The LCMS and the Reformed Church...
[NOTE FROM TIM: David posted this on Baylyblog eight years ago, in 2004.]
Lutheranism seems to be the newest new thing in Reformed circles, in particular, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS), which has developed a certain degree of cache within elements of the Reformed Church no doubt because of its unique position in the Lutheran world: standing for the inerrancy of Scripture, against the ordination of women and admitting that other Protestant denominations contain at least a small portion of Spirit and Truth.
Is this a good development? Two areas of observation, then several conclusions....
First, though, my credentials as commentator. Over the years I've had a number of more-than-glancing contacts with the LCMS, beginning with my parents sending me to a LCMS junior high and high school--where I went through the pre-confirmation catechetical training required of LCMS students. Moreover, I have a number of friends who have been lifelong Lutherans, the majority of whom were raised within the LCMS. Finally, I have several friends and acquaintances who converted to LCMS Lutheranism later in life: one, a lifelong Roman Catholic entered the LCMS upon marrying a divorcee, several others who have entered the LCMS from Reformed backgrounds.
Observation number one:
At first I viewed the increasing infatuation with Lutheranism within elements of the Reformed Church with bemusement. But as the trend toward accommodation with--and even emulation of--Lutheranism grew within conservative elements of the Reformed Church, I watched with mounting alarm. In particular, I have serious reservations about the Lutheran law-gospel divide, which, from my experience of LCMS practice, seems either to produce or (in the case of Lutheranism-smitten Presbyterians) to be the product of a desire for theological conservativism without the hindrance of practical piety.
Three things immediately struck me as a seventh-grader of Evangelical background upon entering a LCMS school:
First, I remember how startled my brother and I were by the rampant misuse of God's name by students and adults alike. Not only did students routinely take God's name in vain, they did so in front of pastors in class without reproach. Of course, my experience of the LCMS is narrow. There may be vast swaths of the LCMS where the third commandment is honored. Yet within the portion of the LCMS I am acquainted with a tragically casual attitude toward the name of God prevails.
Second, we were struck by the gilded cross and life-size, bleeding Jesus at front and center of the LCMS church attached to our school. Again, this is personal experience, but unlike misuse of God's name, I am not willing to admit that I have a narrow and incomplete view of the LCMS in this area. Check it out. Visit LCMS churches and see how many contain graven images of Christ. Lutherans embrace icons in worship. If you doubt this, use Google to find pages by LCMS men defending icons of Christ in worship. Lutherans (modern Lutherans far more than Martin), in fact, seem to delight in tweaking Reformed sensibilities by defending the spiritual benefits of icons. They not only publish images of Christ in their curriculum and erect pictures of Jesus in their homes, they unashamedly place them front and center in their places of worship.
Third, one of the chief ways my brother, Nathan, and I stood out from the other students in our LCMS school was our father's refusal to let us join school teams or attend the majority of school sporting events. Why? Because LCMS schools routinely scheduled games on Sundays. This remains true today. Lutherans have few qualms about pursuing their pleasures on the Lord's Day. Lutherans were far ahead of culture as a whole in placing children's sporting events on the Lord's Day. Many Presbyterians find Calvin's explanation of the Lord's Day deficient. Lutheran practice in this area makes even the most liberal of PCA churches appear Sabbatarian. (If you doubt this, read this 70-year-old anti-Sabbatarian position statement of the LCMS.)
I suspect I know what most LCMS folk will say to these complaints: they'll complain that they differ from me and other Reformed folk principially and theologically in these areas. They'll say, "But we interpret these commandments differently than you." Yes, they do. But I say back to my LCMS friends, isn't it interesting how your interpretations of these commandments demolish the first table of the law as a practical force within individual human lives? Wasn't it Luther who said that if we defend the Gospel at points other than the precise point under attack, we are in fact not defending the Gospel at all?
So, you disdain Allah and revile Buddha: but you put images of Christ, false images, idolatrous images, at the center of your sanctuaries. I know, I know, I'm a Docetist. I don't really accept the humanity of Christ. In Christ, God took on form; we can now make images of God because God has taken on human substance. But, let me ask one question. In Christ, God did take human form. But the Christ of your crucifixes and icons, do they contain that form? Do you really know His form?
You don't just put holes in His hands and feet and side, you make them a certain size, you put them in particular locations. You go further still: you put a distinctively formed nose on His head, colored eyes in His brow, particular cheeks and lips on His face. You give your graven image not just form, but personality and character. You show Him with tears. You place emotions and character on His face. Yet are your images true? If they are, why do they all differ from each other? Are there ten-thousand human forms of Christ?
Do your icons truly portray Christ? Would I know Jesus from your icons? Would I recognize Him on the basis of your images? Would I be able to tell Him from the reviling thief on the basis of your icons? If not, how can they be anything less than a particularly blasphemous and reprehensible lie when you place them at the front of the Church for veneration? Surely, a man who put up an image of Bozo the Clown and called it Churchill and told children to look to his Churchill for inspiration would be reviled as dishonest and contemptuous. Yet you do far worse to Christ.
Idolatry, other gods, the Lord's Day, God's name: the entire first table of the law the LCMS tragically diminishes.
Of course, LCMS advocates deny this. But the proof is in the pudding. As Calvin says, the second table of the law is given to demonstrate hypocrisy in regard to the first. Shall I mention how antinomian my experience of LCMS practice has been in terms of the second table of the law? The seventh grade teacher and children's choir director who told his LCMS class that he subscribed to Playboy without the slightest fear that his job might be jeopardized? The eighth grade teacher who, though a delightful man's man, ran off with another man's wife? The tenth grade, school-sponsored campout where I had my first (and thankfully, only) experience of a pot-fueled group grope in which the staff sponsor was a full participant (and remained on the job for the rest of the year)?
Shall I mention the drinking and drunkenness common in LCMS churches and even at LCMS events? The disdain for Christ's teaching on divorce within marriages of the church? Yes, all these things take place within other churches, including the PCA. But the frequency of their occurrence within our particular communions cannot be ignored. I find no pleasure in arguing this way. But I can't be silent when I know these things to be true.
I have no desire to speak ill of the LCMS. To be honest, speaking ill of the LCMS was the last thing on my mind for many years for the simple reason that the LCMS used to be utterly outside the Reformed, Evangelical orbit. But when the LCMS is portrayed as a paradigm for Reformed churches, and when Reformed men praise Lutheran theology and worship, and when Reformed men leave Presbyterian churches for LCMS churches and try to persuade others of the wisdom of their course, I object. The LCMS is brazenly contemptuous of the first table of God's law. It pays lip service to the second table, but even there, the standard of holiness in the average LCMS church would prove deeply disturbing to most PCA church members within their own churches.
Observation number two:
It goes without saying that I believe the Gospel is not present in power in most LCMS churches. Yes, many LCMS pastors love the Gospel. Yes, LCMS men rejoice in Luther's law-gospel antithesis. But though Scripture tells us that grace leads to repentance and holiness (without which, Scripture warns, no one will see the Lord) the view of the average LCMS layman is that the sacraments lead directly to grace without the necessity of detouring too far into repentance or holiness. I have met many LCMS church members who exhibit the kind of holiness that speaks of a living relationship to the Lord. I have met more who do not exhibit such holiness and who cannot give credible evidence of their faith.
First, I have reluctantly concluded that Reformed men who enter the LCMS are frequently the sort of men who love Reformed theological precision while disdaining Reformed piety. All too often they are the sort of men who seek orthodoxy without sanctification, who love the life of the mind while caring little for the life of the heart--either in their own lives, or in their work as shepherds of others.
Second, LCMS sacerdotalism is often a perfect fit for such men. Through the sacraments they obtain their holiness. Through the sacraments they and their children are converted.
Third, LCMS apologists glory in their denomination's ultimately transubstantial view of the sacraments. "We're not 'consubstantiationists,'" they preen, "we believe in the 'real presence'." To their shame, they speak the truth. The LCMS is little more than the weak sister of Roman Catholicism in this area.
Is this where Reformed men want the Presbyterian Church to end up?
I know that my fellow pastor bloggers on WORLD's blog are largely LCMS pastors. Yes, there are Christians, even conservative Christians within the LCMS, fine men and women. But this is not a denomination where the Gospel is present in power. Despite the presence of a number of truly fine men holding to solid views of Scripture within her ranks, the LCMS in practical terms is little different from the PCUSA or the Anglican Communion.
Good theology does not trump sinful practice. Not in the PCUSA. Nor in the LCMS. Nor in the PCA.
God's law is eternal, not just in its theological (pedantic) use, but equally in its political and didactic uses. Unfortunately, LCMS practice based on LCMS theology reduces the Law of God to a paper tiger, useful for scaring unbelievers toward the sacraments, but not for much more.