Saturday, August 08, 2009

Jesus First and the Political Synod

For good or for ill, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has a rather democratic polity. "Polity" is related to the Greek word "polis" and is where we get our words "political" and "politics." Given that much of the policy (also related to the word "polis") in our synod is decided by votes at convention, it should surprise nobody that the Synod has political organizations promoting certain political agendas and seeking certain political outcomes of elections at conventions.

One such group calls itself Jesus First. They are often described as "liberal," and insofar as they tend toward a change-friendly view of the church, that's not an entirely inaccurate label. They are an explicitly political organization that endorses specific political candidates and specific political resolutions proposed at synodical conventions. Not unlike secular political special interest groups, JF engages in various traditional techniques of politicking (leaflets, mass e-mails, mail to individuals and congregations, fund-raising, voters' guides, endorsement of candidates etc.) in order to achieve its political and policy goals.

Jesus First, like most political groups, is quick to attack others who belong to what they perceive as different political groups, tagged with different labels. JF objects to the terms "confessional" and "conservative" being used by other factions, political and nonpolitical, within the church. Their objection is based on the implication by those claiming the mantle of "confessional" that others not wrapped in the cloak are not "confessional." JF makes the same objection regarding the term "conservative." Fair enough. See below for their analysis of the terms "confessional" and "conservative," from the Jesus First Glossary of Terms:
Confessionals – The confessions are the documents included in the Book of Concord. These documents are confessed to be a true and accurate exposition of the scriptures by all pastors of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. A small group of pastors have begun to reference themselves as “confessionals”. In doing so, they make an unnecessary distinction for themselves since all LCMS pastors are “confessional” in that they have stated in their ordination vows that these documents are a true and accurate exposition of Holy Scripture. Please see Rev. David Buegler’s article, Do You Know What is Happening in the LCMS? for more details.

Conservatives – Webster’s dictionary states this, “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions”. All pastors of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod make a vow to maintain our understanding of Holy Scripture as the inspired Word of God, and to care for the congregation that has called the pastor. A small group of pastors has referenced themselves as conservative, thereby labeling others as “less than conservative”. Please see Rev. David Buegler’s article, Do You What is Happening in the LCMS? For more details.
I think JF makes a good case for being sensitive when we use labels to describe ourselves. For these labels can certainly, whether intended or not, be used as weapons. But isn't Jesus First guilty of the very same thing?

For as Christians, don't we all put "Jesus First"?

The implication is that they, as a "small group of pastors" and lay people have "referenced themselves" as "Jesus First" Lutherans, thereby labeling others as those who somehow put Jesus farther down on the totem pole. In so doing, they "make an unnecessary distinction for themselves" - since all Christians are defined by their submission to Christ as God and Lord. The very name "Jesus First" is a classic example of the hand pointing an accusatory finger at the other, only to have three fingers pointing back at oneself.

Jesus First makes a good point about labels, and then they indict themselves in the process. That is one of the unfortunate aspects of our highly-democratic polity - the attendant politics. Politics, by definition, divides. It groups Christians with whom we are to be walking together into camps, into "us" and "them." For all of its gentle talk of cooperation, JF is highly divisive, inflammatory, and at times even obnoxious and offensive.

There is a reason why politics (and religion) are topics for discussion that require great sensitivity and discretion.

And so it would be honest for Jesus First to acknowledge that they are a political group with a political agenda, that their label seeks to alienate those outside their group, that their overtly political goal is to win in convention, and that they are every bit as guilty as any other political special interest group of seeking "Victory First."


Matthias Flacius said...

Jesus' words in Matt. 7:1-5 are certainly true. This analysis is spot on. A common technique in politics is to demonize your opponent for an action that you implement effectively yourself. I've noticed one particular technique in ecclesio-politics (at local and district levels) is to accuse your perceived opponent of insincerity when he points out aberrant doctrine or practices. Then spread rumors and slander him behind his back. At the same time the rumormongers accuse the person who points out the aberrant doctrine or practice as slanderous, unloving, and a violator of the 8th commandment.

WM Cwirla said...

And don't forget the tactic of "being offended" when called on it.

Cecil The Sea Sick Sea Serpent said...

Hey, the LCMess is what you signed up for!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Cecil:


Actually, my ordination never said anything about the LCMess!(tm). The Church was here long before synod, and it will be here long after synod ceases to be.

I'm only in the Mess because my congregation carries the Mess card. And this Mess is different than AC24: "We have not abolished the Mess..." ;-)

But meanwhile, it is the "LCMess" we find ourselves in for the time being, for sure.

Rev. Daniel Robert Skillman said...

I recently received a mass email from Jesus First regarding the 2010 Synodical elections. They wrote that if they fail in their task, there are “those with a different opinion about synod’s direction [who] will use the ballot box to make significant changes in four important areas.” They said that those groups, “according to their own websites”, aim at the following four things:

1. “Defeating the power-centralizing restructuring proposals of President Kieschnick’s Blue Ribbon Task Force;
2. Defeating Jerry Kieschnick (only 52% last time) and electing someone who would do a much better job as Synod President, e.g., Matt Harrison;
3. Electing competent, theologically sound vice-presidents, officers, and board and commission members; and
4. Defeating bad resolutions and passing good ones.”

Well, I was confused, so I wrote them back hoping that they could help me better understand where they were coming from. I laid out my confusion in four steps corresponding to the four aims Jesus First appeared to oppose, according to the email their group sent me. I offer you the heart of the letter I wrote below:

1. One of the strengths of the LCMS, as it is conceived in the current constitution, is that it is a "bottom up" organization. In so far as it is a human organization, it is controlled from below (the people), not from above (a hierarchy). This seems to accord with our stance that pastors not lord it over the flock. Everything that isn't decided by God's Word is to be decided by prudence and love, in a majority vote. At least, that is the classic Waltherian stance as I understand it. To allow leadership (pastoral or otherwise) to dictate would be on the way to returning to Rome and the Papacy. So, I'm not sure why you don't support this goal if you want to keep Jesus first.

2. I don't know who should be Synodical President. Perhaps the Reverend Kieschnick is the best man for the job. However, if there is "someone who would do a much better job as Synod President," it seems to me that we should surely elect that man. So, I'm not sure why you don't support this goal, at least in principle.

3. Here, I am truly at a loss. Even in secular government, we wish our leaders to be competent. We wouldn't want any less in the Church. But the Church is not merely a political entity. The Church is a theological entity. That is to say, it is the creation of God (theos) by His Word (logos). As such, vice-presidents, officers, and board and commission members ought to be not only competent, but also theologically sound. So, I'm not sure why you don't support this goal whole heartedly.

4. This one is just a head scratcher. I think it goes without saying that we all want to defeat bad resolutions and pass good ones. Surely you don't want to see bad resolutions passed. So, I'm not sure why you don't support this goal.

I would like to understand more about your organization and its goals. But your email puzzled me quite a bit. I would appreciate it if you could clear up this confusion for me.

Rev. Daniel Robert Skillman said...

I received a kind and speedy reply from Jesus First. In essence it said,

1. It's not that Jesus First is against "defeating the power-centralizing restructuring proposals of President Kieschnick's Blue Ribbon Task Force." It's that they don't think those proposals are about centralizing power.

2. It's not that Jesus First is against putting the best man in the office Synodical President. It's that they think the Reverend Kieschnick IS the best man.

3. It's not that Jesus First is against electing competent, theologically sound officers. It's that they think the ones we have ARE theologically sound.

4. It's not that Jesus First is against "defeating bad resolutions and passing good ones." It's that they think recent resolutions WERE good ones.

Ok. Fine. I was pretty sure that’s what they meant anyway.

The problem is that these are all very debatable points, and the wording of Jesus First’s mass email tried to present them as if they were beyond debate. “And if you can’t see that, then you aren’t ‘Gospel-centered, mission-minded, and forward-oriented.’ ”

I’m not troubled so much by the existence of Jesus First as I am by its tactics. Whenever you have elections you will have politics and political groups. But you need not have debate and discussion squashing, name calling, and slandering.

That Jesus First email bothers me. Do they really mean to say that I’m hopelessly backward if I think that the Blue Ribbon Task force is centralizing power? What if I’m not one of those “confessional” types? Am I really drifting from the Gospel center if I think that someone other than Rev. Kieschnick could do a better job as synodical president? Am I something less than mission-minded if I think that certain officials in the LCMS are less than theologically sound, or if I’m troubled by some of the recent resolutions that have passed in convention?

Well, I’d like to discuss that. But Jesus First isn’t about discussing things. And that’s why I’d rather Jesus First didn’t exist. Anyone want to discuss that?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Daniel:

I think one of the down sides of our polity is that it encourages the very lowest common denominator when it comes to politics.

Most Lutherans are politically conservative, and a good number of American conservatives imbibe of talk radio and read books by wisecracking shock authors. The American political scene is about soundbites and a game of "gotcha" - hoping for one's opponent to slip up so that the "good guys" (defined as "us" - whoever that is) can pounce - all for the good of the country, of course.

Political discourse has become increasingly divisive, and the political types of both right and left will resort to any tactic in the interest of winning. The ends justifies the means. Just as we see the "politics of personal destruction" in secular politics, we're seeing this kind of thing become more and more accepted in the church as well.

JF wants to be a player in the political scene. And in the current climate, that means (as Matthias pointed out) "demonize your opponent" with rumors, slander, false accusations, etc.

This is not how church politics ought to work. We desperately need a return to churchmanship. JF is obviously very sincere, but one has to wonder where they would draw the line, just what would they refuse to do for the sake of winning an election. Just what kind of thing do the ends of a JK re-election and a new synodical structure *not* justify? How low *won't* they go? I don't know that any political group in the LCMS has defined these kinds of lines.

All things considered, it doesn't matter all that much who wins the LCMS presidency. We will still have liturgical churches under JK and we will still have happy-clappy and emergent churches under MH. We will continue to have both open and closed communion. The arguments about the role of women will continue. Neither one will (or even can) remove churches from fellowship over the issues that divide the synod the most. The chaotic status quo will continue no matter who wins, and at some point (I believe) the divisions will become too great to hold, and there will be a rupture.

I would rather see an orderly "divorce" (per Kurt Marquart) in which the factions negotiate and separate amicably rather than the synod descend into trench warfare in a winner-take-all brawl.

But now I have gone off on a tangent. Oh well, it's my blog, so I guess I have to apologize to myself.

I'm sorry. :-)

Christian Soul said...

I would like to see more writing and discussion about this idea of an orderly "divorce" among us in the LCMS. I wonder if pastors and laymen in our synod can prepare for this eventuality or if it is just going to be a matter of the passage of something so horrendous in convention that a substantial number of congregations can no longer stand to be a part of it. Or will it just be a slow trickle of congregations leaving the LCMS one or two at a time?

Anonymous said...

Well, the upcoming ELCA convention may prove to be interesting as a little preview of what may -- or may not -- happen when the faithful remnant can no longer tolerate the mess of the main body.

The last LCMS congregation of which I was a part (before returning to the LCMS this year) was around the late 1970's, early 80's.

I had never heard of "Daystar", "Jesus First" or any of those groups back then. This was during the Presidency of Dr. Ralph Bohlmann, who I thought, at the time, was fairly conservative.


Cecil The Sea Sick Sea Serpent said...

Dear Christian Soul,
“I would like to see more writing and discussion about this idea of an orderly "divorce" among us in the LCMS.” I would too. It’s fairly easy for the laity to say and do politically incorrect things as we have little to lose most of the time, but not always (A pastor? withheld the body and blood of Christ from me and wrote letters to the circuit pastors [behind my back] instructing them to do likewise). Of course one might be in error, however, an evangelical approach should be applied instead of trampling the eighth commandment.

1. Clergy and laity can bring synodical issues to the attention of the congregation.
2. Clergy and laity can bring synodical issues to the attention of the synod.
3. Clergy and laity can plod along doing church without regard for the rest of the brethren. BTW most of the laity and many clergy could care less.
4. What are your thoughts?

Christian Soul said...


I agree with your points, especially #3.

I think that laymen need to be more involved at the circuit and synodic level and more than just one layman per congregation at a convention every couple of years. Laymen from area congregations need to get together to study Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions together and hold one another accountable to remaining faithful to the same.