Friday, February 3, 2017

Mark's Thoughts: A Response to Higher Things President George Borghardt

Yesterday Higher Things President George Borghardt posted the following item on on the Higher Things Facebook page:

This post goes out to all who are upset with Higher Things about the Radical Lutherans supposedly in our midst. I'm posting it here so that all can see it and it's not buried in a thread...

I think it's time to maybe clear the air a bit.

I apologize on behalf of Higher Things for any offense we may have caused in the last fifteen years. We often were brash and young and given to start arguments and mock. We doubled down on arguments rather than work toward unity. This was unhelpful and unbecoming of the calling we have received. I, personally, apologized to one of our founding pastors a few years ago. I wanted to clear the air about our past internet fights. He said we were cool. A lot of us were young and that's not an excuse for our conduct only an explanation. When you are young, sometimes you are looking for a fight.

We also had a bad year in 2015. We made changes. We apologized -- I apologized-- to our subscribers. We had a great 2016. We've got new staff. We got new people.
Now... having taken the blame for the past -- it was completely our fault. Let's see if we can get together in the future to fix this with the few guys that remain that are upset with Higher Things. If you see a sermon at HT, a breakaway, that isn't faithful to the Lutheran Confessions, please tell us. 

I, personally, think that this medium of discussing things isn't helpful. I think it brings out the worst in us -- slander, bad churchmanship, ego, etc. We can all do better.
So... Todd Wilken and Mark Surburg, I'm asking you to come help us out with what you believe is a problem for us in person. Chris Rosebrough and I would love to sit down with you.

Or, we can continue to just tear each other up over the internet and people who are on the fringes can be disgusted about our behavior. The Law is good -- except when it's used on us. Then, we don't want it. 

Confessional Lutheranism is a gift from God. I wasn't always Lutheran and I see it. That doesn't make me a better Lutheran, it just means that I see how peculiar the gift is. What I see in this ever decreasing circle of what we think is acceptable Confessional Lutheran really troubles me. We shoot each other. We mark and avoid each other. We form camps -- now Issue Etc vs. HT vs BJS or whatever. All these organizations should be supporting each other -- our laity see them all as a gift. 

The liberals don't do this because they only care about winning. When they win, they won't care which group we were in but only to reestablish the real problems in Lutheranism -- a despising of the Liturgy, no teaching of the Confessions, a basic end of all that we love which pertains to Law and Gospel.

I'm not asking you to support HT. Your support of HT isn't going to help or hurt us. We're about promoting a Lutheran identity in our church's youth. What I am asking for you guys to do is to I'm asking you to stop trying to bully HT -- even if we hit you first and made you the bullies you are.

I'm not Klemet. I'm not Bill Cwirla. I am given to smile a lot. I joke a lot. Those guys are giants. I'm the guy who will drive to your presentation, who will sit down with you in your home, and maybe even see your trains. I'm asking you to stop -- by proving us wrong in person or by proving that there isn't anything wrong at all with what we teach.
Bullies demand what they want. Fire Donavon Riley and I'll support HT. They use force and the like. That's not the way of the Gospel. Such force ends in death.

I'm asking you -- pleading with you and exhorting you -- to help all of us move on from this subject. We're all tired of it. It appears every Advent and Lent. It's just mockable. And since you want to whip on us a bit (even if we deserve it for our past conduct), you can find out if it's actually going on amongst us and we'll repent or if it's not. Either way, it'll stop. For it doesn't, it hurts all of us. 

And if you don't, that's fine. Ball's in your court from now on. When you tear us up -- privately or publicly, I'm just gonna say "I asked them to help us and they have better things to do." We'll keep daring to be Lutheran and having a blast while we do it.
Like I say to pastors, "If you think what is going on in the internet about HT is true, come try us out. If you really don't trust us, come alone and I'll pay your registration." Not a one of them, after coming to HT, as thought we were anything but an organization to promote Lutheran identity in our church's youth. What goes on on the internet isn't what happens in real Lutheranism today.

I am writing this post in order to set the record straight about what has happened and where things stand.  

In this statement Pastor Borghardt expresses the desire to meet and discuss the concerns that I have about Higher Things.  He indicates regarding a refusal to take part in such a discussion:
And if you don't, that's fine. Ball's in your court from now on. When you tear us up -- privately or publicly, I'm just gonna say "I asked them to help us and they have better things to do." We'll keep daring to be Lutheran and having a blast while we do it.
He also states that people (a group in which he obviously includes me) are trying to "bully" him into separating Higher Things from Pastor Donovan Riley.  In the first case Pastor Borghardt misrepresents the situation by ignoring what has already occurred during the last four years.  In the second he ignores the fact that objections to Pastor Riley are grounded in deep theological concerns.
On the first point I must begin by saying that this issue began at the Higher Things Amen Conference on the campus of Saint Louis University in the summer of 2008.  This was the first Higher Things conference I had attended and it was great experience. The liturgical worship was outstanding.  The many sectionals were excellent.  Our kids had a great time.

But as I listened to the plenary sessions and how they talked about the Law, I knew that something wasn’t right.  I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I wasn’t sure exactly what it was.  But I was sure that something was wrong there.  And I found this confusing because everything else at the Higher Things conference was so right.

It was that experience at the 2008 Higher Things Conference that alerted me to the fact that there was something wrong among many confessional Lutherans when it came to the Law.  I continued to observe and think about what I was hearing and reading.

Four years ago, tomorrow, I started this blog.  On March 9, 2013 I posted a piece entitled, Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?  Very soon thereafter I found myself engaged in an ongoing dispute with a number of Lutheran pastors about the Law and the role of exhortation in Lutheran preaching.  Though not limited to them, George Borghardt and other Higher Things leaders were among the chief protagonists in these debates.  It was in engaging pastors like Pastor Borghardt,that I really began to understand how deep the problem went and what had gone wrong.  I have since described this as soft antinomianism, which is an inability and even a refusal to preach about new obedience and good works.

Between March 2013 and September 2015 I wrote many posts about this issue that examined it from the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.  I discussed examples of how Luther and Walther treated the subject  This ongoing dicussion involved a great deal of interaction with Pastor Borghardt about the subject both in social media and via email. 

What Pastor Borghard fails to mention in his post on Facebook is that we have already met and talked about this issue.  I received the exact same entreaty from him in the latter part of 2015.  We met face to face here in Marion, IL at the end of September 2015. At that meeting Pastor Borghardt indicated that Higher Things had probably not been as strong as it should be in talking about the life of love towards the neighbor and the God pleasing life that the Gospel produces.  He admitted that in the response to my critique they had gone even further away from any talk about the life the Spirit produces in the Christian. On the basis of what he had said, it seemed that we were in agreement.  I was hopeful.

During 2015 I had become aware of the group Christ Hold Fast that was gaining a more prominent standing among Lutherans online.  It described itself as a "Law and Gospel collective" and while many of the contributors were Lutheran, there were also many non-Lutherans who denied the biblical and Lutheran teaching about Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.  More important for this discussion was the fact that it was fully soft antinomian in its approach.  It was all the things that Pastor Borghardt and I had just agreed in our face to face meeting that we as Lutherans are not. 

This is where the second point George Borghardt has raised, about Pastor Donovan Riley, comes into play.  When I began interacting with the issue of the Law and exhortation, Pastor Riley was just beginning to become a prominent speaker for Higher Things.  As I read what he wrote, it was clear that he was a soft aninomian in approach - and indeed in one of the strongest forms possible.  Not surprisingly he was heavily involved with Christ Hold Fast as a writer and speaker.

At the beginning of 2016 I contacted Pastor Borghardt on multiple occassions via email to express my concern that Pastor Riley was being featured in Higher Things while also being heavily involved in Christ Hold Fast.  Pastor Borghardt's only response on each occasion was to say that Christ Hold Fast was not Higher Things.  While this was true, it ignored the obvious fact that Lutheran youth who heard Donovan Riley at Higher Things conferences were very likely to seek out his social media presence, and this very quickly led to Christ Hold Fast.  Higher Things and  Donovan Riley were a conduit to the very theology that George Borghardt had just told me that he rejected.

Even more troubling was the fact that Pastor Borghardt was obviously so committed to the presence of Donovan Riley in Higher Things. This action indicated that our meeting in September 2015 had accomplished nothing.  It was not possible to say what Pastor Borghardt had said to me then, while also promoting Donovan Riley (including his Christ Hold Fast baggage).  Either Pastor Borghardt had been deceitful in what he had said to me, or he didn't understand the content to which we said we were in agreement.  Putting the best construction on things I have opted for the latter, but this is still very troubling.  After almost three years of prior discussion and then a face to face discussion, the words of agreement spoken spoken by Pastor Borghardt at that meeting meant nothing.  Pastor Borghardt's actions in the following months directly contradicted them.  

In light of these facts, what purpose could further discussion hold? And so at the end of March 2016 I sent an email to Pastor Borghardt in which I expressed that I was giving up on Higher Things.  I would no longer try to alert him to the problem because it was obviously an impossible task.  His continuing commitment to Donovan Riley's ever growing involvement and influence in Higher Things was proof positive that this was so.

That doesn't mean I ceased to be concerned about this problem in modern Lutheranism.  The former LCMS seminary professor Chad Bird is another active contributor to Christ Hold Fast.  He and Donovan Riley share the same extreme soft antinomian theology.  In December 2016 I wrote A Response to Chad Bird's "Gospel Phobia."  In this piece I stated very carefully the biblical and Confessional teaching about the Law and exhortation in preaching.  This arose out of work that I did for presentations at the National LCMS Stewardship Seminar in 2014 and the Michigan Confessional Lutheran group in 2015.  I cannot explain it more clearly than I have done here.  If a person believes something else or wants to practice in a different way, then we simply don't believe the same thing and I can't do anything about it.

When I began work with this topic at the beginning of 2013, Todd Wilken was not convinced that there was a problem.  It was frustrating to see how his comments sometimes even played into the argument being made by people like Pastor Borghardt and Pastor Riley.  However, to his credit Todd continued to study the Scriptures and the Confessions in light of the issue being raised.  Then he did that most difficult feat for a theologian: he put the teaching of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions ahead of himself. He granted that he had not been fully in line with the correct teaching on this subject (the same admission I make about myself prior to the time I began working with it).

While I have focused specifically on soft antinomianism (or the "new antinomianism" as Todd Wilken calls it), he has worked with the broader framework within which it is a part.  He has devised a list of points that describe what has been called "radical Lutheranism."  I maintain that when you read Donovan Riley and Chad Bird, it is almost as if Wilken was writing a description of them.  They are brilliant in the simplicity and brevity with which they summarize a profound subject:

1. Sin is reduced to self-justification.
2. The Christian's struggle against sin is replaced with a struggle against feelings of guilt.
3. The Christian's struggle against sin is described as futile, or as an attempt at self-justification.
4. Repentance is assumed, even in unbelievers.
5. The Holy Spirit's uses of the Law are abandoned one by one (usually in the order of 3, 1, 2)
6. The distinction between Justification and Sanctification is blurred in statements like "Sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification."
7. Christian cooperation in Sanctification, clearly and carefully taught in the Lutheran Confessions, is equated with cooperation in Justification.
8. The Gospel is often replaced with "We're all sinners, who am I to judge?"
9. Scripture's warnings against falling away from the faith are minimized of ignored.
10. Scripture is often searched to find the sinner, rather than the Savior.
11. The sins of Biblical figures are exaggerated or sensationalized.
12. Teaching is often guided by a reaction to the errors of moralistic evangelicalism, rather than God's Word or the Lutheran Confessions.
13. Man's sinful condition is described as though a person's sin qualifies him to receive Grace, rather than Grace being without qualification or condition in man.
14. Any encouragement or instruction in Good Works is considered de facto legalism.
15. The Law itself is viewed as the source of legalism, rather than man's sinful misuse of it.

All of these things contradict Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.  As you read content written by Lutheran authors, watch for these themes. They aren't hard to find.  They are always found mixed in with a very strong Gospel emphasis.  But their recurring presence ends up in a denial of God's Word and what it teaches about the Gospel.

Higher Things conferences continue to be good events.  The liturgical worship is outstanding.  The sectionals are presented by many faithful pastors.  The plenary presentations are often a one sided emphasis on the Gospel and salvation as a gift apart from works, which forgets that faith also works in love. This is the great flaw in Higher Things.  It flows from the top, from Pastor Borghardt and the leadership of Higher Things (certainly I don't seek to include every single board and staff member, but the generalization holds).  The soft antinomian approach becomes even more troubling in the online content that Higher Things produces. Simply stated, this is not really what it means to dare to be Lutheran.  Read the Lutheran Confessions; read Luther; read Chemnitz; read Gerhard; read Walther - this is painfully clear.

As for me, I will not be meeting with Pastor Borghardt to discuss this more.  I say this because I have already written about it and discussed it with him for almost four years.  I say this because I have already met with him.  That meeting demonstrated that his words of agreement don't indicate anything about the reality of what will happen in Higher Things. Experience has shown that such a meeting provides the opportunity for him to declare that unity has been restored, even as the Higher Things leadership continues on the path of soft antinomianism.  I won't be a tool in that process.

Naturally there will be people who will say, "But why not try one more time?  Isn't there the chance that it will produce real agreement this time?"  I understand the sentiment.  But I also believe sometimes you have to acknowledge that you have arrived at a "Marburg moment."  When you have done everything you can to explain and persuade the other person over a long period of time, like Luther with Zwingli on the Sacrament of the Altar, you just have to admit that you don't believe the same thing. 




  1. Heartbreaking that it has to come to this, but we cannot, must not, compromise on the Truth. God's peace to you, Brother.

  2. Thank you for your faithfulness, Pastor Surburg.

    Rob Olson
    St. Paul's Lutheran Church
    Hillsdale, Michigan

  3. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."

  4. "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" The Apostle James

  5. Now Professor John Pless is a "radical Lutheran" too!? You guys are digging a hole. What is radical are overreactions to misunderstood and misconstrued statements, leading to flippant positions at the other end of the spectrum that also run the risk of being problematic, especially if uncharitably misconstrued in the same way you arguably have done. If anything is radical, it is that.

  6. To defend Prof. Pless, he also has more than once pointed out not only where Forde has been right, but also areas where he has been wrong. This is an untrue and unfair accusation to make of John Pless.

  7. Rev. Surburg, your work on this issue has been very much appreciated by a lot of us. It is a shame George Borghardt chooses to respond like a toddler having a temper tantrum, rather than respond actually to the points you are raising. The simple fact of the matter is that he and others involved with Higher Things do go out of their way to avoid the kind of parenetic teaching we find in the New Testament.

    You have raised the warning and documented the issues.

    Will Higher Things change? Not without new leadership, no.

    Just because they put on pretty vestments and have nice liturgies does not excuse the very real problems HT has and those problems are located precisely in the refusal of Borghardt and others leading HT to recognize the problem.

    1. Thank you. Sadly, you have summarized the situation well. How I wish it were otherwise.

  8. Are you no longer in communion with Borghardt? You mention Marburg, so it is raised the question.

  9. It would seem that the reason they tolerate Riley is because they agree with him enough to think that any differences they have are not a problem. In which case they're all problems too.