Saturday, July 17, 2010

A change in the tide

"The time's come: there's a terrific thunder-cloud advancing upon us, a mighty storm is coming to freshen us up." -- Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters

As you probably know by now, I am a pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. The LCMS has just finished its triennial convention. For those of you unfamiliar with this process--and blessed are you--the Synodical Convention is where the "business" of the church body is transacted. Synodical officials are elected. Reports are given. Changes are considered.

And to say that changes were made at this Synodical Convention would be an understatement on a level with saying, "The Obama administration has been slow to act during the BP Gulf oil spill crisis." I don't think it an understatement to say that the changes made at the 2010 LCMS Convention will affect American Lutheranism for many years to come.

Let's start with change for the good, namely, the election of Matthew Harrison as Synodical President. For the past 9 years, the Reverend Gerald L. Kieschnick has been President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. President Kieschnick during his tenure has been fond of saying, "This is not your grandfather's Synod," and his decisions during his tenure have reinforced that statement. Early in his tenure, he gave permission for the Atlantic District President, David Benke, to participate in "A Prayer for America", an Oprah Winfrey-organized prayer service in Yankee Stadium in which Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jews, and others prayed together to their various gods; and Kieschnick refused to discipline him for this blatant syncretism. When pastors and laypeople objected to these actions through signing the document That They May Be One, President Kieschnick considered the signers to be schismatic and sent a memo to the district presidents of the LCMS in which he encouraged the DPs to take action against the signers. It took five years for President Kieschnick to repent of that. Other events, actions and statements from Kieschnick have further led the LCMS away from its theological roots, including his crusade against what he calls "incessant internal purification"--in other words, the desire to continue to keep our doctrine and practice true to Scripture and the confessions. His desire for outreach by whatever means stands at odds with the history of the LCMS, where we have been encouraged to "get it straight" and then "get it out".

The 2010 convention saw the election of the Reverend Matthew Harrison as LCMS President. Pastor Harrison has served as Executive Director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, the mercy arm of the LCMS, since 2001. He is skilled as an administrator, but more than that, he is a gifted theologian. He knows the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the history of the Church--including the history of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. When someone speaks about "our grandfather's Synod", Harrison knows what that means. His election as President is a shift away from the mainline Protestant leanings of the past nine years, and it has given hope to those whose concerns have grown over that time. I had hoped Pastor Harrison would win, and with his election and that of other solid confessional Lutherans to positions of leadership in the Synod, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the LCMS.

And now, the troublesome change, namely, the restructuring of the LCMS. President Kieschnick pushed hard for a restructuring of the LCMS under the guise of cost reduction and building consensus in the LCMS. (Because really, our problems in the LCMS have been about structural inefficiency, not about a departure from the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions.) My concern about restructuring is that it seems to me to be a departure from the traditional LCMS polity of congregational power and a recension of the Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope. I'm sure there will be those who will say I'm dealing in hyperbole. However, for 470 years, the Lutheran Church has seen the dangers of centralizing the authority of the Church in anyone but Christ Himself. With the passing of Resolution 8-08 and other resolutions from the Synod Structure and Governance Committee, based on the work of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (also known as the BRTFSSG[HIJKLMNOP]), we have given the President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod more authority than anyone in the history of the LCMS has wielded . . . possibly even more than Martin Stephan wielded before he was exiled. Perhaps I am an alarmist. Perhaps I am reading this wrong. But I have a great deal of concern about this. I'm less concerned than I was when I believed that President Kieschnick, the man behind the BRTFSSG[HIJKLMNOP], would be wielding that power, but even with a man I believe to be the right man for the job, I've experienced first-hand how great power can be abused by a synodical bureaucrat. I can only pray that the Lord will preserve the LCMS and President-Elect Harrison from that kind of abuse of power.

And now for one more troublesome note from the LCMS convention: the Red Chair videos. The purpose of the Red Chair videos was to demonstrate the power of forgiveness in the life of the Church. In and of itself, this is a good thing. However, in the practical application of these videos, it can be interpreted that some of the district presidents who spoke in the Red Chair videos have violated their Ordination vows--namely, where they vow never to divulge the sins confessed to them. I have gone to private confession and absolution, and I have done so with a man who is now a district president. The thought that he could possibly have spoken of my sins in front of the Synodical convention was mortifying to me. Even having been given permission by those who confessed to them, they are violating their vows. These sins are no longer to exist. They are to be removed from the penitent as far as the east is from the west. Pastors are never to speak of those sins again. God help all pastors to remain faithful to our Ordination vows.

I will admit that I am hopeful for the future of the LCMS. I believe that President-Elect Harrison will be good for the LCMS and for Lutheran Church throughout the world. That doesn't mean I am without concerns about the future of he LCMS. We have always sought to faithfully confess the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. We must also be strong to faithfully reject error. Confession of faith and rejection of error: that is the format of our Lutheran Confessions, and that must be our work in the Church today.

"Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better." -- Richard Hooker

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