Lutheranism Drifts Leftward

On the Progressive Infiltration Of The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 30, 2023 – the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) formally excommunicated a man named Corey Mahler. The rite, which can be viewed on YouTube, was brief and somber. It marked the culmination of a bitter internecine feud within the LCMS between a group concerned that the Church is drifting leftward, and a group which believes that Lutheranism needs an update. 

The origins of this feud can be traced to January 20, 2023, when the LCMS released an updated catechism. In line with Lutheran tradition, it contained both Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, originally published in German in 1529, and eighty essays intended to clarify and explicate Luther’s older work. It was these essays which alarmed many LCMS congregants.

Ryan Turnipseed, a conservative college student, was one. Disconcerted with the contents of the new catechism, he took to Twitter to voice his concerns. Ryan’s original Twitter thread, has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times – including subsequent threads; his criticisms have been seen by millions. 

What did Ryan and others find so objectionable in these essays? Unlike the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which ordains women and gay men, supports abortion, and promotes transgenderism, the LMCS has maintained a conservative reputation in recent years. But the updated LCMS catechism showed that even comparably conservative denominations are buckling under the weight of contemporary political and social pressure. 

For example, on sexuality, the new LCMS catechism says the following: 

“However, though some of us are burdened with homosexual lust, pornographic addiction, transgenderism, pedophilia, and polyamory, more often they are the speck in our neighbor’s eye rather than the log in our own. For decades, if we didn’t wink at fornication we certainly turned our eyes from it, so long as the acts performed outside marriage were heterosexual ones.”

A strange statement. While extramarital sexual acts are always sinful, even heterosexual ones, it’s absurd to compare them to pedophilia, one of the gravest evils imaginable. Surely there are ways to explain the sinfulness of fornication that do not involve such a bizarre equivocation?

But the equivocation doesn’t end there. Another section reads: 

“All homosexuality activity is sinful, just as all heterosexual activity outside of marriage is a sin.”

Although traditional Christianity consistently condemns both fornication and sodomy, a distinction between them was recognized. The latter was understood to be worse by far. And given the fact that the dominant worldly ideology of the day, wokeness, teaches that disordered forms of sexuality are just as valid as heterosexuality, one cannot help but wonder what inspired this particular passage. 

The New Catechism also touches, for some reason, on the right to bear arms: 

“Finally, the recognition of a legitimate place for the use of the sword within God’s plan for His creation is not a license for any Christian to use the sword for any reason unilaterally deemed legitimate and necessary. And it certainly does not provide a scriptural foundation for a right to bear arms. Lethal force, Luther consistently taught, is rightly used only by the one placed into the Amt of authority in the state. It is never exercised for the sake of the self, but always and only for the sake of the neighbor.” 

So there you have it. Self-defense is out of the question. Lethal force is reserved for the defense of others and the state. If an armed assailant breaks into your home, don’t even think about drawing your handgun. 

I’ve reflected on this particular statement at length and, on account of its lack of ambiguity, struggled to arrive at a more charitable interpretation. The inclusion of the “right to bear arms” phrase – taken, of course, from the Second Amendment – is telling. The debate over gun rights is a salient one in American politics. Liberals want fewer gun rights, while conservatives want them expanded or, at the very least, maintained. The LCMS has made clear where its sympathies lie. 

Race is also touched on in a questionable manner. In an essay titled “The Fifth Commandment Hatred As Murder,” Rev. Warren Lattimore writes the following: 

“One manifestation of hate is racism. The Large Catechism makes clear that our response to the Fifth Commandment entails more than avoiding something — the negative aspect. It also includes proactively helping one’s neighbor — the positive aspect. The church has once again grappled with how to respond to calls for racial reconciliation after a number of recent events.”

Racism, of course, is a difficult subject for Christians given the spirit of the times. On the one hand, blind hatred of the Other is clearly at odds with Christ’s commandment to love one’s neighbor. On the other hand, the very term “racism,” as it is currently understood, is owned by the Left, and employed as a bludgeon. Accordingly, Christians need to be wary of the term’s invocation. But in the footnote to this passage, Rev. Warren Lattimore dispels any ambiguity as to his political position: 

“The deaths of a number of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of white individuals or police officers sparked widespread protests and turmoil in recent years and especially in 2020. Many churches sought ways to promote racial justice and healing.”

By “protests,” he is of course referring to the nationwide riots inspired by the death of George Floyd – riots encouraged by the media and politicians. Equally damning here is the capital “B” in the word black and lowercase “w” in the word white. This is textbook wokeness. The New York Times announced this anti-white capitalization scheme in June 2020 as American cities burned. And only two years later it appears in a conservative Christian church’s catechism. 

There is much else to be said of the contents of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s New Catechism, but these examples are sufficient to demonstrate that a leftward shift is well underway in the LCMS.

***

I myself come from a Catholic, not Lutheran background. As such, I make no pretense of being an expert in Lutheran theology. I am, however, familiar with leftward shift. The Catholic Church has moved leftward since Vatican II on a number of issues, and the Lutheran Church now appears to be following the same path.

As previously noted, many devout LCMS congregants shared Ryan’s concerns. His Twitter thread inspired a letter and email campaign to LCMS President Harrison, who, just days after the catechism’s release, pulled it from distribution. 

For a week, the new catechism hung in limbo as a debate raged on social media between those who agreed with the new catechism’s contents and those who did not. It didn’t take long for the former to resort to smear tactics typically employed by the Left. Critics of the new catechism were dismissed as neo-Nazis, racists, illiterates, or anonymous cowards too afraid to attach their names and faces to their opinions. Of course, in an era where the very accusations hurled at these concerned LCMS congregants often result in grievous social consequences, anonymity is highly understandable. Those who opted for anonymity in this instance were fully within their rights – and wise – to do so. Nonetheless, Ryan Turnipseed, who courageously led the charge, did so openly. Ironically, this didn’t stop some of his critics from claiming that he was operating under a veil of anonymity, that his identity was a complete fabrication. 

It would of course be impossible to review the social media profiles of every critic of the new catechism. Some, such as the now-excommunicated Corey Mahler, appeared to enjoy tweeting provocative stuff. Maybe he took it too far at times. However, from what I’ve gathered, that is by no means the case for all, or even most, of the critical faction. By all appearances, those concerned with new catechism were conservative Lutherans, honest men, in no way motivated by racial animus. 

Ryan Turnipseed himself is representative of such men. He’s straightlaced, highly intelligent, and well mannered. He runs a popular YouTube channel, where he talks about everything from the uniqueness of Generation Z to the thought of Thomas Carlyle. No reasonable assessment of his views could lead one to believe that he is a neo-Nazi. In fact, I asked Ryan if he had a preferred political label, and he replied, “I don’t fit one very well, but a cross between paleocon and Austrian is basically what I am.” 

This is who part of the LCMS leadership believes to be beyond the pale?

Current president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Matthew C. Harrison.

The Large Catechism debacle prompted LCMS President Matthew Harrison to issue a statement on February 21, 2021 in which he denounced the “alt-right” – a label originally coined by Chronicles Magazine Editor-in-Chief Paul Gottfried. At a Mencken Club speech in 2008 entitled “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” Prof. Gottfried called for younger paleoconservatives to challenge the dominant neoconservatism of the time. 

Needless to say, the meaning of the term has shifted considerably since 2008. Nowadays, it is highly rare for the term to be used as a self-identified label; instead, it is used to cancel or smear people critical of establishment conservatism. 

Harrison’s letter states: 

“We were shocked to learn recently that a few members of LCMS congregations have been propagating radical and unchristian “alt-right” views via Twitter and other social media. They are causing local disruption and consternation for their pastors and district presidents.” 

Elsewhere in the letter, Harrison made a point to distinguish between “individuals who may have expressed theological concerns” about the Large Catechism and “a small number of men who based their opposition upon racist and supremacist ideologies.” Into which category did Harrison and others in LCMS leadership place Ryan Turnipseed, the young man who described his political views as a cross between paleoconservatism and Austrian economics? On Twitter, Ryan wrote that he “immediately understood this to mean me and a few others.” 

Ryan’s suspicions were confirmed on March 1, when his pastor sent a concerned email to his father, an elder at their church. Ryan’s father was informed that his son would be the subject of discussion at the next Elder’s meeting, and that he would be forced to recuse himself from said discussion. Their pastor wrote that the discussion was not about the Large Catechism, but rather about Ryan’s “online activity” – that is, the people with whom he associates on Twitter. 

On March 7, Ryan met with his circuit pastor to discuss his online activity. He recorded the conversation. “An elder in another congregation was ambushed in a meeting by his church’s elder, recorded, and pressured to resign his eldership,” Ryan tweeted. The elder resigned, and the recording was witheld from him.

During their conversation, Ryan was accused of being too sympathetic to the alt-right. Ryan asked if the circuit pastor could explain what that term meant. He could not. Ryan also asked if such scrutiny would be “applied to people actively supporting and voting for organizations who advanced the legality of abortion and transgenderism.” He was told that people with left-wing sympathies would not be similarly persecuted. 

A more formal meeting with LCMS elders was held two days later. It included Ryan Turnipseed, his pastor, the circuit pastor, and two LCMS elders. The presence of these elders came as a surprise to Ryan. “This combined with the vagueness that preceded the meeting made me uneasy,” he wrote

Ryan recorded this meeting as well. After an opening prayer, he was informed that LCMS leadership was concerned with association with various online right-wing personalities. Three names were provided: Corey Mahler, who had not yet been excommunicated; Woe, who hosts the Lutheran podcast Stone Choir; and Luthtemplar, a pseudonymous writer and podcaster, who was Lutheran at the time but has since converted to Catholicism. 

What followed was an exercise in guilt by association. The LCMS officials listed a series of beliefs which they attributed to the three aforementioned individuals, which included derogatory statements toward women, issuing veiled threats, and making anti-Semitic remarks. Regarding the veracity of these allegations, Ryan tweeted that he “doesn’t keep up with them enough to know if this is accurate or inaccurate, though I was skeptical about some of this.” 

At no point was Ryan himself accused of making these statements. But the fact that he had shared other statements by the individuals in question, and had occasionally recorded podcasts with them, was sufficient cause for calling the meeting. Ryan was told that he supports the “wholeness of their messaging,” regardless of his disagreements with the men in question. For his part, Ryan stressed that his beliefs in no way align with Nazism.

Needless to say, the meeting went badly. Ryan wished to further discuss the allegations leveled against him; the other parties did not. “Then, before they suddenly walked out in anger,” tweeted Ryan, “I had a fist slammed on the table at me.” Ryan’s pastor would later apologize for how the meeting was conducted, writing to Ryan, “I apologize to you that my actions obviously broadcast a sense of ambush and attack.” 

Correspondence between Ryan, his father, and LCMS officials continued over the following weeks and months. Meanwhile, deliberation by the LCMS church hierarchy continued silently behind the scenes. 

On May 18, Ryan posted a Twitter thread containing his account of the meetings detailed above. A few days later, Ryan was notified via email that he had been placed under a minor ban by the LCMS Board of Elders. “We still hope to meet with you concerning your sinful actions, of which you are encouraged to repent,” read the email. Ryan’s “sinful actions,” in the eyes of the LCMS hierarchy, include having “scorned God’s established authority” – that is, the Board of Elders and his pastor; sowing “hatred by dividing individuals on the basis of race”; associating with Corey Mahler and Woe, who “denigrate women” online; insulting the intelligence of those with whom he disagrees; slandering the authors of the essays in the Large Catechism; and fostering an overall divisive attitude toward the LCMS.

***

What should the layman do on seeing Leftist ideology penetrate his church? The difficulty is that Leftism functions incrementally. Quite often it happens so slowly that few notice – and those who do are dismissed as paranoiacs. Gay marriage, after all, was recently so improbable that Barack Obama in 2008 voiced his own opposition to it. How many conservative pundits or politicians would do the same thing today?

It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate every statement ever made by Ryan Turnipseed, Corey Mahler, Woe, or anyone else designated too ‘right-wing’ by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. If the actions and statements of these individuals did indeed justify minor bans or excommunication, then so be it. Still, the fact that only LCMS congregants deemed excessively right-wing, and not those with left-wing affiliations, were subject to disciplinary actions is revealing in itself.

Meanwhile a Christian institution with a reputation for conservatism is equivocating between pedophilia and heterosexuality, countersignaling gun rights, adopting the New York Times’ anti-white capitalization format, and parroting woke talking points about race. Any conservative, regardless of their own religion, should pray that the LCMS does not continue down this path. 

Patrick Casey is a writer and host of the Restoring Order podcast.


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