Current Events, Reconstructing Faith

Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits… (Part 5)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

By Their Fruits… (Part 5)

My previous posts in this miniseries focused on specific things: my discovery that Christians could believe one thing and act in ways contrary to it, racism I encountered in the LCMS, misogyny I encountered in the LCMS, and homophobia rampant in the LCMS. This post will summarize several other aspects of practice and belief I found within the LCMS that drove me away. It comes from a wide variety of sources, but again, I focus on behavior from people who either were leaders in the LCMS (pastors, professors, teachers) or were studying to become those leaders. These are not stories of random laity, but trained LCMS people. Other examples are specifics about LCMS teachings, whether official or not. [1]

Growing up in LCMS schools, I learned to say not just the pledge of allegiance, but the pledge to the cross. Yes, the pledge to the cross. “I pledge allegiance to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the faith for which it stands, with mercy and grace for all.” We would stand and say the pledge to both flags, which were set up across from each other in classrooms and sanctuaries. It didn’t bother me until I was a young adult that we would say a pledge to both–as if our allegiance to a nation state should be as strong or on the same level as our allegiance to Christ. When I started to raise objections to flags in sanctuaries or unquestioning allegiance to our nation, I was told, basically that that was along the lines of a Jehovah’s Witness and because they were wrong about everything, I shouldn’t agree with them on this topic. That didn’t sit well with me.

It wasn’t until years later, when I read The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh (book review here), that I could better articulate my problems with the integration of nationalism and religion that remains entrenched in many LCMS churches. When I started to express those views, the reaction was almost entirely negative. Flags were in sanctuaries in part, I was told, because of a holdover from when the LCMS shed some of its outward associations with Germany, particularly during WWI[2]. But that didn’t explain why they needed to remain there, or why the pledge to the cross was said alongside the pledge of allegiance. The nation state, I kept pointing out, seemed to be elevated to the same place as allegiance to Christ. The flag in the sanctuary was and is very often next to and on the same level as the so-called Christian flag. The pledges were said in tandem. As a kid, the link between the two was impossible to miss. As an adult, no correctives were offered. Nationalism is frequently conflated with patriotism, just as it is in the general populace. However, reconciling my belief that our allegiance should be to Christ alone with the way allegiance to the nation state is assumed and even pushed within the LCMS became impossible.

Pastors in the LCMS are extremely inconsistent when it comes to practice related to the Lord’s Supper. Many speak with pride about the extreme doctrinal purity the LCMS pushes. In practice, however, maintaining that supposed purity gets complicated. As a kid, I remember not taking communion in other churches. It was because they believed differently from us, and so we weren’t supposed to participate in that. I specifically remember one time before I was “confirmed”[3], I was offered communion at a Methodist church. I was super excited to take it, but (as I recall-it was a young memory) my hand was physically moved from taking the bread or grape juice offered. I remember people being denied communion in our church, and some of them being upset by that. Again, I learned it was because of different beliefs about what communion was. When I got older, I learned that the reasoning behind denying others communion was because we didn’t want people to eat and drink destruction on themselves. This belief was backed by a rather idiosyncratic reading of 1 Corinthians 11:27: “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” This verse was used to justify virtually any reason for not allowing a person to have communion.

While the LCMS has produced documents about who should and should not be allowed to receive communion, from firsthand experience I can say that these documents are entirely ignored or applied whenever the pastor desires (or not). Ultimately, the practice of closed (or, a preferred term: “close”) communion, while given lip service as a way to protect people from grave sin, is wielded by many LCMS pastors as a totally arbitrary way to punish those with whom they disagree. Alternatively, refusing communion to people can enforce a pastor’s doctrinal whims. Indeed, the LCMS website itself renders many decisions to the “individual pastor’s judgment,” such as whether someone with Celiac disease can have communion with gluten-free wafers. Thus, it is entirely possible for there to be LCMS churches in which, because the pastor chooses not to use gluten free wafers, people with Celiac disease are effectively excommunicated not because of different belief but because of a chronic immune disorder.

The decision about whether or not to commune someone was totally arbitrary even in churches in which I found inserts about their beliefs about who could or could not commune in bulletins. One church had such an insert, and it said, essentially, that people who differed about the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine could not receive communion. I remain Lutheran, and affirm real presence to this day. When I was denied communion by the pastor of that same church, he justified it by saying that because I disagreed with the LCMS on other things, I couldn’t really share their belief on real presence, as all beliefs are ultimately tied together. Such a reach for what can or cannot qualify someone based on what is already a tenuous reading of Scripture effectively meant this pastor believed he could exclude anyone from communion for any reason. I told the pastor this, and he just smiled and said he wasn’t changing what he said.

In the LCMS, one of the strongest beliefs I was taught was the need to properly divide law and gospel. C.F.W. Walther, perhaps the single most influential LCMS pastor and leader, wrote a book on the topic. There was no question in my mind that the arbitrariness with which this pastor and others applied closed communion was a key example of mixing gospel (the forgiveness found in the Lord’s Supper) with law (attempts to punish people for disagreement or call out sin therein). This was not the first or only time I’d be denied communion for absurd reasons. Another time, while staying at a friend’s house on a trip, I was denied communion because I didn’t affirm young earth creationism. Indeed, that pastor’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:29 meant that I’d be unworthily receiving the body and blood because I disagreed about how old the planet is. At that stage, I was still a member in good standing within the LCMS and regularly attended an LCMS church, at which I was given communion. In spite of that, I was denied communion at this LCMS church based on the age of the Earth. The practice is, again, entirely arbitrary. LCMS documents and leaders give lip service to how it protects people, but show total disregard for the spiritually abusive way many pastors apply the practice to exclude Christians from participating in Christ’s body and blood.

I could illustrate this time and again with many, many firsthand accounts or accounts shared with me by others. Another Lutheran was denied communion when they were traveling as part of an LCMS choir because they weren’t a young earth creationist. At a different time, the same person was denied communion because they believed women could be pastors. In neither case was this policy stated, nor were others on the same trip queried about their beliefs on those same topics. The only reasonable conclusion is that LCMS pastors are totally arbitrary about when they apply the doctrine of closed communion. This should be seen as a damning indictment of the practice. After all, the LCMS teaches that closed communion is intended to protect people’s souls, or at least protect them from unknowingly participating in sin. If that’s the case, then why would something with such huge import be so subject to inconsistency about its application? And how is it possible that people like me could go to four different LCMS churches and experience 4 totally different practices about communion such that I received it without question in one, after a brief discussion with the pastor in another, and was denied it for totally different reasons in two others? Inconsistency is one of the surest signs of a failing belief or system, and it can be found all over regarding this practice in LCMS churches. The leadership of the LCMS has effectively handed individual pastors a carte blanche to use their office to arbitrarily withhold the Sacrament from parishioners for whatever reason they desire. It’s a recipe for abuse of the system.

In LCMS schools, I was taught to read the Bible. It’s a legacy I keep to this day, and one I hugely appreciate. When I got to college, I finally began learning more about how to read the Bible, not just to read it. The consistency with which the method was applied was impressive, as I found multiple different professors in the theology department (all of whom were pastors) emphasizing points that were, if not the same, then essentially interchangeable. The bedrock belief was that scripture interprets scripture. Another hallmark of the system was talking about the historical grammatical method of interpretation. The historical grammatical method includes attempting to find the original meaning of the text. I found this exciting, because it meant that for the first time, I was reading about history and archeology and seeing what they could teach me regarding the Bible. This was alongside my surging interest in Christian apologetics. I was (and am) fascinated by finding out about idioms in the Bible, or euphemistic language that explained why things were written in the way they were. It was truly an exciting time.

Then, it started to become problematic. The simplistic reading of passages that I grew up with started to make less sense. Some of this coincided with my turning away from young earth creationism. There was a distinct incongruity between what I was learning regarding what the original intent might have been for a passage and what I was supposed to accept it to mean. It culminated in one private discussion with a professor (who, again, was an LCMS pastor) in which I pointed out that it seemed like the Flood story had precursors in the ancient world, and that it seemed to be almost polemical in its intent rather than historical. That is, the Flood story to me read as an intentional reframing of existing stories to teach monotheism and about how God overpowered forces of chaos than it did as a sort of rote historical report. This reading, the professor pointed out, contradicted another aspect of the historical grammatical method, which is that the events depicted in the Bible are actually historical essentially all the way through. I would later learn that this was a distortion of what evangelicals broadly held to be the historical grammatical method, and that would be its own kind of revelatory gain. In the moment, however, I was a bit shocked. I was simply trying to apply the hermeneutic I’d been learning to the texts themselves. Instead, I was being told that I was undermining Scripture as history and, possibly, denying the Bible itself.

When I shared my thoughts with another LCMS pastor, I was told straightforwardly that the way to distinguish someone who believed the Bible or not was to ask them about whether certain passages or books were historical. Thus, this pastor said you should ask whether they believe Jonah was a real person who was truly swallowed by a whale (or, he conceded, maybe a giant fish instead). You should ask whether they believe Adam and Eve were real and whether they were the first and only humans. You should ask whether a snake literally did speak to them. Noah’s Flood was another example. This pastor wasn’t just implying that denial of any of these meant one didn’t believe the Bible, he straightforwardly said it. That meant that my reading had to be rejected out of hand. I was devastated, but for the moment I dropped my investigation of Ancient Near Eastern background for the text. It would take me years to get back into it, and to this day I’m still trying to find resources to learn more.

One thing I’d theorized for a while about the LCMS and other groups that push beliefs that are outside of mainstream science was that once someone starts to disbelieve scientists regarding one thing, it becomes much easier to doubt scientists in other things. I wrote about how, as a child, I learned that scientists weren’t just wrong but were actively lying about things like the age of the Earth. Once you’ve accepted that there is some kind of global scientific conspiracy to cover up something like the age of the Earth, it becomes much easier to accept that same kind of thinking in other areas.

I dove into the question of climate change entirely from the view of one who wanted to deny that it was occurring. Again, from hearing things like Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and other sources, I was convinced it was another example of scientists lying. In college, I continued to read on the topic, watched and listened to several debates, and read some books on either side. What I kept finding is that the numbers couldn’t be thrown out. When I explored the age of the Earth, I kept finding young earth creationists saying things like “We look at the same data, we just interpret it differently.” The same thing seemed to be occurring with climate change. I eventually brought this notion to one of my professors as we talked about what I was hoping to study going forward. We were in his office and I distinctly remember him saying “It’s such a shame that global warming [using the parlance more common at the time] has become a politically charged question. The data is there; it is happening! It’s okay to debate what to do about it, but to deny that it exists is like sticking your head in the sand. It shouldn’t be political.” He went on to talk about a number of other issues he saw as unnecessarily political. It was hugely refreshing to hear, and it helped free me to think about all sorts of topics in different ways. But this put me on the outside of many conversations with LCMS leaders or leaders-in-training, who frequently talked about the lie of global warming. It wouldn’t be a major factor in alienating me from the LCMS, but it would serve as another example of how teaching about scientists all lying in one area made it easier to accept the same elsewhere.[4]

None of these served as overwhelming reasons why I left the LCMS, but united with the reasons from the previous posts, they became a massive case for leaving. Next time, we’ll delve into one more major reason I left the LCMS.

Next: Points of Fracture- Women in the Church

[1] I’ve said before there are many things the LCMS has a de facto position in relation to without explicitly drawing out or spelling it out in doctrines. One of these is the de facto young earth creationism within the LCMS. While they have some documents saying there is no official position, the continued adoption of resolutions effectively teaching YEC makes holding other positions problematic at best and grounds for excommunication for some pastors. I say the latter from my own experience of being denied communion for differing beliefs on the age of the Earth.

[2] There is some of the history of the LCMS’s transition from a German-speaking church to an English-speaking church in Authority Vested by Mary Todd, which has a history of the LCMS.

[3] a broadly used practice in the LCMS to teach children what they supposedly need to know before participating in the Lord’s Supper.

[4] I didn’t include a longer aside about anti-vaccination beliefs in the LCMS. It certainly is not an official position within the LCMS, but I’ve found it to be more common there than in the general population, even before Covid-19. Again, I believe this is linked to a general mistrust of scientists and science. If scientists are liars about one thing, why trust them in others? It genuinely makes me concerned about what might happen in the future if more and more people I know start to refuse vaccines, despite demonstrable evidence that they work.

Links

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.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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