By David Stein
Kierkegaard wrote years ago: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
To that end permit me to return [some] to the past, stand beside the present and pray with hope about God’s future for the church catholic and apostolic.
It’s always easiest to go backwards, to dredge up history, to revise or alter its meaning and/or interpretation of life events. Reading Pannenberg onEthics for a course I teach at Concordia University, I came upon this citation: “The church is true to its vocation only if it anticipates and represents the destiny of all man[human]kind, the goal of history…. Any narrowing of the universal vocation of the church, any deviation from its character as an eschatological community, results in depriving the church of its social significance.”
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is at war with herself, and that war, a theological battle for the Bible as some have called it, is worse than a civil war among kinfolks. It is a blemish on all Lutherans and other mainstream faith traditions because she is repeating in these early days of the 21st century exactly what she has been doing decade after decade in the last half of the 20th century.
Looking over my shoulder and into my personal “file” of observations, here is an assessment of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod I wrote about 25 years ago. The year was 1979, a decade after the election of Dr. J. A. O. Preus as president of the synod. I asked the probing question which I ask once more, even as I write this October day ’04.
“What has crippled the influence of a once progressive conservative church body?” And my findings 25 years ago included the following:
- Internal theological conflict
- External theological conflict
- Organizational in-fighting
- Progressive weakening of institutions and structures
- Loss of purpose and identity of the Districts of the Synod
- Disillusioned members, congregations, and many professionals
- Problem solving through organizational structuring rather than by governance process.
It is my continued studied opinion that things have not changed in 25 years. Since the days of the J. A. O. Preus election to the presidency of the synod in 1969 [35 years ago], there have been internal and external institutional conflicts of the unhealthiest types. Strategic conflict, a useful tool in organizations contributing to the challenge of competition to do the best thing, differs from the destructive type of conflict which I have observed in the LCMS for more than 40 years.
Thomas Schelling, in his The Strategy of Conflict to revitalize stagnant systems, argues that “all-out conflict, the do-or-die type of strife in which annihilation of the enemy is the goal, is not a realistic interpretation of most social conflict. This is the famous zero-sum theory of power: my gain is always your loss and vice versa.”
Why have we failed to institutionalize conflict in Missouri, to use its strategic benefits for the advancement of the Gospel? How can we create a “clean heart” when we have not renewed a right Spirit within us? I believe it is possible to make creative use of conflicted moments in time, conflicted inter-personal standoffs, conflicted power bases, conflicted political designs, conflicted intra-institutional goals and objectives to proclaim the good news of salvation to heartless and disheartened souls.
How do we climb out of the abyss of yesterday’s grief and the distress of servants who seek to do the will of God but find themselves constantly harassed by theological vigilantes and covert pit-bull operatives? Some get swallowed up, others just leave for new opportunities. I think so often about names like Fuerbringer, Caemmerer, Tietjen, Danker, Bertram, Wuerffel, Wittmer, the list is too long to publish. They taught me, mentored me, married me, authenticated my theological studies, signed my academic history. They walked the walk and talked the talk and were exiled. That was yesterday? It’s over! Past! No, it’s still going on!
When I read Memoirs in Exile: Confessional Hope and Institutional Conflict, John Tietjen’s doxology to the battlegrounds of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, Missouri, and the phoenix which rose from the ashes of the Exile of my esteemed theological faculty, there remain tears in my heart and pains in my soul. John was crowned in glory this year. The last paragraph of his “Epilogue” in Memoirs in Exile should give every reader a promise of hope.
John writes, “From frightened teenager to pastoral veteran of church controversy, the span of God’s grace on which I have walked all my life has held firm. Justified by faith, we are free to serve and to go wherever God leads. That is the confessional principle. We can face the future with hope. God brings life out of death.”
Let’s change the gender and move into the present. Her name is Mary Todd, a preacher’s kid [just like me], a high profile Lutheran woman in faith and life, known by thousands of members of the LWML, credentialed and educated and published extensively, a Valparaiso University undergraduate, Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Chicago, dear friend, former member of the congregation I pastored in suburban Chicago, former assistant provost, director of the honors programs, professor of history, with multiple committee appointments at Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois. Exiled? No! Crucified? Yes!
Mary was charged by the Reverend Mr. Walter Otten, brother of the editor of the weekly tabloid Christian News, New Haven, Missouri. The history of this theological charade is in the records of the university’s Board of Regents minutes. Where is Mary now? She’s vice president for academic affairs, Ohio Dominican University, Columbus, Ohio. Yes, Mary was exonerated. The charges were a sham. She’s another “departee” from the faculty of a synodical institution of higher learning. Listen to Mary’s closing assessment of the LCMS from her magnificent history Authority Vested. This “tome” of Lutheran change and conflict gave rise to the charges leveled against her by her adversary.
Defining itself more often by what it is not than in a positive statement of what the church is, the question remains: Must Missouri always incline to the extreme or is another option possible—a return to a genuine catholic and confessional posture? And how inclusive will its mission and vision be?
The present reality of this church body doesn’t stop with the story of Dr. Todd’s relocation in American higher education to just another job. The sagas of conflict and allegations and charges surface almost daily against former colleagues, sitting pastors, district presidents and university professors. To add to this list is to name George Heider, Matthew Becker, Richard Lindeman, David Benke and the beat goes on. The present becomes the past so quickly. Like the blinking of an eye we move from living in the present with affection for our past history, one foot extended toward tomorrow, wondering what a minute or hour, day or week, month or perhaps another year, might offer as new and yet unknown challenges and opportunities.
Let’s go there, to the future under God, and call to mind the often quoted words of an internationally respected trouble shooter: the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King. Among his greatest truths proclaimed and declared were the words: “Whom you would change you must first love.”
Calling to mind the apostolic ministry of Saint Paul and the crises he faced in the church in Corinth, in his second letter which expressed thanksgiving after affliction the apostle wrote: “For I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”
That’s “boiler-plate” language from the forgiving and the forgiven heart. That’s the grace of God’s love eternal. That’s the promise of our future, unfettered from the prison bars of hate and evil innuendo, name-calling and loveless interactions among and between sisters and brothers born of water and the Spirit.
What’s so amazing about grace? I remember reading Yancey’s monograph with the same title as my final question. Philip could not have penned a more poignant and final response than to have said: “When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.”
In my wallet I try to carry everything a woman totes in her purse. But it doesn’t fit. However, I do always carry a pithy saying or two that may help me get through a day that becomes crowded with futility and frustration, doubt and disappointment, even a weak faith. May these hip-pocket messages cheer your day, give you a smile and perhaps some understanding of the undying love I have for the church of God.
“You only get ONE great love in your life.” “The Lord takes broken pieces and by God’s love makes us ONE.” “God does not wait for a performance appraisal before coming to love us.” And my favorite: “And all I can remember is that when our lips first touched, I knew the memory would last forever.” That’s really sensual.
It is that kiss of peace to the fragile lips of those who proclaim the certainty of forgiveness and salvation that connects us to the Incarnate Lover of our souls!
David T. Stein, Ph.D., Pastor Emeritus
Class of ’61 Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri
1. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), pp. 72ff.
2. Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 84ff.
3. John H. Tietjen, Memoirs In Exile: Confessional Hope and Institutional Conflict (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 344.
4. Mary Todd, Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), p. 280.
5. Bruce M. Metzger & Roland E. Murphy, editors, The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 251 NT.
6. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p. 282