The intent of a study on the theological premises of the Ablaze! movement is not meant to be unloving. It has at its deepest core a heartfelt desire for the lost.
If the Ablaze! movement is theologically sound, then it deserves praise. If it is not sound -- if it attracts the lost to an inferior gospel which is really no Gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7) -- it deserves the kind of rebukes which are demonstrated in the words of our Lord and His prophets and apostles as found in the Scriptures.
Whichever the case may be, the ultimate goal is that people would be led to know and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and our Savior. In reviewing the theological premises of Ablaze! movement, pastors keep in mind St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand.” (2 Corinthians 1:24)
“Whether our Synod gains friends or makes enemies, wins honor or invites disgrace, grows or declines in numbers, brings peace or incites enmity, all this must be unimportant to us--just so our Synod may keep the jewel of purity of doctrine and knowledge. However, should our Synod ever grow indifferent toward purity of doctrine, through ingratitude forget this prize, or betray or barter it away to the false church, then let our church body perish and the name 'Missourian' decay in disgrace,” (First Sermon Delivered at the Opening of Synod, based on 1 Corinthians 1:4-5).
I am one of those who contends that there is something inferior with the Ablaze! movement -- as well as with its peripheral campaign . . . Fanning the Flame. I believe the case can be made that President Kieschnick’s initiative is bankrupting the synod financially and theologically.
Still, it surprises me that men like Dr. Wenthe, Dr. Hempelman, and Dr. Meier have given their imprimatur to this movement. I have known them as teachers and I have heard them commend Lutheran theology which is far superior to the theology of the Ablaze! movement.
The same can be said about those teachers of our church, the other seminary and university professors who have not voiced any public objection to the theology of Ablaze! Should their silence (except perhaps in the controlled confines of their classrooms) also be construed as being in support of the theology of the Ablaze! movement?
Luther purportedly has stated "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition of the Word of God except precisely that one point which the world and the Devil are at that pint attacking, I am not confessing Christ however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is tested. To be steady in all other battlefields is mere flight and disgrace if the soldier flinches at that one point."
The following theses concerning the Ablaze! initiative and the Fanning the Flame movement need to be considered in greater detail and in a forum which should be designed to move us to be like-minded (Rom. 15:5; Phil. 2:2):
1) Even if the current administration of the synod cannot be blamed for the dire financial straits which we find ourselves in, it must be held accountable for the way that it continues to spend money during these difficult times. An article in the Wall Street Journal online notes that one congregation near St. Louis took a $25,000 Ablaze! grant and used it to put up billboards with kitschy statements purporting to come from the devil (e.g., "JeffersonHills Church Sucks," signed "Satan"). Ad campaigns and conferences to the tune of millions of dollars is showing no results. Attempts to make synod members feel good about themselves may be working, but it is a false image. The proliferation of newly created administrative positions throughout the synod and its districts also is lamentable.
2) The Ablaze! movement lays guilt upon people with hand-wringing comments about the lost. That guilt is then resolved not with the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, but by urging works of penance upon them. This is hypocritical.
3) The Ablaze! movement inordinately promotes a social gospel by means of glossy publications and snazzy websites wherein all kinds of services from day care to food pantries are offered to people without a matching expression of true repentance and faith. To be sure, the world will take all the freebies it can get from the church but be altogether disinterested in denying itself, taking up the cross and following Jesus. A social gospel is altogether different than works of mercy.
4) The Ablaze! movement does not preach repentance appropriately, embracing the idea of “pre-evangelism” in terms of kindly, civic acts rather than the proclamation of the Law. It proclaims a “loving” God in such a way that does not distinguish between the worldly idea of “love” and the Scriptural understanding of love, suggesting to unbelievers that their life on this earth will be “better” in the face of divorce, alcoholism, and the like.
5) The Ablaze! movement takes an “infomercial” approach to the proclamation of the Gospel in the way it uses various print and broadcast media.
6) The Ablaze! movement makes use of motivational speakers who hold a faith contrary to that which we confess — speakers who confuse the distinction and application of Law and Gospel in promoting a course of action to save the lost and act in a Christian manner.
7) The Ablaze! movement's Fanning the Flame promotion is reported to have costs around the neighborhood of $6 million. Thus far, it has managed to pay for itself and to get pledges (not receipts) for something like $30-million. At this rate, those pledges are going to be going to pay for synodical DEBT, not mission and evangelism efforts.
8) The Ablaze! movement attempts to be “likeable” to the world, not comprehending the words of our Lord which acknowledges the reasons why the world hates Christians. This is how they thought of the false prophets.
9) The Ablaze! movement uses arbitrary numbers as goals or measures of accomplishment. The Ablaze! movement has established certain numeric and fiscal goals to be achieved by certain dates. If the arbitrary number is too low, the movement will be satisfied for accomplishing less than it could have. If the number is too high, a burden of conscience will be placed on people for not having accomplished it — or artificial means will be used to inflate the numbers.
10) The Ablaze! movement creates theological and practical problems in its zeal, as when an arbitrary number of congregations to be established is set — when there aren’t enough pastors to fill them, the dubious practice of creating a “pastor specific ministry” is initiated, placing men into the functions of the pastoral office who have been less thoroughly trained than regular pastors, not taking into account the problems which arise from such a practice.
11) The Ablaze! movement takes the credit for the effectiveness of missions and evangelism in its “creative” ventures instead of giving proper credit to the Holy Spirit working solely through the Means of Grace as our Confessions maintain.
12) The Ablaze! movement abandons established Word and Sacrament missions and ministries in socio-economically depressed areas simply because they don’t seem to be effective or growing in numbers.
13) The Ablaze! movement decries postmodern approaches while at the same time embracing postmodernism and utilizing its approaches to faith and life.
14) The Ablaze! movement renders false judgments and makes misleading insinuations about the lack of mission zeal in The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.
15) The Ablaze! movement raises false dichotomies between laypeople and called-and-ordained servants of the Word.
16) The Ablaze! movement promotes a karaoke Christianity which lays greater importance on the style and form of beauty than on the substance of the words being sung.
17) The Ablaze! movement is indicative of the “missiolatry” prevalent in evangelical circles today, obscuring the distinctive Law-and-Gospel character of Lutheran Confessions and emulating the principles and practices of religious confessions who maintain doctrines which our Confessions condemn.
The Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, Lutheran hymnody and the Constitution and Bylaws of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod commend “pure doctrine” with good reason, as the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you,” (1Ti 4:16) and to Titus, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may “be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict,” (Tit 1:9).
“Pure doctrine doesn’t mean simply that someone “can’t find anything wrong with it.” Rather, it is that doctrine which correctly identifies and addresses sin, death, the devil, the world, and our own flesh. It is salutary to examine documents, theology and practice in terms of “what’s right with it.”