So Many Denominations, but THIS Is Why I’m WELS Lutheran…

Several years back, the United Methodist Church launched a multimillion dollar advertising campaign, targeting young Americans, with the slogan “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.”  I was reminded of this as my wife mentioned to me she heard a UMC promotional ad run while listening to Spotify Radio the other day.  If you don’t know, Spotify is a music listening tool aimed primarily at young Facebook users – precisely the demographic the UMC is now attempting to reach.

The Methodist Church has dropped approximately 3 million members in the past 40 years or so (from 11 to 8 million members).  Thus, the massive advertising efforts.

Some would look at the “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.” motto and suggest that it’s a beautiful depiction of God’s unconditional and inviting love.  They would even point to various national awards the slogan has won as validation that it is a good tagline.  Others, cynics, might say that this motto was simply abbreviated from the longer slogan which included “Open Closets, Open Biblical Interpretation, and Open to Multiple Pathways to Salvation.”

To be fair, in official documentation, in their Book of Discipline, the UMC has repeatedly reaffirmed “homosexual practice” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” consistently since 1972.  But in practice, the UMC has more often than not simply tried to avoid such taboo cultural questions.  And when official votes have been taken on such issues, the results have been, by no means, overwhelming.

Having now read a number of documents and blogs by Methodist members, it’s clear to me that those within the Methodist Church perceive it, to a degree, as a church without an identity, a body that doesn’t know what it stands for anymore.  This is all a little strange to me since I personally feel that one of the main reasons why I’m a pastor in the church body that I’m in today is because of the brilliant teaching of the man often credited as the theological father of the Methodist Church – John Wesley.

So how did studying John Wesley affirm my Confessional Lutheran beliefs?  In my second year of systematic theology at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Prof. Rich Gurgel exposed me to something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  Fortunately for me, as I’d had to no math courses since high school, this quadrilateral had nothing to do with geometry, but theology.  The term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was actually coined by Albert Outler, but was based on Wesley’s teaching.

In simple terms, John Wesley stated that the reason why we all arrive at the theological conclusions that we do is based on what we emphasize as authoritative while we’re forming our doctrinal beliefs.  There are four pillars that every Christian (and Christian denomination) use to filter their beliefs – 1) the Bible, 2) Tradition/Church History, 3) Reason, and 4) Personal Experience.  Every single Christian church or church body emphasizes these to differing degrees when they establish their beliefs.  This understanding of biblical interpretation is THE reason why you see so many different denominations out there.

I learned this Wesleyan Quadrilateral thing at about the same time that I’d started dating a girl named Adrian (now my wife) who’d had an Assembly of God background, furthering my curiosity about other denominations.  When I figured out that you could use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to graph churches and what they emphasize in doctrine relative to other churches, I did.  I started looking very carefully at different denominations’ theological backgrounds and confessions of faith and charted them.

Let me give you a brief glance at what I’m talking about, with some explanation.  Now bear in mind, EVERY Christian denomination, by definition of them being Christian, is going to use the Bible.  Therefore, it is not sufficient to say that “we use the Bible to form our beliefs.”  Don’t be fooled when people say that.  The question is whether or not any additional factors strongly influence your doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Church certainly accepts the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  Nonetheless, church leadership is perceived to have the right to repeatedly reinterpret what Scripture says.  The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility would suggest that church leadership has the same weight and authority as the Bible itself does.  The problem with that, of course, is that everyone, including the RCC would freely admit that humans are flawed and sinful, and therefore even humans in important and influential positions can and do make mistakes.  The RCC has openly acknowledged mistakes in church history by church leadership (e.g. Sale of indulgences; Spanish Inquisition).  If you truly believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, but that humans make mistakes, wouldn’t that naturally suggest that it is a dangerous position to take in suggesting that the pope holds the same type of authority that the Bible itself does?  For the two to be on equal levels of authority, then the pope must be perfect (which he is not) or the Bible must be imperfect (which it attests it is not – 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21).  Since all humans, even church leaders past and present, are flawed, they must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

While I’m certainly speaking in general terms here, churches that strongly emphasize the spiritual gifts of individuals often have a tendency to overemphasize individuals at the expense of the individual (Jesus).  They additionally tend to come out of an Arminian theological background which places a great deal of importance on free will and personal decisions.  Most Arminians will be able to tell you the date on which “I made my decision for Jesus”, a teaching that would fly in the face of what the Apostle Paul says about us all being spiritually dead by nature (Eph. 2:1-10).  Charismatics value feeling the power of Christ in your life.  But the reality is that we all know our feelings have led us down dangerous paths before, and therefore, we cannot trust them wholeheartedly.  Some days I might feel like the greatest Christian on the planet.  Other days I might feel like the worst heathen there is.  But my perception of self counts little towards my eternal welfare.  In other words, my status before God is not ultimately based upon what I feel.  It’s based upon God’s verdict of me through Jesus (Rom. 8:1).  Since feelings are part of the flawed and fallen human state, they must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

Reformed churches generally practice the theology of John Calvin, one of the major players in the Protestant Reformation.  Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer and his humanist leanings are often reflected in his theology.  For instance, Calvin believed that the thing which separates us humans from animals, aside from our souls, is our intellect, our rational capacity.  Therefore, he also tended to believe that God would not present anything in the Bible that was beyond the realm of man’s logic.  This led Calvin to such teachings as his famous “Double Predestination” – the idea that God predetermined the eternal destiny of every human being, choosing some to eternal life through Christ, and others to everlasting punishment for their sin.  The troublesome implication here is that this understanding of God’s foreknowledge turns God into an ogre who capriciously and arbitrarily sentences some to heaven and some to hell.  The even bigger problem is that while double predestination sounds somewhat logical (since the Bible does certainly speak of predestination – Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5; 1 Peter 1:1-2), it is NOT biblical.  You will find no part of the Bible that talks about God foreordaining anyone to go to hell.  In fact, you’ll find the opposite, that God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).  This is clear evidence that Reformed theology relies too heavily upon reason in the formation of doctrine.  Since reason is part of the flawed and fallen human state, it must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

I won’t spend too much time here, but Mainline Protestant denominations have been bleeding a slow death in membership for many years now, in part, because they don’t know what they stand for anymore.  When you compromise the Bible as even one of your true authorities, you lose yourself as a church.  As liberal theology crept into Mainline Protestantism in the 20th century, teachings like the Creation Account, the Global Flood, Predictive Prophecy, and really anything of a miraculous nature, including belief in Jesus’ actual physical resurrection, was lost almost entirely in many churches.

As I mentioned earlier, the irony behind this for Methodists is that they still promote the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  See for yourself.  The dilemma, however, is that Wesley himself was not suggesting that all four pillars (Bible, Tradition, Reason, Experience) should contribute equally to your formation of doctrine, only that they do contribute to every church’s doctrine.  The more Methodist literature you read today though, the more you get the impression that, as with many Mainline Protestant churches, all four of these pillars contribute rather equally to what they believe.

This is why I’m WELS Lutheran.  The church I belong to and pastor in learns from the faith of the saints who have gone before us (Heb. 13:7), but also recognizes that these leaders were great not because of their perfect faithfulness, but because of their profession of Christ’s faithfulness.  Therefore, traditions, customs, and rituals developed by leaders of previous generations, while helpful, are not mandated by God nor should they be elevated to the status and authority of God’s Word.  Additionally, the church I belong to and pastor in values reason as a blessing from God for applying his Word to our lives (James 1:22) and for subduing his creation (Gen. 1:28), but also recognizes that it would be inappropriate to subjugate the Bible to flawed human reason, especially since there are undeniably “hidden” components of God’s Holy Will (Isaiah 45:15).  And finally, the church I belong to and pastor in values personal experience.  We regularly encourage Christians to tell of the great things that God has done for us (Deut. 3:24) and to use the resources the gospel gives us for humility and confidence and perspective and optimism (Rom. 8:28).  But my church also recognizes that a sinner, even a believing one, living in a sinful world, is going to experience highs and lows and that whether I feel God in my life or not, I can know he’s there (Matt. 28:20).

As I was studying to become a pastor, I became very sensitive to this question: Was I becoming a Confessional Lutheran minister simply because this is the faith I was raised in and spoon fed?  Was this merely the path of least resistance?  Through comparative denominational study, I became convinced that what I have here in this particular church body is a very unique, very healthy approach to biblical interpretation.  It’s an approach that acknowledges both the inerrancy of the Bible and the potential pitfalls of Church Tradition, Human Reason, and Personal Experience, and thereby identifies the Bible as the clear and supreme authority by which we formulate our beliefs.  I’m certainly not suggesting that this would be the only church body in which you’d find true believers; wherever the gospel is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is working and winning hearts (Rom. 10:17).  But if God is known most decidedly through his inspired Word, then it only makes sense that I’d want to be in a church that had the safest, healthiest approach to interpreting that Word.

People choose the church they belong to for a variety of reasons – family background, friendship ties, a specific ministry, style of worship, appeal of a pastor, proximity to the church, etc.  But if “church” is the design of God to help bring believers closer to him and to one another (Eph. 2:19-22), it seems fairly obvious that the main reason for choosing the church that we do would be sound Biblical teaching – the thing that the Bible itself says is the way to know Jesus (John 5:39), and therefore know salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).

In all honesty, if I was selecting a church simply based on external preferences, I don’t know that I’d choose the WELS.  I’m not positive that the general worship style resonates with me.  I don’t know that the general church programs best connect with either the talents or needs of the average person in the 21st century.  I don’t know that the general church governance and administration that is used is the most efficient way to organize hundreds or thousands of God’s people.  But I’m a very big fan of our approach to biblical interpretation.  In other words, I drive this car not for its style, nor for its comfort, nor for its efficiency, but primarily for its safety features (i.e. correct understanding of the Means of Grace – the gospel in Word and Sacraments).

Some might say that my assessment of other denominations or of my own church body is unfair and exaggerated.  That’s fine.  I’d simply encourage you to investigate for yourselves.  Try not to be too anecdotal in your research – e.g. “I knew a Baptist once who…..”  Rather, try to look at the documented teachings of the church bodies themselves, perhaps through their own official websites.

Let me know if you come to the same conclusion that I do.


ONE FINAL NOTE: In a society that I’m convinced is now officially post-Christian, I generally try not to come across as overly denominational, simply Christian.  It becomes very confusing for those 75% or so of people not regularly attending church when you start pitting one church body against another.  That said, there are occasions when it’s a worthwhile exercise to clarify the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian (the example pointed to in the above post being the acceptance of the Bible as ultimately authoritative).

The Aftermath & The Enemy

I  promise, this will be the last blatantly political post I do for a while.  But learning opportunities like this only come around on rare occasion (every four years to be exact), so we need to take advantage of them while they’re here.

Additionally, I wanted to wait a week to comment on the election results.  Generally, blogs are distinct from news sites.  Bloggers usually aren’t as concerned about being the first to comment on an issue as much as they are with providing a more comprehensive commentary on an issue, with mine having a decidedly Christian/biblical worldview bias.

So I’ve selected “now” as the chance to catch some of the election ’12 fallout and aftermath.

My initial reaction to the election results was simply that, had you exclusively been paying attention to social media (which an increasing percentage of the world now is), hours after the election, you would have been convinced that the world was either ending OR that Jesus himself had returned to set the captives free, depending on whom you voted for.  This all reaffirms for me the reality that Americans continue to struggle with politics as a real idol (By the way, I’ve previously written on this in Politics as Idol, which garnered some interest, and a comment, from longtime Minnesota politician Allen Quist.)

Anyways, I wasn’t at all surprised to see both the outrage and the euphoria of voters on Facebook and Twitter.  It really comes back to a misidentification of main problem/main solution with the world.  Around election time, many Americans become convinced that our biggest problems as a nation are specific forms of government, specific parties, and specific candidates for election.  While I certainly can respect the idea that some forms of government could perhaps prosper more greatly under the inherent nature (i.e. sinful nature) of man, I’m entirely unconvinced that one form of government, ideology, or philosophy is morally superior to another.  And therefore, as Christians, while we may be convinced that one policy or philosophy is more wise or foolish than the next, it’s even less wise to be dogmatic about the issues that are not biblically-addressed issues.  The problem with stating morally neutral issues as doctrinal truth is the problem that the Pharisees, who created some 600+ moral “truths” for the Jews ran into – putting your opinion on par with God’s clear will.  “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18) If a Christian states their political ideology on non-moral issues with as much force as their Christian theology, they probably deserve to be rebelled against.  So, for instance, you might not like the notion of the “redistribution of wealth.”  Few with wealth do.  And you can be fully convinced that stealing from the rich to give to the poor, via taxes, is an unwise practice for us as a nation.  I’d probably agree.  But if you defend your wealth with the same passion that you would defend your Savior Jesus, you’ve lost balance and perspective.  Ask yourself, in the past month, which have you done more – complained about taxes or promoted Jesus?  If it’s taxes, then you’ve touched on one of the biggest repellents to Christianity in our society today – “Christians” who value something as more precious than Jesus, and least in their practice.

So if it’s not bipartisan politics and it isn’t a political candidate, what/who is the main problem with the world?  Why, it’s you.  And it’s me.  In general, the main problem with the world is sin.  But, the catch is that I can do very little about “all the sin out there.”  The only thing I have some capacity to regulate is the sin in my life.  And only if I grow in the grace that God has shown to me and get control of some of that do I have any power to change the world, and change the admittedly (fairly) negative perception of Christianity in my country.

Consider a marriage as a building block or microcosm of society.  Marriages end up in divorce due to selfishness.  Most couples who end up in counseling prior to divorce have a long list of items about their spouse that they’d like to change.  The list of problems they have with themselves is significantly shorter.  The problem with that, of course, is that you cannot force another person to change.  You have very little control over that.  The only thing you can indeed control is yourself.  Since a marriage consists of two human sinners, the reality is that both parties are putting strain on the relationship through their sin.  Consequently, the main thing that I can do to improve my own marriage is NOT to change my spouse, but to use the grace God shows me to change myself.  When both parties in a marriage treat themselves as the main problem in the marriage, improvement is almost inevitable.  When only one party does this, improvement is still likely.  If both parties treat the other as the problem, it leads to further drifting apart.

Now apply this to our country.  We’re blessed to live in a country in which we have the privilege and responsibility of electing officials.  Don’t let that trick you into thinking that you have more control of the world than you do, however.  Your jurisdiction, your main circle of influence and control, essentially ends at your epidermis.  And even then, there are regular riots within that you and I don’t always control very well.  “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

Using a term first coined by Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, lecturing on Romans 7, said that the biggest problem with this world was that my heart is incurvatus in se (“turned in upon itself”).  Self-centeredness.  It’s completely the opposite of the way God originally designed mankind.  And this me-first disposition is what creates the evil that lurks within me and within the world:

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.” (Johnston, Mark (2009). “6”. Saving God. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 88.)

The biggest threat that exists in my life is not President Barack Obama.  It is not the redistribution of wealth.  It is not enormous national debt and an unbalanced budget.  It is not dropping test scores.  It is not lazy people leeching off the system.  One can freely make the case that each of those might contribute to national problems.  But unless I first treat my own sin as the thing that is ripping the planet apart, then no one is going to listen to my case, because they won’t see wisdom, only hypocrisy.

I am my own worst enemy.  I’m also the only one I have any true degree of control over, and this only because Jesus has redeemed me and placed his Spirit within me, a new self.  His grace is so powerful that it not only saved me, but it empowers me to live in such a way that can show the world that Christ is a more beautiful path.

“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)

Are We Still Christian?

Whew!  So it seems that I definitely struck a chord in last week’s post, “Not All Political Issues Are Created Equal.”  Before I move into this week’s topic, a helpful segue might be to clarify something from last week.

I was NOT trying to suggest that voting for one candidate or another makes you a Christian or even a more faithful Christian.  The way you vote COULD, in theory, be indicative of that.  But it is not necessarily the case.  What I was trying to say as transparently as I could, was that as a Christian, you must not weigh all of the issues in an election as the same.  If you are a Christian, you will view certain issues as fundamentally different from others, based on God’s clear and revealed will, in his Word, regarding said issues.

What’s interesting is that some of the heated feedback that I received on last week’s post was of the vein of “You said that you can’t be a Christian (or at least a good Christian) and be a Democrat!”  If you read the article closely, I said no such thing.  I never used the word Republican or Democrat.  I never used the names Romney or Obama.  And if I may be perfectly honest, my Bible-driven views on right to life issues don’t at all line up perfectly with EITHER Romney OR Obama.  Assumptions that I was lobbying for one candidate or another were merely assumptions.

While I don’t believe it’s wise or appropriate for me, as a pastor, to tell my members who I am voting for, I will tell you that I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat.  For starters, I think labeling myself as such would immediately and unnecessarily ostracize some people who I’m trying to bring the gospel to.  More than that though, I sincerely don’t believe that either party matches up with the gospel perfectly.  For instance, I tend to see Democratic leaders as having a better (i.e. “more in line with the gospel”) stance on social welfare and environmental issues, but being off on issues of morality and human life.  In contrast, I tend to see Republican leaders as being better (i.e. “more in line with the gospel”) on issues of morality regarding sexuality and human life, but only giving lip service to issues surrounding the socially marginalized and on being good stewards of the earth.  Whether or not that’s a fair assessment, I don’t know, but I do think it’s fairly close to the general impression of the American public.  Even more generally, I tend to see many liberals as pretty decent at speaking love, but often without absolute truth.  I tend to see many conservatives as pretty decent at speaking truth, but often without compassionate love.

Additionally, one of the most startling revelations for me in recent years regarding the gospel and politics is that Jesus himself tended to upset BOTH social conservatives AND social liberals.  Many conservatives AND many liberals of his day weren’t able to sense the flaws of their viewpoints, and therefore, viewed their culture and their personal preferences through idolatrous eyes.

So, if you’re going to label yourself a Christian and also call yourself a card-carrying member of the Republican or Democratic party, you had better be ready, willing, and able to clearly defend to others  how your party’s platform may not perfectly line up with the gospel and, perhaps, how you’re working to change that.  Again, I’m not making a rule that you cannot belong to one political party or the other.  I’m simply suggesting that Christian faith prohibits you from merely dismissing some of the issues of your party if those issues potentially run contradictory to the gospel.

“Luke” had a great comment in my previous post about the importance of understanding a party’s basic platform.  Before you jump on board, it’s important and responsible to do the necessary research: 2012 Democrat Platform and 2012 Republican Platform.

This all brings me to my topic for this week…

The Significance of This Election

I would suggest that this 2012 presidential election will be historically significant, regardless of outcome, but not because of policy on abortion, marriage, or economy.  Rather, as a Christian pastor, the thing that strikes me as so incredibly noteworthy is that, for the first time in American history, if Christians are looking for a distinctly Christian candidate to back, they will not find one.

Let’s start with Romney.  He’s Mormon.  Mormonism has a veneer of Christianity, which makes it deceptively unChristian.  For instance, the Mormon faith, shaped predominantly by Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon, denies the Trinity (specifically that Jesus is true God from all eternity), the reality of hell, and God’s creation of the world out of nothing.  Ultimately, the Mormon faith is “about” living such a good and moral life as Jesus that you, like Jesus, may become the god of your own universe.  Whether such beliefs would negatively affect Romney’s ability to govern our country is a matter of opinion.  But let’s not be mistaken, he’s not a Christian.

Okay, well how about Obama?  In the 2008 election, Barack Obama faced a great deal of criticism when the media stumbled upon some of the sermons preached at his home church, Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, pastored by the very controversial Jeremiah Wright.  All signs point to Wright as a fairly influential figure in Obama’s life.  So what does Jeremiah Wright believe?  Well, Wright practices what is called Black Liberation Theology.  This theology traces its roots to the writings of guys like James Hal Cone.  In short, Black Liberation Theology contextualizes the Bible so that Jesus essentially becomes the embodiment of a leader who frees oppressed people.  In other words, Jesus is not primarily the Son of God who dies for the sins of all mankind, opening the gates to eternal life for all who believe.  Rather, he primarily came to overthrow unruly oppressors and balance the social scales.  Black Liberation Theology is about a God who desires the empowerment of the oppressed through self-definition, self-affirmation, and self-determination (James H. Cone “A Black Theology of Liberation.” Orbis, 1990 pg. 56-57).  Black Liberation Theology has a veneer of Christianity, which makes it deceptively unChristian.  In fact, if Black Liberation Theology one day became as influential as the Mormon faith, my guess is that you’d find quite a few evangelical churches, which are currently launching mission campaigns against the Mormon faith, equally zealous in their attempts to correct it.

And let me be clear here, I’m all for equal treatment amongst ethnic groups.  That is perfectly in line with the gospel and I sincerely believe that the gospel – the message that all men and women, regardless of skin color, are equally sinners who may be saved by God’s grace in Jesus – is the ONLY thing that can, in time, level playing fields for all ethnic groups.  However, I’m completely against anyone distorting the basic message of Christianity for the sake of promoting social reform.

To be fair, Obama has distanced himself from Wright and his church.  However, Obama seemed more than fine with the church for 20 years, and only left when it became politically detrimental.  Pres. Obama has not attended any new church with any sort of regularity since.  Whether his beliefs would negatively affect Obama’s ability to govern our country is a matter of opinion.  But let’s not be mistaken, the belief system that he supported for many years is a fairly far cry from orthodox Christianity.

So, again, why is this significant?  If, in simple terms, you view a democracy as a government system in which your elected officials are truly representative of your people, then look at what we now have as a country.  We have a nation with a veneer of Christianity that is actually dangerously and deceptively unChristian.  The most recent Pew Forum research further seems to support this.

Should we complain about the state of affairs?  No, that doesn’t do any good.  Rather, we should work to redeem the “city” (or nation; see Jeremiah 29:4-7 below).  I’m NOT talking about a “Christian government.”  There is no such thing unless you’re referring to Jesus, sitting on a throne, as a perfect and benevolent king, with a host of saints and angels bowing before him for all eternity (Rev. 5).  No, I’m talking about a Christian cultural renewal. The research suggests that we’re no longer “that Christian” of a nation.  Therefore, our principal duty as Christians is not to reform the government, but to now clarify Christianity, share the gospel of Jesus in words genuinely supported by our actions, and be a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14) for the rest of the world, a constant interaction of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) that suggests to those watching, “Oh yeah, that seems more like the way things should be.” 

Listen to God’s will for his people going into a land that was no longer culturally their land.  His wisdom still stands.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)