How does Lutheranism end for us?
It’s taken a great deal to get me, a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, to ask myself such an ominous question. But then, these past few years have thrown an awful lot at faithful Lutherans.
Most recently, of course, is our entire debacle surrounding the Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Application. The false teachings, the crypto-marxism, and the invitation of heretics and women to teach us theology were all bad enough on their own. And yet, Synod found a way to make it worse through its response. President Harrison’s retaliatory strike against critics–not only taking the standard corporate approach of blaming the whole thing on racism, but actually wielding the office of the keys against the outspoken–plunged the entire matter to further depths of wickedness.
Our response to Covid and especially the forced vaccinations is another recent travesty that cannot be overlooked. Given LCMS history, our willingness to cooperate with government interference in our churches and our credulity for their dubious claims about masks and vaccines is shameful on its own. And yes, the controversy has led to all manner of division in the church through everything from policy debates to simple broken attendence habits. But worse than anything else was the refusal of our leadership to offer any support to conscientous objectors to the vaccine mandates. I will never forget that a random layman had to do the job Synod wouldn’t and publicly articulate from Scripture and our Confessions what faithful Lutherans ought to have already known–that God specifically authorized fathers to oversee their households, including the decision of whether its appropriate to administer experimental medical treatments. As a tyrannical government tried to coerce us by threatening to steal our livelihoods and make our families destitute, the shepherds in charge of my church body couldn’t be bothered to even lift their little fingers for their sheep.
In addition to acute failures like these, there are also longstanding challenges to our theology and practice from within. We are, for example, plagued by soft antinomians (so-called Radical Lutherans) who teach a hatred for God’s Law disguised as a love of the Gospel. I first encountered this in Seminary, and grappling with the issue in my own mind is one major reason I started blogging in the first place. But many of our foremost theologians remain obsessed with Forde while others work hard to keep false teachers like Steven Paulson employed writing theology for us. Surely, the fact that so many of our heretics voluntarily walked out during Seminex was a blessing from God, but they did not all leave. And we have done very little to discipline those that remained. What’s more, many took the victory we were handed as an excuse to rest on our laurels, presuming that the “Battle for the Bible” was the last issue we’d have to grapple with.
And the list could go on. There’s the constant push for contemporary worship, the continuing decline of our National Youth Gatherings, the collapse of our colleges into generic secularity, and more. And all this in the midst of the ongoing woke war against Christianity that should remind us all of Christ’s promises of persecution. Despite all the vicious blows the world has been delivering, our leadership has done precious little to rise to the occasion. We are deeply divided in theology, in liturgical practice, and more, but our response has been to paper over these divisions for a false pretense of peace rather than risking controversy by actually dealing with them.
But worst of all from a practical standpoint is simply our demographics. Like most church bodies in America, we are not-so-slowly dying simply because we couldn’t be bothered to have (and catechize) children to replace ourselves. This is not just unfortunate circumstance, for added to our list of grave errors is our wholehearted embrace of contraception culture. We may have tried to weakly resist some of the evils that came along for the ride, like rampant fornication, but so long as our vision of chastity is merely “no sex outside of marriage“, we are just as destined to fall to barrenness as any other group of Americans. Rather than embracing the extreme discomfort of repenting and teaching genuine chastity to our people, our leaders have instead opted to blame the lack of diversity among their dying sheep and replace them through a string of short-lived church-growth programs that inevitably end in failure. Missionaries do the Lord’s work, but most Christians who have ever lived only evangelized their own families; that is the ordinary method of church growth which we have absentmindedly neglected to our destruction
This is only a brief list of the fundamental problems in my denomination, but it does not produce a rosy outlook for the future of the institution. I will be genuinely surprised if we don’t see a major split in the next few decades, and I honestly expect my children or grandchildren to see it end altogether.
But the LCMS is just one Lutheran synod, right? It’s not the whole of Lutheranism. This is true, but broadening our view doesn’t offer much better news. Many of the other confessional Lutheran bodies are facing the same challenges we are, and I am unaware of any which are adeptly meeting them. But worse yet is that fact that real Lutherans–those of us who actually believe our theology is true–are a minority among those who bear the name. The state churches of Europe and mainline church bodies like the ELCA aren’t even churches–their religion is Theological Liberalism rather than Christianity, and their God is the Spirit of the Age rather than Jesus Christ. I suspect that the word “Lutheran” reminds more people of sodomite bishops and Sparkle Creeds than anything resembling real Lutheran heritage.
To be sure, there remain many faithful Lutherans among us–both in terms of individuals and congregations. And God has given us a truly priceless treasure when it comes to Lutheran theology, history, and practice. That heritage alone provides a remarkable advantage. However, I’m growing increasingly skeptical that that heritage will continue under any of our existing church bodies or even under the name “Lutheran.”
But it doesn’t have to.
When the Church of Rome or the Eastern Church tries to call us upstarts who have only been around 500 years compared to their two millennia, we often remind them that Lutheranism has existed since Genesis 3, when God first promised us a savior. The history of the Church is the history of those who believed that promise and to whom that faith was credited as righteousness. We may be constantly assailed by the devil through false teaching, worldliness, or outright violence; but one way or another, God always has and always will preserve His Church and His teachings. He did it before Luther. He can certainly do it without Luther. Likewise, those of us who have remained faithful can hold fast to the Gospel we have received through Lutheranism without calling ourselves Lutheran or belonging to a church body that’s called Lutheran.
The Church is no stranger to massive upheaval. From Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, to the fall of Rome, to the Great Schism, to the Reformation, our one holy catholic and apostolic Church has made disciples by teaching the same Word and baptizing in the same Name. But it does not always look the same superficially speaking–in terms of earthly hierarchy, organization, or custom. The persecuted Church of the first few centuries probably wouldn’t have expected the emergence of Christendom. Neither would the medieval Church have expected we’d one day be dispersed into denominations. Well, more and more people are beginning to sense that we stand on the cusp of another change whose magnitude scales with these other profound stages in the Church’s appearance. As Christians bear witness to the fall of modernism, we therefore need to understand that our current assumptions about structure and tradition may not last too long.
Accordingly, the greatest concern of Lutherans today shouldn’t be finding a way to ensure that our (often corrupt and feckless) institutions survive. I’ve lost count of the Lutherans who claimed that we should have been silent over the false teachings in the new Large Catechism because it made us look bad. I don’t know how often I hear Lutherans impose incoherent understandings of the 8th Commandment in order to shut down any controversy for the sake of outward unity. We even have proposals going to Convention this summer to crack down on using the internet to express anything negative about our church body. But the goodwill required from ordinary Lutherans to support such blatant self-serving nonsense has been utterly exhausted. All of this dead thinking is directed at preserving Synod as though that were somehow more important than faithfully teaching God’s Word. But if Synod cannot or will not help us faithfully teach God’s Word, then it has no reason to exist.
That is why the concern of pastors and laymen should be to preserve the Lutheran heritage we’ve been given and pass it on to our children. No matter what happens to denominations or to Lutheranism, we know that both family and the Faith will persevere until the End. Fathers will need to reclaim ownership of their children’s catechesis, of course. But while we cannot continue the custom of outsourcing Christian education to our churches, neither can we succeed in a vacuum without a congregation of fellow Christians. The Faith is passed on, not reinvented by the family each generation. So if you cannot imagine your church weathering the current storm and cannot find a way to help it reach a place where it could, then it is time to find a new church. But no congregation will survive without hard work from its faithful laity to help direct and carry out the enormous amount of work required for this battle.
The good news is that this is what we all should have been doing in the first place. Our families and local congregations are where our most important responsibilities have always been. For Lutherans to take up these challenges is simply to repent and return to faithfulness. This we can do, with or without Synod. That said, we should be grateful to God for any of our institutions who are also willing to pursue faithfulness over worldliness and follow along. And if our Lord once again defies my expectations and salvages Lutheranism or the LCMS by His mighty hand through the many faithful men who are still among us–an outcome I still pray for–then I shall greatly rejoice.
But as you may have noticed from the title, this is only “Part 1.” That is because this subject cannot end with generalities and complaints. Lutherans must consider what this change in direction and circumstance may look like for them going forward. There are no clear answers about the future, of course. But in the follow-up essays, I intend to continue to do what I’ve always tried to do and provide some food for thought on overcoming the challenges that confront us.