In an age of squishiness from most church leaders, many rank-and-file Christians are eager for the day when their leaders take a clear an unequivocal stand on God’s Word. Nothing is more disappointing than when that day comes and the clear, fiery denouncements are made on behalf of the world rather than the Word.
So it is in a recent letter from President Harrison of the LCMS. Shortly after finding nothing of consequence in an official catechism that contains blatant false teachings and adopts the framework of today’s most prominent anti-Christian ideologies, he has mustered remarkable zeal to rally against the real danger to our church body: “a few members of LCMS congregations have been propagating radical and unchristian ‘alt-right’ views via Twitter and other social media.” And he takes this “danger” very seriously indeed, threatening (and encouraging) excommunication for anyone who will not repent of being “alt-right.”
Given the gravity of this threat, it behooves us to consider carefully the content of Harrison’s accusation.
A Nebulous “Sin”
The Word of God certainly stands in judgment over worldly political philosophies and movements, the alt-right included. And while the LCMS has not, to my knowledge, threatened our proponents of explicitly anti-Christian political philosophies like Marxism or feminism with excommunication, Harrison minces no words in condemning the alt-right in the name of God “in toto.” But it’s curious how poorly he defines this supposedly grievous sin for which we must expel people from Christ’s church unless they repent.
The alt-right is a nascent political movement that, by nature of its youth, has no firm definition yet. It’s a right-wing ideology that despises progressivism, but also possesses a great contempt for mainstream conservativism’s failure to conserve anything of value. It’s also willing to question many of the ideals of modernity–equality, democracy, pluralism, multiculturalism, and so forth. But broadly-shared specifics are fairly hard to come by because there is little consensus on what will replace those ideals.
The most prominent definition I know of (that was developed by someone who actually identifies as alt-right) is political commentator Vox Day’s attempt to help define the movement back in 2016 with his 16 points. It hardly caught on or became representative, but as radical as most Americans would consider Vox Day, it’s worth noting that there’s still no overlap between his points and Harrison’s list of supposed alt-right beliefs: “white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide.” How can anyone in good conscience declare the damnation of everyone bearing a label which you cannot even properly define?
But even leaving aside the likelihood that Harrison’s characterization of the alt-right is entirely slanderous, there’s an even bigger problem here. Harrison’s letter is quite explicitly about excommunication–publicly declaring men & women to be brazen unbelievers and barring them from the Sacraments to assure them that they must repent or be damned for all eternity. How can a label as nebulous and non-Biblical as “alt-right” be used in such a serious public condemnation? I don’t advocate for anything on Harrison’s list, but I am a right-winger who has rejected mainstream conservativism and questions the ideals of modernity. “Alt-right” isn’t a label I embrace, but it wouldn’t be unfair to apply it to me either. Must I therefore repent of these views or be damned?
The specifics on Harrison’s list aren’t any better. In contemporary usage, white supremacy, Nazism, and fascism are all practically meaningless. For instance, I’ve personally been called a Nazi simply for believing that marriage is between a man and a woman–a view officially taught by Synod. And yet, here is our President using a spurious label with which I’ve been slandered and deeming it worthy of excommunication.
White supremacy is another label that’s been applied to everything from opposing reparations to preferring white meat on Thanksgiving. One prominent Lutheran pastor recently suggested that there’s a real definition “somewhere between the woke left’s ‘shoelaces are white supremacy’ and the anti-woke’s ‘it’s not white supremacy to think non-whites are gross and should be imprisoned on a volcanic island.'” But when I asked him to provide that real definition, he simply blocked me–this despite him personally harassing at least one LCMS pastor in regards to a specific target of Harrison’s excommunication. Such unseriousness is all too common, which is why these labels no longer mean anything beyond “someone progressives don’t like.” They have no business being applied seriously in any theological context without a specific definition.
The inclusion of “Pro-slavery” and “death for homosexuals” is problematic in an entirely different way. They are at least specific, but both of them can be plausibly applied to Scripture as well in some senses.
Now, I’ve said my piece on a Biblical view of slavery at length elsewhere. I believe it’s a product of the Fall; I’m glad it’s no longer part of American society; and I have no desire to reintroduce it. Nevertheless, can we truly proclaim being “pro-slavery” to be an undeniable sin worthy of excommunication in the absence of repentence? After all, the Bible gives instructions specifically to masters, and while it requires good treatment of their slaves, demands for unilateral emancipation are conspicuously absent. Must Paul therefore be excommunicated for his pro-slavery “oversight?” Should he have, in fact, threatened Philemon with excommunication rather than urging Onesimus’s freedom in love? Must the Old Testament patriarchs and kings be sentenced to eternal hellfire because they all committed the pro-slavery act of owning slaves? Must Walther and other early fathers of the LCMS be excluded from the Church because they refused to go all-in on abolition? If not, then why would we attach such a penalty to being pro-slavery today?
“Death for homosexuals” is an even clearer matter. God himself gave that very law to ancient Israel. Now, that is certainly part of the Old Testament’s civil law, and therefore it is not binding on Christians today because we aren’t ancient Israelites. We are under no obligation to enforce the death penalty against those guilty of the sin of homosexuality. At the same time, Scripture contains no prohibition against supporting such a civil penalty. Biblically speaking, this is adiaphora, plain and simple. What’s more, that penalty was explicitly commanded by God himself for a specific place and time. Are we therefore to join with the Marcionites and other heretics who posited an evil demiurge in the Old Testament who was opposed to the loving God of the New? By no means! Contending that this is grounds for excommunication is fundamentally anti-Scriptural and anti-Christian.
Now, let’s consider “Anti-interracial marriage.” As I understand it, some of Harrison’s targets do count that as a sin. I think they are wrong about that. There are certainly circumstances such as parental disapproval which would make some interracial marriage a sin and practical/medical concerns which could make it unwise. Nevertheless, I see no reason to consider it sinful in itself. But is error about sin truly the issue here?
There is likely not a single person on earth with whom I completely agree about everything–including members of the LCMS. And in my experience, our pews are filled with people who openly hold to some error or another. I’ve seen men speak up in Bible Study to denounce the idea that a Pastor forgives sins in God’s name despite Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Those who think our official position on closed Communion is sinful are, unfortunately, legion. There are many who wrongly said it was a sin not to wear masks and not to take experimental vaccinations. There are even people among us who believe restricting access to abortion is a sin. But I’ve yet to see Synod broach the subject of excommunication over errors such as these. There, they are content to address the matters through longsuffering and patient instruction.
What’s different about alleging that interracial marriage is a sin? Well, the most obvious difference is that the contention is quite offensive in the eyes of the world, leaving many modern Americans up-in-arms. But do we excommunicate for open defiance of the world or defiance of God? I might not think they are correct, but it’s a position held in good faith that God never instructed me to be offended over. I can certainly see why those involved in interracial marriages would be personally offended over the contention, and I can hardly blame them for taking offense. But neither do we typically excommunicate over personal offense. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this error is being targeted with such extreme prejudice solely because of its opposition to the Spirit of the Age.
That just leaves us with “genocide” and “women as property.” I’m entirely comfortable dismissing the former as over-the-top nonsense cynically added to Harrison’s letter to raise the stakes rather than anything that’s seriously at issue here. I invite anyone to produce evidence to the contrary before I’ll say any more on “genocide.” As for “women as property”, I suspect the biggest problem there is that most Americans posses a child’s view of property: “It’s mine so I can break it if I want to!” We exclude any of the authority and responsibility inherent in true ownership, and so we find it fundamentally dehumanizing. Now, that assurance of misunderstanding is precisely why I wouldn’t describe women as property–our language is what it is at this point. But Christians nevertheless need to remember that Scripture describes us as God’s property, bought with a price. That does not dehumanize us or instrumentalize us in His sight.
Who Stands Condemned?
Having established the dubious nature of Harrison’s accusations, we must also consider just who he is accusing. Yes, at least one individual who is being subjected to church discipline for alt-rightism is common knowledge at this point (and I encourage you to consider his side of the story), but that’s not what I mean. The open question is who else falls under his condemnation made in the name of Jesus.
As Harrison writes, “These ‘alt-right’ individuals were at the genesis of a recent controversy surrounding essays accompanying a new publication of Luther’s Large Catechism.” But he also writes, “I am not speaking about the individuals who may have expressed theological concerns about the essays published alongside the Catechism. I’m talking about a small number of men who based their opposition upon racist and supremacist ideologies. The former we welcome. The latter we condemn.” So who is who in these two groups?
Part of the problem is the aforementioned nebulous nature of the accusation. “Alt-right” can mean a lot of different things. But then, “genesis” can mean a lot of things too. The true genesis of the controversy is the theologians who included false doctrines in their essays and the editors who invited false teachers to write for it. Clearly that’s not what Harrison means, however, since he blessed the individuals and the project in toto.
So what then does he really mean by the beginning? There were concerns raised privately by pastors before it was even published. Was that the genesis of the controversy? Do they stand condemned? Or was the young man who most widely publicized some of the most egregious inclusions the genesis? My own commentary was pretty close behind, so do I get included as the beginning or was I too late to the party to be condemned?
And let me just take the opportunity to point out that when President Harrison quotes Luther’s Small Catechism as part of his grounds for excommunication (“hating, despising, or slandering other groups of people (prejudice, racism, and so forth)”) he is quoting a recent (and dubious) addition that was not present in the edition I was catechized with. It’s a very clear example of why Lutherans must be vigilant indeed about what gets added alongside our Catechisms. We therefore ought to be grateful to everyone who raised the alarm over the additions in the Large Catechism and its application of critical theory to our Confessions–regardless of any supposed motivations.
What’s more, Harrison’s two groups–the “genesis” and the “concerned”–are hardly mutually exclusive. I’ve certainly expressed theological concerns about those essays. But as I said, I did so early on and could plausibly be labeled “alt-right.” Do I therefore stand condemned here? Or is my critique welcomed? I’d wager there are many faithful critics of the new Large Catechism out there asking themselves the same question. When we’re just tossing about eternal damnation here, it might behoove us to be clearer and define our terms better.
But then, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that this ambiguity is precisely the point. Inasmuch as we ask ourselves now whether we are targets for excommunication, we will be asking the same question before we speak out next time Synod publicly embraces false teaching. If a pastor acts like Luther did and publicly stands against the official errors of his day, will Synod come for his pulpit? If a layperson talks about public teaching on social media, will he be getting a call from his elders if he gets too many views? Whatever the letter says about welcoming theological concerns, the clear and objective effect is to place a Sword of Damocles over the necks of any would-be critics.
That threat-point is something every Lutheran needs to take very very seriously today. Just as the meaningless labels used by Harrison make his current set of targets ambiguous, they also make it easier to move on to others. The first of the excommunicated are the easiest marks. They hold very extreme positions; they are very blunt about doing so; and they have triggered many people. It’s tempting to simply write them off as outliers because in many ways, they are.
But the labels used by Harrison to justify excommunication are not outliers. In America, they are being applied ever more carelessly and liberally every day. Is it easy to call the guy who opposes interracial marriage a “racist“? Sure. But how often have you been called a racist by a liberal media, by strangers on Twitter, or by real-life acquaintances over entirely innocuous matters? Like it or not, that is it’s own cottage industry now. And make no mistake: there are already Lutheran men at the heart of this controversy with the president’s ear who openly call people racist even for trying to be color-blind, the gold standard for every Boomer. There are groups like Lutherans for Racial Justice already trying to push Critical Race Theory in the Synod. Do you really think this will stop with the easiest targets?
Lutherans have a reputation for being behind the times, but surely cancel culture has been around long enough for us to be aware of how it works. Surely we have seen wokeism consume enough institutions by now to recognize it when it starts happening to our own. This danger is already inside our walls. Do you really think it won’t intrude into your congregation or your home as well if you just ignore it now? Do you think they won’t teach your children to fear fake sins to advance their activism? Do you think they won’t condemn you if you do your job and interfere those efforts?
President Harrison’s letter is exactly what an ideological purge looks like in its early adolescence. But the stakes are far higher than the mass graves filled by cultural revolutions of the past. The weapon that has been put into play is not the barrel of a gun, but separation from the life-giving Word and Sacrament of Jesus Christ. The battleground which may be reduced to ash is the rarest of church bodies–one where God’s Word has long been taught in its purity and the Sacraments administered properly. And if we simply accept the false-teachings among us, we face nothing less than the removal of our lamp-stand.
This Is Not The End
I have been a member of the LCMS my entire life. I was baptized, taught, and communed in her congregations. I was educated in her grade schools and seminaries. I want the same for my children. If there were nothing worth fighting for here, then Satan would not be attacking us like this. And that is why we ought to continue to publicly object to these travesties.
I do not know what the future holds for our Synod. I do know that God will not abandon his faithful. The Word of God which President Harrison misused in his letter does not return void:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:31–39).