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!