Unsafe Theology

By Paul Koch

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?


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 through 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.


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.

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!


8 thoughts on “Unsafe Theology

  1. I arrived at the Missouri Synod Church with a case of “dysentery” after having drunk from an
    evangelical ditch my entire life. So no thanks, you take a walk on the wild side if you are bored with the purest doctrine possible. I speak for myself and the other refugees from the seeker sensitive, big box, happy clappy morass. Filters for us please! We want the pure God breathed, Spirit illuminated, Apostolic doctrine as pure as we can get it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “At almost every gathering of pastors; from a circuit meeting to a district conference you will hear lines like this:”

    If this is what you are hearing, it’s not fear, but pride. I know that my theology is imperfect because I am imperfect. I read other theologians to see what the Church teaches and has taught. I weigh “new” ideas against Scripture and what the Church has always taught. I welcome the correction my fellow pastors bring when I am wrong.


  3. I mostly agree. If we remain within Scripture and the Confessions, there is a lot more room for discussion than some would have it. The problem is that the “some” are in power and fail to see that this is how the Church initially received Luther.

    Too many people mistake “purity” for “exactness” and “perfection”. There is much to hold in tension, much not revealed and areas for discussion, areas that need some work. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, each believer could stand as a denomination of one person having at least some idea that is different from everyone else’s. There is no perfect concord.

    Next month, there will be a broadcast debate over such an issue. We need to be reminded that the truths of scripture shine when subjected to examination, to a devil’s advocate. How can we explain to the world what we cannot understand? Arguing against yourself is a valuable tool in building an argument for the truth. The more vigorous, the better.

    Theological discussions should not be heard as pronouncements of new truths and those likely to take them as such are not mature enough to engage.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Have not seen the full info, yet. But Dr. Montgomery and Dr. Kloha are to engage in a live debate over Dr. Kloha’s recent work on textual criticism. The event is slated for Saturday, October 15th, 2016 at Concordia University-Chicago. Suppose dot be seeing a live stream link and BJS is going to put it on youtube.


  4. It’s definitely a thin line that needs to be walked. At my former fundamentalist-leaning, sort-of Calvinist, Evangelical church, they were generally opposed to the broader trends within Evangelicalism, but they sort of had trends of their own which the pastor would grab onto.

    The benefit of having both confessional standards and a denominational hierarchy is that the doctrine and practice of the church aren’t going to radically change in a 5 year period. They help to prevent each local pastor from becoming a pope in his own right.

    On the other hand, I can see how an overly strict denominational hierarchy might be stifling, but I still think it’s much better than the other way around.


  5. Vagueposting…not very helpful, in my opinion.

    Perhaps you can provide some very concrete example of the kind of “impurities” you have in mind?

    Also, your understanding of the Synod’s Doctrinal Review process is mistaken. It is not something Concordia Publishing House created or is responsible for. Check your handy-dandy Synodical Handbook for the details on how it function.


  6. Fear no man, be he pope or doctor of doctrine. Pray to be faithful to God, His Word & His Spirit. Luther was excommunicated, Jesus was criticised for hanging with sinners & we are to pray: Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done. The key I believe is lot’s of prayer & meditation on the Word. Get the living water and let it flow! We are to be fountains of water not damns. And by the way running water needs less filtration than stagnant.


Comments are closed.