by John Preus
How often have you heard this, or even said this, when one has left the Lutheran Church: “At least he still goes to church”? To be sure, there may be some consolation here. In some cases, it is much better that one who has become unfaithful in going to the church of his upbringing has nonetheless remained eager to find a church of his liking. The Holy Spirit can work wherever the Word of God is heard, and the Word of God is certainly not heard when one treats Sunday morning like just another day to sleep in. So, yes, at least there’s a better chance of hearing the Gospel by at least getting up and going to church.
But this is not always the case. When the Gospel is systematically denied or twisted into something that flatters the flesh or that becomes a new law to reform the flesh, then it would be better for many a soul to stay home or go to work and do something useful for his family rather than drag them to hear false doctrine.
Having run across this short video by the Pew Research Center, it’s interesting to see that even secular statisticians and sociologists have discovered what many faithful pastors have long concluded from experience. The study presents the data in a more generic way, being more interested in religious affiliation than with any particular confession of faith. But it seems nonetheless to confirm that one is more likely to remain faithful to the basic piety of the Christian religion if he identifies himself with a particular denomination, that is, if he knows what he believes and why. People talk about seekers who desire to find the truth. Whatever the status of such people might be (or become), those who wander away from the pure Word of God in search of something new to satisfy other cravings are not seeking the truth. They are vagabonds in a world of spiritual pitfalls. Even statistics show that it is not safe to wander.
When a man abandons his wife and marries another, it is of little consolation to make the excuse, “Well, at least he’s still married.” Can he repent and be restored and learn to please God in his new marriage? Certainly this happens. Thank God! But God still hates divorce. It is not merely a question of being married. It is always a matter of living where God has placed you and with the one to whom God has joined you. So also, even as we entertain hope that one might still be hearing the Gospel and trusting it, even if mingled with errors and heresies as he hears it, we must be careful not to dismiss his abandonment of the truth as inconsequential. Just as for a man to despise his wife is for him to despise marriage, so for one to despise the pure preaching of God’s Word is for him to despise the union of Christ to his Bride.
Christ’s pure Word
We are not united to Christ through clever programs that draw folks in. More often than not, such methods are used (and invented) by heretics to lure people away from the pulpit and altar to which they swore to remain faithful. We are united to Christ alone through His pure Word. Our concern for the souls of those who grow discontent with and wander from their congregations where it is rightly preached is best expressed not by ignoring the sordid affair, but by urging them to return to where Christ serves His Bride with His pure and salutary means of grace. In the meantime, as with cases of divorce, we pray that God might work good from every evil and increase faith wherever He deigns to create it.
The Rev. John Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton, Iowa.