The Lutheran Downgrade

Pastors Stevens and Anderson are both Lutheran pastors.  They both serve Lutheran Churches.  And they both subscribe to Luther’s Small Catechism.  However, both churches seem worlds apart.  But why?  The answer is that Pastor Anderson has tragically committed the Lutheran downgrade.

So what is the Lutheran downgrade?  The Lutheran downgrade is the subtle and incremental reduction, de-emphasis, negligence, erosion, and possible eventual loss of Lutheranism - Christianity.

But how does the Lutheran downgrade happen?  It begins with how pastors and churches misunderstand the Small Catechism. 

For those not familiar with the Small Catechism, it is a book of instruction that sums up Christian doctrine by dividing it into six main parts.  They are:
  1. The Ten Commandments
  2. The Apostles' Creed
  3. The Lord's Prayer
  4. Baptism
  5. Absolution
  6. Communion
Before we go on, we must understand that the first three parts of the Catechism (i.e., the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer) constitute what is called the Common Christian Teaching.  And the second half of the Catechism (i.e., Baptism, Absolution, and Communion) constitute the Sacraments.  So, as a result of these two categories, we can naturally see a division between parts 1-3 and 4-6. 

Now, regarding these two categories, what we must understand is that Pastor Stevens and Pastor Anderson treat this division quite differently. 

Pastor Anderson believes that the first half of the Catechism are the essential parts.  That is to say, he believes that the Commandments, Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer are more important than Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.  So, what this means is that Pastor Anderson considers the second part of the Catechism as an addendum or footnote.  He sees Baptism, Absolution, and Communion as a nonessential appendix of Lutheran Distinctives.  The chart below illustrates Pastor Anderson’s perspective:  

Essential Christian Teaching    
1) The Ten Commandments      
2) The Apostles’ Creed              
3) The Lord’s Prayer.     

    Nonessential Lutheran Distinctives    
4)  Baptism
5) Absolution
6) Communion

On the other hand, Pastor Stevens sees all six chief parts as essential but understands that the Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer must be learned before studying Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.  Pastor Stevens believes that parts 1-3 are a foundation to be laid before moving on to the Sacraments in parts 4-6.[1]  The chart below illustrates Pastor Stevens’ perspective:    

Foundation of Essential Christian Teaching
1) The Ten Commandments
2) The Apostles’ Creed
3)The Lord’s Prayer
Sacraments of Essential Christian Teaching
4) Baptism
5) Absolution
6) Communion

To summarize, we must keep in mind that the division between the first three parts and the second three parts of the Catechism is not a division of importance (as understood by Pastor Anderson).  But instead, it is a division of what needs to be taught first as a foundation (as understood by Pastor Stevens).  Indeed, we must not fail to realize that Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are just as essential as the Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer.  Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are so important that “without them no one can be a Christian.”[2]

Now, back to the downgrade.  Pastor Anderson opens the door to the Lutheran downgrade when he incorrectly considers Baptism, Absolution, and Communion as nonessential Lutheran Distinctives.    

Once the door is open to the Lutheran downgrade, Pastor Anderson begins his downgrade journey by buying into the conviction that things such as baptizing babies, a pastor forgiving sins, and closed communion are difficult pills for the dechurched and unchurched to swallow.[3]  It is very important to keep in mind that Pastor Anderson believes in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion; however, his missionary zeal tells him that the second half of the Catechism could be a potential turnoff to new members.  Besides, since the second half of the Catechism consists of so-called nonessential Lutheran distinctives, he believes that they can be examined at some other point in the future.

And there is another component.  Pastor Anderson continues the downgrade when he deemphasizes the second half of the Catechism in both his teaching and church services for the sake of keeping peaceful relationships with other churches in the city.  He knows that the other churches in town will agree – for the most part – with the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  However, with respect to the Sacraments in the second half, Pastor Anderson knows that these doctrines will create ecumenical tension.  He knows that the Baptism, Absolution, and Communion create a theological rub with Baptists, Non-Denominationalists, and Nazarenes who sometimes visit his church on Sundays.    

But how does Pastor Anderson’s Lutheran downgrade specifically show up in his weekly church services?  To name a few, Pastor Anderson does not make the sign of the cross in remembrance of Baptism, for he believes non-denominational guests may see it as too Catholic and be turned off.  He also paraphrases the language of Confession and Absolution in the services, because he considers the words, “I a poor miserable sinner,” and, “I forgive you of your sins,” as too offensive to the ears of dechurched attendees.  And finally, Pastor Anderson minimizes Communion to once a month because he believes that the unchurched would be uncomfortable hearing about the eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ in their first church service. 

Now, if a person were to visit Pastor Stevens’ church, they would notice something completely different.  All six essential parts of the Small Catechism are present.  For example, at the beginning of the Divine Service, Pastor Stevens makes the sign of the cross to remind everyone of their Baptisms (4).  During the quiet portion of confession, the church is encouraged to consider their sin according to the Ten Commandments (1).  The forgiveness of sin is pronounced as Pastor Stevens raises his hand and proclaims the Absolution (5).  The Apostles’ Creed (2) is confessed by the whole congregation before the sermon.  And the Lord’s Prayer (3) is prayed before weekly Communion (6).  Indeed, all six essential chief parts of the Small Catechism are in the church service every week.

To the point: even though there are six chief parts of the Catechism, some pastors (like Pastor Anderson) focus only on the first three parts and minimize the last three, resulting in the Lutheran downgrade.  When the division of categories is made in the Catechism, the second half can be neglected or dismissed, even though pastors do not reject Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. 
There is another component at work in the Lutheran downgrade as well.  It is similar to what has already been mentioned.  Concerning youth, both pastors realize that their youth need to learn the Small Catechism.  However, there are two philosophies in how to teach the catechism.  Either the content of the Catechism should be lowered to the youth, or the youth should rise to the Catechism.  That is to say, should the Small Catechism be adjusted downward to youth, or does the responsibility lie with the youth and Pastor to rise to the Small Catechism? 

Contrary to what we might expect, both Pastor Stevens and Pastor Anderson expect the youth to learn the first three parts of the Catechism.  They expect the youth to rise to the Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer.  However, with Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, Pastor Anderson does not apply the same amount of catechetical rigor and time commitment.  Why should he on a so-called nonessential appendix of doctrine that is a stumbling block for evangelism and a wedge in ecumenical relationships? 

And so, we now see how the Lutheran downgrade occurs through the subtle and incremental reduction, de-emphasis, and negligence of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion – elimination of the Sacraments. [4]  The downgrade happens by reducing the six essential parts of the Small Catechism to three essential parts, for the sake of evangelism, ecumenicalism, and youth. 

May pastors and parents be faithful in avoiding a Lutheran downgrade (which is really a Christian downgrade) by upholding all six chief parts of our Christian doctrine.  And may we also have a zeal for evangelism by boldly teaching, preaching, and sharing all six chief parts, for all parts are essential, good, and salutary!  And regarding youth?  May it be a primary goal to deliver and teach the whole Catechism – without a Lutheran downgrade – for the Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are all wonderful gifts that the young and old can always be instructed in. 


[1] How many Sacraments are there?  See Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), Question 294.

[2] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, IV:1.
[3] The dechurched are those who used to be active in a local church but no longer are.  Unchurched are those who have no background in a local church and are not currently attending a church. 

[4]  According to Gene Edward Veith, “To understand Lutheranism, it is necessary to recognize that the Lutheran understanding of salvation by grace and justification by faith cannot be separated from the Lutheran teachings of baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. These teachings are all intimately connected with each other in Lutheran theology and spirituality. If you play them off against each other, thinking you can have Lutheran soteriology without Lutheran sacramental theology, you might have Calvinists or Baptists or Calvinist Baptists or something else, but you cannot have Lutherans. Nor can you have Lutheran Calvinists or Calvinist Lutherans or Lutheran Baptists or Baptist Lutherans.” 

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