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Reflections on The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod

July 8th, 2006
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The managing editor of the journal First Things offers these poignant observations about The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.

Yesterday was the 476th anniversary of the presentation of the
Augsburg Confession an explanation of the proposed Lutheran reforms of
the Church, written by Philip Melancthon and approved by Martin Luther
to Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who, facing attack from without, was
eager for unity within. This is the true birthday of the Lutheran
Reformation. That this should be of little interest to non-Lutherans
is perhaps understandable. That it should be of little interest to so
many Lutherans is what threatens to reduce a denomination like the one
I was raised in—the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to

When I was growing up, back in the early 1970s, our church in Queens,
New York, had two orders of worship: Matins and Holy Communion. In
those days I had but one prayer: Let it be Matins. This was no
indication of a nascent anti-sacramentalism. Rather, it was evidence
of how supernaturally bored I was by the whole thing. Matins, you see,
was the shorter of the two services.

Like many of my spiritually insentient friends, as soon as I made my
Confirmation, I did not darken a church narthex again for a good long
time. Our church, Trinity Lutheran, knew this, and so kept playing
with the Confirmation age, hoping like pharaoh to postpone the exodus
as long as possible. Other tactics to engage the younger generation
included more clap-happy and improvised midweek chapel services in our
affiliated parochial school. These proved simply annoying, as it was
harder to sleep with all the noise.

I left my Lutheran high school a self-proclaimed atheist. I say
self-proclaimed because I don’t think a real atheist would have
accepted me as one of his clan. I simply was not capable of
maintaining the blind faith necessary to juggle all those
contradictory ideas and unanswered questions ("Why is there
rather than nothingd?"). Nor was I strong
enough to keep sawing off the epistemological branch I was sitting on.
("There are no absolutes for apes whose brains simply grew too big."
"Are you certain?" "Absolutely!")

When I came back to the faith (aided and abetted by C.S. Lewis, G.K.
Chesterton, and Blaise Pascal), it was through the evangelical
backdoor. From about 1982 to 2005, I attended Nazarene, Baptist,
Christian and Missionary Alliance, Reformed Church in America,
Evangelical Lutheran, High-Church Episcopalian, evangelical Anglican,
Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches. I formally joined only one
Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City and that was in 1997.

Redeemer captured my allegiance for eight years for three reasons: It
was time to take a stand somewhere, having walked with one foot
in the world and one in the kingdom for too long; I had become
increasingly attracted to the incisive biblical expositions of John
Calvin, and Redeemer was a church of the conservative
Reformed/Calvinist school; and Redeemer was also a mega-ish church,
averaging a few thousand attendees over four services every Sunday. So
you could get lost in the crowd if you so chose. I so chose.

But deeper reading in Jonathan Edwards, Cornelius Van Til, and the
Puritans began to shake not only that assurance of salvation that is
the hallmark of evangelical religion but also my understanding of the
nature of the God who did the saving. It became evident that there was
a disconnect between the sermons I was hearing and what I was reading
from the theological sources. On Sundays we were told that we were
worse than we could ever believe but also more loved than we could
imagine. This moved and reassured many in that considerable
congregation, but it seemed to me to contradict Reformed theology.
of those in attendance, surely, were loved more than they
imagined. Those some were the elect, whose salvation was a
given even before they came to faith this to show forth God’s grace
and the truly gratuitous nature of that salvation. The rest of the
crowd were destined for the other place, and had been brought into
this world for that very purpose this to show forth God’s
justice in judging sin. Christ died not for sinners that is, for every
last one of us but only for the elect. What did this say about His
assumption of human nature, His role as the second Adam? Were those
not elected less than human?

According this scheme, faith in and of itself was no reliable
indication of anything; instead, the mysterious and apparently
arbitrary decrees of God were everything. My personal faith in the
saving power of Christ and His Cross may not, in fact, be
faith but merely, in John Calvin’s words, “an inferior
working of the Holy Spirit," intended to confound me until the
time of my apostasy, which was always my destiny. This made
nonsense of Luther’s much derided but ultimately liberating crie
de cour
"justification by faith alone!" which had been
hammered into me all those many years of church, Sunday school, and
religion classes.

So what was left? I went home to the Lutheran Church. Or so I thought.
Trinity had long ago voted as a congregation to bolt the Missouri
Synod for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a much more
liberal conflation of several Lutheran churches. (And my former pastor
is now a much beloved Roman Catholic priest.) The Missouri Synod
numbered far fewer congregations in New York City, and those
geographically closest to me either had no pastor or a pastor who was
far too, shall we say, creative. I sat through puppet shows
(children’s church being folded into the regular worship service),
pastors strolling up and down the aisle culling prayer requests and
improvising “stirring” appeals to the Almighty, guest preachers
stopping cold in mid-sermon to turn on a boom box so they could break
into song, praise bands fronted by garishly loud “cantors” as
Powerpointed lyrics flashed on screens that now obscured the old
wooden hymn boards in short, orders of worship that were neither
orderly nor conducive to worship.

The historical resonance and dignity of the old liturgy that had
struck torpor in my heart as a youth was the exact thing I was craving
in my middle age but it was now history itself. What I could not
appreciate as a shallow teen was now unavailable to me, the hymnal
replaced by a bulletin, the means of grace downplayed for a more
gregarious fellowship, the authentic traded in for pastiche and
performance art. Even the sermon, reborn in the Lutheran Reformation
as a means of grace, had now lapsed into emotionally manipulative
entreaties, personality self-assessments, and quasi altar calls.
Twenty-five stragglers on a good Sunday, Starbucks in hand, grumbling
begrudgingly through another chorus of “He Shall Make Me Gladzz’
this was the upshot of the new LCMS. Ah, sweet success!

I understand the drama of demographics in modern urban America:
Missouri Synod churches could no longer count on families staying put,
staying Lutheran, or even staying Christian from one generation to the
next, and so it had to compete for spiritual consumers along with the
Redeemer Presbyterians, the Times Square nondenominationals, and the
pentecostal and Baptist storefronts. But rather than throwing open to
the seeking, the emerging, and the skeptical something unique within
the Church catholic something distinctly Lutheran Missouri Synod
churches were too often settling for second-rate evangelical status in
the name of ecumenism and in reaction to dwindling attendance,
especially among the young. The grand paradoxes that Lutheran theology
wrestled into neat but potent reflections of our faith in the God/man
law/gospel, sinner/justified, bread and wine/body and blood, the
kingdom of this world/the kingdom of God were rarely if ever
mentioned, except perhaps as an occasional sop to the scarce
old-school parishioners. But these dichotomies spoke to my life as a
Christian, not merely as a Lutheran, which is why coming back to the
Missouri Synod was no mere sentimental journey but a coming together
of what had been fragmented as a mere evangelical.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Is it right even to cast
blame? Surely everyone is doing what they believe is in the best
interest of promoting the cause of Christ in an era of easy
distractibility. And the Synod itself has only so much authority:
having jettisoned the office of bishop early in its history, it
embraced a congregational model. Individual congregations associate
with the Synod on a voluntary basis. But one would think that such a
congregation would do so for a very specific reason to reflect the
unique character of the Missouri Synod Lutheran heritage. And one
would also think that the district president, as close as the Missouri
Synod now gets to a bishop, would exercise enough oversight and
discipline to insist that such character be maintained. You would

What we don’t need is yet another Lutheran church (read sect). What
we need is strict even mandatory adherence to the Lutheran
Service Book
(the 1982 edition offers more than enough variety as
it is). What we need is that catechism I was taught by my mother many
years ago over our kitchen table. What we need is a Lutheran
distinction between confessionalism and fundamentalism on the right,
and between adiaphora (indifferent things) and heterodoxy on
the left. What we need is our Reformation heritage. Let loose the old,
unexpurgated liturgy from Confession to Benediction, it has proved to
be a well-trodden path that is our spiritual pilgrimage in microcosm.
Preach the Law and its insatiable, non-negotiable demands. Then preach
the Gospel which is to say, preach Christ, our justification and our
sanctification, who alone fulfilled the Law and banished its threats.
Administer Holy Communion with reverence for the Real Presence and
baptize acknowledging that it is the laver of regeneration. And
finally, let the Holy Spirit take care of church growth. In the
American religious estate are many mansions, including rooms for
free-form, pastor-driven seeker and emerging assemblies. They have a
role in bringing the unchurched and the anti-church back to some
semblance of corporate worship. But we are not them.

So here I stoop, to paraphrase another cry of the heart, searching
amid the rubble for what had been both an inheritance and a gift. I am
comforted by two thoughts, though: Unlike those members of renewal
movements within mainline denominations, I do not worry about the
Trinity being invoked as Mother, Daughter, Midwife. I believe the
Nicene Creed is here to stay at Missouri Synod as a touchstone of
orthodoxy. Also, a quick survey of confessional Lutheran bloggers
demonstrates that there are many who sit beside me in the same boat,
clinging to that Augsburg confessional lifejacket, which declares
that, despite differences, the Church remains "the congregation of
saints and true believers" that will "continue forever" despite
the "ministry of evil men."

Even imprudent men . . . and sleepy teenagers like me.
By Mr. Anthony
reprinted by permission

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. Holger Sonntag
    July 17th, 2006 at 10:53 | #1

    Great piece! Too bad that it often seems to take such a personal odyssy before a person comes to appreciate what richness of theology and comfort a confessional Lutheran church has to offer.
    Many seem to be stuck in the teeny-rebellious mode against anything and everything that’s come down to us from the past — and in a insecure desire to be like the rest of the peers.
    That’s hard (if not impossible) to combat, as even the Lord and Samuel had to acknowledge when Israel desired a king to be like the “real nations” surrounding it. Little did they know at the time that this was the seed of their final undoing.
    By the time the Book of Lamentations had to be written, it was too late to preserve the state crushed by God through Babylonian armies, but not too late to save one’s soul from the wrath to come (indicated by the temporal punishment received) by faith in the gospel of the future Messiah.
    And that, in the end, is also our hope at a time when steeples are falling. The Lord knows who are his.

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