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Book Review: “Jonathan Edwards and Deification” by James R. Salladin

Jonathan Edwards and Deification deeply dives into Edwards’s theology to discover what he taught about theosis and whether that can be reconciled with the Reformed tradition.

It must be stated from the outset that this is a dense book on a topic that is itself highly complex. Theosis, the doctrine that humans may be undergoing a kind of transformation into the divine, has many streams of thought within Christianity, but is also among the more easily misunderstood and hotly debated (when it comes up) doctrines therein.

Salladin does an admirable job of outlining the way Edwards himself thought and wrote about theosis–sometimes without making it clear he was doing so. A careful analysis of many of Edwards’s works yields a fairly consistent picture that Edwards did hold to a kind of theosis while merging it with Reformed belief. This is a kind of shocking juxtaposition, given the belief of total depravity within Reformed circles. It is difficult to square that with the notion that humans might be becoming divine, in some fashion. Salladin is careful in drawing out the distinctions Edwards himself made, and supplements that with his own analysis of what theosis could mean within that tradition.

I must admit one piece of skepticism about this project, which is my own belief that people like Jonathan Edwards don’t deserve the attention they get. Jonathan Edwards was an enslaver. While no one is perfect, I tend to believe we need to find better heroes and theological interlocutors than people who enslaved others. Unfortunately, due to Edwards’s immense influence on American religion, even outside of Reformed circles, some study of his work at times is, if not necessary, then understandable.

Jonathan Edwards and Deification is a fascinating read on a niche topic. If you are part of a niche that is adjacent to the topic (eg. interested in theosis and Protestantism, for example), it’s a must-read. If not, it may be too esoteric to consider.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

All Links to Amazon are Affiliates links

Links

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!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

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.

The Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA) – A Post-Mortem

I want to offer a post-mortem on the Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA). What I mean isn’t that the CAA has died. The CAA Facebook Group is still alive and kicking. It still has several posts each day, and posts frequently pass the 10 comment threshold, some diving into the 100+. People are still engaged. It doesn’t seem to be driving the traffic it used to, but there’s still plenty of activity. No, what I mean is a post-mortem on the CAA as it could have been. It’s a post-mortem on how the CAA should have been, and as it was, however briefly.*

Imagine a place where Christians around the globe could mingle and discuss the defense of the Christian faith. It’s a place where people share meaningful posts, links, and struggles they’ve had. It’s a group in which people could bring up favorite apologetics arguments and hone their skills. People with a passing interest in the topic could join the group and rub virtual shoulders with published philosophers and skilled Christian debaters. Some time ago (more than a decade, I believe), a group of people got together with the desire to make just such a place. Enthusiastic about apologetics, with bookshelves overflowing with works in the field, these people made a group on Facebook, the “Christian Apologetics Alliance.” It was the first iteration of the group (later, after a catastrophic and, to my knowledge, still unexplained loss of the original group, we all migrated over to the group CAA: Christian Apologetics Alliance) that would unite thousands of members around one topic: Christian apologetics.

The vision I just described is anachronistic, in some ways. Those of us involved didn’t sit down with a specific plan of how we thought CAA would form and grow. But we did share our thoughts, concerns, and interests. From the beginning, we largely agreed (or at least said we agreed) that the Christian Apologetics Alliance would be a place that all Christians could mingle and talk and learn about apologetics.

It was a dream that wouldn’t last. But before the dream was totally shattered, there were a ton of awesome times. We had huge amounts of bloggers sharing blog posts, commenting on those of others’, honing arguments, and more. We inspired each other and new bloggers. Some in the group went on to “go pro,” getting degrees and teaching, earning a career as an apologist. All the while, we had a great community set up. I was hugely involved, especially in the first iteration. I was one of the first 5-10 members of the group and, as I recall, one of the few people involved in bringing the idea to fruition. I became a mod for a while, but stopped when the position became saddled with increasing responsibilities (eg. expectations for how long to be online in the group, etc.).

From almost the beginning, there were pushes in two directions that would lead to the CAA becoming less than it could have been. First, there was a strong push to organize it and enforce more and more strictures on the discussion. This impulse wasn’t entirely misguided: I can’t tell you the number of times debate over the age of the earth popped up. It was a favorite for some members, and the discussions would often devolve into name-calling frustration. The topic was quickly banned, and that and other topics that started to pop up and spark more fire than light on the discussions prompted the impulse to organize. Another part of that impulse, though, was the push to make the group ever more visible and prominent. Visions of conferences, t-shirts, and more abounded. I was excited, but never had the time to fully dive in. CAA chapters formed, and people began meeting in person to talk about apologetics. One epic moment was when I went to a Evangelical Philosophical Society Conference and met, in person, several of the people I’d only known online. It was a hugely awesome time. But the eagerness to expand came with more and more control being given to moderators to monitor and control discussion and that led to the second push that would make CAA less than it could have been.

The second push was for clarifying what it meant to be Christian. At first, this made some sense to me. Loud questions were raised about whether we needed to have membership requirements that would explicitly preclude, say, Mormons from joining the group. Were Mormons really Christian? And, there was one [known] Mormon who was actively involved in the group for some time. I don’t remember his name, but I remember the significant arguments people had with him and his eventually being asked to leave (again, foggy memory, but I believe he was asked and accepted rather than just being banned). The loudest members who wanted the clearest definitions pushed farther and farther on the definitions, though. For many–no, almost all–in the group, it was a given that Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t to be involved. But then came more questions, like how do we make that happen while having the widest tent possible?

For a while–a long while–we got by on a kind of moderator consensus of figuring things out. We tried to use things like the Apostles’ Creed. Apart from the pushback from non-credal traditions, however, we also received pushback from members saying that the Apostles’ Creed did not take things far enough. After all, many whom people wanted to exclude would affirm the Apostles’ Creed, if not in meaning, at least in the rote words that were on the page. This, of course, already shows some of the impetus driving the group’s decline. That is, an ever more exclusionary mindset was developing even at the earliest times. To my shame, I didn’t acknowledge it or really even notice it. Eventually, things like the Nicene Creed were proposed (but what of the filioque? asked some, whilst others still didn’t wish to affirm Creeds). Finally, several leaders got together and decided something had to give, and the lines had to be drawn.

Which lines mattered, though? The pressure from various members in the group was enormous. What would be the stance on marriage? What about salvation? How could they articulate the Trinity? I was involved in some of these discussions early on, but admit I checked out after a while, because they started to deviate to the many, many rabbit holes possible with 2000 years of theology to debate. What emerged was an increasingly complex statement of faith, which made somewhat predictable exclusions while also having some incredibly strange inclusions. The statement of faith may be viewed here. There are many, many things one could pick apart with the statement of faith and most definitely its clarifying notes. One low-hanging fruit is why the statement explicitly excludes universalists, for example? Universalism has a long and storied history within Christianity, and the statement of faith would, somewhat ironically, exclude many church fathers that I personally know several group members hold up as major examples of early apologists and incredibly important to the formation of Christianity.

Beyond that, though, there’s the much bigger issue: what is the purpose of such a statement? It could only be to exclude others. I didn’t think of this as it was being written and doubled-down upon, and by the time I started to really have reservations I was not in the leadership in the CAA anymore and, frankly, pretty checked out of the group more generally. I had been deeply disturbed by the many times my own faith was called into question for being a Lutheran, for example. No, not that anyone (to my knowledge) was in the group saying Lutherans weren’t Christians. Instead, the number of times people questioned things like infant baptism, the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, and more while having even some moderators argue that yes, these were entirely relevant and necessary discussions for broader apologetic import was disturbingly high. In retrospect, such questioning should have been entirely expected. The overwhelming majority of the group was some kind of Evangelical (very few Catholics, Lutherans, or Orthodox, or other believers were in the group even according to polls the occasional times they showed up). Thus, the group gravitated towards that sort of amalgam of Baptist/Reformed (or rabidly anti-Reformed) Puritan-esque theology from which Evangelicalism spawned. Because of that, many members were outright hostile to those outside of those theological circles.

One vivid memory was running into a member of CAA (in person) in an apologetics graduate-level course I was taking. This member not only thought that affirmation of infant baptism was only for “Catholics” rather than being the majority position of the worldwide church for all of history, but also questioned my salvation when I affirmed baptismal regeneration. He was astonished to discover later that I was not wrong when I pointed out that his theological strand related to baptism was in the extreme minority and itself the historical oddity, but never withdrew any of the statements about my need to repent of such beliefs. This discussion was a microcosm of what’s wrong with apologetics today, and also an illustration of the takeover of the CAA by exclusionary rather than inclusive beliefs.

The CAA has only become more hostile to believers outside a narrowly defined (and often implicitly so) group of beliefs. For example, while the statement of faith explicitly states “We are commanded by God to show compassion to suffering people,” many group members and posts repeatedly do not do so. Whether this is a total rejection of any kind of work for social justice [which again, the statement of faith seems to suggest is itself commanded**], or the extreme prejudice with which the group actively alienates progressive members, it is clear that apologetics in practice within the group is almost entirely done apart from and at the expensive of any work for justice and on-the-ground work. I could go on for quite a while on this tangent about how the tenor of the group is that apologetics is some kind of intellectual activity that many either agree to the premises that will inevitably yield to faith or not, instead of being a whole-person approach in which minds and lives are convinced to bend the knee to service to Christ and fellow humans, but I won’t.

The point of all of that is that within the CAA, a narrower and narrower definition of what is Christian (and not) is being utilized, a narrower definition of what is related to apologetics is being developed, and much of this is done at the expense of the original focus and premise of the group itself. Progressive Christians constantly have their faith called into question, whether explicitly through the numerous posts dedicated to the topic or implicitly through the statement of faith narrowing to exclude almost any form of progressivism.

The Christian Apologetics Alliance could have remained great. It really should have. But it didn’t. In part, that was my fault. As a leader for a while, I should have spoken more loudly, advocated more fully, and been more willing to put in time and effort to try to push back against an ever-more-exclusionary vision of apologetics. I didn’t. Some of the fruits of this can be seen across offshoot groups as well. One group is about parenting and apologetics and one of the most frequent topics of discussion is the supposed dangers of progressive Christianity. Once again, the vaguely American Evangelical nature of the group is showing. Rather than aligning with Christ and Christians worldwide across a spectrum of beliefs, the group and those it has influenced continue down a smaller path. It honestly brings me pain to reflect on what could have been.

None of this is to say no good work is done within the CAA. That’s not the case. But it’s also the case that rather than offering a broad spectrum group for engaging with non-Christians from all walks of Christianity, as was the original vision, the group has become yet another mouthpiece for a milquetoast American Religiosity.

So what can I do? I don’t know. Writing about it is just one step. I know of a few other, much smaller apologetics groups that allow for discussion from a much broader range of Christian voices, but even they have inroads happening with the same posts, the same content being shared again and again. Apologetics has almost become a codeword for defense not of Christianity but of a sterilized, antinomian faith much more concerned with dogmatic status quo than with reaching non-Christians.

*Much of this is written from my memory (well, almost all of it, really), not from specific documentation or saved screenshots or anything. I wasn’t there to do that. I might have some of the specific details and order of events slightly wrong. This post is meant to be my personal thoughts and recollections on what went wrong with the CAA.

**But! some may exclaim, But you have not defined what is meant by “compassion,” “suffering,” “show,” “justice,” “social,” or “people”! Yes, I know. That’s kind of the point. Instead of actually doing those things, may apologists in particular and Christians more generally prefer to sit around arguing about who may or may not be suffering, may need compassion and justice, and the like. But God prefers those who actually do justice and show mercy; no qualifications.

Links

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!

Much Ado About Nothing: Alisa Childers’ “Another Gospel?”– I review a book that has been bounced around as the source for discussing Progressive Christianity.

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

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.

LCMS President Harrison’s Letter to Board of Regents of Concordia University Wisconsin – Ann Arbor

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

I’ve written before about the storm brewing within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod over controversy at Concordia University Wisconsin – Ann Arbor. The controversy, so far as I can tell, is at least in part due to the inclusion in the Presidential Search of having a need for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” on the part of the candidates. One professor wrote about how this showed that CUWAA had gone “woke” and “Marxist.” I wrote that that reaction was unchristian nonsense. However, Rev. Matthew Harrison, the President of the LCMS, apparently decided it was worth a visit to CUWAA, and after that investigation, sent a letter to the Board of Regents. This letter has been published on various sites, though I haven’t been able to find it on an official LCMS front-facing website. If anyone has such an official source or any additional information, please let me know.

I wanted to write a response to this letter. For one, I am intimately connected with CUWAA. For another, the letter is timely in all the wrong ways, and I believe that needs to be addressed.

Harrison’s letter, after saying he and his people were welcomed to the CUWAA and given full access to things they requested, goes over a bunch of supposed bylaw violations that occurred in the presidential search for the new President of CUWAA. Harrison writes about how the “visitation team uncovered the following concerns…” and then lists a number of those alleged violations. Intriguingly, one of the supposed violations includes a lengthy note about how the list of candidates given was 38 names instead of the approved list of 11, which “especially belittled candidates from the CUWAA theology and philosophy departments, and precipitated the Schultz matter.” What Schultz matter? The Schultz matter about the former Professor of Philosophy who wrote the screed I responded to in my link above.

Going on, another concern listed is “changes to the faculty handbook include referring to the president with the pronouns ‘he or she’ and ‘his or her,’ in violation of the teaching of Holy Scripture that spiritual and doctrinal oversight in the church and its universities is given to qualified men. Accordingly, Commission on Constitutional Matter rulings have consistently ruled that presidents of CUS schools must be qualified men. Mr. Polzin’s errant council to the Regents, even after I spoke at length with the Regents in person, about this matter, is unacceptable.” I personally seem to have missed the Bible verses about universities being run by men. Of course, this kind of assumed Scriptural precedent is what qualifies for argument in much of the LCMS discussion related to women in the church and home. When arguments are provided, they’re unconvincing. (See, for example, my series of posts analyzing a Concordia Publishing House book on Women Pastors.)

A primary problem, Harrison notes, is “concern over the introduction of secular diversity, equity, and inclusion language and initiatives into the mission of the university. This philosophy is laden with ideas antagonistic to the sacred Scriptures, including great lies about human sexuality and race.” Once again, Harrison doesn’t delineate any of these alleged antagonistic ideas. And, to be fair, that’s probably outside the scope of a letter like this. But when the question is whether racism needs to be addressed at a university is apparently a live question, and a professor on the philosophy department who Harrison explicitly names as having been “belittled” somehow by being included among others in a list of names for possible President of CUWAA comments about how racism cannot exist on that same campus, red flags should be raised all over.

This letter was dated May 9th, 2022. On May 14th, 2022, a white man entered a grocery store in a zip code he explicitly targeted due to its high population of black people and murdered 10 people, shooting others before his arrest. He specifically cited the “Great Replacement” theory in his manifesto–the notion that white people are being replaced by non-white people through migration, differing birth rates, and more. I can personally attest to encountering the Great Replacement theory in LCMS schools, including at CUWAA when I attended speaking in class about how we needed to have a higher birth rate to keep up with or surpass Muslims. I’ve written about the racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism I encountered among men training to be pastors and teachers. I’ve also written about the unity of nationalism and Christianity I was taught in LCMS schools. Maybe the allegedly “secular diversity, equity, and inclusion” isn’t the bogeyman we need; maybe we need to refocus and acknowledge that racism is a real, true threat and that explicitly racist theories have been spoken out loud in classes at CUWAA before. I can’t attest whether that’s still happening, but the fact that it did happen and did so without any investigation from the President then suggests that actual, real life racism might be a more urgent issue to address than the latest right wing buzzwords.

Now would be a great time for President Harrison to take a step back and call out racism. Now is the time to acknowledge that it exists in the LCMS, in schools and churches, and to repent of it. Now is the time to strongly condemn the Great Replacement theory, which I personally have heard from LCMS pastors. Now is the time to take real, lasting steps for change that will work to bring God’s Kingdom here on Earth, as we pray daily. I hope and pray that President Harrison will rethink his dismissal of social change and instead work so that one day, we truly can have a church that reflects Galatians 3:28.

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.

——

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.

Book Review: “The Everlasting People: G.K. Chesterton and the First Nations” by Matthew J. Milliner

The Everlasting People: G.K. Chesterton and the First Nations is a book I picked to read because the premise seems so utterly strange. I admittedly avoid Chesterton somewhat actively, in part because of his extreme anti-Protestantism, and in part because of his misogynistic comments about women. I’m also wary of colonialism and the title smacked of that as a possibility. But something about the description got to me, and I gave it a try. I’m glad I did, because what I found was Matthew J. Milliner’s fascinating study that looks at individual places, their First Nations heritage, and Christianity.

The book is a series of lectures with responses from different scholars. The first lecture, the Sign of Jonah, discusses cave art, the ways in which myths about “savages” have been perpetuated, Chesterton’s own counter words about how cave art should correct some of the myths, other art, Turtle Island, and more. The second lecture is largely about Chicago and the First Nations heritage that was displaced and destroyed there and elsewhere. In this lecture, he offers alternate meanings for the stars on the Chicago flag. The third lecture turns to Chesterton’s poetry and the Byzantine imagery of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” while uniting it with discussion of white expansion and warfare against First Nations people.

Throughout, G.K. Chesterton is used as a backdrop; whether quotes that speak to Milliner’s specific focus or with more extended discussion. Milliner doesn’t cover up Chesterton’s ills, but rather seeks to offer correction where needed and elucidation when possible.

Each chapter has a response from a different scholar to Milliner, and though these are short, they often offer their own insights and discussion of First Nations culture and the richness of humanity. In almost every section there is some kind of new delight, fascinating detail, or new avenue to explore that is initially unexpected. Milliner and those responding to him offer a wealth of knowledge. The unexpected way they manage to discuss Christianity, First Nations people, First Nations artists, and more (some of the responses themselves are by people from First Nations groups) make the book a wonderful read from front to back.

I don’t really know what I expected when I started The Everlasting People. I also don’t know how to adequately describe it. It’s a fairly slim volume with a rather massive amount of content and encouragement for further reflection and learning. It’s one of those books that makes you think about it long afterwards, and flip it open to a random page to see what might be found. I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

All Links to Amazon are Affiliates links

Links

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!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

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.

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.

——

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.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits…. (Part 4)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

For several posts, I have been 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 4)

[Content warning: Homophobia across the spectrum and language related to it described.]

Homophobia was absolutely a given among pre-seminary students at my LCMS school. Denial of homophobia was also a given. The trite “well actually” type of discussion often seen online abounded in person. (Eg. people saying, as I heard, “I’m not homophobic, because that would mean I’m afraid of homosexual people.”) Calling things “gay” as a derogatory term was absolutely normal among pre-seminary students. The utter contempt for gay people was clear on a day-to-day basis. It should be noted that we had more than one out of the closet gay man on campus.

I’d lived in Massachusetts for a few years in high school. Before we moved there, I had a conversation with some adults about what it meant for someone to be gay. I genuinely didn’t really understand that the category even existed. Having grown up in LCMS schools and churches, I had actually never heard the topic discussed–or at least, not in a way that left me with any memory of the event. As an avid reader, I probably encountered the occasional gay character, but without the background knowledge to even understand the category, I can’t remember any specific instances of that happening. In other words, I was remarkably ill-educated regarding how people lived their lives. The discussion about gay marriage in Massachusetts before moving there was something like: some men think they love other men and want to marry them, which is obviously wrong, and Massachusetts is so liberal that they let them get married, which is wrong. I could understand the concepts when put so simply.

When I went to high school in Massachusetts, it was a bit of a culture shock. I learned there was such a thing as a “Gay Straight Alliance,” and I actually had to ask classmates what that even meant. I had no idea before moving there that rainbow flags existed or what they meant. One classmate I was friendly with asked me to hang out. I didn’t realize he meant it as a date, and had to awkwardly explain as we were hanging out that I was straight–a category I’d only recently learned about.

I remember in sitting in a prep period in high school in a circle with other students and one of them told us she was a lesbian. I barely even knew the word’s definition. For her to then share her story and her struggles as a lesbian in high school was eye-opening to the nth degree. I was, in a word, stunned. I know this sounds unbelievable, but before these experiences in Massachusetts, I really didn’t even know this was a thing. But the teachers in that high school, many of whom I respected, took gay students as a given and didn’t treat them any differently. I’m writing this from my position as someone who was totally ignorant. These experiences had a profound impact on me as I basically learned from these teachers how to treat others. The experience changed how I thought and acted about gay people.

That would be challenged when I got to my LCMS college and said that I didn’t really see the problem with gay marriage. People from all over corrected me, including phone calls from pastors to explain to me what the Bible said and meant about gay people and why letting them get married was wrong. In no uncertain terms, it was explained to me that it was better to not let them get married because although this would maybe make them sad in this life, it would potentially help prevent the eternal punishment they’d experience in hell. I remember pushing back a little, saying that didn’t make sense because other sins people committed don’t automatically consign them to hell, but the counter was that gay marriage was willful, unrepentant sin and so would lead to hell. I was never fully comfortable with this explanation, but at the time it made me silent about objections. I did not want to be responsible for someone’s eternal soul, after all.

I knew of at least a couple gay men on campus, and wanted to make sure that even if I didn’t necessarily support them fully, that they weren’t totally ostracized. I spoke to a few other pre-seminary students, telling them I thought the homophobic comments and jokes needed to be toned down. One asked me to explain, and I argued that if we really believed it was sinful and could put someone’s eternal life in jeopardy, that we should not potentially put up another barrier to their repentance by being jerks to them. This kind of convoluted reasoning never sat well with me. For years, I dealt with a kind of double life in which I struggled with what I thought was doctrinally correct–that it was sinful–and my ethical senses that the arguments against gay marriage and other ways to exclude LGBT+ people from various societal places and norms were discriminatory at best.

What I did not feel ambiguous about, though, was that everyone sins. One of the most frequently quoted passages of the Bible in my life was Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This verse still remains dear to me. No one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). The fact that everyone was a sinner was perfectly clear. Why, then, did we treat some sinners differently from others?

The contempt for gay men especially was strong among not just men studying to be pastors, but among many pastors as well. There were clear exceptions–one pastor with whom I had quite a lot of interactions wasn’t affirming to my knowledge but also never once condemned gay people of any sort. Those exceptions were just that, though, exceptions. Calling gay men derogatory names was extremely common, and, again, using the word “gay” as an insult was engrained into us. Transgender people were seen as especially sinful–not just because of the Bible passages interpreted to be against homosexuality but also because of prohibitions against cross-dressing (at least, as interpreted by many in the LCMS).[1] Lesbians were barely mentioned as a category, but when they were it was either in order to sexualize lesbians (often with a wink and a nudge) or to shoehorn them into already understood gender norms (women need comfort more than men, so lesbianism could be explained as such), or, when fully confronted, it was something like “If only she’d met a real man” (read: like myself) “she wouldn’t be a lesbian.”

The way so many LCMS future and current leaders spoke so strongly against gay men especially was difficult to reconcile with how they behaved around men they knew were gay. While I cannot speak for the lived experience of gay men on campus, when I saw interactions, it seemed these LCMS leaders-in-training would tone down their language and act almost meekly, as though they were afraid being gay might rub off on them. It sounds absurd, but that’s genuinely the impression I had.

One gay man on campus shared stories with me about how other men in his dorm told him they were concerned they might get AIDs if they washed their clothes in the same washer and dryer as him. Another time, a pre-seminary man accidentally took a drink from his cup and was worried out loud he would get AIDs from taking a sip. The pre-seminary men, he told me, were the people who were worst to him of anyone on campus. These overt examples could certainly be multiplied. The way that pre-seminary men and even LCMS pastors treated and talked about gay people was and is abhorrent. There seems to be more focus on maintaining an insular status quo than in reaching out and trying to love one’s neighbor.

Reflecting on all of this now paints an ugly portrait. While I can accurately say that the rampant homophobia within the LCMS was a factor in driving me away, I can also say that at times I stood on the same side. There’s a sense of belonging in thinking that you stand against “the world” when it comes to morality and ethics, standing strong upon a stance that is perceived as unpopular and may lead to your supposed persecution. I wish I had been better and done more to stand up for people who were often silenced and mocked. I pray that I can do more now. The total lack of love of neighbor was reflected in how LCMS leaders treated and spoke about all non-straight persons. By their fruits…

[1] I don’t want to get into disputes over how to translate passages, but many passages taken to be straightforwardly about transgender people seem to have different implications in the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Bible was written. I’ll talk some about some disharmony between how I was taught to interpret the Bible and how I saw the Bible being interpreted within the LCMS in a later post.

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.

——

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.

Book Review: “From Plato to Christ” by Louis Markos

What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Quite a lot, if one reads Louis Markos’s From Plato to Christ. The work is a partly a look into Plato’s thought, and partly a survey of how Plato’s thought impacted Christianity through its early history.

Markos wastes little time essentially baptizing Plato after the fact. The first page of the preface has Markos claiming that Plato’s writings can be read “as inspired writings used by the God of the Bible to prepare the ancient world for the coming of Christ and the New Testament” (ix). On the same page, he says that Plato is the “culmination of the best of the pagan (Pre-Christian) wisdom” (ibid). One might wonder how, say, the Hebrew Scriptures fit into this scheme, and whether Markos lumps Judaism in with “paganism” as it is pre-Christian or whether he simply dismisses it as being capable of preparing the ancient world for the coming of Christ. Markos’s fervor to recommend Plato to his readers seemingly has no limits, as he quickly navigates through chapters that analyze several of Plato’s writings and argue that he offers a kind of vision for Christianity in the future. I may indeed be understating how eagerly Markos endorses Plato, as he later quotes C.S. Lewis approvingly stating that “Prophets and holy men… do not so much teach us morality as remind us of it” (57). This quote is then applied, at least by implication, to Plato.

Those looking for a critical analysis will need to look elsewhere. Markos’s enthusiasm knows few bounds. Even the very occasional time in which he points out something problematic in Plato’s thought are steeped in explanations about why that might have been part of Plato’s belief system. There is also little by way of critiquing Plato’s system itself, something with a long and storied tradition within Christian philosophy and theology. One might forgive the book for this, as it clearly isn’t intended to be a total look at Christian Platonism, but it seems worth mentioning given that readers without background knowledge on the subject may walk away from reading the book thinking that Christians generally have no problem with Platonism despite there being entire systems of thoughts developed to circumvent or deny Platonism in Christianity.

One example is in the chapter outlining The Republic. Markos outlines the way the republic is built by noting it is Socrates presenting all of these ideas. In a way, this shields Plato from criticism, but allows Markos to pour on praise when he agrees with Plato (see the shift from Socrates to Plato on page 27, for example). There is little about the awful way the city is set up to essentially force young adults into sexual relationships to produce offspring as dictated by the city’s leaders. Markos, having shifted before to claiming that these parts of the text reflect a more mature Plato using Socrates as a mouthpiece, in a footnote directly and singularly assigns Socrates the blame for this eugenic and ethical quagmire (45n9). Plato, it appears, can actually do no wrong.

Markos’s survey of Christian history and influence from Platonism is of interest, though not without problems of its own. He questions Origen’s orthodoxy due to his universalism, which fails to account for the lengthy stream of orthodox Christians (some of whom, as Origen, were condemned much later as heretical for their beliefs) who held to universalism or at least something similar. These sections provide insight into at least the range of Christians who were influenced by Plato, however.

From Plato to Christ is an enthusiastic endorsement of Plato and Platonism for Christians to explore. It’s difficult for this reader to wholly endorse the work, as it presents so uneven a picture both of Platonic thought and early Christian history that it could lead to a skewed view going forward. However, it could serve as an introduction to Christian Platonism for those interested who read it with a critical eye.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

All Links to Amazon are Affiliates links

Links

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!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

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.

Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits… (Part 2)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

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. Check out the Hub for this series to see all my posts on why I left the LCMS.

By their fruits… (Part 2)

[Content warning: discussions of racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.]

I talked about how I learned that faith lived wasn’t the same as faith professed in my last post. It was a kind of disturbing reality to become aware of, but also one that would get repeatedly shoved in my face as I studied to be a church worker in the LCMS–initially as a teacher, and later as a pastor. The black-and-white, rigid doctrinal purity I was taught was essential didn’t get applied to the lives of Christians, including church workers and those studying to be the same.

I enjoyed visiting other LCMS churches. I’d come prepared with my well-worn and well-marked Bible, eager to join the Bible study, which is where I knew the rubber hit the road regarding discussions of doctrine. I wanted to engage scripture as much as possible, and learn it as deeply as possible. One visit took me along with another man studying to be a pastor to a church site he was working at. I enjoyed the Bible study well enough.

After church, I went to speak with the pastor, who knew I was a pre-seminary student. He asked me how college was going, and how I liked my classes. At some point, the conversation turned to sports and he asked about my favorite college team. I said it was Nebraska, and the pastor said that he liked them too. The reason, he said, was because they “don’t have any of those black boys on their team.” He favored Nebraska because, in his words, they liked “white boys playing football,” even at positions other teams often had–here he used a derogatory term for African Americans–playing the position. He grinned at me with a knowing smile. I was genuinely shocked. So much so that I was literally dumbstruck. I could not untie my tongue to correct him or even say I disagreed. I think after some awkwardly long silence I said something like “I like them because my parents do,” and walked as swiftly away as possible.

When I met back up with man I’d come with, he asked what I thought about the experience. I’d managed to muster my thoughts a bit more at this point. In no uncertain terms I said the pastor was a racist and that I found that reprehensible for a pastor, especially. I repeated what had been said. I had expected the other pastor-in-training to be similarly incensed. I don’t know exactly what I thought would happen–some kind of confrontation with the pastor over the absurdity of his statements. Instead, this man who was at seminary in the LCMS told me that I shouldn’t be worried about it. The pastor was old, and stuck in his ways. Something to the effect of, “That’s just how people his age think” was said. I was even asked if I would come back the next week for Bible study and church. I was appalled and said something that made it clear I’d not be setting foot in the place again. He shrugged it off.

The LCMS had and has a very uneven stance with race. While outwardly speaking against racism abstractly, inwardly instances of racism were hushed up. Racist jokes were not infrequent among pre-seminary men[1] when I was in college. Whether it was about how “illegals” would ruin our country or jokes about other minorities and stereotypes, these were seen as good natured fun, not as the vile racism they reflected. Again, to my shame, I wasn’t nearly loud enough in my condemnation of it. Indeed, like all too many people, I found myself laughing along to try to fit in. It was easier to conform and be “in,” than to be “out.” The visit to a church with a racist pastor is what broke me. I realized that I was enabling others on that same path. I got louder in pre-seminary circles at lunches or breaks between classes, not laughing at jokes. I wish I’d been better at this than I was, to be honest. Even the inadequate amount of pushback I offered made me a bit of a pariah.

The pattern of racist remarks is one I encountered at many levels of LCMS leadership at many different sites. Defenses of the Confederacy is one way this manifests. Defending an alternate history narrative of “states’ rights” as the cause of the Civil War[2] provides a convenient dog whistle to cover up, at minimum, prejudice. Thus, when I grimaced as I listened to one pastor go on about the “glorious cause” (actual quote) the South had fought for, he was able to take a few steps back and say, “I mean states’ rights, of course!” Defense of the Confederacy cannot avoid being tied to racism. Thankfully, my elementary and middle school education in LCMS schools did not support a Lost Cause false narrative of the history of the United States, but I frequently encountered it among LCMS teachers and pastors.

Directly racist statements were also not out of the question. I already shared above my story about visiting a pastor who doubled down on racist statements, and the defense of that pastor by others. Another pastor, after overhearing an elderly woman using a derogatory word for Black people, told me that I should not be upset or intervene about it because “that was just the times she was in.” I was a young teen at the time, and did not yet have the capacity to question such an answer. But horrific, racist language from people that then gets defended by pastors (or having that same language come from pastors’ mouths) is the kind of thing that makes an impression on a young mind. It would take me some years before I was able to dig through that morass of obfuscation regarding racism and realize that “growing up some number of years ago” does not excuse one for being racist.

Comments about Islam and Muslims were and are extremely common. Reading Facebook comments on LCMS groups trying to teach about racism gives many, many contemporary examples of this. But my own experience in the LCMS demonstrated time and again that Islamophobia was not only endemic in the LCMS, but was often tied to racism in complex and interconnected ways. 9/11 wasn’t when this started, but certainly touched off a number of comments, from Americans across the board. However, within LCMS institutions, I would frequently hear about how Muslims were all trying to kill Christians specifically and that Islam’s teaching is explicitly violent. Indeed, it was not uncommon to be told that if Muslims said Islam wasn’t violent, they were doing so in order to cover up latent desire to cause violence or to allow a kind of shadowy Sharia to sneak into “the West” in order to take over peacefully before starting a violent regime. Any action by anyone who could be identified as Middle Eastern was therefore automatically linked to this global Islamic conspiracy. The tie to racism came up not infrequently, such as Christians who engaged in violent acts but “looked Muslim” being tied to Islam. The color of skin was apparently enough to tie the perpetrator into Islam.

One memorable conversation about Islam ended after I asked something similar to “If all Muslims really wanted to kill all Christians–if that was really want they all wanted, deep down, and they were covering it up–then how come, if there are over one billion Muslims in the world, we aren’t all dead or fighting for our lives?” The question was pointed not because I believed the charge that all Muslims wanted to kill all Christians, but because I wanted to point out the absurdity of the claim. This was in conversation with an LCMS pastor, and the response was basically to change the subject. Again, due to widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in America, this isn’t uncommon, but these are comments from and by pastors or people studying to be pastors within the LCMS, and one might wonder what standards and corrections are being offered within to make this not be such a common problem.

Antisemitism also reared its ugly head. There were offhand remarks about how Jews today (those who hadn’t converted to Christianity, anyway) were all going to hell, for example. While this aligns with the general belief that anyone who isn’t Christian is going to hell, time and again Jewish people were singled out for especial remarks to that effect. Lutherans, especially, have a history of antisemitism. Martin Luther’s horrifying comments about Jews were either ignored or given a context that was supposed to justify them. At multiple points within the LCMS, I was taught that Luther’s comments about Jews were understandable because he was frustrated that they didn’t convert to Christianity. This wasn’t just a way to explain why Luther turned towards antisemitism more fully[3]. Instead, it was an explanation that was supposed to exonerate him, in some way. Luther could emerge from this explanation, if not sparkling clean, then understandable.[4] Rather than simply condemning Luther as a sinful man engaging in detestable behavior–something that would very much align with Lutheran theology–Luther was given an apology for his behavior. This opened up, for some, the possibility of doing the same or at least excusing other behavior. In college, some classmates, including a few pre-seminarians, engaged in Holocaust denial. Some of them were treating as a joke, apparently thinking it was “edgy” to make such comments. However, even “jokes” about antisemitism are engaging in antisemitic behavior.

Racism continues to be a major problem within the LCMS. Currently, controversy has erupted at Concordia University Wisconsin (and by extension, Concordia University Ann Arbor) because the job description for the President of the university included diversity and equity in what was being sought. The extreme conservative pushback against this is a major problem that shows leadership in the LCMS continues to prefer to hide or ignore racism rather than confront it. It’s easier to pretend racism in the LCMS is impossible than it is to confront the ugly truth that it exists and is tolerated and even protected. My own experience encountering racism in the LCMS reinforces this. (For more on this controversy, see my post here.)

Another recent example is from the reporting around a survey of Young Adults who’d left the LCMS. I received this survey and filled it out. When the reporting came out explaining the reasons why people like me had left, racism was one of the examples. One other young adult said she left because her boyfriend, who’s Hispanic, felt unwelcome at an LCMS church. But the report said something to the effect of “We in the LCMS aren’t racist and are welcoming of people from anywhere, so it’s likely that this boyfriend was being paranoid.” I wish I were making that up. But this kind of head-in-the-sand reaction to overt and covert racism is enough of a pattern that it is clearly an issue.

The easiest response to all of this would be to say not all LCMS pastors are racist, and many would be appalled by racist jokes. Not all LCMS pastors are Islamophobic or antisemitic… 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 racism within their ranks. Too many LCMS pastors cover up racist jokes and comments made by peers. Too many LCMS pastors have defended the Confederacy with impunity. “By their fruit, you will know them.”

[1] I’ll occasionally use the term “pre-seminary” or “pre-seminary students.” It should be understood unless otherwise noted that this always refers to groups of exclusively men, and specifically men who were on track to study to be pastors. Women are not permitted to be ordained as pastors in the LCMS, and so it is exceedingly rare for a woman to be enrolled in the pre-seminary program.

[2] States’ Rights was manifestly not the cause of the Civil War. Reading the articles of secession of several states reveals this, as they explicitly state that a major or even the reason for secession was they wanted the Federal Government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, itself a major infringement on States’ Rights. I outline some of this, and other reasons to point to slavery as the reason for the Civil War, here.

[3] Research shows that Luther was surrounded by antisemitism from childhood in every context in which he operated, and even his earlier works featured antisemitism at least in illustrations. See Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lydal Roper.

[4] This propensity to deny or explain away defects in heroes’ character is pervasive. That doesn’t excuse it, but should instead make us cautious about our own heroes.

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.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Points of Fracture (Part 1): Science as a Child

I have written about why I am writing this series as well as my history within the LCMS. Now, it is time to turn to what I’m calling points of fracture. 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, something I learned in the Bible, or something else.[1]

Points of Fracture: Science as a Child

Here, I’ll be sharing the points of fracture that I experienced related to science at a young age. At the outset, I want to point out that much of these points of fracture were discovered by me over time. So, for example, when I talk about my young childhood, it’s not as though I was immediately aware that something was off about what I was learning. Instead, it was a realization that came over time, and the memory of when I was young was something that I recall as an important stepping stone to get to where I am now.

Some of my first memories of conflict between what I believed and what others believed was as a child getting library books. I don’t remember how far we had to go to drive to the library from our tiny town, but I remember it seemed like forever, and that I would consume books on the way home, often falling asleep in the car before arriving at home. I, like many kids, was obsessed with dinosaurs.[2] That meant I raided the library’s section on dinosaurs. I’d memorize the names and facts about them, pore over images of them, and imagine what life would have been like alongside them. If the cover of a library book had a T-Rex ripping apart its prey, that was the book I was going for. But those dinosaur books talked about when dinosaurs lived. Those dates were given as the best scientific approximations based on various dating techniques, ranging from about 66 million years ago to 200 million or more for dinosaurs’ first appearance on Earth.

Those dates, I was told, were wrong. Whenever I saw “millions,” I was told to ignore it. As a young kid, I didn’t press back very hard on that. After all, I had no reason to do so. I knew that I could get facts wrong about all sorts of things, so the notion that basically every book I read about dinosaurs was wrong about how long ago dinosaurs lived wasn’t terribly mind-bending for me. I learned to just run my eyes over any time it said “millions of years,” because that was wrong. The rest of the facts, though, were basically unquestioned. I didn’t have the capacity at the time to put those two things into disharmony. That is, I didn’t realize how odd it was that the books and scientists seemed to be right about, say the ecosystem the dinosaurs lived in, or their diets, or debates about coloration while simultaneously being totally wrong and even untruthful about how long ago they lived.

That last bit is important. I used the word “untruthful” because part of what I was taught, whether directly or through creationist literature I would be exposed to a year or so later, was that scientists weren’t just wrong about the age of the Earth or when dinosaurs lived. No, instead, they were actively lying about it. I want to sit with this for a moment because it is an extremely important distinction. There’s a huge difference between someone being wrong while reporting something they think is factual and someone deliberately deceiving you about something they say is factual. That I came to believe that scientists were actively lying about the age of the Earth would temper my interest in science for more than a decade once it became fully engrained in me. Sometimes I genuinely think I would have ended up in geology or paleontology as a field of study and employment if I hadn’t come to be taught that, because of my deep interest in these topics. But I didn’t, at least in part because I thought scientists were liars.

No small part of that belief came from some of the approved dinosaur books I was gifted during my dinosaur obsession. These dinosaurs books portrayed a different history of the world, with humans walking alongside long-necked dinosaurs and feeding them fruits by hand. I distinctly remember a photograph of an alleged plesiosaur (see below) that had been caught by a fishing boat in one of them. These books didn’t have the same exciting illustrations of T-Rex or Deinonychus (my personal favorite) shredding their prey. Instead, I was taught that they had something more precious–the truth about dinosaurs. These books confronted head on topics like evolution and the age of the Earth, saying in no uncertain terms that evolution was a lie and scientists who taught millions of years were liars as well. I didn’t even understand what evolution was supposed to be at this point, but I knew it was a lie. Again, this disjunction between being mistaken and being liars was something that sucked away my enjoyment of science over time, and also would make it extremely difficult for me to fairly examine evidence.

Alleged photograph of a plesiosaur captured by a fishing boat. The photograph is genuine, though it is of a rotted carcass of a shark, not a plesiosaur. Even Creationist organization Answers in Genesis shares reasons to doubt its authenticity as a plesiosaur. I couldn’t find the exact photo credits for this image, but use it under fair use.

Later, I remember talking to a child a few grades above me at my LCMS grade school. When I mentioned that I liked dinosaurs, she told me quite sincerely that dinosaurs had never existed. I was incredulous, asking “What about all the bones!?” Her answer surprised me: she said something to the effect of “Those bones were put there by God to test people’s faith.” The total somberness with which she expressed this sentiment took me off guard, but I do remember laughing at her because I thought it was so ridiculous to think that (I wasn’t the kid with the best manners). I would later recall the incident when I was studying more about these topics because it specifically showed me I could see beliefs about science that seemed obviously false and reject them, and that was okay. Even more importantly, it was a time my younger self was given an idea about God that did not seem to align with what I believed about God. Even as a child, the notion that God would be actively trying to deceive people seemed obviously, even hilariously wrong. That God doesn’t deceive us with nature, but that nature rather declares the glory of God (Psalm 19) would be hugely important to me as an adult.

Another topic I remember was about Adam and Eve. I specifically remember learning that all boys and men had one fewer rib than women. This was seen as evidence for the biblical account of Adam having been formed from Eve’s rib. I don’t remember my first source of hearing of this, but I do remember I heard it from more than one adult in my life. It wasn’t actually until college as I was searching online for various science-related things that I learned this was false. To this day, even typing that it’s false has me second-guessing myself, so firm was my belief that men had fewer ribs than women. It’s one of those things that is incredibly easy to disprove, to the point that when passed along, no one thinks to question it. It was honestly a shocking revelation to me when I discovered it wasn’t true, and it spurred me on to search for other things I could disprove or couldn’t confirm.

I believe it was in 6th grade, again at an LCMS school, that I had a single day in which we talked about plate tectonics. It was in a geography class, and we were learning quite briefly about how the map was formed. I recalled some of the maps I’d seen in dinosaur books of Pangaea and asked about that, noticing it appeared as though Africa and South America fit together. I don’t remember the exact answer, but what I got was enough for me to excitedly talk about plate tectonics later, only to be told by a pastor that they don’t exist. How did earthquakes happen, then? I asked. The answer was that God made them happen. I was disturbed even then by this answer. More, I was confused in getting entirely different answers about what caused earthquakes and how continents moved–or whether they moved at all–from two approved sources. Which should I believe? In the moment, I just bracketed it and stopped thinking about it. That was largely my answer for when things like this happened. I assumed others knew more than me, and it would become clear later.

One year in middle school at an LCMS school (I think it was 8th grade), we were super excited to be taking part in a science curriculum that would be shared by schools all over the country. The curriculum used the Hawaiian islands as a touch point for learning all sorts of things about science–whether geology by learning about volcanoes, biology by learning about ecosystems, and the like. I distinctly recall opening the binders we received and flipping through to see the contents. In among the thrilling sections on volcanoes and wildlife, I saw that there was a section about evolution on the islands. I had only the vaguest idea of what evolution meant. I knew it meant something like animals turned into other animals because of seeing it in some dinosaur books I’d read years before. I recalled learning that evolution was a lie, but seeing it show up in a text in my LCMS school made it feel safe… but only for a moment. When I turned to the pages indicated to see what might be said about this intriguing topic, I discovered the pages had been removed. I opened to the page, and found I was flipping from page 55 to page 75. It’s hard to fully capture my feelings at that moment. It was a truly disturbing incident for me. I believe I mentioned it to the teacher and was told that we wouldn’t be covering that topic. I remember flipping back and forth a few times, stunned. It was one of the clearest moments as a kid that I realized something was genuinely being covered up. It wasn’t just that scientists were wrong or lying. That, I could, in my childlike trust, accept. This was a revelation: what scientists taught was being actively covered up or suppressed, as if it would be dangerous to even know about it.

Earlier, I said this was one of the points of fracture that led me to think that maybe the LCMS way of things wasn’t accurate. I want to briefly address a possible objection here. I say “the LCMS view of things,” not necessarily to mean that they have specific teachings on everything I touch upon here or in other posts. For example, it is very clear that the LCMS holds that young earth creationism in some form is the view that ought to be taught to and held by its members. This view, however, is not codified in LCMS official positions. Indeed, according to the LCMS’s official web site about their views, they do not have an official position on the age of the earth. Thus, one could technically take issue with my pointing out that the LCMS’s view of things is a young earth creationist perspective.

However, this would indeed be nothing but a technicality, because in application and practice, no other views are allowed broadly in the LCMS. As one example, one pastor confidentially told me about how some of their peers attempted to introduce a resolution at a pastor’s conference to simply discuss the possibility of views apart from young earth creationism. This pastor approvingly told me that those pastors were literally shouted down by the rest of the pastors at this conference for their attempt. From my own experience, I know of at least 3 different LCMS pastors who questioned the faith of LCMS members who did not hold to a young earth creationist view. Additionally, tying belief in a young earth together with trust in the Bible is ubiquitous in LCMS leadership. In preparing this post, one classmate of mine pointed out that an LCMS professor who was a pastor explicitly taught an old Earth in a class we shared. This experience was perhaps the lone exception to an otherwise uniform experience that I and others have shared related to the LCMS’s views on the age of the Earth.

All of these final points are to say, just because something isn’t explicitly codified on the LCMS web site, for example, doesn’t mean that it’s not part of the DNA of the LCMS. Young Earth Creationism is absolutely integral to the overwhelmingly vast majority of LCMS belief and practice related to any questions about science and faith.

See also my post, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and Creationism: An unnecessary match, in which I go over the 2019 convention’s affirmation of Young Earth Creationism, including a link to the official LCMS blog.

Next: Points of Fracture, Part 2

[1] I debated internally a bit about how to organize my thoughts related to the specific fracture points that led me to see that my views did not align with those of the LCMS. Should I organize them topically, chronologically, or in some other order? I ultimately settled on doing them topically, because it allowed me to arrange each topic chronologically and show how some of these built on themselves over time. I thought it would be less disjointed to present it this way, rather than skipping around.

[2] I say “was obsessed” but I truly remain obsessed with dinosaurs, and find learning about them is still one of my greatest joys.

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.

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!

What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I take a look at some of the issues I’ve found to be broadly true in apologetics-related circles.

SDG.

——

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.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: A short history of my time in the LCMS

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I was born into the LCMS, baptized not long after my birth. My dad was an LCMS pastor. I was in LCMS parochial schools through 8th grade, went to public high schools, and went to college at an LCMS university.

The teachings of the LCMS were in my veins, and they still are. I memorized parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, recited memory verses, and answered dozens of questions about the catechism when I was confirmed. I went to church weekly. I was involved in several activities within the church, such as being the president of the Youth Group at my church and class president in 8th grade at my LCMS school. I had and still have multiple settings of the liturgy memorized, and frequently sing them to calm myself down or just sing praise when they pop into my mind.

Many of my earliest memories involve being in church or church-related things. For example, I remember being at a children’s sermon (my dad was my pastor, as he was for my whole life until college) in which my dad held up a wood block with “JESUS” silhouetted on it. He asked if anyone knew what it said. Confidently, I raised my hand and said we couldn’t know because it was in a different language! I’d mistaken the raised wood for the letters and assumed it was Hebrew or another language my dad had studied–he loved languages. I can’t tell you the number of memories I have of being with my dad on pastoral visits, sitting and drawing Star Trek ships or sharks as he spoke with members. I went along to several funerals as well.

Whenever the group came through town, I participated in Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ (OAFC), an LCMS ministry group that worked to train Lutherans to share their faith with others.[1] This included going door-to-door in my community and others nearby to tell people about Jesus and invite them to church. We hosted them at our church, and several of the leaders of the OAFC group would stay in our home. I remember a few nights where there’d be teenagers sprawled across multiple couches on the lower floor of the parsonage we lived in, and I’d stay up as late as I’d be allowed talking to the “cool kids” who were in my house. I wanted to be one of them.

I’d participated a few times in the youth group at my friend’s LCMS church. This was also where I went to middle school, as in the LCMS there is an emphasis on private schooling. They had a bigger group due to having a school and more populous community, and it was fun to connect with even more LCMS people my age and do things like the 30 Hour Famine, in which we fasted for 30 hours for solidarity with hungry people worldwide to raise money. These events had a different feel from much of my other church-related life, and for good reason. The events were sponsored by World Vision, a broadly evangelical service organization. It was one of the rare instances in which I participated in broader Christianity with a slightly different flavor from my own.

I went to the LCMS Youth Gathering the year I was eligible. This wasn’t some small event: the event attracted more than 30,000 youths from all over the country. It was an incredible experience at which I remember connecting to bands, meeting interesting people, and staying with a best friend. We’d sing songs, pray, praise, give thanks, and talk with other youths from all over the United States.

I also spent some time on forums debating theology and talking to other Christians. This was back when such things were pretty new. Instant messaging was pretty novel. I remember a relative proudly talking to church members about how I’d debate Lutheran theology with non-Lutherans in a chatroom. There was a darker side to it, though. I had an alarming experience with one of the adult members in the chatroom propositioning me, a minor. Nothing happened beyond that, but I was deeply shaken. It was the first real memory for me of a time in which I truly felt adults were unsafe. But it went beyond that. It was the first memory–an extremely vivid one–of when I discovered faith could be unsafe. It meant people could use an allegedly shared religion to try to go after a kid. Religion could be used, I’d discovered, for evil. I think I was about 10-11 years old. It’s a lesson I’d never forget.

In the first public high school I was at, it was a small town. There were many churches and it ended up that there were 4 other PKs (pastor’s kids) in my class. It was a small school and we’d frequently end up in classes together. I distinctly remember debating doctrine with some of these other PKs. One of them told some good friends of mine they were all going to hell. One of those friends came to me an asked what I thought. “J.W.,” he said, “am I going to hell because I smoke weed? Steve[2] says I will.” I was taken aback for a moment. “No,” I answered. I had no interest in any kind of drugs or underage drinking. Like I said in the first post, I’m a people pleaser, but I’m also a major rule follower, and those things didn’t really have any appeal for me. “No,” I answered. “He’s just wrong.” Steve overheard this, because we were all in a free period and he was just across the classroom. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I know he challenged me back on it and ended up questioning my salvation, too, because I believed in infant baptism. It was all very serious, but I ended up laughing at that final note. I wasn’t laughing because it was silly to think someone would be going to hell for a different view of baptism (at the time, I wasn’t sure exactly how right you had to be to go to heaven, after all); no, it was silly because the other person was so obviously wrong. The LCMS just was right; it just was the true church; it just taught the true way to believe. At this point, of course, my group of friends was entirely forgotten. The discussion was on a level that only PKs or other theologically-interested people could follow. I wasn’t just right, though, I was righteous. It was a feeling that was engrained into me from hundreds of times I’d been taught that the LCMS doctrines just were facts. Everyone else was mistaken no matter what.

When I went to college, I initially thought I would be an LCMS teacher. While there, I started to get more involved in acting on my faith. I also became interested in Christian apologetics. But a major turning point was still coming. One night, I was praying out under the stars. It was a cold night, but I was outside all on my own with my coat near the river that ran alongside the campus, begging God to end some of the wrongs in the world. I had an intense religious experience. That night, I went back to my dorm, wrote about the experience, and discovered a new and total devotion to God. I already believed in God, and I already was committed to following Christ, but this experience had reinvigorated me and convinced me that God was there and listening. I still believe this was a genuine experience from God.

This experience led me to rethink some of my life. Around this time, my then-fiancée broke up with me. It wasn’t a great time, but it also led me to refocus my life. It was around Thanksgiving that it happened, and when I contemplated what I had to be thankful for on a weekend over which someone I thought I would marry broke up with me, I realized the answer was: a heckuva lot. I decided around then that I wanted to change what I was studying and be a pastor instead. The reason wasn’t because I was particularly enamored with being a pastor. Rather, it was because when I thought of the question “What can I do to dedicate my life to God?” the answer that came most quickly to my mind was “be a pastor.” Clearly, my sense of vocation wasn’t entirely developed at that point (shout out here to Lutherans who get this).

I kept my major and minor, but shifted to the pre-seminary program, enrolling in Hebrew, some theology classes, and Greek. It was a whole different experience, in several unexpected ways. Deciding to become a pre-seminary student may be marked as one of the most major turning points in my life. College featured a number of turning points. What I thought when I decided to become a pastor is that I’d find a group of like-minded men (yes, only men, because only men are allowed to be pastors in the LCMS; women may be deaconesses, but not preach or lead worship). 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.

All of this is to say that I was not an incidental layperson within the LCMS. I was fully involved for the majority of my life. This is important, because I believe that it gives some credence to the critiques I will share, and it should also give pause to those who want to simply dismiss my story as someone on the margins of the LCMS. I was in the LCMS from birth through adulthood. I wanted to be an LCMS teacher or pastor. I debated doctrine in favor of the LCMS, working to convince others to join. But the reasons to doubt my convictions about the LCMS were there. It took until I was in college for me to finally depart, and it was then only because I was forced to truly examine what I believed.

It should also be clear that many of these memories are pleasant. Where they aren’t pleasant, many were formative in beneficial ways. Within the LCMS, I developed a love of the Bible and was encouraged to read it continually, a practice I continue and which I believe brings spiritual growth. I made many friends and was encouraged by many mentors, some of whom I still remain in contact with and whom I admire. But even at a young age, the occasional thing would strike me as “off” about the experience and my beliefs. It would take many of these points of fracture for me to consider leaving the LCMS.

Next in series: Points of Fracture.

[1] I’m unsure of when/how it became an official LCMS ministry, as it says they are on the website. It’s been quite a while, so my memory might be foggy, but I remember some discussion about whether or not this group was Lutheran (read: LCMS) enough for us to participate with. There was some skepticism that I remember hearing from more than one LCMS-employed person about their practices and expressions of faith. Looking back, the group as I experienced it 20+ years ago felt like the closest thing to what many describe in mainstream evangelical churches from youth programs. While there were no altar calls, for example, the canvassing of the community, reading other people’s names into John 3:16, asking whether people knew if they’d go to heaven or hell, and the like are all similar to what I’ve heard described in those settings.

[2] Name amended, as will pretty much all the names used in this series.

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.

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What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I take a look at some of the issues I’ve found to be broadly true in apologetics-related circles.

SDG.

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