Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Brief Reply to Harrison's Recent Attack

Matthew Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, won't let up. He continues to be on the attack, despite the fact that I have been expelled from the LCMS clergy roster and will be seeking to become rostered in the ELCA. Case in point is his recent "missive" to "2013 convention delegates and other friends" in which he writes:

A now formerly rostered LCMS clergyman for two decades openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture and the confession of the Synod on the inerrancy of the Bible, evolution, homosexuality, the ordination of women, church fellowship and more. I have appointed a group that includes Secretary of the Synod Rev. Dr. Ray Hartwig and others from both the Commission on Handbook and the Commission on Constitutional Matters to suggest revisions to our current system for dealing with such cases. Small but significant changes will correct the problems and help assure we never have another such situation. God help us. 

This is not at all about the occasional pastor or retired pastor who may have scruples about a certain public position of the Synod and isn’t on a mission to tell the world about it. It’s about drawing a clear line should a church worker aggressively and publicly reject the Synod’s clear biblical teaching on very significant matters.

Some interpret these comments as mere "sabre rattling," as "tossing a bone to his ultra-right base." To me these words reveal a real effort on Harrison's part to make sure that actual theological dialogue (at least about the matters he has named in his laundry list) is impossible in the synod. These issues are "off the table," as Harrison has stated many times. Given the current climate in the synod--a climate that has been undergoing climate change ("global cooling") for more than forty years--it is highly unlikely that anyone who makes a living in an official LCMS institution (e.g., a congregation, synodical agency, college, seminary, other institution, etc.) would ever dissent publicly from any synodical "position." Such a dissenter would run the risk of losing his/her gainful employment. (Retired pastors are entitled to their "scruples," but they dare not speak forth from a soapbox, online or otherwise... They will have crossed Harrison's "clear line.")

It is no secret that I have tried to foster dialogue about a few issues that Harrison wants off the table. Have I done so "aggressively"? Hardly. I tried to initiate actual dialogue through the publication of two essays, one on six-day creationism and the natural sciences (published a decade ago) and one on women's ordination  (published sixteen years ago), but I got no takers. Instead, I was informed that formal charges of teaching false doctrine had been leveled against me. Harrison got elected, in part, because he promised to get rid of what he thought amounted to about "15%" of the LCMS clergy roster who disagree with "the synod's position" on many of the topics in Harrison's laundry list (i.e., his articulation of what he believes to be the synod's "position" on those matters).

It is also no secret that Harrison has supported those who filed formal charges against me. When I was attacked in this way, I felt the need to defend myself and the theological teachings I had set forth in those two essays. Although some have described what I have done over these past sixteen years as "baiting and swallowing my own hook, " those are not the words I would use. The simple fact is, from my perspective, those who filed formal charges against my writings were insisting on theological positions that are unsupportable, that go against our confession of the doctrine of faith, that detract from the centrality of the gospel, and that put something else as the sine qua non in place of the one gospel. These two issues about which I have written and spoken are hardly settled issues in the synod today--despite what Harrison and others might assert.

Isn't it interesting that two different synodical panels, comprised of several LCMS pastors from different parts of the country, concluded that what I had written in those two essays and the way that I had gone about defending what I had written (over against my accusers' understandings of what is essential to the Christian faith) did not constitute advocacy of false doctrine?

"Openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture..."? No. I vehemently reject that slander. These words of Harrison tell us more about him than they do about anything I have written or spoken. His opinion--and that's all this phrase of his represents--does not reflect the official exonerations I have received from several official LCMS entities over the past decade. These official judgments have been rendered by district presidents, a district board of directors, a review panel, a referral panel, an LCMS university board of regents, a university provost and president.

I was never found to have "openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Holy Scripture."

Sure, I have been critical of some of the synod's convention resolutions and statements (e.g., those that support creationism, that attack evolution, that reject women's ordination), but my criticisms are themselves grounded in Holy Scripture and the evangelical pattern of doctrine that is exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions. I contend that Harrison's own position marks the real departure from the Scriptural, evangelical teaching about faith, God the creator, the holy ministry, and Christian freedom. He is insisting on teaching that is just plain wrong--scripturally and confessionally. My argument from the Scriptures and the Confessions indicates why the synod's defense of six-day creationism and its insistence on a male-only pastorate are not merely unconvincing theologically but are actually harmful to the synod's mission in our western, scientifically-informed, egalitarian culture.

When I was formally and officially cleared of last year's charge of teaching false doctrine (dealing with my openness toward women's ordination), Harrison fumed, ranted, and threatened. Earlier this year he did so on his Facebook page. He also did so on the synod's website. Leaving aside the question about the propriety of his actions in this regard, one may ask the following questions: About whom did he fume? Against whom did he rant? Whom did he threaten? Not me, at least not directly. His anger was directed against the referral panel and its decision. He later seemed to be publicly angry with the NW District President, who had his own reasons for not suspending me last year.

In my final telephone conversation with my now former DP (back in late June), he told me that he felt he had no choice but to suspend me, given the pressures he had been receiving from Harrison and other synodical officials (e.g., convention resolutions against him). Throughout the past several years that these charges have surfaced and been dealt with, my former DP repeatedly assured me that he did not think I was guilty of advocating false doctrine. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that a majority of district presidents on the Synod's Council of Presidents (the COP [an apropos acronym, no?]) would not renew my clergy rostership, given the charges that had been leveled against me (despite my being repeatedly exonerated), and that it was just a matter of time before the COP gave me the boot from the clergy roster, given Harrison's influence over the majority on that Council.

It will not surprise me if Harrison's efforts at "Gleichschaltung" (getting the synod to be in the same gear, goose-stepping together, no one out of line) will lead eventually to his own gears getting jammed.

The one, sufficient gospel opens up a better way of doing theology, a better way of being a "synod." It creates the condition in which baptized people, grounded in Christ, who are equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, can draw upon those resources to address in an evangelical manner all the issues that appear on Harrison's laundry list. Real dialogue is difficult, a bit messy, complicated. Gleichschaltung may work for a while, but as a long-term tactic, it has always failed.


  1. Instead of dialogue, we get pronouncements and threats. Instead of learning, they tell. Instead of engaging, they hide behind a wall. Instead of trusting the Gospel, they cling to the law.

    1. Every time I listen to "Back to Genesis" on Christian radio I think about this whole mess. Young earthers really want to discount general relativity and believe the ark looked like the Brookfield Zoo. I will get started on this paper Matthew. I'm sure the time theory will be belittled and berated. It's always easier to attack than to dialogue and conduct real research.

  2. The smokescreen offered by Dr Becker does not render harmless the damage he has done to the LCMS by advancing his heresies. Harrison is right, even if one questions his tactics. Dr Becker sought to divide the synod, or take it into the same progressive mud as ELCA did to Lutheranism. Dr Becker will find ELCA more to his liking, and it is where his heart has taken him. Educated Christians as Becker are supposed to know better, but often fall into theological sinkholes, and as they sink more deeply, like most false teachers, tend to hold tightly to their own false pride and sense of self righteousness. I pray that Mr Becker reads his Bible more his life and his rejection of the truth will make shipwreck of his spiritual life.