For several posts, I will be writing about specific things that came up while I was within the LCMS–that is, at its schools, churches, and university–that made me start to think that the LCMS way of things didn’t align with some aspect of reality, what I learned in the Bible, or something else. Here, I continue a miniseries within that about the fruits of our actions and how they tell about who we really are.
By Their Fruits… (Part 3)
[Content warning: discussion of misogyny.]
I wrote in my short history of my time in the LCMS: “What I thought when I decided to become a pastor is that I’d find a group of like-minded men… I did find several like-minded men, but I also found some of the most inward-looking, doctrine-obsessed, orthodox-rabid, self-righteous, and, unfortunately, misogynistic people I’d ever run into. I was one of them for a while.”
There’s intense pressure within the LCMS to fit in. The focus on “doctrinal purity” is immense, and this means that any dissent from some supposed norm is met with black-and-white simplicity. There simply cannot be dissent from the LCMS party line if one wants to be right about anything. This pressure to be “doctrinally pure” increases peer pressure on other levels. One doesn’t want to be seen as the weirdo who goes against commonly accepted jokes and practices. I found myself, then, as a pre-seminary student studying to be a pastor, in a group of men with a like-minded focus on doctrine. This manifested in some strange ways.
For one, it meant that we largely had to pretend to know everything about Lutheran and LCMS doctrine. This wasn’t hard for me, as one who was a pastor’s kid and spent much of my childhood memorizing parts of Luther’s Small Catechism and other works. But it meant that if one of us was found out of step with something within the LCMS, there simply was no wiggle room. You either had to conform or be shunned; there’s no middle ground. So if someone was called on something that was not LCMS-correct, they either had to double down and defend it, proving it was LCMS appropriate or they had to show they’d been misunderstood. Recanting or repenting was largely out of the question because it meant that one’s doctrinal purity was suspect going forward. After all, if you couldn’t be trusted to know who to exclude from communion (or not) based on obscure and arcane rules, how could you be trusted to lead a church?
The peer pressure was enormous, and would often get applied to things that weren’t necessarily official stances of the LCMS, but were rather logical outcomes of LCMS stances on things. One of those is the LCMS’s stance on women, which is an historically complex topic that has developed over the life of the Synod (see, for example, this historical work on the topic).
My increasing support of women’s rights and equality put me on the outside of these pre-seminary circles. Eventually, that would permanently remove me from those circles, but that’s a later post. Jokes at the expense of women were frequent. I’ll never forget being in a philosophy class, huddled together with some other pre-seminary men as we waited for the professor, talking around a set of desks. We were talking about intramural sports or something similar when significant others came up. One of the other pre-seminary men bragged about how his significant other had made him a sandwich the previous day, and he joked that “she’d be doing that for the rest of her life.” Everyone else laughed, but I didn’t. My increasing unease with jokes like this was becoming well-known on campus, and at least one of the other men said something like “take a joke” when I said it wasn’t funny.
Jokes weren’t the only way I experienced pastors or pastors-in-training to be derogatory towards women. The very acts and stances they took regarding women underscored this at every level. I heard from multiple different LCMS pastors things like “If a wife isn’t happy, no one in the house is happy,” a saying taken as a kind of truism about how women’s emotional lives will lash out at everyone else and bring them down.
The frequency of jokes in expense of women cannot really be overstated. Whether it was about women making sandwiches, needing to stay in the kitchen, being only good for raising children, or not having the right body parts to be a pastor, women were the butt of jokes. Menstrual cycles were seen with derision, and the verses in the Bible that mentioned them or euphemisms for them were treated with unease. But they also were fodder for jokes, and I heard jokes even from seminarians and pastors about a woman being “in her time of the month” if they were upset or expressed any kind of emotion. Conversely, men were emasculated if they showed emotions, “crying like a girl” or “running like a girl” was reason enough to be treated with scorn. Women’s place in the home was undermined even by their children. Teenage males were told they were “head of the household” if the father was away. I know this isn’t limited to my own experience, as I recall conversations with other LCMS-raised men talking about the same things.
For those who know the inner workings of LCMS theology, all of this shouldn’t be that surprising. While the LCMS ostensibly values women and claims women are fully equal to men, in practice that is far from the truth. Franz Pieper, an early President of what became known as the LCMS, wrote a lengthy multivolume systematic theology work. I used to own it. One of the passages in it basically says regarding women that they ought to be home and in the kitchen. It’s that blunt. I don’t have the volumes on hand anymore to get the exact wording. Pieper is seen by some LCMS theologians as extreme or off-base, but usually because of his views on things like predestination, not because of his views on women. The pre-seminary students were at least vaguely aware of theology like this existing, and some even cited it directly if their jokes about women were questioned.
To the outsider, this might sound absurd. Surely some random college kids wouldn’t be this aware of obscure theological texts from their theological heritage! Well, again, these were men studying specifically to be pastors. And because of the LCMS’s extreme emphasis on doctrinal purity as a kind of shibboleth for deciding who’s in or out, these students were very much aware of at least the basics of their theological heritage. They had to be, else their own doctrinal purity might be questioned and all might be lost. Again, this sounds over the top, but I cannot emphasize how accurate it is.
The emphasis on doctrinal purity came out in regards to other denominations as well. While non-Lutherans were generally tolerated as “wrong” or “deeply deluded” by the pre-seminary crowd, the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” was astonishingly accurate. The LCMS seems to have an extreme case of bitterness against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I’ve noted this as I read LCMS-published theological texts, nearly all of which I’ve read have at least a footnote somewhere trashing the ELCA for some perceived wrong. This absolutely flows through the veins of many pastors in the LCMS, as well as in the pre-seminary and seminary students I knew. One pre-seminary student “converted” from ELCA to LCMS while in college with us, and he quickly moved to distance himself as much as possible from the ELCA, becoming a front-runner in making jokes at the expense of women and about “homosexuals.” This kind of insular hatred directed at a near theological rival is extremely common.
In college, I was dating an ELCA woman, and this led to one of many examples of this that directly impacted me. In the earlier days of Facebook, posts would be “[your name] [status]” so you’d post things like “is tired…” so it would say “J.W. is tired.” I posted something like “J.W. is so grateful to have a girl with [these great attributes]”. A pre-seminary student who saw this status aped it, but modified it ever-so-slightly: “Charles is so grateful to have a girl with [same great attributes] who’s LCMS!” It was a clear dig at my status, and an implicit questioning of my orthodoxy. After all, how could I date a woman who was in the ELCA?
What kind of answer could be given to this? The easiest response to all of this would be to offer a similar response to the proposed one regarding Racism: not all LCMS pastors are racist, and many would be appalled by racist jokes. Not all LCMS pastors are misogynists. Not all LCMS pastors joke about women’s place in the kitchen or write systematic theologies arguing to that end… not all… I agree. It’s true that not all LCMS pastors are guilty of the things I saw and experienced. But too many LCMS pastors allow misogyny within their ranks. Too many LCMS pastors cover up or make demeaning comments about women. Too many LCMS pastors have misogynistic mindsets. “By their fruits, you will know them.”
Next: By their fruit… (Part 3) I discuss still more bad fruit I witnessed within the LCMS.
 I occasionally will interchange “men” or “pre-seminary students” or similar terms. Unless otherwise noted, these should all be understood to be all men. The LCMS does not ordain women into the office of ministry, and so women in a pre-seminary program are vanishingly rare.
 I will address closed communion and some related idiosyncratic practices within the LCMS in a later post.
 Note the use of the term “girl” for woman, and the notion of ownership of a significant other; these talking points were imbibed and encouraged with in an LCMS context that devalues women and treats people who’d care about calling women “girls” as absurdities. Again, I’m not proud of myself for having adopted this language at that point, but I am thankful that woman challenged me to do better.
 Again, I’ve changed any names throughout this series.
Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.
Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Links Hub– Want to follow the whole series? Here’s a hub post with links to all the posts as well as related topics.
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