Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world

There is nothing more fun about being a confessional Lutheran than explaining our position on syncretistic worship to those who aren’t.

I kid, it’s not fun at all. See, the world embraces syncretism. The general idea is, it goes without saying, that all religions are good and valid and different paths to understanding the same truth. If you don’t ascribe to that notion, you are probably a bad guy.

Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. One of the most important aspects of American civil religion is participation in interfaith — or syncretistic — worship services. These worship services used to be more about “unionism” — the blending of Christian worship — whereas now they explicitly blend in groups that reject Christianity. It turns out that confessional Lutherans not only don’t support unionism and syncretism but it’s a big part of our story about how we came to America. The head of Germany was forcing joint worship (with the Reformed Christians) on confessional Lutherans and we took our doctrinal beliefs so seriously that we were forced to flee.

It’s a very serious issue for us. And one that most of our fellow Americans don’t understand (though they’ve graciously allowed us in and allowed us to practice our doctrinal beliefs).

We don’t do interfaith worship because of our understanding of the First Commandment, which is a demand for, as one of our scholars puts it, “a radical and absolute exclusivity in our relationship with the realm of divine beings.” And since the first duty of the believer is to worship, this is most clearly expressed in how we worship.

If you are a journalist who is genuinely interested in this topic and why we believe what we do, I’d encourage the book “The Anonymous God: The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society.” It’s a highly readable, succinct explanation of our doctrines and how American culture is hostile to our views. If you’re going for the quick and dirty version, I’d recommend (sorry …) my own Wall Street Journal piece on the matter the last time this became a big issue in the media, after a clergy member was suspended for his participation in interfaith worship:

In late June, the church suspended the Rev. David Benke, the president of its Atlantic District and the pastor of a Brooklyn church, for praying with clerics who don’t share the Christian faith.

Naturally, the suspension caused all hell to break loose. From the New York Times’ editors to FoxNews’ Bill O’Reilly, pundits and commentators chided the Lutherans for their intolerance. Mr. O’Reilly, not otherwise known for theological expertise, even accused the church of “not following Jesus.” A column in Newsday said Mr. Benke’s accusers were “advocating religious isolationism.” …

To participate in an interfaith service is, as the synod announced upon suspending Mr. Benke, “a serious offense” strictly forbidden by tradition and church law. But the source of the prohibition is Christ’s own words. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). As the Rev. Charles Henrickson, a Lutheran minister in St. Louis, explains: “The gospel is not served, it is not confessed — indeed, the gospel is eviscerated — when Jesus Christ is presented as one of many options from which to choose on a smorgasbord of spirituality.”

Basically we think it’s fine to set aside differences to work together in many things unless the thing we’re supposed to agree to disagree on is Jesus and the context is worship.

Another issue arose when a Lutheran pastor who everyone agrees is doing a great job ministering to his congregation in Newtown in all sorts of ways took part in a syncretistic worship service. He explained why he thought it was ok, but many Lutherans thought it not, it was becoming a bit of a “scandal” (in the church sense of the term), and his supervisors asked him to speak a word of apology. He did. The President basically told both the people who thought his apology didn’t go far enough and those who want to change church teaching on syncretism that they should work together in love and compassion. While it’s not a huge issue within the church body, some folks have been pushing for secular media coverage of same since that’s a much more favorable climate for changing church teaching on this matter.

So if you thought it was less than enjoyable to have your patriotism questioned after 9/11, you can imagine how easy it is to explain your church doctrine on the First and Second Commandments in the subtle and unpolarized aftermath of the Newtown massacre. The headlines and stories have been full of outrage. Some of that is to be expected for anything as countercultural as our doctrine on this matter. Some of it is just not the best work.

Or as Vanity Fair‘s Kurt Eichenwald put it:

Truth: Lutherans angry at minister 4 praying w/ a Rabbi 4 a dead Jewish boy wouldve been angry 4 prayers at the Crucifiction of Jesus, a Jew

I’m sure that whatever our differences on this matter, our favorite part of that tweet is the spelling of Crucifixion. But Eichenwald’s Bill O’Reilly-level of theological acumen is off the mark. Would we worship at Jesus’ Crucifixion with those who worshiped a different God? We would consider it something of an ontological impossibility. Not that I necessarily expect most reporters to even understand what I mean by that.

So first and foremost, I will say to you what I said to the New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer when he sent out a mildly snarky tweet about my church body’s doctrine. If you are a reporter and you have any questions about our doctrines, feel free to ask me about it. I know that the Newtown pastor, his District President and the Synodical President have all agreed not to speak with the media. Further, those who are eager to speak on the matter are, quite understandably, those seeking to change the church position. That makes it very difficult to understand support for a topic that is already probably hard for you to understand. I’m just a layperson with no formal theological training, but I have read up on syncretism and our church teaching on the matter and am happy to do my best to explain this doctrinal topic that is so far outside the mainstream of American religious expression. Perhaps I can point you to authors whose works I’ve read or to church historians who can explain the controversy.

As one Lutheran pastor put it:

The national media have picked up on LCMS President Matthew Harrison’s response to the participation of Pastor Robert Morris in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Connecticut. The interfaith service took place on December 16, a letter from Pastor Morris regarding his participation was issued on January 31, and a letter from President Harrison on his handling of the situation was issued on February 1. Now, in the last 24 hours, an article by Caleb Bell of Religion News Service (RNS), “Lutheran pastor apologizes for praying at Newtown vigil,” has appeared in the Washington Post and other news outlets. And an article by Rachel Zoll of Associated Press (AP), “Newtown Pastor Reprimanded Over Prayer Vigil,” has appeared on ABC News and elsewhere…

Of course, do not expect the coverage and commentary to understand or approve of what is going on. Even though, in my view, President Harrison’s letter is excellent, and his handling of the situation has been very balanced and pastoral–both evangelical and confessional–the media voices will not “get it.” To disapprove of interfaith services in our day is unpopular. It goes against American civil religion and political correctness. The prevailing notion in our culture is that “all roads lead to God,” and the spiritual smorgasbord that interfaith services offer falls right in line with that false belief. Even if a clergy participant is well-intentioned, and his portion of the service contains no false doctrine per se, the unavoidable effect is to support the “whatever works for you” overarching message.

Anyway, I wanted to also note that the New York Times handled this story well (“Lutheran Minister Explains Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service“). It may come off as harsh to some of us who are confessional Lutheran, but it is a reasonable presentation of the issues.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Pope Benedict, both as pope and cardinal, has been viciously attacked in the media for not being syncretic enough. On occasion he has said traditional Catholic things like Jesus is our only saviour, the Catholic Church is the One True Church founded on the rock of Peter, etc. etc. I guess even the Pope of Rome isn’t supposed to be unabashedly Christian or Catholic in our age of syncretic happy talk where noone is supposed to feel that what they say or believe could possibly be Truth. But if a religious leader doesn’t believe the very things he is teaching are unequivocally true–what good is he???

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    Mollie, that ABC/AP piece wasn’t that bad. The only problem I figured with it was the easy treatment Synod , Inc. got was because the reporter took a “church struggling to shake off ancient rule book” approach. If she had connected her reporting of past president and current president stances with synodical direction I’m assuming the coverage would have been harsh.

    Also, big question here. If President Harrison wishes to testify before Congress on matters of import, does that not oblige one to comment or take questions on matters that directly relate to your own denomination? From a reporting standpoint if you are in the public square are you not in the public square? Being called to the office of public ministry would seem to include being able and willing to engage and explain.

    And its not that I would have any great desire to change the teaching. What I am in favor of is clear definitions. And it would look to me like a definition of Worship, settled in the LCMS around chaplains and prayer, is being nudged a little here. If worship is defined as prayer and readings, and engaging in prayer and readings with those not LCMS causes trouble, there are a bunch of morning coffee groups, VBS’s and bible studies that are engaging in unionism.

    • PPPadre

      I’m not Mollie, but if I may be so bold as to offer a reply…
      One thing that seems to be lost in a lot (nearly all) of the coverage is that there is a difference between meditation/devotion – being on the receiving end of things (such as your morning coffee group) and on proclamation – being on the giving end of things (such as leading worship). It is not unionism to invite a non-LCMS person to come to your LCMS congregation with you. It is unionism to invite a non-LCMS pastor to preach the sermon at your LCMS congregation. It is not unionism to have the Methodist kids from down the street come to your VBS. It is unionism to have the Methodist minister from down the street lead your VBS with your LCMS pastor or to sponsor VBS jointly with the Methodist church.

      • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

        PPPadre, your last definition for VBS is exactly the point of conflict. What is worship? Does it include the expectations of those attending? Harrison defines it in these stories as prayer and readings. I’d use something like invocation, sacrament and defined public preaching. Such things as VBS, which lack those elements and the people gathered who don’t expect such things (they expect some learning, some fun and some babysitting), really isn’t worship. The problem here is that the secular press sees a conflict (exciting!), but if they really reported it, it turns into inside baseball definitions and denominational history (boring!).

        • PPPadre

          Unionism is not exclusively worship related. It also includes teaching – which is why participation in heterodox tract societies is listed in this portion of our Constitution.

          Since my congregation’s pattern for VBS includes an opening and closing worship each day, this distinction is moot in our situation.

        • Tim Schenks

          Our congregation’s VBS includes worship as well and the adults are also invited. We’re not babysitters.

  • Thinkling

    Per Dcn John, yes Catholicism recognizes syncretism as a heresy, and I imagine many other Christian groups other than these two do as well, although I suspect there are all kinds of nuances distinguishing them.

    “I’m sure that whatever our differences on this matter, our favorite part of that tweet is the spelling of Crucifixion. ”

    These issues are weighty, with all sorts of journalistic millstones lying around, but this quote made me laugh. Freud would be proud.

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  • sari

    Your comments about how media covers internal religious conflicts, fails to properly research basic doctrines, and comments subtly (or not) on how the religion fails to conform to American civil religion (a la Bellah) are all reasons why I’d prefer that journalists simply avoid discussions of religion altogether. Lutherans are not unique in their refusal to engage in multifaith or interfaith services; members of more traditional, less doctrinally flexible faiths have been similarly portrayed in a less than positive light. I don’t know whether the media’s intolerance reflects societal attitudes (like the rise of the nones in the under thirty crowd) or whether it’s personal, but refusal to worship in another’s backyard, so to speak, should not be news to them.

    I got a kick out Eichenwald’s quote. Many Jews do not consider any of the Posner children Jewish, because they do not recognize any but Orthodox conversions. And Jews are forbidden to worship in churches (or, acc’ding to some authorities, even enter another religion’s house of worship). Was there some way that the Lutheran minister could have participated without being part of the religious service? How do Lutherans handle invitations to things like non-Lutheran weddings or funerals, which often have a prayer component and are often held in houses of worship?

    • V. Rev. John W. Morris

      I agree that the press is very biased in most of its religious reporting especially of the more traditional forms of Christianity that hold politically correct beliefs. Eastern Orthodox also have very strict rules against common worship with non-Orthodox because according to our doctrine worship always expresses belief and doctrine. An Orthodox Priest would never participate in a denominational service such as a Catholic Mass or a LCMS service. We agree with LCMS although our belief comes against the politically correct ecumenism. I would not participate in an ecumenical worship service organized by the local minister’s group or council of churches. However, civic events like the installation of a public official or even something like the the service being discussed organized by the secular authorities is not really a worship service. Thus with the permission of his Bishop an Orthodox Priest may give a prayer at something like that, but would not actually pray with non-Orthodox or non Christians. I would go up give my prayer and then sit down.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    What I found offensive in the activity is simply that a very nice looking young pastor took the stage after a plethora of representatives of various “faith traditions” had spoken, including representatives of religous groups that stand for a faith that leads people to eternal damnation in hell and rather than boldly proclaiming that there is no other name given among men under heaven by which we must be saved, he simply read a very nice Bible verse about there being no more crying in heaven and then said the Apostolic benediction and that was that.

    Where was this “bold witness” and where the “comfort of the Gospel”?

    Where was the proclamation of sin and evil, resulting int he tragedy and the ONLY possible hope that is found ONLY in Christ and not in the false religions represented? Where was the bold proclamation of the forgiveness of sins in Christ and Christ alone?

    All in all, it was quite a complete swing and a miss.

    I mean, for Pete’s sake, if you are going to take your turn at bat at an even filled with the danger of being misunderstood and reflecting the notion that it is so nice for us all to come together and disregard our differences because, after all, we all believe in god, right? Then, at least say something so clearly and so faithfully that there will be absolutely no mistaking that the truth of God’s Holy Word and the Gospel of Christ was boldly spoken. Sure, he may not get invited back to another even like this again, but that’s ok.

    Yes, Christ is urgently needed to be hear about in situations like this. I just really, really, really wish He would have been in a faithful manner.

    In other words, go big, or go home.

  • Jerry

    Mollie,
    I don’t have any basic issues with how you reviewed the coverage of this issue. I think it’s important to understand the theology involved. And the story you lauded did have a lot of the basics.

    One thing I want to note in your writeup.

    These worship services used to be more about “unionism” — the blending of Christian worship — whereas now they explicitly blend in groups that reject Christianity.

    The statement that you referenced is different: syncretism is joining in worship with non-Christians. Not all non-Christians reject Christianity. There are groups that explicitly believe that any route to God is a good route. https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/alt.sufi/aZmAiLBI724 for example And, of course, “Who is a Christian” is a very interesting question.

    But while the story was good there was one more detail that could have been mentioned. And that is the detail about how deep the question of syncretic services really goes:

    The 2004 Synodical Convention passed Resolution 3-06A, “To Commend the CTCR Document Guidelines for Participation in Civic Events” (GPCE) which effectively denies the existence of syncretism by claiming that Christian and non-Christian clergy could “take turns” offering prayers without it being joint worship.

    The CTCR document states the unresolved disagreement. “The members of the Commission disagree about the issue of so-called ‘serial’ or ‘seriatim’ prayers involving representatives of different religious (Christian and/or non-Christian) groups or churches.

  • mollie

    Friends, we need to keep comments on this topic focused on mainstream media coverage and journalism questions. Endeavor to do that.

    • http://www.pergolapress.com Rev. Fritz Baue

      Fine article, Mollie. Regarding journalism, I note that the press criticized the Catholic church for not disciplining its pastors who broke the Sixth Commandment, yet now is criticizing the LCMS for disciplining one of its pastors who broke the First Commandment. Any explanation?

  • https://infanttheology.wordpress.com Nathan

    Molly,

    Thank you for this excellent piece. I suggest that when confessional Lutheran pastors are asked to be at events like this (in the aftermath of horrible tragedies that break all of our hearts and make us cry out to God) that they should say, I would love to, but understand I will say something like this…. (see Pastor McCain’s quote above).

    That way, there is at least a chance that some persons will see this as a rejection of confessional Lutherans and the message we bring in Christ’s name, as opposed to confessional Lutherans rejecting “worse sinners” in their time of need (for hope) and not wanting to have anything to do with them – because *that* is most definitely not the case.

    I hope most that read this can understand what I’ve said!

    +Nathan

  • charles hoffman

    Many non-Lutherans share their view that combining worship services of various religions and denominations dilute the value of each; the incongruity of Jews and Christians praying together is so offensive to many in both communities, as each is antithetical to the fundamentals of faith of the other.

  • http://www.pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com Pastor Larry Peters

    Mollie, thank you for your nuanced and careful parsing of the issue. Sadly, our media and much of the American public values a tolerance that is impossibly intolerant to any other views but its own. Strangely even some conservatives are the same. FWIW the issue here is not Lutheran belief but a Scriptural position that is so ignored by most churches in America that it has become alien to the very Bible from which it comes. The issue of Paul speaking among the idol temples is radically different than differing religions sharing the stage which, in effect, presumes all truth as equal. Who wants to believe in a God who is but one of many? While our God is exclusive in Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only real inclusive truth.

  • agricola

    When is ‘praying with’ the same as ‘worshiping together’ and when is it ‘worshiping ALONGSIDE OF’ ?
    Maybe this is a semantic issue or maybe I’m not ‘getting it’, because I don’t tend to equate ‘worship’ specifically with ‘praying in the same room with’ unless is includes ‘clearly participating in the same prayers with’ by, say, saying ‘amen’ at the end of somebody’s prayer –

    At any rate – I think the story wasn’t exactly terrible, but it certainly could have been clearer to the non-clued-in reader.

  • Jen G.

    I don’t quite see the problem with the AP story. It didn’t have the depth I would like, but it covered the basic facts and allowed those involved to exaplain themselves as well as the NYT story did. The thing missing from both articles is about the ‘gray area’ clergy of some denominations need to navigate – namely at what point does something turn into a ‘worship service’ vs. something else. Both outlined the official doctrine of the LCMS, but neither asked whether there was any context in which a LCMS minister could say a prayer outside of an LCMS-only or LCMS-sponsored event and why this fell on one side of the line but not the other.

  • Lori B.

    And then Mollie and tmatt’s heads exploded because no one was discussing journalism. ;) Heck, my head is going to blow and this is inside baseball for me…

    As for the journalism, just one question. Since I don’t normally read the “newspaper of record,” I have no idea if this is standard practice, but why does the NYT use Mr. Morris throughout the article as opposed to Rev. Morris. The first reference is Rev. Rob Morris, but every reference thereafter is Mr. Morris. Does the NYT do this with medical doctors and officers in the military as well? Again, I’m not familiar enough with NYT style to know. Not using a person’s proper title seems disrespectful to me. I have no issue with the standard journalistic style of last name with no title.

    • mollie

      Thank you for the journalism focus of your comment! And yes, it’s standard practice for second use after all honorifics.

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        And it’s a practice I don’t like and don’t follow. In Catholic theology, there is an ontological change after ordination, so the deacon, priest or bishop is no longer a “mister,” but his entire identity is now as a deacon, priest or bishop. Not sure what other denominational understandings are, but those understandings should be reflected in how they are referenced.

      • Joe

        Strictly speaking it’s never correct to use the style “Reverend” alone without the article “the” and the man’s full name (using “Rev.” as if it’s a title, not a style, is regularly done in official organs of both the WELS and the LCMS and grates on me a bit). The same rules apply to other styles, the most common being “Honorable” (one might refer to a judge as “the Hon. John Smith” but never “Hon. Smith”.)

        Mr., Mrs., Dr., and other courtesy titles (as distinct from styles or professional titles) are consistently–and in my view correctly–used by the New York Times (and other newspapers with similar style guidelines, e.g. the Economist). The title Dr., incidentally, is reserved for earned doctorates in fields relevant to the primary occupation of the individual (e.g. a practicing physician, a scientist engaged in laboratory research, etc.) Thus Matthew Harrison, whose doctorates are honorary, is quite rightly “Mr. Harrison” on second reference. The LCMS is the only organization I know of that so consistently appends “Dr.” to individuals with honorary degrees.

        All that said, the Times style guide (the 1999 edition, at least, which is the last one in print) does provide for the use of professional and military titles like “Pastor,” “Colonel,” “Bishop,” and “Father.” They certainly could have used “Pastor” on second reference for both Harrison and Morris, both of whom are congregational pastors.

        As an even further aside, the Times style guide seems to take a distinctly LCMS view of the ministry: “For a Lutheran, it is ‘the Rev. Morgan E. Karitsa, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church’; then ordinarily ‘Pastor Karitsa; the pastor; or the minister’…. If a Lutheran minister does not have a congregation, serving instead as a seminarian [sic] or a denominational executive, later references are to ‘Mr., Ms., Miss or Mrs.’ or to ‘Dr.’ for a minister with an earned doctorate.” (p. 255)

        • mim

          Ah, that explains Mr. Benke, or Dr. Benke (does he have an earned doctorate?). In practice, the use of any of these forms by a Times reporter depends on his or her knowledge of religion, and what “beat” the reporter is on. A reporter doing a story that just happens to incude a cleric may think “Protestant is Protestant is Protestant” and use titles accordingly.

          OTOH before the current style manual, before the Internet as we know it today, I read a NYT story on using business concepts in running a congrgation; the stiry profilef the Presbyterian Rev. Ian Stirrat and the Lutheran Rev. Adolf Quast. Subsequent references were to Mr. Stirrat and Pastor Quast. I was so impressed by the correct use of titles that I clipped the article.

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  • Bob Smietana

    Mollie:

    Does the LCMS have protocol or teaching on how to deal with issues of church discipline? Was it necessary for Rev Morris to issue a public apology in this case under church teaching? Or for the president of the denomination to make a public statement?

    It seems that the church created the news about this apology , which is difficult for non LCMS folks to understand, and then the folks involved refused to give interviews to give context to what happened?

    • Seminarian 012

      Bob,

      It’s a common expression, at least within the LCMS, based primarily on 1 Tim 5:17-25, that “public sin requires public rebuke.” Because false doctrine was promoted in the public sphere, it must be corrected publicly, so that those who heard it the first time and viewed it as a laudable practice would, ideally, recognize that it was an error and should be treated as such. The level of publicity the rebuke gets depends upon the publicity of the sin. In this case the sin was visible on national TV, the rebuke then should be visible to the entirety of the LCMS membership at the very least, lest anyone believe the behavior is acceptable.

    • mollie

      Bob,
      Absolutely excellent, excellent questions here. What I think no one quite got in the media was that the alternative to what happened here (the public apology and public acceptance of the apology) would be a long, drawn-out process in church courts and adjudication that would be painful for everyone. That’s what happened about 10 years ago the last time this issue was big news and it was painful and awful. So what happened here was supposed to be a way to avoid all that and avoid charges being filed and counterfiled and all that kind of stuff.
      Everything definitely *did* have to be public and transparent because we don’t believe in private solutions to public issues. But this letter from the president was designed to avoid a painful process.

      As for not giving interviews, I don’t know what to say. I mean, the pastor, the District President and the Synodical President all agreed not to talk about it. I presume that was because they thought it was best considered closed. I wish that they would understand how very difficult it is to cover a story when the only people talking to you are the ones who are extremely hostile to the Synod’s position or to the President in charge. I mean, is it unreasonable that those folks would sort of “set the narrative” when they’re the ones pitching the story and giving their take in response to reporter questions? How would it be otherwise?

      As it turns out, the involved parties did issue another statement today saying, basically, they’re at peace with each other and everyone else should be, too. In addition to that, the LCMS President apologized for his failure. He explained his intention was to keep this from being a big problem through his public acceptance of the apology and, instead, it became a big media circus. And the District President basically said that he knows the pastor and he knows the President and they are brothers in Christ who care for their communities.

      The Synodical President set a great example of how repentance is at the heart of the Christian faith. And I appreciate that the pastor, the DP and the SP are all working together in common confession and in a spirit of repentance and mercy. I also have no doubt that this is deeply confusing to reporters and outsiders.

  • Bob Smietana

    This story is another great example of how difficult it is to ”get religion.”

    To folks inside the LCMS, this is a case of syncretism in worship. To people outside the church, the pastor was acting like chaplain, in praying and offering comfort to the grieving, and the event was a community gathering – not worship. Not easy for a reporter to get both sides of that story.

    Also — are LCSM pastors barred from being military chaplains because of the syncretism question?

    • Mary

      Perhaps the reason the apology and forgiveness/acceptance of the apology were public was because the sin/offense was public. I am sure that if the pastor had committed a private sin there would be no need for it to be public.
      LCMS pastors are allowed to be military chaplains, but I believe this is the reason that the Wisconsin Synod does not have them

    • Lori B.

      Bob – I know that LCMS pastors are allowed to be military chaplains, because our former pastor was a Navy chaplain. It is my understanding that chaplains hold their own services and rotate who says prayers at the end of the day, so they would not be praying/worshipping with other clergy at the same service. However, I certainly don’t know all the ends and outs of military chaplaincy. I’m not sure where it all stands now, but I’m sure you know there have been policy changes back and forth over chaplains praying in Jesus name and invoking the name of God or Christ at military funerals, etc. Obviously, that is a huge issue for LCMS chaplains and conservative Christian chaplains in general. Now there is also the issue of openly gay military personnel, so some chaplains are concerned that they will be called to preside over same-sex weddings, etc. I would imagine many denominations might be forced to remove their chaplains from the military in the future. This would be a very interesting story to go along with the syncretism in worship stories that are coming out after this event, as well as all the first ammendment issues that have been brought up by the HHS mandate. BTW, I’m a Tennessean subscriber and find your stories interesting and well balanced. Wish I could say the same for the comments you get on our stories. Keep up the good work.

    • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

      Bob, that is the actual inside story. To some folks inside the LCMS this would by syncretism. To many others, very likely a majority, this was not worship but prayer which is proper. The LCMS had these exact fights over military chaplaincy and prayer in the 1930′s. There is a smaller group of Lutherans called the Wisconsin Synod that does take prayer as worship and won’t pray with anyone not WELS. They also will not take part in the chaplaincy. The LCMS does have military chaplains. What is playing out here is a Synodical President operating with a WELS definition of worship.

      • mollie

        I don’t think there is any data to support this assertion. I actually don’t think there is any poll of people inside the LCMS. Having said that, I think President Harrison’s letter today speaks to this exact issue — that this is a topic where some people want to do permit interfaith participation if it’s this type of civic event (which they say is simply serial prayer) and others continue to renounce syncretism and unionism of every kind, including interfaith prayer vigils or similar services.

    • mim

      Another reason for how difficult it is to “get religion” is evident on this very thread. You cannot take the LCMS’s views on syncretism and attribute them to “Lutherans.” ELCA Lutherans have no problem at all with such an interfaith service. But the LCMS would consider it syncretism for its clergy to join in public worship with ELCA clergy.

      • mollie

        I actually think that the media have gotten slightly better over making this distinction than they used to. Still a major problem, though.

        In any case, the term for LCMS joining ELCA clergy at the altar or pulpit is not syncretism but unionism. Syncretism refers to the religion blending whereas unionism is sharing altars or pulpits with Christian groups your group is not in fellowship with.

    • Dawn Sonntag

      They are not banned; but they will be forced into difficult situations in which they may have to compromise their convictions.

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  • Steve in NYC

    As regards distinguishing what counts or does not count as a ‘service’ or ‘worship’: Perhaps a rule of thumb I have heard recommended to Eastern Orthodox priests would serve other traditions and possibly journalists. If doing what you are invited to do would, if done in your own parish, require a vestment or vestments it is not proper. (Thus saying grace or opening a meeting, OK. Reading the Gospel, leading a litany, executing any portion of an organized structure of prayers, no.) I doesn’t solve all questions, just a rule of thumb, but it’s a start.

  • sg


    Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere.

    This is a big confusion. All people from various faiths should be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. That tolerance does not extend to their “gods”.

    Anyway, apparently the New York Times is super interested when it is a Christian church but not so interested when “A Rabbinical Council of America official told JTA that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the religious leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City, broke the organization’s rules by participating in the service Wednesday at the National Cathedral on the morning after Barack Obama’s inauguration.

    …RCA’s rule, which is based on an edict from the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy’s longtime spiritual leader. Orthodox rabbis, according to Soloveitchik, should not engage in theological debate or participate in interfaith services, but they should absolutely work with religious officials of other faiths on matters of social welfare, freedom and hunger, Weinreb said.”

    http://www.jta.org/news/article/2009/01/21/1002407/orthodox-group-rabbi-violated-rules-by-joining-national-prayer-service

  • Pingback: Defending Syncretism: You’re Doing It Wrong « Balaam’s Ass

  • Julia

    What is VBS? Thanks.

    • mollie

      Vacation Bible School!

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    Kind of ironic how the progressive culture fights to keep Christians from bringing their ethics into the political arena, and then when there’s a tragedy, they can’t get enough religion. I’m an LCMS member, and I don’t have much of a problem with the apologies. A lot of people aren’t going to understand, but we can win their respect other ways.

  • Pingback: The Trouble with Syncretism in a Syncretistic World « The Shepherd's Staff

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Just call yourself Mormon. I promise you will have no problem with syncretic worship as no one is going to invite you to participate. Get yourself hated enough and everyone will leave you alone so to speak. I am, of course, half joking.

  • CarlH

    Mollie,

    As is so often the case, I appreciated your post precisely because it provided background for my own understanding of the religious issue for Missouri Synod Lutherans that was sorely lacking in the rather sensational coverage that the story was receiving in the don’t-get-religion media.

    And now we learn (from a Religion News Service report) that the media circus has resulted in yet another apology–this from President Harrison. Here’s hoping (but not expecting) that this may be treated with more insightful coverage in the “regular” media than the original story received. Sadly, I fully expect the need for a follow-up GR post.

  • Jerry

    For those that see the note here about Harrison’s apology, a reference to the story is:

    Missouri Synod president apologizes for Newtown interfaith ‘debacle’

    Harrison admitted that the denomination is divided over the issue of interfaith participation. Some see it as an endorsement of other religions, yet others see it as an opportunity to share their faith with the community.

    http://www.religionnews.com/2013/02/11/missouri-synod-president-apologizes-for-role-in-newtown-debacle/


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