Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Incessant Doctrinal Purification

This past week I was privileged to have a conversation with a man who is being persecuted for being a Lutheran. It's really a very sad tale. The irony of his story is that he is being persecuted by Lutherans, specifically, powerful members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It would seem that his past public commitment to our historic theology as a laymen has led to his being somewhat ostracized by the powers that be when it comes to final certification for ordination. After over five years at the Seminary, completing both and M.Div. and another graduate degree, it is not the Seminary that stands in his way. The question is whether or not he will “legally” “get a call.” Even though the position of the LC-MS is that a congregation always has the right to choose its pastor, I that it is the Seminaries who certify tested men to be rostered for these positions, things don't always work in practice the way we have them on paper.

His story is not over yet, and I pray it goes well. But it was something he mentioned in our conversation that sparked the interest I want to opine on today. It was a phrase he used – brief, simple, quick. He was casually describing the way some Lutherans have come to view the commitment of other Lutherans to being Lutheran as a bad thing. The phrase is intended to stigmatize, to mildly offend, to stereotype and to shut-down. It is a sort of innuendo-dirty-word which is meant to push all who hear it away from one idea and towards another, more civil position. The phrase is, “incessant doctrinal purification.”

The first time I heard it used was when I was at Seminary. I am pretty confidant it was not used by a professor, but by a rather highly placed synodical official who was addressing an auditorium as a plenary speaker. His was quite clear in his convicting call to all who were listening: “We must stop this incessant doctrinal purification.” This is our problem. This is our trouble. People like this get in the way.

At the time I took his meaning and probably agreed with it. His confession was that some Lutherans, by focusing too much on their confession, have stopped our corporate Missouri Synod from being efficient at confessing, and this has stopped the mission of the Church (that is, the LC-Ms) from being all that it could and should be. It's actually a rather old idea, dating at the very least to the 17th century when Lutheran pietists began teaching that “Doctrine divides, service unites!” Later, classical liberalism (and more recently, American Evangelical Church Growth) made the same notion slightly more catchy, “Deeds not Creeds!” I'd say it differently. It's more like, “Golly gee, if only we weren't so worried about what we believe, then we'd be able to get more people to believe it.”

Of course, when I say it that way I'm being a little unfair. I'm biased because I think Creeds are eternally more important than deeds. I sort of go in for incessant doctrinal purification, at least, in a “everyone needs a hobby” kind of way. But its about more than a hyper-retentive need to have all my pencils sharpened to perfect points. Yet its just here that the phrase “incessant doctrinal purification” becomes so striking and almost highly poetic. Until this week, whenever I'd heard the phrase, I'd heard it as it was intended: as a degrading attack meant to make me feel guilty for being focused on the wrong things (that wrong thing being the bane of all missonalness, “doctrine.”) When I would hear it, I would grimace and hope that somehow I could avoid being seen as that confessional, hard, stubborn, rude, misguided, selfish image that the phrase intentionally pegged me for. But this week, when the gentleman I was discoursing with dropped it as a mere turn of phrase in a conversation about largely disconnected issues, I was forced to pause and think about the words in a new context. Stripped away from their polemic, the words “incessant doctrinal purification” took on a whole new meaning.

What if one reads those words (“incessant doctrinal purification”) as a phrase in which it is not we who are the nasty, mean subject (those awful men who are engaged in an epic and unending effort to purify the Biblical Truth like a lab-technician might sterilize a petri dish). What if God is the one who is vociferously intent upon “incessant, doctrinal purification”?

It was as if I saw heaven open up and angels ascending and descending upon the purpose of all doctrine, of all confession, of the entire Bible: the Son of Man. In Jesus Christ our God has set it as his doctrine that he will purify us through the incessant forgiveness of our sins – and not only our sins, but the sins of the entire world. Suddenly there was no better description for the entire mission of the Holy catholic Church than “incessant doctrinal purification”! Through the Word – teaching all things that Jesus entrusted to us, under the gift of Holy Baptism – that is, through doctrine – our God is unremittingly, stubbornly, ceaselessly – that is, incessantly – seeking and saving, promising and regenerating, raising and cleansing – that is, purifying for himself a people after his own heart.

Incessant doctrinal purification. The Gospel. Go figure. This wonderful insight into the great value this polemic phrase has for rightly proclaiming who Jesus is and what he has done probably will not help the gentlemen in his efforts at submitting to the powers that be in the hopes of receiving a call. But isn't it wonderful to remember that even when the world is against us, we have a God who is so steadfastly committed to saving us from it that he would dare be labeled an incessant, doctrinal purifier? Yes, even that stigma he took upon himself in his Son, hanging on a cross, that, lifted up, he might draw all of us to himself.


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to that man?

Anyway, from reading this blog, it is pretty obvious that you, Pastor Fisk, are one of the brightest bulbs in the LCMS box. So the incessant thing is a suitable hobby at least. Sure, it may not be the most profitable endeavor for everyone in the church. However, that doesn't mean it isn't worthy. There are many worthy pursuits which we need pastors to pursue and the incessant thing surely is one of them.

One of the obsessions of the current (fleeting) cultural wind is an impossible standard of egalitarianism in every facet of life including ministry. It is the irony of embracing diversity while at once despising it. Sure, some (most) may never fully understand all the ideas pursued in the interest of incessant purification of doctrine, but hey, how many understand particle physics? They certainly will never understand them if we stop pursuing understanding. Just because a person's ability isn't the current flavor of the month, doesn't mean there should be no place for him. Well, I hope things worked out for him and someone was able to understand and appreciate and embrace his abilities.

If some think the church is missing folks because it is too intellectual, trust me, it is missing plenty of others because it isn't intellectual enough. And no, I don't mean that idiotic higher criticism nonsense that is nothing but pseudo intellectual compromise with the culture.

Thanks again for this blog.

RevFisk said...


With thanksgiving, that man received a call this past year. My inclination is that he is doing just fine.

Thanks for the feedback!

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