents and what they mean for the LCMS. The former we shall leave to the likes of historians Martin Noland, Matthew Phillips or others. We shall focus on the latter.
So what enduring issues of significance are there from the Kieschnick years? One of them is hinted at his latest and last edition of Perspectives? In this issue of his letter President Kieschnick states that powerful Scripture passages sustained him through difficult times in his presidency including times of “inaccurate misrepresentations of who I am.” It is good that President Kieschnick turned to Scripture. We should follow his example in that. This quote also raises the specter of exactly how he felt he was misrepresented. My guess is that he may in part be referring to this website. If not then good, and I apologize in advance to President Kieschnick for assuming so. But even if not, it is accurate to say that our characterization of him here as less than purely confessional certainly is one of the misrepresentations to which he refers even if no specific reference to BJS is intended. President Kieschnick’s way of doing church in our estimation is not as confessional as it ought to be and since it still endures in the LCMS we wish to use the occasion of the final edition of Perspectives to point out its shortcomings.
To do so I will focus on the doctrine of divine monergism because I believe it gets to the heart of what is missing in President Kieschnick’s approach to church. Divine monergism literally means God’s (divine) work (ergon) alone (mono). It is often associated with Calvinists but is also a great handle for understanding Confessional Lutheranism. It is associated with Cavinists because of the notable leap they make from monergism to double predestination (the teaching that God has elected some to heaven and some to hell, which contradicts the Scriptural teaching that only the elect are foreordained). A proper understanding of monergism does not necessitate subscription to double predestination. Divine monergism is simply shorthand for the Biblical teaching that God does all for our justification and for our sanctification and for that matter, that God is behind all else that goes on in the cosmos. President Kieschnick’s Ablaze way of doing church focuses on both God and man as active players in the work of the church.
I draw attention to the doctrine of divine monergism because I believe it is the most efficient test one can use to understand the false over-statement of man’s role in the Ablaze way of doing church. The teaching of monergism is similar to the teaching of “grace alone” and “faith alone” but it has the advantage of focusing those truths on the question of who does the work in the church. Every Lutheran, including President Kieschnick, uses the phrases “grace alone” and “faith alone.” President Kieschnick made it a point in his “campaigning” last year to highlight that for us all. He then reiterated it in his convention sermon. But there is a tendency to use these terms only in relation to individual salvation. Divine monergism is a phrase that more clearly extends our understanding of the “alone” nature of God’s work not only to subjective justification (personal salvation) but also to the work of the church. I would characterize the Ablaze approach this way. “Of course everyone knows we are saved by grace alone but now that we are saved we had better get to work and make sure we apply the right techniques so that we can save the world.” It is in this focus on the right techniques of human reason that the “alone” work of God gets lost in the translation from salvation to ecclesiology.
As I said, every Lutheran knows that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Those words roll off our tongues often to the point of mindless repetition. It is easy to say “I believe in grace and faith alone” but then turn around and act as if everything in the church depends on man. President Kieschnick’s Ablaze mindset does this. In the Ablaze approach to the faith we are continually told that unless we practice personal evangelism people will go to hell. We are also told that the church must make use of the insights of modern marketing, psychology, pop culture and sociology to develop methods that will be more effective in saving more souls. This violates faith alone and grace alone and is certainly not divine monergism but the Kieschnick approach to doing church sees no problem with this emphasis on personal responsibility to save others and the manipulation of marketing, psychology and sociology. Here are a few insights as to why the Ablazers do this.
At the seminary, while I was still struggling with the comprehensive nature of “grace alone” (i.e. divine monergism) and in the youthful zeal of wanting to turn the world upside down with my ministrations, I turned to doctrines like justification/sanctification and the third use of the law as possible ways to get human reason and skill back into the work of the church. I had already learned of the centrality of grace alone, even to the extent of divine monergism, but then when I learned of the doctrine of sanctification (the holy works we do once we are saved) and the third use of the law (using the law to point us to the good deeds we are to do), I saw such teachings as the way that we get man back into the picture and undo some of the irrationality of “grace alone.” Sure we are saved by grace alone but this cannot be any effective way to talk about the work of the church. We are saved by grace alone but at least there is the matter of sanctification and the third use of the law where I get to do things for the Lord.
It took as much as twenty years of pastoring and study to learn that this was not the approach to church that God has given us in his pure Gospel. At some point along that path I was introduced to Adolf Koberle’s A Quest for Holiness in which it is demonstrated from Scripture that even sanctification is the work of God. I would also come to understand phrases I had learned earlier from Dr. Norman Nagel like “the only thing that has to work on the pastor is his lips so he can preach the Word of God” and “you are the delivery point for the body and blood of the Lord to enter the belly of the communicants” and others such monergistic statements.
I started out in the ministry as a mild Church Growth practitioner. I started a “contemporary service” in a very traditional parish at my first call. I did countless sermon series in place of the pericopes, most of them on doctrinal themes but some of them geared toward felt needs. I marginalized the voters assembly so that the pastor and leaders could more efficiently run the church. Through the years I learned on each of these counts and others that faith alone was more than just a theological mantra to keep from being a Roman Catholic. I learned that my hands really were the vehicle for placing the body of Christ on the receiver’s lips for the forgiveness of sins. I learned that the liturgy is a deliberate, sacred, reverent, fitting 2,000 year old custom filled with God’s Holy Word that rightly expresses the faith. I learned that Holy Baptism really does regenerate babies and create faith in them. I learned that a pastor is not an organizer/leader (the so called “player-coach” of the Ablaze movement) but a pair of lips to speak law and Gospel. I learned that instead of trying to marginalize the voters assembly it was more fitting to let them listen to and judge my words to make sure they were hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd calling out to them.
Another turning point on divine monergism came with my understanding of the role of women in the church. It seems that even though the LCMS takes a hard line on women’s ordination we are also looking for whatever way we can to expand the role of women even within the Divine Service. It took me nearly twenty years of pastoring and making myself a slave to God’s word to finally just accept God’s word for what it says. Women are to keep silent in the church (the Divine Service). This is divine monergism. God alone determines how things are in the cosmos and in the Church. He has established the order of creation (man first then woman). The Ablaze approach to the role of women appears to me to be one that knows it cannot ordain woemn but almost in apology tries to allow everything right up to the precipice of ordination. That is not the way of divine monergism. God is God and his word says what it says. We need not apologize for it or try to accommodate it.
The most outstanding example of this is when President Kieschnick invited his wife up to the “pulpit” at a national youth gathering a few years ago. He pays lip service to the notion that women are not to be ordained but it had not sunk into his bones and sinew. He would never ordain his wife but he did allow her into the “pulpit” in the middle of his sermon and let her “preach” to the crowd albeit under the guise of greeting the youth. Did President Kieschnick intend to have his wife preach? Of course not, but because divine monergism had not gotten into the very fiber of his ecclesiology it did not dawn on him what he was doing.
The Ablaze approach to church is pleasing to man because it has us playing a prominent role in the church similar to the way in which President Kieschnick’s final Perspective turns out to be much about him and his impact on the church and the way in which the sinful evil culture kept him from accomplishing all his purposes for the Church. The Ablaze approach to church has us counting our evangelistic endeavors, writing grants for fun and funky innovations, and congregations revitalizing their work through the Transforming Churches Network model. There is lots for us to do in this Ablaze approach to church. We are busy, busy, busy acting out our justification.
Now of course we “do” stuff in our sanctified life and we are to do the works of the law as described in the “third use” teaching. I am not denying that. But God is the one who is doing these things through us. An emphasis on human reason and manipulation in the church detracts from the truth of divine moergism and opens the door to a non-sacramental approach to church that is ultimately man-centered and not Christ-centered.
The divine monergism approach to doing church is passive. It understands that we are dead in our trespasses and dependent on God to speak us back to life. It does not quantify this but merely proclaims God’s word to those who like and those who like it not. Read Luther’s Bondage of the Will and you will most likely react against its comprehensive claims for the will and work of God in the world. Luther is thoroughly Scriptural to the point that it is offensive to us. The Bondage of the Will is a Scriptural description of God’s monergistic work that will turn your stomach and offend your self-vaunted will. In it Luther describes all mankind as dumb “asses.” Because we are stupid donkeys we do not know where to go and therefore in life we are either ridden by God for our own good or by Satan for his own good. There is no in between. For Luther there is no “me” in the equation. I read The Bondage of the Will in my second year of seminary and bristled at Luther’s foolish dependence on divine monergism. Now, some thirty years later I see the truth in it and also see an approach to church in the LCMS, the Ablaze approach, that is not consistent with the Scriptural and Lutheran teaching of divine monergism.
If you made it this far in this post thank you for your patience. I am trying to describe what is indescribable for the human mind controlled by the will in bondage to sin. The Ablaze approach to church may accommodate the language of “faith alone” and “grace alone” but I believe it fails the test of divine monergism. I guess the book on President Kieschnick is not really closed. The emphasis on the candidate is no longer necessary but awareness of the candidate’s position, because it represents an enduring approach to church in the LCMS that is not going to pass quickly, is vital and necessary.
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. I Timothy 4:16