The Problem of Denominational Loyalty


It’s not uncommon these days to hear people lament the loss of denominational loyalty, particularly in congregations which were once thriving but are now experiencing a decline in membership. Denominational loyalty does not seem to be particularly high these days, and the popularity of churches that define themselves by (allegedly) rejecting the concept of denomination (e.g., “non-denominational” or “community”) churches would support this notion. However, I’ve always found the claim to be “non-denominational” or the like somewhat disingenuous, as these entities inevitably end up promoting one theological tradition or another, and more often than not, it’s the Reformed tradition.

Denominational loyalty is lacking these days, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would even suggest that the “good old days” of denominational loyalty perhaps weren’t so good after all, and is in fact responsible (at least in part) for some of the problems we see in the church today. The Church shouldn’t be concerned as much with denominational loyalty as with doctrinal purity.

Denominational loyalty is the reason why faithful pastors often hear the claim (when attempting to institute or recover genuinely Lutheran practices) “But that’s not the way Pastor so-and-so did it.” So what? As Todd Wilken has pointed out, just because you went to a Lutheran seminary, have a German last name, and are the son/grandson of a Lutheran pastor (among other things), this does not necessarily make you Lutheran (

While sensitivity to local custom and practice is a good thing, there are some local customs that are simply un-Lutheran. We should not be concerned so much with our experience at previous churches or under previous pastors, but only whether or not our current practice is faithful to Scripture and the confessions. If your version of Lutheranism is being defined by something other than doctrine, then it’s not Lutheranism. When pastors are ordained and installed, they do not take a pledge to uphold what other pastors/congregations are doing, nor do they even take a pledge of loyalty to the Synod. These things can err. Scripture and our confessions do not, which is why we pledge our loyalty to them. God pleasing unity always has its basis in the truth of God’s Word (John 17:17), not in compromising fidelity in the name of “love.” Our walk together must always be in step with God’s Word and our loyalty be to the pure doctrine of the Gospel.  

Just because something is done or taught by an LCMS pastor or church doesn’t necessarily make it orthodox. Our denominational experience should never be seen as the gauge of orthodoxy. Sadly, there are many lifelong Lutherans out there who have no clue what Lutheranism is really all about (often through no fault of their own). When experience is allowed to trump doctrine, people end up rejecting the teaching of Scripture and our confessions in the name of denominational loyalty!

I also suspect, from an institutional level, that denominational loyalty is often what renders those in positions of oversight from correcting aberrant teaching and practice. Open communion, women preachers, and syncretism are all tolerated today in the LCMS. Why is this? Why are some LCMS congregations allowed to remove the term “Lutheran” from their names or hide their synodical affiliation from their people? Why are so many of these same LCMS congregations worshipping like the evangelicals? If you don’t like being called “Lutheran”, hide your synodical affiliation, and have no interest in worshiping like a Lutheran, why remain in Synod? And why are they allowed to remain? There seems to be little oversight these days in the LCMS when it comes to doctrine and practice.

Where’s the accountability? It seems to me that if our leaders were to attempt genuine reform of the LCMS (beyond the level of dialogue), the LCMS would cease to exist as we know it. Has preserving the institution become more important than preserving pure doctrine? Commenting on 1 John 2:19, Bede once remarked,

In the body of Christ there are those who are still being healed and who will not be fully well again until the resurrection of the dead. But there are also others who are malignant tumors, and when they are removed the body is spared. Thus it is that the departure of such people is of great benefit to the church, (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture XI:188).

Surgery is never pleasant and often leaves scars on the body, but sometimes it is necessary. Otherwise, the whole body suffers. Love compels us to diagnose and remove any tumors we find in the Body of Christ. As Bede says, “the departure of such people is of great benefit to the church,” both for the faithful and for those who are removed.

So also Quenstedt says:

The evil fluids are not members of the body, and the wicked are like the evil fluids. They are not members of the Body, namely, that of Christ, but they are attached to the church like boils to the body, from which they may be separated without any injury to the body-indeed, to its great advantage, (The Church & The Office of the Ministry. St. Louis: CPH, 21). 

The good news is that when it comes to Christ, no cancer is terminal. In Him, even the most cancerous tumor is not beyond healing. But as every good Lutheran knows, the Law must be given a chance to do its work before the Gospel can provide the cure.    

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