Monday, April 6, 2009

Conversionism Again

The second issue with conversion: so many who leave seem to be saying, "The LCMS is not Lutheran I'm becoming Orthodox (or Catholic)." The modus operandi of many of those who leave is unflagging criticism of the LCMS followed by unflagging praise for their new communion. It doesn't make much sense.

But there is something else going on here: crisis. Something overturns the apple cart and it gets these pastors thinking. Something forces these pastors to wonder if the struggle is not lost, if the LCMS is something other than it says it is. Often the sacramental and worship life or practice in the LCMS serves as the tipping point. They realize that the LCMS does not do what it says Lutheranism says it does. This brings them to question not only what we don't do and why, but also the claims of the Confessions themselves. When that doubt strikes, the reaction is unpredictable.

What strikes me about this is that the Contemporary Worship-pop consumerist pastors in our Synod have done the same thing, but as stated below, haven't left. They found something lacking in the LCMS and began asking their own questions about the true nature of our Confession and ontology. But when their search led them in the opposite liturgical direction, they stay and transform their parishes, sometimes completely.


  1. orrologion said...

    I wrote something on part of this in my "Stages of Conversion" free association post.

    My own conversion was preceded by a personal break with some friends in my little church group, but otherwise my inquiry into Orthodoxy was completely about Orthodoxy and not about how terrible WELS was. Perhaps that is why my advice to those converting or inquiring is always convert to Orthodoxy and not from __________. You can't convert out of anger and disenchantment, it won't stick. There is (more than) enough (too much) to be disenchanted about in Orthodoxy such that it will merely be a lay over on the way to agnosticism and cynicism. Emily's little post on falling in love with Christ in the Orthodox Church is a good example of converting to and not from.

    Lutheranism is wonderful for its clarity and organization of doctrine, and for its dedication to education (schools, catechesis) and the Bible.

    Orthodoxy is woefully lacking in all these, sometimes rightly so (organization and clarity can be mistaken for God, God doesn't fit into our created boxes), but more often not. Ethnic nationalism and its misuse in, of and by the Church is a scandal. It is often arrogant in the way of 'eastern mediterranean' peasants - out of an inferiority complex irritated at their culture's past (and long lost) glories. There is also a wide diversity of 'sophistication' in the Church, as well as various camps, that together with no single 'authority' like the Pope or the Book of Concord can give outsiders the (wrong) impression that Orthodoxy is anything an Orthodox Christian says it is.

    There is also a tragic lack of bratwurst in the Orthodox Church and too much vodka.

  2. orrologion said...

    ...unflagging criticism of the LCMS followed by unflagging praise for their new communion.

    I have a number of friends (my sister, too) that have become Orthodox and then drifted away to something else or nothing.

    I find that thinking about conversion to 'my' church is the best lens through which to look at people that convert 'from' my church. The angst, secrecy, confusion, best of bad choices, emotional rants, pollyana-ish gushing, utilitarian arguments, etc. that I am willing to understand and 'work with' in converts to my faith must also be accepted by those exiting it.

    I think that is just common courtesy.

    Such a stance has nothing to do with accepting their decision as 'true' or 'false', it's just a part of what it means to be a fair person in a multicultural world that allows for conversion. Having one's own faith called into question by another's choice - even one's own pastor - is part of that world, too.

    I think that's why comments like 'the blame is on their own shoulders' rings so wrongly. Blame? That person has obviously come to the conclusion that their former faith was 'wrong', or at least 'not as right' or 'the fullness'. From the perspective of one's belief in an objective truth, of course such a comment can be made, but it's not the right argument if you are trying to bring the person back - it's also probably not the right argument if you are trying to calm and soothe those confused and hurt by another's conversion, either. It seems so petty; it seems more concerned with preserving my own 'rightness', which is a poor place for a Christian to be.

  3. Anonymous said...

    It's quite simple, really: those who leave (as well as those who stay and simply abandon Lutheran teaching) do not trust that the Word does what it says. If they did, they wouldn't be shaken by the weaknesses, sin, and mistakes of others (this is often because they were not taught rightly in the first place). So they turn to enthusiasts for comfort, looking for certainty in the structures and teaching and processes of men --- and they will either delude themselves into thinking that This Is It, or they will, as has been noted, "drift away to something else or nothing".

  4. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    I will admit that in the folks I have seen who have headed out recently (i.e. the folks I have known the past 3-4 years). . . even if they claim it's just a matter of doctrine - that they now say the East or that Rome has better doctrine. . . then the shot comes in about how the LCMS is an utter mess and the like.

    It's that second that. . . makes me worried. If you think the East or Rome has better doctrine, you are wrong, but if you are wrong you are wrong, so be it. But when that. . . political disatisfaction, when that touch of "I thought I was in a good church. . . but it wasn't, it was full of bad, bad, bad people" comes in - that ends up being truly dangerous.

    Are you moving to what you think is right, or are you moving from fear and disillusionment. If you go on a date with a girl and all she can talk about is how bad her ex was, that's a bad sign. . . cause she'll be talking about you once she sees your warts.

    (Note: the same could be said for some of those who try to go and found the perfect Lutheran Synod. We live in a sinful place - warts always pop up - what happens then?)

  5. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Dear Anon--

    I'm not sure what you mean by "enthusiasts." You make it sound as if every other denomination or confession were enthusiasts, which doesn't make sense if you are using the word as the Confessions do. So I'm confused on this point.

    I think you are correct in saying that we do not trust the Word...all of us. It's the basic sin of placing our fear in front of of our faith.

    But Conversion to another church, or corruption of one's own is not simply a matter of sinful doubt. I didn't mean to imply that the doubt I wrote of is sinful.

    What's somewhat ironic is that the description I gave describes in general vague terms the conversion of Luther, doesn't it? Just replace LCMS with the Church of Rome. Is it still sinful doubt of the Word?

    And if some were to argue that this is different because the LCMS has pure doctrine, I would submit that most confessional pastors would disagree with that.

    Eric--not just "politics," because politics always --ALWAYS stands around theology. But you're right; for those who think that all the problems will disappear, they are mistaken. It crushes some.

  6. Anonymous said...


    This isn't about church bodies; this is about what is proclaimed and confessed in a congregation and by a pastor.

    The Confessions are quite clear that anyone who teaches/preaches that there is access to the Spirit or grace through any means other than the Word is an enthusiast. For example:

    And in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did, and many still do at the present day, who wish to be acute judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they say or declare. For [indeed] the Papacy also is nothing but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands with [in] his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word. (SA VIII). (See also this link to Bayer's recently translated work on Luther: link.)

    Anyone, thus, who teaches access to the Spirit and/or grace outside of the promises found in the Word as to where they may be found is an enthusiast. Baptists, Rome, and the Eastern bodies (as well as many other groupings of congregations) all either seek unmediated experiences of the Spirit, or declare that grace may be found in places the Word never promises it will be. This may not cover everyone, but it cuts a wide swath indeed.

    Conversion to another church body/denomination cannot be the problem in and of itself; indeed, if that other church body teaches more clearly and rightly than yours, then moving may be necessitated (unless you choose to stay and preach things rightly where you have been called to preach). Rather, the problem manifests itself in a pastor who, for example, moves from Lutheranism to Rome. In doing so he demonstrates that he has either never known/understood the Gospel in the first place or is consciously repudiating it as false by joining himself to a body which publicly teaches something quite different. The LCMS is far from perfect, but it neither officially forbids the teaching of the Gospel nor confess that there is access to the Spirit apart from the Word.

  7. Graham Glover said...


    I have been reading the many (!) posts on the recent conversions of our brother LCMS clergy with great interest.

    I have a couple of thoughts for yours and others consideration:

    1) I wonder from time to time (as I suspect many who have converted or gone the way of "the Contemporary Worship-pop consumerist" route), what is the place of Lutheranism within Christendom today? Even those of us who subscribe to the Book of Concord today must recognize that almost 500 years of separation and division is not what the Reformers had in mind. Is Lutheranism destined to continue in its current pursuit, or can any of us truly envision a day (before our Lord returns) when reconciliation with our brothers from Rome and the East can become a reality?

    2)I love our Confessions. As I read them daily in my devotions, I marvel at their theological breadth, and praise the Lord for the insight into the faith that they provide. But, I'm not sure the Book of Concord is enough. There are issues within the Church today that the Confessions do not wholly address. So, as those who proclaim God's Word and preside at the Church's Sacraments try to navigate our way through contemporary theological currents, we are left only with a series of church document that were written years ago, that offer little means to speak authoritatively on issues today. Ultimately, we are left with many "factions" within Lutheranism claiming to have a/the correct interpretation of Scripture and/or the correct interpretation of the Confessions. But when the day ends, we Lutherans are still without an authoritative decision on whose interpretation is right...

    So, I believe those who desire to embody the truth of the faith are left scratching their heads and begin to look elsewhere where that authority appears much clearer.

  8. Dixie said...

    The modus operandi of many of those who leave is unflagging criticism of the LCMS followed by unflagging praise for their new communion. It doesn't make much sense.

    I think this is SOP for most conversions from x to y. It's typical to try to justify one's conversion...not just to those around him but to oneself as well. So part of the rationale is built by criticizing the past affiliation and part by praising the new. I think only the most devote and humble avoid this. I know in my own experience I am only just now, several years down the road, able to express gratitude rather than regret for my Lutheran years. So that gives you a little insight into my lack of humility!

    I love conversion stories. I read and listen to a lot of them (and not just from x to Orthodoxy but from x to others as well). I find most to be very unique with no real common thread or cause. But one thing is certain, if one is content where they are, has what they need, they don't convert. Discontentment may be triggered by internal problems or positive outside influences may create a discontentment with what one has. So the problems in the LCMS are not always the alpha condition which starts the conversion process.

    At some point the potential convert has to come to grips with that fact that what was once believed is no longer the truth. And that can be a painful realization. It doesn't even compare to the pain caused by problems.

    I agree with Christopher's statement that one must convert to and not from...but it has been my observation that sometimes it starts out as a conversion from...but during the process changes to a conversion to.

  9. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Graham--good to hear from you, and good comments.

    Anon--I think you sum it up well when you write that those who leave consciously repudiate that which they affirmed before. Yep. I don't know of any who have left the LCMS intentionally for another confession/tradition who would disagree. They have come to believe the Confessions are incorrect at certain points.

    Let us not dismiss them so cavalierly, though. They are people, and while they cannot confess with you now it doesn't make them lesser humans.