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Leaving Lutheranism: A Decision to be Rejected and Condemned

June 23rd, 2008
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We have heard recently of yet another pastor defecting from the purely confessed, preached and taught Gospel, and the rightfully administered Sacraments, with his announcement that he is converting to Roman Catholicism. A tragedy, indeed! It is a tragedy precisely because it is a sin. Have we forgotten this?

What saddens me nearly as much in these recent cases is the reaction I receive from some Lutheran pastors. Rather than making it very clear that leaving Lutheranism for Romanism is a sin against God’s most Holy Word, instead they are more quick to chastise and criticize anyone who makes such an assertion. I hear comments that are in the best tradition of the Lutheran pietists who eschewed polemics: "We can't fault anyone who leaves. Rather we should focus on our own problems."

Lutheran blog sites lament the, real or imagined, wrongs, ills, problems and such in the Lutheran Church. That there are real wrongs, ills and problems is true; however, attempts to affix blame on them for a pastor’s decision to abandon his ordination vows is inappropriate. The only one to blame when a pastor violates his ordination vows and abandons them is the pastor involved.

We should expect more watchmen on the walls of our Lutheran Zion than angst-ridden hand-wringing and a kind of excuse-making for the one who leaves his post among us. We need to call a thing what it is. In this case, as in the rest, it is a defection from the truth of God’s Word and the public embrace of error.

When I read an account of a man headed across the Tiber, or the Bosporus, to Rome or Constantinople, my reaction is one of sadness and disappointment. If the man simply leaves quietly, I am not of a mind that much more should be said. But when a man leaves and then proceeds to use the occasion to propagandize his former church body with tales of his departure and a whole host of attacks on it, and his former confession, no matter how “politely” they are offered, here is where I personally draw the line and recognize that there is required a public word of Law: to depart from the Lutheran Confession is to sin and err. Why? Because the Lutheran Church has exclusive claim on the truth, and all aspects of it? No. Rather, because it is the Lutheran Church, and in the Lutheran Church alone, that we do find the public confession of the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. Is the Gospel heard in other churches? Yes, of course. That's not the point though.

Simply put, if there are pastors or persons out there who do not comprehend this point, then to that extent they do not comprehend what it means to be Lutheran, and to remain Lutheran. In spite of the blemishes and errors and mistakes that are made within the congregations or administrative structures of various Lutheran denominations, it remains the truth that the Church of the Augsburg Confession is where we find the Gospel purely confessed. If it were not so, or if I believed that one finds the pure confession of the Gospel as part-and-parcel of another church’s public confession, I would be the first to advocate a visible, public expression of that unity in doctrine.

When a pastor leaves his former confession, and when he turns his back on his public confession of the truth of the Gospel, concretely located and anchored in the Lutheran Confessions, there is nothing here to “admire” or “praise” or otherwise laud as admirable. If he left out of conviction, yes, we can acknowledge that he has taken a principled position, but we must make it very clear that such a decision is sin and error since it is a violation of the Word of God.

Enough of the hand-wringing and excuse-making and finger-pointing in such cases. When a pastor abandons the Lutheran Confession and becomes a public advocate of an erring confession, this must be rejected and condemned, not coddled and commiserated with.

Such a firm response will be met with accusations of being “judgmental” or being “unkind” or “judging hearts.” No, there is no judging of hearts, only judging of public confession, which is what the teachers of the church are called to do. It is sad to read on other blog sites such an evident confusion over the nature of the Lutheran Church and its confession.

The one good thing I will say about the most recent departure is that, apparently, as has been the case in other recent and notorious defections from Lutheranism, this pastor did not accept a call to a Lutheran congregation under false pretenses, did not linger in his congregation while all the while recruiting people for his new “start up” parish in another communion and, did not have his parish pay for him to take D.Min. classes at an erring church body’s seminary and so forth. Further, he has not engaged in sheep-stealing from his former Lutheran parish. This much I do commend him for.

But his decision to leave was wrong and sinful and I pray God lead him to repent of this sin, and if that repentance does not happen, I pray God safeguard him and keep him in the true faith, protecting him from the dangerous errors which he has claimed now to be his own. May God in His mercy, defend and guard him from error, and preserve him until life everlasting, according to His grace.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. June 23rd, 2008 at 21:16 | #1

    It is sad when a person leaves. It is a tragedy. But I would rather see them gone if they no longer hold to the Confessions than stick around and be a hypocrite.
    And I will quibble here with one point. The sin is not in “leaving” the Lutheran Church publicly – the sin is rejecting the faith. Leaving simply presents one from being a hypocrite and provides those who stay and opportunity to discuss the truth of the Gospel in a concrete way. Leaving is a result of sin, not the sin itself.
    This is important – because the issue isn’t that _______ left – and shouldn’t be. The point should be doctrine and what we teach and confess. Just some thoughts.

  2. June 23rd, 2008 at 21:40 | #2

    The error is his, and it is monstrous. But given that his journey began with disenchantment at the political establishment, could there have been steps taken by the District or by the Synod to ameliorate the situation before he decided that the problem was the confession and not the politics? Do you think there is a lesson here about the pastoral care of pastors?
    [[McCain: The fault and blame for abandoning the Lutheran Confessions lies entirely with the pastor who left. Attempts to pin the blame elsewhere are akin to trying to excuse, explain or otherwise fix blame for an adulterous affair on someone other than the person committing adultery.]]

  3. June 23rd, 2008 at 23:50 | #3

    Good post.

  4. June 24th, 2008 at 13:27 | #4

    Again, I reiterate my frustration with the fact that I have never yet met a man who has left (either online or in person) who did not cite doctrine as his reason for leaving, and then when you expound on it, it was mostly politics…and confusing politics for doctrine. There may be cases where I am wrong, but it usually seems to be to be idealists who cannot bring the reality of church life and shepherding sinners into their dream of what their seminary dream of what their congregation should have been.
    I agree with you wholeheartedly, the decision to leave good doctrine for bad lies with these pastors alone. May God forgive them and heal them.
    It also breaks my heart when I hear them berate their congregations for not being what they wanted them to be, rather than loving them and guiding them as the flock that God had given them. I know that is an easy temptation to fall into, but they let that temptation lead them into abandoning that flock.
    But also shame on the Synod for not doing its job and providing the opportunity for these men to be led into this temptation that might not have been there if they also viewed their role to care for their pastors by protecting our doctrine and practice.

  5. June 24th, 2008 at 13:37 | #5

    “McCain: The fault and blame for abandoning the Lutheran Confessions lies entirely with the pastor who left. Attempts to pin the blame elsewhere are akin to trying to excuse, explain or otherwise fix blame for an adulterous affair on someone other than the person committing adultery.”
    There are often situations where a situation can lead to a temptation where the person is still wholly responsible for their sin, but if certain situations had not occurred, then the sin might not have been quite so tempting.
    To continue with your analogy, there are times when a wife can neglect her marriage so much by being tempted by her career or her children or other things that lead a husband to be lonely. If the marriage had a proper place, then adultery might not have been so tempting. Is it the wife’s fault that the husband chose to sleep with someone else, no. He chose to assuage his loneliness in a way that broke their marriage vows. But had both met their obligations to nurture the relationship and keep it in the right place, it might not have been the temptation that it was.
    [[McCain: Let me put his indelicately. A man knows how to zip his pants up, and how to zip them down. He, and he alone, bears responsibility when and where he chooses to open his fly. I'm sorry, but I'm not buying this line of thinking.]]

  6. June 24th, 2008 at 14:13 | #6

    I applaud your consistency, Rev McCain. It amazes me that people can decry the inability of the LCMS to police itself from error with one breath and coddle individuals who error with the other. It seems easy to demand harsh treatment of those who error when you are not the one who has to hold people accountable. Kudos to you for not backing down for the sake of friendships, politics, convenience, and/or cowardice.
    How can a serious Lutheran be furious over a betrayal of the confessional cause like the removal of Issues, Etc one day and then display myopic moral relativism with the next? I did not hear anyone say, “well at least the powers that be had the integrity to pull Issues, Etc instead of going on supporting it when they really wanted it gone.”
    It seems that some people in the Lutheran Blogosphere want the LCMS to do to sister churches what they as individuals are unwilling to do in the relative anonymity of Cyberspace. I see a lot of bickering for days over the relative pennies of weekly communion while ignoring the dollars of papist error.
    Either you passionately love the Truth or you don’t. Either you believe and defend the Augsburg Confession against those who promote error or you don’t. Either it matters that you are a Lutheran or it doesn’t. Everyone, please pick a position and stay there.
    Integrity: (n) 1) Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code. 2) The state of being unimpaired; soundness. 3) The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.
    Based on the above definition from the dictionary, it seems that you, Rev. McCain, are one of the few of us with real integrity.
    [[McCain: Mike, your words are flattering, and in so far as they are, they are a temptation that I must resist. I'm every bit as much given to pettiness, pride, anger, and otherwise. We are all doing the best we can. I do disagree with some of my friends on these points. Let us all remain repentant and mindful of the warning of St. Paul: "Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall." May God have mercy on us all, and strengthen us all in Christ our Savior."]]
    …you and I could probably work on our tact though. =P

  7. June 24th, 2008 at 18:16 | #7

    [[McCain: Let me put his indelicately. A man knows how to zip his pants up, and how to zip them down. He, and he alone, bears responsibility when and where he chooses to open his fly. I'm sorry, but I'm not buying this line of thinking.]]
    But are we not instructed to pray “lead us not into temptation”? Our actions can have an impact on others and can make it more tempting for them to fall into sin. That is something that we need to bear in mind.
    [[McCain: As you can tell, I'm not willing, in any way, to try to point the finger for Dan Woodring's decision to abandon the pure confession of the Gospel, for the heresy of Rome on anyone other than Dan Woodring.]]

  8. C. Hoff
    June 24th, 2008 at 18:22 | #8

    Very good post. While this sounds harsh this man’s sin is enough for beginning the process of excommunication. (One could say his crime is of the white-collar variety).

  9. June 25th, 2008 at 12:32 | #9

    >Either you passionately love the Truth or you don’t. Either you believe and defend the Augsburg Confession against those who promote error or you don’t. Either it matters that you are a Lutheran or it doesn’t. Everyone, please pick a position and stay there.
    I do passionately love the Truth and the Augsburg Confession. That is not what I am saying. I fully condemn Dan Woodring’s decision to leave the LCMS in favor of the RC, and I have said so repeatedly. I don’t know if this so in this particular case, but I do believe that some men would still be good LCMS pastors had they had more prayers, more support, more pastoral care, and more fraternity.
    Many of our pastors go out into a church that they loved and desired to serve with the idealistic love of youth, hoping (maybe naively) to have a better time of it when they have their own parish. Their congregations are not where they think they should be and resists any changes that they try to make (sometimes too soon and too much), and they only have their own judgment to determine what move they should make next.
    The theology and practice that they love and thinks should be in every congregation in the LCMS is despised. This is terribly hard on most of them, and some of them come out of it better men and better pastors. Some of them are crushed by this.
    Last count I heard, in the class that Dan Woodring came out of, over half are no longer in the ministry. I know of two that left the LCMS before they took their vows (both went Eastern Orthodox), others I am sure just did not enter into the ministry. One, the light of that class (in a very impressive class of theologians), left the ministry in scandal. Others have undergone some terrible attacks but struggle to remain faithful. I don’t know how this compares to seminarians from other eras, but while the political situation at the seminary at that time was unique (at least for the LCMS), the situation once they get out is not. And there are many good pastors who are getting chewed up and lose their direction and perspective in the process.
    Different people need different levels of support from other Christians and fellow pastors (and superiors) in order to keep their perspective and love their flock and not go astray. Pastors are like that as well as laymen.(most other professions where the task is to care for those in need view it as absolutely critical that the worker has a network of supervision and an environment to share their struggles and needs).
    The Holy Spirit gives us faith and draws us into a body of believers for a reason. Some need a lot of support. Others are rather self-sufficient and able to chug along. But for those that need that support, it is rarely there.
    I hold Dan Woodring accountable for his decision. It is always a terrible thing when a pastor (and one that had taken up the mantle of leading our youth as well, beyond his normal responsibilities) throws such doubt on good doctrine, and causes the flock to doubt. But all of us are constantly being attacked by Satan, the World, and our sinful flesh. One of our protections is the body of believers that we have been placed within. When pastors do not receive the support that they need from the very system put into place to support them, I can understand why this grows more common and men are lured by bishops and theology of glory. I don’t agree with it. I condemn it. But I do think that the lack of unity in doctrine and practice is being used by Satan in his attacks on the men who are charged with caring for our flocks.
    There have been times that as a layman, I look at what is going on in the Synod and I am tired of it and have given a fleeting thought to seeing if there was any other place that was better (it took about 30 seconds to realize that there isn’t). Father Hogg and others who seek to promote Eastern Orthodoxy show the episcopacy that they have as a safe haven where all the struggles that are tearing these guys apart are not a problem because the system that was put in place since the Bible offers sanctuary. I do not think it would work in the LCMS, I do not want it, and I clearly see in other churches that have an episcopacy that throughout history, it, like ours, is dependent on sound theology and good practice. Bishops are not needed. Sound theology and practice are.
    When this is happening more often, while it is still WRONG, I do think we need to look at “why” and see if there is anything we can do to protect these men from this temptation– continued study with others in the faith (maybe financial aid in order to be able to continue a class here or there, or go to a conference that sometimes the congregation can’t or won’t fund), friendship and Christian prayers, pastors of like mind offering themselves as father confessors, help for their wives who often are also in isolation (sometimes even more so…and who find that the loneliness of their role is more that they can bear, leading to divorce or the pastor leaving). Some men continue to make very good pastors if they have the support that they need from their brethren in the faith and their colleagues in the ministry. If they can get spiritual care, which so many pastors and their families are lacking.
    There are men that are good at standing on their own and maintaining their fight. Others need more support to keep them from fleeing in retreat or losing their minds. This is the case on the battlefield and in the faith.
    Personally, I fear for Mr. Woodring. He is putting his own soul and presumably that of his family in peril. He was wrong. Terribly wrong — and I pray that he sees that before he loses all that he professes to be dear to him.

  10. June 25th, 2008 at 21:29 | #10

    RPW,
    My criticism was not (and to date has never been) leveled anywhere near you. I have approved of your comments every place that I read them. I think that the rest of us who seem to be on both extremes of the Lutheran Ultra Reaction Force need to learn a little perspective from cooler-headed individuals such as yourself. I would never accuse you not being passionate or consistant.
    You make good points here that are well said. Support is always important. In this case I tend to agree with Pr McCain that leaving the Lutheran Confession is entirely his fault. If he had left the LCMS for WELS or ELCA or ELDONA or an indpendent church, but held to the true confession I would see your point about pointing fingers of blame at ourselves… but he didn’t. He cast his lot with sophists and bent his knee to the papal throne. There is a difference between breaking down from lack of support and fleeing to Babylon on your own accord.
    I sure am glad that our great fathers such as St. Paul and Dr. Luther did not buckle and take the Woodring way out under the weight of their trials as leaders during far darker days than this… whose burdens were far greater, support far less prevelant, and risks mortally extreme.
    With support systems, internet resources, literacy rates, religious freedom, phone prayer chains, free time, and a lifestyle the likes of which have never before been enjoyed in the 2,000 years of the Christian church, I’d wager that the problem usually does not lie in substandard support. Perhaps we need to send students to seminary who are from tougher, more dedicated stock.
    We need squad leaders who lead and can sustain the fight in all conditions against all threats and encourage others to do the same. That’s how things work on the battlefield. It is no place for sissies. As a footsoldier I can help a leader if he stumbles, falls, or tries to retreat, but no amount of cuddles and “attaboys” are going to prevent him from flipping out and totally switching sides if that is how he handles difficult situations. This is why Soldiers go through high stress training and they have a discharge for failures in Basic Training called “Failure to Adapt”. There can be no teamwork where there is no trust and this pastor did not trust his team enough to let enough of them know he was cracking.
    As a layman who grew up in the inside politics of congregations, I will tell you that most weak pastors think that they can tough it out and do not let people know that there is a problem until it is waaay too late. This is not a Lutheran problem. Look at any church in any confession and you will find congregations SHOCKED at how long their pastor was having problems. When do most people find out? The public annoucement of their resignation, scandal, or conversion. That is where the integrity break down is. Pastors do not rely on their support chain because they are Lone Rangers sent to save/fix the church… and they cry foul when they get singled out and gunned down.
    Lone Rangers do not trust the laity to help them. They hate to ask for help. They want to pretend that they do not need help and they feel like they are burdening people. They do not trust the congregation enough to clearly communicate their feelings and intent on most issues of practice. They feel obligated to trick people or be subversive as if their own congregation was the inquisition and not their flock. They trust their district peers and leadership even less.
    I am all for supporting our beloved pastors, but if a little internal bickering and disunity is too much stress for Christians to handle then I shudder to think what REAL persecution might do to this current crop of the Lutheran church. If differences of communion practice and musical choice are enough to send people down a road that ends with them signing their soul over to the likes of the pope with his tomes of manifold heresies, then where is our courage and resolve? Have we American Lutherans gotten so gluttonous and weak that we cannot declare “Here I Stand” anymore?

  11. John
    June 28th, 2008 at 11:03 | #11

    Mike Baker writes,
    “It seems that some people in the Lutheran Blogosphere want the LCMS to do to sister churches what they as individuals are unwilling to do in the relative anonymity of Cyberspace. I see a lot of bickering for days over the relative pennies of weekly communion while ignoring the dollars of papist error.
    Either you passionately love the Truth or you don’t. Either you believe and defend the Augsburg Confession against those who promote error or you don’t. Either it matters that you are a Lutheran or it doesn’t. Everyone, please pick a position and stay there.”
    Mr. Baker, dollars-to-donuts, my take (as a pastor) is that herein lies the rub for those who swim (either the Tiber for Rome or the Bosphorus for Eastern Orthodoxy). They do begin loving the truth, they do believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God and the Confessions are a true exposition of the Word of God. They enter the ministry with a desire to serve the Lord by feeding the flock entrusted to them as best they can. But either where they are placed, or as they look outside of their church at other churches in fellowship, they see much wrong, much that is contradictory to the Scriptures and the Confessions.
    Your “pennies of weekly communion” is a huge issue and truly, the administration of the Lord’s Supper is probably the issue that gets these men reaching for swimming trunks. But let’s look at weekly communion. A really strong case for the practice of weekly communion can be made from the Scriptures. The practice of the Christian Church till the Reformation was the celebration of at least weekly communion (yes, Rome multiplied masses, but that really is a much different issue). The Confessions attest to the practice of weekly communion in those churches which “believed, taught, and confessed” what was in the Augsburg Confession. But somewhere along the line, due to various factors (pietism and rationalism), by and large, weekly communion among Lutherans went away. One can make the claim that the Confessions describe the practice, not prescribe. While this is a red herring, for argument’s sake, what good reason for the care of Christ’s flock is there for changing the practice that is described (this also applies to other important issues, such as private confession)? The other red herring is that way back when, congregations couldn’t be served by an ordained minister every Sunday; but there’s a big difference between “we can’t” and “we don’t need to”.
    Anyway, the pastor vows before his congregation to uphold what is taught in the Scriptures and Confessions. He wants to serve them as best as he can, and as given from the Scriptures, Confessions, and yes, in concert with the history of the church, and that means Word and Sacrament ministry, that means worship on the Lord’s day including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That means the respectful handling of Christ’s body and blood.
    So, perhaps they don’t see it practiced where they are called to in their own congregations, and so they begin to meet resistance in trying to teach these practices which are attested to in the Confessions. Or they look around in the Synod, and of course synod means “walking together.” And they don’t see faithful adherence to the Confessions in many ways, especially concerning the administration of the Sacrament. Can you say, “cognitive dissonance?” So, they begin to question. And they look for answers in confessions where these particular issues are not an issue. And Rome and Constantinople are places where these things are not so much an issue. And then they begin to look at the Lutheran confessions and try to find holes. And then the swimming trunks get put on.
    Now, this is NOT in defense for their swimming. I do not approve of their rejection of the Lutheran Confessions. But there is a problem here. And it’s the type of thing that a layperson usually doesn’t see (perhaps that’s too broad a brush to paint with–at least, I don’t think I would have seen it as a layperson). If (admittedly this is a really big “if”) the churches which are in fellowship in the LCMS would agree on (not just on paper but in practice) what really constitutes worship on the Lord’s Day, and what the Sacrament of the Altar really is and how it should be administered (and that means more than just getting the Words of Institution right), using Scriptures and Confessions as the norm, I wonder how much this would help to keep men who enter the ministry desiring to faithfully serve their people from looking in their drawers for swimming trunks. Not that there aren’t much better reasons for such an exercise anyway, such as facilitating better spiritual care for the people of God!
    Yours in Christ,
    John Schuetz

  12. July 1st, 2008 at 12:43 | #12

    Pr Schuetz,
    As a point of clarification: Weekly communion is a blessed gift that should be encouraged everywhere. When I travel, I decide between local LCMS churches based on this practice. I attend churches with weekly communion and do not attend semi-weekly or monthly communing churches. If I were to find myself as a member of a congregation that did not practice weekly communion, I would aggressively push for its re-institution. In the past, I have paid for a 20 minute cab ride to a weekly communion church when a semi-weekly church was only nine miles away from where I was staying.
    I also firmly believe that weekly communion in the Book of Concord is prescriptive (not descriptive) and that such a practice is the normal minimum rather than the maximum of frequency. As the AC states: “Now, forasmuch as the Mass is such a giving of the Sacrament, we hold one communion every holy-day, and, if any desire the Sacrament, also on other days, when it is given to such as ask for it.” [AC XXIV:34]
    That said, I still stand by my previous statement that failure to abide by weekly communion is a relatively minor bad practice when compared with the grevious abuses and doctrinal errors of other church bodies. When pastors begin to value their pet issue over objective reality, they begin to see holes in the confessions where none exist.
    A rational person can see the difference between bad practice: (i.e. semi-weekly communion administered properly) and horrific error: (i.e. the mass as a human work, private masses, communion under one kind, etc). Why would any sane individual embrace the later to escape the former?
    One problem here (among many) is that these pastors participate in faulty logic. They determine objective truth subjectively. Either a confession is true or it is not. Failure by those who claim to follow it does not make it less true any more than hypocrites degrade the efficacy of the Gospel. Based on your agruement (that pastors become frustrated when their church body does not live up to the confession), I submit that none of us can be faulted for falling away from Christianity. After all, what good is a document if people fail to follow it perfectly?
    Conversion Reasoning:
    1. The Book of Concord is good and true.
    2. People do not follow the Book of Concord perfectly.
    3. People do follow other confessions far better.
    4. The Book of Concord must not be true.
    …what is the difference between that and this:
    1. The Ten Commandments are good and true.
    2. People do not follow the Ten Commandments perfectly.
    3. People do follow other rules far better.
    4. The Ten Commandments must not be true.
    At the core of this issue is a confusion of law and gospel. The unspoken assersion by many who teeter on the edge of leaving Lutheranism is, “if people do not embrace the Gospel and right practice, they should be made to embrace the Gospel and right practice.” These are the ugly roots of human legalism which seeks to oppress people with cannons and authorities to ensure that people meet the holy standards of God (or in many cases merely the human standards of the church). This is living under the Law. We do not live under the Law, but under grace.
    It is far more important that the people possess saving faith in Christ instead of doing the right things or being unified. I do not hear the outcry over deficiencies in faith and poor doctrinal knowledge. Just look at all of the LCMS surveys on those topics. The bulk of the complaints are over practices which are important, but not explicitely commanded by Scripture. If pastors are getting upset to the point of leaving, I suggest that they had misplaced priorities in the first place.
    Weekly communion is a fine practice and a holy tradition, but I would not compromise the freedom of the Gospel nor would I accept error in order to retain it.

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