The WELS is Dead

 

a commentary by John W. Berg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the wickedly funny cinematic send up of medieval life, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we come upon an oaf-drawn cart heaped with bodies being dragged down a muddy lane followed by the town coroner calling out “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” A peasant greets the procession with a cadaverous old man draped over his shoulder, “Here’s one.”  As the old man is about to be dumped onto the cart his head slowly rises and he weakly protests, “I’m not dead!”  Yet. Undeterred the peasant pays his nine pence and the coroner, looking about, surreptitiously delivers a coup de grâce to the old man’s head, whose body is unceremoniously dumped onto the cart.

 

That scene recently came to mind as I heard the death knell being sounded for, and in, the Wisconsin Synod by a number of official and semi-official voices. (Mere synchronicity?) Resurrecting an old idea, Jason Nelson, a top WELS administrator, in his essay “Shades of the Coming Night” writes a fictional WELS “obituary.” In a recent issue of Charís, the oddly accented journal1 of Wisconsin Lutheran College, Bruce Eberle solemnly intones “we must acknowledge that the WELS is a slowly dying church body” (“Pastoral Leadership: A Layman’s Perspective” Vol. 2:1 p. 8).  And none less than a synodical task force guardedly reports (Forward in Christ Sep. 2002) that “the condition [of the WELS] is critical, but not terminal.” Not dead. Yet. New measures, I suspect, are being proposed to pump life into this moribund synod.

 

Why the requiem? Although spiritual problems are cited, admitted or not, it is for an over decade long synodical slide in membership. Would obituaries be written if those red numbers were black? Regardless, does one need to marshal a “task force” to discover the flesh and weak faith (two of its findings)? So what is the cause of this drain? The task force cryptically warns that “inflexible ministry methods” are ailing this synod. Need that decoded? Writing in Charís Bruce Eberle does, honestly and bluntly, “99 times out of 100, pastors have no one to blame but themselves” (p. 11). Ouch.

 

As Charís editorialized on the vital role of the pastor, it also opined that a new “Castle Church door” is needed, where issues affecting the church may be discussed without fear of recrimination under the dispensation of academic freedom, as, Charís maintains, in Luther’s day. Despite Charís’ generous estimation of the level of the tolerance of the magisterium of that day, I think Charís is right, at least on the first count. Although beaten badly to the publishing punch, The Motley Magpie is also to be such a forum (ok, soap box), so, to the issue at hand. Since the synodical task force findings are rather vague and Mr. Nelson’s essay/outline is a farrago of generalizations and tiresome “Lake Wobegon” straw men, Mr. Eberle’s essay, which delineates a definite platform to which Charís invites comment and which is reflective of present day Conventional WELS Wisdom, shall provide the basis of this critique, which I submit for your consideration, pleading, contra Charís and Erasmus, for no dispensations of tolerance. So ready your fagots, if needs be, for the auto-da-fé.

 

A Word to the Not-So-Wise

 

One can hardly disagree with much of what Mr. Eberle writes, or even that much of it should be written. As a successful businessman who learned the hard way that quality of performance is essential, he must be frustrated to see things done in the old rugged WELS in an unprofessional, sloppy, even uncaring manner. Crediting the Holy Spirit “doesn’t excuse less than a 100% effort on our part” (p. 11). As a regent at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Mr. Eberle can proudly hold up that school as an example of quality. (As the proud father of a young, successful, professional woman who matriculated there, I know whereof I speak.) Careful planning, striving for excellence, a concern for all and using talented laity should mark pastorates, although, I dare say, most pastors would gladly forego worries about the “usher schedule” (p.14). So, if we pastors are such lugubrious lurdanes, so devoid of common sense, so cavalierly unconcerned about the lost that this had to be said, then, in a word, “amen.” In his word to bishops or pastors, the blessed apostle Paul, with the gift of a divinely inspired economy of language, sums up much of this in a word, filovxeno", literally “friendly to strangers.”  If that were all, one could thank Mr. Eberle. However, there is much in this “perspective” of the church with which one must take issue, much more than space in this journal and your patience will allow, and although I will not concede the field on those matters, let us leave debate for now on the height of the “bounce” in the pastor’s step (p. 14).

 

Mega-Size It!

 

In businessman-like fashion, businessman Eberle predictably gets to the bottom line - the bottom line, “our outflow is greater than our inflow” (p. 8). While giving the Spirit his due he argues, “but numerous verses in Scripture can be quoted showing that the Lord expects results” (p. 10) that is, net growth. Given that he states, “I submit that any WELS congregation can grow as fast, or faster, than the fastest growing congregation in its community” (p. 9). He then adds the sweeping appraisal of an unidentified (and evidently well informed) WELS pastor,

 

Most [WELS pastors] are loathe (sic) to even consider that mega-churches in our area grow because they are well-led, high-performance, high-expectation, high-quality organizations. The fact that these [mega-churches] are theologically more conservative than us and more demanding of their members is conveniently ignored (p. 9)

 

- to which Mr. Eberle adds, “Since this is the case, it begs the question - Why aren’t there any WELS mega-churches?”

 

To state it syllogistically: conservative churches grow; the WELS is conservative; therefore, WELS churches should grow, and their “conservatism” should not be used as an excuse for “failure” (p. 11). Mr. Eberle is not the first to make this argument in the Wisconsin Synod. It was made in an 1985 essay with the admittedly improbable title “How to Make Sound Doctrine Sound Good to Mission Prospects” by the Rev. Paul Kelm and in a 1987 essay, “The Call into the Discipling (sic) Ministry” by the Rev. Joel Gerlach who cites, then WELS executive secretary of evangelism,

 

Kelm, who noted that it requires 103 WELS communicants to enlist one new adult confirmand per year… [for] the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod… 73 communicants for each new confirmand, [and] the figure for the Assemblies of God (currently the fastest growing Protestant denomination in the USA) is 20 for each new member2 (see the footnote examination of this “statistic”).

 

Rev. Gerlach concludes,

 

Thereby hangs the tale. Apparently WELS Lutherans (sic) are not as determined as members of other denominations to become involved personally in sharing their faith with others.

 

For himself Kelm dismisses the heterodoxy-is-why-the-heterodox-grow factor this way,

 

True, [fast-growing conservative, biblical churches] may not be fully orthodox; but I fail to see where baptism by immersion and assorted other Protestant departures are any drawing card. In fact, growing churches are typically those whose doctrines and expectations of members are strict” (p. 2).

 

As if reading from the same script, Mr. Eberle dismisses the “rationalization” that only the apostate grow,

 

Churches identified as fundamentalist or orthodox have grown, often at an amazing pace. For these churches, orthodoxy seems to be an asset that assists growth, rather than hinders it. Surely you and I don’t believe that the pure Gospel, as taught within the WELS, is an impediment to growth (p. 9)?

 

So - this naïve definition of “orthodox” aside - a commonality of conservatism (strictness!), a few “assorted Protestant departures” aside, shows that conservative WELS ought to grow, “citius, altius, fortius” - contingent, I suspect, on whether it ingests new church growth hormones, the methods of growing churches.

 

Conservative or Confessional?

 

However, this comparison ought not to be particularly attractive for a Lutheran who desires to be confessional to embrace. Granting, for a moment, it were true “that the pure Gospel [is] taught within the WELS” should not the legalism implicit in the terms “strict, fundamentalist, conservative, demanding, high-expectation,” let alone the very explicit legalism in the churches of conservative Protestantism, make it evident that such a comparison is pointless? To fail to see the great gulf fixed between Protestant conservatism and Lutheran Confessionalism shows, at best, a great naiveté. “Not fully orthodox” is a euphemism for a non-Christocentric, non-incarnational, non-sacramental theology that muddles the Gospel into law. Rev. Kurt Marquart notes that “belief-systems are not like strings of pearls, where adding or taking some pearls away still leaves the rest unchanged.”4 As most who are swelling the ranks of the mega-churches are those fleeing the agnosticism of the old mainline Protestant churches, they are hardly coming with a tabla rasa but with one firmly imprinted by the opinio legis, to which the triumphalist theology of conservative evangelicalism, with its defective anthropology, is quite attractive. Just substitute the current crusade against internet porn, for the old one for preserving the rain forest and violà! Additionally, Protestantism’s theological enthusiasm caters to those who want their visions and access to God unfettered by the Scriptures, let alone a confession bound understanding of them. Anthropocentric revival music [of any “style”) is a warming analgesic balm for a bruised self-esteem and a high-octane boost for the superego of the flesh. These “assorted departures” from Scripture are the perfect drawing card for the inveterate flesh, the old

 

Adam and Eve [who were] converted into enthusiasts and [who] were led from the outward Word of God to spiritualizing and self conceit (SA III, VIII, 5).

 

Even finding a communal ray of hope, as does Mr. Nelson, in fast growing churches’ “commitment to the authority of Scripture,” does not convince one that the Wisconsin Synod by “spoiling (or is it aping) these Egyptians” can take its share of gleanings. Any spirit, divorced from the Word, the Lutheran Confessions label “of the Devil” (SA III, VIII, 10), a spirit one would not wish to catch. The ablative reminds us that not only by Scripture alone do we divine truth, but also by Word alone does the Spirit come. Lutheranism departs on the very issue at hand, how the Spirit works. Semi-Pelagianism, in evangelical dress, creates its own forms, the Gospel is its own form. Finally, the Bible remains a closed book to those without a Christological hermeneutic (John 5:39), no matter how loudly it is banged by “Bible-believing” Biblicists, Baptist and Lutheran.

 

I offer another unflattering possibility. Is it possible that the type of Lutheranism the Wisconsin Synod practices is so mild, shallow, and “conservative” as not to be distinguished from conservative evangelicalism so that such comparisons are seriously made? Is the fruit of this seen in the uncritical assimilation of the Protestant praxis into its, as if doctrine and practice were as two boards and all one needs do is adhere an evangelical practice to Lutheran doctrine and not fear that an Arminian infestation may be communicated to the Lutheran nature? Is this why one is repeatedly told that your preferred worship “style” is a mere adiaphoristic accidens to the Lutheran substantia and so one needn’t worry about a symphysis occurring? Is the WELS’ statistical bleeding partly due to this? Are there members of some churches, sacramentally impoverished in catechesis and practice, finding little difference and so finding little reason to remain at the local self-serve WELS franchise and not to dine at the sparkling new, full-service mega-church? Recently, Paul Kelm, speaking to the WELS’ presidium and district presidents, among others, noted the “post-Christian world” phenomenon of “multiple church attendance” of even “WELS members” (sic) and sighs “I’d hate to think that our churches will respond merely with a rash of releases” (“Twenty-Twenty” p. 4. No response was suggested to this hardly new unionistic phenomenon, which response I assume would be a thorough Lutheran catechesis and then, if need be, a release. Sacramental preaching and practice is the prophylactic to this.) A Lutheran pastor, mic in hand, strolling about the chancel in evangelical drag (blue jeans and sweater) encouraging a stronger “personal relationship with Jesus” (WELS Task force objective #10) is hardly corrective or helpful. As one wit once remarked “second rate Lutherans make third rate Baptists.”5

 

Conclusions? Conservative churches grow because of their doctrine, a moralizing, anti-sacramental decision theology, among other “departures,” but since it is not too dissimilar from its own, the Wisconsin Synod, too, can grow. Or, conservative churches grow despite their doctrine, that is, conversion is “assisted” by non-media salutis, sociological means, like those employed by churches that “are well-led, high-performance, high-expectation, high-quality organizations.” Since “well–led,” “attractive” (p. 17) and so forth liberal churches are shrinking, that conclusion can be dismissed. Or, do churches that are conservative in nature grow because of an anthropological reason, that is, people have an innate desire for conservatism? Perhaps, but this inchoate desire is the opinio legis. That membership may statistically increase in such churches is not, as the mystery Wisconsin Synod pastor says, “conveniently ignored” by statistically-challenged pastors, but should be dismissed as a non sequitur. As was said, these comparisons ought not to be complimentary, as they are not complementary to churches confessing the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. For the record, this does not mean that Lutheran churches are to be ill-led, non-quality organizations, although anecdotal evidence supporting that abounds. Notice, however, the advice given here by Mr. Eberle is not simply to stop making excuses and to be faithful. No, one is told that numerical net growth is the measure of “success or failure” of the Holy Ministry.

 

Yes, but…

 

Finally, this is all academic for faithfulness in proclaiming the Gospel, not growth, is what the Lord demands of his pastors (1 Cor. 4:1-5). Yet Mr. Eberle insists that

 

Numerous verses in Scripture can be quoted showing that the Lord expects results. As noted earlier, numbers of conversions are repeatedly cited in Acts and the parable of the talents deals with results. None of this is inconsistent with giving the Holy Spirit complete and total credit for the conversion of the lost (p. 10).

 

Actually it is. The Lord does not expect quantifiable results, he grants immeasurable faith where and when it pleases him (AC V).

 

Dr. Norman Nagel once quipped in regards to the fanciful interpretations of why there were 153 fish miraculously caught, “can’t it just be 153?”  The reports in Acts, are simply that – reports. Reports are not promises. Must I respond with all the reported, I suppose what would be called, “failures” of the blessed apostles and prophets? Many believed; more did not. Hardly “repeatedly,” the blessed evangelist Luke mentions numbers only twice in Acts, the Pentecost 3,000 which grew to 5,000 out of a city of - how many hundreds of thousands? - who for millennia lived, heard, smelled, ate, drank and saw the Gospel unfold before their eyes. As the apostles had the Judean diocese to themselves, might the clerical bean counters consider this Pentecost catch relatively small? Does one really wondering why a small Midwestern Synod that hardly has a monopoly on the Gospel, gets only a statistically small slice of the conversion pie? Incidentally, I would wager that most congregations in the Wisconsin Synod are growing, if not in net growth, to measure by that unbiblical standard. Yes, sometimes faithful pastors must “[engage] in a vibrant ministry of subtraction.”6 Besides, dangers lurk in census taking (2 Sam. 24)!

 

In the parable of the talents, the tertium is not the numerical result, but faithfulness in using the “talent.” Have Mr. Eberle and his editors been beguiled by the transliteration of tavlanton as “talent,” to think “ability?” The precious tavlanton by which we make other tavlanta is Christ. The Lucan telling is helpful. The unfaithful steward buried his mina in a soudavrion,7 a burial shroud for the face. Christ, buried in soudavrion, is the talent/mina with which we make little Christs, Christians. Faithfully preach Christ; don’t shroud and bury him (that’s already been done!) Bury people into Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism. Let Mr. Eberle’s defenders be clear about this, his is not merely a plea for faithfulness, but a guarantee of growth from God and a demand for results from man. He writes

 

It strikes me that this rationalization [“my only responsibility is to share the Gospel, it is the Holy Spirit that adds the increase”] is not crediting the Holy Spirit for conversions, but borders on blaming him for a lack thereof (p. 10).

 

No, insisting the Spirit will (no doubt about the “will” in his article) grant growth, is to usurp the Spirit’s “where and when.” Was Paul rationalizing for the times his message was rejected by saying “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6)?

 

Mr. Eberle writes,

 

The criterion for determining if sermons are hitting the mark is given quite simply in the 14th chapter of Acts, which describes the impact of Paul and Barnabas, “There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed (NIV).” That’s the bottom line. Are sermons reaching the lost and touching the hearts and minds of every member (p. 17).

 

So, episcopal effectiveness is judged not only by faithfulness but also by results produced. Failure is not an option (well, 1 in a 100). However, the translation of ou{tw" “so effectively” is, in the dynamic equivalence of the NIV, a bit misleading. The adverb ou{tw" “thusly” was the Spirit’s application of law and Gospel and not because the apostle’s preaching was a “Toastmasters’®” punched up homily delivered with a “Dale Carnegie®” smile (p.17).

 

I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

 

It is an enthusiastic isagesis that finds in the Acts passage a ”bottom line” standard that preaching must always produce the result of growth for which the preacher is responsible. What of the parable of the sower, or, the very next verse in this Acts account? “But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers (NIV).” The bottom line of “results” rests in the ineffable realm of the Spirit, not for one to determine by nose count. Nowhere in Eberle’s article do we find even a brief qualifier that “effective” preaching may affect an effect not desired, but one that is dominically promised for faithful pastors – rejection. “You will be hated by all for My name’s sake.” (Mat. 10:22). Examine the “effectiveness” of the Bread of Life discourse, “From this time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (John 6:66). Granting the NIV translation, we might say that the Lord preached so “effectively” that nearly all of his disciples deserted him. Mr. Eberle’s theodicy by blaming faithful, yet “ineffective,” “foolishness of preaching” is de facto blaming the Spirit.

 

Are we to envision a day in this vision of the church when a pastor is greeted in his vestry by his vestry asking for his resignation because his sermons, although sound, have not produced the requisite results and thereby he is deemed “ineffective” - the ecclesial version of firing the manager? This does not excuse poor, shallow, unprepared preaching that does not plumb the Christological depths of the Scriptures and the mysteries. Plant and water well we must, but the blessed Apostle absolves us of the responsibility of the increase. Dr. Herman Sasse belled the cat when he noted in regard to crypto-Calvinists who claimed belief in a real presence with the qualifier “yes, but,” that this is nothing other than a “fashionable substitute for no.” Yes, the Spirit, but (see p. 10,11,18)?

 

“I See People”

 

Mr. Eberle writes,

 

Frankly, I have been puzzled by the pessimistic attitude expressed by many pastors regarding evangelism outreach. An attitude of failure is self-fulfilling” (p. 10).

 

Perhaps the attitude of “failure” that Mr. Eberle sees in some is humble acceptance of the truth that “many are called but few are chosen,” if not weariness brought on by those demanding yet another Pentecost. This is not indifference to the plight of the perishing, but fear by trembling theologians of the cross, covering face and feet before the Deus absconditus.

 

What Mr. Eberle may not realize is that it is “Gospel-plus” when he writes,

 

In other words, if the pastor and his lay leaders can’t imagine having their congregation grow to 500, 1,000, or even 5,000 members, it won’t (p. 15).

 

Are we to believe that the imagination of man’s heart is the sine qua non of conversion? Mr. Eberle’s words are not, as I am sure they will be defended to be, a warning against lazy, self-fulfilling defeatism, “why even try?” That would be good advice for those of us who like to sit under our gourds and pout. No, his “won’t” is unequivocal, as is Paul Kelm’s

 

Small churches need not be small thinkers, but small-thinking churches will always remain small. Churches and people seldom go/grow beyond their expectations (p. 6).

 

Mr. Nelson also scolds,

 

So often we talk like we have a big God and then conduct our ministry like we have a little one. Have you ever seen a WEF [Worship, Education, Fellowship] unit? – right idea, wrong scale. Christian city planner asked me – “Why do you guys build so small, don’t you expect anything good to happen?”

 

So now we have an enthusiastic “Field of Dreams” theology - if you envision and build it they will come! This is straight out of the Church Growth play book by the way, “Goal setting produces results” (McGavran/Arn How to Grow a Church Regal, 1974 p. 156). Those experienced in the so-called Church Growth Movement already know what passage will be trotted out for all this. Mr. Eberle does not disappoint,

 

Proverbs 29:18a (KJV) puts it this way, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” There’s simply nothing more important a leader can offer than an exciting vision for the future (p. 15). 

 

The “18a (KJV)” is significant. There is a deliberate reason for the lone use of the KJV in his essay, and a half verse at that, and it is not that Mr. Eberle and editors suddenly had a hankerin’ for the King’s English. The NIV does not translate the Hebrew chazon (ןוזה) as “vision.” Mere logomachy? Hardly. The whole passage,

 

 Where there is no vision, the people perish:

 but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (KJV)

 

Even lay theologians ought recognize the Hebrew parallelism, “vision” paralleled by “law” (הרות). The vision in question, or as the NIV translates it, “revelation,” is not the vision of a charismatic preacher but the revelation of God to man, as is Torah. Chazon most often refers to that which has been revealed by God to his prophets or false claims thereof. I should hope that even the most visionary among us would not claim canonical status for his or her personal divinations.

 

Theologians of Glory or the Cross

 

Please do not interpret this rant as an apologia of the status quo in the Wisconsin Synod or a plea to “gim’me some of that old WELS religion.” Charís, as a satellite journal (like The Motley Magpie which will orbit at the apogee of WELSworld), should hammer away. It is no secret that WLC encourages thinking “outside the box.” If that box is Conventional WELS Wisdom then cogitate on! But, alas, most of this is CWW and Mr. Eberle is preaching to the choir (which is already singing “How Great Thou Art”). But much of this leads to a path outside the parameters set by the Creeds and Confessions. Pace Mr. Businessman, faithfulness and filoxeniva aside, the operating principle of the “conversion business,” if you will, is antithetical to that of secular business (“give them what they want.”) That is a theology of glory. Conversion comes about by death and resurrection not by friendly persuasion. Pastors are to be a voice not a personality. “Congregations [based on Church Growth principles, gathered around pastor’s personalities, if the pastor leaves] “will die.”8 The theologian of the cross, hardly trying to make a sale, using the devastating dialectic of law and Gospel, will not only not give you what you want, but what you hate, for who wishes contrition, “terror smiting the conscience,” to be visited upon them, so that the outside-of-oneself absolution may be pronounced (AC XII)? The journal Logia says this well,

 

When the Gospel does not seem to be working, the problem is not with the Gospel... The problem is with the preaching that leads to repentance. Perhaps too often you have preached a law that threatens instead of the law that kills. Such law and death will never be appealing for increasing membership, but is the only thing that prepares one for the Gospel.  Programs often miss that. The law that would kill the old Adam doesn’t sell as well as a law that merely threatens the old Adam or laments the slip of society into moral degradation. The law kills… When the Gospel doesn’t seem to be working do not consider what kinds of hymns, worship or social programs might make the Gospel more appealing to the flesh. Rather consider what is appalling to the flesh. Only where the letter has killed can the Spirit give life.9

 

The Gospel itself hardly “sounds good” to the flesh.  The 63rd of a set of previously posted theses notes

 

But [the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God] is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last [Matt. 20:16],

 

which thesis the Augustinian author augments,

 

The gospel destroys those things which exist, it confounds the strong, it confounds the wise and reduces them to nothingness, to weakness, to foolishness, because it teaches humility and a cross (AE 31, p.  232).

 

Truth and Purity?

 

Mr. Eberle is correct, we pastors are the problem for what ails us. But is it a lack of vision and “inflexible ministry methods?” Sawing the limb off behind me, let me suggest something else. His and the other cited writings consider as axiomatic one thing, “The Wisconsin Synod teaches the Word…” all join in “…in all its truth and purity.” Officially, yes (although anecdotal evidence and synodical resolutions suggest otherwise). Does not the Wisconsin Synod confess the Scriptures to be “the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with all teachers are to be judged” (FC, EP, RN 1) and the Lutheran Confessions, normed by Scripture to be the correct interpretation of the same?

 

But can this be no better than the coal miner’s confession? In reality, the tautological “truth and purity” claim is only as good as the last sermon preached, the last catechesis conducted, the last song sung, the last article published. (It also seems quite parochial and smacks of arrogance.) When in two (!) parishes prior to my pastorate, this verse was sung, “and one day when you said that prayer I asked Jesus in my heart” the claim became pious fiction. When evangelism techniques, or, “gospel delivery systems” (theological oxymorons if there ever were) substitute something for the Gospel to win over the lost (slick gimmickry euphemistically called “pre-evangelism”), when services are conducted carelessly and with frivolity, when liturgical practices are not Christologically centered, when pietistic “praise” songs are sung, when the blessed elements (read: reliquiae) are treated profanely, when the encouragement to or celebration of the blessed Sacrament every Lord’s Day is labeled as “going too far,” when a preaching of the law merely scolds or is used to cajole the hearer to morality, when you learn more about the preacher’s high school classmates or Cinderella than about Christ in a sermon, and most certainly when the Gospel is given but a passing nod, if preached at all, the claim is pious fiction.  Anecdotes abound.   Mea culpa for my part in all this.

 

Is the WELS dying? Only heaven knows. Really. But I suspect the Lord will reserve a few who do know that it is only through death that death can be prevented. Only if there is a death can there be a resurrection. There is no easing the prospect into the kingdom of God; we are brought in violently. Only by preaching people into the death and life of Christ, that is, preaching them to the Sacraments, can there be life. Only by incorporating people into this death and resurrection, by drowning and giving them life in the tomb and womb of the font, by offering them the blessing of absolution in sermon and in the confessional, by faithfully offering them the body and the blood of Christ, will this life be sustained. With this, I have no doubts, Mr. Eberle would agree. To the extent that he argues that this Gospel be proclaimed faithfully, his concerns ought not to be dismissed – bruised episcopal egos aside. But he places a burden on pastors that Scripture does not, which, contrary to his intentions, adds to the Gospel. Speaking to the Wisconsin Synod, a church that has always flirted with Pietism, this is not helpful, nor is it surprising. As a friend says, “Pietism is the Lutheran version of herpes; it can be subdued but never cured.” The antidote for cold and lifeless, legalistic laziness is not warm and fuzzy, Pietistic activism, but “the medicine of immortality,” the “daily pasture and sustenance” of the Sacrament of the Altar, to which the preaching of the Gospel leads the baptized. Yet, the ordained steward knows the diners’ complaints, “Manna again?!” and, “this is hard to swallow” (John 6:60). Of course, complaints to this Cook can be dangerous.

 

Not dead - yet. But a coup de grâce will be delivered to the Wisconsin Synod if her ministerium does not faithfully proclaim Christ crucified and regularly administer the Sacraments, even if, to borrow a phrase, her inflow is greater than her outflow. And if it is faithful and the Wisconsin Synod still dies, praise the Lord, for his will will be done, and, contra Mr. Eberle’s article (“they are headed for hell if we don’t bring the message” p. 10) not one will be lost for those appointed to eternal life will be brought to faith with or without “coming to the WELS.”

 

Ironic, isn’t it, that ultimately it will be by a “coup de grâce,” literally a “stroke of grace,” whether the WELS lives or whether it dies?  §

 

The Reverend Fr. John W. Berg is pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Fremont, California. He gratefully sits on the editorial board of The Bride of Christ: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgical Renewal and is privileged to serve as campus pastor for several San Francisco Bay area colleges. At the time of writing he was a member of the Wisconsin Synod. He and his congregation are now independent.

 

 

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   1  If indeed Charís is a transliteration of the Greek cavri".  (Since this article was published we received this kind explanatory note from Dr. John Bauer, director of the Charís institute.

It is actually an acronym for "Center for Humanities, Arts, and Religion in Society," a Greg Schulz original… As far as the strange accent, the original banner used a small "i" as in CHARiS. Our graphic artist was given the task of designing a masthead and came up with the "swoosh."  So there you have it. You are now among an elite group of only four or five people in the entire WELS who knows the "rest of the story.")

   2  P. 2. It seems these were 1977 figures. 1981’s ratio of 83 to 1 would have painted a bit rosier picture, as they view it. What is left out of the equation is that the Wisconsin Synod (and the LCMS’, I suspect) numbers include only “adult confirmands” and not those received by “profession of faith” which if included drops the figure precipitously to 42 to 1. Were the AOG figures only for what Lutherans call “adult confirmands”? Doubtful, especially considering the AOG’s stance that you are not saved, even if you believe, until you make your decision for Christ. Here is the Q/A from my visit to a “fast growing” AOG church:

Q:  What does it take to become a member?

A:  “Three things. First you must turn over your life to the Lordship of Jesus, second, you must promise to be faithful, third, you must promise to tithe.”

Q:  Do you have any instruction classes?

A:  “No, but if you want a tour of the church we can give you one.”

Q:  I was baptized as an infant. Do I need to be baptized again (sic)?

A:  “No, but most do.”

Does one seriously wish to compare a fully catechized Lutheran with a 3 promise, promise keeper AOG drop in?  (Was it Twain who said, there are three kinds of lies; lies, damn lies and statistics?)

   3 See Prof. Erling Teigen’s excellent treatment “Confessional Lutheranism vs. Philippistic Conservatism” Logia Vol. II No. 4.

   4Church Growth” as Mission Paradigm. Luther Academy p. 8. As Elijah did with the prophets of Baal, Rev. Marquart immolates the CG movement in this book.

   5 Richard John Neuhaus “The Lutheran Difference,” Lutheran Forum, Reformation 1990 p. 19. It also seems that second rate Lutherans make first rate Papists.

   Craig Parton, Logia Vol. IV No. 4 p. 84.

   7 Soudavrion is used 4 times in the NT. Here in Luke, also in reference to Lazarus - the acted out “sign of Jonah” - and an unrelated mention in Acts.

   8 Rev. Frederic W. Baue “Confessional Lutheran Mission Planting: Not an Oxymoron” Shepherd the Church CTS 2002 p. 267. A first hand account of a LC-MS missionary’s experience flirting with church growth principles and then returning to sound Lutheran confessionalism. 

   9  Logia Vol. III No. 3 p. 73.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letters

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a couple of the letters this article generated and our responses. When introduced by the words “among other things” the letter has been edited to the relevant sections.

 

Bruce Eberle, among other things, writes

 

I truly enjoyed reading your article, “The WELS is Dead.”  It is well-written and forthright, even if you and I may disagree on a number of issues. I'm not going to respond to your article on a point-by-point basis.  I believe I have already stated my case clearly in my CHARIS article, “Pastoral Leadership:  A Layman's Perspective.” 

 

 

Let me just touch a couple of points. You say, "To fail to see the great gulf fixed between Protestant conservatism and Lutheran Confessionalism is, at best, naive."  What you miss is this. I see the great gulf. I don't agree with decision theology, health and welfare theology, eternal security, or any number of other mistakes.  But the question isn't how I view and understand the differences, but rather how does the unbeliever see the differences.  I'm not suggesting that the differences aren't substantial, but rather that from the view of the unbeliever the difference is virtually non-existent.  To think otherwise is, to use your words, "at best, naive."

 

 

 

You and I have no differences in our theological position.  For most of page 9 you are slaying a dead horse.  And frankly, your conclusion that "Conservative churches grow because of their doctrine, a moralizing, anti-sacramental decision theology, among other 'departures'" is downright silly.  Truly, I laughed out loud when I read that.  Can you really say that out loud with a straight face?  Do you really believe the unbeliever is that scripturally sophisticated?

 

 

 

If you really believe that, I must tell you that you are deluding yourself.  I suggest you drop by a fast growing "conservative" church one day and see if it lives up to your image.  Incidentally, my casual study of growing churches (churches that are converting the lost) has noted that growth doesn't necessarily occur in churches with so-called contemporary services.  Nor does such growth occur in churches that are formal and liturgical.  That's not the issue. 

 

 

The churches that have a conversion ratio of at least 1:20 (one convert for twenty members) are those that (in

addition to other less-important things):

1. Believe in salvation through grace alone.

2. Believe the Bible is error free.

3. Have a pastor-leader who preaches from the Bible and does so in a manner that is clearly understood.

4. Rapidly assimilates new members into Sunday School and other activities to effectively close the back door.

5. Understand that what they do, be it preaching, outreach, teaching, music, should strive to live up to God's standard of excellence (Col. 3:23)

 

 

Would it be your immediate assumption that if a WELS church is growing rapidly that they must be doing something wrong? We have a number of churches in the WELS whose conversion ratio is high. I believe that they are growing not because of the skills of the pastor, but because poor skills and poor leadership have not hindered the Holy Spirit from reaching into the hearts of the lost. 

 

 

The fact that I talk about numbers seems to be scary to pastors. Would that all of us could have a job for which we are not held accountable. Of course, pastors are accountable for performance by God and by the congregation that calls them. This is not only Biblical, but also WELS policy as stated clearly in Shepherd Under Christ.

 

 

It does not necessarily follow that if a church is not reaching the lost the pastor has failed.  On the other hand, if I were an elder and "conservative" churches in the same area are growing and my WELS church is not, I could and should legitimately conclude that something is wrong.

 

8MM Glad to hear that your enjoyed our article, however, your statement that “You and I have no differences in our theological position” deserves further examination.

 

Delusional?! Well, ok. I am delusional about many things (in fact I’m quite mad and in lucid moments merely stupid), but I do know that a preaching of a law that kills and of a Gospel proclaimed as mercy and sacramentally given will be viewed much differently by the “unsophisticated” hearer than a bit of flesh-pleasing moralizing. There isn’t a Lutheran preacher, who so preaches, who will not tell you that the “unsophisticated” visitor knows quite well that the message he hears at Holy Cross Lutheran is not the same message he heard at Crossroads Community Non-Denominational Church of Victory. The visitor may not posses the “sophistication” (lacking in many Lutherans, editors included) to articulate or fully appreciate the theological chasm that exists (or should) between the corpus doctrinae of the Book of Concord and the fluid confessions of conservative evangelicals but he does not come theologically unopinionated (with a tabula rasa). To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, he may not be able to define it but he knows what he likes when he hears it. Your defense belies a naïve view of the human condition, the opinio legis.  But as we also said, that such comparisons are legitimately made in our midst, ought not to be encouraging.

 

Your donnée further assumes these “converts” are unbelievers. Do you honestly believe that such churches are growing by converts and not largely by disaffected Christians seeking out the excitement of the “gospel” they formerly heard? Now who is deluding himself? Will such an Arminian visitor view as “virtually non-existent” the “difference” between the elevation of the body and blood of Christ and a guitar riff from the praise band, or, the invitation to confess one’s sins on one’s knees to receive a first person indicative absolution and an invitation to invite the Lord Jesus Christ into one’s heart?   To say this, is to say the unadulterated Gospel (if preached) is heard no differently than an adulterated Gospel.

 

You laughed out loud at what you call our “conclusion” that "Conservative churches grow because of their doctrine, a moralizing, anti-sacramental decision theology, among other 'departures'."  “Silly,” you said. Well, the whole silly sentence reads,

 

Conclusions? Conservative churches grow because of their doctrine, a moralizing, anti-sacramental decision theology, among other ‘departures’ but since it is not too dissimilar from ours, we too can grow.

 

The context of this sentence is a set of conclusions which must be deduced from your, and other’s, statements which posit the laughable proposition that confessional Lutherans can “grow” because “conservative” churches like us grow. Your denials aside, this is your conclusion! I’m glad you now find it silly to compare confessional Lutheranism with evangelical conservatism, which, strangely you do again with this astounding sentence

 

If I were an elder and ‘conservative’ churches in the same area are growing and my WELS church is not, I could and should legitimately conclude that something is wrong.

 

This is not to see the chasm. This is the point made in this section which you say was “slaying the dead horse,” which you now say is silly. What is it, silly or self-evident? By the way, what number would trigger the investigation of this alleged pastoral incompetence?  If there were only fifty converts this month? No? What if there were only forty-five? How about forty, thirty, twenty, ten...?

 

It is self evident that it is silly to prove anything by the absolutely absurd “20 to 1 conversion ratio” that was utterly discredited in our article. One wonders why one who deals with numbers would risk the embarrassment of offering it. Perhaps you missed the footnote on that so called “statistic” that clearly shows you cannot compare Lutheran apples with Protestant oranges. Points one and two of your points of comparison confirm you do not see the chasm (rendering the next 3 pointless). An “error-free Bible” sans a Christological hermeneutic has about as much value as a first quarter NBA score, or, as was said so much more eloquently by Rev. Joel Elowsky

 

For the [church] Fathers, Scripture is bread, but this bread does not become living food until it has been consecrated by Jesus.

 

“Belief in salvation through grace alone” is confessed by every Christian church, even the Papal one (gratia infusa!) But as good Lutherans we ask, “what does this mean, if anything?” Reformed and Arminian theology has a defective theology, pneumatology and Christology and thus has a defective soteriology, as seen in its rejection of the Sacraments. Ergo, non sequitur. But thank God, as did Dr. Francis Pieper, for the “felicitous inconsistency” that faith is found in such communions.

 

You write, “Would it be your immediate assumption that if a WELS church is growing rapidly that they must be doing something wrong?” What justifies that question?  We plainly say that numbers tell us nothing. However, would we be correct in assuming that if we answered, “Yes,” that the charge, judging by externals, would ensue? Isn’t that precisely what you are doing, judging by numbers? That, by the way, is one of the favorite arguments of McPapists, “two billion served” can’t be wrong. You seem to believe that growth is a positive sign, rather than examining the why. As someone once said in regards to the theology of the Church Growth Movement, “if I had a growth I’d have it removed.”

 

You write

 

The fact that I talk about numbers seems to be scary to pastors. Would that all of us could have a job for which we are not held accountable. Of course, pastors are accountable for performance by God and by the congregation that calls them. This is not only Biblical, but also WELS policy as stated clearly in The Shepherd Under Christ.

 

Thank you for so clearly stating your beliefs. Our article clearly states that pastors are to be faithful, thus, accountable. But for what? We say to our ordination vows, you say for “performance,” the measure of which, for you, is growth in numbers. That is the theology of glory. That is unbiblical. Please read John 6:66. One is tempted to calculate the “conversion ratio” for our Lord that day. The dismantling of your “Scriptural” arguments on the “numbers” issue stands unrefuted, your ipse dixit notwithstanding. Why did you not respond to that? Would that I could be so doctrinally unaccountable!  I’m not, and that is scary.

 

Finally, “WELS policy as clearly stated in The Shepherd Under Christ?”  To borrow a phrase, “Truly, I laughed out loud when I read that.”  That primer on pastoral practice still sits, dust covered, on my shelf, but I will blindly wager that nowhere in that book will you find a statement that says that pastors are accountable for numerical growth. Fifty bucks? That it is fast becoming policy in some WELS churches? Well, that will not be so confidently wagered against.

 

So we fear that we can only grant you a quatenus subscription to your comments about a common theology, in so far as you encourage pastors to faithfulness, hard work and doing one’s best, but such a subscription, confessional Lutherans know, means little. (JWB)

 

 

 

Dr. John Bauer, (the editor of CHARIS) writes

 

Thanks for the inaugural issue of "The Motley Magpie."  I enjoyed it very much. Thanks also for the article you authored entitled, "The WELS is Dead". Although there are many points in Bruce Eberle's article that should certainly be debated, you are one of the very few to have welcomed the opportunity for public discussion. The more "church doors," the better.

 

I wish you every blessing in your effort to publish your journal.

 

Obviously, I have the advantage of time and budget when it comes to editing a journal.  I hope you and your colleagues are able to sustain this effort.

 

Can I ask that you include the WLC Library in your mailing list, along with the members of my CHARIS advisory board?  Their addresses are attached. Some may even provide some financial support.

 

8MM Will do, and thanks for the kind words and encouragements. Of course, you know what happens if you hammer too loudly on the wrong doors, those behind them get a bit perturbed and the next thing you know you have to contend with their Bull (the Latin, Bullum). But of course, if they can’t stand the Scriptural and Confessional heat, well, you know…. (JWB)

 

 

Reverend Rolfe Westendorf, among other things, writes,

 

I read the first issue of Motley Magpie with interest. It was a labor of love.  It was a labor to wade through the verbiage to discover the point being made, especially John's ramblings [“The WELS is Dead”] interspersed with scholarly quotations that went over my head.  This labor has produced the following response:

 

1. It is a good and noble thing to elevate the sacrament and the liturgy. I admire your efforts in accomplishing the same even though I am not persuaded to follow you beyond ceremonies that are comfortable for my people.

 

2. I have bigger fish to fry, starting with the sexual immorality that is tearing apart the families that are the foundation of our church, and supporting stable marriages and parenting that children need to grow spiritually strong, and stirring up a greater awareness of the agape love which is at the heart of both Law & Gospel.

 

3. Such love was nowhere apparent in John's critique of Mr. Eberle's constructive criticism in Charis. Even the respect was minimal. If we can't disagree with love and respect, we should be quiet, lest we become guilty of causing divisions and offenses condemned by Ro. 16:17.

 

8 MM Please see Mr. Eberle’s note as well as Editor Bauer’s evaluation to see whether they share your opinion. It seems not. You blow off our article as “ramblings interspersed with scholarly quotations that went over my head.” Sorry. The Motley Magpie will not be for everyone, as it will not shy away from the theological and confessional language that one hopes could be understood by those theologically trained and confessionally bound and who comment on the same. But since the article only included 3 very short one line quotations, and one short paragraph, other than those from the Scriptures and Confessions, may we question whether you read it at all? 

 

Exposing the misuse of Scripture and thus the danger of certain arguments found in Mr. Eberle’s “constructive critique,” it seems, leaves one open to the charge of “causing divisions and offenses”? But what are the divisions and offenses of which Paul speaks – the exposure of such or their promotion? One wished that you, Mr. Eberle, or anyone for that matter had answered the substance of the arguments put forth by our critique.

 

Sadly, you illustrate the problem identified in every article of this, our first issue, the pietistic angst over not being able to stop sin, and so you confirm the rightness of our decision to publish (with questions of sanity and ability remaining). The Supper and the church’s Christ-impregnated liturgy, it seems for you, have no connection to the “bigger fish” you have to fry, battling sexual immorality. If the presentation of Christ in the Supper and in our liturgy is not the antidote for this or any other sin, then you, my friend, and we, are to be pitied more than all men. (JWB)