4.6 Sin

The inescapable fact is that there is virtually no known human behavior that we call “sin” that is not also found among nonhuman animals. Even pride, proverbially the deadliest sin of all, is not absent.

—Daryl P. Domning, Evolution, Evil and Original Sin

4.6.1 Specifics

Let love, and intoxication, and senseless passions, be removed from our choir. Burlesque singing is the boon companion of drunkenness. A night spent over drink invites drunkenness, rouses lust, and is audacious in deeds of shame. For if people occupy their time with pipes, and psalteries, and choirs, and dances, and Egyptian clapping of hands, and such disorderly frivolities, they become quite immodest and intractable, beat on cymbals and drums, and make a noise on instruments of delusion; for plainly such a banquet, as seems to me, is a theatre of drunkenness.

—Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor [c. 200 A.D.]

Conservative Laestadianism is all about the forgiveness of sins, and there are a lot of potential sins to be concerned about. It is claimed that there are “no dos and don’ts,” but in reality there are plenty of them, mostly unwritten prohibitions of things a believer “would not want” to do. Some disgruntled Finns have compiled a wiki page describing the situation, and helpfully include a categorized list of specific sins. Here is a summarized compilation of the list: membership in other religious movements; questioning or criticizing Conservative Laestadian practices, sermons, and publications; any sexual activity other than procreative sex within marriage (no contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, etc.); divorce or remarriage after being divorced; obscene materials and dirty jokes; abortion; alcoholic beverages (including going to bars whether alcohol is consumed or not); drugs; cosmetics, hair coloring, earrings and piercings; overly revealing dress; cosmetic surgery; profane and worldly speech; support of Finnish political parties other than the Center and National Coalition parties (the Democrats are similarly suspect in the LLC); being a player or spectator in organized competitive sports; participation in online discussion forums about religion; insufficient church attendance; gambling; playing cards; fishing, berry picking, and hunting on Sunday.

To this I would add the following from my years of observation in the LLC: reading about or believing in evolution; celebrating Halloween; watching videos that aren’t documentaries, including cartoons and “G” rated movies; listening to most music other than church songs, patriotic or Christmas songs (as long as it isn’t too “jazzy”), or classical (though not even all classical music is acceptable); attending live performances of most any kind other than (Republican) political rallies; attending a “worldly” church service except for a wedding or funeral; flirting and dating without serious thought of marriage; any physical contact between a “courting” couple other than handholding; even seriously considering marriage with an “unbeliever”; publicly or even privately doubting what is taught in “God’s Kingdom”; declining to accept one’s appointment by the congregation (or its board of trustees) to a particular position or task; violation of any laws (underage smoking is a particular source of concern, local ordinances and everyday speeding are not); leaving the impression with “unbelievers” that they are “heaven acceptable,” e.g., by greeting “heretics” with “God’s Peace”; spending more time with “unbelieving” friends than fellow LLC members.

In many cases, these are seen as symptoms of spiritual sickness or deviations from being “in the center of the flock” rather than particular infractions. Why would a believer want to be involved with unbelieving friends, when there are like-minded believers to have fellowship with instead? When you hear music with a beat, shouldn’t that automatically seem uncomfortable and “foreign” to you? Why would a courting couple want to inflame lusts with physical contact when sex is unavailable until marriage? How could a believer vote for a Democrat who supports abortion and gays?

Primary Motives

From the devotional perspective, there isn’t really much to say regarding motives for the various rules because they are not recognized as rules. Rather, as is commonly stated in Conservative Laestadianism, believers simply “do not want to” do things that are recognized in the movement as sinful. Individuals with viewpoints contrary to the supposed consensus tend to keep quiet about their disagreements, which preserves the illusion that the behavioral norms are self-evident and unquestioned.

For some issues, even the standard-bearers realize that it isn’t enough to rely on a miraculous unanimity of desires among believers or “what God’s Kingdom says.” Then recourse will be made to “what the Bible says.” Yet almost inevitably, the appeal to Scripture winds up being a highly selective, almost token observance of the edicts in the Jewish law. That law is supposed to be the basis for it all and of great importance in the grand scheme of salvation (4.5.1), but is really of surprisingly little relevance to any of the rules. The main one based on it is sabbath observance:

“Theaters, concerts are frequented, time is spent by a beer glass in bars, Sundays are spent in fishing and hunting [and] the day of rest is otherwise used in everyday toil, auto repairs, or laundry, so that one does not have time to remember this is a holy day” (VOZ, 8/1976).

Avoiding hunting and fishing on Sunday hearkens back, I think, to the very real work that those activities entailed for the Finnish grandparents of most Conservative Laestadians. However, they never put food on the table playing golf, so how about a round after church today?

Two other behavioral norms in the movement that I see arising from direct biblical statements are the prohibitions on extramarital sex and drinking to the point of drunkenness. For the rest, I propose the following primary motives. This is, of course, looking at things from the attempted objectivity of the outsider’s perspective. The devotional viewpoint has stopped its inquiry by this point, saying, “The Bible (or ‘God’s Kingdom’) said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Few of these proposed motives are consciously recognized, or would even be acknowledged, within the movement:

(1) authoritarianism;

(2) Christian asceticism;

(3) societal differentiation;

(4) keeping people within the fold;

(5) selective adherence to biblical edicts; and

(6) maintaining ample material for the forgiveness of sins to work with.

The first and second of those I will discuss at some length in their own subsections below. The third is all about maintaining the boundaries between the inside and the outside, which was discussed in 4.2.3. Herriot sums it up:

If you are the only true believers, then everyone else is the outgroup. However, if you do actually treat the whole of the rest of the world as your out-group you have a problem, because inevitably there are some out there who are quite like you. The rest of the world is, after all, a fairly inclusive category! The only way to ensure that you are different is to become uniquely extreme. [2009, 288]

We are obviously different from them. Why? Because we are so different! Motive #3 is to maintain the distinction between them and us, while trying to prevent any of us from becoming them is what motive #4 is all about.

My proposed motive #6 is really pretty obvious when you think about it. What is the point of so much stress about the forgiveness of sins–the centerpiece of Conservative Laestadian doctrine–if there isn’t an adequate supply of sins to have forgiven? Few believers (or anyone else, for that matter) engage in rape, murder, theft, and adultery on a regular basis. But take another look at those two long lists of unapproved activities above. There is no shortage of lesser ailments for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “spiritual pharmacist” to treat. With plenty of rules, including ones that people almost cannot help but violate on a regular basis, he remains on the job “working to produce acute guilt, and then in effect saying: ‘We just happen to have the remedy for your guilt here in our pocket’” (Harpur 2003, 99).


“The highly authoritarian individual is submissive to authority, aggressive towards out-groups, and holds tight to conventional values and norms of behaviour. Psychometric measures of authoritarianism are found to be highly correlated with measures of religious fundamentalism” Its first feature, as the name implies, is “submission to authority” (Herriot 2009, 149), which we’ve seen in 4.2.6.

One authority on authoritarianism (I couldn’t resist saying that) is Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba. In a comprehensive book on the topic that he offers for free online, he writes about both authoritarian followers and leaders, and the significant correlation with religious fundamentalism that is noted by Herriot. Authoritarianism, Altemeyer says, is something authoritarian followers and leaders “cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want” (2006, 2).

It has a two-way connection to religious fundamentalism. A submissive upbringing in a religiously conservative family is prone to produce it. Conversely, fundamentalism promotes “authoritarianism with its emphases on submission to religious authority, dislike of out-groups, sticking to the straight and narrow” (p. 112).

The connection between the two is evident in Altemeyer’s psychometric scale, “Authoritarian Followers and Religious Fundamentalism” (p. 106). Altemeyer says the students in his introductory psychology classes average about 50. The highest group score he has ever seen was 93, from a “nationwide sample of some 300 members of an unnamed fundamentalist Protestant church in the United States” (p. 108).

I took the liberty of answering his questions in the manner I would expect of the LLC peers with whom I’ve locked horns the most and came up with a score of 94. That’s with answers moderated a bit by common sense. Answering completely in accord with Conservative Laestadian doctrine would raise the score by about ten points.

The respondent is to indicate level of agreement with the following 12 items, responding to each with anything from a -4 to a +4 (Altemeyer 2006, 106-107). My proposed LLC dogmatist’s answers are indicated in the parentheses for each item.

1. God has given humanity a complete, unfailing guide to happiness and salvation, which must be totally followed (+2).

2. No single book of religious teachings contains all the intrinsic, fundamental truths about life (+1).

3. The basic cause of evil in this world is Satan, who is still constantly and ferociously fighting against God (+4).

4. It is more important to be a good person than to believe in God and the right religion (-4).

5. There is a particular set of religious teachings in this world that are so true, you can’t go any “deeper” because they are the basic, bedrock message that God has given humanity (+3).

6. When you get right down to it, there are basically only two kinds of people in the world: the Righteous, who will be rewarded by God, and the rest, who will not (+4).

7. Scriptures may contain general truths, but they should NOT be considered completely, literally true from beginning to end (-2).

8. To lead the best, most meaningful life, one must belong to the one, fundamentally true religion (+3).

9. “Satan” is just the name people give to their own bad impulses. There really is no such thing as a diabolical “Prince of Darkness” who tempts us (-3).

10. Whenever science and sacred scripture conflict, science is probably right (-3).

11. The fundamentals of God’s religion should never be tampered with, or compromised with others’ beliefs (+4).

12. All of the religions in the world have flaws and wrong teachings. There is no perfectly true, right religion (-3).

For items 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, and 11, the scoring maps from {-4,-3,-2,-1,0,+1,+2,+3,+4} to {1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9}. For items 2, 4, 7, 9, 10 and 12, it’s inverted, mapping to {9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1}.

So how does this function as a motive for establishing and maintaining Conservative Laestadianism’s many behavioral norms? In a number of ways, I think. First is the reflexive support for the established authorities of society, “such as government officials and traditional religious leaders,” the “time-honored, entitled, customary leaders” (Altemeyer 2006, 9). Guess which side of the labor vs. management divide authoritarian followers will tend to take, even if they like earning high union wages?

We can belong to a labor union, “for we know that in many cases we must belong to a union to work. But this does not give us the right to support that which is wrong according to God’s Word. If a man votes for a strike, then he is supporting the union, and is rejecting the Word of God. We know that not all employers are honest. If you feel that your employer has done you wrong, go to him to discuss the matter. If it cannot be resolved, and you cannot bear it, you are free to leave. One should not fight evil with evil” (VOZ, 4/1978).

The Bible of course does not prohibit workers from declining to show up for work after a labor contract expires. But an authoritarian mindset looks on the union rabble with scorn.

According to Tuomas Palola, the predominant employment of Conservatives in Michigan’s copper mines initally kept the issue from being too clear-cut. Many belonged to unions there during the first decades of the 1900’s. In some “Big Meetings” of the day, the issue started to be brought up and the idea of supporting unions looked on more negatively. The Copper Country strike of 1913 and its aftermath greatly soured the movement’s general attitude towards the union question (Palola 2011).

The anti-union mentality didn’t stop A.L. Heideman and his son Paul from effectively going on strike from their preaching duties in Michigan’s Copper Country. Apparently, it is a matter of historical record that they demanded to be paid more per sermon and stopped preaching until the congregation coughed up the extra funds (Palola 2010).

Second, authoritarians seem to have an almost instinctive aversion to anything that might disrupt the established social order. Consider not just the content, but the underlying thought process behind these next three statements:

“In the world today there is all manner of sinfulness. There is drinking, drugs, greediness, lying, cursing, filthy books, cheating, riots, marchings, strife, anger, heresies, worship of idols, teaching of evolution and atheistic doctrines. Television is one instrument which the devil, the prince of this world, uses to tempt and entice even the Christian into sin” (VOZ, 6/1977).

“[E]ven the speed laws of our respective countries are the laws of the land. We as God’s children have a Christian responsibility to respect the laws of the land. These kinds of laws are not contrary to God’s Word. Sometimes we may question these laws, but even in these, a childlike obedience is required” (Art Simonson, sermon given July 1990).

“Some of the darts of the enemy in our time are ecumenism, humanism, atheism, abortion, evolution and homosexuality. The broad acceptance of such things in today’s world poses a great danger to the child of God of becoming complacent” (VOZ, 11/1990).

Then there is the way that the authoritarian mindset works to preserve rules that have been established for other reasons. One LLC preacher fondly tells a story about his mother’s reply to his defense of some type of edgy music as a youth. Her response was, “But what do the Christians say about this?” It’s an appeal to authority, plain and simple. And, as the many quotes have made clear in 4.2.6 (“Obedience and Humility”) and 4.4.4 (“The Mother”), it’s done a lot.


Christian asceticism (motive #2) was partly rooted in a desire to emulate Christ’s sufferings. Protestants who favor faith over works may object to that, but Paul made himself an example of it. Referring to himself in the plural (I’m still not sure why he sometimes did), he says that, “just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation . . .” (2 Cor 1:5-6). To the Colossians, Paul (or perhaps someone else putting words in Paul’s mouth) went so far as to say, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24, NASB, emphasis added). That last part is quite explosive; see the discussion of it in 7.6.

Another aspect of Christian asceticism is a detachment from the world, which arose in part from the expectation of the earliest Christians that Jesus would be coming back any day (4.8.2). It would make sense to avoid too much attachment to a world one would soon be leaving. Whoever wrote Ephesians in Paul’s name listed a number of immoralities to avoid and then urged his readers to “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15-16, NASB). Paul viewed his time as being one of “distress” and “shortened” (1 Cor 7:26, 29), and for that reason thought it “good for a man to remain as he is,” not released from his wife if bound to one, not to seek a wife if single. And if married, to be as if without one, i.e., celibate (7:26-29). For, he said, “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31, NASB). In Romans, Paul warned his readers: “[I]f yet live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (8:13). Again, he looked beyond his present time, whose (partially self-imposed) sufferings he reckoned “are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (8:18).

Clement of Alexandria raised Christian asceticism to grotesque extremes when he wrote against bathing for pleasure and seemingly every other possible joy of living in The Instructor. “[U]nblushing pleasure must be cut out by the roots; and the bath is to be taken by women for cleanliness and health, by men for health alone” (Book 3, Ch. 9). “[E]ven laughter must be kept in check; for when given vent to in the right manner it indicates orderliness, but when it issues differently it shows a want of restraint.” “Smiling even requires to be made the subject of discipline” (Book 2, Ch. 5).

Laestadius was much the same:

Those in whom God dwells “cannot sit there, where the mockers sit. Neither can they find joy in the vain pleasures of the world. The world can find pleasures in drinking parties, drunkenness, lewdness, dancing, music, etc., but they who have a contrite spirit, can find no joy from the sinful pleasures of this world” (Laestadius, Examination sermon [1856]; Fourth Postilla, 262).

Eino Rimpiläinen, writing in the December 1948 Siionin Lähetyslehti, gave a list of things one should avoid in order to go about “mortifying and crucifying the flesh”:

“[T]he saving grace, through the word of God, illuminated by the Holy Ghost, taught us to give up the worldly lusts and to live godly and soberly. So even a young person could give up the theatre, the dance, the worldly fashions, curling of hair. And likewise the older person, liquor, cards, cursing, dishonesty, lying, indecent life, as well as all the world’s sin-life and to begin to live an entirely new life, mortifying and crucifying the flesh with its desires and passions” (from Greetings of Peace, 3/1949).

With this mentality, there is seemingly no end of things to be concerned about:

“On the part of auto trips and outings we are instructed to avoid dangers where the undying soul can receive wounds. Even driving to the neighboring community for services and the fellowship after the services, should not become too important” (VOZ, 7/1979).

The asceticism of denying oneself harmless pleasures is often justified as an effort to remain “in the center of the flock” or avoid the danger of wanting to move on to other, less innocent things (motive #4). Start painting your toenails, and the next thing you know, you’ll be punching a time clock in a brothel.

“The hardening of heart and conscience can begin with something that to one who has fallen may seem relatively small and innocent, for example, a little lie, the occasional use of make up, watching a ball game on television, listening to worldly music, watching unsuitable videos, or visiting offensive sites on the internet” (Don Lahti, presentation given 1997).

That oblique reference to “the occasional use of make up” is the tip of an iceberg of concerns about personal appearance, as we will see shortly.

Now video games and the Internet are providing plenty more things to be avoided for little apparent reason:

“[T]emptations come into our homes in the form of the Internet, videos, and video games. We need to be ever vigilant in this area. A recent technology article stated that the area between video games and movies is going to blur. The videogame is going to look like a movie that the player directs, or tries to direct to an outcome. Certainly the content of the games is becoming increasingly dangerous for a believer’s faith life. The old saying that ‘it is good to walk in the middle of God’s kingdom’ is still true. Why bring things into our homes that are such a danger to us and our children?” (VOZ, 12/2005)

“Will I allow [my children] to play fast games in which they do not control their vehicle but drive through the city being thrown against the walls of the buildings, sometimes rolling into ditches at the side of the highway? Will I let them shoot, punch, fall and destroy illustrated symbols like living beings? Is the background music reminiscent of rock music?” (VOZ, 3/2006).

To the writer of that last statement and the writers of many others in this section, I would offer this line from First Clement, written around 95 A.D.: “Ye are fond of contention, brethren, and full of zeal about things which do not pertain to salvation” (Ch. 45).


Clement of Alexandria (a different man with very different views from the writer of First Clement) thought it not “becoming for any part of a woman to be exposed,” and he really meant any part. The virtuous woman’s “arm is beautiful; yes, but it is not for the public gaze.” Her “thighs are beautiful” and her “face is comely,” but “for her husband alone.” It was “prohibited to expose the ankle” and had “also been enjoined that the head should be veiled and the face covered; for it is a wicked thing for beauty to be a snare to men. Nor is it seemly for a woman to wish to make herself conspicuous, by using a purple veil” (The Instructor, Book 2, Ch. 11).

In his view, clothes were “for nothing else than the covering of the body, for defence against excess of cold and intensity of heat, lest the inclemency of the air injure us.” Since the use of colors was “of no service against cold,” dyeing of clothes was also to be rejected. Indeed, he considered pretty much everything beyond covering up to be unnecessary superfluity, rejecting the

love of ornament, and dyeing of wool, and variety of colours, and fastidiousness about gems, and exquisite working of gold, and still more, of artificial hair and wreathed curls; and furthermore, of staining the eyes, and plucking out hairs, and painting with rouge and white lead, and dyeing of the hair, and the wicked arts that are employed in such deceptions.” [Ch. 11]

Poor old Clement would not have approved of Spandex, either. “For luxurious clothing, which cannot conceal the shape of the body, is no more a covering. For such clothing, falling close to the body, takes its form more easily, and adhering as it were to the flesh, receives its shape, and marks out the woman’s figure, so that the whole make of the body is visible to spectators, though not seeing the body itself” (Ch. 11).

It’s enough to make Antin Pieti’s concern about women’s wearing of hats seem quite reasonable:

“It is not becoming for a woman to wear a hat, but rather a scarf, for a hat is an unnecessary and worldly vanity. Both men and women should put away worldly styles, even as the conscience teaches a Christian” (sermon published 1898 in Sanomia Siionista, from Kulla 1993, 84).

Nowadays, Conservative Laestadian women daringly show their faces and ankles, and have little interest in hats. But there is still a complicated system of unwritten expectations for their appearance, mapped out and refined during private conversations, youth gatherings, and camps. A bit of hair styling is fine for females, as long as the color doesn’t change. Jewelry is generally acceptable except for earrings or body piercings of any type. Clement would have agreed on that point: Women should “let not their ears be pierced, contrary to nature, in order to attach to them ear-rings and ear-drops. For it is not right to force nature against her wishes” (Ch. 13). A source of some consternation now is that women and girls in Africa, as well as those few remaining in Ecuador, Russia, and Estonia, have continued to wear their earrings despite predictions years ago that they would come to understand the matter and no longer do so.

Boys seem to have much more limited fashion interests, and consequently, few restrictions. Mostly the concern is about long hair, which is frowned upon in males due to 1 Cor 11:14. Depictions of Jesus in church publications alternate between the classic long-haired look and collar-length hair.

Although girls routinely test the boundaries with unpigmented lip gloss and clear nail polish, cosmetics have long been unacceptable:

“When people have followed the course of this world, they are even painted from the toenails to cheeks. It is not enough that their lips are red, but their toenails must also be red. The worldly people believe that when God created man according to his image his work of creation was otherwise complete, but it is lacking paint, and man must now finish it by using it. We don’t need to paint ourselves. As long as our conscience is washed in Jesus’ blood we certainly are acceptable and follow the creation of God. Paul speaks to the children of God that they should not follow the course of this world and fashion themselves according to this world so that they would drift from the love of God” (Lauri Taskila, Greetings of Peace, 8/1956).

“The worldly styles and modes change but we cannot imitate them. Hippie-styled clothing, bikinis, etc. are not suitable for a child of God” (VOZ, 8/1974).


Sometime around 180 A.D., Theophilus of Antioch wrote about how early Christians rejected the entertainment of their day. His reasoning is quite specific:

[W]e are forbidden so much as to witness shows of gladiators, lest we become partakers and abettors of murders. But neither may we see the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears be defiled, participating in the utterances there sung. For if one should speak of cannibalism, in these spectacles the children of Thyestes and Tereus are eaten; and as for adultery, both in the case of men and of gods, whom they celebrate in elegant language for honours and prizes, this is made the subject of their dramas. But far be it from Christians to conceive any such deeds; for with them temperance dwells, self-restraint is practiced, monogamy is observed, chastity is guarded, iniquity exterminated, sin extirpated, righteousness exercised, law administered, worship performed, God acknowledged: truth governs, grace guards, peace screens them; the holy word guides, wisdom teaches, life directs, God reigns. [To Autolycus, Book 3, Ch. 15]

It seems reasonable enough to refrain from watching people fighting each other to the death as a form of entertainment. Watching dramas that celebrate paganism, cannibalism, and adultery might not be such a good idea for Christians, either. But where does the Conservative writer of this next quote–and many after him–get the idea that attending “entertainment shows” constitutes “walking in the counsel of the ungodly,” “standing in the way of sinners,” and “sitting in the seat of the scornful” (motive #4)?

“To my sorrow I have occasion to see that when the God of this world has prepared entertainment shows for his slaves, even those who profess Christianity have attended. . . . Blessed is the man that walketh not in the council of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. Dear friend, the seed of the word has remained too shallow in your heart: if the services of God’s children can be passed by and you can go with the ungodly to dance after the pipes of those whom Satan leads in the frenzy of whoredom toward the lake of fire. How much difference is there between you and the ungodly, how can you be recognized as a Christian from the midst of the ungodly?” (Siionin Lähetyslehti, 1923).

Well, that appeal to Psalm 1:1 turns out to be almost as old as Christianity itself. Tertullian acknowledged that “we never find it expressed with the same precision, ‘Thou shalt not enter circus or theatre, thou shalt not look on combat or show;’ as it is plainly laid down, ‘Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not worship an idol; thou shalt not commit adultery or fraud.’ But

we find that that first word of David bears on this very sort of thing:  “Blessed,” he says, “is the man who has not gone into the assembly of the impious, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of scorners.” Though he seems to have predicted beforehand of that just man, that he took no part in the meetings and deliberations of the Jews, taking counsel about the slaying of our Lord, yet divine Scripture has ever far-reaching applications: after the immediate sense has been exhausted, in all directions it fortifies the practice of the religious life, so that here also you have an utterance which is not far from a plain interdicting of the shows. If he called those few Jews an assembly of the wicked, how much more will he so designate so vast a gathering of heathens! [Apologetic, The Shows, Ch. 3]

It’s been a way of keeping the faithful away from public entertainment ever since, however innocent the actual content might be. The next verse of Psalm 1 says that the blessed man who has separated himself from the world (the writer means entirely, not just at entertainment venues) will have his delight in God’s law and meditate on it day and night. Somehow, I don’t think that part gets much attention.

This 1980 writing (one of two that I quote out of chronological sequence in this sub-section) shows how Psalm 1:1 continued to be stressed in the same fashion many decades later:

“We do not desire to be where people are ‘living it up.’ We do not want to sit where the scorners sit” (By Faith, 109).

Members of one LLC congregation in the swing state of Minnesota ignored the “seat of the scornful” admonition when they attended political rallies en masse for the Bush/Cheney presidential ticket in 2004. And it seems to me that you will find “scornful” in the seats of an IMAX theater (good) just as you will in any other (bad).

What really seems to be going on here is that entertainment was rejected due to Christian asceticism (motive #2) and societal differentiation (motive #3). Those motives are not recognized within the movement, and appeal was made to Psalm 1:1 (motive #5). Now the rejection of so many forms of entertainment is an integral part of Conservative Laestadianism’s behavioral norms and provides an abundance of sin for people to get forgiven (motive #6), especially young people. Even things that nobody can find any actual problems with, like kids’ cartoons and classical music concerts, are viewed as the first step on the slippery slope to hell (motive #4). And underlying it all is the authoritarian mindset (motive #1) that we must be obedient even if none of it makes sense.

Here some other creative ad hoc arguments are offered as well:

“Many unnatural lifestyles have worn modern man to physical weakness. The human soul is sick and weary. Sensual excitement and the numbing of minds have become a fashionable panacea against disease among all nations, especially since World War I. The effects of this are felt in all areas of life. Authors write as if they were hallucinating; music throbs; visual arts betray mad imagination” (O.H. Jussila, devotional article originally published 1929, from VOZ, 3/2007).

“It is a pitiful matter that even in our own land television is being developed with great haste. In this way a theater is obtained into the home, which can transmit all the evil that the world can offer to be absorbed. By its transmitting, everything is presented to the people: how crimes are committed, all drinking advertisements are presented and a craving for drink is aroused in a drunkard. Then it is considered startling when juvenile delinquency is increasing and 10 to 12-year-old boys are already full-fledged gangsters committing crimes and burglaries. Children lie before the television and ruin their eyes and health, and have no time for the pure and beautiful nature of God, nor time to do their schoolwork” (Taskila 1961, 40-41).

The “theater in the home” has now become a fixture in Conservative Laestadian households in the form of DVD players, personal computers, tablets, and smart phones. Despite this recent restatement of how TV is to be rejected (presented out of chronological order), the reality is that “Satan” has gotten his job done quite well without even needing a cable or dish hookup:

“Satan might say that there are many wholesome programs on television, so what can it hurt if you purchase a television for your home and only watch those kinds of programs?” (VOZ, 10/2009).

Ubiquitous Internet access has made unimaginable filth readily available at the press of a few keys or mouse clicks, and watching online videos is popular. The “slippery slope” of allowing some programming to be available has been turned into a cliff. Set up an Internet connection, and it’s all there at your fingertips.

The gradual acceptance of video has been accompanied by its own unwritten and complex system of rules, which seem to be followed to a greater extent in the LLC than the SRK. No “entertainment style” videos involving drama or actors (real or animated), except documentaries, and those are preferably of a historical or “National Geographic” nature. No sporting events because they are not watched on television or in person, though listening to audio play-by-play is acceptable on the radio (and, presumably, online as well).

Another type of seating in which the scornful are prone to sit is in classical music concert halls. Don’t let their fancy dress and quiet demeanor fool you; they are a seething mass of ungodly sinners that you don’t want to be caught dead sitting with. The prohibition (largely unwritten, as in so many cases) against attending concerts applies despite the music itself not being considered sinful. This caused some consternation in Finland when some Conservatives embarked on musical careers within the state church; their official duties had them doing public performances that their fellow Conservatives were discouraged from attending! So it seems quite understandable that those condemning public performance regardless of its content would be labeled as “enemies of culture and enlightenment”:

“A mighty shower of accusations and ridicule comes upon Zion these days because television with its brainwashing programs is not accepted as furniture for a Christian home. The Christians have been labeled as enemies of culture and enlightenment because they do not approve for their nourishment that which kills the spirit” (Reinikainen 1969, 42).

Around 2008, I had an amusing experience with the question of whether to allow my grade-school daughters to participate in a field trip to a classical music concert, something that would have been rejected out of hand during my childhood. Finally, after my wife and I made a private parental decision that depriving the girls of a beautiful and innocent cultural experience made no sense at all, they went, and returned to tell that all of their peers from church were present, too.

The aversion to seemingly anything entertaining has gone to extremes that even many Conservatives will find a bit nonsensical nowdays, especially those more culturally minded in the SRK. Decades ago, “instructional films in any form,” going to a place “where music is played,” and “too free, unlimited radio listening” were problematic:

“Using the shelter provided in the statutes of the elementary schools, a believing teacher does not use television or instructional films in any form in elementary school teaching functions. This practice is also observed according to the spirit of Christianity in other educational institutions” (Position Paper of 1978 Teachers and Speakers Meeting, Finland, from VOZ, 11/1980).

“Even roller skating or ice skating at a rink where music is played is not a place for a Christian, whether it is a school class party or otherwise. One may try and justify the music by saying: music is played to drown out the loud noise of the skates, but this is not so. This is the voice of the devil speaking. The music here, too, gets under the feet and in the body. Before one is even aware of it, one is listening to the music and unconsciously moving with the music. When one finally becomes aware of the effect of what the music has done to the feet and body, it is easier to ignore the conscience and enjoy the music” (VOZ, 2/1978).

“Too free, unlimited radio listening can defile the conscience little by little. When the desire is born, it is like a parasite, it has to be fed. Judgment of what is proper disappears. Radio programs can be compared to television and theater on the part of sound. A certain kind of radio program of this kind can become so important it can even keep [one] from going to services. Even in this matter it is important to take heed of oneself first and then of the children. Radio music, as background music, when doing lessons, is not necessary. The effectiveness of studying will suffer one part of the attention is on the music. It is good to remember that the enemy is afraid of silence” (VOZ, 7/1979).

“In school one must sometimes refuse to participate in those teachings which are not fitting for a believer. In the name of learning, even such material is brought into schooling that does nothing but nourish the lusts and desires of the corrupted part of our nature. Such are, for example, theatrical presentations, many motion picture presentations and television courses, dances and concerts” (By Faith, 104).

A more recent quote seems to indicate that loud volume is part of the problem:

“The world screams and shouts with its loud music and modes of entertainment, but the Good Shepherd speaks quietly and with meekness in our hearts warning of the dangers that are ever near. We want to keep that quiet voice and shut out the worldly temptations, so that the good seed would have good soil in our heart to grow” (VOZ, 5/2005).

Perhaps attending a nice quiet Chopin piano performance would be better? Nope. Despite the lack of recent writings on the subject, and some very nice classical music performances offered occasionally at church in a few LLC congregations, those scornful concert hall seats are still widely considered off-limits.

Music in general is a continuous source of pastoral hand-wringing:

“As the tool of the enemy of souls music can awaken the lowest and most shameful human instincts. God’s children have always rejected the music of this world which embodies ungodly life. It’s clear to see that rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, rap, and country music war against faith and good conscience and for that reason are rejected by believers. Performers of such music with the aid of synchronized lighting and other technology have enraptured and made huge crowds of people wild over their music. Their followers emulate their behavior, hair and clothing styles, morals, and values. . . . In recent years, performers and music producers have released products which combine different forms of music together: serious and light, religious and secular, patriotic and country, children’s music and rock, classical and rock, etc. The danger in such music is more difficult to see, because the enemy disguises it at times with good words or in other cases with an innocent or familiar melody. But when one considers such music more carefully, we see that it draws us closer to the world and away from the path to heaven” (VOZ, 8/2008).

During the LLC’s 2009 Summer Services, there was a congregational discussion (focused on the youth) about music that began with a presentation sounding much the same. We will encounter the reactions of two young people to that discussion below in this section.


A “weak sister in the kingdom and tribulation” wrote of her greatest temptation having been

“the reading of the fiction books of this world, especially mystery and historical novels. I kept lolling myself into the spirit of permissiveness by saying it wasn’t such a big sin. Slyly Satan’s web was pulling me to live more and more in the world of unreality, the imaginations these stories effected. The truth is that the novels of this world are as garbage cans, even the little good in them is tainted, all just food to tickle the flesh. If in the early days of Christianity, the elect saw fit to make a bonfire and burn their books [Acts 19:9], how much more reason have we to shun the fictional publications of these last times” (VOZ, 4/1975).

I recall being the subject of concern in my youth regarding my Archie (kissing and dating) and Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos (war violence) comic books. One LLC friend recalls being told not to read Louis L’Amour in the late 1970s, but another–the son of a preacher–said there was never any concern about that. (Those innocuous little Westerns were certainly popular with the kids I grew up with.) There has always been concern about foul language and explicit sex scenes in books, but it seems to have little impact on what many people actually wind up reading nowadays.

The above quote seems to indicate a blanket rejection of “the fiction books of this world,” which seems pretty extreme even for the time. Still, it appeared in the official church paper, as did this bracing tirade against bestsellers:

“In our homes as well as in school, we want to avoid reading the ‘best-seller’ types of paperbacks you usually see offered for sale in drug stores, supermarkets, and discount houses. I would venture to say, that almost 100% of those titles are ‘trashy,’ if not altogether pornographic. My guess is that many of these books would qualify for that famous fire that the Christians once kindled at Ephesus! . . . The ‘best-seller’ book industry is a shameful and shameless racket! It will sink to any level in its search for profits, it is just like the ‘Pop Music’ industry today–riddled with graft, corruption, and drug abuse. The ‘bosses’ of the industry promote what will sell millions of books, therefore, the authors, so-called, pour out volume after volume of the vilest drivel, copy that appeals to the lowest and most prurient instincts of man. The typical ‘best-seller’ usually contains violence, bestiality, brutality, and perverted sex, all described in the most lurid detail. In short, what these books represent is simply another form of pornography. As Christians, we cannot buy and read these in good conscience. They war violently against everything we believe in, and hold dear and precious in this life. And not only this, but in purchasing this trash we support the very people who are with this industry destroying the very fabric of decency in our land” (VOZ, 3/1982).


This next quote touches on the Conservative Laestadian prohibition against team sports at school, which is all about maintaining separation from the world (4.2.3, and motive #3). For some reason, watching people tossing a ball or whacking a hockey puck is considered sinful, too, even if you maintain a safe distance from the scornful by doing your viewing at home:

“We as Christians don’t join worldly teams in any sport in school or after school. Sports of this kind with all their heroes and honor have truly become a false god in our day. Who can describe it? Also as Christians we don’t listen to worldly games (hockey, baseball, football, etc.) on the radio. Surely we should not go over to our unbelieving neighbors to watch sports on TV or anything else on TV. And further, we don’t want to be spectators watching worldly teams play” (VOZ, 7/1975).

From several different sources I’ve learned that it has become common for Conservative Laestadians in Finland to attend professional hockey games. Soccer is popular there, too. During the 2010 World Cup, one visitor to Finland apparently found that every SRK household on the itinerary was following the action via some form of video.

The only reason I’ve heard for prohibiting the watching of professional sports is that we might wind up worshipping the players:

“We want to keep our feet clean of the world’s false teachings of self-righteousness and idol worship. We do not want to worship false idols such as worldly musicians or movie stars, sports stars, the wealthy business-world icons, or the religious stars of self-righteousness, who gather man’s praise to themselves, as hundreds of thousands of people gather to cheer and praise them” (VOZ, 7/2006).

Attending political rallies to cheer (Republican) politicians is OK, though. At the risk of getting political here, I will simply nod my head over towards motive #1, authoritarianism.

Contrary to the viewpoint expressed in the 1975 Voice of Zion quote above, listening to sports broadcasts on the radio has been accepted since at least the early 1980s. So listening to these sports stars playing their games (and talking excitedly about the results over coffee next Wednesday night) is not a problem, just watching them. Apparently the eyes have a special idol worshipping tendency that the ears do not. After all, we are warned “not to lift up [our] eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them” (Deut 4:19, NASB).


Here is an area where the prohibitions are mostly well-grounded in the Bible (motive #5):

“Only in marriage should an intimate physical relationship, expressly intended for man and wife, begin. Sexual activities of any kind not just intercourse, outside of marriage are sin; and such sin that the Bible clearly states that fornicators and adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, 1 Cor 6:9., but rather will fall into perdition, where there shall be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Adultery and fornication are what we refer to as ‘sins unto death.’ We do not equivocate or leave unclear our position on these kinds of matters, but simply state the understanding in Christianity” (Tomm Stewart, presentation given 1996).

“There are many temptations that are familiar to God’s children. Masturbation, fantasy, pornography, and provocative dress are all things that can move the conscience. . . . [I]t is not appropriate to touch oneself to arouse sexual desire. This is sin. A reference from Gen 38:8-10 [Onan] makes this point very clear” (VOZ, 8/2006).

It should be noted that what Onan–the bane of teenage boys for a thousand years–was actually guilty of was disobedience to God’s command to raise up children with his late brother’s wife. He didn’t want to, and so he practiced coitus interruptus, the only means of contraception available to him. Regardless of its lack of biblical foundation, the prohibition of masturbation has provided an abundant supply of guilt for young people and thus works great for motive #6.

As might be expected, the recent and rapid trend toward acceptance of homosexuality has not gone unnoticed:

“The rise of open homosexuality and broader acceptance of it in our time has been preceded by a decline of moral and godly life in our society. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, made possible by the development of effective birth control methods and their acceptance and widespread use, led to the loosening of norms governing heterosexual behavior in our society,” which homosexuals have also sought. “In this environment, God’s children truly feel discouraged and vexed like Lot, who dwelt in the wicked city of Sodom on the eve of its destruction. God did not forget Lot but delivered him from temptation and from the destruction that fell upon the ungodly. He will also protect and deliver His children in these evil times” (VOZ, 7/2009).

Remember how Lot then allowed his daughters to get him drunk and commit incest with him (4.3.3)? I really wish that part of the story would get some attention, too, along with the fact that this man who was so “discouraged and vexed” about the lustful mob offered up those daughters to it in order to spare his guests.

I suspect that any vexation felt by individual Conservatives about the moral decline of the world is mixed with a heightened sense of being special and enduring. “The perceived moral failings of modern societies are useful targets because they point up the authority of the holy book and the purity of its teachings, and enable fundamentalists to feel separate from, and superior to, the sinful world that surrounds them” (Herriot 2009, 44). And asserting that there is a trend of moral failure is nothing new: “The idle chatterer is the sort who says that people nowadays are much more wicked than they used to be” (Theophrastus [c. 300 B.C.], from Babinski 2003, 25).


Unconditional abstention arose from Laestadius’s bad experiences with the whiskey-sodden Lapps. Their sobering up and consequent reparations of misdeeds was one of the external signs of the awakening. In an 1857 sermon, Laestadius called liquor

“the drunkard’s favorite god” and “the devil’s shit, for the devil teaches people to ruin God’s grain and to make it harmful to body and soul. The people who drink it become animals” (from Hepokoski 2002a, 25).

Then there is dancing, which is something drunk and ungodly people do:

“Everyone knows that dancing is more than exercise. In dancing the ungodly satisfies worldly lusts and desires. Often the dancers are drunk. Also often the music is as the shrieking of the devil” (VOZ, 4/1974).

During one sermon I heard years ago, the preacher came across a description of dancing by God’s people while reading from some Old Testament text. The preacher hastily added that what had been going on was surely good, wholesome dancing. I wonder what that would have looked like, since I had to be excused from even square dancing lessons in grade school. (Not that I minded!)

As Heikki Saari notes, the blanket rejection of alcohol began with Laestadius:

“[T]he preaching of God’s kingdom is a teaching of unconditional temperance. Beginning with Laestadius, not even moderate drinking has been accepted” (1968, 18).

The spiritual consequences of drinking and being drunk are severe:

“Drunkenness seals entry to God’s Kingdom . . . The standard of living Christianity has always been unconditional abstention. The enemy of the soul has always tried to widen the door to permissiveness of sin. Currently a specially tempting beer (lower alcoholic content) is available in every village shop. Many have weakened in this respect and given the enemy the little finger, thinking; one bottle won’t hurt. Nevertheless it hurts insomuch that it is a beginning to disobedience, the consequence of which is spiritual death” (Einari Lepistö, presentation given at Nivala, Finland, 1973).

Conservatives are overwhelmingly of Finnish descent and, considering Finland’s problems with alcohol, no doubt greatly benefit from the complete avoidance of it. But there is a tendency to retroject this abstention policy backward in history. Thus it comes as a surprise to many that Luther was an avid drinker. And the wine spoken of in the Bible really wasn’t grape juice, a commonly held but mistaken belief that must have been shared by the writer of the following:

Statements from Scriptures “clearly state that drinking, drunkenness and defending of drinking is sin before God! . . . Let us be frankly and adamantly opposed to drinking in any form or circumstance! It is a shameful sin which has corrupted too many people already” (VOZ, 1/1978).

Here are some “statements from Scriptures” to ponder in view of that quote: “And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God” (Deut 14:26); “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart” (Eccl. 9:7); “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; and wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Psa 104:14-15); “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (1 Tim 5:23). The appeal to the Bible, motive #5, to oppose drinking just doesn’t work.

Drinking to the point of drunkenness, however, is indeed contrary to some Bible passages. Ephesians 5:18 warns its readers to “not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation” (NASB). Galatians 5:21 includes drunkenness and revelings among its list of the works of the flesh that will bar you from the kingdom of God. That is the fate of drunkards along with fornicators, idolators, etc. according to 1 Cor 6:9-10. So Tomm Stewart is on to something in this 2000 presentation:

“It remains well understood among us that alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs are poisons to the body but even greater poisons to the undying soul. The seriousness of these sins cannot be overstated. Alcoholic and drug induced intoxications remove faith, and if one should die in that condition, the testimony would be sorrowful as only everlasting destruction awaits.”

Again, though, the Bible is not entirely consistent. Proverbs 31 has a certain King Lemuel advising that princes and kings should not drink. But then he says, “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more” (Proverbs 31:6-7).

Personally, I’m happy to have never drunk anything stronger than a thimbleful at a time of Communion wine, back when the LLC was serving the real thing instead of grape juice. But I like the practical, common-sense nature of Clement of Alexandria’s advice about the acceptable use of wine “towards evening, about supper-time,”

when we are no longer engaged in more serious readings. Then also the air becomes colder than it is during the day; so that the failing natural warmth requires to be nourished by the introduction of heat. But even then it must only be a little wine that is to be used; for we must not go on to intemperate potations. Those who are already advanced in life may partake more cheerfully of the draught, to warm by the harmless medicine of the vine the chill of age, which the decay of time has produced. For old men’s passions are not, for the most part, stirred to such agitation as to drive them to the shipwreck of drunkenness. [The Instructor, Book 2, Ch. 2]

Sins of the Right

Much of what we are seeing in this section are “sins of the flesh” or “the left.” There are also sins of “the right” to be concerned about, especially for the older believer who isn’t as tempted by wine, women, and song (or, in my generation, sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll). Thus the “narrow way” is defined on both sides, and there is plenty of guilt available for everyone:

“Narrow is the way, dangers are so great on both sides that there is a possibility of perishing. It is grace of grace that the heavenly Father has posted the road to heaven on both sides, even to the very end. Along the way there comes not a single situation where the Holy Spirit does not give counsel. In God’s kingdom there is in operation continually words of gospel and reproof unless the heavenly Father leads me to His counsel I, wretched one, would soon stray. There are admonitions against these dangers on the left and on the right. . . . The left hand signs show the dangers of the liberty of the flesh. There the sign reads: ‘For if ye live after the flesh ye must die.’. . . In the same manner is posted the right: ‘Beware and take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees. Beware of false godliness, be it of whatever nature. Beware of spiritual filth.’ . . . The signs are so close together that they form a narrow alley for us to proceed along. The Lord Jesus has trod it with unblemished steps, and although the way is narrow, its destination is an open heaven” (Havas [1936], 59).

One of these sins of the right (these are theological designations, not political ones) is hypocrisy:

† “What is most sorrowful is when even a Christian, although struggling, falls also into the sin of hypocrisy. This may become evident in the disappearance of open brotherly relations. Good is spoken to the face, evil behind the back” (Reinikainen 1969, 78).

There is no shortage of hypocrisy going on within the church. Altemeyer proposes that “fundamentalist Protestantism may directly promote hypocrisy among its members through one of its major theological principles: that if one accepts Jesus as a personal savior and asks for the forgiveness of one’s sins, one will be saved” (2006, 133, emphasis added). Sunday after Sunday, Conservative preachers ask their congregations to forgive them for failing to do good for their neighbors or confess their faith, but their behavior remains unchanged. In one LLC congregation where I have numerous contacts (and probably others where I don’t), a sizable percentage of the young people maintain worldly lifestyles while sitting piously in church every Sunday. The love of Christ is preached and lofty claims are made about the closeness of the brothers and sisters in faith, but I have found the reality to be quite different.

With few exceptions, nobody in the church has made any effort to socialize with or even keep in touch with me or any members of my family since I decided a year ago that I was sick of swimming against the LLC social tide (1.2). The last time a family in my local congregation came to visit our home, several months before this writing, my kids were delighted. Friends to play with! What a novelty! Yet it soon became apparent that the reason for the visit was for the father of the family to have a private chat with me about my perceived spiritual failings and get information from me about dissension in the church.

During the congregational discussion meetings that are still a regular occurrence (focused on topics rather than individuals) in the LLC, there is plenty of opportunity for people to express concerns and disagreement. But there is strong societal pressure to conform (4.2.6), and few people dare to express contrary views through the microphone. Instead, dissenters complain afterwards in private conversations or simply ignore what has been said.

Ingersoll observed, “You cannot change the conclusion of the brain by force, but I will tell you what you can do by force, and what you have done by force. You can make hypocrites by the million. You can make a man say that he has changed his mind, but he remains of the same opinion still” (Lecture on Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child). It is true even of talk within one’s own mind. Altemeyer has used a “Hidden Observer” technique to determine that most highly authoritarian experimental subjects will indirectly acknowledge doubts about the very existence of God, something they would be far more reluctant to admit while “taking full responsibility for admitting it,” even to themselves (2006, 139).

An unrecognized function of the LLC’s congregational “discussions” seems to be providing an airing of the most pious and conservative viewpoints so that the party line is maintained. A young person wondering what on earth could be wrong with listening to some particular bit of “worldly” but seemingly innocuous music, for example, is not likely to raise the point. In all likelihood, the result of doing so would just be a series of platitudes about remaining in the center of the flock and being obedient to the voice of the Mother (motive #1). Not only are such responses unsatisfying, but they put unwanted attention on the questioner.

One young person who left the LLC described a discussion on music during the LLC’s 2009 Summer Services as an environment “created so that there was an implicit understanding among attendees that participants in the discussion could not go against the groupthink and the church’s norm without facing social ostracization in some form.” She doesn’t mince words about her reaction: “I found this alarming and the ridiculousness of the whole evening reconfirmed my disbelief in the church and its teachings. It was all a farce.”

Another young LLC defector noted that the point is “to maintain and reinforce levels of indoctrination.” With a large enough group, a sense of “group values,” and a “sense of fear and consequences for going against the group values,” the “group values shift more and more towards the extreme and people become radicalized.” Thus, the group can make its own expectation clear that one shouldn’t be listening to anything beyond church songs or “safe” types of patriotic or classical music. The discussion leaders don’t even need to present any specific rules. Rather, the result appears to come from the assembled congregation itself rather than any heavy-handed authorities. The more devout young people can feel comforted that these matters have been divinely revealed to them, too. The elders can go home satisfied that all is well. And the disillusioned ones like my two correspondents either keep quiet or become marginalized as simply wanting to sin regardless of what the congregation has decided.

Greed and its frustrated companion, covetousness or envy, are also “sins of the right.” Concerns about materialism were expressed, appropriately I think, during the prosperous 1990s:

“The sin of covetousness is very prevalent in the world today. Man strives for and seeks great possessions. This craving is never satisfied” (VOZ, 7/1999).

The writer of the following chalks up the failure to “relate of matters in a positive light” as being due to our “innate sin and evil.” Apparently he failed to notice how the church has treated the religious views and motives of outsiders (4.2.3):

“The danger of gossip is bearing false witness of a near one, of which the eighth Commandment warns us. . . . If our conversation is such that we relate of matters in a positive light, then we do not fall into sin. What makes us not relate of matters in a positive light? It is the sin and evil that resides in us” (VOZ, 2/2002).

The prohibition of gambling is another old standby of fundamentalist Christianity. It goes a long ways back: “The game of dice is to be prohibited, and the pursuit of gain, especially by dicing, which many keenly follow. Such things the prodigality of luxury invents for the idle” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Ch. 11). Except for church raffles,

“In our Christianity, we think that gambling games in any form are not suitable for the believer” (Päivämies No. 4, 2007).

Now, of all things, an LLC preacher in Minnesota has recently gotten himself worked up about young people playing Rook, a card game that was introduced in 1906 “to provide an alternative to standard playing cards for those in the Puritan tradition or Mennonite culture” (Wikipedia). Some of these guys just don’t know when to stop. How about if we ban “Old Maid,” too, since it violates the Old Testament edict against making graven images (Exodus 20:4) and disparages dear Christian sisters for whom God hasn’t seen fit to provide a spouse?

Sins Unto Death

The phrase “sins unto death” probably has its roots in the Catholic term “mortal sin” (mortus meaning death or deadly), which is distinguished from “venial sin” (venia meaning pardon). Conservative Laestadianism uses it as follows:

“Sins unto death” are “sins which, when one falls into them, remove faith and the person goes out of the kingdom of God” (By Faith, 57).

The idea of mortal sins is based on the “sin unto death” of 1 John 1:16-17: “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.” I can’t recall ever hearing any mention or explanation of that passage in the church. Rather, the Scriptural support is the listing of “the works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19-21: “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

In his 1520 Discussion of Confession, Luther listed adultery, homicide, fornication, theft, robbery, usury, and slander as “open, mortal sins” (PE 1, 85). His 1537 Smalcald Articles state that “faith and the Holy Spirit” have left people who “happen to fall into manifest sins” such as David’s sins of “adultery, murder, and blasphemy” (McCain 2005, 277-78). But, as discussed in 4.6.3, he also downplayed and criticized the distinction between mortal and venial sins.

Tomm Stewart’s 1996 presentation lists adultery and fornication as faith-removing “sins unto death.” In his 2000 presentation, he also cites “alcoholic and drug induced intoxications” as removing faith. I have to wonder, though, where the bright line between salvation and damnation is drawn when one is in the “drug induced intoxications” produced by some prescription painkillers and sleep medications. Does a doctor’s prescription serve as a modern-day writ of indulgence? What if you are entering the fuzzy narcotic fog for a legitimate medical reason but are finding it quite to your liking? Does that count?

Denial of one’s “faith” is likewise considered a sin unto death. During the 1973 schism with the Torola group (4.1.6), there was a dispute about whether Peter’s denial of Christ put him into a condemned state. The Conservative position was that it did, which seems sensible enough, given Jesus’ statement that “whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Mt 10:33). But Walter Torola maintained that Peter simply fell “into a fault” that he creatively imagines was forgiven by the other disciples after Easter as they sat around “recalling their heavy trials during the bygone days” (Torola 1987, 7).

Paul’s list of kingdom-disinheriting sins extends beyond what are usually considered “sins unto death,” though. It includes the all-too-human emotions of hatred, wrath, and envy. They are certainly viewed as sinful, but no one would dream of arguing that experiencing them would “remove faith.” If that were the case, or if there were any such imminent danger from variance, strife, and seditions (NASB: strife, disputes, and dissensions), it’s hard to see how many LLC members could walk away from their car radios tuned to political talk shows with their faith intact.

One theologically oriented correspondent with an SRK background has offered me an interesting perspective on this topic of “sins unto death.” He says that “those sins mentioned by Paul will doctrinally cause spiritual death, no doubt. As does any other sin. This true teaching of Paul and the Bible will became a problem if sin is considered only as an act (deed, thought, word).” But, he continues, neither Paul nor the Bible teaches sin to be an act but rather a governing power of a human’s spiritual part, the “heart.” As long as a Christian is governed by Christ who lives in his (or her) heart, the victory over sin gained by Christ overcomes the sin that exists in the very same Christian due to his sin-fallen humanity. Elsewhere in his writings, Paul portrays Christ as a counter-power for the sin in the battle of human hearts, a battle in which there is no stalemate but only one who winds up in favor. At the same time, Paul notes that even the best Christian may not get rid of his sinfulness, because all Christians are human, too. A human creature is always a sinner.

So, my correspondent concludes, removing faith from a Christian always requires one’s own personal decision. To give up his faith, he must state that he no longer has any need for salvation and reconciliation, which is in Christ alone. Thinking that salvation and reconciliation is only 99% up to Christ and leaving 1% up to himself will remove faith. The Christian’s heart or spiritual status has to rely on Christ even amid temptations. Keeping faith and good conscience (through faith) is always an act of God, which is expressed as a sincere will of the person to put the ultimate trust in Christ for his salvation.

It’s a heartfelt testament to my correspondent’s own Christian faith, and based on sound Lutheran theology. But I wonder how much of these nuances are really shared by everyday Conservatives. What does the distinction between an “act” and a “governing power of the heart” mean to an LLC parent talking with his child about the danger of going to hell for having had a few beers with high school friends, especially if they were “believing” friends? The understanding in the LLC, at least from my years of growing up in it, is that faith would have left the heart of the believer with the first onset of an alcoholic buzz, perhaps with the first sip of the drink, perhaps even with the decision to go buy the beer. There is no allowance (that I know of, at least) for theological niceties like whether one had fallen out of weakness rather than an overt act of rebellion.

Thoughts and Words

Some of Clement’s less ridiculous mandates in The Instructor concern Christian speech. “From filthy speaking we ourselves must entirely abstain, and stop the mouths of those who practice it by stern looks and averting the face, and by what we call making a mock of one: often also by a harsher mode of speech” (Book 2, Ch. 6). “Let us keep away from us jibing, the originator of insult, from which strifes and contentions and enmities burst forth. Insult, we have said, is the servant of drunkenness” (Ch. 7).1

Vulgar talk is understandably to be rejected, but so is talking (and thinking), in however refined a manner, about the wrong topics. The biblical admonition to “avoid foolish questions,” i.e., inconvenient and troubling questions, is alive and well, as evident in this next statement by Eino Rimpiläinen. Writing in response to a question to the editor of Siionin Lähetyslehti, “May the Christian divorce?”, he replied in the December 1949 issue that he was

“given occasion to ponder, are there in living Christianity so uncomprehending, not to say, so ignorant of the Word of God, that such a question can be raised.” He concluded his article by saying, “May even the one who asked such a question believe even such thoughts forgiven in the holy name and precious blood of Jesus” (from Greetings of Peace, 2/1950).

Even asking an honest question required forgiveness! To keep their flocks from such temptation, many authoritarian religions have encouraged what Henke calls an “‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude.” He tells of a woman who “even suggested that I would be better off not reading ‘certain’ books and magazines,” a warning I’ve heard myself, including about my reading of the Bible. It makes me ask, as Henke does, “What good is a faith that cannot stand up to simple questions and criticisms?” (2003, 250).

My books on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, Christian Convention Church, and Mormons are full of descriptions of the “ignorance is bliss” attitude. Here are some quotes from disaffected members of each of those high-demand groups, in the order I’ve just listed them:

The Society claims that it has done all the research about various religions for us, so that we should not waste our valuable time doing research on our own. Especially forbidden was any literature that was critical of the Watchtower Society. [Wilson 2002, 106]

The Churches of Christ have no idea what other churches teach, and they have no interest in finding out. With an attitude of being the “one true church,” there is no need to know what anyone else might be doing. As a rule, their children do not participate in non-CoC vacation Bible schools, and their adults shun any community revival or ecumenical outreach efforts offered by other faiths. It is as if they feel that an open dialogue with other faiths might cause the discovery of error, and any admission of error is completely alien to a Pharisee. [Simpson 2009, 82]

[The workers] warn people against Christian books and publications saying they are published by the “Enemy” [Lewis 2004, 229]

Mormon culture makes a very conscious effort to teach children to believe in a specific version of reality, and it warns them about the dangers of contrary beliefs and ideas. All cultures with beliefs and practices that differ greatly from Mormon culture are said to be wrong and misguided at best, and inspired by Satan at worst. [Worthy 2008, 13]

Avoiding dangerous thoughts often entails avoiding the company of dangerous thinkers. Ignatius [c. 100 A.D.] warned his readers about “vain talkers and deceivers, not Christians, but Christ-betrayers, bearing about the name of Christ in deceit, and ‘corrupting the word’ of the Gospel; while they intermix the poison of their deceit with their persuasive talk” (Epistle to the Trallians, Ch. 6). He urged them, “Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ” (Ch. 9). The warnings against exposing oneself to contrary ideas have never ceased:

“In these times there are inventions of clubs or clubs and hobbies for all ages. For children day clubs, young people have the clubs for their age group, and the elderly have silver clubs. If believers are leaders and the spirit in the club is preserved in a healthy foundation, then the Christian can be a partaker. But so often these type of clubs are occasions to sit where the scorners sit. There is always the danger that the corruption of wrong doctrines and the secret filth of self-righteousness slowly corrupts and the conscience becomes dimmed. The advice of the word of God is to avoid that which corrupts” (VOZ, 8/1978).

Be a light unto the world, but don’t spend too much time with the people in it, is the basic idea (4.2.3):

“The dangers inherent in sports are found both in participation as a team member and attendance at games. In the past some have thought it possible to keep faith and good conscience and still participate in sports. They sought justification in thinking a believer could be a light to unbelieving teammates. However, there are many dangers in this thinking” (VOZ, 10/1999).

“[W]hen a person makes repentance from unbelief . . . they forsake everything to be a believer.” That may mean needing “to choose faith over their family, relatives, and friends,” “changing an inappropriate career,” or “giving up an unbelieving boyfriend or girlfriend” (VOZ, 2/2000).

A presentation directed to the youth taught that sin is always

“the cause of falling away from faith. It often begins with hanging out with the wrong crowd and a need to fit in. It may be a time of testing borders, both with unbelieving and believing friends, and can involve sins such as inappropriate music, movies, [underage] smoking, and even drinking” (VOZ, 6/2008).

Life and Death

In his Plea to the Christians [c. 180 A.D.], the philosopher and early Christian writer Athenagoras defended himself and his fellow believers against the charge of murder and cannibalism, a slander that was common at the time due to people taking a bit too seriously the statements about eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood. “[W]e cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly,” he wrote, so who “can accuse us of murder or cannibalism?” He explained how the Christians refused to even look on the spectacles that were of such great interest in that society, “the contests of gladiators and wild beasts,” “deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him.” Then he gave an eloquent explanation for the Christian rejection of abortion:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. [Ch. 35]

Writing around the same time, perhaps a few decades later, Tertullian made a similar argument:

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed. [Apologetic, Apology, Ch. 9]

Tertullian appreciated the ethical nuances of medical issues, however. Despite condemning abortion in the above quote, he provides the following gruesome description of late-term abortion as being undertaken “sometimes by a cruel necessity”:

[W]hilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of the womb he impedes parturition, and kills his mother, if he is not to die himself.  Accordingly, among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fœtus is extracted by a violent delivery. [Apologetic, The Soul’s Testimony, Ch. 25]

Tertullian’s acknowledgment of “cruel necessity” seems to value the life of the mother over that of the fetus. Caesarean sections were performed in ancient times, starting hundreds of years before Tertullian, but to save the life of the child with the understanding that the mother would face certain death.

Clearly, the reverence for human life has some long-established precedent in Christianity. (Except for the lives of Muslims during the Crusades, Jews and “heretics” during the Inquisition, rebellious peasants during Luther’s political entanglements, and women suspected of witchcraft in 17th century New England.) In Conservative Laestadianism, that translates to a “hands off God’s business” attitude:

“[A]ssisted suicide is contrary to God’s Word. It breaks the fifth commandment; it is murder. . . . [E]ven in an extreme case, when a person lives but is left in a vegetative state, God has a reason for this, though we may not understand. Many have experienced that God doesn’t give us greater trials that we can handle, and He give strength to bear the trials we receive. Truly, it is God’s decision when our lives are to end” (VOZ, 8/2000).

“People have forgotten that God is the Creator and upholder of all, Lord over life and death. God alone has the power to create life and take it away. Man, in his pride, can begin to think that he is in control of his own life. Man attempts to take these matters of life and death into his own hands. This includes decisions regarding life and death themselves. This manifests itself, for example, in the prevention of conception, the termination of pregnancy, some kinds of gene manipulation, efforts to clone humans, and euthanasia. . . . God has not given authority to man to control life. Even in our time of great scientific and medical advances, God is the Lord over life and death” (VOZ, 1/2009).

It turns out, though, that there have been quite a few cases where God’s sole “power to create life and take it away” has encountered limits in difficult situations. That will be discussed in 4.7.5 with regard to the Conservative position against contraception.

4.6.2 Forgiveness of Sins

For the forgiveness of sins begins in baptism and remains with us all the way to death, until we arise from the dead, and leads us into life eternal. So we live continually under the remission of sins.

—Martin Luther, from Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther

The Proclamation of Personal Absolution

Raattamaa wrote about using the “keys of loosing” in an 1854 letter:

“After the law has been fully explained and preached, we must then preach the gospel and faith powerfully. If we do not use the keys of loosing, as well as the keys of binding, prisoners cannot be freed. And are we not to preach redemption to prisoners, freedom to the oppressed, and restoring of sight to the blind?” (from Kulla 1985, 177)

Laestadius mentioned forgiveness, but without any of Raattamaa’s direct, evangelical approach:

“God is not as merciful as the sorrowless and grace-thieves think. God requires true penitence and repentance before He opens up His merciful heart. God requires living faith before he can forgive sins” (Laestadius, First Rogation Day sermon [1859]; Fourth Postilla, 85).

In his preface to the 1877 Laestadius Church Postilla, Raattamaa explains the distinction between Laestadius’s legalistic approach and his own. There Raattamaa also shows that the formula of “forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name and blood” was clearly established at that point:

“In the beginning of the awakening the most part of people in the Churches of the parishes of Karesuando and Pajala were sorrowless. That is why Laestadius had to preach more law than at the present time. Now the most part of people who come to the meeting places and prayerhouses are believers and through law awakened ones. The preachers and those who declare the word of God must preach gospel and testify the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name and blood, so that they may be able to by faith receive the grace of the Lord” (laestadiustexter.se).

And he sought such forgiveness in his own life, as he states when recalling his “discovery of the keys” (4.1.4):

[B]ad thoughts, wicked lusts and desires have often wounded my conscience. I have often been incapable of self denial, and freeing myself of oppressing doubts. For this reason I have often personally needed to hear the audible affirmations of my brothers and sisters of the cross, and beg for the forgiveness of my sins in Jesus’ name and blood. A weak traveler I have been. [Laitinen, 34]

Some seventy years later, Väinö Havas provided a beautiful summary and proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. It shows how this important point of doctrine had been remarkably preserved to that point, and for another 70 years to come:

“The matter is so unspeakably simple. You who sit in the church pew carrying a restless conscience listen to the sermon which is intended especially for you, and I authorized by my Lord as an ambassador of the Kingdom of God preach to you forgiveness. I assure you, with the power of the Holy Ghost, that Jesus the Savior of the world, is your savior. In His name and blood, are your sins, especially your terrible sins, forgiven. The preacher of this truth is the Lord himself. Although at this moment, He has borrowed my weak tongue as His intermediate. I am only the crying voice of Heaven. That is why you can own this forgiveness of sins as the unyielding Word of God. Thus, that which is forgiven upon this earth, according to the testimony of our Master, is also forgiven in Heaven” (Havas [1940], 13).2

In a sermon published in the December 1953 Greetings of Peace, Gust Wisuri referred to what is perhaps the single favorite Bible text in Conservative Laestadianism, John 20:22. There Jesus breathed on the disciples and said “unto them, receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”:

“There are a lot of people in this world who say they believe in God. There are a lot of people in this world who study the Bible daily. But when you bring up this very portion of the Scripture that we have read this evening to their attention, they very vehemently deny that this means that the preaching of the gospel was left in the hands of man.” Why, he challenged, “did Jesus then tell these first disciples after He had given them the Holy Spirit that ‘whosoever sins you remit they are remitted.’ If there is one such person in our midst who doesn’t believe, I would like to have you get up and answer that question now based on scriptures that what backing do you have for not believing the truth of God?”

Robert M. Price, a scholar of both the Bible and evangelical Christianity, has told me that modern evangelicals completely disregard this passage, finding it contrary to their widely held belief that one is saved through a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” He finds such a belief ill-founded, and has some regard for the Conservative view about personal absolution. But he also thinks that Wisuri “is overstating the case: few if any evangelicals anymore deny that God has left the preaching of the gospel in the hands of man. (Some old Calvinists did, opposing missions for that reason.)” Where Wisuri has a point, Dr. Price believes, is that those same evangelists “take this passage to mean merely that Christ has given us the job of preaching the gospel, and that if we do, and someone accepts it, their sins will be remitted, not by the evangelist but by God.” He calls that “a side-stepping of the force of the verse, which seems to intend that the apostles and their successors shall absolve sins as they see fit.”

“God’s mission command goes forth from generation to generation. At its core, for we who live and believe in New Testament times, is the forgiveness of sins in the name and blood of Jesus. This is the most important teaching and learning, the most important giving and receiving. It is the greatest blessing we, and our children, can own” (VOZ, 2/2001).

A presentation at the SRK’s 2006 Summer Services discusses John 20:20-23:

“God’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace and forgiveness. Jesus left the authority to forgive sins to his own disciples. . . . The children of God still forgive sins today with the authority of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit. God joins in this forgiveness in heaven. From this we too have received peace for our conscience, the hope of heaven and the joy of life.”3

The Sole Means of Grace

There is no way to obtain forgiveness of sins in Conservative Laestadianism other than via the proclamation of absolution:

“Many people believe that they can confess their sins privately to God through prayer and that God, himself, will forgive their sins. . . . But God does not justify sinners privately, rather He sends the owners of the office of remission to preach the gospel of forgiveness to the penitent sinner” (Uljas 2000, 74).

“In many churches of this world, it is proclaimed that man can pray to God and be forgiven his sins and become saved. This is not according to God’s Word. Man needs to become humble as a little child and believe his sins forgiven in the gospel preached in the name and blood of Jesus and take up the cross and follow Him. Many times Jesus preached this saving word and there were many who were offended, saying that ‘who can forgive sin but God?’ In Matthew is recorded, ‘But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins’” (VOZ, 8/2004).

Those “many people” and “many churches” actually go back to the earliest days of Christianity. As discussed in 4.7.3 and 5.1.2, I have found almost nothing in early church writings that is in accord with the Laestadian idea of personal absolution, but a fair number of references to forgiveness through baptism and prayer.

The Bible offers no examples of absolution, but it does discuss the forgiveness of sins via prayer. In the Old Testament, Solomon dedicated the temple he built with a prayer that talks about God forgiving sins through prayer, both inside the temple (1 Ki 8:33-34) and outside, but directed toward it (8:35-50). In the New Testament, James asked, “Is there any sick among you?” If so, the sick one should “call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15, emphasis added). No proclamation of forgiveness is mentioned, just the “prayer of faith.” James confirms that in the next verse: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (v. 16, emphasis added). Confession was part of the picture, but Laestadian-style absolution was not.

Regular Usage

Believers always remain “repenting of their sins and faults” and desire, throughout life, “to walk leaning upon the pilgrim-staff” of the the forgiveness of sins:

“Only childhood christians, who have remained in the covenant of baptism repenting of their sins and faults, they have not forsaken the Kingdom of God through unbelief, they have always remained in the Father’s home. But not as the older brother (Luke 15:29-30) who felt he had never broken the Father’s command and therefore did not need forgiveness, of the Father he only demands payment for the faithfulness and work. But the right children of the Father live in the knowledge of their sinfulness and failings, and for that reason need the forgiveness of sins, even though they have not walked on the paths of sin together with the ungodly world. From childhood, they have had life in the Father’s home through the grace of forgiveness in Jesus’ blood. And they live in the same experiences and in the same grace as they who have returned as prodigal sons from the journey in the world through the narrow gate into the Kingdom of God, to the Father’s home” (Leonard Typpö [1868-1922], from Greetings of Peace, 9/1956).

“Jesus alone, do you not perceive, fellow-pilgrim, Jesus alone is our salvation. And for that reason we desire to walk leaning upon the pilgrim-staff, the forgiveness of sins, that we might not soil our raiment in the cesspools of the world. I bid you farewell my friends in America and everywhere, with these words: Sins are forgiven us in Jesus blood through faith” (Matti Suo [1861-1927], from Greetings of Peace, 8/1950).

In a sermon given sometime in the 1950s, Paul Heideman makes Paul’s statement to Timothy (2 Tim 1:1-9) as his “dearly beloved son,” of whom he had remembrance in his “prayers night and day,” into a full-blown Laestadian encounter complete with references to doubts, confession, absolution, and God’s Kingdom:

Christian parents and children “have this consolation that there they have this altar of grace in their midst to which they can gather. And when each one needs, they can come and ask for blessing and forgiveness and they can forgive each other their sins. Now in our read text, we have an example of this. When the Apostle Paul had come again to visit at Timothy’s home and he had greeted young Timothy with God’s Peace, the young Christian boy had been timid to confess his faith. And the apostle Paul had said, ‘Well, what’s the trouble, Timothy? Why do you hesitate to confess your faith?’ Timothy broke into tears, and he said, ‘I don’t know whether I have the right to call myself a Christian anymore because I have committed sin and I have a bad conscience.’ And the old apostle . . . began to talk to him and say, ‘Well, Timothy, confess your sin, there is forgiveness in God’s Kingdom.’ And when Timothy opened his heart and conscience to speak the trouble that had wounded his conscience, we read of how the Apostle Paul extended his hand in blessing upon Timothy to bless him in Jesus’ name and to forgive him in Jesus’ blood, so that Timothy’s tears changed to joy, and again this young boy felt happy, that now again I have a good conscience cleansed in the blood of Jesus. My sins are forgiven and I am a child of God’”

With the possible exception of David and Nathan (4.3.3), there are no examples of such encounters in the Bible. That became clear to me from my reading of the entire thing in 2009, but it is certainly not a new discovery. The shoemaker and Luther admirer Hans Sachs was a vocal critic of auricular confession to a priest, the traditional–and until his time, the only–means by which a Christian would confess his sin and obtain forgiveness. His 1524 pamphlet A Disputation between a Canon and a Shoemaker responded to the question of why Lutherans never confessed their sins to a priest by noting that neither the old nor the New Testament contains any mention of it. “If auricular confession were such a necessary and holy thing,” he says to his questioner, “then it certainly should be more clearly defined in the Scriptures” (from Rittgers 2004, 69). Luther himself, despite extolling the “secret confession which is now practised” as being “highly satisfactory, and useful or even necessary,” and despite his assertion that “Christ has manifestly bestowed the power of absolution on every believer in Him,” acknowledged that it “cannot be proved from Scripture” (from Kirk 1966, 421).

Nevertheless, hearing the absolution preached from another believer–preacher or not, and with or without confession of particular sins–is a regular part of a Conservative Laestadian’s life:

“It is not enough when at one time a person has been helped into faith, for salvation. We need to be preserved in faith until the end of our journey. We still need men and women like Barnabas [Acts 11:23] who preach faith in our surroundings” (Siionin Lähetyslehti, 1979).

“Once believing, daily repentance is also needful, though it is different from the repentance from unbelief. It is daily recognizing the need for and care of the Gospel. Admitting before God that I am but filthy rags, and accepting the rich love and care of the Heavenly Father, through His kingdom here on earth. Daily one can believe that sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood” (VOZ, 12/1999).

“God’s Word reveals to us that we are weak and faulty travelers in our endeavor of faith. So often we find ourselves falling into sin and doubts, and we need the assurance of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins to uplift us. Through believing the preached gospel, a weak and faulty traveler receives strength from heaven to continue to journey. God has given believing companions to help us get to heaven. We can speak of our joys and sorrows and confess our sins one to another” (VOZ, 7/2009).

From Faith to Faith

A critical point about the Conservative doctrine of personal absolution is that forgiveness must be proclaimed by a believer. O.H. Jussila explained that in 1929 by reference to Jesus’ gift of

“the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to his disciples. All believers in Jesus, who have received the Holy Spirit, now have power and authority to remit and retain sins in the name of Jesus, that is, in accordance with his command on his behalf. He knew man and realized that the human wretch, stripped naked by the fall into sin, no longer retained any ability to free himself from his bonds by his own efforts. This recognition of helplessness becomes evident even to man himself when his conscience awakens. Until then, a person may imagine that he can free himself from the bonds of sin in some way other than through the keys of remission. Whoever thinks thus reveals that he has not yet become sufficiently pressured in his conscience after all, for he rejects the aid offered by Heaven and also remains so bold as to demand of God that aid be given in another way, determined by man himself. The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven have been lost many times, but the Holy Spirit of God has always fetched them anew from their hiding place for the use of Christ’s congregation, for the Lord of the congregation himself has promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his congregation” (from Hepokoski 2002b, 5).

The words have no power unless they are spoken by someone with the Holy Spirit:

The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins by “an unbeliever, or [by] anyone without the Holy Spirit, will not open heaven for anyone, regardless of how piously and verbatim it is proclaimed even as in God’s congregation” (Taskila 1961, 10).

“There is much gospel in our time which does not free anyone from sin nor does it bring about anything but misguidance. When the Spirit of God is lacking from the proclaimer, then the proclamation is a mere jingle of words that does not heal anyone” (VOZ, 4/1974).

I have searched Luther’s writings in vain for anything about what is such an important distinction to Conservative Laestadians. (Luther’s discussions and writings usually assume that person to be a priest carrying out the duties of his office, despite his allowance for lay confessors.) It seems to me that he and his Reformation colleagues did not even think to question whether the absolution was dependent on the spiritual state of the person proclaiming it. The one possible exception of which I’m aware is Luther’s advice “not to confess anything privately to a priest because he is a priest but only because he is a brother and a Christian” (from Althaus 1963, 317, n. 105).

Two separate propositions in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession seem to indicate that the reformers would not have been concerned about the proclaimer’s spiritual state. One proposition is that absolution is a sacrament: “[M]ost people in our churches frequently use the Sacraments (Absolution and the Lord’s Supper) during the year” (Article 11; McCain 2005, 156); “Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution (which is the Sacrament of Repentance) are truly Sacraments” (Article 13; McCain 2005, 184). The other is that

the Sacraments [being] administered by the unworthy does not detract from the Sacraments’ power. Because of the call of the Church, the unworthy still represent the person of Christ and do not represent their own persons, as Christ testifies, “The one who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16). (Even Judas was sent to preach.) When they offer God’s Word, when they offer the Sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ. Those words of Christ teach us not to be offended by the unworthiness of the ministers. [Articles 7 & 8; McCain 2005, 148]

Luther debated his troublesome colleague Andreas Osiander about public absolution (the Offene Schuld) versus private absolution. During that debate, Osiander maintained that the faith of the penitent one is immaterial to the efficacy of the absolution (Rittgers 2004, 153-55; see 5.4.2). In one joint reply to Osiander, Luther and Melanchthon wrote that (in Rittgers’s words) “forgiveness could be obtained by believing hearts through either private absolution or a sermon. Both owed their authority to God’s promise to be present with his Word, and both required faith” (p. 164). The only concern about “believing hearts,” and an arguable one at that, was on the part of those obtaining forgiveness. God’s promise was “with his Word,” which doesn’t make it seem important who was doing the preaching of it.4

Osiander had a stormy relationship with Luther, and I doubt Conservatives would find much fruitful about trying to decide whether Osiander was a “believer” or not. Regardless, he is important to this study because he “forced issues surrounding confession and absolution out into the open that otherwise would have remained concealed” (p. 217). The important questions Osiander raised included:

Was absolution a sacrament or not? If it was, as most of Osiander’s colleagues believed, what did this mean for its proper use? Could it be applied with equal validity and efficacy to crowds and to individuals? Given that most believed the individual encounter between pastor and confessant was to be preferred, how could one compel attendance at private confession if forgiveness could also be obtained through general absolution, a sermon, or a simple word of encouragement from a fellow Christian? Were the latter two also in some way sacramental? If so, what was unique about private absolution? Finally, what was the relationship between divine and human agency in confession, between God’s Word and the confessor’s words, between God’s Word and the confessant’s faith? [Rittgers 2004, 217]

For Conservative Laestadians, though, those questions mostly disappear behind the simple assertion that the disciples received the “office and the authority to preach the forgiveness of sins” from Jesus in his post-resurrection appearance, John 20:19-23:

“This office was not received only by those disciples of Jesus to whom He gave it himself; it has been received by all who have themselves believed the sermon of the forgiveness of sins. Man is truly unfit for this duty, but God has made His child fit for it” (Uljas 2000, 39).

From those disciples–somehow, over the course of 2,000 years of inconsistent church history–the true believers received it in turn. So, when Jesus said, “I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he

“speaks to Peter and the disciples, but includes all believers, even up to this day. Even though Jesus has physically left this Earth, the power of the forgiveness of sins is still here among the believers” (VOZ, 9/2008).

It seems clear to me that the “faith to faith” idea is a doctrinal cousin to the claims of apostolic succession that are made by many Christian groups. We got this (with a hundred intervening generations) from the apostles, so you need to come to us:

[U]nder the surface, it did not take long for succeeding generations . . . to devise the idea of an inherited “apostolic authority,” even though the apostles themselves had never claimed to hand on any such authority. Nevertheless, these would-be leaders claimed that they themselves were the true successors of these first apostles and therefore should exercise the same authority they declared that those apostles had exercised. [Cox 2009, 88]

Public Proclamations

The direct proclamation of forgiveness, practiced in Finland as the yleinen saarna and having roots in the Offene Schuld that preceded even Luther (5.4.2), occurs in nearly every Conservative Laestadian sermon. I have found only one written sermon from Laestadius containing any assurance of forgiveness to the listener:

“And you palsied one, who yourself have not been able to travel the road of Christianity from that time when this sickness of the palsy came upon you, take up now your old bedding of self-righteousness and carry it out, and remember! That you have received sins forgiven just then, when you got to hear these sweet words of grace from the mouth of Jesus: ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee,’ and do not henceforth go to commit sin, that something worse would not befall you, Thou palsied man! When the Son of Man has said to you: ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee,’ then you do not need to doubt anymore of the forgiveness of sins, although the Pharisees doubt, because at that moment that you believe, you receive that power to arise and walk the road of Christianity, but only to the palsied ones He has said: Thy sins be forgiven thee. So believe now, you palsied one, that your sins are forgiven” (Laestadius, Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity sermon, 1847).

It is possible that Laestadius made such proclamations that are not reflected in the record of his Postilla (Palola 2010). He had a more expansive view of the essence of the gospel than just the proclamation of absolution, and when he urged listeners to lift up their eyes to the cruficied Christ, it had what he felt was the same effect (Palola 2011). I still find it a remarkable omission. Perhaps the Bible text for the 19th Sunday after Trinity inspired Laestadius to write out and deliver those words of assurance. It is the same text that Luther expounded upon when he explains the forgiveness of sins through personal absolution in a way remarkably similar to that understood by Conservatives (5.4.3).

For as long as I can remember, it has been said that it is a poor sermon that does not include this proclamation. It is a venerable practice; Havas proclaimed it in a 1940 sermon quoted above, as did Kalle Timonen in a 1951 sermon:

“There are many of you here who have asked in your heart, do I have the right to believe. The heavenly message assures us: all sins are forgiven in Jesus’ holy name and precious redeeming blood! Lift your eyes in faith to behold our Lord Jesus Christ who has liberated us from the curse of the law . . . Dear fellow pilgrims, let us travel the remainder of our sojourn here as participants in this blessedness. This blessing accompanies you each step of the way; at home, here at the services, and also at your place of work. It is for that reason you have come here, to hear whether this gospel of blessing is still extended to you. And because you have nothing but the longing to believe, it is just for such visitors here–dearly beloved, preciously redeemed souls, you especially should hear and claim our gracious Father’s message” (from Greetings of Peace, 9/1956).

In most cases, the preacher feels the need to also ask for the assembled congregation to proclaim forgiveness of his own sins. It is also heard and requested during Bible class and discussions.

This quote refers to “the children of God in one accord” proclaiming the absolution to someone:

“In the Kingdom of God, that blessed family of God, even you children have experienced this truth” that in Jesus’ name and blood there is forgiveness of sin. “It is not strange to you when at the services of God’s children, the speaker brothers preach the Gospel word” that sins are forgiven. “And someone whose heart longs and yearns for the gospel receives the strength to ask: ‘May I believe my sins forgiven,’ and the children of God in one accord pronounce: ‘Sister, or Brother, believe your sins forgiven in the name and blood of Jesus’” (Ruben Alajoki, sermon given 1973).

Alajoki is referring to a variant of public absolution that happened on a regular basis during the highly emotional congregational meetings of the time. One after another, people in the pews would feel moved to raise their hands and ask for forgiveness from the assembled congregation, often adding a few words of confession about falling short in whatever area had just been discussed. Even during the “caretaking” meetings (4.6.4), focused as they were on particular individuals sitting at tables in front of the congregation, these requests from the pews would be heard. (I suspect many of those asking in that situation just wanted the relief of knowing that they were not going to be denied forgiveness that night.) Each request was dutifully answered by the chorus, “Believe all sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood,” accompanied by a flurry of hands being waved in the general direction of the penitent one. Often this would go on until seemingly everybody in the church had personally blessed everybody else.

In a sermon published in the May 1965 Greetings of Peace, Lauri Hakso addressed any unbelievers who may have been in the audience. He told them they were “welcome to come for a personal conversation,” but warned,

“although you respect Christianity, yet as long as you are outside of the Kingdom of God, in your unbelief, you are the enemy of the Lord Jesus.” Later, he said: “[P]erhaps you are one who practices religion, but who have never been blessed from the Kingdom of God. You have never been blessed for the forgiveness of your sins in the name and blood of Jesus by men who have the Holy Ghost. And therefore you have never felt how sweet the Lord is to the sinner. He forgives him all his blood-red sins. If you are not [a partaker] of this blessing, beg to become [a] partaker. You did well when you came to these services. We rejoice already of this, for the word of God is powerful to open even your understanding and awaken your conscience. And we would have a great desire to bless you with this blessing in Jesus’ name. You are welcome to come for a personal conversation with us concerning these matters pertaining to the salvation of your soul, of your very personal and perhaps very smarting matters. And you have leave to begin to complain over your troubles from the bench [where] you are sitting. Here around you is a flock of witnesses, of whom the Apostle writes, that when it is near, then it is a good time to put away sin and burden, repent of sin. The whole flock will proclaim your sins all forgiven to you. You will be blessed with this everlasting gospel. And even you will become a new creature in Christ.”

I recall most of the sermons preached up until the 1990s containing both a proclamation to believers of the forgiveness of sins and an urging of repentance to any unbelieving audience members, with the implication that the general blessing would not effect their conversion. That has largely been replaced by the preacher simply making the proclamation that the unbeliever can also, if he desires to accept it, believe in the forgiveness of his sins. Although the quoted portion of Hakso’s sermon makes it appear that he is following the older practice, he actually goes on to tell his unbelieving hearer to “permit yourself to be blessed with this gospel. Even I as a weak servant of Christ desire in this sermon intended for all, [to] preach your sins forgiven to you.” But he follows that up by expressing certainty that the convert will feel the desire to ask for absolution personally:

Our doctrine-father Luther says that we are allowed to believe the gospel from the general preachings. But we know that if someone receives power to believe from the general preaching, he does not remain a Christian who does not confess his faith. But he will certainly begin to say to others, what [a] miracle occurred to me, when even I [a] wretched sinner had my blood-red sins forgiven. He begins to confess his faith. And brothers and sisters, we have experienced, that when God is given to awaken the conscience, you feel the desire to ask personally, is it true that so great a sinner as I am, can believe my sins forgiven? And still, as in the days of the Apostolic church and congregation, the children of God laid their hands upon the repentant sinner and proclaimed the forgiveness of sins personally. And in this way we receive power to believe that the gospel means just me. And this is not a doctrine discovered by the Laestadians. But as the Apostle writes of the doctrine of the Lord Jesus, he says that it also includes the laying on of hands.

The old preachers usually meant Paul when they referred to “the Apostle.” The only thing about the laying on of hands that appears in the epistles attributed to him is in 1 Tim 4:14, which Paul probably didn’t even write: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” The book of Hebrews– sometimes misattributed to Paul–mentions the laying on of hands, but see the discussion of Heb 6:1-2 in 7.7.

The book of Acts describes multiple occurrences of the laying on of hands, but never associates it with any proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. (Paul’s experience with Ananias is significant in this regard, see 7.2.) Instead, the gift of the Holy Ghost was given as a transfer of spiritual force or power through physical contact, a practice well established in the Old Testament and Jesus’ ministry. Note Jacob’s patriarchal blessing of his sons (Gen 48:12-20), Aaron’s putting the sins of the children of Israel onto the head of the scapegoat (Lev 16:21-22), Moses’ anointing of Joshua as his successor (Num 27:22-23, Deut 34:9), Elisha’s raising a child from the dead (2 Ki 4:32-35), and various healing miracles by Jesus (Mk 1:31, 1:41-42, 5:30, 5:41-42, 6:5, 7:32-35, 8:23-25, 9:27, 20:34). Jesus laid his hands on the little children who were brought to him (Mt 19:13-15), and his physical touch in breaking the bread was an important part of the miracles of the loaves and fishes (Mt 6:41) and the institution of Communion (Mt 14:22).

It was in the ninth century, as “the Church gradually asserted the power of the keys and reconciliation began to assume the character of absolution,” that the laying on of hands became associated with the forgiveness of sins. The physical act was “accompanied by the invocation of the Holy Ghost and the prayers of the bishop, or the priest to whom he delegated the function” (Lea 1896, 52). A few centuries later, the “imposition of hands became a mere unimportant adjunct in the ceremony” of absolution, and by Luther’s day it had been largely replaced by the sign of the cross (p. 53).

My last quote in this sample of public proclamations is from a sermon given in 1971 by Art Forstie:

“Believe through the strength of this gospel of blood yet even this morning, just as you are if you feel weak and weary, many doubts and lackings, that they are all forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood.”

But, despite the lack of any later quotes, the practice certainly has not stopped. Far from it. Preachers are careful to always assure the assembled congregation with the public absolution in their sermons, even at special service events where several sermons occur in a single day. After a while, one can start to wonder what sins really need absolving since the last proclamation was heard forty minutes ago.

It is a far cry from what was practiced when Luther came on the scene. The “monastic ideal” then was only “several confessions per year.” Most people confessed during Holy Week, perhaps on a few other occasions throughout the year, before being married, and “whenever they were facing the possibility of death owing to sickness, childbirth, or dangerous travel” (Rittgers 2004, 26-27).

Getting it in Writing

At one time, church writings also assured readers of the forgiveness of their sins:

“I would greet you, dear fellow traveler on Life’s Way with the word of encouragement. Do not give up your most precious faith. Believe still, as a sinner, that in the name and precious blood of the Friend of sinners, even your sins are all forgiven” (Paul Heideman, Greetings of Peace, 10/1942).

“Proclaim yet for awhile, you angels of the Lord of Hosts, the gospel, whose very core is the forgiveness of sins! You people of the Lord who suffer from your sinfulness, believe even now your sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and holy blood!” (Taskila 1961, 4).

In the early days of the Voice of Zion, there were many such direct proclamations of absolution to the reader:

“Dear Reader! You may even now believe all your sins, your failings, your fears, forgiven in Jesus’ name and shed blood. ‘Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world!’ Even your sins are taken away, they are cleansed and removed as far as the east is from the west” (VOZ, 1/1980).

From what I recall, these written proclamations were not understood as applying to outsiders. Certainly nobody expected someone to show up in church and be treated as a “believer” by virtue of having read the church newspaper.

It was even common for authors to lament their sinfulness and ask for forgiveness in their articles. A response would appear below each such article reading something like this: “You can believe your sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood. –The editors.” It surely stretches the credulity of even the most pious reader to imagine an author spending months awaiting the issue of the Voice of Zion to arrive that contains the response to his request and the assurance that, yes, his sins are indeed forgiven.

4.6.3 Confession

Thou shalt confess thy sins. Thou shalt not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light.

The Epistle of Barnabus [c. 100 A.D.]

According to Laestadius, a form of confession that “had come into practice among the awakened” was when

“the severe pains of conscience compel a sinner, who is penitent and willing to repent, to make an open confession of sins in the presence of some Christians, who may be many or few in number; and this open confession of sins is made to ease a burdened conscience” (VCW, 89).

He wrote that it

would be “pure nonsense” for a Communion participant not to be “obliged to confess his willful sins, which he actually has committed, but only in a general way to confess himself to be sinful. . . . What is so hard about becoming saved? The minister testifies sins forgiven every Sunday to shameless sinners, who continue to love their bosom sins. The minister does not require that everyone who signs up for Communion must make known his condition of soul. He requires no true confession of sin, but only the general, hypocritical confession of sin.” In such case, “only a few Communion participants will make their confession of sin for the whole congregation” (VCW, 125).

Such “pure nonsense” is the norm now; it would surprise most Conservatives to hear that there ever was such a thing as a pre-sacramental examination, which goes back to Luther’s time (“No one is admitted to the Sacrament without first being examined,” Augsburg Confession, Article 24; McCain 2005, 47). As discussed below, general absolution is now proclaimed to all before Communion, usually multiple times.

One imagines that, if Laestadius ever read Luther’s Discussion of Confession, he would have been horrified at the suggestion that the communicant go now and then “without confession, even if he has been immoderate in drinking, talking, or sleeping, or has done something else that is wrong . . . in order that a man may learn to trust more in the mercy of God than in his own confession or in his own diligence” (PE 1, 95).5

The usage of the keys to loose one from sins was associated with confession from the very beginning by Raattamaa, the (re)discoverer of those keys (4.1):

“Private confession is allowed in the Word of God, and so we must often bring forth the great love of our Savior in reproof and counsel privately between one another. Nor is it fitting to condemn one another for all manner of faults, for the Lord Jesus is not rejecting His Bride for all manner of faults, as He has said of temporal marriage.” In Mt 18:16-17, 20, “the key to loose and bind has now been given to the Christians” (Raattamaa, sermon given 1894, from Kulla 1985, 181).

During the 1920s, confession was a point of contention between the Conservatives and the Pollarites, whom the Conservatives “accused of rejecting confession and of having a spirit of carnality” according to Hepokoski (2002b, 83). Hepokoski also asserts that two prominent Conservative preachers of the day, O.H. Jussila and Matti Suo emphasized the need for confession, with Jussila “equating the foot washing of John 13:14 with confession” and Suo making “it clear that he does not believe that faith, without confession, is sufficient for salvation” (p. 83). Despite Hepokoski’s obvious sympathies for the Pollarites, I would not be surprised if the Conservatives had seized on confession as a point of distinction with the new “heresy” and thus been forced to emphasize it more in the decades to come.

The general proclamation that “all sins are forgiven” has been made to listeners in sermons since at least the 1930s (4.6.2). In the sermons of my youth, confession was emphasized through a caveat often added to that proclamation. One with “name matters” on the conscience was expected to confess them to some other individual believer and thus receive forgiveness, or at least personal and specific assurance of forgiveness. A sermon given by Havas many decades earlier in 1935 hinted at that understanding:

“Let no one leave from these services with bound consciences. In this temple there are hundreds of confessor fathers and mothers. Relate to them simply the burdens of your heart. They will bless you with a beautiful gospel of forgiveness” (Havas, 28).

Although Havas stops short of requiring confession, he certainly encourages it:

“We are not to say to any troubled soul: ‘You must make a confession.’ Rather we can instruct, in love, one whose sins still trouble his conscience, and who, due to them, falls into heavy doubts. We can tell them that it is grace that you can call unto yourself a father confessor, and also grace that you can experience the fruitful blessing of confession that brings assurance to your faith” (Havas [1935], 45).

“We have said that absolution is a condensed gospel; this gospel, the grace of God, is the only true power against sin. We can, in the word of absolution, be bold. To the penitent sinner we may preach forgiveness even before any act of confession is made, or even before the need to confess is fully realized by the one concerned” (Havas [1935], 47).

Later, the writings in my sample show a much stronger emphasis on confession, matching my recollections:

“General forgiveness is needed, but so is an individual and really personal forgiveness needed. When some named trespass has come upon the conscience, it does not leave otherwise, but one has to confess his sin to the priest like in the Old Testament, and those royal priests are near. They are all of the believers. Use them for your benefit. Speak about that which is weighing on your conscience and listen and believe, when unto you is forgiven even the named trespasses and thus you preserve the peace of your conscience” (Taskila 1961, 44).

“[I]f sin has come, which the Holy Spirit is preaching to you of, even as the Prophet Nathan, don’t try to put away this sin and hide it. Sin doesn’t spoil. It stays in real good shape. You cannot hide it on a closet shelf. It’s always there on your conscience. If sin comes upon your conscience, put it away. Confess it as King David here confesses, ‘I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.’ Let us be reminded this morning hour that we make journey with a good conscience and with a clean heart in the Kingdom of God, for these fountains of grace and mercy are flowing yet even this morning in the Kingdom of God to wash you thoroughly as King David speaks” (Art Forstie, sermon given 1971).

This article, published in the midst of zealous caretaking meetings against false spirits (4.4.7), envisions the people in Jesus’ Palestine going to somebody to confess their sins:

“Confession is not a condition of salvation. Even the thief on the cross did not have time to correct his matters one bit, but was fully sanctified. Luke 23:43. If he had lived longer and had been given the opportunity, certainly he would have clarified the things on his conscience at an opportune time, bearing the humiliation of confession and correction of matters. We do not become children of God through confession, but confession does help us remain children of God. Confession is not imperative to death, but is essential to life” (VOZ, 7/1975).

Despite the disclaimer that confession is not a “condition of salvation,” most sins beyond mere impure thoughts, doubts, etc. were considered to remain on the conscience until one had spoken of them “by name”:

“Certainly on the way of a Christian there have been sins which he has not had strength to bring to light. The Holy Spirit has reminded for years and perhaps decades. We the servants in the word have experienced this that perhaps even a graying elder may have brought to light sins of his youth, confessed them and had them forgiven. The questions, however, have often risen: oh, why didn’t I release myself of those burdens before? Why carry these for years and years? . . . But I would advise you brothers and sisters as a servant of God in these admonishments, do not burden yourself with those nominal things, whether they are sins that have happened in youth, in middle age or old age. Here in the kingdom of God there is such freedom that one can speak of these to a confessor father or mother” (Lauri Hakso, sermon printed in VOZ, 6/1976).

“It is never an easy matter to repent of sins for the flesh fights against the Spirit. But sin has a name, and those named sins will not go away without our speaking of them to a dear brother or sister. We are assured that we can freely go to a dear one and open our heart. But those sins that have affected the congregation of God are to be repented of before the congregation; otherwise we will not receive freedom” (VOZ, 10/1978).

I remember those difficult days all too well. One event that will always stand out in my mind is when I was coerced to confess to something that my peers had been engaged in, but that I had avoided. My denials were not believed, though, and I wound up confessing just so I would be left alone. (I suppose I should have then confessed the sin of lying.) Despite that high-pressure environment, the author of this April 1979 Voice of Zion article says that

“much confusion and wrong understanding has come about amongst the Christians when from confession a merit unto salvation is made. The truth is still this that nothing comes before the righteousness of faith. Our only salvation is through Christ Jesus, for through faith we have become righteous. But also when confession is left out, then one has also gone astray in understanding. For it is through the Holy Spirit of God which has come to dwell in our hearts that we are instructed to put away sin. We can never underestimate the confession of sins, for in order to keep faith and good conscience and preserve Jesus as the only true reason of our salvation, we confess and put sin away. . . . Confession is a grace privilege for those of us in faith to remain in faith. It ensures unto us that those sins are forgiven in the blood of Jesus. It is not just that by confession we become saved, but rather confession is a fruit of living faith.”

So, even though it was not a “merit unto salvation,” it was a “fruit of living faith.” In other words, you’d better be doing it regardless.

In my observation at least, confession is now much less practiced and expected, even though personal absolution remains a fundamental part of Conservative Laestadianism. I’ve heard several parents wonder about why their kids aren’t bothering with confession. One friend on the board of an LLC congregation said that the lack of interest in confession has even been raised as a topic of discussion there. I asked some Finnish pastors about the matter, and their replies indicated to me that confession is on the wane in the SRK, too. One said that it is all too often the result of somebody being caught, and another that more and more people just ask for forgiveness generally or rely on the yleinen saarna, the proclamation to the congregation during the sermon.

The situation reminds me of how enthusiastically the people of Nürnberg abandoned the sacrament of penance when Luther came on the scene: “Laypeople quickly adapted to the new custom of relying on general confession and absolution to prepare them for the Lord’s Supper” (Rittgers 2004, 94), to the point where “Luther argued that too many people had been abusing this new freedom: ‘They take [it] to mean that they should or may no longer confess’” (p. 112). See 5.4.2 for further discussion of that historical background.

In a September 1979 Voice of Zion article, we see echoes of Laestadius’s teaching that the “devil of honor” was what would stand in the way of someone making confession:

“If one has so much pride [that] one does not want to reveal to the other Christians the sinfulness inside, one is only deceiving ones’ own self. In order to attain that heavenly home, it will be revealed eventually, so one should not hold back for how else can one be cleansed from all defilement.”

If David’s “conscience had accused him without Nathan’s reminder,” Laestadius said in his Fourth Rogation sermon of 1859, “then he could have made a secret repentance, although a secret repentance cannot succeed for the reason that the sins are covered, not with God’s grace, but with the devil’s honor. But when Nathan came to accuse him, he had to confess his sins, for by this accusation his honor was broken and then the spirit of God was able to effect true penitence” (Fourth Postilla, 230).

“[I]t is a blessed fact that each one of us has been given guides who lovingly lead us and counsel us to put sin away even by name” (VOZ, 11/1979).

“There have been accusations against the children of God that there are conditions of confession that must be made in order that one can be free from sin. This is not so. But there are also dangers in which the enemy of the soul wishes to attempt to bind a child of God in this, a doctrine of confession. That in order to be free of sin you must make a very careful and perfect confession. And even better yet, that you would bring those private matters before the congregation and that [in] a blessing from the congregation for private matters there is even a better forgiveness. In this doctrine rather than freeing a child of God, one becomes bound” (Dan Rintamaki, sermon given 1980).

Rintamaki was addressing (and perhaps trying to discourage, appropriately) the public confessions that had become a regular occurrence of the Sunday morning service. At least in some North American congregations, members would head up to the front of the church after the sermon and ask the entire congregation for forgiveness of various sins. That means of correcting infractions was much like that of the Amish, though of course the specific rules were different. The Laestadian equivalent of the Ordnung was not about modern conveniences but worldly entertainment. “[A]nybody who has been in violation of the Ordnung–and, theoretically, it could be anyone from somebody caught using a chainsaw to somebody seen driving a car to somebody committing adultery–has to confess his or her transgression in front of the entire congregation” (Mackall 2007, 117).

The mechanics of confession could get complicated:

The “confessor father” to whom a person turns “proclaims all sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood. The confessor father must not tell anyone about the forgiven matters. If two or more children of God have been overtaken in the same sin, they cannot become freed of it by absolving each other. Then another Christian–not involved in the matter–is needed to proclaim absolution. Sometimes, the sin may be of such nature that it should be confessed before the congregation. Then all the children of God know that the open and public offense has been openly mended” (By Faith, 91).

In the past 20 years, the official line has remained that confession is important, even to the point of the devil being the source of reluctance to use it:

“When sin presses, the devil preaches that this is a most difficult matter to put away; no one has done such a great sin. Or, he wants to cheapen the grace of God by saying that this is such a small matter that it does not need to be cared for; it would sound foolish to confess such a small matter. I am sure that the psalm writer experienced these kinds of attacks by the devil, but holding faith precious, he emboldens to care for these matters. We also have permission to pray that strength and boldness would be given to us. We know and can be assured that the Heavenly Father hears these prayers and even provides those heavenly escorts, confessor fathers and mothers, so that we can drink from the fountain of grace and be cleansed in the name and blood of Jesus” (VOZ, 7/1990).

Some “who are living in the permissiveness of sin on occasion defend themselves by claiming that they have no need to take care of the matters. It suffices their consciences to hear the general preaching of the gospel. This is, of course, possible, but it requires, as Luther says, a ‘strong and firm faith.’ Luther then asks, ‘But how many have such a strong faith?’ When the fruits of the flesh prevail in the lives of those that make these claims, their claims seem especially empty” (Jon Bloomquist, presentation given 1998).

Regarding public confession, “matters are corrected as to the extent that offense has been caused. In private confession, matters may come out that we correct more broadly. The gospel preached by the confessor-father conveys the power of forgiveness to correct the matters. This takes place when, for example, one has caused an offense against another person or the government” (Uljas 2000, 90).

One may attempt to believe that a sin that “especially weighs upon” the conscience has been forgiven “from the general preaching of the gospel” without confession. “From my own experience, I can say that one does not receive peace and freedom by this means. No matter how much I have tried to believe, that known matter has always reminded me of its existence” (Uljas 2000, 92).

“While it is true that the general gospel [absolution proclaimed without confession, e.g., during services] promises the forgiveness of all sins, the common experience of God’s children is that their faith is so weak that they have needed private confession and its absolution” (Markus Korpi, presentation given 2003).

Perhaps there is something self-perpetuating about the need that Korpi mentions? When people are told from childhood that “one does not receive peace and freedom” of particular sins without confession (as Uljas generalizes in the quote above, based solely on his own experience), is it any wonder that such winds up being “the common experience”? It seems a bit like Laestadius’s observation that children arriving at confirmation school “are somewhat in a state of innocence; they do not know of any difference between good and evil. They must therefore be awakened to recognize their own corrupt nature; they must through their own experience become convinced that all people are naturally the children of wrath” (VCW, 72).

My youthful conscience spent altogether too much time being tormented by the non-scriptural Laestadian distinction of “name sins.” Commensurate with the much-subdued practice of confession, it is not much emphasized anymore, this recent quote notwithstanding:

“The grace-privilege to confess even of ‘name-sins’ and the acknowledgment of our overall corrupt nature are part of our life as a child of God. Confession is a grace-gift that blunts the accusations of the enemy of souls. How fortunate we are that we can go to a fellow believer at any time and speak of the wounds of sin” (VOZ, 2/2009).

Luther had a much more extensive “hateful and wearisome catalogue of distinctions” to contend with in the theology of his day, the results of which were that, as he writes in his 1520 Discussion of Confession,

the penitent makes so much of these trifles that he is not able really to give heed to the thing of chief importance, namely, the desire for a better life. He is compelled to tax his memory with such a mass of details, and so to fill his heart with the business of rightly expressing his cares and anxieties, while seeking out forgotten sins or a way of confessing them, that he entirely loses the present pangs of conscience, and the whole profit and salutary effect of confession. When he is absolved, therefore, he rejoices not so much because he is absolved, as because he has freed himself once for all from the wretched worry of confession; for what he has been seeking has been not the absolution, but rather the end of the laborious nuisance of confessing. [PE 1, 91]

He certainly had mixed feelings about private confession. Luther said it was where “God’s word and absolution are spoken privately and individually to each believer for the forgiveness of his sins.” In his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, he considered it “a precious, useful thing for souls,” but added the caveat, “as long as no one is driven to it with laws and commandments but sinners are left free to make use of it, each according to his own need, when and where he wishes” (Lull 2005, 66; translation checked against WA 26, 507). And in his Table Talk, he looked back on the “many conflicts of the conscience” in which “we have been ensnared, confounded, and captivated under popedom, saying, “If we would but consider the tyranny of auricular confession, one of the least things we have escaped from, we could not show ourselves sufficiently thankful to God for loosing us out of that one snare” (§288).

The Laestadian concept of “name sins” is probably based on the “mortal sins” that in Catholic theology must be confessed by name: “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret . . .” (Cathecism of the Catholic Church, para. 1456). But Luther downplayed and criticized the distinction between mortal and venial sins, criticizing theologians who “strive zealously and perniciously to drag the consciences of men, by teaching that venial sins are to be distinguished from mortal sins, and that according to their own fashion” (Discussion of Confession, 89-90). Not all sins of either type “are to be confessed, but it should be known that after a man has used all diligence in confessing, he has yet confessed only the smaller part of his sins.” Furthermore, he wrote,

we are so far from being able to know or confess all the mortal sins that even our good works are damnable and mortal, if God were to judge with strictness, and not receive them with forgiving mercy. If, therefore, all mortal sins are to be confessed, it can be done in a brief word, by saying at once, “Behold all that I am, my life, all that I do and say, is such that it is mortal and damnable.” [p. 89]

4.6.4 Rebuke

Fundamentalism is not well-known for its claims to have imperfect knowledge and prophecies that will pass away. Nor are fundamentalists well-known for their openness, humility, or love toward those who disagree with them.

—Conrad Hyers, The Comic Vision

The Laestadian movement began as a rebuke of the lifestyle of drunken Lapps, and Laestadius’s viewpoint about church displine was clear:

“When Prophet Nathan in God’s name rebuked [David] of his ungodly life, he did not become offended as do many at the present time who become angry when they are rebuked but he received pangs of conscience when he allowed the Spirit of God to chastise him by the mouth of the prophet. Through this deep penitence, into which David fell because of this chastisement, his heart became ready to receive grace and the forgiveness of sins” (Laestadius, Fourth Rogation Day Morning sermon [1854]; Fourth Postilla, 223-24).

“Approximately 15 percent of evangelical churches practice church discipline,” according to Joyce. “[H]undreds of congregants in fundamentalist Baptist and other evangelical churches have been excommunicated or shunned for misdeeds ranging from drunkenness, adultery, refusal to honor church elders, gossiping, and sowing disharmony” (2009, 212).

In the second half of the 1970s, after some decades of laxity, it “once again became a burning issue” to keep clear “the border between the Kingdom of God and the outside world”:

The leadership of the SRK-Laestadianism which consisted mostly of lay preachers began to see the unity and purity of the Kingdom increasingly threatened by harmful outside influences and lax discipline inside. It became a necessity to root out these influences and those who kept disseminating them. [Ketola 2010, 5]

Just a few decades after Heikki Jussila’s 1948 criticism of the New Awakening, his words began to apply to his own Conservative Laestadianism: “There was no peace, but so many ‘revelations of the spirit’ that the Word of God could not be preached in peace” (p. 84).

During those decades, “caretaking meetings” were commonly held to discuss the spiritual state of individual congregation members. They were considered the third step in Jesus’ instructions regarding the rebuke of a brother who has caused offense [Mt 18:15-16], not so much for individual actions against another member but as a result of his observed sins (e.g., acquiring a television) or erroneous doctrinal views.

In 1971, when the SRK made it clear that no “easing or moderation of position” had taken place in the issue of television, it instructed that those “who are disobedient in the television question must be spoken to once or twice in private or in meetings by SRK or the local association [congregation]. If the ones spoken to do not humble themselves to repentance, consider them pagans and publicans and refuse them membership in the association. The disobedient are not to be greeted with the greeting of God’s children” (Päivämies No. 29, 1971). At its 1974 annual meeting, the AALC (now renamed LLC) took “precisely the same stand in America” (VOZ, 10/1974).

“Sin affects sore spots in the members of Christ’s Body. Speedy care is always necessary, so that a member [of the congregation] doesn’t need to be cut off. The instructions for care have been given by the Holy Spirit. Sickness is to be avoided but in care of sicknesses the help comes by way of individuals or at the center for care aided by the congregation of God. First the brother is to be reproved by one. Then with two or three witnesses present if the brother is not obedient to this reproof. Last of all the congregation decides the matter of the brother. The Church Law of Christ is particularly necessary at the end times” (VOZ, 5/1974).

Those accused of such spiritual sickness

had to step in front of the whole congregation where they had to listen to the charges made against them. The whole congregation, not just those acting as chairmen, could join in making accusations. The accused then had the chance to repent and receive forgiveness. If they did or could not do this in the right way, and this often meant using very specific words and phrases, they could be expelled from the congregation and thus from the Kingdom of God. [Ketola 2010, 5-6]

Understandably, these “events were traumatic for many accused. Many of them were old people who could not understand that they had done anything wrong. Many tried to repent immediately just to be spared further pain and humiliation but this was not possible because the leaders wanted to be certain that the accused really understood what they have done wrong” (p. 6). If they were unsuccessful, they were “bound.” Then they were considered “pagans and publicans” and refused “membership in the association,” as the 1971 Päivämies article instructs.

While some “bound” individuals were reconciled to the congregation, many became completely alienated and would never overcome their resentment toward the church. The following article refers to threats of “police action,” probably those which disaffected individuals in Finland sometimes made against the church there on the grounds of pressure or emotional abuse. It is possible that the article also or instead refers to police action that might have been warranted against the disaffected individuals for their offenses:

“Even if some grounds have been sought to appeal to authorities, God does not take care of matters with the help of the police, but His manner of caretaking is different. Of home teachers, the most unerring one is the Holy Spirit, which always reveals God’s own and uses as its support the Bible message. Always, when the condition of heart has been repaired from the faults of the fall, the ‘sound of the bell has changed.’ No longer would one frighten such with the police, but even to such is preached repentance and forgiveness of sins. When the vessel is cleansed from within, it becomes clean even from the outside! Surely we would not be like those who in temporal and especially in spiritual matters, would be zealous or anxious to give the matter to the police if something should happen. The possibility for correction is small, especially in that matter, which to us is the most important. Speaking in connection with one’s own falls, accusations, use of authorities, are especially serious symptoms and a first sign of a deep falling away and of hardening” (Päivämies, 1974).

Members were encouraged not to take offense, but to submit to the congregational meetings as acts of love:

“Sister or brother, if you have found yourself in that place that the congregation has had to rebuke you, do not be offended. Don’t let the old Adam take hold of your heart, although it would hurt it. Your brothers and sisters have only one good intention, and it is that you would inherit eternal life. Although the words of instructions feel unloving and hard to you,, nevertheless, the intention is to bring you to repentance” (Päivämies, 1974).

But concern for the one being rebuked certainly was not the only motivation, as Peter Nevala makes clear in this article from the July 1974 Voice of Zion:

“When some serious defilement of flesh and spirit appears in the congregation which has ‘moved stones from their place,’ not many members of the congregation can be found who have not taken a stand in the matter. These sayings and opinions, which have not moved those concerned from the true foundation of faith and doctrine, are ‘swept away.’ First they cause only discord and dissension in the congregation, but if uncared for, they cause different spirit and heresy. Therefore the commandment was: first sweep the house, that is, let the loose litter be removed, so that on account of these the healthy would not be condemned as defiled.”

The Amish use the same “preserve the community” rationale for excommunication and shunning wayward members: “A person who voluntarily or involuntarily leaves the fold after baptism is excommunicated and shunned. Shunning somebody who has been excommunicated strengthens the community, reinforcing to everybody the idea that the weakest link has been removed, and that the chain of community has been made even stronger” (Mackall 2007, 144). So do the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If “persons willfully show disrespect for” rules about permissible sexual relations between husband and wife, for example, “it becomes necessary to remove them from the congregation as dangerous ‘leaven’ that could contaminate others” (from Wilson 2002, 249).

Sometimes the assembled congregation would simply refuse to grant forgiveness. I saw it done even in some cases where the individual expressed penitence for his actions but failed to recognize a “wrong spirit” that was the “root” of the matter:

“If we ask forgiveness for hard feelings and do not bring up the reasons, the root of bitterness is left untouched and is waiting for the next occasion to come up. It is necessary that we put our flesh to shame, and in so doing we receive power from the Holy Spirit to resist falling back into the same condition” (VOZ, 7/1974).

When the subject’s request for forgiveness (often repeated desperately and tearfully) was not granted by the end of the meeting, the congregation would exercise the “binding key”:

The third step in the Church Law of Christ, “which is given only to the Church of God or the kingdom of God, is then the highest tribunal upon this earth. Its decision is final. The church of God alone can use this binding key; and if man does not hear the Church of God, he has been bound in his sins because of his disobedience to the instructions of the Word and the Spirit of God that speaks in and through the congregation (church). Jesus has said, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.’ Then such a one is no longer a child of God and is not greeted with God’s Peace. But if after he has been bound by the congregation he should become penitent of his sins and wants to repent of them, then the children of God are always ready to forgive him his sins and use the key of loosening. Each individual Christian has the authority to use the key of loosening to forgive the penitent sinner his sins, but the fruits of his repentance will also lead him to make repentance before the congregation which has bound him” (VOZ, 8/1976).

“The congregation of God knowing how great a danger there is that the individual Christian may fall, has cared for her members with wholesome grace, using even the keys of binding as well as the keys of loosening. We are thankful to God even for this caretaking” (Päivämies No. 6, 1978).

That act of binding is something I personally witnessed several times as a youth. It is quite unforgettable to see people ask the congregation for forgiveness at a meeting held concerning their spiritual affairs and receive only cold silence as a response. Sometimes they would sit gamely at their table at the front of the church while the meeting continued to the bitter end, often late into the night. And sometimes they would reach their breaking point and storm out of the building, ending the meeting of their own accord. I saw it go either way. Both outcomes were heartbreaking to the subjects as well as the congregation members who sincerely believed that the soul of their brother or sister hung in the balance that night.

As one might expect, there could be a good deal of secret resentment even when one had jumped through the hoops set before him:

“True humility is known by this, that the faulty one does not pull concealment over himself, nor does he squirm before the truth of God, but upon falling into error acknowledges the fall as his own; without defensive speeches or seeking alleviating circumstances, submits himself to repentance of that which causes sorrow in the congregation of God. Having received the forgiveness of sins, he remains believing and enjoying the peace and freedom brought by the forgiveness as a child of God. When the heart is not right, the repentance made today is undone tomorrow and the situation is worse than before. One sign yet, that the heart did not thaw of its pride, is this, that a bitter heart remains toward the caretakers. If weaknesses are found in the caretakers, it does not help to grumble behind the back.” One should approach them directly and “say where the ‘shoe is pinching.’” (VOZ, 5/1979).

The Board!,” I recall a loved one intoning with exaggerated somberness in a discussion about all the “caretaking” that the church’s local board of trustees was zealously carrying out. Grumbling behind the back of the church elders was the only possible relief. To approach them with concerns about their activities carried the very real danger of seeming unrepentant and becoming subject to yet another meeting. Instead, for a couple of years to come, the public face remained one of compliance and thankfulness for the opportunity of correction.

In many cases the corrected one was probably so beaten down by the experience as to feel a Stockholm-syndrome sense of gratitude. During Jack Worthy’s time as a wayward Mormon missionary, he hated his “dirty worthless soul” and no longer cared for himself or about anything at all. His feelings about being called to account were not bitterness, but “a deep sense of humility before God.” It causes “the sinner to gratefully soak up the bishop’s, priest’s, pastor’s, or mission president’s expressions of understanding, love, and concern. It turns God’s mouthpieces into heavenly angels with remarkable healing powers, most notably the power to promise sinners that they will once again become whole and worthy of self-respect, even self-love” (2008, 137).

So it wouldn’t be surprising if many of those subjected to the “care of the mother” in Conservative Laestadianism during the 1970s and early 1980s felt more relief and thankfulness than hurt pride:

“I have been able to sit at the meetings and have been able to see how this mother has taken care of even the children of God here. Allow yourself to be cared for, dear brothers and sisters; it does not matter one bit if your pride is scuffed” (Lenna Pellikka, sermon given 1979).

“Using the keys of the kingdom to bind one is important for it is love towards the faulty one to awaken and help him to see his own sins. Only the congregation of God has the power to use the keys of binding. But when the congregation of God does bind a sinner, we then no longer greet him [with God’s Peace] nor do we go to him attempting to take care of his matters,” because at that point “his place of repentance is in the congregation of God. One Christian can release a bound one from his sins if he with a penitent heart asks for forgiveness, but he is then instructed to also go before the congregation with his repentance. If two people have fallen into the same sin, a third party is needed on to whom they can make repentance” (VOZ, 9/1979).

“Here in America, and also in Canada and there in Finland, I have met many believers who in their hearts praise God, and even with their mouths say, ‘The children of God came and corrected me. If God in His love would not have approached me through His Kingdom, I would have perished, deceived by the enemy’” (Voitto Savela, sermon given 1980).

By the early 1980s, the caretaking meetings had stopped, with one exception of which I’m aware, a meeting that I witnessed in the late 1980s. I am now ashamed to admit that, as a hot-headed and excessively devout youth, I helped instigate the proceedings. One happy outcome of the whole unpleasant affair was that I developed a strong rapport with one of the individuals who had been the subject of concern (misplaced, on my part). He was an intelligent, independent-minded individual who has now, to my sadness, passed away. And there’s no doubt that his faith was of utmost importance to him until the very end of his life.

Though the practice of congregation-wide caretaking meetings ceased, the concept remained important, at least for a while:

“Generally, we find rebuking another person to be an unpleasant task and are often reluctant and timid to do so. A healthy timidity rises from the knowledge and understanding of our own poorness. But we must also acknowledge that there are other factors that may cause us to be timid and sometimes even negligent. For example, we may fear that we will start an argument, be rejected, lose a friend, or even make an enemy. Sometimes we may simply be lazy and indifferent. Such fears rise from our flesh and our darkened reason. God’s Word, however, teaches us that when we ignore a brother’s sin we both hate him and share in his guilt [Lev 19:17]. Proverbs teach that ‘open rebuke is better than secret love’ and that he that rebukes another will afterward be more favored than someone who has merely flattered him [Prov. 27:5; 28:23]. In the so-called ‘church law of Christ’ [Mt l8:15-17], Jesus teaches that when our brother sins against us, we should discuss the matter with him alone, one on one. If our brother does not hear us, Jesus says to take ‘one or two more,’ and if he still will not hear, Jesus says ‘tell it unto the church.’ If the offending brother refuses to hear the church, then he is no longer to be regarded a brother in faith. Then the keys of binding are used” (Don Lahti, presentation given 1997).

A healthy timidity finally took hold, which sometimes raised concerns that things were moving too far in the opposite direction:

“To be your brother’s keeper means approaching the fallen one in a gentle, humble manner. We should not be harsh, yelling, or judging. We are being helpful, not nosy. It’s good to speak of matters pertaining to faith life. Sometimes it is very difficult for the fallen one to talk about his sin, or even want to admit to it. As our brother’s keeper, we need to remember this and approach them privately. A gentle reminder can be enough, you don’t need to reprimand. It’s important to show concern; when a friend has strayed, help him” (VOZ, 1999).

“The enemy of souls can cause one to not only neglect the role of being his/her brother’s keeper but can influence one to even lie and deceive in an effort to cover up the faults of another, thinking it to be a display of friendship. That is anything but friendly. It is akin to putting a filthy, smelly, bacteria-laced and maggot-ridden rag on a wound instead of a clean, sterile dressing and bandage. Improper cleansing and covering up does not help but harms. The result is pain and sickness. The attempt to cover up sin with sin results in spiritual sickness, sorrow, and pain, the which, if uncared for, could lead to death. Don’t cover up sins, yours or anyone else’s” (Tomm Stewart, presentation given 2000).

“I remember a time at haps [an informal name for youth gatherings] when one older friend invited us younger guys to come into the home and to join in the singing. He could have criticized or rebuked us in a harsh way; rather he lovingly invited us in. I remember another time when I was under heavy and difficult temptations and did not feel I could continue in faith when a friend came to me and asked how my matters were. I was able to speak openly to him and be freed from those matters that were troubling my conscience” (James Jurmu, presentation given 2003).

An article in the October 2005 Voice of Zion shows some tamping down of the “Church Law of Christ” (Mt 18:15-22). The idea, based on the KJV’s “against thee” qualifier, is that the Church Law is applicable to personal offenses rather than for sin generally:

“Jesus says, ‘If thy brother shall trespass against thee.’ First of all, the context is between brothers or sisters in faith. Secondly, the action in question is a trespass, a sin, or an offense. Thirdly, the sin has personally offended. The context is typically clear: we know who are believers and who are not. The second and third points may be ambiguous. It may not be quite clear to us whether the action is a sin or an offense, or whether it was personally against us. Nevertheless, if something disturbs us, and has [broken the] love between believers, go and initiate a discussion in which these two questions can be clarified” (VOZ, 10/2005).

However, the authentic text probably supported the earlier understanding that the “Church Law” was not just for offenses “between brothers or sisters in faith,” but for sin generally. The earliest manuscripts do not include the words “against you” after “If your brother sins, . . . .” Ironically, the Conservative preachers of the 1970s who conducted hundreds of caretaking meetings about sins and “false spirits” rather than mere personal offenses were probably aware of only the (likely) inauthentic “against you” reading from the 1776 Finnish version and the KJV. But when there are witches to be hunted, textual nuances don’t seem to be a major consideration.

Though the “Church Law” never makes it to the third stage of congregational action anymore, the idea of rebuke remains important:

“[A] characteristic of Christian love is to rebuke of sin when necessary. God’s Word teaches that this is a correct love. A believer rebukes those whom he loves just as God corrects those whom he loves” (VOZ, 8/2006).

“Each child of God is a watchman on the walls of Zion. In our own places of watching, we have a duty to blow the trumpet when the enemy approaches. Part of that duty is to speak about matters that can trouble the journey, or claim the spiritual life of a believer. This can be difficult. Who has gone with joy to speak to a fellow traveler about spiritual concerns? . . . A lenient spirit often desires to not speak about wrongdoing but wants instead to cover up, or hope that the person alone could work things out. Dear friends, think of why God has given all of us this duty as watchmen. What would happen if, through the wiles of the enemy of souls, we became confused about matters and fell into sin and darkness?” (VOZ, 6/2009).

The last vestige I’ve seen of the false spirits is in that last quote, with a “lenient spirit” being the source of one’s reluctance to “speak about wrongdoing.” With all the history we have just seen, perhaps such reluctance is understandable. Even the SRK now admits, finally, that things went too far (4.10.2).

1 Clement’s description sounds a lot like AM talk radio with all its anger, hatred, and vitriol, which is nonetheless very popular among the political conservatives in the LLC. I agree with the sentiment of one friend in the SRK who wondered why listening to that is deemed acceptable while listening to Bluegrass music is not.

2 I wish the matter were truly “so unspeakably simple,” that my youth hadn‘t been filled with demands for confession and battle against a pantheon of “false spirits” no longer recognized; that I weren’t asked to sign on to the atrocities, hatred, misogyny, and superstition of the Old Testament or pretend it contains prophecies that just aren‘t there; that I didn‘t have to contend with being condemned by Luther for not believing in the Real Presence, by Laestadius for not having “high and living feelings of faith,” by the Firstborn who follow in the footsteps of the church founder Raattamaa and were favored by him, and by Reinikainen for not denying the reality of evolution; that I wouldn’t need to recoil with internal protests of “haven’t you read . . .” and “how can you possibly say that when . . .” every time I listen to a sermon or open a new issue of the Voice of Zion, that I wouldn‘t be asked to view almost all of the people on this earth around me as being damned to eternal torture, including some who believe this very same “unspeakably simple” proclamation; that I hadn’t needed to repeatedly walk away from heated discussions at church with critical voices still ringing in my ears about my impudent questions which were deemed to neither deserve nor require any answers.

3 Accessed 2010 (but apparently no longer available) from suviseurat.fi/2006.

4 According to Rittgers, Luther sometimes seemed to support the idea “that penitents could be bound or loosed apart from faith,” that is, the faith of the recipient. Luther argued against those who, in Rittgers’s words, “believed that the Spirit forgave sins directly,” insisting “that forgiveness was always conveyed through the spoken word alone; not even faith affected the efficacy of the keys” (2004, 154, emphasis added). But Rittgers paints a picture of Luther having an “unclear, even inconsistent” viewpoint on the matter, and attempts to pull the loose ends together as follows: “Despite what Luther asserted about a person being bound or loosed apart from faith, here he clearly maintained that the keys gave nothing to the person who lacked faith. His point was that the objective working of the keys was in no way dependent on faith, or any other subjective foundation, but the actual appropriation by an individual Christian of what the keys offered absolutely required faith (p. 155).

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession makes clear what the Lutheran position was in 1531: “[T]hat Absolution is received only through faith is proven from Paul, who teaches that the promise cannot be received except by faith (Romans 4:16). Absolution is the promise of the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, it necessarily requires faith” (Article 12a; McCain 2005, 165-66).

It doesn’t make sense to me that the keys could do anything for someone without faith, and I’m not convinced that Luther was ever willing to seriously embrace the idea, either. My point in raising the issue is this: If it was a question of debate whether the recipient of absolution had to have faith in order for it to work, it seems that the faith of the proclaimer was considered unimportant, not even worth discussing.

5 The fact that Luther treats immoderate drinking no differently than immoderate talking or sleeping will come as no surprise to anyone who knows about his drinking habits.