Friday, February 13, 2009

Missouri's Golden Age

Regarding the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, a synodical leader said several years ago that, "This is not your grandfather's Synod." Since then, countless pastors and laypersons have responded by saying, "We want our grandfather's synod back," but I wonder, has our grandfather's synod become a sort of idol for us?

Do I think that some of the recent changes in many of our synod's congregations regarding worship style and pastoral practice have been the best choices? No. I don't. But, do I want my grandfather's synod back either? Certainly not!

Too often, we act like there is a Golden age of the Missouri Synod to which we need to return. We act as if we could just return to the way it was in Walther's time, everything would be better, or that the synod was perfect the day TLH was published in 1941, and has been going downhill ever since. I believe one of my seminary professors said it best when he told us in no uncertain terms, "There is no golden age!"

My grandfather's synod was plagued by all manner of pietism, by Romaphobia, and by a widespread disregard for the liturgy and sacraments. A few examples:
  • The synod of Walther's era believed it was sinful to purchase life insurance because it showed a lack of trust in God to provide.
  • Weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper has never been the norm for the Missouri Synod, and at certain times and places was as little as monthly or quarterly. Even the Baptists who believe it is no more than mere bread and wine receive the Supper monthly. How should we not receive it much more often than that?
  • As late as the 1960's, pastors who were divorced by no fault of their own, but because of adultery or desertion on the part of their wives, were either forced out of the ministry or relegated to desk jobs at synodical institutions.
  • Well into the mid-20th century, men were required to enter and graduate seminary single, but faced a cultural expectation to be married when they entered the parish.
  • Throughout Missouri's history, large numbers have rejected as "Romish" or "Catholic," many liturgical practices retained by the Reformers, such as chanting, vestments, the crucifix, the sign of the cross, and many others. The rejection of these practices has impaired the ability to pass down the faith to later generations.
  • Uniformity in practice was all too often enforced by means of the law, rather than encouraged for the sake of the Gospel, even in areas of adiaphora.

These are just the things that came to the top of my head in the course of 5 minutes. If I took the time to pull out my church history notes or especially to read copies of synod publications from Missouri's first century, the list could probably grow to dissertation-sized proportions. All the while, Missouri retained the right doctrine, but persistently contradicted it by her practice.

While I don't think we are any better off today, I know we were certainly not any better off then. It has been noted by many observers that each generation of humans believe things are worse in their generation than they have ever been before. It is also noted that they are generally wrong. The sky is not falling, nor is Missouri's house. Each generation of Christians and Lutherans has corrected some of the errors of its fathers and grandfathers, while also generating plenty of their own along the way. Longing for the repristination of our flawed past will do nothing to help us today. It will only distract us from the Church's mission of reaching sinners to deliver through Word and Sacrament the forgiveness won for them by our Lord. If we are going to look foolish to the world, let it be because of the cross, and not because of the bizarre Missouri synod culture which our past has forced upon us with all of its disputes and other oddities. Rather than looking with longing eyes to the past, we would be better off to look after our own house today and use the wisdom God gave us to chart a course for the future.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Evangelically Fixated vs. Theologically Preoccupied

In his column for the Sept./Oct. 2008 issue of Outreach Magazine, Ed Stetzer observed two errant tendencies in the church. He described the first as "Theologically Preoccupied," and the other as "Evangelically Fixated." He noted how each particular post on his blog draws critical responses from one side or the other.

It seems that these two tendencies are both alive and well within my church body, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, as well. This is not to say that the majority of our pastors could be placed in either camp, but sometimes it can feel otherwise, when those at either extreme happen to be some of our most prolific at distributing their opinions. While I realize the majority of our pastors and congregations are doing their best to maintain this equilibrium, we have to admit that there are some who are guilty either of compromising elements of our theology for the sake of growing their church or have become so preoccupied with theological introspection that they never engage or interact with unbelievers, much less participate in evangelism.

I do not intend to say that theological precision is a fault or undesirable--quite the opposite. It is absolutely necessary, but when theological precision is sought to the neglect of evangelistic fervor, it is misplaced. Likewise, Evangelism is not an unnecessary task, and I do not intend to criticize those who have a passion for it. But, when evangelism is pursued at the expense or neglect of theological precision, this is also objectionable.

A Christian should be neither "Evangelically Fixated" nor "Theologically preoccupied." Instead, the church should always find itself Evangelistically Theological and Theologically Evangelistic. These two extremes provide a suitable test for the rest of us. If you find yourself criticized by one of these extremes or the other, perhaps it is time to take a moment to examine your equilibrium. If you find yourself alternately criticized by both extremes, you have probably achieved the appropriate symmetry.