Three years ago, I attended the Christmas program of my younger children’s elementary school, my head swirling with cognitive dissonance over what I was reading in the Bible and church publications. One of the issues that stood out in my mind, as it does for so many troubled believers, was Conservative Laestadianism’s outrageous exclusivity claims. (These claims are also made by the OALC, FALC, and IALC, who all point their bony fingers of condemnation at each other along with the LLC/SRK.)
Here it is in a nutshell: The church’s membership comprises about 0.002% of the world’s population. Everyone else who is mentally competent and has achieved some vaguely defined age of accountability it consigns to an eternity of screaming torture, a fate that eventually will be shared by almost all of the billion or so of the world’s children.
There are even questions about many of those within the official membership nowadays. I suspect the old guard in the SRK and LLC have been waiting quite a while now for another “heresy” to come along and clean house, freeing them from having to deal with those annoying liberals, part-timers, and questioners.
That evening I sat with my wife and watched our kids up on stage, saying their pieces and singing their little songs among the beautiful children and parents of a rural, simple, and fairly religious community. As it is most everywhere else in the U.S. and the world, none of them has ever heard of Conservative Laestadianism. The closest most will ever come to a member of “God’s Kingdom” is in their cars as they drive through the area where most of our old congregation’s members live, on their way to do some shopping in town.
Here’s what I wrote when we got home. It is reproduced from my book (§4.2.1), as is some of the commentary that follows.
The Christmas Program
Children stand on stage singing Christmas carols, twirling their curled hair and smiling shyly out at the faces of their parents. They have learned words that tell of Wishing us a Merry Christmas, of a little Town named Bethlehem, of a jolly old man named Santa Claus. In their classes they are also learning about one plus one and the alphabet, and even about bugs and plants.
But something they will never learn is that they are damned. Neither they nor their beaming parents will ever hear about a small, nondescript church 20 miles away that is attended by a few hundred children and their parents who look exactly like them and their parents, but who are (largely) not damned. They will grow up to embrace various beliefs. Most will confess a belief in the saving powers of the Jesus they are singing about (more or less) in their caroling. Some will be more enthusiastic about that belief than others, and some of them will come to reject the whole notion entirely. But all of them are damned, every single now-innocent one of them, because they will never enter that small, nondescript church and accept its particular doctrine of salvation.
Perhaps as their adult forms are writhing in unspeakable, eternal agony someday, many of them will ask, what about the Jesus we believed in? Didn’t we accept him as our personal savior? Didn’t we read the Bible that spoke of him, which said that God loved the whole world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that all men might have eternal life?
Perhaps one of them, surprised that the particular Jesus doctrine he so piously confessed and taught was to no avail, will scream in his agony, “Why? Why? Why? Now I find out that there were just a few hundred people for hundreds of miles around me who made it to adulthood and then to heaven? And because none of these people ever had occasion to speak to me (including two parents who were apparently in the audience at my first grade Christmas program but never could or did say anything to me), I am going to be tortured forever? How could I have believed in a doctrine I’d never even heard of? If you are a loving God, why did you hide it from me? Why did you give me instead a lifetime of false consolation about Jesus that would prove utterly worthless to the fate of my soul?”
Laestadian preachers provide the flock with reminders of their special status in just about every sermon, by expressing praise and thanksgiving to God for allowing them the incredible good fortune to be one of “God’s children,” to have the “precious gift of living faith,” or even (in an acknowledgment of how almost everybody comes to be a Laestadian) to be “born into a Christian home.” And it is equally emphasized by references to the world and how lost and sadly ignorant it is of “God’s Kingdom.”
That can sound comforting to the believer who has spent a lifetime hearing nothing but the preaching of his or her own childhood faith, and has managed to avoid giving too much thought to the fate of those “unbelievers” and “heretics” whose beliefs appear only as simplistic caricatures in the sermons. But outside the walls of Zion, beyond earshot of the self-assured, droning piety, everyone can see the absurdity and cruelty of a God who would create a world full of people and hide the knowledge of salvation from almost all of them.
Pointing out this sort of thing earns one the title of a “false prophet,” a label now being heard from LLC ministers in their advent-season apocalyptic sermons. Their urgent preaching, the private phone calls and messages of concern, the meetings now being conducted to address questions with nothing but the same old slogans and non-answers, are all an effort to deflect attention from the inconvenient facts.
And one of them is this: When a sect of a hundred thousand members maintains a doctrine of exclusivity in a world of seven billion, it is chaining itself to a rotting corpse. No amount of literary perfume, no appeal to tradition or piety, can disguise the stench of the horror it drags along with it everywhere it goes.
What contortions these poor preachers have to undergo to defend the indefensible! The allegiance demanded by this sect claiming to be the only true Lutheran faith–contrary to the teachings of Luther himself (§5.2)–forces them to reduce Christ’s suffering and death to near irrelevance, a mere collection of useless stories for everybody outside the walls of the little churches in which they preach. Worse, the consequence of their microscopically limited gospel is that most of Christianity is just a cruel joke being played on an unsuspecting world. The Laestadian God has created humankind with the full knowledge that he is going to condemn almost all of them, sending them to their graves damned by the false consolation of at best a “dead” Christianity.
And what about Jesus’ promise that the seekers would find, that those who knock will find the door opened? Well, when someone is truly seeking, God will lead them to find “the Kingdom.” That was the explanation by one hapless preacher (§4.9.3) in a sermon where he also candidly acknowledged the reaction of outsiders to these claims: “You really think this is the only place where forgiveness is found? Do you really think that you are the only group that is traveling to heaven, the only group of believers? Do you really believe that?” (§4.2.1). Actually, not all of them; perhaps not even most of the people sitting in the pews on a given Sunday.
Like me and the bulk of the congregations they preach to, most of the guys sitting behind the pulpits spent their childhoods attending Sunday school, church, discussions, and church camps where the doctrines they now convey were hammered into their brains, along with the expectation that these matters are not to be questioned.
When they misquote John 6:68 (it says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”, they prefer “where else would we go”), they are doing so out of habit and sincerity. Where else would they go, indeed? It is inconceivable for most Laestadians to go anywhere else. Not just because of the indoctrination they received with its eternal promises and threats, but also the social environment to which they are attached–huge families, lifelong friends, familiar settings–as firmly and comfortably as barnacles to rock.