Salt & Light: Syncretism?

—Prof. John T. Pless

Jesus says that his disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13–14). Salt preserves, but, rubbed into an open wound, it irritates even as it purifies and heals. The light of the world is not concealed under a basket (Matthew 5:15) but enlightens so that “they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). There is no question that Lutherans should not be sequestered in their religious ghetto but in the world, in the public square, as salt and light. It is precisely for this reason we must reject syncretism.

With syncretism, the salt loses its saltiness as under the pressure of pluralism distinctions between the truth and the lie are blurred and obliterated. Salt will sting just as the confession of Christ alone will stand in necessary contradiction to the claims of other religious systems. Where truth is confessed, error must necessarily be denied. Letting the light shine means that works of darkness are exposed for what they are (see Ephesians 5:7–11). We are not to have any fellowship with unbelievers for “what communion has light with the darkness” (II Corinthians 6:14–16). Worship with those who do not confess Christ Jesus is a denial of the light. This is not a self-invented Missouri Synod doctrine but the teaching of Holy Scripture. For many in our pluralistic age this is a “hard saying” in the way of John 6:65–66. Yet it is necessary if Christians are actually to remain in the public square as salt and light. Proclamation of the saving truth of Jesus Christ requires also the antithesis, that is, the rejection of all that is not Christ.

Participating in interfaith worship does not allow for the antithesis. Civility prevents the preacher from announcing the truth of Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Where this proclamation is not made, the salt loses its saltiness and the light is dimmed.

Much is made of “witness in the public square.” But “witness in the public square” does not equate with “worship in the public square.” We will indeed witness to Christ Jesus in the public square, speaking his truth both prophetically to the powers that be and evangelically to those broken by their sin and victimized by evil. But we will not worship in the public square in such a way as to diminish the clarity of the only saving Gospel. We will be guided by the words of our Lord in Matthew 6:5–6 not to pray so as to be seen by men but pray rather in “our room” which is the church. There in the liturgy we will make thanksgivings, intercessions, and prayers for all people in the way I Timothy 2:1–6. “Worship in the public square” of American pluralism cannot help but be molded into the therapeutic and universalistic nature of civil religion. The context will even shape how the texts of Holy Scripture and Christian prayer are heard and thus undermine the capacity for confession and proclamation of Christ. On the other hand, genuine witness in the public square can take place through discerning dialogue and engaging conversation as well as acts of human care and mercy.

We witness in the public square, but we do not worship there. I asked one of my African students, “What would your people perceive if in your village during a time of drought or famine, the Lutheran pastor appeared alongside of a Roman Catholic priest, the village shaman, and a Muslim cleric in a community prayer vigil, each praying in his own way for favorable weather?” His answer was clear: “We could never do this. It would contradict our witness to Jesus Christ, the only true God.”

Lutherans will show mercy to all who suffer and groan in the travail of this fallen creation regardless of their religion. We will exhibit the compassion of Christ Jesus to those who tremble in the face of indescribable evil in word and deed. We will be the salt and light Christ has made us to be in this dying and desperate world. It is precisely for this reason that we must decline syncretism. Witness in the public square, “Yes!” Worship in the public square, “No.” Both the yes and no enable us to remain salt and light in the world.


Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.


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