Focusing Jesus on Distorted Teachings
Q: I’m a Christian, baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, who likes reading about Christianity. The Jesus Is Savior web site disturbs me. The author fills it with essays denying much of what I’ve been taught, from “basic” Christian beliefs to some Lutheran specifics. Some sections claim that Lutheranism is a false religion that will send its followers to hell. The article that specifically caught my eye involved especially teachings about the Christian Church and about the Virgin Mary. Can any of what he says be true?
A: This site’s author, David J. Stewart, habitually calls any denomination, organization, or confession within Christianity a “religion” if he disagrees with it. Claiming to believe that we are saved by grace through faith, he makes a mockery of the Faith, writing with ungracious venom about those whose beliefs or practices he opposes.
Jesus Is Savior (JIS) is equally guilty of sectarian excess and crass bibliolatry. In other words, JIS puts Scripture above Christ, using its (mis-) understanding of God’s Word to comprehend Jesus and His teachings rather than using Christ as the lens through which to interpret the Scriptures. Stewart furthermore denies baptismal regeneration, our Lord’s body-and-blood presence in Holy Communion, and any number of other Gospel truths.
Stewart has more conspiracy theories than I ever imagined one person could hold. He’s flat-out wrong on any number of subjects, but since you mentioned the article “Lutheran Lies,” let’s look at what he says in it. One quote that stood out refutes what’s not only a “Lutheran” teaching but one of the earliest theological statements of Christianity. Stewart writes, “There is NOTHING in the Bible which even hints that the church was ever supposed to be our ‘Mother.’ (emphasis his)”
Now read this quote: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1-6)”
Let’s see, Stewart says the Church is not our mother. John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes both of Mary (the actual, biological mother of the Christ) and of the Church (which stays in the wilderness on earth even though the Son ascends to His Father). The “male child ... who is to rule ... with a rod of iron” obviously is the Christ, as foretold in Psalm 2:9. So who’s the mother?
If this were an “either-or” translation situation the Christian Church actually fits the entire passage better than does the Virgin. After all, while Mary physically bore the Christ Child, she died and was carried safe to the Lord. Meanwhile, the Church still lives in the “Wilderness” of this earth, nourished by God through the Son’s Word and Sacrament. Such an understanding becomes even easier to grasp when we realize how the Lord so often named the Church (Israel) as His wife and He her husband in the Old Testament (e.g., Jeremiah 31:32 and Hosea 1-2). However, I think that John wrote in a “both-and” manner, using the Virgin mother to connect his readers thoughts to the Mother Church.
Stewart appears incapable of allowing various sections of Scripture to inform his understanding of other parts. No one, simple sentence anywhere in the Bible says, “The Christian Church is the Christian’s mother,” so he refuses to see how the total testimony points to this very fact. One passage comes very close to a complete and direct refutation of this false teaching. Saint Paul (whom JIS elsewhere quotes to its own advantage) wrote, “The Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:26)” Didn’t Jesus also indicate this when speaking of His followers (the Church!) as His “mother and brothers” (Luke 8:21)? And when talking with Nicodemus in John 3, He compared natural birth with the spiritual birth of Baptism, encouraging the comparison of our biological mothers’ wombs with the “womb” of our spiritual “Mother,” the Church.
Stewart denies almost 2000 years of teaching by men wiser and better steeped in the Scriptures than can he ever hope to be. I did a bit of research and compiled a partial list of theologians who refute Stewart’s error. They include Clement of Alexandria (AD 153-217), Tertullian 125-220), Cyprian (?-248), Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339), Athanasius (293-373), Jerome (347-420), Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), Augustine (354-430), and others.
Seeking to drive a deeper, wider wedge, Stewart continues his anti-Lutheran diatribe by claiming that Lutherans practice “Mary Worship.” He says, “It is ... disconcerting (and unbiblical) for anyone to recognize her at all. Mary is no more to be praised than any other godly mother.” Quoting Lutheran author Darrel Paul, he takes offense with Lutherans (or anyone else) saying, “Hail, favored one.” Luke 1 certainly disagrees with him. First, I guess that Stewart forgot the visit that Gabriel paid on a certain young lady from Nazareth: “[Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ (v. 28)”
Then, Stewart compounds his error by ignoring the trust that the Virgin placed in the Lord’s words spoken by the angel. Mary wasted no time in visiting Elizabeth, discovering immediately that part of Gabriel’s message was irrefutable, since her pregnant kinswoman stood before her. After their exchange of greetings and blessings, Mary spoke or sang the words that Christianity repeats to this day, beginning by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.... (vv. 46-47)”
Before continuing on to all that the birth of this Child would mean, she declared how and why she, of lowly, sinful birth was able to perform this “magnification” of the Holy One of Israel. She acknowledged the special office into which God had placed her: “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed. (v. 48)” Is the Virgin still the Lord’s “favored one”? Are we part of “all generations” following Mary? Nothing in the Bible says otherwise, so just in this one brief page, Stewart has completely painted himself into a corner, showing himself the be the false prophet he claims Luther to be.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #539