Warning: the following post is long and detailed (i.e. wordy) – so as to prevent potential misunderstandings. In just a moment, I will be posting a short and simple summary (here it is) which you may want to read first to save your time. UPDATE: the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler talked about the controversy I refer to below on his 15 minute news program last week. It is worth listening to (near the end):
First, let me possibly offend some on one “side” in the LC-MS. I know some are dismissing the above video produced by the group “Brothers of John the Steadfast” as propaganda. With or without the chanting in the background (taken from the actual service), I say that it is a perspective that we desperately need to understand – and even feel some real affinity with… Taking a step back from the sea of abject horror that was Sandyhook* (and the wave of inexpressible sadness and grief that followed), how can we not clearly see what happened in this “prayer vigil”? If after watching the video you are still not convinced, ask yourself this: what would have needed to occur in order for this to be a joint worship service?
Now let me possibly offend some on the other “side” in the LC-MS.
If you are a steadfast and confessional Lutheran, please bear with me on this. Realize that I think that I have both an extremely realistic side as well as an extremely idealistic one. If anything, I hope to be “sinning boldly” here.
Here’s my thesis:
Being a unionist or syncretist and participating in a unionistic or syncretist worship service are not necessariy the same thing.* One is sin where I think the other may not be, depending on what happens at the service.
What do I mean? First of all, let say that if I were a pastor I do not think that I would ever participate in a service like this (though I think I would talk about the possibility of doing so, as I am now). After all, we in the LC-MS all try to be “synod” which means “walking together” in a certain way. This means that in love we choose to limit our Christian freedom for the sake of one another (just like in a marriage one refrains from doing certain activities that may not necessarily be sinful, but do not contribute to the harmony of the marriage – and may even disrupt it! The Christian loves all, but first and foremost in concerned to show love and concern for the whole family of God [Galatians]). Further, the only way things could change regarding this current understanding about how the Church should act – if it in fact should change – would be for someone to convince others in the body that the current understanding about unionism and syncretism is not necessarily wrong, but is incomplete in that it does not adequately address the issue of the courageous Christian witness that we are free to do in the Gospel.
What exactly do I mean here? I suggest that it would be good, right and salutary if a Christian pastor, in a time of emergency, when asked to make his services available for such a worship service, would agree to do so – but only by making it clear to the organizers that the message that he would share would be one that would likely offend some persons attending the service (and could get him in a lot of trouble, quite frankly). If asked for further details, these would be forthcoming:
“I will try to present, as kindly yet forcefully as I can, that this disaster is a result of sin in our world and that the only hope in the face of such evil – in spite of all the other things that have been heard here tonight – is the Lord Jesus Christ, the only true God who overcomes sin, death and the devil. Any horrible circumstance in our life is ultimately meant to call us to turn from our sin to Jesus Christ (Luke 13:1-5). He has risen from the dead, carrying hope in His train – and these other “gods” people have invited you to pray to tonight cannot….”
Even if we were only invited to pray at such a service, one might still feel called to go and do something like Jesus did in John 11!: “I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
I think this might be what a man like Elijah would do in this New Testament age. Loving confrontation after the manner of Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This is the message that a true teacher and preacher of true religion would bring. This message of eternal life is the only true message of comfort in this life (this is not to say that it is only words that can offer real and true comfort, for Job was comforted by his friends who sat with him in silence – it is simply to say that when words are involved, the content of these words is critical, as Job’s friends found out). Not that “we unite our sorrowful hearts with you tonight as we cry out to the God/gods we know”, but “listen you created in God’s Image…there is only One Answer to this situation….”
I think this is something we should definitely discuss: why should we not at the very least offer to come and preach this message? Is that not a very loving thing to do? (yes I totally understand if you think: “there is no way I would do that well…”). Yes, there is a snowball’s chance in hell we will be invited, but why not make it absolutely clear to one and all that we are more than eager to come and offer hope to devastated sinners – the only real hope anyone can have? (and also that we take no pleasure in being confrontational, but will try to do so in a way that cannot possibly be construed as being angry or fanatical). If we were to come and make good on delivering such a message, at least the Christians present would be both challenged and edified, and perhaps a few non-Christians, seeing their sin of not acknowledging this One True God, might hear and believe.
I think that this is where our discussion needs to go – it seems obvious to me there is clearly something “open” about this question. So what steps should be taken?
First, it makes a lot of sense to me that I should let Matthew Harrison do his job of continuing to interact with pastors Yeadon and Morris as he deems appropriate and we should not “barge into His office”, as one man put it (to be clear I think that Morris “sinned boldly” here in causing his brothers to stumble, but also sinned for lack of boldness in his actual words at the service). Second, men like Yeadon and Morris can be met “in the middle”. Even if I can, for example, agree with Pastor David Benke and former President Kieschnick that in some cases some men may indeed feel called to be at events like this, this would only be acceptable if a) a bold confession is offered (see above) and b) there is also real respect and concern for brothers who disagree (definitely not Pharisees!) who might stumble by their actions (can anyone fail to acknowledge that Todd Wilken was both brilliant and winsome in the way he recently answered a question about unionism on Issues ETC? [from 30:40-39:15]).
If you are not sure what to make of all this, please also take a look at a comment that I left on Gene Veith’s blog, as it fleshes out some more of my “background reasoning”, based on Romans 14, here.
That said, the thing that is in the background the most is the following:
The whole point of framing the message this way would be to put both our focus (I do suspect that it would help many laypersons to better understand what is really at issue here) and the world’s focus not on disagreements by sinful persons in the Synod, but the message we proclaim. After all, our theology is built around the importance of the ongoing proclamation of this message – for both the unconverted and the converted. We want that message to be the only possible stumbling block – but even more, we want that to be the only thing that people are thinking and talking about. The one thing that they can’t get out of their minds.
For He is the Faithful Martyr, not us.
Please feel free to engage me here, and to make all the concerns that you have made known. I am indeed open to the possibility that there may indeed be reasons why what I have written here is simply wrong – things I am simply unaware of. I may very well have not been drunk on the Holy Spirit when I wrote this this past weekend…. though of course I am presently convinced that what I am saying is wise, otherwise I would not be bold to share it. I plan on listening right now, and only clarifying if people misunderstand me.
* do words from Jeremiah 7, 8 and 16 have anything to teach us here? It seems to me that in the face of events which are very traumatic and emotional for human beings, God might indeed come off as callous.
** if these terms confuse you, you can check out this video from Pastor Jonathan Fisk of Worldview Everlasting fame: