Posts tagged ‘LCMS’

When Disagreements Arise

LCMS Convention

Credit: LCMS / Michael Scheurmann

A week ago, the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, held its triennial convention.  As with every denomination, mine has its share of disagreements and squabbles, many of which were on display at this convention.  At issue was everything from the way ecclesiastical supervision is practiced when a pastor is accused of teaching falsely to whether certain congregations can continue to be served in Word and Sacrament ministry by someone who is not an ordained pastor.

As I listened to these debates, I was reminded of how the earliest Lutherans dealt with differences among themselves and with other Christian bodies.

The Augsburg Confession is a statement of confessional standards for Lutherans worldwide.  In it, differences with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as with other nascent Protestant bodies, are outlined.  But before the drafters of the Augsburg Confession enumerated their differences with other Christians, they began with some points of agreement.  They opened their confession with a restatement of the three ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.  This was intentional, for the confessors wanted all those who read the Augsburg Confession to understand that its drafters did not stand outside the historic Christian faith; they stood squarely and solidly in it.  From there, the confessors went on to elaborate on their agreement with the historic Christian teaching on the nature of God:

Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true.  It is to be believed without doubt.  God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness…Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[1]

The confessors began their confession of faith with a point on which all Christians could agree.  Indeed, when the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Augsburg Confession, for all the things over which they registered their disagreement, when it came to the Lutherans’ confession of the Trinity, the Catholics wrote simply, “This is to be accepted.”[2]

The confessors, of course, did not only speak of where they agreed with Rome.  They had plenty to say about where they disagreed.  But where they began, I believe, is informative for us as we seek to address disagreements among ourselves.  Celebrating our agreements first is often the best way to find resolutions to our disagreements later.

One of the things I have long appreciated about the American Evangelical movement of the last several decades is that it has been able to engage many different church bodies – from Lutherans to Methodists to Presbyterians to Baptists to non-denominational congregations – by appealing to what these bodies share in common while still being honest about where they differ.  The National Association of Evangelicals, for instance, espouses a Statement of Faith that has broad resonance with nearly any confessional, Christ-centered, Bible-based church body.  Its statement of faith includes a recognition of the Bible as God’s Word, the two natures in Christ, the return of Christ, and the necessity of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s salvation.  In crafting confessional statements like these, the Evangelical movement has been able to highlight and celebrate just how much Christians across the world hold in common.

My church body can sometimes – and sometimes unfairly – be known more for where it disagrees with itself rather than being known for what it confesses together with a unified voice.  We can sometimes be thought of more as sectarian than as confessional.  This is why when disagreements do arise among us and become hot, as they inevitably will, I pray that we would return to and remind ourselves of all that we hold in common, for there is a lot.  I also pray that, as Lutheran Christians, we would seek to find places where we can work together with other Christians on the basis of what we share even as we continue to rigorously and truthfully litigate our differences.  Indeed, one of the highlights of this past convention was an address from Ryan T. Anderson, a Catholic intellectual, on the challenges Christians face with regard to human sexuality and religious liberty.  It was a joy to see people from two theological traditions that are generally at odds with each other in Lutheranism and Catholicism come together to think through some of the important ethical and philosophical issues of our day.

Why do I so adamantly pray that we would be known for our unity rather than for our division?  Because this, finally, is not a prayer that originated with me.  It originated with Jesus.  And to pray for anything less would be to crucify other Christians for their differences with us rather than to extol Christ crucified for us (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).  To pray for anything less would be to diminish, or even to deny, the amazing unity that Christ has given His Church.

Again, do not misunderstand me:  I am not saying that we should never tend to and seek to reconcile differences, but I am saying that we should be intentionally and continually thankful for where Christ has given us unity in spite of ourselves.  And He has given us plenty.

Let’s not neglect that gift.

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[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, Paul T. McCain, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 31 (AC I 1-3).

[2] “The Confutation of the Augsburg Confession,” Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord, Robert Kolb, James A. Nestingen, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 107 (Confutation I).

July 25, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Pew View of the LCMS

Religious Landscape

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a landmark Religious Landscape Study that surveyed over 35,000 adults from across the nation about their religious beliefs.  As a part of their research, Pew studied the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Though I am well-aware of the risks associated with navel-gazing, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the section of Pew’s study that specifically pertains to my church body, because turning the mirror on oneself and seeing oneself for what one truly is – even when it is uncomfortable – can often be a helpful exercise.

Before we dig into the data, I should note that Pew’s survey of LCMS congregants has a 6-point margin of error, which, statistically, is significant.  This does not mean, however, that this survey is not worth our time and attention.  Even with a 6-point margin of error, the study’s findings are statistically substantial enough to be quite revealing.  So on to the study.

I was surprised to see how well my demographic is represented in my church body.  I had stereotypically assumed that my denomination was older than it actually turns out to be.  According to Pew, 30 to 49 year olds, which is my demographic, comprise the largest segment of my church body at 32%. Generation X, which is my generation, comprises the second largest segment of my church body at 28% next to Baby Boomers, who are at 35%.  Millennial representation is much lower at only 13%.  Demographically, then, I am, in many ways, a typical member of an LCMS congregation.  I am not, however, typical in every way – especially in my theological and moral beliefs.  It is in these areas that the data becomes particularly interesting.

For example, when Pew asked LCMS people what they look to for guidance on right and wrong, while 41% answered “religion,” 45% answered “common sense.”  In one way, this is not a surprise.  In the face of the information onslaught of the digital age, we have become informational pluralists.  We garner and glean our information and, by extension, our opinions, values, and beliefs, from a wide array of sources. The idea of a turning to a single, divinely-authored book as the first and final word on morality is simply untenable to most people.  Indeed, when LCMS congregants were asked about their “frequency of participation in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups” and about their “frequency of reading Scripture,” the largest percentage of respondents in both categories fell into the “Seldom/Never” tier.  Thus, it is perfectly logical that more people would get their guidance on right and wrong from common sense than from religion and from the book on which the Christian religion is grounded, the Bible.  After all, a majority of people don’t even study the Bible enough to have a nuanced understanding of what’s in it.

The Pew study also revealed that many LCMS congregants seem more unified around a politically conservative economic policy than they are around issues that pertain to traditional Christian morality.  Politically, 52% of LCMS people identify as conservative over and against 33% who identify as moderate and 10% who identify as liberal.  72% prefer a smaller government with fewer services and 62% say that government aid programs do more harm than good.  Morally, 46% of LCMS people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus 51% who believe it should be illegal, and 56% believe homosexuality should be accepted with 45% favoring same-sex marriage.  Compare this to 50% of people who identify as pro-choice nationwide and 55% who favor same-sex marriage nationwide.  There is a gap between what LCMS people believe about hot button moral issues and what the general public believes, but this gap is not as wide as one might think.  And, on both the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, the LCMS is less unified than it is around conservative economic policy.

Theologically, I find it unsettling that our opinions on moral issues, which call for our Scriptural agreement, are so diverse while in areas where it’s okay and even desirable to be diverse, we are monolithic.  Take, for instance, the racial makeup of the LCMS.  95% of LCMS congregants are white.  This hardly seems to reflect the picture of the Church Triumphant with its people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  I understand that we cannot create this kind of Church by our own efforts and I also am well aware that the Church Militant, because it marches forth in a fallen world and because it does not reveal to us the universal Church, will always look different than the Church Triumphant.  But let’s not use our inability to create the Church of Revelation 7:9 as an excuse to not desire it.  After all, every member of the Church Triumphant starts out as a member of the Church Militant.  So the Church Militant should look, at least in some way, like Church Triumphant.

When it comes to the moral and ethical issues that clearly divide not only our society, but also many in my church body, I would simply say that these are issues that demand our continued attention and discussion.  And when discussing these issues, we must understand that just being a part of a church body does not guarantee, nor does it even make it likely, that a person will believe what the church body teaches.  Frankly, in our current cultural configuration, the Church’s voice is just one voice – heard by most only once a week at best – among a steady stream of other voices that speak much more frequently and regularly into people’s lives.  In order to gain a serious hearing among all these voices, it is important for the Church to speak charitably enough that people trust it and clearly enough that people know what the Bible teaches, even if they disagree.

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study has presented us with a challenge – and an opportunity.  It has revealed some areas of moral, theological, and even demographic concern.  My prayer is that we, as God’s people, rise to meet the challenge – not only for the sake of a church body, but for the sake of the world.

January 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Private Conversation and Public Rebuke

Bible 1When I was in college, I had a professor tell me that if you get five churchmen in a room to discuss a particular issue, they will have six different opinions. It’s true. Disagreements – especially in ecclesiastical contexts – arise often. Offenses against others are committed often. Jesus, as Lord of the Church, knows this. This is why Jesus gives us instruction on how to address disagreements and offenses among us:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  (Matthew 18:15-17)

Jesus is clear. Disagreements and offenses are best and first addressed privately before they are addressed publicly. Sadly, in the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have seen Jesus’ pattern disregarded again and again.

Over the past few months, I have been able to attend two conferences hosted by different congregations of my church body. During these events, some took to social media to malign these conferences – often in acerbic and sarcastic ways – over differences they had with the presenters and presentations. When confronted about these uncharitable comments in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, some of the people posting these comments maintained that because the teaching at these conferences was public and, in their opinion, false, the rebuke of these teachers was also appropriately public. They cited Martin Luther’s words: “Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.”[1] These people saw no need to have a private conversation with those with whom they disagreed.

Because my church body is doggedly committed to properly and carefully interpreting Scripture, I believe it is worth reminding ourselves what Scripture says concerning how to address disagreements among us. For I believe that those who argue for public rebuke apart from any private conversation are either misled, or perhaps even misleading.

First, it needs to be said that sarcasm that only attacks instead of seeking to correct is always wrong. As Solomon sagely warns, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense” (Proverbs 11:12). In our disagreements with each other, we must be careful never to be belittling of each other.

Second, it is important to note that the Scriptures – and especially the Pauline letters – are full of public rebukes. For instance, Paul rebukes a member of the church at Corinth for his gross sexual immorality, of which the Corinthians were foolishly approving (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2). He also rebukes his fellow apostle Peter for refusing to eat with Gentile believers (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Then, in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Paul provides his young pastor protégé with some guidance on how to publicly rebuke false teaching:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.

Two points are worth noting in this passage. First, accusations of false teachings are not to be made ad hoc. Just because one person sees false teaching in someone’s ministry does not mean that there is, in fact, false teaching. False teaching must be discerned corporately; not individually. After all, an accuser may himself turn out to be a false teacher – or, in some instances, a false accuser! Second, the primary reason for a public rebuke is “so that others may take warning.” In other words, public rebukes are for those who are in danger of being swayed by false teaching. They are not for the false teacher.

But what about the false teacher? How does one deal with him? Here is where Jesus’ words concerning private conversation commend themselves to us. For they are meant to help a false teacher see the error of his ways and, by God’s grace, come to repentance.

This leads me to my concern with much of the discussion surrounding public rebuke in my church body. There are some who use Paul’s words concerning public rebuke as an excuse to not heed Jesus’ words concerning private conversation. But both private conversation and public rebuke are needed, for both false teachers and those who are falsely taught need help. Public rebuke cannot be used to supplant private conversation.

I know that, sometimes, private conversation is impossible. Indeed, I have warned against false teachers and teachings on this very blog. False teaching is worthy of a warning! But if we can have private conversations with teachers about whom we have concerns, I see no reason not to have these conversations. Scripture commands it. The integrity of our consciences demands it.

Allow me to offer one final distinction as a kind of postscript. When confronting false teaching, we must be careful that we don’t characterize a person’s unintentional misstatement as a malicious falsehood. Malicious liars are very different from unclear communicators. One needs to be firmly rebuked. The other needs to be gently corrected. May we be wise enough to know the difference – and pastoral enough to care both for those who teach and for those who are taught.

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[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, Paul McCain, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 391 (LC 284).

March 9, 2015 at 4:15 am Leave a comment


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