In the 1990s, WELS acknowledged that its members were not exempt from the hurts and problems suffered by the world.
Mark E. Braun
The anonymous author of the second-century Letter to Diognetus wrote: “The soul is in the body but is not of the body. Christians are in the world but not of the world.”
Yet Christians have never been entirely free of their surroundings. WELS long ceased being separated from its American culture by foreign tongue or immigrant isolation. As the 20th century drew to a close, the hurts and problems suffered by the world seemed increasingly to afflict WELS members too.
The world, as Wordsworth put it, is too much with us. Or maybe it was always so, but in the 1990s we could finally admit it.
DRUG AND ALCOHOL ADDICTION
In June 1990, Northwestern Lutheran (NL) writer Carleton Toppe insisted that the Bible treats excessive use of alcohol as something one can control. “God does not consider the alcoholic a victim of disease.” A spirited reply came from John Cook, recovering alcoholic and counselor. Though alcohol abuse is a sin, a Christian alcoholic “may be truly repentant and may desire to amend his sinful life.” Alcoholism is “the inability to control the amount of alcohol consumed,” recognized by many experts as “a fatal disease.”
This frank exchange opened a floodgate. The addictive world seemed to have “its own logic, language, and rules,” Phil Merten, hospital and prison chaplain, explained. Addicts live lives “dominated by self-hatred, resentment, and fear,” powerless to quit because they have become “physically, emotionally, and spiritually bankrupt.”
Hardest to accept was that the alcoholics and drug abusers Merten described were all members of WELS congregations. On any given Sunday, one-fourth of a pastor’s audience “may not be able to function effectively in the body of Christ due to their own addiction or that of a loved one.”
The church, one addict figured, was probably like the rest of the world, hoping to ignore the problem. “I think there are a lot of people like me in the church, and that’s the first place they should go to get help; but they’re afraid they’ll be rejected.”
Most painful were the confessions of a former pastor. Preparing for the ministry, he spent his college Friday nights trying to be a “real man” who could survive a pilgrimage to the local bars and down a beer at every stop. Finishing seminary and receiving a call, he resolved to quit drinking, but as duties and stress increased, his alcoholism returned. He lost his family and his ministry, yet God used other Christians to restore him. Today he drinks only communion wine. The cup that once enslaved him now sets him free.
“I’m finding out what power Jesus has to dismantle this trap,” Merten wrote. One recovering alcoholic rejoiced that “the love and acceptance God has for me, the love of Jesus dying on the cross” broke through the pain and “emotionlessness” his addiction caused.
OTHER SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Soon others acknowledged that their troubles had also entered through the church door. An incest survivor recalled the confusion she felt because her father and mother took her to church, even while she was being abused by her father and an uncle. “I’d think I wasn’t worthy.” God “only watches over the important people,” she thought, and she never felt important.
Evangelical and conservative Christians often fail to see that “a homosexual may not be a gay libber.” She may be the housewife who heads the church altar guild or the teenage boy who ushers you to your pew. “Condemn the sin of homosexuality. But don’t condemn the repentant sinner,” advised one man who changed his way of life.
The October 1996 NL cover featured a young woman cowering in a corner of her kitchen. In the cover article, a county prosecuting attorney urged congregations to ensure the physical safety of domestic violence victims and pressed pastors to speak out about this sin. “When church-going dad beats church-going mom, and a congregation of Christians looks the other way, it is understandable why many children abandon their faith and look elsewhere for comfort.”
The Program Review Committee of the synod’s 1993 convention noted a “growing cynicism and loss of confidence” plaguing not only society and business but churches as well. NL editor James Schaefer agreed that “a deadly lack-of-trust virus” had spread from Washington politicians to WELS pews.
The catchword of the decade appeared to be bashing. “Are Lutherans hypercritical?” Paul Kelm asked in 1992. For us a “little error” in theology is “a contradiction in terms,” yet “nit-picking perfectionism” and negative criticism debilitated both critic and target. Kelm warned how “labeling” had grown destructive in the church: “ ‘Traditionalists’ do ‘maintenance ministry.’ ‘Visionaries’ must be infected with ‘church growth.’ ” Such labeling obscures truth and polarizes people.
Though the world seems too much with us, we turn where Christians have always turned for healing and hope. “I opened the door to my past,” a survivor of childhood sexual abuse reported. Her Christian counselor reacted not with shock or dismay but with genuine understanding. “I learned there is no sin that God has not forgiven through Jesus, or any wound that cannot be healed by the Holy Spirit. I learned to lay claim to the truth that I am a child of God.”
We’re never going to get it right, Kelm wrote in 1993. But “Jesus got it right. He did everything God asked of us, perfectly. Then he suffered God’s judgment on all our screw-ups. He got it right for us.” And so “you and I don’t have to be so defensive, so self-justifying and perfectionist. Now we don’t have to make each other pay for screw-ups.” We are free to enjoy the Savior’s forgiveness and to pass it on to others. “We can be part of God’s solution instead of mere critics of the world’s problem. Life is looking up!”
Mark Braun, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Grace, Waukesha.
This is the ninth article in a ten-part series looking at how WELS and Forward in Christ history is intertwined with major historical events over the past one hundred years.
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Author: Mark E. Braun
Volume 101, Number 10
Issue: October 2014
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