Editorial Note: Harold Kitzmann relates some of his personal ecumenical experiences as he seeks to fathom the depth of the LCMS’s opposition to fellowship with other Christians. After graduating from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1964 and later returning there for his S.T.M., he received his M.Th. in 1979 and his Ph.D. from The Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1985. He has served parishes in Owings Mills, Maryland; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Mount Calvary, Chicago; Prince of Peace, Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Wellsville, New York.
Prompted by comments I made in a recent email discussion about learning from the tradition and practices of the local Mennonite community, the editor of the Daystar Journal suggested I write an article about learning from other traditions. (The Mennonites had a fabulous Advent service this last Sunday—fantastic music, marvelous singing out of one their new hymnals, and a powerful “from the heart” Law/Gospel sermon! We of LCMS, on the other hand, for Third Advent Sunday got a stewardship campaign!) Thinking over his suggestion, something occurred to me that was even more important. Why didn’t I know much about other traditions?
Recently, I visited the Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in D.C., for the “In the Beginning: Bibles before 1000” exhibit. The exhibition presents over seventy of the earliest biblical artifacts in existence, including pages and fragments written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian and Coptic—many on display for the first time in the United States. The Sackler Gallery was the only venue for the exhibition. It was a moving experience to see samples from the best ancient documents from which our modern Bible developed.
However, a comment written in a notebook provided for exhibit visitors to express their reactions underscores the first half of the title for this brief article: “The Arrogance Born of Ignorance.” One visitor filled an entire 12″x14″ sheet with complaints. “The MSS were too far away. The lighting was too dim. The font size of the letters on the wall mounted descriptions of the items displayed was too small …” and on and on. Most interesting was that this person actually signed this diatribe, indicating that she had a Ph.D. in something. Ah, yes, the arrogance born of ignorance. She should have known the reasons for the “no contact, dim lighted” display, but she didn’t, and her ignorance came through loud and clear.
Much of the discussion on LCMS-oriented e-mail discussion lists reveals a similar “Arrogance Born of Ignorance.” At times, we all are guilty. And talk about arrogance! The LCMS at times has claimed to be the only true Church on earth! What prompts such arrogance? Is it ignorance? And are we afraid to admit it?
When I was in the hospital after surviving “sudden cardiac death,” one of my doctors, a man from India, said to my wife, “Harold has a multi-faceted problem.” Growing up in the LCMS also left me with a multi-faceted problem. A fellow student in graduate school at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, identified our mutual problem. We had, he said, “ingrown theological toenails.” Consequently, we had a very narrow and faulty understanding of the Body of Christ. But would we ever admit that?
As time went on, I came to understand just how much I could learn and be blessed through contact with people from other traditions with whom we share membership in that true Body of Christ. I had been warned in childhood against associating with any but Missouri Synod Lutherans. Very early I decided there was something wrong with that. Surely there were good Christians in other traditions. What a surprise to discover, already when I was quite young, that very few of the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal were authored by Lutherans. And what a shock to learn that those wonderful Sunday school attendance pins were not “Lutheran” at all! They were identical to ones worn by Presbyterians and others I met along the way. And—Surprise!—early on I became aware that many folks in other traditions had been formed by the Gospel message.
Just how big a step this all was for me to take can be appreciated only when you know just how conservative my father (who also was my pastor and confirmation instructor) was. In my youth we were taught that perhaps the only thing worse than the Catholics were the American Lutherans who lived in our part of Iowa. We didn’t know why. We just believed it. We never bothered to check. We never spoke with them even in casual conversation if we could avoid it. We never engaged them in discussion to see how our beliefs and traditions might have meshed with theirs. Perhaps we were afraid we might discover we were wrong if we placed ourselves next to them. Yes, the arrogance of ignorance.
My father/pastor did go hunting with the local priest one time. When he returned home, he dutifully reported that they hadn’t talked about religious matters! Was he afraid that his stance on Roman Catholics might be wrong? After retiring, he moved to a small town in northern Iowa. His niece and her wheelchair-bound husband lived there. The LCMS building was not handicapped-accessible, so they joined the ALC church. It wasn’t long before the ALC pastor asked my dad to serve as visitation pastor. I’m sure he agreed with fear and trembling! Later he said to me: “You know, Harold, their people are no different than ours.” What a revelation! Ignorance erased.
It has been a lengthy journey, but today I can say that I am a true “conservative” in the Christian faith. By that I mean that I am determined to conserve the Gospel. That also means that I look for and relish discovery of people in other church traditions who have been touched by the Gospel of Christ. I see these people as gifts to me from God. To avoid or reject them would be blasphemous.
Way back at the beginning of Daystar, when Matt Becker was being harassed with charges of teaching false doctrine, I suggested that everyone on Daystar publicly announce their own violations of the synod’s rules, written and unwritten. To do so would swamp the system and produce changes by force of common practice. I got no takers. So I simply continued what I had decided to do, namely, to associate with and learn from people in other traditions. I would be ignorant no longer.
I will share briefly with you just a few examples of being touched by people from other than the LCMS tradition. I’m sure you can easily cite your own experiences.
My first call after seminary was to start a mission congregation in Owings Mills, Maryland. I became part of the local ministerial association. Reformation Day was coming up, and the group decided it should be celebrated in some way by the various denominations. The old priest of the local Catholic congregation insisted the service be at his church. Surprise! It turned out that he listened to the Lutheran Hour every Sunday morning and counted Ossie Hoffmann as his spiritual counselor! He and I sang “A Mighty Fortress” with extra zeal. That would not have happened if I had remained in the ignorance of my arrogance.
The local Presbyterian pastor became a friend and father-confessor for me, giving lots of advice to a novice mission developer. When he moved on and a new pastor arrived, all in the ministerial association participated in his installation. We all were vested. We all laid hands on him. That expressed our belief that all our congregations shared in the ministry of the Body of Christ. I agreed to participate in the round robin Lenten series sponsored by the local ministerial association. This was a rewarding experience for me and the members of our mission congregation. (By the way, my “text” was the word “repent” from Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary! God does speak in the strangest places!) I learned things from all the clergy—Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian.
However, a person who especially touched my life was Father Tom. He provides perhaps the best example of my learning from another tradition. The chairperson of the altar guild in my third congregation was married to a Roman Catholic. Lynn would go to early Mass with him and then attend late service at our church. She always spoke highly of Father Tom. Along the way, I officiated at the weddings of two of Lynn’s Catholic daughters. After fourteen years in the same military-oriented parish with lots of turnover and a problem member to deal with every two years, I was feeling a bit burned out. I resigned and took a self-granted sabbatical. My wife and I were looking for an “ark” in which we could find spiritual renewal.
After visiting all of the Lutheran congregations in the area (LCMS and ELCA), we decided to visit Father Tom’s parish. I felt obliged to introduce myself and explain why my wife and I had come to worship that Sunday. As soon as I said that I was a Lutheran pastor and indicated why we were there, “seeking an ark,” the first words from Father Tom’s mouth were these: “Can you come to Eucharist?”
Visiting all the Lutheran congregations in the area, we had found little in the way of spiritual nourishment. We did find it with Father Tom and Holy Spirit parish. Father Tom had some of the most Lutheran sermons I have ever heard. He had a unique ability to unwrap the Gospel message from a text, like peeling the layers from an onion.
Yes, Father Tom touched my life. Holy Spirit parish had something like 1,500 families (not members, families!). He wrote his sermons on Sunday morning and kind of read them. But they always were current and relevant, often citing something from that Sunday’s paper. But he didn’t read the Gospel lesson. He told it! (He said that after thirty years he should know it by heart.) He also did the liturgy from memory. He chanted well: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” And the people proclaimed: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (They didn’t use worship books; they had a printed folder each Sunday.) Father Tom and the people of Holy Spirit parish did worship well! It was exciting. Perhaps I should say that Father Tom and the worship at Holy Spirit were authentic. They weren’t play-acting, going through the motions. This was real.
My worship life was greatly enhanced through that encounter with Father Tom and the worship at Holy Spirit. (One Sunday, perhaps knowing I was there, he exclaimed in his sermon: “Luther called the Church a whore … and I’ve called her worse!”) It was moving to see him sitting in his chair in the chancel, watching as twelve lay ministers, men and women, administered the bread and wine at six stations. Five hundred plus would commune in about five minutes! One of the more moving moments in my entire worship life was to receive the Body of Christ from a Roman Catholic woman … sitting in her wheel chair.
I returned to active ministry a changed person. From then on I also “told” the Gospel and did the liturgy from my heart. Thanks to Father Tom, I also did infant baptisms very differently. Imagine Father Tom picking a naked baby up out of the baptismal waters, holding him/her high, and exclaiming: “Alleluia!” And all the people joined in: “Alleluia! Alleluia!” You had to have been there to understand what all I learned.
None of that would have happened if, along the way, I had not been set free from the “arrogance that is born of ignorance.” I simply would have gone on claiming that I knew what was right and believing that everyone else was wrong.
Indeed, there is much to be learned from those members of the Body of Christ who happen to be part of another tradition within the Una Sancta, the One Holy Body of Christ. I already have reported things I learned from the Mennonite tradition. I will only further mention that I probably learned more good theology from some of the Methodist, Jewish and Roman Catholic professors I encountered during my doctoral studies through the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago than from many of the LCMS professors I had up until that time. Once again, that only could happen because I decided not to live in the “arrogance born of ignorance.”
And, don’t worry. It won’t damage your faith. More than likely, it will enhance and strengthen your faith. You may even have something to share with them.