By David Domsch
A young pastor who I know well, Ryan Wendt, raised questions and concerns about the article Fear that I wrote for the Fall 2011 Daystar Journal. Unlike my experience on several websites, the questions and comments that Ryan offered are civil. They deserve a response in kind. Though Ryan’s thoughts were posted on Facebook, that is a venue I have chosen to avoid. Since he was responding to the article that appeared here, it is appropriate that our discussion continue here as well.
Mr. Domsch, greetings from Montana. You might remember me as one of your younger son’s friends from KCLHS. I just finished reading your article on fear and I have a long list of questions and comments in my mind but I don’t have the time during this season of the church year to ask and discuss them all with you. Maybe over a beer some day while I’m visiting KC again. For now, I do have one question I would really like an answer to; along with one somewhat lengthy comment that I think I should make.
First the question (with some follow up and a few more questions); if this article is representative of your beliefs, and the LC-MS is wrong in these many areas, what is it that keeps you in the LC-MS? I really do not understand why so many who share your beliefs and desire changes in our practice don’t join one of the many synods (or non-denominational churches) that already articulate these beliefs and their necessary practices. Is it love for all of us in the LC-MS who are wrong that keeps you here? Do you desire to reform and purify the Synod of those who believe wrongly according to your doctrine? Or is it something as simple as idolatry to an organization or congregation that you have been a part of for many more years than I’ve been alive?
I’m not trying to offend, I simply don’t understand what keeps you in the LC-MS with all of her problems and errors. To further clarify; if this organization that I am voluntarily a member of decides to depart from what Scripture teaches as has been articulated in the Book of Concord since 1580, then I will leave this organization. I knew what they believed and confessed before I joined; no one tricked me or brain washed me into accepting something that I don’t believe to be true from Scripture. So again, what is it that keeps you in this Synod? I have never heard an answer to this question from someone who publicly holds to different positions than our Synod teaches and holds to. Please help me understand.
Here is my response:
Ryan, I remember you well. I would enjoy having a beer and discussing this or other topics with you in person. As that does not appear likely in the immediate future, perhaps a written discussion will at least advance understanding.
You fundamentally ask why I stay in the LCMS when I disagree with its positions in many areas. The question, I believe, rests on at least 3 false assumptions or misconceptions:
The first is that there is one LCMS position on the items raised in the article. That is not the case and never has been, despite what you have evidently been taught. There is no “LCMS Doctrine.” The Scriptures are the only source of doctrine. We also believe the Confessions are a true explication of what Scripture says. The reality, however, is that people can and do understand and interpret Scripture and the Confessions in somewhat different ways. The LCMS founding documents clearly understand this. That is why the Constitution clearly says the Synod is only advisory and differences in understanding are subject to discussion on the basis of Scripture. That is the only mechanism in the Constitution to work through differences. This reality is very frustrating to many who want (need!) to believe that there is only one position – that their understanding is “pure” – or that Synodical resolutions somehow establish LCMS Doctrine.
One of the things that most worries me about the LCMS is a gradual substitution of political power (expressed in getting resolutions passed at convention or in other ways) for Scriptural discussion as a means of resolving differences. This is a hugely dangerous development in the church over the last half century or so. We do have freedom under both the Gospel and the LCMS Constitution to disagree with each other in good conscience. The directive in both is to study and discuss – not to simply claim to have truth and reject all else.
A second assumption is that the issues raised in the article are somehow new – that the positions you hold have always been the positions of the LCMS. That assumption justifies a belief that anyone with another thought is obliged to go somewhere else. Sorry to disappoint, but discussion on the basis of Scripture is and always has been a core value of the LCMS. The position that everything is settled and everyone must agree on everything is the new and radical position. You have probably been taught that the 1932 “Brief Statement” – or JAO Preus’ “Statement” of 1972 somehow establish LCMS doctrine. The first was Pieper’s statement of what he believed, based on his understandings at the time. Pieper was certainly a respected church leader and his statement reflected much of what was widely believed at the time and was passed with little discussion. The second was a clearly political document intended to further a political agenda in a time of significant controversy in the church. It barely generated a majority after intense political work leading up to the 1973 convention. Many lined up to register their objection to the power play it represented. I strongly objected to parts of it at that time and continue to find much objectionable in it. The we confess / we reject format raised so many straw men that it generated great fear in many who read it – the primary purpose of the publication. No one ever claimed that JAO was not an extremely effective politician.
Both statements, it is true, were adopted by a Synodical convention. At my first convention I was surprised to learn that like me, 60% the delegates had never been at a convention before. I have since learned that is standard – almost never have even half of the delegates participated before. Further, there was no forum for delegate discussion prior to the convention. A delegate body that is both inexperienced and ignorant can easily be swayed by those with a committed position and the political kills to sell it.
That is why the LCMS constitution makes it clear that adopting a resolution at convention is not establishing doctrine for the church. The LCMS Constitution sets a high bar before something can be called a “doctrinal statement”. After extensive discussion throughout Synod, a proposal clearly labeled as such must be approved by 2/3 of the congregations of synod before it becomes an official statement of LCMS doctrine. No statement has even attempted to hurdle this bar. It is much easier to get a convention vote. A later claim that synod has an agreed “doctrine” based on that vote is easy to make – and too many apparently believe it.
This shift to a political process was fully evident by 1973 – and became so extreme that at his retirement convention JAO Preus himself publicly berated his brother and those allied with him for power politics at the expense of the church. I know at least one person ,who knew JAO personally, who believes he had come to regret his reliance on political means rather than the process of theological discussion because of the damage his approach was obviously causing.
I was blessed with a solid education within LCMS schools from first grade through college graduation. Professors demanded that we think – not just parrot back their thoughts. Grothaus taught the value of history, Wente the beauty of philosophy, Klotz the symmetry of Genetics – and so many more. We spent many evenings – often over a beverage – enjoyably discussing various theological (and non-theological) topics with no fear that something we said was “out of bounds.” Unfortunately, that freedom to discuss, debate and explore was considered a threat by those who wanted to exercise more control. The excellent institution that fostered widespread inquiry and exploration was shortly dismantled.
As I see it, the dynamic church body that I grew up in – conservative to be sure – but rapidly growing and open to civilly discuss and debate issues was hijacked by an extreme element not even from the LCMS. The far more right wing ELS is the source of this demand for conformity in all things. They had severed fellowship with the LCMS because we weren’t pure enough – but leaders with deep roots in that denomination rose to positions of power in the LCMS and implemented an extreme right wing agenda based on fear and demand for conformity in all things. It is not I who have changed, it is the leadership of the LCMS – especially in its seminaries.
The fruit of this change is a church body that has declined in membership every year since 1970 and become increasingly insular and focused inward, erecting barriers to entry rather than “being all things to all people so that I may win some.” If we believe, “by their fruit you shall know them,” this is sour fruit indeed. Stung by results, some now claim and teach “remnant” status. In my opinion that is a sorry attempt to self-justify – to hide from the reality that the church is not focused on doing the job it has been given – the job of reaching people with the Gospel.
A final misconception has to do with the polity of Synod. I am a member of a congregation, not of the Synod itself – as many in the clergy are eager to affirm. There remain a large number of congregations in Synod where I can be quite comfortable participating and being of service. For my congregation, Synod is increasingly irrelevant – as is the case with many other congregations I know. The local congregation goes about its job in the local community and Synod has little impact or relevance to that work. Should a congregation where I participate ever reach a decision to leave the LCMS, I would probably also no longer be a member of the LCMS. That has not yet happened.
Now the comment; one of your last bullet points in the article says: (“•Evidence from any source other than scripture is ignored or defined as heretical. Despite overwhelming evidence from many sources and disciplines, adherence a 6-day creation some 6,000 years ago is required.”) (Note, I assume a “to” is missing in your sentence.) This statement is representative of the major problem with nearly everything else you have complained about being wrong in our Synod. Your words, “other than Scripture” says it all. Surely in your reading of Luther you read concerning the Solas; Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone. Scripture is the inspired Word of God, not the word of man. Sure you can depart from it and no-one can force you to adhere to it or believe it, but what is left when you depart from what the Word of God says? If you can reject the literal 6-day creation of Genesis, then why not reject the resurrection also? Plenty of outside sources report that Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb and that He didn’t rise from the dead. Should we listen to those “other” sources too? Talk about creating doubt and fear! If God’s Word can’t be trusted in Genesis, then why should we believe any of it all? The devil did it best, “Did God really say…” but many have departed from the Word and mimicked him since. Fear is not the problem, Mr. Domsch, not fearing and loving God and His Word is the problem.
I then responded:
Yes, Ryan, the “to” is missing. I apologize for not doing better proofreading.
More importantly, I, at least, see the obvious fear that lies beneath this comment. Fear that any chink in an armor of beliefs will unravel everything. This is so fundamentally un-Lutheran as to be really scary. If this is what is being taught in the Seminaries, those institutions have really lost their way.
As to the issue your raise, I fundamentally believe that Scripture and scientific investigation exist for different ends and use different tools. Scripture was given to people by God to help us define and maintain our relationship with Him. Scripture was not intended to be a science text defining everything. Most of the Old Testament was passed orally through many generations of pre-literate people before being reduced to a written form that, even then, was primarily a mnemonic device to keep the cantor on track. Given this reality, to claim Scripture is a science text constraining scientific inquiry is simply untenable to me. Science, on the other hand, was and is confined to finding explanations for phenomena that can be explored. The relationship of man to God is clearly outside that charter. In its quest science has uncovered overwhelming evidence – in fields as diverse as geology, genetics, astronomy, physics and many more – that the earth is much older than 6,000 years – an age that scripture itself does not claim. That age was developed by Ussher based on lists of descendents, a questionable methodology at best. Claiming that all scientific evidence must be rejected because it is not in concert with a 17th-century chronology and a literal interpretation of poetic chapters written thousands of years ago for a totally different purpose is, to me at least, beyond belief. Worse, insisting on this does massive harm as young people are exposed to this evidence and come to question the truth of everything the church teaches. At one time the church used the text “the sun stood still” to argue for a geocentric universe in the face of evidence to the contrary. In principle, that is the same argument you make. It is an argument that has a long and dubious history. My father was still being taught a Ptolemaic universe in the 1920’s – a position no one can defend today. In this and other areas the church has (generally without acknowledgement) seen former positions change. The danger of your argument of “all or nothing” is that some lesser aspects of what you or I believe now will change in the future as well. What then? Does everyone lose faith? No. History shows that people of faith find a way to accommodate reality.
A friend (PhD in nuclear physics) signs his e-mail with the phrase, “All Truth is God’s Truth,” a testament to both his faith and profession. To burden Scripture with being scientifically precise to today’s understandings in a message originally delivered to a pre-literate people simply doesn’t make sense to me. The point of Genesis 1 is clear in the very first verse. That is the core point of the narrative. To me, a literalist interpretation of a poetic narrative is not being true to the word – it is imposing a foreign spirit on what it says.
This also goes directly to the point of intellectual dishonesty in the simplistic claim that only others “interpret” Scripture. All people interpret Scripture with the tools they have available, leading to much variation in emphasis and understanding. All people emphasize some concepts contained in Scripture more than others. Claiming that one group has a monopoly on truth is worse than dishonest – it harms the church’s ability to do its job of bringing the saving word of God to people. Open discussion and the intellectual honesty to believe that others may have insights that are valid are so basic to the Lutheran tradition that I cannot understand why some in the LCMS are so set on a totally different path.
I respect you as an elder and for your many years of service in our Synod, but heartily, yet sadly, disagree with the large majority of what you have written.
4 “And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. 5 “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (NAS)
Ryan, I appreciate your kind words and the civil tone of the questions and comments. I really do. The only way understanding expands and differences are dealt with is in civil discussion. Thanks for expressing your thoughts and giving me the opportunity to respond.
I also ask that you take the time to look at the context of the passage that closes your thoughts. As I read it, this passage comes after Jesus’ dressing down the Pharisees for observing forms but missing the central message. He exhorts disciples to reject the fear-inducing tactics of the Pharisees – to not be afraid of them or (in subsequent verses) others who would harm them in any way. The fundamental message of this whole section of scripture is to not be afraid. The single reference to fearing God is like a counterpoint to the core argument – God is worth fearing – it is not the core of the message of this section of Scripture. Quoting only this passage without its context is, in my view, very problematic – symptomatic of a “proof-texting” approach that I find both too common and very disturbing.
In closing, Ryan, both your comment and the text you chose to close your post eloquently make the point of my original article. Fear is the driver of far too much in the LCMS – and it is so inculcated that many suffering from it don’t even recognize how deeply they are bound by it. Fear and faith are fundamentally opposing concepts. I really do feel sorry for all who continue to live in fear – rather than in the gospel’s clear message of freedom in Christ – and thus miss the core re-discovery of the Lutheran Reformation. Christ conquered the fear of not being right with God. That understanding is central to what it means to be Lutheran. I strongly encourage you to take a wider look at the whole of Scripture, and come to learn what Luther learned several centuries ago. Fear is not the message. Freedom in Christ is the message.