Presenting a precis of an argument around an article in a journal with a circulation of around 1,500 is probably not the most exciting hook for a posting, but give me a chance. It demonstrates a desperate need that we in the LCMS have to admit something and build something. The journal is the Lutheran Forum published by the ALPB (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau). The ALPB is one of those hardy little groups that live to keep the institutional church honest. I’d say it was dedicated to a prophetic calling, except that word in our day has been abused beyond recognition. The argument revolves around three intersecting things: a) LCMS “silly season” otherwise known as the run-up to the Synodical Convention, b) the facts of organizational behavior and c) the missing somethings.
An interim editor, Pr. Matthew Staneck, was presented with a submission by a former chief big-wig at CPH, Pr. Edward Englebrecht. If you have a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible, you can open the title page and see his name. When you get your name on the Bible, you’ve made it. Pr. Englebrecht’s article could be boiled down to two parts. The first part was an introduction to a particularly nasty form of organizational behavior called mobbing. Mobbing is coordinated clandestine activity by a larger group to bring an individual or a minority group into line. The legitimate form of this is how political parties act. The “whip” is the person who counts the votes. If you are not lined up with the “correct” vote, the whip can apply the whip. In the Congressional format that is things like losing a chair on a committee, having your bills moved to the back of the schedule, having expected monetary help for your campaign disappear, and other such events that would hurt your chances of staying a congress-person. Vote the correct way or bear the whip. When politics becomes something unclean instead of just how we humans make collective decisions, whip activities take place in clandestine ways. Shadowy unknown groups operating behind anonymity carry on the whip activity. It should surprise nobody that mobbing activity happens. It can be seen as part of the scapegoat phenomenon detailed by Girard. The ultimate whip is the identification of the scapegoat.
It is when you move into the second part of Pr. Englebrecht’s paper that questions rise. If all of this was simply the typical progressive consciousness raising exercise, we could all mutter “yes, yes, terrible thing, thank you for informing us of the blatantly obvious” and having fulfilled all righteousness gone back to life. But Englebrecht’s paper was not just a lecture in organizational behavior. He proceeded to say that all this mobbing activity is how the LCMS works at the highest levels, and that he himself had born the brunt of this activity. Of course, he did this with the largest brush possible, smearing everybody that works at CPH and the International Center as part of a nefarious machine. And approaching the LCMS silly season the implication was that the current administration was involved in mobbing. The insinuation was left hanging that if we wanted to purify the synod, these folks had to go.
For the most part, the whips that Englebrecht claimed to have suffered are simply the everyday existence of a lowly small parish pastor. During talks his microphone would cut out. People would approach him afterward a little too friendly with backslaps a little too hard. While he was speaking people in the audience would stare at him. But then it crossed into the strange, and the only confirmable detail of his claim was disconfirmed. Englebrecht claimed that the person ordering these nefarious activities to get him in line was called the “main nag” and that this “main nag” was the person who posted under “Gan ainm” (Gaelic for without name) on the ALPB online forum. (Part of the claims for the machine was a penchant for anonymous activity with anagrams taken directly from Tom Riddle to Lord Voldemort.) Pr. Staneck had claimed that he had checked out the story and believed it, but within a couple of days “Gan Ainm” had been proven not to be connected in any way to a “main nag”. The editors and Pr. Englebrecht steadfastly refused either to retract the article or to clarify who they were speaking about. Those who could conceivably have been slimed as part of “the machine” bailed out of participation at ALPB. Those who had been most vocal in support of Pr. Englebrecht retreated to consciousness raising defenses. And eventually interest just dwindled. A tempest in a teacup.
Which is probably where it should end. Rehearsing the sad affair doesn’t help in any way. A place that had a well-deserved reputation as a fair dealer had burned a good bit of that reputation. Plenty of heat had been added to a silly season, and a coda to a distinguished editorship. But the real point of this article is those missing things, and to address why such a silly article would not only be considered for publishing, but that an informed LCMS reader would have to spend more than a second thinking about it.
The reason that an informed LCMS reader, even as the strangeness of the claims compounded, would spend more than a second is because the LCMS has a reputation for brass knuckled politics. Part of this is simply the fact that the progressive faction lost in the LCMS. And just like in our national temporal politics, the official organs of news tilt heavily in their favor. The wrong side lost, so it must have been by nefarious means. You are seeing the same thing play out in the UMC today with various “false voter” conspiracy theories regarding their most recent gathering. But even correcting for the general FUD of progressive atmospherics, LCMS politics has been tough. Maybe tougher between factions that agree, than with the defeated progressives. Every convention is the battle for the bible. Every gathering is a bunch of pastors longing for their “Worms Moment”. Here I stand, casting whoever is on the other side as the nefarious agents of pope and antichrist demanding they recant. And much of this politics takes place behind a veil of anonymity. The United List, a slate of candidates that has won most slots for many elections, is put together by an anonymous group. Wherever Missouri politics is talked, the number of anonymous ID’s goes up dramatically. Official sources are read like Pravda where the news is between the lines. And in that fever swamp you can imagine mobbing being a real activity.
How do you get to such a politics? The short answer is that we don’t believe our own two-kingdoms theology. That two-kingdoms theology would tell us that Christ rules everywhere, but in the gospel he rules directly, in the law he rules by means and those means are often fallible and sinful humans. The church is part of that same two kingdoms split. The vast majority of the visible church is part of the left hand kingdom. And the way that things in the left-hand kingdom are decided is called politics. We should be able to admit this without problem. And in admitting this there is the great freedom from fear in admitting that even your political adversary is trying for the same good if by different means. But the LCMS has never been able to admit the place of politics within the church.
There are two sides of the same coin of political denial. One side is almost perfectly represented by Pr. Englebrecht. Rooted in the deep history of people like CFW Walther and the German experience, the LCMS would find a leader and grant that person, if not officially then unofficially, almost unlimited authority. LCMS Ph.D.’s have long expected that type of genuflection. As one LCMS wit has put it, LCMS polity has a North Korea Juche element. Let us now praise our wise and benevolent leaders. When someone, especially someone not credentialed, even worse someone who simply counts votes, challenges a decision these folks have tended to lose it. Everything from the Walkout to imagining deep cabals. We can’t engage in politics, because we are the experts permeates everything, because we are simply right. The flip side of that coin has always been the “grandfather’s synod” set or those more Luther than Luther. Always on the lookout for doctrinal degradation, these often self-appointed guardians are there to spot Stephan or the CSL faculty or Melanchthon going off the rails talking with Calvin. This group knows how to count votes, but will never admit that it is driven by politics. Instead they are fighting for a pure church. And we are always only one bad election from losing the gospel. Admitting that politics is good and necessary for a left-hand kingdom entity, and that we are engaged in it, would be giving up their self-image. The image of the great wise sage, or the image of the Steadfast Protector of the gospel. Hence both groups engage in anonymous and opaque forms of politics.
Admitting the fact, necessity and goodness of politics by itself would go a long way to helping the synod. But you can admit that and have nowhere to go. That was part of my initial charm with the ALPB. Prior to this article, it was not ruled by fear and carried on its work in a visible way. The other missing something in the LCMS has always been a viable clearinghouse for honest politics, an honest broker. The in-house organs are fine, but they are in-house and always have been. I don’t really want to use the word propaganda because of its severely negative overtone, but they are always good representatives of the spiffy image of whichever group is in political power. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it is not an independent source. And because we have branded politics as unclean, the only source for political news has been from the far outside – Herman Otten and Christian News. There are two things you can depend upon CN to deliver. Whoever is the challenger for political authority will be making a trip to New Haven, MO, and within three years of winning authority CN will be running “I’m so disappointed” stories about the new boss. Warped and twisted by the secret wars of decades, because we are unwilling to establish a visible source, CN remains the only open venue for politicking within the LCMS. This is the second missing thing. The LCMS desperately needs a News Outlet that is not Issues, Etc, or Congregations Matter, or CN. These all have their place, but none of them are both open and licit.
Maybe there is a political version of Grisham’s law at work, the bad politics drives out good. But as long as we in the LCMS put up with a politics of anonymity and purity, we will never move to a better church-political environment. And the necessary somethings for that better environment are an admission that politics can be a noble endeavor and having an open and licit venue to practice it from.