“But what About Symposium?”

Every time I object to Lutheran conferences inviting non-Lutheran speakers, I get “well-akshuallied” with the Fort Wayne seminary symposium. Theology is the art of making distinctions, and the failure of even pastors to understand this distinction is indicative of our own inability to do theology. Hopefully I can explain things clearly.

The sheep are to be fed. They are not to be knowingly exposed to wolves because these particular wolves are interesting or have big names that draw lots of crowds. Pastors feed their sheep. They defend against wolves. If we are to come together as the church, we do so as the church, with faithful pastors and teachers to instruct faithfully. In the words of one of my members “Pastor, why would do they invite a X to speak? If we wanted to be taught by X, we would join the X church!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

But what about Symposium?

Symposium isn’t a free conference in the classical Lutheran sense. Those are conferences where Lutherans get together to exchange ideas for teaching the faith, to identify problems (heresies) that have arisen in the world, and to offer solutions. That’s a free conference.

Historically there is one area where one might invite a heretic to speak. A disputation. The seminary hosts a disputation each year. Highly regarded men from around the world are brought in, they give a paper to explain their own position, and a seminary professor has a chance to respond to them. At least in the old days, this was how it worked. It might not be a direct attack, but if something was in error, it was dealt with by the professors in a later paper. That the papers were generally prepared ahead of time showed how well informed the professors were about what was being taught. It wasn’t a chance for the seminary community to be taught by them, but to hear what they were teaching and respond to it. Professors graciously acknowledged areas of agreement, and respectfully pointed out areas of disagreement. This was a useful exercise for future pastors, because we could see how to respond to those who only partially confess the truth, and train our minds to see the line between truth and error – even and especially in those who are charismatic speakers.

I would never have believed how much a heretic Richard John Neuhaus was, had I not heard him give his testimony to the symposium at the seminary. He was graciously received, but by the end, it was obvious why he was no longer a part of our church, and his errors were manifestly evident to all. It was a clarifying moment. I didn’t need to hear a professor respond to him on that occasion, though I got an earful in my classes later that week.

So, why don’t we call them disputations, and invite laity? Several reasons.

1) They aren’t disputations. There is no response to error. The people arrive assuming they will be instructed and fed, not challenged and required to be on the defensive. Nor are most laity (and apparently a few pastors) trained to distinguish between the two.
2) At the seminary, the biases are acknowledged and on display – “Dr. John Doe, Professor at this denomination seminary”. We know where they are coming from. At lay-conferences, it is sometimes impossible to learn what church a person even belongs to. I once spent FOUR HOURS trying to track down the affiliation of a speaker at a conference, to no avail. I was assured that they were well qualified to speak, endorsed by so-and-so. Turns out, so-and-so endorsed someone else who couldn’t make it. They had never heard of this guy. Also turns out the guy said some pretty terrible things at the conference. That’s why I warned my congregation away from it.
3) We don’t know what they will say. An expert on evolution may suddenly (and it has happened) veer into Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. This is why we don’t invite people to speak at our churches who just want to hand out bibles. Because they also speak about other topics and once they are up there, we can’t stop them.
4) Pastors are called to be shepherds – that is to face the dangers of the wolves, and to protect their people from those wolves. We must learn the ins and outs of heresies. But if our people are untroubled by the heresies, we don’t even need to teach them about it, lest it become a scandal to them. Why in the name of all that is holy and proper would we intentionally invite a wolf to speak and expose our sheep wolvish doctrine, especially if it is a person who presents the error well?
5) Yes, it is mean of me to call them wolves. But if you don’t think those who confess errors as the truth are wolves, then you really need to brush up on your theology (Try John 10, and the Large Catechism on the 2nd Commandment) and you should NOT be planning conferences of any sort. That’s the explicitly scriptural and confessional definition. And if you disagree with that definition, let me know. Because it means I have another wolf to protect the sheep from.


Yes, the church can plan disputations. I’ve seen them, even at the lay level done well. But it is different than a conference. And in such cases, they need to be clearly identified as such, as the Symposium is. The speakers need to be clearly identified by their church membership (or whatever false teaching they will represent), and it needs to be on our terms – that is, we get the final response. I’ll never forget the words of one Reformed speaker at Symposium, who was only half-joking, “We need to hate each other intelligently.” For that, a disputation can serve a good purpose. It can also serve to help sheep who are being led astray to see the truth and reject the errors which have ensnared them. But if the goal is instruction, catechesis, edification, etc. of the laity, then keep the speakers true. If not, you are violating the second commandment. And that’s still a sin.

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