Unsafe Theology

By Paul Koch

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Do you remember drinking from the garden hose as a child? I do. In fact when I’m working in the yard these days I will still get a quick drink from time to time from the hose. I like it. I like the taste; compared to the water that comes from the dispenser on the door of my fridge you would almost think they were from a different source. The water in the house passes through our water softener system, then through a filtration system in the fridge while it is chilled down a bit before it reaches my glass. In my front yard the water takes a more direct route off the main water line through a tired old hose with a slightly corroded metal spigot and directly into my mouth. It may not be as healthy or safe as the filtered option inside, but there is something simple and enjoyable about it.

Perhaps this is just a romantic memory of my childhood, before we all drank bottled water in great quantities. Perhaps I just have weird tastes and a cavalier attitude toward bacteria. But I wonder if we have too much filtration in our lives. Beyond the antibacterial wipes that we’re supposed to use before we grab the handle of a shopping cart and the universally available hand sanitizer in public places and mothers’ purses, we carefully filter our theology as well.

We want our theology safe, we want it clean, we want it pure and refined. As a pastor who fears for the safety of the flock entrusted to my care, I understand the longing for a safe theology. I want them to drink up the good stuff and only the good stuff. But I wonder, is too much filtration a good thing? Can our zeal for purity stifle the flow of water or alter it to a point that we no longer care to drink it?

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In the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod we have had our share of bacteria scares in the past. Tainted theology threatened to poison the flock and corrupt the health of our Lord’s Church. The fear was that these impurities might reach epidemic proportions, and so, strict filtering procedures were set in place to prevent such a threat in the future. Such actions and fears may have been overblown or they may have been justified, but all anyone cared about was that they would work – they would keep our theology safe.

We get a sense of this filtration when we learn that the publishing arm of the church has an established doctrinal review system though which anything published for use in the church must pass. Now I assume there are different standards for academic resources verses Sunday School materials, but still we can be sure something published has been properly filtered. We also have in our church body a Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) which provides the denomination with helpful study guides and statements on theological issues. Lately these carefully filtered and faithful works seem to spend a lot of time quoting from previously filtered statements of the CTCR, so were getting double or even triple filtered nuggets that we can be sure are good, right, and salutary.

Now these are wonderful tools of the church, and I suppose they do a fine job of keeping us from drinking the water of the stagnant pond over the reverse osmoses tap water in our homes. And there are hosts of other filters; confessional statements, constitutions and bylaws, handbooks of the church, curricula of seminaries and universities, etc., etc. But this filtration process brings with it an unfortunate consequence – fear.

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Now I don’t mean fear among those who would seek to pervert and destroy the fresh water of our Lord’s flock. I mean fear among those who attempt to guide, care for, love and nourish the flock. The same filtered purity that has provided for the flock can quickly become a sort of club that is wielded to bludgeon those who might question the filtration process or dare to drink water that has not been approved and 100% pure. At almost every gathering of pastors; from a circuit meeting to a district conference you will hear lines like this:

“You can call me a heretic if you want but I think…”

“Perhaps you need to report me to the district president but I put it this way…”

“Don’t tell synod on me but what I want to do is…”

Such an ethos kills the lively conversation of theology, it limits us to a selective and narrow history and it puts an end to creativity and honesty.

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I’m not suggesting that the filters need to be removed, nor do I want to lead the flock to a filthy cesspool to drink. Rather I think we need to remember that we are drinking through filters, and perhaps even dare to examine them and compare them to other filters from time to time. I wonder if overly filtered and safe theology doesn’t become stale and stagnant in its own way. I don’t think theology needs to be safe all the time. We could all benefit from some muck and grime.  In fact, from time to time it’s okay to take a drink from the garden hose again.

It just might be downright invigorating!

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7 thoughts on “Unsafe Theology

  1. I sometimes have a difficult time sorting out plain Bible truths from the many roads of theological interpretation. So I just read the scriptures and pray I am understanding the word of God correctly, knowing that the Holy Spirit guides me. Sifting out true theology from false theology is a job for better minds than my own, but I have found more comfort from just sitting down with my Bible in a quiet place, with a cup of tea, and simply read it and reflect. The grace of God is paramount. Without His forebearance, we can neither come to Him, nor understand His word. We, our race that is, seem to make things more complicated than we ought, and in theology, it is especially evident. Some theologians should not be theologians. They should just read their Bibles more, and get a real job, and practice Christianity instead of writing about it and promoting confusion and dissension to advance their own ego’s and sense of personal worth.

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  2. Bible study matters. I don’t just mean reading it, but considering it with others of the faith – for instruction, discipline, or even rebuke. Mostly, though, it is necessary to hold onto the grace that Jesus brings. Always it is, for pastors, how they preach and teach the actual things that the Bible says, fearfully, gracefully, and faithfully. Otherwise you are on your own – dangerous ground, unconfirmed by the Body of Christ and all its history with such things, unfiltered from the corruption of the mind and soul. All of this has people in it, sinners to be sure, and sometimes even collectively. Thus the grace, holding to Jesus, and searching the truth together – for us all.

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    1. I agree. Being on your own can be dangerous if some scriptural verses are followed without discernment, for example, OT verses commanding the stoning of rebellious sons, or the burning of those practicing witchcraft. We have the Salem trials and hangings of women accused of witchcraft, and we have the Inquisitions of the Counter Reformation….showing us how much misery and sorrow can result from extreme religious fervor. How does one square such happenings with the” inerrancy”of the word of God? I have no answer. It is the reason few pastors of any evangelical denomination ever give sermons about difficult verses, although claiming to preach the “whole word” of God. These are hard things, even as we surmise God commanded certain punishment at specific times, and we can only attribute it to His sovereignty alone. Luther addressed the problem by separating law and grace, but it is too bad the Puritan church in Salem failed to regard this dichotomy when they used wrong theology to hang innocent women, while wrongly believing they were actually carrying out the will of God.

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      1. Luther understood that the Law condemns – the wages of sin is death. Much of the OT Law sets that in high contrast, as it condemns absolutely everyone. Jesus fulfills it all, though, so that we can see the point of it all – that we must be condemned – and so the Son of God took the whole of our punishment and gave us the righteousness no one could ever acheive without him. Without that unfathomable condemnation we would never consider what might allow any salvation apart from him.

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  3. It is like the walls of a fort. The same walls that keep the enemy out, keep the good guys in. A virtual monastery of sorts.

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  4. Didn’t Luther say to let the scriptures out even if it opened a flood gate of inequity? I’ve always felt a pastor proclaims the word as best they can, but the consequences are God’s. That’s why we gave the world revivalism…

    As a Calvinist I like Missouri synod, yous gots the gusto I like and are firm on an acceptable position. Yet I’m Sad to see folks as typically strong and cocky as Lutherans being nervous. (I mean that as a compliment). So an informative article for sure, if a bit saddening.

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  5. I can understand needing to adhere to proper doctrine because that serves the weakest in the church, the ones most in need of guidance, whose faith needs to be nurtured more carefully. For more mature Christians, it is to be hoped that pure doctrine allows them to explore. Why? Because we need to understand and respect others in order to engage them. even where we differ from other Christians, we need to be mindful of the fact that their errors are consistent with well thought out scriptural interpretations and, often, other aspects of the historical church.

    Where I think pastors have a difficult time, at least in our district, is synod’s view of relations with the rest of Christendom e.g. Methodists consider prayer a means of grace and define grace differently therefore, we dare not even pray alongside a Methodist. The notion that we might establish relationships and come to share our differences doesn’t seem to matter. Yet, our congregation experiences growth mostly through people from other denominations getting to know us, not because we sat here with our doors closed and the Holy Spirit dragged them in but because we mix in and bring the Word with us.

    They come to our Lenten and Advent services and suppers, they join us for bible study, we cooperate in ministries to the poor, shut in, and homeless, we look for opportunities to join in prayer and praise. We know we cannot join in sacrament. Here, there are 14,000 LCMS Lutherans, 2M other protestants, 2M unaffiliated, >3M Catholics, 800,000 Orthodox. We are outnumbered by Jews (500,000), Muslims (18,000), Hindus (27,000). We need solid teaching as a foundation to work in the world, but we can joyfully mix it up, theologically, in order to engage the world.

    Shhhhh, don’t tell synod but we do a service of prayer and praise on Thanksgiving Eve in rotation of local churches. Having been fed up with getting a dozen or so out, they all got together and said “if we combine our dozens into one gathering…” So, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, a bunch of Baptists, and some Lutherans will combine choirs and say thanks to the Lord. The next day, we’ll wake up and still be Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Lutherans.

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