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On politics…

I’ve learned a lot about politics this week. And about myself as well. I figured I’d share.
This is church politics, but I see little difference between it and governmental politics, academic politics, or corporate politics, other than this time I actually believe in the result enough to be willing to hear out the other perspective, put myself in that position, and be that other person for a minute, look around, and see what he (it’s almost always a he) is thinking and seeing.

And I guess that’s what I’ve learned about myself. I can get into the Mac/PC debates and I can argue them as passionately as anyone, but in the end, if someone decides to shoot himself in the foot by paying way too much for an overdesigned single-threaded computer that crashes all the time, well, that’s his business–unless the overly chatty AppleTalk network protocol is going to disrupt everyone else’s work by sucking up all the available bandwidth, or the lack of administrative security is going to allow the user to install software that’ll disrupt other users. But if a guy’s only going to hurt himself by making the wrong decision about a computer, fine. I don’t care. If he’s gonna put up a stink, I’ll let him sink.

Every time I’ve believed in a company, I’ve been betrayed. So I don’t give a rip about corporate politics. And government? Government’s mission is to perpetuate itself. It’s going to do the right thing to perpetuate itself, regardless of whether that’s the right thing for you and me. So when I feel myself starting to get riled up about government, I change the subject.

Church politics? I’ll hear you out. I even went to The not-in-the-least-Rev. Fred Phelps’ web site and read his reasoning on why the LCMS needed to have a “God Hates Fags” protest in front of its doors. Let’s just say it’s very unfortunate that he believes this, because it would be really, really funny. Remember the witch scene in Monty Pyton’s Holy Grail? The one where they said someone was a witch, because she looked like one, because they dressed her up like one? Same logic. Picket a church, provoke it, when it retaliates, sue the retaliator in small claims court, then say the courts say your sign was true. But I’m not going to acknowledge him with a link.

So. I am Lutheran. I didn’t come to that conclusion easily. There are a lot of scumbags who are Lutherans, so for a long time I believed that all Lutherans were scumbags because I’d met so many of them. Then I learned that all churches had scumbags, and on top of that, some of them had really, really poor doctrine. Doctrine, in case that word has you scratching your head, is a fancy word for a set of beliefs, hopefully derived from reading the books of the Bible in context.

So, I got sick of watching people beat each other up with poor doctrine, and worse yet, beating me up with poor doctrine, so I sat down and did something a lot of people never do. I read that book. Yeah, the whole thing–884 pages in one of my translations. It took me three months to do it. It’s shorter than a James Michener novel that I could probably read in a month, but Michener is much lighter reading, and, yes, I’ll say it, usually Michener does a better job of holding your attention.

Reading the whole thing did a lot for me. For one, I saw a much bigger picture. The verses those guys were taking out of context suddenly made sense. It didn’t just “feel” wrong anymore–I could tell you if they were taking it out of context. There’s another common mistake in Bible study that you don’t see so often in other literary studies, or for that matter, other disciplines. In any other discipline, you take the simple stuff first. In programming, you learn loops before recursion. In riding a bike, you learn pedaling before you learn balance. The idea is that you learn the simple things before the complicated things, so that the complicated things don’t make the simple things hard.

I’ll give you an example. When talking to the Pharisees (a religious sect) once, Jesus exclaimed, “You brood of vipers!” Greek scholars tell me what he actually said bordered on profanity. The obvious conclusion: Jesus hated the Pharisees. But that’s wrong. Let’s go back to the most basic Bible verse there is: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” Who’d God love? The world. What’s the world? Everybody. Who is Jesus? God. (That’s another verse or 47.) OK. So Jesus loved everyone. Even Pharisees. So why’d Jesus call them a brood of vipers? Because he was disappointed in them. He knew they were capable of better but didn’t want any better.

So I read the whole blasted thing, got the answers to my tough questions, and came to the conclusion that the Lutherans had it right the overwhelming majority of the time. Certainly more than 90 percent. Probably closer to 98 percent. Baptists and Methodists and Evangelicals and Catholics and other denominations were right most of the time too. But usually they appeared to be wrong about at least one of the tough questions.

So, since I agreed with about 98 percent of what the Lutherans (and, specifically, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) were saying, I came to the conclusion that I’m LCMS.

Now, if you ask most LCMS Christians why they’re Lutheran, they’ll probably tell you because their parents were Lutheran. A lot of them don’t even think about it. Ask a lot of them what it means to be Lutheran, and they’ll use words like “page 5,” “page 15,” “organ music,” “liturgy,” and other things. It’s highly structured, highly organized, and, well, to the outsider, it’s just plain weird. It’s designed to be reverent, and yes it is. But it’s not what it means to be Lutheran. There are Lutheran churches in the inner city in New Orleans. I guarantee you they aren’t using a pipe organ and German music dating back to the 15th century. But they’re as Lutheran as can be.

The theology is what’s important to me. The form of worship isn’t so much. And when I see the high liturgy done poorly, it irks me. It’s a whole lot easier for a group of people with meager skills to put together a contemporary-style service that looks good. And contemporary worship scales nicely as skill increases.

The other thing I like about contemporary worship is the freedom. If you follow the liturgy, on any given Sunday the sermon will probably be about one of three things. (Each service has an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading.) A lot of people dread sermons, especially those types. In contemporary worship, the pastor has more freedom. The pastor can look at what the needs of the congregation are and preach on that. It might be a one-off message or it might be a long series. For churches that do that, the sermon is usually the main attraction. Frequently they’ll make tapes and outlines available so you can listen to it again and study it further. And people do.

In LCMS circles, those sentiments make me a flaming liberal. It doesn’t matter that my doctrine is, if anything, right of center (again, in LCMS circles). The true liberals in LCMS left in 1974. The disagreements that remain in LCMS today are over, frankly, petty issues. I’ll get rid of the guitars and go back to pipe organs if I have to. Or if the order comes down from on high that the only instrument suitable for use in church worship is the kazoo, I’ll deal with it. God hasn’t changed, and the core beliefs haven’t changed.

But the LCMS camp is bitterly divided. Bitterly. On the right, you’ve got the so-called Confessional Lutherans. That’s a meaningless term. It refers to a collection of documents called the Lutheran Confessions, which are statements of doctrine. Interpretation of the Bible. Period. Every LCMS Lutheran will probably agree with 95-99% of the statements in those documents. Confessional Lutherans hold on tightly to their liturgy.

On the left, you’ve got a variety of movements that Confessional Lutherans like to paint with names like “Echoes of Seminex.” Seminex was a liberal movement that LCMS expelled beginning in 1974, and that movement was founded on theology. Seminex is mostly a memory now, absorbed by other church bodies, but the label is a scarlet letter. The “liberal” movements of today have little to do with Seminex, as far as I can tell.

For example, a movement that calls itself “Jesus First” is most frequently brought up with a Seminex label, because Jesus First is sympathetic to the plight of women. I’ve seen accusations that Jesus First would go so far as to ordain women–an issue that Seminex would have brought up, yes. But when I read the Jesus First documents, that’s not what I see. Jesus First is mad that in many LCMS circles, women are treated as second- or third-class citizens. At the top you’ve got adult males, who know all. Below them, you’ve got clueless, rebellious teenage males, who haven’t learned how to know any better. Below them, you’ve got adult women, who never will know any better.

And that’s clearly unbiblical. Jesus never talked down to women. If Jesus First advocates the ordination of women (something that seems to be prohibited in 1 Timothy 2 but that almost certainly doesn’t limit women to silence the way extreme-right Lutherans read that chapter), I’ve never found a paper on it. In some regards, Jesus First is doctrinally more conservative than the Confessional Lutherans. But Jesus First advocates contemporary worship and is very outspoken in its manner of doing so.

Many Confessionals believe that all in the Jesus First movement are going to hell, and a good number of them aren’t shy at all about expressing that opinion.

Now, when it comes to general position (other than who’s going to heaven or hell–if the use of a pipe organ is required to get to heaven, then Jesus is in hell because it didn’t exist yet in His day, and that logic is almost as messed up as Fred Phelps’ logic) I can see where the Confessionals are coming from. I respect their position, and I admire their desire to revere God. And doctrinally, I agree with more than 95 percent of the things they say. However, I do believe some of them treat women atrociously, and using Biblical misinterpretations to justify it is just another slap in the face.

And I’m not going to say I agree with everything Jesus First says. I haven’t read everything Jesus First says. What I have read, I find myself understanding very well and at the very least sympathizing with. They have a large number of very good and well-considered points.

I think I know where I stand. But I don’t know for sure, because I don’t know how far the various “leftist” groups go. While the left celebrates the election of a president most expect will be sympathetic towards their cause, the right continues name-calling. Then the extreme right gloats that its most conservative candidate won first vice president. Meanwhile, the name-calling continues. And it’s extraordinarily difficult to tell from their disseminations what anyone truly stands for. Maybe if I were still in grade school, I’d understand, but as I recall, I had a difficult time sorting through the name-calling then too.

And I read a quote yesterday on one of the right-wing sites, quoting the late Dr. A.L. Barry, Synod president from 1992-2001, known for his conservatism. He was running for president in 1992, and someone asked him the question, “What if you lose?” And Barry was quoted as saying, “Then we’ll all know what to do.”

I have no idea if that quote is true or in context. But I sure don’t like the implication. It’s not respectful, it’s not loving, and it’s not Biblical.

I don’t know if the left wing is correct more often than the right wing. But what I do know is that the left wing displays a whole lot more maturity.

And the left and the right are a whole lot more alike than they are different. But the bitterness of differences seems to increase as the size decreases.

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7 thoughts on “On politics…”

  1. Hi Dave:

    I would be very interested in knowing your take on the differences between the main stream LCMS and the main stream ELCA. I ask you this because you seem to clearly have done your home work and I would like a basic view of what you see are the differences.

    We currently go to a ELCA church which seems very conservative in doctrine but none of those people have been able to satisfactorily explain the differences between ELCA and LCMS except to say (which you addressed) "oh those Missouri Synod people are anti-women".

    Thank you,


  2. You’ve made the point why you chose to be a lutheran–interpretation of doctrine. Now, I’m sure the convention for LCMS is fascinating, however the true image of lutherans can be found better at the local church. Traditional conservative values exist there and are learned from sermons, bible study, and (in the past) passed down through the generations as God intended. Women are held in high esteem, especially since the majority of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School teachers are women. Women are very much part of the church, yet they also honor God’s wisdom that their husband is the head of the house just as Christ is the head of the church. Now regarding maturity among the liberals and conservatives, the most mature is always the ones best educated whether through instruction or well written devotional materials. Both sides have their "wackos". 🙂

  3. Bruce, you’re trying to get me in some real trouble now, aren’t you?

    "If you’re going to get in trouble anyway, you want to get in a lot of trouble." –Bono, taken slightly out of context

    I was at a party back in 1993 when a drop-dead gorgeous redhead comes up to me and we start talking. We had one class, Spanish, together, and we were both journalism majors, and both our dads were doctors. And I start thinking I really like this girl. Somewhere along the way, religion comes up, and I say I’m Lutheran.

    "Hey, isn’t that the church that just came out with a paper last week endorsing homosexuality and mas–" another girl started to ask. I realized where she was going, and if there’s any word I don’t want to hear used when I’m talking to a girl for the first time, that one would have to be it. (No, I won’t print it here. I’m afraid of the search engine hits.)

    Thank you, my ELCA brothers, for making her think that thought while I was making my first impression. So I kicked into damage-control mode.

    "That’s just one of the Lutheran church bodies. There are three of them. And two of them would have some problems with that document. The church I go to every Sunday is one of those." (I didn’t mention that, at the time, I was ELCA even though I went to an LCMS church. No "what did pastor teach you in confirmation class?" jokes, please. I was confirmed LCMS.)

    What are the real differences? ELCA is a whole lot more lax about what they’ll allow their churches to do. I read that joint agreement between the ELCA and the Roman Catholic church. And, as a Lutheran, I have no real problem with what that document says, except for one: It’s so carefully worded that it’ll mean one thing to a Catholic and a completely different thing to a Lutheran. The paper said the same thing to both. They heard very different things. (Conveniently, when Martin Luther split with the Catholic church, he changed the definitions of a few churchy words like "grace" and "justification" and "sanctification." So, given the will and 20 years to bang out the document, you can make yourselves look like you’re in total agreement when you’re not.)

    ELCA is, I guess, willing to appear to agree while they continue to work out their differences. LCMS, like everyone else, is in constant dialogue with other church bodies trying to work out its differences with them, but it’s not interested in appearing to agree. LCMS wants a very high degree of agreement, and while I’m oversimplifying here, to say LCMS doesn’t care what the disagreement looks like in the meantime isn’t entirely unfair.

    Those are symptoms. If you’re used to a conservative ELCA church, you probably won’t notice much difference between it and an LCMS church. And as far as I know, ELCA will accept LCMS training, from confirmation up to seminary, as it would its own.

    The converse isn’t true, but you and I will be hard pressed to find the differences because we do truly agree on a lot. LCMS teaches that the Bible, in its original form, was inerrant and infallible. (We also have a pretty good idea what the original was at this point; there was a time when we saw minor changes as we found older and older manuscripts; today the differences we find are trivial and don’t alter the meaning. The fact we’re more certain of Moses’ exact words than we are Shakespeare’s exact words is one reason I’m a believer.) ELCA, while it may not officially teach that there may be errors in the Bible, is sympathetic towards that position.

    While I understand there are minor biological errors in the Bible–the mustard seed isn’t the smallest of all seeds, from what I’m told–the parable of the mustard seed also isn’t intended to be a biology lesson. (I’m also curious whether the mustard seed was at the time the smallest of all known seeds.) And there are other instances, particularly in Levitical law, where the requirements made perfect biological sense. The ancient Israelis practiced better sanitation than 19th-century America did. And Moses knew nothing about sanitation.

    Personally, I would argue that if God would ensure that the manuscripts we have today are so good, wouldn’t He also see to it that the first copy had no errors? I believe the errors in the Bible are errors of interpretation.

    That, I think, explains all the other differences. ELCA is much more willing to change with the times, and you’ll have to pry the strict interpretation of the Bible (which is the key to understanding any piece of literature, sacred or secular) out of the LCMS’ cold, stiff hand. And LCMS doesn’t care how unpopular that interpretation makes it–Martin Luther didn’t care either, and as far as LCMS is concerned, that’s a decent precedent.

  4. Hi Dave:

    Thank you. That helped a lot and does confirm some things I had forgotten but that you reminded me of. It does seem that the ELCA governing body is too willing to compromise and agree on change or the appearance of change.

    – Bruce

  5. I’ve heard around that some lutherans are a bit frustrated because they cannot get answers on deeper doctrinal questions. One question in particular, is that of the Holy Spirit. One person I heard complaining said they’re always rebuffed on that issue because everything Lutheran is "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," and if it doesn’t have to do with Jesus, nobody knows the answer.

  6. Heheheh. Luther, you’re exactly right, but the confessionalists get really mad when you say that. Catholicism has an unhealthy obsession with the Father, Pentecostalism has an unhealthy obsession with the Holy Spirit; Lutherans have an obsession with Jesus (if you’re going to focus on one, Jesus is the one I’ll pick because it’ll get you in the least trouble).

    I went the non-Lutheran route just long enough to get my answers on the Holy Spirit, then came back because everything else was so screwed up.

    Send the Lutherans with Holy Spirit questions to me.

  7. I’m a fairly new Lutheran (ELCA) living in St. Louis. (I also happen to be a progammer, BTW.)

    I read elsewhere that Seminex wasn’t so much a "liberal movement", but a bunch of professors who got fired for the "heresy" of not being fundamentalists.

    It’s ironic that Martin Luther was also a professor accused of heresy by the establishment of his church. Like Luther, those Seminex people weren’t trying to start a new denomination until after they got kicked out.

    Actually, the LCMS split sounds a lot like what was going on in the Southern Baptist denomination in the ’80s (which was the church I grew up in). My brother was attending Missouri Baptist College at the time when a biology prof there was fired for teaching evolution. I’d met the guy myself, and he didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. Also, they tried to kick my church out of the "Association" several times for having women deacons.

    Frankly, those experiences all left a bad taste in my mouth which I’m afraid made it hard for me to consider the LCMS.

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