Why Am I Writing This?

Ugh.  I didn’t want to write about this.  When it first came to my attention earlier this week, I prayed that it was just another example of the quirks my denomination deals with from time to time and that it would be quickly forgotten.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

What’s making news is that the President of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has asked for and received and accepted an apology from the LCMS pastor in Newton, CT for participating in an interfaith prayer vigil.  Yes, that Newton, CT.   Yes, that prayer vigil.  

Everyone is getting their say on the issue.  Here is the official letter from Synodical President Matthew Harrison demanding an apology from the Rev. Rob Morris.  Here is the official apology from Rev. Morris.  Here is a previous LCMS President’s take on the issue.  Here’s a rather biased take on the issue from one web site.  Here’s an equally unflattering take on the issue from a more conservative Christian web site.  Here’s the congregational web site where Pastor Morris serves.  
There are a plenty of issues at stake in all of this that aren’t being talked about.  Perhaps the biggest one is what is worship – and why after 170 years or so in the US and 500 years in the world don’t Lutherans have a definitive answer to this?  The fact that we don’t guarantees that we will continue to have controversies of this sort.  The fact that we don’t ought to make those who are fast to criticize a bit slower on the draw in situations like this, and a bit less vehement in their expression.  (I’m assuming that this was not the case, or else President Harrison wouldn’t feel the need to act so publicly.  As always, I could be wrong.)
There are lots of elements to this story that are not getting any air play as well but which may factor into the issue.  The pastor is newly colloquized into the LCMS from a non-LCMS seminary.   How does this factor into the Synod’s decision to demand a formal apology?  Could it be an attempt to assure restless aspects of our Synod that colloquized pastors are faithfully keeping in step with LCMS theology and practice – even though we haven’t fully defined those things?  Could this all actually be a step towards ensuring that our Synod remains open to receiving ministers who were formed outside of our own Seminaries?  What about the fact that Pastor Morris’ ecclesiastical leadership apparently couldn’t provide him with any insight on how to proceed?  Further indications of confusion at various levels about what worship is and how we abide by our stipulations against clergy leadership in worship with other denominations and faiths.
But most important in all of this to me is the disappointing fact that we can’t really seem to wrap our heads around publicity and the damage that it can do.  We live in a non-stop communications blizzard.  Nothing that we say or do publicly is really safe from being picked up on by other people and used in part (usually) or whole (rarely) for purposes which we never intended.  That alone ought to guide us in how we handle internal disagreements.  Surely there are better ways to communicate that would better ensure that such matters were dealt with internally rather than on the world stage?
Combined with this is the little issue of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.  Now, to be sure, it doesn’t exactly match what is going on right now.  But it’s related, I think.  And it links with what I just said above.  How we handle our internal disputes (and that’s what this is, regardless of how people want to blow it up into something more) is a reflection on the very Gospel we are undoubtedly all trying so hard to proclaim.  
I can guarantee you that when we faithfully proclaim the Gospel week after week, day after day, in every conceivable venue including the pulpit, we will never get national or international press coverage.  Nobody is going to report on this fact.  But the instant we do something that seems to contradict that Gospel – even if that contradiction may not be real – we will have national and international coverage.  
This is not bad luck.  This is not an accident.  This is not a biased media.  It is the fact that the Gospel has a very real and very active enemy.  A mortally wounded and defeated enemy, to be sure, but an enemy that is for that very reason a bitter enemy of the Gospel.  If we give that enemy more ammunition to use against us, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.  Everybody else seems to understand this except us.  

10 Responses to “Why Am I Writing This?”

  1. Gary Says:

    Insightful as usual. In a comment I posted on the Synod FB page I stopped just short of saying that the demand for a public apology brought shame on the Gospel itself. I had actually typed out the words before deleting them. I’m glad I didn’t say it. My rebuke was stern enough without it. But the fact remains, as you have quite gently and tactfully explained here, that when Christians and especially Church bodies (i.e. practitioners ‘Organized Religion’ that perennial hobgoblin of the postmodern mindset) sin in public, the whole world is just waiting to hold them accountable for it. And shame is brought on the Gospel itself.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    I debated adding this blog link to the Young Adult page on FB for the Synod for similar reasons.  Hopefully it is gentle and tactful.  Ultimately though, whether it is or isn’t, I think St. Paul would be as ticked off at us at the moment as he was at the Corinthians – and he wasn’t always necessarily gentle or tactful.  

    Part of me wonders if, in fact, it is possible these days to truly deal with internal issues internally.  All it takes is for one person to leak information to the press, and to think that everything could be done just in phone calls and personal visits or Skypes seems pretty impressive, to say the least.  

    But it’s something to aim for, all the same!

  3. Gary Says:

    Sadly, I don’t think anything but a public apology would have achieved President Harrison’s goal. He used his position of leadership to advance a grace-less legalistic agenda and publicly embarrassed the whole church body in the process. Even as I write this, lay people across the country are having to explain to their friends and neighbors who ask, “Yes, my church is part of THAT church.” What else can we do but rebuke Rev. Harrison in public for subjecting the church that elected him to this public disgrace?

    I appreciate that your “preserving the colloquy process” theory is a good-faith effort to follow Luther’s injunction to “put the best construction on everything.” But let’s ask who or what, exactly, would he be protecting colloquy process from? Is it not those who would use the example of Pastor Morris to demand that no graduates of outside seminaries should ever be allowed to become pastors in LCMS churches?

    If the case of a pastor ministering to a hurting community in a time of tragedy in the name of the triune God of the Bible would give a faction enough ammunition to persuade the rest of the Synod to abolish colloquy altogether, then perhaps they should do it anyway. If Pastor Morris’ act of service to the Gospel is so offensive to a majority of the LCMS, then the LCMS does not deserve pastors with his level of courage, integrity, and faithfulness to his vocation. Closing the colloquy route would help the church get exactly what it wants–fewer pastors who are willing to share the Gospel with hurting communities at their moments of greatest spiritual need. So much the better for the Synod–so much the better for the rest of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

    I’m being harsh, I know. But I don’t think I’ve been unfair.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    Certainly harsh, and I’m not in a position to be able to judge whether it’s fair or not.  But you’re certainly giving voice to what a lot of people are thinking, if not saying.  

    I can pray that President Harrison put the best construction on everything prior to issuing his demand.  I have to try and give him that benefit of the doubt, even if I don’t agree with what he has done (or more particularly, how he has done it).  I hope that this will all give rise to some serious conversation amongst the LCMS about defining some terms and trying to avoid this sort of thing in the future.  

    But it’s a long shot, given our very contentious past!

  5. Gary Says:

    I, for one, hopefully among many, humbly accept President Harrison’s apology and offer my own for any thoughts I have expressed without regard for Christian charity toward Pres. Harrison. I accused him of playing church politics in his public demand for an apology from Pr. Morris. It was wrong of me to do so. I am in no position to know what all concerns and considerations factored into his mishandling of the situation. I should not have speculated, esp. in such a way as to presume the worst motivation on his part. I am sincerely sorry.

  6. Paul Nelson Says:

    The round of apologies are much needed, and we all can and should participate in them and with them at one level or another.

    I pray that all of this will spur our Synodical leadership on to renewed commitment to a working definition of what constitutes syncretism.  That would be a great boon and a potent and long lasting salve, going a long way towards avoiding these pitfalls (on all sides) in the future.

    And may we all be so willing to admit our faults and mistakes and to offer and accept the forgiveness of Christ to one another!

  7. Doug Vossler Says:

    The concern about what our friends and those in the world think of the LCMS should be of much less concern to us than how true to Scripture are the LCMS’s doctrine and beliefs. If these are true to Scripture, we should be prepared at all times to defend and explain them and to even suffer embarrassment or ridicule for them. While I personally believe that participating in a joint prayer vigil on an equal basis with non-Christian ministers sends the wrong message that all “gods” provide a path to eternal life, I understand that others in the Synod don’t have this same conviction. My hope is that consensus and unity can again be reached on this issue and that this consensus is truly based on Scripture alone.

  8. Paul Nelson Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that we should never compromise the Gospel or Scripture, and  our doctrines and beliefs insofar as they remain in line with Scripture.  On such issues there is no need to back down, and we should expect to suffer embarrassment at the very least if necessary.  

    So long as the LCMS resists the definition of what makes for syncretistic worship, we’re going to have these disagreements within our ranks.  Disagreements aren’t in and of themselves problematic – they provide an opportunity for dialogue and hopefully a healthier and more robust belief and practice.  Assuming, of course, that the disagreements are handled well and are maintained as internal discussions (inasumuch as that is even possible these days!).  But when our words are not carefully crafted in love and wisely disseminated in an appropriate manner, Satan is only too happy to wreak havoc.  

    I’m glad that apologies have been issued all around, and I pray that people on all sides of the issue will allow themselves to be reconciled and brought to peace, hopefully around a table where they can help better define what sorts of things our doctrines prevent us from participating in.  

  9. Gary Says:

    It’s easy to agree that the Gospel should never be compromised.

    It’s easy to agree that a statement like, “Faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation,” compromises the Gospel. That statement contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. It contradicts the Lutheran Confessions. It compromises the Gospel.

    Moving from interpreting straightforward heretical propositions such as the one above, to interpreting the symbolic implications–in a contemporary cultural context–of wearing clerical garb, uttering verbatim quotations from the Holy Scriptures, and praying thoroughly orthodox prayers to the one and only triune God of the Bible, with certain unbelievers standing or sitting nearby, while those unbelievers wear non-Christian clerical garb, and with those unbelievers having recently spoken in support of their non-Christian beliefs, is infinitely more difficult.

    I don’t share Paul’s optimism that if the Synod just wrote some very clear and specific rules about what’s okay and what’s not okay, then problems like this would be less frequent in the future. Among my reasons:
    •It is impossible to write rules that are so detailed that they clearly and explicitly apply to every possible unforeseen situation. Hence interpretation will be necessary.
    •There exist elements within the LCMS who will always interpret the rules so as to find others guilty of transgressing them. These groups and individuals do this, among other reasons, in order to acquire political influence and power for themselves and their affiliates within the Synod.
    •There exist elements within the LCMS who will always choose to adopt the most permissive of all possible interpretations of the rules and act accordingly. They do this, among other reasons, to prevent slavish legalism from compromising the Gospel.
    •The rules themselves would by definition be extra-scriptural. Hence it will be possible to find ways to break the rules without violating the clear teaching of scripture. Even in the ideal scenario where we all agree on the interpretation of our own rules, a deliberate breach of the rules in the service of the Gospel would necessitate the requisite corrective measures. Let us concede that it would be a practical impossibility in this technological era to take such corrective action secretly. In this scenario non-LCMS Christians (they do exist) together with the general public will rebuke LCMS for allowing its extra-scriptural rules to require punishment for an act of selfless service to the Gospel. The main difference between this hypothetical and our current situation is that all in our Synod would admit that the punishment was technically appropriate–a very minor difference in view of the larger picture.
    •This current shame on our church body was caused in no small part by a spirit of petty legalism. Merely clarifying the rules by which petty legalists are allowed to play their game will not prevent them from bringing more shame on the LCMS and Gospel of Jesu

  10. Paul Nelson Says:

    Point well made – if there is not a change of heart within all of us, then simply clarifying the rules will be of little help.  I suspect that this is why the rules are so vague to begin with – there is a recognition that the rules aren’t actually going to help us, and that extra-Biblical stipulations are every bit as problematic as the permissiveness with which some will always seek to push the boundaries.  

    I’m going to assume that on all sides, people have the best intentions.  Those who are outraged by the events in Newton are seeking to preserve and clarify the Gospel from any possible confusion.  Those who are outraged by our Synodical response are seeking to preserve and clarify the Gospel from any possible confusion.  Are there some on both sides that have specific agendas and motivations beyond this?  Undoubtedly.  Yet as a whole, I also am called to put the best construction on all things and persons.  Even – or especially – when I disagree with them.  I believe that this is the point that we’re all repeatedly falling short on.  

    Why?  Because as I stated early on, we have an enemy.  Our enemy is not one another, yet this is our most common target for rebuttals.  Our enemy has a great deal of experience in manipulating and working the best intentions of our hearts through our worst processes.  I don’t presume he’s going to look for a new line of work any time soon.  The best we can do is attempt to limit the damage that he can do in our own hearts, by guarding carefully how we speak about our brothers and sisters in the faith.  I suspect that this is best accomplished first and foremost by fixing our eyes on Christ and on all that we have received through him from our heavenly Father (as per the lectionary readings for today), rather than fixing our eyes on one another constantly looking for something to condemn.  

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