Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Further Sign of LCMS Times

A close friend and fellow-LCMS clergyman, who is in good standing in the LCMS, recently served as the keynote speaker at a joint LCMS-ELCA national theological conference. Yes, such conferences still exist, but they may be a dying breed, given the current LCMS leadership and the actions it has been taking toward other church bodies in the world.

My friend, who has spoken at a previous conference of this group, was invited partly because he is indeed an LCMS theologian. The tradition of the group, whose annual meetings go back forty-three years, is to invite speakers from the two major Lutheran church bodies. Partially funded by Thrivent, these annual conferences have "focused on and celebrated the importance of ministries in chaplaincy, pastoral counseling, and clinical pastoral education in the Lutheran church" (to quote from the conference brochure).

The planners for this conference, which was held in October, had invited the President of the LCMS, who at the time of the invitation was President Kieschnick, to address a plenary session. The presiding bishop of the ELCA was also invited to address the group, which he did. But with the change of leadership in the Missouri Synod, the new Synod President, Rev. Matthew Harrison, chose not to attend. Instead he asked an LCMS chaplain who did attend to inform the group as to why he, Rev. Harrison, could not attend.

The reason? Answer: Because Rev. Harrison did not want to appear at a conference where my friend was the keynote speaker. According to the chaplain, Rev. Harrison could not be on the same podium as my friend because the latter had expressed public support for some preliminary documents that led up to the ELCA's decision last summer to ordain gays and lesbians who are in committed, life-long, publicly-accountable relationships.

Please note, my friend and Rev. Harrison would not have been on the same podium at the same time. Even if they had been, Rev. Harrison would have been speaking for himself and would have brought greetings and comments separately from my friend. Instead, Rev. Harrison chose to avoid the conference altogether, merely because my scholarly friend was the keynote speaker.

This behavior, which one expects to observe on a grade-school playground but not at the administrative level of a Christian church body, strikes me as founded on fear, the fear of appearing to endorse perceived "uncleanness" among others. Because my friend has spoken out in support of another church body's decision about homosexual clergy, he is now deemed doctrinally and ethically "unclean" by the Synod President. The implication of this view, of course, is that the President of the Synod is righteous and right and that he does not want to make himself "impure" by coming into contact with my "impure" friend.

Apparently, for the time being anyway, the issues of women's ordination (as in Japan) and homosexuality (as in the ELCA) have become the litmus tests of orthodoxy in the LCMS. The doctrine on which the church stands or falls is no longer the gospel of Christ Jesus, but rules and regulations. It is almost as if one could say, paraphrasing an LCMS scholar of an earlier time (Walter Bartling), "If a woman is ordained to the pastoral office, Christ is not raised and your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" or "If a practicing homosexual is ordained to the pastoral office, Christ is not raised and your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

Has the fear of "impurity" become so great that one cannot even risk being seen "in the company of sinners"? In an earlier time, and still in some places today, LCMSers have taken risks for the sake of the gospel and Christian love. They haven't worried too much, if at all, about "purity" and "impurity," about "clean" and "unclean," but have sought to become all things to all people so that they might by all means save some.

Then again, maybe it was a good thing that Rev. Harrison didn't attend this inter-Lutheran conference. One can imagine what he might have said to "the impure" in his midst. Surely saying nothing is better than saying that.

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