The nightmare that keeps Missouri up at night is the question of legitimacy.We have never really gotten over that whole untidy scene where our first bishop was sent across the Mississippi. The disturbing question, “If we followed a false Bishop are we still the Church?” has haunted us through the years. Our forefathers wondered if maybe it hadn’t been a mistake to have come for the cheap land and a better life in Missouri’s fertile plains. They didn’t say it that way, of course. The things that motivated all the other 19th century immigrants to America are missing from our autobiographical histories. Instead, we record a selfless fleeing from religious persecution and the desire to evangelize native Americans. I am sure, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that there were real reasons that both the Saxons and the Bavarians crossed the Atlantic, and that there were also a bunch that sounded good.
Those mixed motives and that troubled beginning have bothered us for over 150 years. That is why we are always retelling the story. For 150 years we have sought to convince ourselves of our legitimacy. At some level the moniker “The Church of the Lutheran Hour,” the synodical logo, and our colleges and seminaries have served that purpose. They have made us feel important. But still the question scratches our inner ear. 150 years in America, after 450 anniversaries of the Wittenberg scandal, and we still feel like outsiders and rebels. Missouri is the perfect illustration of Lutheranism’s Napoleon syndrome.
Thus it is no surprise to me to hear the rationale for leaving Lutheranism from former Missourian _________________________. I’ve heard it before, though never quite so eloquently. At its base it is always that Rome, or Constantinople, is the real Church. They must be. They’re older. They have old stuff. They have big buildings and fancy titles. They have answers to every question. They have a structure designed to solve the Church’s problems.
It is tough to not judge a book by its cover. Which of us book lovers is immune to cover art and fancy displays at Barnes and Noble? Even if you know that it is what is inside that counts, it is hard to resist leather bindings and gold leaf edges. In a similar way, it is tough to believe that the Church is marked not by visible things such as bishops, vestments, and liturgical art, nor by counting souls, but by the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is especially tough when you’ve tried and failed, when your synod has let you down, when your alma mater has embarrassed you, and when your parishoners are hostile to what the Augsburg Confession actually confesses. Certainly the publisher wouldn’t waste such a beautiful cover on a poorly written piece of work, would he? The appeal of Rome isn’t just the cover. But the cover sure helps make the sale.
Good Theologians are always idealistic and Lutheran Theologians are always a little sad. That is what exposure to the Truth does to a person. It makes the falsehood and darkness we must still endure ever more distasteful. As knowledge grows so does frustration. When idealism is sharpened and the will of God more distinctly exposed, then the Church Militant’s flaws grow more obvious and disturbing.
At least two temptations threaten us. The first is to abandon idealism for pragmatism. But that is to abandon the Gospel. The temptation to make it work, to pack the pews, to improve lives, to get knowable answers to prayers. These things can all be done if one is willing to lie, to strip the Law of its stern killing power and the Gospel of its ridiculously free grace. Preach to itchy ears and you’ll never be lonely. Some might say that this is the temptation which the Church Growth crowd feels close to its heart.
The second temptation is to abandon idealism for romanticism. But that, too, is to abandon the Gospel. Frustrated believers see greener grass in other yards. Like rebellious teen-agers stuck in the Midwest they pine for all night raves in Los Angeles. But their pining is foolish and deadly. For it is never fair to compare the reality of our own Church Body to the ideal of another. When we look elsewhere for answers we are often so blinded by specific frustrations that those things become the only things that matter. So what if modern day Rome is further from Luther’s Theology than either Eck or Tetzel were? They have Bishops! They have authority. They are big and they are old.
I don’t say all this to belittle Reverend _________. I say it to belittle myself. I want to keep myself chained to the heritage I have been given, lest I dishonor my teachers. I want to convince myself that the haunting questions of Missouri’s foundation and legitimacy are no more scary or threatening than the Raven mindlessly cawing “nevermore.” I don’t begrudge those who have left. I think we should be free to follow our convictions. I respect those with the courage to go and with the honesty to leave behind a confession that no longer fits. But I am saddened when they leave, especially when it is someone with so much insight and ability as Reverend ___________. I’ve never met him, but I felt a kinship to him through his writing and already I miss him.
Godspeed to him. I hope he finds what he is looking for. Should it happen at some point to appear in his rear-view mirror, I hope shame won’t keep him away. Should he ever want to return all the way back to Perry County, I hope the Missourian gatekeepers don’t show their ugly parochial side. I pray they would welcome him with open arms. I know I would.