By David Domsch
Lutherans have a long and complex relationship with fear. Luther was famously fearful as a young man – fearing that no matter how hard he tried, he could never be sure that he was living up to what God expected of him.
In a very real sense, the Reformation is a direct result of this fear, for it drove Luther to search Scripture until he rediscovered the Gospel, and in it the power to conquer fear. Luther took to heart that fear was no longer in charge. The Gospel provided Luther, and provides us, freedom to be the sinners we are, with the full knowledge that in Christ, all is well despite our failings. Luther famously wrote of this freedom in a letter to Melanchthon. “Sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” On this insight the Reformation was born.
What a shame that this fundamental heritage has been largely replaced by fear again in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. The organization claims pure doctrine, but increasingly resorts to fear to control those who would exercise their freedom under the Gospel. Fear explains the intense reaction among some clergy to a public prayer following a day of national tragedy. Fear explains removing a pastor from the rolls for daring to attend and participate in the funeral of his secretary of 20+ years because it was held in a Catholic church. Fear explains suspending a retired pastor for attending an ELCA congregation with his wife and daring to take communion with her. Fear explains a pastor’s indiscriminate use of the “minor ban” on those who dare to disagree with him in public. Fear explains a pastor refusing to commune anyone not a member of his congregation.
This return to fear has a long and unpleasant history, largely traceable to the yellow journalism of Herman Otten beginning in 60’s. By 1969, this created fear of false doctrine produced a truly schizophrenic LCMS convention – one that voted fellowship with the (previously considered “impure”) American Lutheran Church while electing as President the man whose writings (as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod) ended that group’s fellowship with the LCMS because the LCMS wasn’t pure enough. The upheavals over the next few years set the stage for an ever more fearful organization – driven by ever more radical seminaries.
Today fear is the driving factor within the LCMS. Some fears are real and show the need for serious organizational change.
- Pastors in small congregations (half the 6,000 LCMS congregations worship less than 100/week and half of those worship under 50) are concerned about viability – and what that means for them as Pastor. The comfortable model of one pastor serving one congregation full time is simply no longer viable in many situations.
- The number of people in LCMS Congregations is down sharply – official membership has declined every year since 1970 and real decline is steeper than those numbers show. Even so, attempts to invigorate evangelism are widely dismissed as mere “programs” that deserve contempt.
- Some districts will no longer take new seminary graduates without personal interview because of experience-bred fear of what they might do to congregations.
- Seminary faculties fear that the LCMS will stop spending nearly $40 million/year to operate 2 seminaries – whose combined graduates number less than 200/ year – many of whom have no viable place to go upon graduation. We spend more to educate a single pastor than any other denomination in the US – with too often questionable results.
Those are real issues that need to be addressed if the LCMS is to again be a significant force. There are other, more pernicious, fears, however, that underlie much of the division evident in the LCMS.
A core fear among too many pastors is that they might be wrong on some point. It’s the same fear that Luther experienced – of not being pure enough for God. Purity is an awfully high standard – one never achieved, but which makes huge psychological demands. Being “pure” demands:
- Absolute faith that my understanding is right. The psychological toll of admitting to being wrong is simply too great to be tolerated. Being wrong on even one point could undermine the whole belief system. This leads directly to absolutist positions on every matter of faith.
- Every position then rises to the status of “doctrine”. Fellowship is only allowed when there is 100% agreement on all these “doctrines” – for fear of being seen as mingling with the impure.
- Whatever was learned in seminary is truth. There is no reason to discuss any other position or interpretation because truth is fixed and forever.
- The intellectual dishonesty to believe my positions only state what scripture “says” – while all other positions falsely “interpret” scripture.
A related fear comes from the loss of denominational identity. US denominations are all losing members and most Christians no longer describe themselves by denominational title. In response too many in the LCMS seek a “return” to a “purity” they idealize and define – a purity that never existed outside an ivory tower and can’t exist now.
- “Dare to be Lutheran” has become a rallying cry for a youth group set up to compete with Synod’s youth ministry – which is considered impure.
- Elected leaders are pressured to end cooperation with other Lutherans – let alone any other Christians – for fear of promoting a “mixed confession”. The furor over a prayer in Yankee Stadium grew directly from this fear. Our long history of providing Chaplains to the armed forces is now under strong attack because of this fear.
- Leaders are expected to “discipline” all congregations who dare to allow any leadership role for women – or who don’t adhere strictly enough to a “closed” communion policy – or who dare to use music written in recent centuries.
A related fear is loss of pastoral authority – of irrelevance in a rapidly changing world. In past generations the pastor was often the most educated member of the congregation and was respected as intellectual, as well as spiritual, leader. That special intellectual status no longer exists as many congregation members are at least as educated and expect their input to be respected. In response:
- A “doctrine” of the pastoral office has emerged. Anything assigned to the pastor in this “doctrine” is off limits to others. An element of the LCMS version of this “doctrine” is that only males are allowed. No further discussion is allowed.
- For some, the role of pastor is defined as only preaching and rightly administering the sacraments. Any active work to reach out is a “program” that somehow subverts the work of the Holy Spirit – who already knows who will be saved.
- A pernicious literalism is stated as the standard for biblical understanding. Borrowed from the reformed tradition, this leads to clear and unambiguous positions on anything where a text can be cited as proof of position.
- 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.
These fears have, over the last 40 years, so distorted the dynamics of the LCMS that the psychology of the organization approaches that of the young Luther – the Luther who had not yet discovered the freedom allowed – guaranteed! – by the Gospel.
- Leaders too often act out of fear that the most radical will turn on them if they don’t act as demanded.
- Women have no input to decisions on women’s role in the church.
- Relations with other Christians are poisoned as only the LCMS is keeper of pure doctrine.
- Congregations are ripped apart as “pastors” demand adherence to only their understandings.
To break this psychology we need to reclaim that uniquely Lutheran understanding that we really do have much freedom under the Gospel. Grace is operative and sufficient – my works are not. Easier said than done after the massive investment in creating and nurturing fear – but the only way to return to the core of what it means to be Lutheran. That is today’s call for Reformation!