Category Archives: Diatribes

On Joel Hess’s Inability To Find His Ass With Both Hands

I searched Google for “Joel Hess” and this is what came up. Seems about right.

Among the many blogs by Lutherans that you should never bother reading, the Jagged Word comes in near the top of the list. Staffed by a tank of insecure Gen-Xers, this blog has featured absolutely nothing worth reading in its entire history of existence. It has, however, served the useful purpose of adequately showcasing the Everymoron’s opinion in any number of Lutheran controversies every couple of months, ever since…whenever. How the jagged decide among themselves which LARPing manchild writes what, and when, is surely a process which no algorithm could approximate. Mysterious. Needless to say, it is a blog devoted to signaling. Not a single post is excepted from this generalization.

The Jagged Word

In any event, there’s this guy Joel Hess who writes terrible articles at the Jagged Word with a frequency of something like one to ten articles per year. I don’t know. His latest is awful. Just…pitifully stupid. Like, worse than the ones that Scott Keith’s son writes, if you can imagine that. A lot of this can be explained by the fact that Hess went to the St. Louis seminary (sorry, I know there are exceptions— he’s not one), although one gets the feeling that the guy is such a dunce that, had he gone to the Ft. Wayne seminary, he would have emerged in a state of similar puerility and written articles that sucked just as hard. Though he went to seminary, I don’t think he’s a pastor, but I haven’t checked, and this is the Missouri Synod, so I could be wrong. To quote a friend who just recently read Hess’s latest:

“Wow. This guy couldn’t find his ass with both hands.”

And that is about exactly the size of it.

If you want to read Hess’s article for reference purposes, you can do so by visiting this link. In his article, Hess asserts that the desire for liturgical uniformity makes one a partisan of the Prussian Union/a Romanizer. There is no argument, only assertion and B-grade snark, the sort you’d expect from twerps who white-knight on Facebook all day and look like bearded guppies. Hess says it because, again, as stated above, he’s insecure, and he hasn’t read very much. It’s never occurred to him to listen to men who are wiser than he, because as far as he knows, this is an imaginary category. That’s why he blogs at the Jagged Word.

Anyway, all of this is an overlong intro to this, the meat of this piece, which is just a link to this article by Dr. Holger Sonntag, who, unlike Hess, is a scholar:

“Freedom Shall Be and Remain a Servant of Love”: Luther on Liturgical Diversity and Uniformity as an Exercise in Distinguishing Faith and Love

And if you don’t want to slog through that— at all or just yet— consider this:

[​W]e teach that in these matters​ (i.e., adiaphora)​ the use of liberty is to be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended, and, on account of the abuse of liberty, may not become more hostile to the true doctrine of the Gospel, or that without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience. And in this very assembly we have shown sufficiently that for love’s sake we do not refuse to observe adiaphora with others, even though they should have some disadvantage; but we have judged that such public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages [all other less important matters]. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XVI, 51-52)

QED. Joel Hess is an ignoramus.

Episode 2: Higher Things—TOYOTA

It appears I chose a rather ripe topic for my debut here at The Cellar Door. (“A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?”) I certainly did not realize that by laying a hand on the sacred rump of the Higher Things cow—not even tipping it, simply laying a hand on it!—I would elicit such spirited ire from some of its principals and organizational boosters. Given that I am but a lowly author who hath not the power of the sceptre on this blog, I didn’t immediately get the memo. Anyway, I’ve got it now: I am to put the new cover sheets on all TPS reports, mmkay?

No, but apparently I’ve rustled some feathers with what I wrote. Stanislas forwarded me some notification emails heralding comments from Greg Eilers (who writes under the pseudonym “Gina”), Rev. William Cwirla (who, I am told, bakes a lot of bread), and Rev. Christopher Rosebrough (who apparently owns a pirate ship—well, shiver me timbers!). Mr. Eilers’ comment was long, made no sense, and wasn’t funny. Rev. Cwirla’s comment was short, made sense, and was funny. Rev. Rosebrough’s comment was a duplication of a post on his blog. It was something else. But there are so many people who like to ride on his pirate ship (if you know what I mean) that we’ve been getting a lot of click-throughs to my post from his. Since I’m not sorry for having written what I wrote (not even a little bit), and since I cannot take anything that pompous muckraking fraud says with even an iota of seriousness, I’ll refrain from offering a sardonic “thanks, matey”, but will nonetheless express my approval of the fact that his website is directing so much traffic our way.

First of all, I thought that everyone thought Merovech was actually Trent Demerest, the Pseudepigraphus blogger. Now I’m told that I’m Trent Demerest. All this time, I’ve been living a lie, thinking I was someone else. The logic seems to be that if you indicate mild agreement with the Enfant Terrible of Lutheran bloggers, and you use a pseudonym, you become him. Rumor has it there’s even a betting pool. “Argh, mateys! Odds be five-to-one it’s me sworn enemy, Demerest! Argh!” I’d like to cash in for some of Captain Rosebrough’s seed-money booty that he pillaged from Creflo Dollar’s yacht.

If you’re betting on this, you’re just plain stupid. Go play internet poker. If you are unable to think of any good reasons someone might have for writing under a pseudonym, then you probably have spent too much time on the internet, specifically comment sections. Sort of a given for most of us these days, so don’t take it too hard.

Second…goodness gracious, I am getting absolutely smoked for having written “dinitarian” rather than “binitarian.” Check this out; here’s Cwirla:

First of all, the term is “binitarian” not “dinitarian.” If you’re going to charge someone with something, at least name it correctly.

The effect is better if you crane your neck way back, sneer, squint, and sort of speak through your nose as you read it aloud.

Here’s Rosebrough:

That’s hardly what one would expect from an organization that is drifting into Dinitarian [sic] Antinomianism (the correct theological word is Binitarian).

…and then he writes “Dinitarian [sic]” like eight times! This guy, with the signaling.

Alright, you two exceedingly sagacious men. You caught me. I’m not a theologian (then again, neither is Rosebrough). I’m an engineer. Give me a little credit for using “Pneumatomachians”, will you? I’ll go to sleep tonight rubbing my temples and chanting “Bi, not Di.” I sure hope my subconscious doesn’t do weird things with that; dreams will tell.

More distressing than my confusion over Latin prefixes, though, is the fact that neither of these men seems to know how to read. For Blackbeard, there’s some excuse—there’s little time for phonics on the high seas. But there is no excuse for Breadloaf, who I’m sure has at least read bread recipes.

I certainly did not accuse Higher Things of being binitarian, dynamite, or Pneumatomachian. And I quote myself:

Needless to say, I’m not truly worried that the folks who run Higher Things are Pneumatomachians.

I simply observed that Higher Things has become very sloppy. I also brought up the inconvenient truth that an increasing number of people have soured on the organization, and I gave examples of some reasons why. As a springboard for these observations, I made an intentionally overwrought observation of the fact that no mention was made of the Holy Spirit in an advert that seemed to start out with a creedal structure and sequence. The implication was that the things we do without thinking often are the most revealing of our habits and priorities.

Doesn’t matter. There be leaden plates lining yon pirate captain’s tri-cornered dunce-cap! Yargh!

In a recent blog post written by pseudonymous author John Philoponus which was posted at The Cellar-Door, Higher Things, an organization for which I sit on the Board of Directors, was charged with the very serious theological crime of being antinomian. The evidence that was put forth to substantiate the author’s charge was an advertising blurb for an upcoming Higher Things retreat. Below is my response to this slanderous and sinful blog post. (emphasis and high-dudgeon in original)

Theological crime! Somebody call Torquemada, and—just to be safe—Van Helsing.

Such keening is one reason why a rapidly diminishing number of people take this guy seriously.

Then this:

I strongly admonish the author of this post to repent, seek out their [sic] pastor to confess this sin and be absolved for it and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance by immediately publishing a retraction.

Make sure that your pronouns match their antecedents in number, Cap’n.

You’ll not be getting a retraction. The fact that Higher Things allows you to sit on its board should be sufficient to destroy any sane man’s confidence in the organization. Put that in your four-pounder and fire it, “matey.”

Then there’s Padre Breadloaf Headphones:


Yes, well, I can call you a flaming arrogant (you carry your fair share of ignorance, too) jackass knowing exactly who you are. But I won’t. However, I will take your suggestion and waste no time, energy, or words addressing asininity. As such I won’t be responding to any more of your “feedback”, such as has made its way to me. As Jack Preus used to say, “Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk.”

I didn’t think that my little thinkpiece was going to cause such a firestorm. But if I’ve got the ear of “the public” or, more likely, “a handful of fellow Lutherans”, I suppose I’ll capitalize on my Joe the Plumber moment.

The thrust of my concern with Higher Things has less to do with the details of what they’re putting out, and more to do with the fact that big “Youth Gatherings” are root-and-branch the product of erroneous thinking regarding the Church, the Ministry, and the Christian home. Rev. Phillip Hoppe’s article was the buried lede of my whole piece. If all I did in my post was get more people to read and seriously consider what he wrote, then I will consider my first foray into Lutheran blogging a mild success.

Compare two admittedly caricatured genres of event:

  1. “Hey, you folks in the area, and others who may want to make the trip, come to our church for a thing. It’s for the whole family.”
  2. “Hey, youth everywhere! We, a group of Lutheran superstars, are going to travel the country and put on big things! The things we’ll be putting on will be so big that we might not be able to use church buildings for the services…but, boy-oh-boy will your heart just bleed at how beautiful (topically popular hymn/something besides the Common Service) sounds when we all sing it together! You’ll be overcome with togetherness and a feeling of transportive Lutheran solidarity! Hip and cool pastors whom you don’t know and who don’t know you will teach breakout sessions that will make your own pastor seem bland and forgettable! Afterwards you can friend them all on Facebook, watch their videos, listen to their podcasts…basically just hang onto every thought that surfaces in their craniums throughout the day. Anyway, be sure to find the big thing we’re doing nearest to you. It’ll be the experience of a lifetime the year, and you can mope and languish in come-down for months afterwards…UNTIL THE NEXT BIG THING! Be sure to stay in touch with us 24/7/365 via the internet, and buy some swag!”

^ High energy. Just a lot of energy there. Yuge.

It should be readily apparent that I’m doing more than summarizing Rev. Hoppe, who may not agree with my riffs on the points he made and should not be blamed for them.

I don’t think that genre #2—which includes both the National Youth Gathering and Higher Things—is a wise idea, or that it ever has been a wise idea. I will freely acknowledge, and applaud, the fact that Higher Things also sponsors events which fit under genre #1. Still, I wonder what the point is of branding them as “Higher Things” events.

Having an alternative to the National Youth Gathering was once a very attractive idea for us confessional types. From the late nineties through most of the aughts, we were very down. We felt like we were “losing the Synod.” Gerald Kieschnick and his church-growth hatchet-men were sauntering oily-shod over everything we loved and held dear. There was more finger-snapping going on than at a dress-rehearsal of West Side Story. All sorts of things were Ablaze that never even should have been exposed to sunlight. We were surly and we kicked the cat, sometimes twice a day.

Enter Higher Things, the organization that gave us hope. The organization that raged against the dying of the light, against the unionistic, mainline-wannabe, gutless LCMS of yesterdecade. Finally! A youth conference where Scripture, the Catechism, the Liturgy—in short, “Good Christ-Crucified For-You Lutheranism”—were front and center. Load up the conversion van!

We said it was for the kids, and it was. We do love our kids and we wanted what was best for them. But, really, it was also for us. We were so anxious about “The State of the Synod”, so tired of “losing”, etc., that we forgot that the real wellsprings of Christian faith and piety are the local church and the home altar, not youth gatherings. Our kids became pawns in that weirdly vicarious “battle for the institutions” that we in the Gen-X/young-boomer cohort can never seem to get free from.

The LCMS, Gerald Kieschnick, Ablaze!—these things actually had very little to do with our children. They were, all of them, tails wagging the dog. Or another part of the dog, right below the base of the tail. But they were not actually “the problem”, and our thinking that they were was a grand exercise in blame-displacement.

Bull-corn to English: Higher Things does not exist because “the LCMS” failed to produce a genuinely confessional Lutheran “youth gathering”, “youth organization”, “culture of youth ministry”, what have you. Higher Things exists because of failures at the level of the local church and the Christian home—failures which are more than catechetical, but which are largely and obviously catechetical. 

Even if all of Higher Things’s “content” were grade-A genuinely and confessionally Lutheran (it may have been at one point, but it sure isn’t anymore), that wouldn’t change the fact that the organization should be working to eliminate the need for its own existence (as President Reagan said of welfare). Instead it has become self-conscious, self-perpetuating, and expansionary. Like welfare.

Whatever will your youth do during those long periods of doldrums in between Higher Things conferences? Get them “plugged in” via the Higher Things blog, Higher Things online devotionals, Higher Things Facebook, Higher Things Twitter, Higher Things podcasts, and Higher Things Higher Things. Content! So much content! (Word on the street is that Higher Things will soon be available as an IV-drip.)

As with welfare, the very men whose dereliction has necessitated the rise of the alien institution (read: fathers) realize that Higher Things will continue to “do our job for us” if we let it (or so we think). So we begin to coast. Sure, our children don’t look up to us as their spiritual heads, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay for convenience. The local church and pastor get bypassed, too. Instead, children look at screens where Higher Things gurus (and gurinas) tell them all that they need to know (and, as it turns out, plenty of stuff that they don’t need to know and that you’d rather that they didn’t).

Fellow dads, don’t kid yourself: paying the Verizon bill does not amount to exercising spiritual headship.

“The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family,” George Gilder writes in Wealth & Poverty; “he feels dispensable, his wife knows he is dispensable, his children sense it.” True enough. Yet the other, more insidious reality is that some men are fine with, and even grow to like, feeling dispensable. Delegating the faith-formation of one’s children to a “youth organization” frees up a lot of time for important things like Facebook, fantasy football, and pursuing the American dream your vocation.

All of this has a detrimental effect on pastors, too. The virtuality, ubiquity, immediacy, and illocality of the internet all exacerbate the desire—latent in the heart of every pastor—to make himself into a para-minister, a celebrity, and a leader of men (or youth), someone who can be consulted for theological answers and even spiritual direction from a distance by a host of people who aren’t actually under his spiritual care. But parishioners are not the same as fans, and fans are not the same as parishioners. Being Lutheran doesn’t make one immune to this, and being “confessional” or “liturgical” is no inoculation. While this touches more than just Higher Things, they are still the prime example of Lutherans doing the para-ministry thing and pretending its something else.

When you get right down to it, Higher Things is a function of the same errant thinking which undergirds the “church growth” movement. “The youth” are treated like a clientele whose special spiritual needs are better met by some branded organizations that is neither the local church nor the family. Mercantile ministry. Same game, different team.

When I look back over the years, I really do think that we confessional refugees should have read the signs better back when Higher Things got started. We should have thought a little more deeply about how—indeed, whether—organizations of its kind actually help the confessional/ genuine/ historic Lutheran “cause.” More to the point, we should have realized that Lutheranism is not a cause at all.

We Lutherans claim that Lutheranism is the purest idiom of the catholic faith, thus Christianity, thus a religion. (No, it is not “just” a confession.) When it comes to religion there actually is quite a bit more to the thing than dumping GOOD-CHRIST-CRUCIFIED-FOR-YOU-LUTHERANISM!!! into the youth (or anyone) raw from the top at giant traveling filling stations.

There’s a radio advert that’s played on Issues Etc. periodically. I know you’ve heard it. This super enthusiastic voice (got to be Rev. George Borghardt—a genuinely nice guy) comes on over an organ motet: “If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth…put Good Christ-Crucified-For-You-Lutheranism IN YOUR YOUTH!!!” I don’t remember the wording exactly, and I’m not going to skip through an Issues, Etc. episode to find it right now. I know it’s not significantly different than that. But what is it even supposed to mean? Does anyone even know? We’re not talking about limes and coconuts here; we’re talking about human beings. Does anyone think this is actually how religion works, or how the human person works?

I have a better idea. If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth, you should get married, have kids, get them baptized, teach them to pray, teach them the Catechism, teach them the liturgy and our great hymns, get them educated, and have them learn a trade or profession from a young age that accords with their gifts so that they can serve their neighbor rather than melt their brains staring at an iPhone for eighteen hours a day. In fact, take away their iPhones, or their Galaxy Nexi, or their HTCs. Your child needs a smartphone like he needs a hole in the head. I should know—I build them. Smartphones, that is, not holes in the head.

If you want to be more serious about your family’s Lutheran piety, but you really get no support from your local church; if your pastor really is not doing his job; if Sunday morning really is a depressing stew of pathetically un-Lutheran garbage, &c… then you really should consider moving—either to another church or, if there is no better option, to another area, i.e., pack up the U-Haul and leave Ur of the Chaldees. Maybe it’s outside the realm of possibility for you for various reasons. But maybe it’s not. A truly reverent Lutheran liturgy should not be something you regard as a special event to be patronized on special occasions, like a theme park or some other diverting novelty. Quite the opposite—it should be one of the determining factors in where you choose to locate your family. I, for one, wish I had realized this much sooner.

At no point have I argued that Higher Things has never done any good. That would be a ridiculous claim. Maybe you were awakened from indifference at a Higher Things conference. Maybe you even came to faith because of the Word that was preached at one. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to God that people have come to real saving faith during the time of the Great Awakening, or at a Billy Graham crusade, or after hearing a sermon in a Catholic church. That doesn’t negate the fact that the “Great Awakening” was propelled by pernicious sectarianism, that “decision theology” is formally heretical, and that the Roman Catholic Church officially anathematized the Gospel itself in 1563. That good effects have followed dubious enterprises is no argument on behalf of the dubious enterprises themselves. I know that you or your teenage son might get the opposite impression from reading any one of Rev. Riley’s many self-aggrandizing posts about his edgy past, but…no, it’s simply a reminder that God is merciful, and that He works all things together for good for His elect children. If He didn’t, I don’t know how any of us would ever be saved.

One final note…

Perhaps it will seem strange, but I have not written any of this in an effort to convince people who disagree with me. That’s not why I’m writing. I have a very limited purpose. I’m simply writing to let you know—no, not you, but you—that you are not crazy. A lot of us see what you see. You’re not the only one. Your doubts are well-founded. You are not a pietist, a wet blanket, overly scrupulous, weird, disconnected from reality, &c. If you are, in fact, behind the times, count yourself blessed, because the times are about to steamroll everyone currently skipping gaily ahead of them.

A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?

“The Trinity,” Jusepe de Ribera; 1635; Naples, Italy

Besides all this and before all, keep I pray you the good deposit, by which I live and work, and which I desire to have as the companion of my departure; with which I endure all that is so distressful, and despise all delights; the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost… No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.

~ St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations, Oration 40, Section 41

I imagine that the foregoing selection from the fortieth of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Theological Orations resonates rather strongly with Lutherans, at least with the sort of Lutherans who aren’t “triggered” by references to the Church Fathers (God bless the patriarchy). Indeed, at their best Lutherans are obsessively, sometimes almost comically, trinitarian. Among those who have been taught to know and love the catholic faith from the Small Catechism, an equilateral triangle is apt to bring to mind the Holy Trinity rather than any geometric theorem.

While none of its parts is in the least bit dispensable, nonetheless it’s fair to say that the heart of the Small Catechism is the Apostles’ Creed. From ancient times this baptismal creed has been used by the Church as an epitome of the Christian faith, to be recited, prayed, and commended to oneself and one’s children (be they natural or spiritual) as a touchstone of orthodoxy, which means, ultimately, “right worship.” Lex orandi, lex credendi.

The creed and the attendant explanations of its three articles teach not just the doctrine of God, but the doctrine of God “for you”, as Lutherans are wont to say—not just the “immanent Trinity”, but the “economic Trinity” to put it in the somewhat wonky terms of classical theism. In other words, it does not so much present God the Holy Trinity in His infinite, unknowable, and unapproachable majesty as commend to our piety the three Divine Persons, known through their gracious and condescending work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. The Catechism profoundly teaches—howbeit somewhat subtly—the true meaning of what it is to live and move and have one’s being in God (Acts 17:28).

Being so trinitarian, there’s a certain ordinate sequential cue that all Lutherans naturally pick up on. “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and […]”; “Through Jesus Christ, Your Son, Our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and […]”; “Holy Father, Holy Son, […], Three we name Thee.” You don’t have to be Gregory of Nazianzus, or Martin Luther, or really a theological heavyweight in any way, to just sort of know that when the sequence of the Divine Name begins, it shouldn’t stop until all three persons have been given their due. That’s not just logic—it’s Theo-logic. After all, it is the Name, singular, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which we invoke, into which we have been baptized, which we praise, &c., the Name signifying the One True God whom Christians alone confess and worship (cf. Nicene Creed; Large Catechism II, 66).

Remember, the Holy Spirit is “The Lord”— full stop. There are few places in which an Oxford comma is more audibly needed than before “and giver of life” in the weekly confession of the Nicene Creed during Divine Service. We’re not saying that the Holy Spirit is the Lord of Life and the Giver of Life at that point in the Creed, as true as it may be to say so. No, we’re saying that the Holy Spirit is YHWH, and as such He is the Giver of Life coequally with the Father and the Son.

Right. So, given that the Holy Spirit is YHWH, given that “in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another”, given that “the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things…the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped” (cf. Athanasian Creed)— given all this, one wonders why Higher Things, when advertising one of its upcoming catechetical conferences, would start up the sequence of the Divine Name only to let it drop with nary a mention of God the Holy Spirit:

Let’s parse this:

God not only made you, but He also instituted husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, etc. This is not an accident. That’s the First Article of the Creed, Creation and its orders— the Person and Work of the Father. Check.

“There’s even more!” it says. Here’s what’s more: many-hyphened-verbing Jesus redemptionates you, or some suchlike. This is also not an accident. So far so good, even if the grammar is needlessly convoluted— no doubt so that we can get the tiresomely harped-upon point that JESUS DOES VERBS FOR YOU EXTRA NOS!!! Anyway, that’s the Second Article, Redemption— the Person and Work of the Son. Check.

The End.

Wait— what? We’re two thirds of the way there, living on a prayer. That had the makings of a nice Creed-structured announcement! Weren’t we talking about all the things that God does that aren’t accidents? If we’re going to mention the Father and the Son, creation and redemption, why aren’t we going to mention the Holy Spirit and sanctification? Is sanctification an accident? (Uh-oh. Not this again…)

Frankly, if the organizer of this particular conference, the Higher Things web editor, or whoever, was running up against a word-limit for the advert, they should have redacted a swath of the convoluted hyphenated verbity-verbiage so as to at least give the Paraclete an honorable mention. It would have been a good trade-off.

Needless to say, I’m not truly worried that the folks who run Higher Things are Pneumatomachians. However, it really would behoove them all to be more intentional in confessing the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, lest they give the appearance of having common cause with that other group of Luther-ites who infamously neglected the Third Article. Pardon the length of the following excerpt from Martin Luther, but I think the whole of it merits careful consideration:

That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today, who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of the new life in Christ…. They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach de sanctificatione et vivificatione Spiritus Sancti, “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extoll so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men—we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, beginning and growing here on earth and perfecting it beyond, as St. Paul teaches. Christ did not earn only gratia, “grace,” for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin…. [O]ur Antinomians fail to see that they are preaching Christ without and against the Holy Spirit because they propose to let the people continue in their old ways and still pronounce them saved. And yet logic, too, implies that a Christian should either have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ. (Martin Luther, On The Councils And The Church; AE 41:114-116)

This is, or should be, uncomfortably specific. As in, it is highly specific, totally apropos, and should make Higher Things uncomfortable, and not just for the small snafu in the foregoing recent advert. If Higher Things doesn’t want to get murdered by an ill association with antinomianism and Gospel reductionism, they should do their mostest not to give any reason for such an association to come readily to mind.

Let me rephrase: Higher Things needs to stop giving a bunch of reasons for such an association to come readily to mind, because right now a very ready association between Higher Things and antinomianism has indeed been solidifying in the minds of many who, at least at one point, were ardent supporters of the organization.

There are several rather indicting data points I have in mind, all along the same line: the astounding lack of discernment displayed by Higher Things principals—Rev. Mark Buetow chief among them—in allowing erstwhile LCMS clergyman Greg Eilers’s piece on his gender dysphoria to be published in the Summer 2015 Higher Things magazine (see Eilers’s very revealing take on the matter here); the weak and self-serving retraction, in which no real wrongdoing was admitted (and which totally gave the lie to the Lutheran doctrine of original sin); the self-absorbed, prurient, and downright disturbing blogs of Rev. Donavon Riley (Jesus wants you to “beat the shit” out of Him with your sins; were your kids wondering if Pastor Riley had sex and watched porn with his teenage girlfriend?); the participation of the same in the “ministry” of a sexual predator (see this “Afterword”), snapping selfies with profane women who pretend to be pastors, &c., &c. I could go on, but there’s no reason to be gratuitous, unless you’re Rev. Riley.

None of these things inspires confidence. Higher Things needs to realize that when parents like me read their adverts— such as the one above which has so rustled my jimmies— many of us are reading it skeptically and in a rather dim light. And before you even start, that is our best construction. The principals of Higher Things are asking us to trust them to assist us with forming our children in the faith. I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty high bar when it comes to entrusting my children’s souls to people. Many of us aren’t into being fooled twice and are just not going to chance it with Higher Things anymore. (Indeed, all conscientious Lutheran parents might do well to rethink the merits of big hooplah “youth-events” in general— see this fine piece by Rev. Philip Hoppe for a good explanation of some of the reasons why. The Walther League they ain’t.)

Still, the decision to be grumpier, more parochial, and more hide-in-the-woodsy than the median is a prudential, not a moral one (at least for the present moment). There’s some Christian freedom in these matters. I long ago gave up hoping everyone would agree with me and my little platoon vis-á-vis all liturgical and existential adiaphora. So I’ll close with this: as an old service buddy of mine was fond of saying, always with a grave and sober look, “Trust is gained over time and lost in an instant.” It’s possible for Higher Things to gain some trust back, but first they need to admit that they’ve lost it. Big time. They need to own their failure and actually repent, which— if I may be somewhat topically tendentious— would entail not only expressing sorrow for their errors but also forsaking their errors and doing otherwise (like when Rev. Todd Wilken of Issues, Misc., laudably confessed to having espoused an erroneous doctrine of the Law). It may be that some of Higher Things’ directors need to recuse themselves. It may be that the RSO-status of Higher Things needs to suspended pending a synodical examination and reapplication. I would not be the first to suggest that such measures might be in order. The real gravamen of all this, though, is that trust, real trust, and not “brand” or “status”, must be pains-takingly reestablished by Higher Things— that is to say, re-earned.

With that caveat made, though, we might put it thusly:

If Higher Things wants to regain status as a salutary confessional alternative to the annual LCMS Laser-Guided SMP Show, they might make a small and earnest beginning by leaving a little room for the Holy Spirit— in their adverts, yes, but much more so in the content of what they put out.

[UPDATE 8/9/16: I wrote a followup post here: “Episode 2: Higher Things—TOYOTA”]

Thoughts on the Occasion of Bethany Church, Baltimore, Leaving the LCMS

On Pentecost (ironically), the voters assembly of Bethany Lutheran Church in Violetville, a western neighborhood of Baltimore, moved to disband as a congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, sell their building to their pastor, and re-constitute as a “non-denominational” church. (How this all will play out legally remains to be seen— let’s just say that the schismatics may be unpleasantly surprised.) Here’s Bethany’s website. You get the picture.

Meet Elias Abite Kao, erstwhile pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church, and now schismatic cult-leader of Bethany Whatever Something:


It all makes you wonder…

How could a man who has been thoroughly instructed in the teaching of the Book of Concord and formed by the best liturgical, pastoral, and practical theological training available in the fellowship of worldwide confessional Lutheranism make such an absurd and, finally, heretical, move?

The premise of the question is flawed, of course. The plain truth is that Mr. Kao was not thoroughly instructed in the teaching of the Book of Concord and formed by the best liturgical, pastoral, and practical theological training available in the fellowship of worldwide confessional Lutheranism. Not by a long shot. Do we really think that he was?

While we’re posing incredulous questions, here are a few more.

Can we just admit that Mr. Kao was, in all likelihood, never really a Lutheran in the first place and shouldn’t have been allowed to matriculate through the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology?

While we’re on the subject, why does the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology even exist? What good can come from cordoning off ethnic immigrant candidates for the ministry into a sub-par fast-track to ordination?

Answer: not much good, but plenty of things that would make hearts sing among the colloquized Seminex-grads who draw salaries in the echelons of the Southeastern District bureaucracy. It should come as no surprise that they, of all people, are big fans of all manner of “alternate routes” to certification.

Kao and those like him don’t just slip through the LCMS filter. The LCMS doesn’t have a filter. Or, rather, there are bureaucratic pipelines into the LCMS clergy-roster which are left deliberately unfiltered, so that guys like Mr. Kao can get in. This is the same as having no filter at all. It’s not rocket science. It’s not home pool care. It’s just Missouri-Synod church politics.

Wait a second…what do you mean ‘guys like Mr. Kao’? Is that some kind of racist comment? Are you… a racist???

I don’t know, chief. Denying racism never works, so I won’t try. In any case, I’m glad you’ve been triggered, and to answer your question, by “guys like Kao”, I don’t mean “Ethiopians” (I know some fine confessional Ethiopian Lutherans); I simply mean “non-Lutherans.” We might narrow that a bit, though, to “non-Lutheran immigrants of non-European ethnic extraction who are used as pawns by white liberal boomers in positions of ecclesiastical supervisory authority so that the latter can treat the districts under their purview like petri-dishes in which to perform decades-long crapulous socio-theological experiments which ruin churches.” There— that’s a bit more apropos to our discussion.

Let me project the meta-monologue for you:

“Hey, you! Yes, you with the darker flesh-tones and the Bible. Would you like to be a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod? What’s a Lutheran, you ask? Oh, never you mind that— Lutherans are just like you! We just love Jesus! Anyway, we’d love for you to be a pastor in our church, because we have loads of white guilt, and we’re sort of embarrassed by… well… absolutely everything about our Lutheran heritage. Having token brown people will make us feel better about ourselves! Anyway, we’ve got this program that you can go through that will more or less ensure that you retain all of your cherished heretical beliefs, if you have any. Hopefully you do— they will add to our diversity!”

…and then, after the required minimum processing, the SED takes said hapless individual— who may or may not know that he’s complicit in an effort to subvert the LCMS; after all, he doesn’t know the first thing about the LCMS other than what he’s been told by his white liberal handlers— and sends him to a middle-class white suburban Lutheran parish that has slowly been growing more confessional and liturgical but has recently lost its pastor. They’ve just gotten the savor of genuine Lutheranism in their mouths, and they think they’d kind of like to keep going with that, they just need some guidance from a pastor who loves Lutheranism as much as the last one. But… well… the District has other plans. “‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord,” says the District.

“GASP! That is so racist. I can’t believe you’re saying this!”

No, it’s not racist. If you think that the color of a man’s skin matters more than the content of his confession, you’re the racist. Go ahead and clutch your white guilt pearls; nobody is going to steal them from you. I certainly will not.

The fact that the foregoing is not the modus operandi for absolutely all colloquy applications or alternate-route certifications in the LCMS is beyond irrelevant. It is the modus operandi for plenty of them. And this M.O. is a betrayal of the Lutheran confession. It is an insult to the millions of non-Europeans the world over who confess the Lutheran faith with unalloyed sincerity. It is at last a not-so-subtle Marxist nudge from white liberal vision wonks in the SED that ethnic-minority Lutherans are dabbling in “false consciousness” if they profess to love that “cold Germanic ritual that teaches God at a distance.” (<< Bill Woolsey, the idiot LCMS pastor who leads FiveTwo, described the Lutheran liturgy in these terms.)

You see (the white liberal LCMS vision goes), if these poor colored folk knew what was truly them, they’d get with something a little more blended, a little more “diverse”, a little more…oh, I dunno…tribal. Something less stodgy and white. “Here,” says the awkward white liberal synodocrat dressed in a mumu spun from his weird boomer neuroses and some Paul Tillich quotes, “let me pry that Lutheran Hymnal out of your old black hands. I’m going to help you worship like the ethnic arch-stereotypes in my head are all worshiping. Grab your maraca!”

It is absurd, it is deceitful, and it is really, truly racist, for it regards race as some trump-card in the “diversity for diversity’s sake” game. And you had better bet your sweet foot that this is the bread and butter of the Southeastern District.

If you think that any of the foregoing is a misrepresentation of business as usual in the SED, just visit the next district convention, or any one of the circuit meetings in the northern region of the district (where the erstwhile Bethany Lutheran Church is located). You’ll have a great time listening to well-paid district hatchet-men advocating with gusto for “lay ministry” (by men and women), recommending the closure and sale of local (confessional) churches, foisting “Afro-centric” “worship materials” onto congregations in which no one at all is requesting them, and generally inciting all manner of unionism and Schwarmerisch heresy.


“Oh. But these are outliers. This must be just the SED! Alternate route-certification isn’t abused in this way anywhere else.”

I don’t know if any LCMS Lutheran not currently under the influence of quaaludes/the smoldering hash of Ablaze! would actually raise the above imagined objection. But if there are some reading this who doubt, all I will say is…no. It’s not just the SED. It’s all over the Synod. Mostly in urban areas where white liberal boomers tend to congregate. Yes, that is an assertion, not an argument. Do your own homework; it’s not hard, and there are all sorts of people who can help you with the answers, i.e., attest that what I have said here is true. Or just open your ever-loving eyes.

In fine, Bethany Church’s exit from the LCMS shouldn’t be a surprise. Along with Berea Lutheran Church— which is still in the LCMS, and whose services are presided over by a woman and visiting Pentecostal ministers— Bethany had for some time functioned as a beacon and friendly port for syncretist Pentecostal-LINOs, over and against the objections of the members who are faithfully Lutheran, who have now been outnumbered, out-glossolaliated, and outvoted.

The irony of this whole thing is that the SED execs are probably sad to see Bethany leave, if only because, in their minds, there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t have stayed. Sure, Mr. Kao was regularly preaching at a Pentecostal church in Washington D.C. and telling his members that Baptism was meaningless and inefficacious. Sure, he was obviously not a Lutheran and should never have been certified, called, or ordained in the first place…but…but…but…

But what? None of this is an accident. Considered corporately, the Southeast District of the LCMS openly despises anything having to do with the Lutheran tradition. As Steadfast Lutherans reported last November, the SED president exuberantly (“frantically” is more like it) launched a new lay-deacon program as soon as the synodical task-force charged with examining the lay deacon program released a report which recommended its curtailment.

To say that the departure of Bethany Church from the LCMS “raises questions” about the adequacy of “Alternate Route Certifications” of the sort which allowed this fellow, Mr. Kao, to receive ordination in the Missouri Synod in the first place would be a gross understatement. It doesn’t actually raise any questions. It simply shines a light once again on the fact that the Missouri Synod is not united, and that there is no realistic hope of it becoming united once again out of its current fractured state. We are riven and shot through with schism, but time and again, the major fault lines are papered over by theologians of glory— on the synodical right and left— who idolize institutional unity and undermine unity in life-giving doctrine.

Absent a Deus ex machina event at the Synodical convention this July, the least bad option, however fanciful it might be, would be for the convention to authorize the President of Synod to fire the district presidents who not only allow but encourage unionism and dissension viz. our Confessions and the Constitution & Bylaws. Full stop. The second least bad option is for the liberals to, once again, walk out. There is a place for them, if not quite a church in the proper sense of that term: it’s called the ELCA. They should be encouraged to follow in Matthew Becker’s train down the broad path of apostate Lutheranism, and we should let them go, say a prayer for their repentance, yes, and then turn back around and focus on rebuilding our house.