The sweat was beading up on his upper lip as we stood outside in the heat. It had started innocently enough. I had walked one and a half blocks from our new apartment to the seminary campus. It was all new to me. I had never been away at school before; I had attended college at Southeast Missouri State University in my home town. Now, however, I was a relatively new Lutheran, and an incoming “Sem 1” as first year students were called.
Concordia Theological Seminary (CTS) was located then in Springfield, Illinois. The campus was a collection of mostly-old buildings in a part of town surrounded by railroad tracks. We had a built-in excuse any time we were late: “I got stopped by a train.” Everyone would nod in agreement.
This day, however, I was not stopped by a train. I was stopped by a Sem 4, a student who was beginning his final year of seminary training. “Hi. Are you a new student here? Where you from?”
“Cape Girardeau, Missouri.”
“Well, officially I’m a member of Trinity in Cape. But I really was at the Lutheran Campus Center there.”
“Trinity, huh?” He was ignoring the more important matter of my connection with the campus center at SEMO. That was the place where I was taught the Lutheran faith, and where my pastor there had been instrumental in encouraging me to attend CTS in Springfield. That was the seminary with a curriculum geared more toward those students who had not attended one of the universities of the Concordia University System. As a relatively new Lutheran, this seminary would be a better choice.
“Yes, I was officially a member of Trinity.”
“That’s Gerkin’s church. You a lib too?”
“What?” I was stunned. I knew something of the political turmoil of our church body at that time. It was only a few years after the walk-out of seminary professors at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. I had even considered attending Seminex, the seminary formed by the professors and students who had walked out. I also knew that Pastor Oscar Gerkin, the pastor to whom he had referred, was no liberal. He had cleared John Tietjen, the former president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, of teaching false doctrine. Pastor Gerkin was a faithful, conservative, biblically-centered, and dedicated pastor.
I knew nothing of the underbelly of the resistance and backlash to the troubles of Seminex and the political climate of that day. This Sem 4 student was giving me a crash course in theological vigilantism. He was also being quite unfair in his name-calling.
“You a lib, too? He cleared Tietjen. You a lib, too?” That’s when the sweat began to form on this Sem 4’s upper lip. He was holding a plastic laundry basket, having just come from the on-campus laundromat.
“Gerkin is no liberal.” I had fallen right into the name-calling trap. It would become a staple for us all during those difficult and politically-charged times. “Besides,” I said, “I really wasn’t all that connected at Trinity. I was at the Lutheran Campus Center. That’s where I became a Lutheran.”
“You an adult confirmand?” He was intensely focused on ferritting out any possible less-than-true-Lutheran aspect of my nascent Lutheran orthodoxy. “What church did you come from?”
“I was raised at First Baptist in Cape.” I should have asked him, “Why do you want to know?” But I didn’t.
“Baptist, huh. You got infant baptism all straightened out?”
I somehow managed to disengage from the conversation soon thereafter. I went home and told Diane about the encounter. It was a very discouraging first foray onto the seminary campus. I received no grace from him. He wasn’t worried about welcoming me into the seminary community. He was dedicated to upholding his brand of Lutheran theological orthodoxy above all else.
The encounter left enough of an impression on me that more than 40 years later I can recall the turquoise color of the laundry basket the Sem 4 was holding. Charity prevents me from naming him. I learned from that experience not to try to argue anyone into an opinion. I had not been convinced by this Lutheran watchdog. I had merely retreated into a defensive quietness in response to his inquisition.
Over the ensuing months I would learn more about baptism, liberal theology, and the political climate in our church body. More than that, and through the other much more positive experiences of my time at the seminary, God shaped the theological foundation from which I function today.
Two other examples illustrate some of the good aspects of that formation. I look forward to sharing those tomorrow.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load. – Galatians 6:1-5