A Call to Balanced, Biblical Christianity In the LCMS
by John Rasmussen
We’re all given to extremes these days, wouldn’t you agree? We know this to the point of nausea when it comes to politics. It seems that our tendency toward polarization also extends to our conversations within the church. On that note, perhaps “echo chambers” better describes our reality than conversations—the latter functioning as a narcissistic form of complacency, whereas the former is more apt to foster critical self-reflection.
Nevertheless, it would seem that in the church—or at least in that corner of the church with which I’m most familiar—the LCMS—we’ve lost the ability to have level-headed conversations. As I heard it put recently, “Trust is in short supply these days within our culture and at times even within the church.” This is very true. But we can—and must—do better.
Lately some words from a late Anglican brother have been on my mind. In his book Balanced Christianity, John Stott did his best to persuade his often splintered and warring Evangelical peers to strike a calm, biblical balance rather than careen off into the ditch on the left or the right. What the LCMS needs now, more than ever, is an approach to doctrine, practice, and life together that is content to affirm what Scripture speaks and then be content to navigate debatable details with charity. What we need is a balanced, biblical approach.
Points of Polarization
Perhaps some concrete examples will help sketch out what this looks like, both positively and negatively.
I came into the LCMS as a refugee of American Evangelicalism; megachurches, the charismatic movement, WWJD bracelets . . . Before I went to college I walked the aisle for more altar calls than I have fingers and toes. The moral and emotional legalism was suffocating. When I came into the LCMS I found grace. However, at times that grace was taken to places that true grace never leads. For example, in my early experience of Lutheranism I encountered a general disdain for holiness, virtue, and piety. Looking back, I read more Gerhard Forde in my college years than Luther’s Large Catechism (these two things are very different—doing so was my own fault, my own miserable fault, not my professors’—they would have handed me Luther instead).
My little paragraph of memoir is only shared to point out that such an approach to Christian life—radical Lutheranism, or “antinomianism”—seems to be making a comeback in the LCMS. My assessment of this movement is that it’s an overreaction to Evangelical, or even LCMS legalism. After hearing so much of the law, some would now have no use for the law beyond its convicting power. Not only is this alien to Luther, more importantly it’s alien to Scripture. We end up having to make excuses for the last chapters of Paul’s Epistles (or much of the Gospels, for that matter), and our preaching ends up leaving people void of any instruction in what it means to actively strive to do good works in the power of the Spirit. In other words, a reaction against unbiblical legalism has led to an unbiblical view of the law, the role of the law in preaching, and what the Christian life looks like.
While I’m concerned about an unbiblical antinomian overcorrect in the LCMS, I’m equally concerned about a polarized response. Far too often I’ve watched the social media conversations erupt and fester on these issues—often with unfair caricatures of individuals and groups. We never do very well with efforts at theological realignment. We often overcompensate, which results in the steering wheel tending toward the ditch on the other side of the road.
What's the best response to such tensions? A balanced, biblical approach. Such an approach would offer conviction and comfort to both sides. We'd end up in the middle of the road instead of the ditch.
Another example would be the perennial debates about worship. These were the kinds of debates that would keep college kids at Concordia Seward arguing in the cafeteria to the point of room temperature lasagna. As far as I can tell, the debates have heated up. On the one hand, some in our synod have embraced what the Formula of Concord warned against—“frivolity and offense in worship.” In this context, no one is venerating the saints or parading the Corpus Christi. Rather, some have used the Divine Service to venerate popular culture and parade convenience at the expense of substance and reverence.
Lately, many in my generation—many who grew up on this kind of worship, and now hunger deeply for a rooted liturgy—have reacted. At times, however, this reaction has transgressed the bounds of being biblical, calling out as sin things that the Bible and even the Reformers would have simply regarded as adiaphora—those things neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. I am concerned that zeal for liturgy has often turned into liturgical legalism. Once again, the Formula guides us toward worship that is "the most useful and edifying to the community of God.” For some churches this may be pages 5 and 15 from The Lutheran Hymnal with Matins on fifth Sundays to spice things up a bit. For other communities, new liturgies and songs may be appropriate. What really matters is that these liturgies and songs are centered in Scripture, make Christ clear and accessible to the people, and reflect a posture of reception and reverence. The Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei mediate all of these elements very well, as do the historic and revised lectionaries. But let’s not pretend that the Scriptures command that we always follow these patterns. To do so would go beyond Scripture and into legalism. Once again, what we need is a balanced, biblical approach.
One more example. So often pastors in the LCMS use the terms "confessional" or "missional" as either badges of honor or terms of disdain. Positively, to be "confessional" means one is committed to the Book of Concord rather than riding the waves of the latest Evangelical trends or conferences. Negatively—as a term of reproach—it means you are stuck in your office reading Martin Chemnitz instead of fulfilling the Great Commission. Positively, the word "missional" means one has deep concern for the Great Commission and seeks to engage his community for the sake of the lost. Negatively, it means that doctrinal and practical integrity are traded in for "whatever works." And so we become more and more polarized as we use the terms as badges of honor or as terms of disdain.
To be honest, I don't like either of these words. Do I think we should be confessional? Yes. We must. Do I think we should be missional? Once again, yes. We must. But, as a friend pointed out to me recently, when we use these words for ourselves or others, we assume that we are within the circle of the term, whereas others are not. And very often the criteria we use to determine what it means to be either of these words is biased and unfair.
Is there a better word? One that we should all strive for together? One that reflects our collective concerns and keeps us from polarization? I would hold out the word "biblical." Once again, this is tricky, because not everyone has the same definition of what it means to be biblical. Nevertheless, at least the Bible is at the center. If I am a true student of the Scriptures, I will be confessional. The Word of God drives us to make doctrinal assertions. And likewise, if I am listening and responding to the Spirit-inspired text, I will be missional. The text pushes me into the world to confess the faith in a variety of contexts.
I suppose these examples suffice in support of my main point. We could examine plenty of other synodical tinderboxes; the office of the holy ministry, the age of the earth and the intersection between Scripture and science, and communion statements. All of these topics are important. But we need to make sure that our discussions are charitable, and that our boundaries are not beyond those set by the Bible.
A Path Toward Sanity
How do we make progress toward more fruitful, balanced, biblical conversations?
For one, we need to delve into the depths of Holy Scripture together. In other words, we need a renewed commitment to being biblical. One of the temptations of a church body that affirms a quia subscription to its confessional writings is that we may become complacent with holy writ—we assume that we know what it says because we already know what we “believe, teach, and confess.” Writing in 1948, Theodore Graebner observed the tendency of the LCMS to respond to theological and practical questions with “what have we been saying in the past” instead of “what does the Word of God say?” In other words, quotes from figures such as Walther or Pieper become unquestioned sandbags for polarized bunkers. What’s the remedy to this tendency? Graebner points us toward biblical scholarship.
Second, alongside the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions are a treasure we must study continually in community. Ideally, this is what our circuit gathering are meant for. The more I read the Formula of Concord, the more clear it becomes that its authors were striving for a balanced, biblical approach to the vexing and polarizing theological questions that followed after Luther and Augsburg. Are good works necessary? Yes and no. Are we free from the law? Yes and no. The responses to each status controversiae avoid extremes in favor biblical clarity.
Finally, I would commend reading outside of our ecclesiological comfort zones. One of the reasons I prefer For All the Saints as a devotional book over The Treasury of Daily Prayer is that the readings encompass everyone from Aquinas, to Calvin, to Spurgeon alongside Luther and Chemnitz. When we read outside of our camp, we often see our blind spots—and blind spots are often the culprit behind polarization. Even better than reading beyond our circles is conversing beyond them in person. One of the best books I’ve picked up lately is Robert Kolb and Carl Trueman’s Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation. Reading it makes we want to pick the brain of a Presbyterian over a beer or two. I can’t help but think such habits would make us better conversation partners with brothers and sisters in the LCMS.
The world will continue to be polarized. Facebook rants and Twitter rage will always be the norm without a plausibility structure as big and beautiful as the Gospel. But within the communion of the saints—especially within the close confessional communion of the LCMS—I believe we can do better. I believe that a return to balanced, biblical faith is the cure.
Rev. John Rasmussen is Senior Pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Kearney, Nebraska and co-founder of Sword and Swan Media House.