By David Domsch
Purity is such an appealing idea. We all want our food, our medicine, and yes our church’s doctrine to be pure – to contain only that which is supposed to be there and be void of all contamination.
Despite its appeal, however, purity is very dangerous idea because the word implies an absolute condition – no contamination whatsoever. Absolute purity doesn’t exist and never has – either in the political, physical or spiritual realms – but too many believe it is the only acceptable standard.
In the political realm, efforts to create purity, of race, ethnicity or other factor has always produced very negative results. History is replete with those who sought to impose a desired purity by eliminating those considered less pure. The Eugenics movement of the early 20th century and the Nazi racial purity actions are only two examples of purity having disastrous consequences for both those deemed impure and, eventually, for those who led the purification drive.
Holding an absolute standard is much the same as holding no standard at all – a standard has to be measurable and reliable to be effective. The physical world understands this well – standards of allowable impurity exist, for example, throughout the food and medical industries. Measurement of physical properties –time, temperature, distance, speed, purity, or any other feature are known to not be absolute – but approximations based on the precision and reliability of the measuring instrument and skill of the measurer. As requirements increase, new techniques and tools are developed to make more precise measurements. Significantly increased ability to measure time precisely, for example, was required for both radar and the GPS that guides our travel.
At one time we even understood that purity was not a requisite in the theological world. The concept of adiaphora – that there are many areas of both theology and practice where people of good conscience can disagree and still be unified – was well regarded in the church of my youth. Unfortunately, over the last half century or so, an ever expanding search for theological purity has swept this concept away. Many in the church today use the word pure as if it is a precise term with an absolute meaning. I submit that purity, like all other measurements, held a much less precise – more practically defined – meaning when used by LCMS church fathers a century or more ago.
A measurement is accurate if it does the job needed. Precision is a very different thing. A foot, a bushel, or a minute are accurate enough for many things. They are not, however precise enough for many purposes today – far more precise measures/standards are needed. Purity as a standard, I suggest, was similarly practical when the term was used in our church’s early years. If you got sick, the food was no longer pure enough to eat. If a teaching was so far from the Gospel that it led people to damnation, it was clearly impure. I believe much of the conflict in the LCMS stems directly from misapplying a much more precise definition of purity today – a requirement that everything be totally pure before any unity is possible.
Every standard requires reference by which achievement can be judged. Increasingly, it appears, the confessions and brief statement of 1932 are cited as purity reference points – in some places seeming to take on equal status with scripture itself. This elevation of clearly human documents has produced at least one very negative corollary. Clearly descriptive portions of the confessions are, at least in some circles, now held to be prescriptive – placing ever more precise legalistic expectations on people and the church. In this way, the quest for purity adds its own adulteration to doctrine.
For many in the LCMS the search for purity has led to requirements far beyond what the confessions themselves require. The Augsburg Confession, while addressing a number of divisive doctrinal matters of the day, nowhere insists on complete doctrinal unity or purity for unity in the church. Rather, Article VII clearly states that agreement in the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments according to the gospel is sufficient for church unity. Requirements beyond this standard in the name of purity are clearly not in accord with the confessions.
It is very easy to have the mindset that I or my group is more doctrinally pure than others. It is also very dangerous, as it can justify judgmental, even Pharisaical behavior toward those judged less pure. Research clearly shows that younger people consider the church to be overly judgmental and condemnatory – a primary reason so few are attracted to it. The demand for purity clearly plays a part in these perceptions.
Much of the difficulty in the LCMS can be traced directly to the church’s longstanding claim of having “pure doctrine” – and its constitutional requirement for pure music and instructional materials. To me, the claim that we and we alone know what is pure is both arrogant and intellectually dishonest. I know I cannot claim to know every doctrine – or understand the intricacies of all Christ’s teachings – let alone know those things in any pure form. I suspect that most readers would be similarly willing to admit they don’t know it all.
Melanchthon himself demonstrated that there can be disagreement about some theological matters in the church without undermining unity in Christ. Yet, today many claim to have, or at least know what is “pure doctrine”, and dismiss out of hand any other position. They seem to feel that any position other than the one they hold is, by definition, impure and therefore unworthy of consideration. Hard to have a real discussion when one holds that everything is settled before the discussion begins.
Until the debilitating effects of an absolutist understanding of – and quest for – purity are addressed, I see little hope of bridging the divisions in the LCMS. Crippling battles over wine, women and song will continue to sap the time and energy that should be going into the mission of reaching out with the Gospel. That is the real cost of holding the wrong standard.