The Idol of Conservatism

By Bob Hiller

I’m not one to talk much about politics. Though, truth be told, I consider myself a pretty conservative guy. I like my government small and my morals traditional. A number of my friends are further left of center from where I stand, but we have great conversations about our views and go our way more edified for the chat. Our talks are respectful and actually pretty entertaining. I am always learning from the perspective of other people, even when I think they are off base. But, at the end of the day (and at its beginning), I think a more conservative attitude towards life is a better way to go. You see, I’m a pretty conservative guy.

As it turns out, the church body I belong to, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), also has the reputation for being a conservative church body. In fact, after we finished up our national convention a few weeks back, an article was written by Aaron D. Wolf over at the Chronicles Magazine blogsite entitled The LCMS: A Triumph for Conservatism. The LCMS voted very conservatively by rather large margins, saying only pastors can perform Word and Sacrament ministry, lay deacons are no longer eligible to carry out these functions, women should not be participating in roles that have been given to men to carry out in the Church, and a woman’s conscience is not bound to fight in the military if the state calls for it. These three moves, according to Wolf, were all great victories for conservatives, who are increasingly being ostracized by the ever liberalizing culture around us. As the title says, this was a triumph for conservatism.

Now, like I say, I’m a pretty conservative guy. But as I read this article (which is very well written, quite insightful, and a valuable read), something wasn’t sitting quite right with me. There was something felt a bit off.  Then, Wolf said this:

By rejecting “lay pastors,” the conscription of women, and female communion assistants and “elders,” the Missouri Synod didn’t just bear witness to particular points of doctrine or to the truths contained in certain Bible verses (worthy though those actions are). The LCMS officially embraced a conservative ethos.

We embraced a conservative ethos? Wait, was that a goal? Is that something the Church, namely conservatism, should even be concerned with at all? Does voting against these measures make one a liberal? Are we, as a church, supposed to combatting liberalism by upholding conservatism or in some other way? Or is this just evidence that the Church is reacting so hard against the moral decline in our culture that we will bow to the idol of conservatism if it means we still get to have our slice of the cultural pie? I mean, hey, Babylon was a great asset to Israel when Assyria was threatening, weren’t they? What is more, not only are bearing witness to doctrine and Biblical truth “worthy” actions, they are part of the primary responsibilities of the Church! They are an end unto themselves and are not done for some perceived greater conservative (or liberal for that matter) purpose or ethos.


I’m not sure the Church should be concerned with a “conservative ethos” at all. Nor am I saying that the Church should pursue liberal ethos, either. Those are terms from the culture that enlist us to serve on either side of the political spectrum, a spectrum that the Church has no real business being on. Both sides of the aisle, whatever their virtues or vices, may serve important roles in our culture, but they also serve as very attractive idols to the Church.

It makes me s bit uneasy to know we are on a side within the cultural divide. The Church isn’t really to be part of the culture’s conservative or liberal projects, as far as I can tell. The Church is about forgiving sins, proclaiming Christ, killing with Law and raising with Gospel. Sure, some conservative or liberal causes will line up with the Word of God. The Law is written into creation, after all (or is it before all?). Nonetheless, the church isn’t to be fighting for a conservatism. It is to love the neighbor. If conservatives do that well, wonderful. If liberals do it well, we are equally pleased. But their cause is not ours. I am interested in a church that does repentance and forgiveness, baptism and discipleship, prayer and meditation. Conservatism and liberalism are both in the business of power (power which in this world may certainly be necessary). The Church is in the business of cross preaching and cross-bearing. We are here to forgive sinners, conservative and liberal alike.

That’s my issue. The LCMS is not a church for conservatives nor liberals. Actually, scratch that. The LCMS is a church for both conservatives and liberals. We take sinners from every political party. But our business is Christ. In His stead and by His command, we call all involved with the powers and principalities to repent and hear the good news: your sins are forgiven by blood shed by another world’s King. He reigns and the church serves Him alone by proclaiming His cross and His Word for its own sake and for the love of our neighbor. Whatever side of the aisle you are on, in this world, Jesus calls you to repent and believe the good news: you are forgiven for the sake of His shed blood. We are then sent to love our neighbors. I don’t know if that is conservative or liberal, but it is faithful. And that is what the Church should be concerned about.


8 thoughts on “The Idol of Conservatism

  1. Bob, as usual you’ve hit the nail on the head! “The Church isn’t really to be part of the culture’s conservative or liberal projects, as far as I can tell. The Church is about forgiving sins, proclaiming Christ, killing with Law and raising with Gospel.” But in the mean time we are a pert of it. I think we should be able to say if we want to be a part of it. Where’s our vote in that? Oh, that’s right, we get to send one guy and our pastor to vote. But does anyone on the common level even know that this is going on? I bet if you asked you’d maybe find one or two people in each congregation who actually follow this enough to know. What special meetings are we having to tell our congregants about what was voted on? My church doesn’t have them. Does yours?
    So, we’ve opened a can of worms. The CTCR is at it again. It’s very existence crosses over the line of separation of church and state. You can read and interpret our documents here “LCMS 2005 “Task Force Guidelines for the Service of Women in Congregational Offices,” – If you paste this into your web browser you can read it for yourself. If you read any of this at face value it can be construed a hundred ways past Sunday that we “are protecting our women from fighting in battle”, and then taking away their gifts in service to the church, but then saying things to make that not seem the case, “The consecrated service of women in biblically supported vocations and tasks is to be encouraged and upheld.” Well, that sounds just peachy and so nicey McNice-ster doesn’t it? In the words of Luther, “Was is das?” If you want to say such things you better be able to name them line by stinking line or you will cause such division in churches like you’ve never seen!
    -2004 Res. 3‐08A does not simply “permit women to hold all humanly established congregational and synodical offices.” Rather, this resolution permits women to hold humanly established offices only “so long as these offices do not call upon the holders of these offices to ‘perform those functions that are distinctive to the public exercise of the ministry of Word and Sacraments’ or to carry out ‘official functions [that] would involve public accountability for the function of the pastoral office.’” I ask, what’s a humanly established office? No, seriously I don;t want to be stepping out of line here?
    If we were to play devil’s advocate, (I’ll do that here) – we could just say that women shouldn’t be part of an alter guild, teach, collect offering or even count it, what about organists and choir directors? Why aren’t the men taking these jobs? But better still, the Pastor should be the only teacher. He’s the only one “trained.” Or for that fact why are women allowed to vote, or attend meetings? All these things involve “public accountability for the function of the pastoral office” when we get down to it. They are the ultimate one to take the blame. Or are they? Should they be?

    Why the hell are we doing any of this? As Jim Nestingen says, “The law is a short legged dog!” He’s always running just behind trying to catch up, but never will!


    1. Wasn’t going to respond to this post (though I think it is a good one) But, how many people out there are able to quote Jim so aptly? Not so many! The above is one of my favorite Jimisms, and one he uses often (in one form or another) in person all the time. Great comment.


  2. I’ve given up on the labels “conservative” or “liberal.” There is no such thing as a conservative or liberal church, because by definition the church is both through Law and Gospel. The doctrine of the Law is the most conservative of doctrines, because it tells you that in order to receive anything you have to do something, but at the same time shows you that you can’t do it. Gospel, on the other hand, that is free forgiveness and justification, is the most “liberal” doctrine, because we didn’t have to earn any of what God gives us and it pretty much let’s us off the hook eternally. Let us raise up historical titles like orthodox and heterodox. These labels truly get down to who, what, when, where, why, and how the church teaches, either correctly or incorrectly. Confessional, maybe, but anyone is confessional even if they say they aren’t – because that in and of itself is a confession.

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  3. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Eph6.12

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  4. I agree with what you are saying, wholeheartedly.

    A few questions concerning the resolutions, if an elder or male communion assistant is no more ordained than a woman, and that man takes no more a role in the verba or consecration, and that man is no more Christian than a woman, how is it confusing for a woman to assist? What, exactly, is confused? What authority is being exercised by a non-ordained man that is being exercised by a non-ordained woman in the same situation? Are people that clueless? Needs a better argument.

    In speaking against intinction (I personally receive on the tongue and only use common cup but I know people who take the wafer in hand and eat, then either, dip it in common cup, eat, then drink from common cup, eat, then take a shot glass), the elements are consumed through the mouth into the gut, whether they are consumed together or separately and it is my understanding that past teaching concerning the elements has often been in error, that Lutheran theology accepts the whole of Christ under each element insisting on receiving both as simply the scriptural and proper practice, how is it that sane, rational people can affirm the old Synod argument that intinction mean “eating the wine” and “drinking the bread”? There has to be a better argument.

    Finally, “confessionals” speak of the evolution and development of the liturgy as sacred tradition, they see this as something organic, which it is. But so is/ was the papacy and magisterium in the Western Church. Not everything that comes to be in the Church, however old and venerated, is good. Sometimes, it takes radical action to make a change. How do we decide the periods of time where we freeze the aesthetic and forms, lock into styles and motions? Why do we not insist on incense and splash our ways down the aisles with holy water? Why are these not essential? They are old, venerated, traditional, have meaning, and pre-date the Reformation. How is uniformity of rite in keeping with our confession: “And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.” (AC VII)?

    If Martin Luther were this conservative, we would not be having any of these discussions, at least not under a “Lutheran” label. I simply feel that some arguments are well made and others are just bullied – I am open to reason but will deliberately push back on anything that smacks of keeping people in line. We cannot devolve into serving tradition. We teach doctrine and need to show that everything flows from the proper teaching and is necessary to the proper teaching. Not all aspects of the Formula Missae are necessary, how ever well they serve.

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  5. I dunno. Conservative doesn’t necessarily have just one connotation. When we talk about “conservatism” in the context of Christianity, I think we’re talking about remaining faithful to the scriptures, rather than letting the culture dictate what we are to believe, teach and confess.

    The Bible is clear that women aren’t to pastor churches. It’s clear that men and women have different roles in the family, and society at large, by extension. It’s clear that pastors are supposed to be properly called. To be “Liberal” in this context is to make a wax nose of scripture that you can remake in any image you please. To be a “Conservative” in this context is to maintain fidelity to scripture.

    If we use the words conservative and liberal in a religious context, I don’t think we necessarily have to associate those words with their political and cultural baggage. I am a conservative Christian because I don’t believe the meaning of the Word of God changes. I don’t believe that it is a matter of private interpretation, but that it is actually the very words of God, breathed-out, as the text tells us. I believe that we arrive at the proper understanding of the text through hermenuetical tools and historic theology. If that is my governing principle, then I am adhering to a “Conservative ethos.” If I believed that the Bible was only a cultural document that expressed some good ideas about God, but that society is more enlightened now, so current cultural norms and scientific data should dictate how we read the text, I would be adhering to a “Liberal ethos.”

    If that is how he is using conservative and liberal, and after reading the article that was the impression that I had, then I don’t think it’s wrong for the LCMS to adhere to a conservative ethos. I would argue that it is wrong for them not to.

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    1. Yeah, Don, I think you and I agree for the most part. I think, however, The opening paragraph and the section I posted end up putting the LCMD under the umbrella of a larger conservatism. My point is that the church doesn’t belong to any -isms. It belongs to Christ. There is faithful adherence to the word and unfaithfulness. Those are not coterminous with conservative or liberal.

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