Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The LCMS Presidium's Libel

Although I was expelled from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod last July, the leadership of that church body continues to malign me in public. Earlier this week a friend forwarded to me an “open letter” from the LCMS “presidium” (i.e., Matthew Harrison, Herbert Mueller, John Wohlrabe, Dan Preus, Scott Murray, Nabil Nour, and Christopher Esget). This letter is a response to another “public letter” by three former members of the synod’s Commission on Constitutional Matters. The former CCM members are troubled by what appears to be Pres. Harrison’s efforts to change the bylaws of the synod so that the president will have more leverage to discipline those he thinks need to be disciplined. In the words of the former members of the CCM: “We are concerned that President Harrison, having initially expressed concerns about the concentration of power in the Office of the President caused by the structural changes adopted by the Synod in 2010, has now abandoned that position and is actively attempting to aggregate even more power in the Office of the President.”

So now, in its letter, the synod presidium has tried to explain why the bylaws dealing with ecclesiastical supervision need to be revised. Here’s how Harrison & Company begin their letter:

What precipitated the need for taking a look at the dispute resolution process as it currently exists in our Bylaws? The suggestion to examine the current Bylaws on dispute resolution came from President Harrison when the system had exonerated a pastor who was publicly and aggressively teaching that the Bible has errors, that women should be ordained, that homosexual activity is not sinful, and that evolution is true. Prior to all of this, President Harrison had patiently arranged for this man’s dissent regarding A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles (which rejected the errors of Seminex and was adopted by convention as official Synod doctrine in 1973) to be considered by the CTCR. After the CTCR unanimously rejected the dissent, President Harrison—in a spirit of patience, and hoping to win the brother—requested that the CTCR staff (the Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer and the Rev. Larry Vogel) and two seminary professors serving on the CTCR (one from each seminary) meet privately to try again to win the brother. All efforts failed. After the brother’s exoneration by a panel, a new case was filed regarding his teachings on evolution. As a result of this last case, however, the individual in question was removed from the Synod. It was in this context, after some five years dealing with the problem, that President Harrison appointed a task force to examine the current Bylaws and make recommendations for improvement.
That opening paragraph contains libelous statements. (Libel = “a published false statement damaging to a person’s reputation (cf. slander).”

To be sure, I’m not mentioned by name here, but anyone who has read about my expulsion last summer (e.g., on Matt Harrison’s Facebook page, on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in the Washington Post, in the Christian Century, in the blogosphere, etc.) or has read the Indiana District overture against me (published in the LCMS 2016 Convention Workbook), knows who is being referenced in that opening paragraph.

Apparently Exodus 20.16 does not apply to individuals who reach the heady levels of the synod’s presidium. Or maybe Luther's explanation to that verse just doesn't fit the situation of a person who is no longer a member of the presidium's church body. Or maybe it just doesn't fit the situation of a person Harrison & Co. consider to be a "heretic"?

I don’t think I have ever “aggressively” taught anything in my life. I certainly have never “aggressively and publicly” taught “that the Bible has errors.” If the presidium’s assertion here were true, then surely there would have been an uproar in the LCMS congregation I served between 2010 and 2014. Of all people, they are the ones who know what I have “taught publicly” and continue to teach. Or ask the Indiana District President who spoke with me several times during those years. Or ask the Northwest District President, who frequently did likewise. The only document that I know of, wherein I have pointed out a few “minor errors” in the Bible (which is no different from what Martin Luther himself did in the sixteenth century) is my critique of “A Statement.” In my book, Fundamental Theology, I devote several pages to defending the authority and infallibility of Holy Scripture. I write there about the Scripture’s “perfection” and “sufficiency,” i.e., the Holy Scriptures contain everything one needs to know in order to become knowledgeable of the nature and will of God, of the world as God's creation, of human beings as sinful creatures of God, of how sinners have been redeemed by Christ Jesus, and of the new creation that has dawned in Christ. I have also publicly written there about Scripture’s "necessity," which means the Scriptures are “able to refute the errors of human beings with respect to the revealed truth of the gospel and the articles of faith that serve as corollaries to the gospel.” I have not ever “publicly and aggressively” taught “that the Bible has errors.”

Yes, I have argued for the ordination of women to the pastoral office, but those writings can hardly be described as “aggressive.”

What about "homosexuality"? I have never “publicly and aggressively” taught “that homosexual activity is not sinful.” That assertion of the presidium is libel. Plain and simple. Members of the presidium, run your assertion past the saints at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Ind. Run it by Dan May or Paul Linnemann. Run that assertion by my students here at Valpo. Run it by my colleagues. Run it by my wife. In other words, run it by people who actually know me and are familiar with my life and teaching. I have never written an essay nor delivered a paper on sexual ethics, let alone one that teaches “homosexual activity is not sinful.” No human activity, in and of itself, is ever free of the power of sin.

With respect to Pres. Harrison’s actions toward me, many who are familiar with the course of those actions in 2009-2014 would not describe them as “patient.” Apparently the presidium has forgotten about Harrison’s email to Joel Lehenbauer and Larry Vogel in which he directed the CTCR to act quickly on my dissent. If you examine that email there's not a hint of concern for the brother in question. Just an order to get a swift decision. And when I was formally and officially cleared of last year's charge of teaching false doctrine (dealing with my openness toward women's ordination), well, just check out Harrison's Facebook posts from that period. I will leave it to others to evaluate how best to describe Pres. Harrison's behavior in all this. The words "spirit of patience and hoping to win the brother" are not ones that come to my mind.

Clearly, the synod cannot tolerate even a single professor who publicly raises criticisms against the synod's support for creationism and its rejection of a mainstream scientific theory. Nor can the synod tolerate even a single professor who publicly raises criticism against the synod's practice of restricting the office of pastor to men. Nor can the synod tolerate even a single professor who publicly criticizes "A Statement" for its flawed and wrong-headed approach to biblical authority and interpretation.

Members of the Presidium: I'm no longer a member of your brotherhood. There's no need for you to stretch the facts of my dissent to the point of libel. If you feel the need to scapegoat me and use my dissent as the main reason for why you feel the need to call upon the synod to revise its bylaws, then at least stick to the facts.


  1. Matt, enjoy your new-found freedom to pursue your theological point of view unhindered and unfettered as you were in The LCMS. The ELCA is precisely the right church body for you.

    If you in fact do regard homosexual behaviors as sinful, then I and many others will be looking forward to your clear, prophetic voice in the ELCA raised against its embrace and approval of homosexuals in its ministry.

  2. I have to agree with the previous comment, Professor Becker. Will you please speak up among us in the ELCA and help us reverse the terrible decisions we made in 2009 about homosexuality? I'm so glad to know now you believe homosexual behaviors are sinful in the eyes of God. Will you help us now return to the Bible's truth and stop permitting actively homosexual persons from being in the church's ministry and blessing their activity and unions?

    Thank you!

    1. Probably because you can't keep your mouth shut.

  3. I've given a great deal of thought to both of your comments. I've drawn some conclusions. I'm sorry Matthew I can no longer be silent. I do welcome correction for clarification.

    I believe Matthew is honestly wrestling with some very difficult topics that affect his faith. I respect that. The ELCA allows each congregation to decide whether or not to perform gay marriages or to hire an openly gay pastor. From my understanding, this decision was made due to at least partly, the ELCA could not stop pastors from performing gay marriages on their own. I'm giving my understanding of the policy. I'm not condoning the decision. The decision to perform a gay wedding is ultimately the decision of the pastor. Each of us can only control our own decisions and no one else's.

    If all of us are honest with ourselves, we as Christians all have to wrestle with certain questions in our faith. Matthew finally left the LCMS due to his perspective on creation. He would not accept a strict 6 day 24 hour day creation narrative. The synod was looking for any way possible to harass him to the point where he would finally leave. He challenged the LCMS leadership's understanding of the Bible. This hurt the fragile ego of the leadership. He also refused to bestow divine credibility to The Creation Museum, The Institute for Creation Research, or Ken Hamm. How dare a Lutheran not tow the party line and accept the wisdom of established authority ;).

    Matthew's ultimate sin is he's a critical thinker. If he spoke out against the government the same way he has attempted to preach his understanding of truth to the LCMS he'd be branded a conspiracy theorist (I think you know where I'm coming from on that one Matthew).

    The LCMS finally got their way and removed a nonconformist. Not only did they remove a nonconformist, but anyone who would question the divine understanding of Ken Hamm. I left the LCMS because, from what I understand, anyone who questions the judgement and lab work of the Institute for Creation Research can no longer take communion in the LCMS. Maybe we should change the communion wine to Kool Aid in the LCMS so all can drink the Kool Aid together.

    The ELCA has problems. A lot of problems. Even if a person has doubts or questions the existing leadership's judgement, any Christian can still worship and receive communion. I can't say the same for the LCMS.

    I feel the LCMS has become arrogant and Orwellian with Matthew Harrison's newest policies. To deny communion to fellow Christians who read Genesis differently than Ken Hamm is not Biblical and is as great or worse sin than any committed in any ELCA congregation.

    I mean no disrespect towards anyone, including Ken Hamm, in the above comments. I'm a follower of Jesus. He died for my sins and rose again three days later. I don't question Jesus.

    I hope to question anyone in a position of authority over me for the rest of my life. I'm a critical thinker. So was Martin Luther. Jesus is also a critical thinker. I see a pattern.

    1. I agree that there has been overreaction on both sides -- but even as someone who personably stands by the Synod's definition of Creation, I do not care for Ken Ham; AiG, and their kooky desire to view Genesis as a science textbook (and I believe there are many laypeople in the Missouri Synod who see eye-to-eye with me). Even for all of that, the Synod is VERY clear on their FAQs page that they don't practice what you have asserted here (keep in mind that when it says "membership" it's talking about communion allowance):

      QUESTION: A person, because of his study of science, does not believe that the universe was created in six literal 24-hour periods. Does this fact, by itself, render this person ineligible for membership in the LCMS?

      ANSWER: A person’s private views regarding this question do not automatically disqualify a person from becoming a member of the congregation.

      It is possible, of course, that someone holding to a given theory about the “six days” of the creation accounts also holds to views about the Bible that would be troublesome and perhaps in some cases detrimental to saving faith.

      But judgments in this regard belong in the realm of individual pastoral care, and are not a matter of hard and fast rules so that someone’s personal opinions in this area would become in effect a kind of litmus test for membership.

      It has generally been taught in our church that unless there is a compelling reason, on the basis of the biblical texts themselves, to understand the six days of the Genesis accounts as anything other than normal 24-hour days, we are to believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days (see Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, Question 97 [Concordia Publishing House, 1986, p. 106]).

      Official members of the LCMS (congregations, pastors, rostered church workers), of course, pledge to honor and uphold the official position of the Synod on doctrinal issues, including its official position on creation."

    2. Aaron Carlson,
      Biased Fox will undoubtedly respond to your initial comments but I'd like to focus on your last two paragraphs.

      A quick comparison between the account of creation in Gen 1.1-2.4a and the one in Gen. 2.4bff. is sufficient to cast doubt on the LCMS's literalistic interpretation of the six days in the Gen. 1 account. The Gen 2.4bff. account clearly teaches that God created all things in one day. Moreover, the sequencing in the two accounts is dramatically different, a fact that also suggests a figurative reading to both accounts. A further comparison of these two creation accounts with other creation stories from the ancient near east helps to underscore how literalistic interpretations of the Genesis creation stories misjudge their genres and theological purposes.

      The LCMS would be on more solid ground if it followed the exegetical decisions of early-church fathers regarding the two creation accounts in Genesis. The most important of these fathers interpreted the two accounts figuratively, that is to say, spiritually and allegorically. Such interpretations more easily fit with advances in scientific understanding of the natural history of the universe and the earth.

      Of course there's nothing in the biblical texts themselves that suggests the many passages about the sun's movement around the earth, about the earth's non-movement, and about the central place of the earth in the universe are to be understood figuratively. That most of us Christians today understand these passages in such a figurative manner is due to advances in scientific understanding of our solar system, not as a result of strictly focusing on what the biblical texts themselves teach in these passages. How can you demonstrate from the Bible itself that the earth is not resting on pillars or on a foundation, or that the earth does not move, or that the sun does not move around the earth? The fact of the matter is, the principle you cited doesn't actually work when it comes to interpreting these many biblical passages. Extra-biblical evidence has had an impact on how these passages are understood today.

      Francis Pieper, the principal author of the Brief Statement, whose views shaped some of the questions and answers in the catechism to which you referred, rejected the Copernican Theory. Pieper held that the Scriptures clearly teach against such a theory. We, of course, recognize Pieper's error, but the principle you cited, if followed, could never disprove Pieper's error. You'll have a hard time demonstrating the truth of the Copernican Theory by merely citing Scripture passages.

      More to the point, there are good, compelling reasons for understanding the six days in the Gen 1.1ff. account figuratively, not literalistically. The evidence is out there, if you take the time to look at it closely, fairly, and completely.

      The Roman Church took about a century to move from being adamantly opposed to the modern theory of evolution to acknowledging its basic truthfulness (with important qualifications and limitations). I suspect if the LCMS lasts another century or so, it will do the same.

    3. Aaron Carlson,
      You also wrote: "Official members of the LCMS (congregations, pastors, rostered church workers), of course, pledge to honor and uphold the official position of the Synod on doctrinal issues, including its official position on creation."

      The agreement "to honor and uphold" synodical resolutions is not absolute or unconditional. One's ordination vow, for example, takes priority over whatever bylaw commitments one has to the LCMS as an organization. For the theologian, the truth of God's word has priority over the religious tribe. The latter needs to be criticized when it takes positions that are false, as is surely the case with six-day young-earth creationism.

    4. Aaron Carlson,

      Sorry for the delay. I've been waiting on a power cord for my old hardware.

      My family and I were denied communion due to our views on Creation by our old LCMS pastor. I've spoken to several ex-members of the LCMS. This has happened a lot. Especially since actions were taken against Matthew. The pastor hardly knew us.

      I was baptised when I turned 18. I knew exactly what I was getting into.

      Jesus never made an understanding of Genesis lineage a prerequisite for forgiveness. It's wrong to base the value of a believer's faith on whether or not they take Genesis literally. It's also incredibly arrogant and ignorant to force the literal interpretation. Stars age. This affects time and the position of the planets. There's just more than one way to read Genesis.

      We won't be back to the LCMS until the leadership repents.