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What Luther Says

Klemet Preus: When To Fight (Against Pietism)

Back in 2009, Klemet Preus reminded us why we Christians (especially us Lutherans) need to fight against Pietism whenever and wherever we encounter it.

When To Fight, By Klemet Preus

It seems to me that most ecclesiastical wars are unavoidable. Battles might be avoidable but wars are not. What does this mean?

Currently our synod is seriously divided over issues which no single person or agency has thrust upon us. When the good folks in the MNS district made an issue of whether to accept a church into the synod which did not use the name Lutheran and assiduously avoided any of the Lutheran “markers” this was not a new thing. We did not decide to make an issue of whether a church should have a confessional identity or a pietistic one. That whole discussion has been going on for generations. I have written elsewhere:

Pietism stresses activity among Christians as the goal of Gospel. Pietism “emphasizes…the importance of Christian character and of Christian work. It is less theological in its preaching, making…less of doctrinal forms and definitions.” [1] What is paramount in Pietism is the faith of the individual and the less form it has, apparently, the better. So liturgy and Sacraments are important not as vehicles of the teaching of the gospel but only insofar as they can be expressed in the terms of personal faith. Pietism has a “tendency…to turn ceremonies performed by clergy that communicate divine grace, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, into symbolic gestures that express the faith of converts.” [2]

But in pietism,…we find a disparagement of the established church and the faith she confesses. This takes the form primarily of a type of denominational indifference “where forms and doctrines of the faith were secondary to real faith and obedience, and where denominational differences were simply petty quarrels among defensive clerics.” [3] “One of the most common traits of …pietism is the effort to define the Christian religion apart from its particularities and locate its essence in ‘the heart.’” [4] “Like its European antecedents, American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures, and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrast, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one that transformed individuals starting with their hearts and seeping into all walks of life.” [5] When religion was conceived as primarily “in the heart,” “strict denominational lines were blurred” in deference to “common religious patterns” as pietism “directed mainstream American Protestantism…away from the formal and corporate beliefs and practices of the church toward the informal settings and personal affairs of believers.” [6] The result was the increasingly “small role the institutional church plays in the religious life of the pietist.” [7] The clash between the established churches and pietism was inevitable as “traditionalist Protestants resisted” pietism because it “undermined the importance of creedal subscription, ordination and liturgical order…[and] spoke a different idiom, one that was individualistic, experiential and perfectionistic, as opposed to the corporate, doctrinal and liturgical idiom of historic Protestantism.” To Confessional Protestants, the Pietists blurred all denominational distinctives expecting a “generic” type of Christianity of “sincerity, zeal, and moral life.” [8]

You will find these comments in “Pietism in Missouri’s Mission from Mission Affirmations to Ablaze” published in: Mission Accomplished, The Luther Academy, St. Louis, 2008, 95-97.

You will notice that the above is really not mine but the comments of someone else, D. G. Hart, who has identified the parties in a conflict which has been going on for almost two centuries. The LCMS is just part of a larger conflict. So the war has been around long before the 2009 MNS convention and will continue long after all of us are dead.

Now, of course, every Lutheran pastor and leader is confronted, almost on a daily basis, with decisions which reflect this huge cultural/ecclesiastical struggle. And most of these little decisions are questions of alacrity and relative speed is usually not worth dying for and often not even worth getting hot over. Should I attempt to increase the number of times the sacrament is offered in my congregation now or later? Should I introduce the chalice? Should I require the kids to memorize the catechism completely when the congregation up until now has never used a catechism? How much? How quickly? Should I teach those great Lutheran hymns to my church when they have grown so accustomed to Watts and Wesley? How fast should I expect my church to move in a return to the confessional doctrine and practice?

These are questions of timing and no one would be too harsh in judging a pastor who proceeds at this pace or that in returning a congregation to a Lutheran posture.

But what should we do when the question is not the pace of salutary change? What should we do when the forces of pietism – and they are overwhelming in Minnesota – are coercing us to adjust yet again to their theologically aberrant ways. The issues may not always be obviously doctrinal but they are ignored at great peril. And even if the protestations against dropping the name Lutheran are not charming – in MNS they were made with great respect and restraint – they must be made. The movement to deny our heritage is too strong not to engage in this battle.

To me it’s like acknowledging your marriage in private to your spouse but allowing the world to draw a different conclusion. Those congregations which want to be considered Lutheran within the synod but keep their identity hidden to the world are like a husband who likes to flirt with other women. If your husband takes off his wedding ring every time he leaves the house and puts it back on before he comes inside I would suggest that your marriage is in trouble even if you don’t have positive proof of his philandering.

And that is a hill worth fighting upon. It’s a battle too important not to engage.


D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, (Lanham, MD Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002) 5. Hart, p. 19. Hart, p. 14. Hart, p. 21. Hart, p. xxiii. Hart, p. 23. Hart, p. 21 Hart, p. xxiv.

Boy, that marriage analogy at the end (emphasis mine) is rather appropriate I think.

He was right too. This was written in 2009 and here we are 5 years later and facing the same challenges and struggles within our churches. The fight has always been here and it will be here long after us, but that doesn't mean we should ever become indifferent to doctrine and practice. I may be a new Lutheran, but even I know that.

As one commenter put it: "The battle must go on just as the Church must go on. Yet, we long for the days when we will be at peace with our Lord in heaven."

Yes, the "Church Militant" has no choice but to engage false doctrine by speaking "the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Yes, sometimes this "engagement" can lead to a devastating and heartbreaking "disengagement" from your local church (a painful process that my family and I are actually experiencing ourselves at this moment).

But even then such a departure to another more faithful flock is necessary for His sheep (Jude 1:3; 1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 1:6-10).

In a Lutheran layman's terms, our addiction to American Evangelical Pietism is the problem and it needs to be addressed.

Know when to fight against Pietism.

NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray. Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a Lutheran-In-Name-Only at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a "Book of Concord" containing our Confessions even existed. In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by common Evangelical concerns/criticisms that perhaps wouldn't be too big a deal for us Lutherans. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Finally, please know that any time we engage in interpreting a specific portion of Scripture exegetically, it will always follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible unless otherwise noted. Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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