Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ecclesiastical Evolution

The spectacle of it! With a few powerful words yelled out a bit louder than the rest, the place erupted into a frenzy of redemption. And it happened every time. The pale upturned palms of ten thousand hands darted and swirled above pastel dress shirts and brightly colored dresses. Starbursts of reflected light sparkled off the women’s gold earrings dangling and shaking with their heads.
“Believe!” shouted the preacher again.
Winding Road [Flickr page]

Religions like to claim that the Truth ever was as they now are. They have the pure doctrine revealed by God, to them and their forebears, unchanging and eternal. If you want to find out what Christianity was from the moment that Jesus breathed the Holy Ghost on the disciples, for example, you need only visit the Conservative Laestadian church I used to attend.

Inconveniently, other churches make their own claims. The Churches of Christ claim to be, well, the Churches of Christ–just as they were established by the Apostles traveling around in the book of Acts, except perhaps for the Greek architecture. Joseph Smith did not invent a new religion involving crudely imitated King James English, an entirely mistranslated Egyptian funerary text, and adapted Masonic rituals and symbols, harrumph the Mormon powers that be. No, he restored “the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth, which God authorized to be established ... by a wiser, heaven-tutored Joseph Smith, once again allowing everyone to receive the joy and blessings that come from living it.”

What is really happening, of course, is that religions make their ancestors in their own images. The past is dimly and selectively visualized through a screen imposed by the present. Whatever is being practiced today–strict confession of sins or more relaxed general absolution, instrumental music or just singing a capella, magic underwear, whatever–is absolutely what happened all along with the true believers of yore.1

But it isn’t.

Lurching through Laestadianism

There are many cases of ecclesiastical evolution in my old church, none of which its elders are eager to acknowledge. Some examples that come to mind: Nobody stands in the pews rejoicing about grace anymore, false spirits are nowhere to be found, sinners have largely dispensed with confession and all its mental hang-ups, and a lot of entertainment video is being watched on private little screens. But those are peripheral things I personally observed during my decades of membership. A larger issue, and one that few believers know about (I certainly didn’t, until researching it), is that the church’s main theme of proclaiming sins forgiven has slowly evolved into existence over the entire span of Christian history.

The Laestadian Lutheran church centers its doctrine and practice around a ritual of absolution that the Bible declines to illustrate with a single solid example, even in Saul’s conversion or the case where it would seem most instructive–Peter’s denial of Christ.2 The whole thing revolves around the preaching of “the gospel” (the term being narrowly construed for doctrinal purposes), a proclamation that one’s sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood, which was never actually used in any of the Gospels!3

Church history is also a problem for this group’s idea of itself as a special group of believers who have passed along the keys of absolution in an unbroken chain from Jesus and the disciples. There’s just no historical evidence for that. Rather, it is clear that there was a slow evolution of Christian thought, over many painful centuries, about the nature of sin and to what extent it might be forgiven.

My research and discussion of this topic is the one part of An Examination of the Pearl that I dare to consider original. Writing my conclusions about it also marked the end of my belief in the doctrines of Conservative Laestadianism. This is important stuff if you’re a Laestadian of any type, so let me summarize what I wrote about it in §5.1.2 with the next few paragraphs.

Arriving at Absolution

The earliest Christian writers never thought to mention what became such an important aspect of Catholic (and, I might add, Conservative Laestadian) doctrine and practice, the absolution of sins by the proclamation of another human being. And the fact that they wrote about other means by which sins could be forgiven makes their silence about absolution all the more problematic.

At first, sins could only be forgiven once, and only once, through the spiritual washing of baptism. Then the idea of a second chance materialized, but that was all you’d get. This “two strikes and you’re out” arrangement evolved into a harsh system of cruel penalties that dished out misery and humiliation to anyone who dared confess to committing sin.

It wasn’t until the fifth century that the bishops started sharing the keys with ordinary priests and limits of grace finally disappeared. Even then, it seems that there was little attention paid to absolution into the early middle ages, at least when it came to the practice of everyday Christians.

All in all, there was a tortuously slow expansion of those Christians who were authorized to use the keys. At first the authority was neither claimed by nor given to anyone at all. Then the bishops appeared, keys in hand. Then the priests to whom they hesitantly delegated their authority got copies, and later monks did, too, within the walls of their closed communities. And finally, when Luther’s system appeared, laymen got their chance to employ the keys, in theory if not so apparently in actual practice.4

As if all that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that Laestadianism began without its 19th-century founders using the supposedly indispensable keys to let themselves into the Kingdom.5 Things had hummed along with visions and revelations for a good nine years before one of those guys, Juhani Raattamaa, finally stumbled on the idea of comforting a desperate woman by preaching that her sins were forgiven via his proclamation that it was so. He was struck by how well it seemed to work and, upon returning home, found support for what he’d done in Luther’s writings.6 And on that pebble of forgotten Lutheran practice was built an entire church.

No wonder church elders don’t like people to read or think too much about their own history.

A Return to Ecstacy?

Knowing how much my former religion has evolved while simultaneously claiming never to do so, I got to thinking about what that church might look like in the future. It certainly will be very different than it is now.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see all but a devoted core group surrender the idea that contraception is a sin. That core group, of course, will then be the source for new members, most all of whom are supplied via procreation. Laestadianism attracts hardly any converts in its long-standing population centers of Finland and North America. Babies are the key–lots and lots of babies.

But there are two places where Laestadianism is attracting converts, hundreds of them: Togo and Ghana. What would a West African Laestadian Lutheran Church look like in the year 2044, as the (further evolved) movement celebrates the Bicentennial of Laestadius’s awakening in the presence of Milla Clementsdotter aka “Lapp Mary”?

Perhaps things will go full circle, in a sense. The services of African Laestadians might wind up a lot like those of the spiritually awakened Sámi 200 years earlier, with fervent preaching and ecstatic outbursts.

My latest short story “Africa 2044” is a brief musing about how that might appear as seen through the eyes of Koffi, a lukewarm believer who is thinking too much while translating a sermon. It’s available via this link or under the “Fiction” sidebar to the right.


  1. In a  2014 sermon, an LLC preacher acknowledged that things really aren’t so unchanging and eternal after all, about one issue at least. I found his candor about that refreshing as well as the fact that he didn’t just skip over an inconvenient verse (Titus 2:3) during his line-by-line exposition of the text. The Spirit today guides believers to abstain from alcohol, he said, but fermentation was a method of preservation and “there was some wine consumed in biblical times by believers. And what we don’t know, necessarily, is the alchohol content and then also whatever customs of the times were acceptable to believers. ‘But not given to much,’ he does say, so certainly not drunkards” (15:30). 

  2. Regarding conversion by absolution, see An Examination of the Pearl, §4.2.5. Regarding absolution as the sole means of grace, see §4.6.2. Regarding the oft-cited example of the “Keys to the Kingdom” passages in Mark 7:6-7 and Matthew 15:7-9, see §7.1. Regarding Saul’s conversion, see §7.2

  3. As I wrote in §4.3.3, the “story of Nathan rebuking David of his sin and then pronouncing that he was forgiven of it (2 Sam. 12) strikes me as the only plausible example in the Bible of the Laestadian-style absolution being employed.” But “one must recognize that there was not even a remote mention of Jesus during the encounter. Imagine the noise that Christian apologists would have made of such a thing if it were there, seeing how they scour the Old Testament for the vaguest of statements that might be considered messianic prophecies! No, it was the time of the ‘Old Covenant,’ when the forgiveness of sins supposedly was facilitated through animal sacrifices.” 

  4. This paragraph and the three preceding ones are adapted and condensed from §5.1.2. If there is one part of An Examination of the Pearl that I really would like Laestadians to read, it’s that. 

  5. “This belated realization by Raattamaa, the timing of his ‘discovery of the keys’ and Laestadius’ initial misgivings to it, and the lack of first-hand accounts of the keys being used in conversion before the discovery makes it seem that the early awakenings did not involve the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins from a believer to a penitent one. But that is completely contrary to the Conservative Laestadian doctrine that such a personal proclamation is the only way for one to receive forgiveness of his sins, including the ‘greatest sin’ of unbelief.... It seems like a vexing problem indeed for a church to teach that its doctrine never changes and yet have its founders entering into ‘living faith’ without the benefit of the very proclamation of the forgiveness of sins that is one of its distinguishing characteristics and central doctrines” (§4.1.4). 

  6. The support is indeed there. Luther invented the idea of absolution from one ordinary believer to another (§5.4.3). It just took about 1500 years from the time Jesus conveyed the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter or the disciples, depending on which Gospel passage you read.