Monday, July 4, 2011

Why We Remain in Our Denominations

Last summer while at Nashotah I met some wonderful people, the majority of them Anglicans, many of those Anglicans members of the Episcopal Church.  Like some of the confessional folks I have met within the ELCA, the people who came to Nashotah seemed rather conservative compared to some of the high profile actions of their own denomination.  Naturally I wondered what kept these fine people within a church body so filled with liberal theology and practice.  I don't have a clear answer to that question and suspect that the answer varies from person to person.  Some may see themselves as positive leaven hoping to change the substance from within.  Others may stay out of a sense of ownership, as in "This is my church too, why should I leave?"  Others fight small concentrated battles with liberal leadership keeping the voice of dissent alive for future generations.  Still others may stay because it is convenient and comfortable compared with the insecurity and disruption of leaving. 

Of course such questions of staying and leaving concern many of us in the LCMS too - from both conservative and liberal sides of the aisle.  The reasons outlined above would likewise apply, although others could be given.  Some conservatives would stay claiming that as long as the published and public doctrine of the church body remains orthodox the practice can still be reformed.  For some within this subset an additional criteria is put forth concerning 'make or break' teachings such as the ordination of women, acknowledging that they can endure other lesser aberrations as long as this line is not crossed. 

And for those on the liberal side of the aisle - How might they answer?  Dr. Matthew Becker, thankfully, has been a higher profile figure willing to answer publicly, so we can use his response as one indication possibly shared by others.  In the comments section of one of his posts he noted the following in answer to why he doesn't resign from the roster of the Synod despite his disagreements with the public teaching of the LCMS:

I was baptized on 30 Sep 1962, by my grandfather at St. John Lutheran Church,
Salem, Oregon.

My parents faithfully took me to the divine services. There I first heard the gospel. There I was instructed in the faith. There I first received the Lord's body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins.

My pastor, Dr. Hempelmann, selected Second Peter 3:18 as my confirmation verse. Through my grandfather and Dr. Hempelmann I was encouraged to prepare for the pastoral ministry in the LCMS.

St. John provided me with both financial and evangelical support to attend Concordia College, Portland. There I encountered perhaps the best cohort of professors the LCMS has ever assembled at the undergraduate level. For other historic examples of scholarly, critical, and evangelical individuals in the synod's history, see "About Daystar" at

These have been my role models.

When I studied for four years at Concordia Seminary, at no point was I ever approached to stop my studies or remove myself from consideration for ordination. In fact, I was encouraged to pursue graduate theological work by several sem professors, notably Dr. Norman Nagel.

St. John also supported me during my years at the University of Chicago. During summers I returned to Salem and served as a summer vicar. The pastors, Dr. Frederick Niedner and Pr. Dale Koehneke, both from families with long histories in the LCMS, were very helpful to me in my preparations.

When I was ordained in July 1989, I freely, willingly, and publicly vowed to teach in accord with the doctrinal content of the holy Scriptures and in accord with the Lutheran Confessions as a faithful exhibition of the doctrinal content of the holy Scriptures. I have sought to fulfill this vow to the present day. On that hot July day I did not make any vows with regard to the LCMS.

When I was installed as pastor at Bethlehem, Dundee, Ill, I made the same vows. At that time I signed the Constitution of the LCMS. I was especially pleased to do this because of the crucial importance of Article II.

The Synod, as a human institution, remains subordinate to and normed by the doctrinal content of the Holy Scriptures and the witness to that doctrinal content by the Lutheran Confessions. Semper ecclesia reformanda.

As a human institution, the LCMS has changed its practices and understandings and applications of Scripture over time. Sometimes these changes have been for the better--that is, in accord with the gospel and Christian love--and other times, for the worse--that is, legalistically, unevangelically, with evident short-sightedness and a lack of Christian love.

As an errant, sinful theologian who continues nevertheless to try to live out his calling faithfully within the LCMS (the Board of the NW District of the LCMS, on which I served for many years, has labeled me "the NW District's LCMS missionary to Valparaiso University"), I will continue to study the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions to discern how the Spirit might be leading us to continue to reform the LCMS as one small part of the much larger Ecumene.

So far I have not been given any clear indication from the Lord that I should remove myself from the LCMS clergy roster.

So what can we glean from this to help us understand why those on both sides of the aisle remain entrenched, even while disagreeing on what seems like fundamental articles of the truth?  Dr. Becker reflects the reasoning of the older Seminex professors and students of past years.  To my eyes it is a minimalistic approach, although I would suspect that Becker would disagree with this assessment.  I say 'minimalistic' because he lays claim to the Scriptures and Confessions while indicating that they do not address certain teachings within the LCMS with which he disagrees.  For example, he would claim, I believe, that neither the Scriptures nor the Confessions would prohibit the ordination of women or the teaching of Evolution.  This is a 'synodocal thing,' he would claim, not a 'Bible thing.' 

I cannot disagree with Becker in that the Synod is not above error, unlike the Scriptures.  Yet we part ways in our interpretation of the above two items (among others) and that disagreement concerns in large part how we approach the scriptures.  Becker's hermeneutic is much different than the founders of the LCMS, and much more in line with the higher-critical post-war theology imported into Missouri 50+ years ago.  He may be right in claiming that the Confessions do not specifically address these particular issues, but they do address the substance of them, and that is the critical point.  Once he adopts Evolution he also adopts an approach to scripture which places it under reason and allows science to dictate its interpretation.  As I demonstrated in a prior post one cannot have it both ways.  You cannot embrace Evoution and still ultimately keep the cardinal doctrines intact, such as Original Sin and thus Salvation itself.  Supporting the ordination of women also impacts our view of the scriptures as we must choose whether to see them as slaves to their own culture and time or enduring truth. 

Becker remains within the LCMS, as do others who share his views, for the reason that they believe they can lay claim to the primary sources of doctrine in support of their teaching while also seeing the Synod as a mere human organization prone to error, especially when it concerns issues with which the broader contemporary society takes issue.  Yet what is clear beyond the words quoted above and printed elsewhere, Becker also remains in order to change the Synod - the 'leaven' reasoning noted before.  He hopes and waits for the day when his views will be accepted practice just as they are within the ELCA and TEC.  He knows that history is partly on his side as many of the mainline denominations have gone down this familiar path of liberalization.  Why should Missouri be different?  Why should he leave his home if it will change anyway?

Many like myself remain to hold the line and keep Missouri from slipping into that abyss.  It may be a losing battle, but this is also my church in which, like Becker, I was taught the faith and recited the very same ordination vows (a couple years before him in 1987.)  I have a stake in where it goes.  Two of my children have been confirmed in this church, and one is one the way.  I fight for their future more than my own.  It is a shame in this sinful world that those who lay claim to the same confessions of faith should end up in opposition.  I do not question Becker's faith, but I question the orthodoxy of his approach and some of the things he teaches.  To that end I will continue to challenge them in this medium.

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