Author Topic: Why I Didn't Stay Put  (Read 3203 times)

Richard Johnson

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Why I Didn't Stay Put
« on: August 22, 2006, 01:45:42 PM »
Why I Didn't Stay Put
by Ben Eicher

[Editor's Note: Mr. Eicher is a South Dakota layman, who writes eloquently in response to two articles in the August Forum Letter. This is his first contribution to our conversation.]
As someone who came into full communion with Rome from Lutheranism in 1994, I read with personal interest the submissions of Pastors Senn and Niebanck concerning their decisions not to leave Lutheranism for “greener pastures,” whether they be in Rome or elsewhere.  In his piece, Pastor Senn wrote that he is “personally troubled by the number of conversions to other communions,” especially by his fellows in the Society of the Holy Trinity.  Quite frankly, I was a bit personally troubled by much of the reasoning espoused by Pastors Senn and Neibanck for their decisions.

My own faith journey “home to Rome” began as the son of a Lutheran pastor, the late (Rev.) Robert E. Eicher.  My father was a 1960 graduate of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, in the same graduating class with Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Louis Wilken.  Following his ordination my father was given a mission parish assignment in West Milford, New Jersey and founded Holy Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church there.  Neuhaus preached the sermon at Holy Faith’s inaugural worship celebration in when services were held in an elementary school gymnasium.  John Tietjen gave the sermon at the dedication of the Holy Faith church building in 1967.  I grew up with the name Arthur Carl Piepkorn recited regularly in our household. 

Perhaps that helps explain why my father was so ecumenically minded – toward Rome – to the extent of being at the forefront in north-central New Jersey in planning and participating in post-Vatican II joint Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical worship services.  When I was 8 years old I recall asking my dad why we were going to a Roman Catholic Church that evening.  He replied that “someday we’ll all be Catholic.”  I was taught to understand Lutheranism as a movement within and for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  I was taught that the Reformation separation was to be a temporary (“tragically necessary”) division of what is most rightly a visible unity of Christianity, as prayed for by Our Lord in Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel.

During my father’s years as an LCMS pastor, I witnessed him suffer LCMS punishment for offering Holy Communion each Sunday (I still have correspondence from the district office telling my father that such a practice in a mission church scares away potential members), and for being too “Romish” in liturgy and vestment.  By the post-purge days of the mid-1970s when he pastoring two rural congregations in northwestern Nebraska, and struggling to convince himself why he was still a part of an LCMS that had labeled his late mentor Piepkorn a teacher of false doctrine, he was openly opposed by powerful (read: “wealthy and influential”) members of his congregation for “communing himself” during the worship service, and for insisting on wearing his “Roman collar” during the week.  That’s when I first heard the term “unionism” in the context of anything other than a formal collective of trade or craft workers.

By the time of his sudden death of a heart attack on Reformation Sunday in 1995 while pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Edon, Ohio.  When I asked my father why he chose to become part of the ELCA, he told me, “They leave me alone to preach and teach the Lutheran faith I learned at the Seminary.”

I came to full communion with Rome a little circuitously.  In 1982 I could no longer in good conscience remain a member of the LCMS.  I had the opportunity to join an AELC congregation, pastored by James Couser, a man who was part of the original Seminex group of students.  Meanwhile, my roommate and his fiance were members of an LCMS church pastored by one of the few Concordia-St. Louis students who stayed put during the walkout.  By the latter part of the 1980s I had moved to Rapid City, South Dakota where there were no AELC parishes. What I found in the non-LCMS congregations (pre-ELCA merger) was a decidedly low liturgical, once-a-month Holy Communion, sometimes vestmentless style that was completely foreign to my Lutheran upbringing.  Nothing changed when the ELCA merger occurred.

It was through a Roman Catholic Bible Study class, my own immersion in reading the Lutheran Confessions and more Lutheran doctrine than I’d done before, and extensive study of Catholic theology, devotion and patristics that I began to see that my faith path was no longer with the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  Much prayerful discernment led me to the decision to make my own peace with Rome.  And so I did. At no point in that journey -- even to today -- have I seen my Lutheran heritage as being defective or anything less than a wonderful foundational preparation for where I am now.   I thank God for my Lutheran upbringing.

I remain deeply interested in things-Lutheran, and continue to read much Lutheran theology and historical writings.  I have been a long time subscriber to Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter and cannot envision a time when I wouldn’t be.  I’m part of the extended Fellowship of St. Augustine’s House, the Lutheran monastic community in Oxford, Michigan.  I thank God with all my heart that in 1995 the last major event I shared with my father, just several months before his sudden passing, was our attendance together at the annual conference of The Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology at St. Olaf’s in Northfield, Minnesota.  It was a event that introduced me to Dr. Carl Braaten and Dr. Robert Jenson and their fantastic work for Our Lord’s Body, the Church.  The experience moved me to continue involvement with The Center.  In 2002 I was honored and privileged to be asked to join The Center’s Board of Directors, a position I continue to hold, thanks be to God.  Pastor Senn is himself a member of the Advisory Council of The Center’s journal, Pro Ecclesia.

So, that’s my story.  Now, on to what troubles me about the “stay put” reasoning described by Pastors Senn and Niebanck regarding their own personal decisions not to journey to another eccleisal faith location.

First, I do not mean at all to be critical of Pastors Senn and Niebanck on a personal level. Concerning their faith home, each person’s decision, and their story, is their own.  Yet, in both their writings there seems to me to be a lack (or at least an under-appreciation) of that charity toward others who are seeking discernment on whether to “stay put.”  Maybe I’m misreading them, but both writings seemed to tackle the question from a “duty” standpoint, or at least something outside of the decision-maker.  Mainly that “something” comes off as being an ordination vow and a responsibility to a flock of believers.

Second, as a lay person I do not pretend to know the unique stresses and strains of how a pastor – particularly one who has a congregation to pastor at the time – deals with not only having to change denominational affiliation but perhaps give up a vocation, or at least present employment, in the process.  However, this is not a new problem in the history of Christianity, nor is it one without supportive resources.  Former Presbyterian pastor Marcus Grodi’s The Coming Home Network in Columbus, Ohio works with this situation on a professional level.   (In January 2005 I was the guest on Grodi’s television program on “The Journey Home” broadcast on EWTN, the Catholic cable channel.  Previous guests include Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilken.)

Third, many “stay put” out of a sense of family heritage or tradition.  In my situation, that was somewhat of a self-applied pressure and one that found external voice on occasion: “But our family has been Lutheran for generations!”  It lasted as a factor only until I began to think it through.  Actually, the “Eicher” side of my family had been a form of Mennonite, until my grandfather married a Lutheran woman and became Lutheran himself.  Would “staying put” have meant adhering to this form of Mennonite faith?  More profoundly impactive was the realization that prior to the 1500’s my ancestors were Catholic.  In fact, the very “stay put” argument urged by Pastors Senn and Neibanck would have had only the excommunicated Luther outside of the Roman church, with all others “staying put.”

Fourth, the idea that one should “stay put” simply because of an ordination vow seems to me to be inconsistent with truth and honesty, as well as previous examples found within the pages of Forum Letter.  In that regard I am reminded of several examples.  There’s the her-church “goddess” junk of Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco which bears zero resemblance to Lutheranism and no adherence to the Lutheran Confessions but is too dishonest to remove the word “Lutheran” from its designation.  There were the Episcopalian priests who were Episcopalians on Sunday morning and druids the rest of the week.  Then there was the priest or pastor who had converted to Judaism but offered to remain in the pulpit through Holy Week in order to lighten the burden on the congregation. When “staying put” means remaining within a church body despite no longer holding to the core doctrines of that faith body, there is a fundamental lack of forthrightness in operation it seems to me.

On this point it would seem that the ordination vow is premised upon a sincere belief in the doctrines of the church body that are to be served.  Certainly over time there may become differences of view of tangential teachings, or non-mandatory practices, of the church body that would allow one in good conscience to remain a part of that body.  But for a pastor to preach and teach Lutheranism when that pastor only holds to part of the Lutheran Confessions, and disagrees or no longer agrees with the remainder, is not a pastor I would want pastoring me.  As for Pastor Senn’s example of some Catholic priests in Chicago “who are in open disagreement with the Archdiocese of Chicago,” I did not find that example persuasive or even applicable.  Being in agreement with the archdiocese is one thing, being in disagreement with the core doctrines and dogma of the Church is quite another.

Furthermore, taking the “stay put” arguments to their logical conclusion, this have odd consequences.  It logically would mean that a minister of the United Pentecostal Church, which does not hold to a belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, should remain within the UPC in order to “fix it from within” or because of an ordination vow and a responsibility to his flock.  Or, a Baptist pastor who suddenly finds himself in agreement with the Lutheran Confessions on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should not leave the Baptist pulpit for Lutheranism but rather “stay put.”

I am assuming that by “staying put” Pastors Senn and Niebanck would have the doubting pastors who are discerning a move elsewhere – perhaps to Rome – continue to preach fully within the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions.  My assumption is that they would not condone these pastors preaching or teaching doctrines or dogmas, or using liturgical rubrics, of the faith location to which their discernment is pointing them.  I’m not sure very many Lutheran congregations would stay put quietly if one Sunday morning Pastor Smith or Pastor Jones began seeking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary (even if the pastor did so by quoting verbatim Martin Luther doing exactly that in his commentary on The Magnificat) for some prayer intention, or preaching about the realities of Purgatory.

I do not see within the reasoning of Pastors Senn or Niebanck a sufficient understanding of what happens when one no longer believes.  Pastor Senn was somewhat flippantly critical of Pastor Leonard Klein’s defense of his “conversion” that if “one wakes up some morning and realizes that one believes what the Roman Catholic Church believes, then one is justified in deciding to become Roman Catholic.”  However, this is precisely a point raised in Jaroslav Pelikan’s book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism: Its history, its beliefs, its future (1959, Abingdon Press), at Page 14, where he writes:  “An outstanding Protestant churchman, Bishop Hanns Lilje of Hannover, has made this clear: ‘Each generation of Protestants must re-think the decision of the 16th century.  We must be able to say why we today are not Roman Catholics.  We want the truth – even if it is unpleasant…’”

These words echoed those of St. Irenaeus in Book III, Chapter II, of Against Heresies, written near the end of the 2nd century:  “For though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought along side it.” 

In the Bread of Life Discourse found in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, many disciples left Our Lord over his “hard saying” concerning the eating (“gnawing”) of his Body and the drinking of his Blood.  At least those many disciples, wrong as they were, were honest enough to depart.  Peter and the others – except for Judas, who it seems even then did not believe but remained anyway, silently hiding his disbelief – stayed put.  Why?  Because they believed : “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

For myself, after my own extensive study and prayerful discernment, I could no sooner “stay put” as a Lutheran than could I suddenly become a Baptist.  I no longer believed that the Lutheran Confessions set forth Truth in its fullness.  Through what I believe to be the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I found the deposit of the fullness of Truth elsewhere.  Preserving my allegiance to an ecclesial home was far less important than offering my allegiance to the fullness of God’s Truth.

In his superb article in the Summer issue of Lutheran Forum, titled “A Magisterium for Lutherans,” Pastor Senn mentions St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and his litany of names of the popes from St. Peter’s successor, Linus, through the then-current pope, Eleutherius.  It may be true that St. Irenaeus was writing against Gnostic heretics rather than separated Protestant brothers and sisters, but his words rang strong to me when I first read them.  I thought about Lutheran teaching that the papacy is the anti-Christ, that Pope John Paul II was at that time the latest of these anti-Christs, and that concept growing out of that that much of Catholic teaching is the product of her being the “Whore of Babylon.”  I could not reconcile those teachings and beliefs with these words of St. Irenaeus:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of  these men to our own times…that tradition derived from the apostles of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; and also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the succession of the bishops.  For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church,committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate.  Ofthis Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.  This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. …  To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus.  Alexander followed Evaristus; then sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him Anicetus.  Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate.  In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us.  And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom,  departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has   handed down, and which alone are true.

. . . Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek truth among others which it is necessary to obtain from the Church; … For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.  On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth.  [Against Heresies, Book III, Chapters III and IV.]

Several years ago theologian R.R. Reno urging a “stay put” concept.  Two or three years after that he himself found that he could not obey his own advice and as a result came into full communion with the Catholic Church. 

I highly respect Pastor Senn and Pastor Niebanck, and do not at all question or impugn their own individual choices to “stay put.”  Obviously they have arrived at their decisions through personal reflection and prayerful discernment.  Yet, I’m troubled by the paradigm that seems to be proposed for others, especially pastors, making the same self-analysis.  It seemed to border on calling good men like Neuhaus, Wilken and Klein, but to name a few, traitors to the cause.  It offered little solace to the pains and deep reflection one undergoes in making an ecclesial switch.
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS


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Re: Why I Didn't Stay Put
« Reply #1 on: August 23, 2006, 09:58:35 AM »
Mr. Eicher articulates very clearly the great time, nurture and prayer that goes into moving from one part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to another part of that same church. 

In retrospect, I wish I had done that much preparation for my youthful move in the opposite direction (RC to LCMS) some 20 years ago, but such are the effects of youth!  Had I done my "homework" in those days, the chances are great that  I would have not elected the LCMS, but one of the more "reasonable" Lutheran synods of the day.  As the parent of teens and grandparent of preschoolers, I am moved by the family nurture that went into this movement. 

I can identify with Mr. Eicher's father's pressures about being "different" in an LCMS culture that values uniformity and have similar stories.

I am thankful to ALPB for publishing this moving essay. We live in a very interesting time of discernment in the Body of Christ, and I pray that the Lord of the Church is using these pains and pangs to move us all toward organic unity and witness in a world that needs a united (in mission, if not in organization) Church that speaks the voice of her Shepherd clearly and in love.


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Re: Why I Didn't Stay Put
« Reply #2 on: August 23, 2006, 10:18:34 PM »
Dave, I would be interested in your story. As you probably know, I share your sense of longing concerning union with Rome, but not your disatisfaction with the LCMS. If we value uniformity, it is in the same perfectly valid way that a poor man values money-- because we have precious little of it. But I think it is precisely our "unreasonableness" that makes us a more hopeful place regarding the unity the church. As C.S. Lewis observed repeatedly, the truly zealous of any stripe have more in common with each other than they the do with the reasonably moderate of their own stripe. Ecumenism among conservatives is almost impossibly hard, so worthwhile a goal as to be urgent. Ecumenism among moderates is relatively easy, but in the end doesn't make much difference.