Why a Life-long Lutheran Fled the LC-MS
Mark G. Woodworth is an Illinois attorney who holds a J.D. and a Ph.D (with a concentration in organizational analysis) from Saint Louis University. He and his wife, Teresa, reside in Geneseo, Illinois.
Daystar has asked me to write an essay about why I, a life-long member of the LC-MS, joined the ELCA. I am pleased that I have been offered this opportunity. This essay is composed of: (1) a portrayal of my background; and (2) a discussion of the factors that led to the decision to leave the LC-MS. The opinions expressed herein are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Daystar.
A. Lutheran Background
I was a life-long member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I was baptized and confirmed in Missouri. I am a pastor’s kid, a “PK,” the son of now retired LC-MS pastor Rev. Dr. Harold G. Woodworth and his wife, Bea, who reside in Springfield, Illinois.
At various times and places, installations and such, I had met great figures of Missouri: Dr. Oswald Hoffman, Dr. Wallace Schulz, and most of those who had served as LCMS presidents during my life time. I enjoyed associating with many outstanding Lutheran pastors over the years, names some may recall: Homrighausen, Kaul, Klinkerman, and the scholarly Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt. I served as an elder twice, once at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, Illinois and later at Concordia, Geneseo.
My dad founded Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, New Orleans, and amongst other calls tugged his family from the Deep South to Colby, Wisconsin, served as a chaplain during the Vietnam war, and ministered at Salem Lutheran and Our Redeemer in Jacksonville, Illinois.
I attended Salem Lutheran parochial school (Go Cyclones!) in Jacksonville, Illinois, for grades 6-8. I have fond memories of Thom Tews, Joe Plautz, and the late principal/teacher/organist Roy Lovekamp, some of the finest teachers I have ever had.
When a pre-teen, I came across the book, Scientific Creationism, by Dr. Henry M. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). Morris was a proponent of young-earth creationism, which means that the universe was created by God, just as it is recorded in Genesis, in six days of twenty-four hours each, less than 10,000 years ago. I was stunned. I had been raised with the biblical story of creation firmly in place, and yet being of some scientific bent, I had also been exposed to evolution. It was my understanding that the two positions were incompatible (to include theistic evolution). I was impressed with the argument that the facts of science better supported creation than evolution. It seemed so right, so scientific.
I immediately subscribed to a creation-science journal and poured over every issue. My brother and I made a pamphlet about creationism and distributed it at the church (Salem Lutheran, Jacksonville, Illinois). We arranged to have a presentation at our church by one of the founders of the ICR, Dr. Duane T. Gish, a Baptist biochemist, who came and spoke with our little group.
I was in high school when Missouri’s conservatives used brute force church politics to get rid of the majority of the faculty at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, actions that led to the formation of Seminex and ELIM. I generally knew what was going on, but was mostly isolated from it. My dad remained a non-political pastor in those sad days.
In my early college years I was still very impressed with creation “science, » and held on to the notion that Noah’s flood created the fossil evidence. So motivated was I that one summer I took a college class called “Primate Physiology and Human Anthropology.” The professor, an atheist and evolutionist, was very patient and kind with us as we volubly critiqued his presentation of how humans evolved from primate ancestors.
Also, during my college years (Valparaiso University and Illinois College), I strongly considered attending Concordia (St. Louis) seminary, although I was not very interested in being a pastor like my dad. Rather, my goal at that time was to be a professor of theology at a university.
With a legal practice two hours away from home, various personal crises, soul searching, and doubts about LCMS doctrine, I came and went from Concordia Geneseo over a number of years. One day my wife told me that the new pastor, Rev. Dan Olson, gave great (entertaining and fast) sermons. I returned.
In 2003 a movie came out about Martin Luther. Rev. Olson didn’t like it. He had the church rent out the local movie theater to show his “authorized” version of a Luther film, the one made in 1953. This film was directed by Irving Pichel, one of the “Hollywood Nineteen” who was called before the McCarthy Hearings. Though some described it as church basement quality, it had nonetheless been nominated for two Academy awards.
I am thankful that Pastor Olson had shown that movie. The movie depicts a Luther as a great man doing great things. I found I wanted to be like him. I compared my sad situation, my selfish, negative-centered life and my lack of accomplishments with Luther’s achievements. During that movie, I could feel what I took as the Holy Spirit in my heart. I was born again! My life instantly changed.
As a “new creation,” I poured over the Bible trying to figure out what it taught. I read scholarly books about the Bible in my spare time from founding a law office. I began with first principles, presupposing nothing of doctrine. I read theology, philosophy, biblical history, all from various perspectives, from Baptist to Eastern Orthodox. My goal was to understand what the Bible said, not what any particular denomination said it said. I felt at that time, given enough study of the Bible, a singular, objective, complete set of doctrine could be discerned.
My father saw my renewed interest in the faith, introduced me to Jesus First and an email list called DayStar. During the past decade and a half, I have been a (mostly) lurking member of Daystar. Daystar email discussions and articles have been a great blessing to me. To know that there are people, out there somewhere, who are concerned about the direction that the LCMS has been headed since the 1970s.
Daystar is composed of many impressive people, including Dr. Matthew Becker, Dr. Mary Todd, Deaconess Marie Meyer, and so many more, living and passed. Their thinking has greatly influenced and inspired me over the years. I find its discussions and articles often very interesting, scholarly, and Gospel-oriented. Conservatives within the LCMS seem quite uncomfortable with Daystar, likely seeing it as a tiresome group of disaffected heterodox radicals.
My renewed, deep, and wide-ranging study of Christianity showed me that Lutheran dogma, practice, and teachings (women’s ordination, closed communion, inerrancy, evolution, etc.) that I had taken fore-granted my entire life, were not actually so self-evidently correct.
I continued to explore online. I found ALPB.com’s “Your Turn” forum. I read practically all of its threads. I noticed how consistently, for hundreds of posts over many years, Pastor Brian Stoffregen of the ELCA and Daystar member Marie Meyer, for example, would patiently and brilliantly interact with the ALPB community, and be met with snarky and dismissive comments from many conservative Lutheran pastors, who I felt should be less rude, more pastoral, and more open to a constructive discussion.
My journey away from Missouri, that point in time when I knew there was probably no choice but to leave, was initiated when Synodical President Dr. Matt Harrison, in a strange and out-of-the-blue Facebook post on January 26, 2015, wrote the following:
When a public teacher on the roster of Synod can without consequence publicly advocate the ordination of women (even participate vested in the installation of an ELCA clergy person), homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible, the historical critical method, open communion, communion with the reformed, evolution, and more, then the public confession of the synod is meaningless. I am saying that if my Synod does not change its inability to call such a person to repentance, and remove such a teacher where there is not repentance, then we are liars, and our confession is meaningless. I do not want to belong to such a synod, much less lead it. I have no intention of walking away from my vocation. I shall rather use it and, by the grace of God, use all the energy I have to call this Synod to fidelity to correct this situation. Matt Harrison
I was very offended by this action, offended that Dr. Harrison would react with an accusatory Facebook post to the actions of the Northwest District President and an official Review Panel that found Dr. Becker not guilty of “heresy.“ Dr. Harrison’s post was offensive because it was an obvious violation of the Eighth commandment and synodical procedures. I was offended, too, that his post was so emotionally charged and certainly not Christ-like.
Although the post was addressed to Dr. Becker, I considered it as an attack on me, my faith, and that wonderful resource of human organizations, principled debate. Parenthetically, the post was an obvious political ploy to pump up the base and show leadership for an upcoming synodical president election. This was proved by later use of the situation before and during the recent convention.
Harrison’s indictment of Dr. Becker was a laundry list of conservative hand-wringing. His argument was that if Dr. Becker could continue to go about his teaching while on the LCMS roster, then it inexorably followed that the Synod’s confession was meaningless. This stretch of illogic was further extended. If such legally unfounded (again, by the synod’s own processes) accusations did not lead to repentance, Dr. Becker needed to be removed and the process itself must be changed. If he was not removed, “we” are liars and, again, the confession is meaningless.
Dr. Harrison threatened to leave his leadership position in the synod, but barring the drama of that horrifying specter, he would do everything in his power to stop Dr. Becker and his ilk. With apocalyptic fervor and by the grace of God, Dr. Harrison would save Synod from the wicked heterodox.
I have never met Dr. Becker, and he does not know me from Adam. I have, however, read his scholarly articles on Daystar, the postings on his blog, Transverse Markings, and his comments on ALPB.com “Your Turn” forum. He has consistently demonstrated a scholarly intelligence and patience in dealing with people who disagree with him. Dr. Becker was raising these issues (women’s ordination, evolution, etc.) for discussion within the parameters of the LC-MS bylaws and written procedures. Raising ideas for consideration is what a university professor does. That is what a thinking person does. And that is what certain elements in Missouri Synod cannot allow people to do.
I informed my wife about the situation, arguing that if Dr. Becker was forced out, we were leaving too. Our little line in the sand. She did not want to leave Concordia Geneseo, her friends, her volunteer work (hand bells, Sunday School piano player, and stewardship committee chair) to look for another church. I do want to make it clear that neither I nor my wife had any issues particular with our local church, its people, staff, or any of its pastors through the years: Revs. Daniel Olson, Synod VP John Wohlrabe, and the current Stephen Mueller.
Later, Dr. Harrison’s forces doubled down. Shortly after Dr. Becker had been exonerated, fresh charges were filed by the Montana District President, Rev. Terry Forke. Dr. Becker’s District President appears to have had his hand forced and thus he asked Dr. Becker to resign from the roster of synod. Dr. Becker, being exhausted with the never ending series of controversy, read the writing on the wall and decided not to appeal his suspension.
With Dr. Becker constructively fired, we left Concordia Geneseo in September 2015, as that was when a new round of her commitments would end. We visited several non-LCMS churches in the Illinois-Iowa Quad Cities. We ended up choosing to join St. Paul Lutheran in Davenport, Iowa (ELCA).
St. Paul is quite different from the small, rural, multi-generational family church we had been attending. In every regard St. Paul is world class. It is an urban church of some 3,500 members. It has lots of energy and involvement by people of all ages. Families, including pre-teen children, gather the offering. Men and women parishioners would join the pastors in distributing communion bread and wine in an open invitation for all to join. There are traditional and contemporary service styles, three or more services per weekend, and lots of choices for Sunday School and Bible study. The church accomplishes very much as a hand of God in this world, serving its community with blood drives, meals for the poor, mission trips to Appalachia and overseas, among many other things.
My wife and I are very pleased and blessed by St Paul Lutheran. The senior pastor at St. Paul, Peter Marty, is the son of famed Lutheran theologian and author, Martin Marty. We also have several outstanding female pastors. The Holy Spirit is present. Lutheran traditions and style are on display. Heavy organ music. Robes worn in the liturgical service. Many of the things Missouri feels so strongly against: women pastors, open communion, non-liturgical service, are not issues at all. Pastor Marty might say something like this: “This is the way we worship. We are all at some point on a spiritual path. We invite you to join us along the way.” They love you for who you are and don’t mind where you come from, what you believe. There is no litmus test, no public swearing to a set of doctrinal propositions. Just come, worship, and love.
Why did I draw a line in the sand over the Becker Question? Why did a life-long LC-MS member leave for the ELCA?
Controversy is an aspect inherent in human organizations. There is nothing unusual in finding it in LC-MS history. The Lutheran Reformation formed and survived in Germany in a synergistic confluence of religious, social, and political forces that was strong enough to address the political and spiritual hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholics responded to the Reformation by rejecting the secular and spiritual liberality of the Renaissance. A harsh, hyper-conservative Counter-Reformation (complete with the Council of Trent, an Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and Inquisitions) created an atmosphere of renewed conviction in traditional practices.
The Pietism movement led by Phillip Jakob Spener was seen as a threat on matters that still divide Lutheran Conservatives from Moderates. Then Frederick Wilhelm III decided to merge Reformed and Lutheran into the Prussian Union of Churches. The reaction to this, the Old Lutheran schism, forced many Lutherans to America, including a small band of 500-600 that were led by the infamous Pr. Martin Stephan.
Controversy continued in America. CFW Walter was forced to address the Stephan problem and the predestination crisis, amongst others. Then along came replacing German with English, the question of the spiritual propriety of life insurance, and “A Statement” of the 44.
In the 1970s there occurred a convulsion that ultimately fractured the church and struck wounds which endure to today: Seminex. Dr. John Tietjen and virtually the entire faculty of the St. Louis seminary battled it out with Synodical President J.A.O. Preus and conservative reactionaries egged on by Herman Otten’s hyperbolic muckraking in his Lutheran News. In the last few decades the LC-MS has seen Atlantic District President Benke’s Yankee Stadium 9/11 interfaith service participation, Pastor Morris’s Newtown vigil prayer, and now the Dr. Matthew Becker situation.
Not only is the LC-MS no stranger to controversy, it appears to draw strength from such conflicts, using its own history as a prop to fight on. What to “believe, teach and confess” is vitally important to Lutherans. It guards each jot of belief quite jealously. The slightest point of disagreement can lead to splinter, rupture, and schism.
Similar to Protestantism, which has divided into a thousand cliquish denominations, each asserting its perfect correspondence with scripture, Lutherans shatter into new acronyms containing the letter “L”: ALC, ACLC, ELCA, LC-MS, NALC, ELCM, WELS, LCA, ELIM, and more.
Perhaps this is due to the psyche of its German heritage, a stereotype of stalwart Here-I-Standers. Essentially, the LC-MS has never been able to resolve theological gaps between conservative and moderate. And these controversies can’t be discussed in a civil, constructive, and Christ-like manner. Church politics is a heavily used tactic, so anyone who deviates from the conservative and official position is defined as a heretical pariah.
I took my little stand about the Becker situation because I found it intellectually humiliating and spiritually damaging to be part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. I realize that this is a strong statement, so permit me to elaborate.
- The LC-MS has become to my way of thinking, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-science, and on a rapid descent into Fundamentalism and Biblicism.
- I could not support with my talent and treasure an organization that has misdirected its energies toward a prideful search for purity.
- I could not support a Missouri Synod led by people who use worldly, unseemly political scheming to include the character assassination of Dr. Becker.
- I could not support a Synod that is instilling a conservative-controlled top-down hierarchy in place of its constitutional advisory nature
- I concluded that it probably can’t be diverted from its course for decades to come.
For with all of these distractions, Missouri is in danger of losing its duty to evangelize the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has found that it is far easier to seek purity among the fewer and fewer that remain. It ignores the question of satis est and imposes instead numquam satis. What should be adiaphora (robes, worship styles) are now rules to be obeyed, e.g., sermons that have to be mailed in for review by district presidents.
The LC-MS uses the Bible as its standard (Sola Scriptura). The Lutheran Symbols provide a lens of sorts because the Synod believes that the Symbols (written by humans in controversy hundreds of years ago) are in direct doctrinal correspondence with the Bible. Any other interpretation, be it Roman Catholic, Baptist, or Eastern Orthodox are consequently heterodox, and should be shunned like a misguided Amish.
Conservatives apply yet a third analytical step. Interpretation of the Symbols must be of a certain, conservative-approved interpretation. Thereby they create a climate of fear, not only to stifle any disagreement but to motivate the political base. Threats are made, careers are ruined. Actions are taken against positions that are “not to be tolerated in the Church of God.” If one disagrees with the conservative position, one hears the harsh cry of “Heterodox!” and is told to join the ELCA.
These men are forming a new church body called “The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod-Conservative.” (“LC-MS-C”) The LC-MS-C is comprised of people who believe that they are the only ones in all of human history to get “it” all perfectly right. Thinking and discussion are unwelcome at this church, whose chief sacrament is to attain purity.
The LC-MS-C wants its wives to be Stepford Wives, silent in church, homemakers and mothers, absent from the battlefield, and to welcome their husbands as benevolent masters. The LC-MS-C is led entirely by males, who see all of this as the natural order of things. These men carefully interpret their dogmas with that in mind.
An open-minded investigation might make evident that St. Paul and other writers of both Testaments and of the Church have been gravely influenced by the patriarchal cultures (Jew, Greek, Roman, Medieval, Victorian) in which they were embedded. One might discover that they such writers have wrongfully placed males between God and females, and thereby interfered with the Holy Spirit.
One might discover, too, that the patriarchal culture of a sinful world, whose manliness was threatened by ignorance and the stigma of sexual behaviors, had a lot to do with homophobia. Hate the sin and love the sinner does not work well, when the LC-MS-C still insists that gay parishioners are going to hell.
The LC-MS-C is uncomfortable with science. Its institutional momentum cannot accept evolution, and instead promotes pseudo-science. Thousands of scientific facts, overwhelming evidence from every field of science, clearly shows the world is not less than 10,000 years old. What Missouri officially believes about science was written with thinking that has not been informed by the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or modern science. History clearly shows that religious bodies should not make scientific pronouncements. Witness early Catholic objections to the heliocentric theory of Copernicus and the inquisition of Galileo. Anyone who believes the universe is 10,000 years old and created in six twenty-four-hour days, like I certainly did as a teenager, is functionally illiterate in today’s world. Does foolishness for Christ mean that we must be foolish about science?
The LC-MS-C promotes closed communion. How can any sacrament cause one to sin? Should this gift, the Lord’s spiritual meal, be buried like the treasure of the rebuked servant? Is there not a different, better interpretation of “discerning the body” than the one put forth by the LC-MS-C? How can absolute agreement on every doctrinal manner be achieved? Is there a confusion between Lutheran style and Lutheran substance? Where in the Bible does it say a formal liturgy must be used? Where does it say robes must be worn? Is it possible that proof-texting, circular arguments, and reliance on tradition have been wrongly used to support closely-guarded positions?
I write the last words of this essay on October 31, 2016, the night prior to All Saints Day. Four hundred ninety-nine years ago Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Thus began the Reformation.
At the time of Pastor Benke’s 9/11 interfaith service in Yankee Stadium, the LC-MS baptized membership stood at about 2.6 million. Now, (as of this writing, the 2016 statistics are not yet available online), its membership is skirting 2 million. This loss of membership will likely accelerate over the next twenty years, due to the passing of the baby boomer generation, lower US birthrates among young couples, increased secularization of the American population, and those leaving the LC-MS for issues similar to mine. This loss of membership will create additional pressure on the church.
Religion, like science, must necessarily experience revolutions in thought. That is what the Reformation was all about! In the midst of these revolutions the conservative group tries to hang on to the notions of the past, even against clear evidence. It is this reluctance to adapt or evolve that makes conservatism reactionary, and ultimately, irrelevant, as new ways of thinking overtake the world. Reformation should be a continuous activity as the Church is confronted with an ever-changing world.
What if the Synodical President had posted a different sort of Facebook post in late January 2015? Something like this:
While we currently have important disagreement with the issues presented by Dr. Matthew Becker, we want him and everyone in the LC-MS to know that we love him as a brother in Christ and a fellow worker in the church. Dr. Becker raises important points that we as a church body must prayerfully consider.
Deep in its heart, where the Holy Spirit stirs, “love,” not the naked expression of power, is the way to lead a church. Among those moderates who remain within Missouri, some may want to continue the good fight for the Gospel, but some may find that it is a battle that cannot reasonably be won, given the entrenched, hegemonic conservative leadership. Yes, the issues are vital and must be addressed someday soon, but the fight can also be a distraction from what is really important, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.