Defending Syncretism: You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m going to try, as Pres. Matt Harrison asked, not to mention the main actors or the events which have been boiling among members of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod this past week, as well as, unfortunately, in the national press.  Perhaps the whole saga, taken up as a “for/against,” “conservative/liberal” rallying cry by the usual suspects, can become an opportunity for discernment and a fuller searching of the Scriptures on what it means to bear witness in an age that is, by nature, syncretistic.

I’m not holding my breath.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those who want to defend events where many people are praying and/or worshiping, each from his or her “faith tradition” (gah, that phrase makes me want to break something), often do use Scriptural accounts to bolster their cases.  (That is in contradistinction to those unbelievers or crypto-unbelievers who use half-formed, quasi-scriptural, emotivistic opinions to advance their case one way or the other.)

The problem with the Scriptural accounts that are chosen to encourage a given situation of praying/worshiping is that they often seem to move in the opposite direction from how the person seems to want it to be used.  Take Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal, and the 400 prophets of Asherah.  I suppose Elijah prays in their presence (not quite sure he’s praying “with” them), but while they are praying, he mocks them, even suggesting that Baal might be taking a bathroom break.  And then he proceeds to make sure not a single one of them escapes with his life.  Do the people who use this passage want to appear biblically illiterate, or were they all, like, “Elijah prayed and there were people from other religions there…what happened after that?  TLDR“?  I don’t really know.  I admit, mocking false prophets, calling down fire from heaven, telling the people to worship only the true God–all pretty cool.  Just not sure that’s what the people who use this verse mean when they use it.

I want to know if there is an actual, real place where Jesus, His Prophets or His Apostles, or any Christian until the Enlightenment, actually worshiped (or even prayed, for that matter) with unbelievers or believers in another god?  Not where they preached to unbelievers, not where they ate with unbelievers, not where they served or helped unbelievers.  Is that too much to ask?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?



12 thoughts on “Defending Syncretism: You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. Ding ding ding. Well done. I find it hilarious that, for all of the LCMS’s talk about how “now” is always the time for Lutheranism — we’re a sleeping giant, it’s the perfect time for Lutheran doctrine and witness, etc, etc — for all of our hoping that the public and media will look our way, when the moment actually comes, we completely blow it. And both sides blew it. If you are going to actually go to an interfaith “event” and yet don’t speak like Elijah or Paul, you blew it. If you are going to call foul on someone who participates in such an event, and then spend the next several days apologizing and wringing your hands over the fact that the world doesn’t like what the church teaches, as if this was surprising, you blew it.

    Granted, we’re all sinners, these are hard situations to be put into, yada yada. We all need to repent. Fine. But what are both sides actually repenting about? Oy.

    “I want to know if there is an actual, real place where Jesus, His Prophets or His Apostles, or any Christian until the Enlightenment, actually worshiped (or even prayed, for that matter) with unbelievers or believers in another god?”

    Um . . . yeah.

    • Perhaps, but this does not speak of a prophet or apostle praying with unbelievers. It does speak about a servant whose master goes to worship idols, but needs help getting around. The master must actually need another to help him walk. Naaman says he will perform this service for his master, and will follow the decorum of that house of worship. There are times when we all will probably have to enter a house of worship that is not our own (funerals being an example). This does not call for us to interrupt the service, and do the opposite of all the other people. We probably just sit nicely and watch. I have a feeling this is what Naaman is driving at.

    • The fact that he had to asked to be pardoned should indicate that he was actually doing something wrong by bowing down and worshiping…

  2. Tim, you wrote: “I want to know if there is an actual, real place where Jesus, His Prophets or His Apostles, or any Christian until the Enlightenment, actually worshiped (or even prayed, for that matter) with unbelievers or believers in another god?”

    Well, what of Jonah in Jonah 1:5-6 ff.? The captain tells the men on the ship to pray to their respective gods and Jonah is in attendance; presumably he would count as a prophet of God who prayed alongside believers in other gods.

    But more to the point, was there anyone involved in the Newtown vigil that actually, consciously prayed to a god other than the God of Abraham? Did someone actually offer a prayer to Shiva, or Loki, or something along those lines? If not, if all you are concerned about is that there were people present who prayed to the God of Abraham *but not with the understanding that that God was incarnate in Christ* (e.g. a Jewish rabbi) then Paul of Tarsus would qualify as a parallel: Paul, as a Christian and an Apostle, went to the Jewish temple intending to worship God alongside non-Christian Jews in Acts 21:17-27ff.

    Do these two examples, Jonah and Paul, satisfy?

  3. Our age is syncretistic compared to what: Old Testament Canaan? The late Roman Empire? The Prussian Union (leading more or less directly to Nazi civil religion)?

    I think we should be grateful that in this nation it is only social pressure and not the violent will of the state that is driving us to the altar of idolatry. Still, “interfaith worship” is an effort to declaw religion, to make it harmless to the state or society. I have great respect for the LCMS position and for others such as Orthodox Jews who exercise their constitutional right to resist this insult.

    • Matt, I wasn’t comparing this age to any other age. Probably, all ages are syncretistic generally.

      Eugene, I do believe that since the one God has revealed Himself in Christ, there is no “God of Abraham” that can be known or worshiped outside of Jesus. Therefore, every god that is worshiped, even if that god is called Yahweh or Allah, if He is not worshiped through His Son Jesus, it is an idol and a false god. (Good thing I don’t live in an Islamic country!) So when Jews or Muslims pray, it is not to the same God, even if they read (to some extent) the same Scriptures. I know of no God outside of Jesus, and that is scandalous to the unbelieving mind. Talk about giving offense here is superfluous: the Gospel of and in Christ is always offensive.

      There is also an invocation of the Baha’i god, and whatever that “Lutheran” chaplain invoked.

      Watching the parts of the Newtown vigil that are on youtube and here:, why is there always a pastor/priest/priestess next to the Muslim or the Jew? No impression that there is agreement? I don’t buy it.

      Jonah is sleeping while the sailors are praying, and when Jonah bears witness to them of the true God, they begin to pray to Yahweh, and worship Him. (Whether they worshiped in a syncretistic way after that, we are not told.)

      Paul did go to the Temple (as did all the Apostles after Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24, worshiping the God who had been made known to them in Jesus), but immediately, because of Paul’s Christ-preaching reputation, they arrest him and probably would have killed him if the soldiers had not intervened. I do not think that either of those are parallels to our modern therapeutic invoking of many gods so that people can feel some sense of “comfort.” There is no comfort for anyone outside the death and resurrection of Jesus; all else, no matter how good it makes us feel, is eternal death.

      And I cannot see how Christians who believe in the sole salvation of Jesus can participate when alternative and opposing views are given. What possible impression can be given but that humans eat in a religious cafeteria and it’s all in what you enjoy? No, it doesn’t give the impression that all are the same, but then, who likes the same thing all the time? (I am speaking according to the flesh.) Pastors must comfort their people, and all the more in a tragic situation such as Newtown. Was something gained by giving those words publicly? The Christians probably nodded; everyone else said, “Well, that’s what they believe. I don’t believe in the Trinity, but if it helps them, it’s good.” Therapy can be damned when it comes to the Gospel.

      [Oops, I wasn’t going to comment on it!]


  4. Another thought: Pr. Morris is only given credit for praying and comforting people when it is done in the syncretistic public service. Nothing else that he and his congregation has done to serve people in the wake of the tragedy is considered newsworthy. Does prayer for the victims only count when it is done in the presence of a rabbi, an imam and POTUS?

    I assume that Pr. Morris had to perform an excruciating funeral for a child. Likewise the prayer, counseling and conversation for him has been, I’m sure, non-stop since December. Yet because he apologized (sort of) for his participation in the public service, his church body comes in for screaming condemnation for its lack of compassion.

  5. Hi Tim,

    You’ve said some things I agree with and some things I disagree with. And while we’ve always disagreed on some points owing to our differing denominational perspectives, I think you may want to reconsider some of what you’ve said here.

    First, in the spirit of friendship, the agreements. I agree that our age is syncretistic and that the government is fond of pretending that “religion” is some sort of therapeutic commodity that, while it comes in different flavors, is fundamentally the same and seeking the same goals regardless of the surface differences. I also agree that this is nonsense. I’ll further agree that, when it comes to the real world, there may be times when we therefore ought to decline to participate in public inter-whatever religious events; maybe Newtown was one such time… maybe.

    Okay, now my concerns.

    You wrote that, with the coming of Christ, “every god that is worshiped, even if that god is called Yahweh or Allah, if He is not worshiped through His Son Jesus, it is an idol and a false god.”

    That idea is clearly unbiblical.

    (Also, it runs afoul of Luther’s Large Catechism and his comments elsewhere too

    When speaking about his fellow non-Christian but post-Jesus Jews, the Apostle Paul wrote that “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge .” (Rom. 10:2) Paul doesn’t say that the non-Christian Jews of his time were zealous for a false god or for an idol; they were zealous for God. Sure, they were ignorant in some respects, and this ignorance was such that it placed them under the threat of damnation (cp. Rom. 10:1). But the orientation of their zeal towards the one true God, the Father of Jesus, is granted by the Apostle and ought therefore to be granted by us too.

    Similarly, consider the difficulties your comment poses for understanding Acts’ depiction of Cornelius’s conversion: Cornelius is described in Acts 10:2 as a man who “feared God” and “prayed to God continually”. But in this passage, Cornelius is praying to the God of Abraham after the coming of Jesus and without personal faith in Jesus. That is to say, the Bible grants that Cornelius worshiped the one true God without faith in Christ, even in the Christian era. Again, Cornelius stands in need of salvation, which he receives, but the legitimacy of his pre-conversion yet post-Jesus worship is assumed in the text.

    Or to consider an even more striking passage, consider Paul’s comments in Acts 17:27-28: “He [i.e. God] is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’“ Paul here approvingly alludes to the writings of one pagan poet (pseudo-Epimenides) and approvingly quotes another poem by the pagan Aratus, endorsing the correntness of their views that we subsist in God and that we are all God’s children. Only, Epimenides and Aratus weren’t writing about Yahweh; they weren’t even writing about “god” in some generic fashion. Rather, they was explicitly discussing Zeus, using that very name—though understood within the context of late Greek monotheism. To quote Aratus’ line in its immediate context: “In every way we have all to do with Zeus, for are truly his offspring.”

    So what we find here is an instance in which the Apostle Paul, in the post-Jesus era, declares that even pagans writing about the supreme being were really writing about God, the real God. Presumably, therefore, pagan worship offered to the supreme being, even under a pagan name (or no name, for that matter; cp. Acts 10:23), is worship offered to God, the real God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that such pagans have no need of salvation; Paul is preaching the gospel to them for a reason, after all. But it seriously undermines the idea that “every god that is worshiped, even if that god is called Yahweh or Allah, if He is not worshiped through His Son Jesus, it is an idol and a false god”. Paul seems to have felt that even at least some pagans were worshiping the one true God despite not knowing Jesus. If this was true of pagan monotheists of a late Greek stripe in Paul’s era, I think it’s likely true of pagan monotheists of a Baha’i strip in our era too.

    Further, you grant that “Paul did go to the Temple … but immediately, because of Paul’s Christ-preaching reputation, they arrest him and probably would have killed him if the soldiers had not intervened” That’s true enough, but it’s also irrelevant. The challenge you laid down in your post asked for an apostle of Jesus who at least prayed alongside “unbelievers or believers in another god”. Given that you believe that Paul’s non-Christian Jewish contemporaries qualify as “believers in another god” by virtue of their worship of Yahweh sans Jesus in a post-Jesus world, Paul’s attempt to worship alongside them in the Temple satisfies your initial requirements. That those Jews didn’t respond well to his presence is neither here nor there.

    Further still, you said, “I do not think that either of those [i.e. Jonah and Paul’s actions] are parallels to our modern therapeutic invoking of many gods so that people can feel some sense of ‘comfort.’” Perhaps not, but only perhaps. In Paul’s case at least, the entire reason Paul went to worship alongside disbelievers-in-Jesus at the condemned and obsolete Jewish Temple was so that certain people would be more “comfortable” with Paul despite his reputation. (cp. Acts 21:20-24) Its seems that Jesus’s Apostle felt that it was at least sometimes acceptable to worship God alongside unbelievers so as to put certain people at ease—at least when it furthers the gospel mission, as building goodwill among the residents of Newtown maybe would have done… maybe.

    I’m not taking a side on the issue of Pr. Whoever’s involvement in the Newtown vigil, I’m only pointing out that the case against it is not nearly so obvious nor so biblical as some might think. It seems its a matter that calls for wisdom; all things are lawful, after all, but not all things are helpful.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I probably come across as harsher than I mean to be, or maybe as harsh as my sinful nature.

    At any rate, I do not think Luther is making an argument one way or the other for whether, e.g., Muslims worship the true God. He is making the same point he makes elsewhere: outside of Jesus, the true God Himself will appear horrible and wrathful (and that is exactly the God of Islam).

    So what do we gain by saying “even if it is the one true God” (which, as the article to which you linked points out, is not the correct translation because there is no direct article in the German), they do not really know Him? Perhaps we may be able to make Paul’s move at the Areopagus and say, let me reveal to you that God in Jesus. I wouldn’t oppose that evangelistic move; but it doesn’t really work apologetically, since Muslims believe that the Qu’ran has surpassed both Judaism and Christianity. I don’t know; I’d say go ahead with that when dealing with Muslims. The Word of the Lord is powerful and effective.

    I simply don’t think the abstract question of “is it the same God” gains anything. Paul’s purpose is always evangelistic, it seems to me, rather than philosophical. When the Jews reject Christ, Paul washes his hands of them in a sense (Acts 28:23ff.), as does Jesus Himself. That does not mean that there is no euangellion for the Jews anymore, but the situation was unique. Acts testifies to a Gospel that spreads in concentric circles from Jerusalem, and the Apostles clearly speak to a Jewish populace that knows the promises, the Law, the prophets, the covenants, etc (Rom. 9). But once that initial Gospel goes out, the Jews are no more privileged with regard to the Gospel of Jesus than Muslims or any other nationality/background/religion.

    Perhaps with both Jews and Gentiles such as Cornelius, there is something to be said for fulfillment. I take Cornelius, though a Gentile, in the same way as, say, a Simeon or an Anna in Luke. They were waiting for the consolation of Israel and the hope of the nations, and they found it in Jesus. It is completely different to be waiting for the consolation of Israel, and then reject it when it [He] comes. If the Baha’i are waiting for a Messiah or however they would conceive of salvation, and they reject Jesus as the only embodiment of that salvation, they are no longer in the position (if they ever were; I don’t know much about Baha’is) of pre-Christian Israel.

    Paul is clearly willing to do two different actions for the sake of the Gospel (circumcise Timothy, while refusing to circumcise Titus). Each circumstance, as long as it doesn’t deny Christ–that is, I think, the debate in any given prayer/worship service–is open to more than one possible confession of the Gospel. I grant that different pastors or laypeople may choose different actions in different circumstances, based on the fact that they want to confess the Gospel clearly. I don’t know Pr. Morris, and I refuse to judge his motivations, but this whole debacle has clearly been an exercise in schizophrenic confusion on the part of the LCMS, and that’s the difficulty. I pray that Pres. Harrison is able to lead us toward a greater clarity and unity. The explicitly political sniping may be more harmful to this church body than the original situation. Part of the problem is that we’ve let the reaction of the world and people who have agendas other than the truth determine our reaction (e.g., “they hate us, so we’d better change”). The Church needs no PR firm, because if we preach the real Gospel, they will hate us whatever we say or do.

    Thanks for discussing. I do appreciate it.

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