Letter from President Harrison on Newtown, CT
February 1, 2013
Eve of Candlemas, A.D. 2013
Grace and Peace in Jesus.
Due solely to the gracious provision of God Almighty at work through the many leaders in our church who are of good will and intent for the Synod, we have had a period of peace in the church. For that we all rejoice and profoundly so! “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3–5).
In December, just after the horrible shooting deaths in Newtown, Connecticut, one of our young pastors, only months in his first parish, faced a tragedy of astounding proportions. Pastor Robert Morris had to bury a precious little girl who had recently joined his congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, and comfort her parents with God’s sure promises. Thus began a very long road of sorrow and pain, but also many opportunities for witness to Jesus and His resurrection Gospel. We immediately dispatched Glenn Merritt, our Synod’s disaster relief coordinator, who has been on the ground in Newtown for a considerable amount of time since the tragedy, offering encouragement and support from the LCMS. President Timothy Yeadon of the New England District has been a stalwart pillar of mercy in the situation.
An event occurred within days of the shootings, sponsored, as I understand, by the local clergy association. The event was variously called an “ecumenical service” or “vigil.” There were prayers, Scripture readings done by various clergy, including representatives from the Baha’i and Muslim faiths. Pastor Rob Morris was asked to provide the closing benediction to the event, and he did so as he describes in his letter of apology. Pastor Morris took specific and commendable steps to mitigate the impression that this was joint worship. He asked for an announcement before the event to make it clear that those participating did not endorse each other’s views. He read from Scripture when he spoke.
Nevertheless, the presence of prayers and religious readings, as well as the fact that other clergy were vested for their participation, led me to conclude that this was in fact joint worship with other religions (as previously defined by the Synod). I could draw no conclusion other than that this was a step beyond the bounds of practice allowed by the Scriptures, our Lutheran Confessions, and the constitution of our Synod, which seeks to uphold both. There is sometimes a real tension between wanting to bear witness to Christ and at the same time avoiding situations which may give the impression that our differences with respect to who God is, who Jesus is, how he deals with us, and how we get to heaven, really don’t matter in the end. It was not Pastor Morris’s intention at all to give that impression. He does not believe that at all. In fact, he’s been very fastidious with his congregation on such matters, pointing to Jesus alone as Savior.
I asked Pastor Morris to apologize for taking part in this service. I did this for several reasons:
- I believe his participation violated the limits set by Scripture regarding joint worship, particularly with those who reject Jesus (Romans 16:17), and was thus a violation of Article VI of the LCMS Constitution.
- Pastor Morris’s participation gave offense in the Synod, something we are to avoid, even if we are doing something we believe might be appropriate (1 Corinthians 8).
- I most sincerely desire to avoid deep and public contention in the Synod. Our mission is too vital, our fellowship too fragile for a drawn out controversy.
To his credit, Pastor Morris has offered an apology to his brothers and sisters in the Synod. If we are to live this life with Christian conviction and zeal, willing to step forward at a very difficult moment and act, even to “sin boldly” as Luther once advised Melanchthon (AE 48:282), it is also incumbent upon us to recognize that in so acting we may exceed the bounds of Christian freedom and may well give offense. We must be prepared also to repent boldly, and apologize boldly. I’m a firm believer in “daring something” in Christ (Luther), and living and speaking for Christ with zeal, even on the edge. There will be times in this crazy world when, for what we believe are all the right reasons, we may step over the scriptural line. This life together in the Synod, under the sacred Scriptures, behooves us to be quick to ask for forgiveness, as well as to be quick to forgive in Christ’s name and to continue to love one another.
While Pastor Morris explains that he does not believe he acted in joint worship, and took steps to avoid it, he does readily admit that his action was offensive, and he has no intention of repeating it. I accept his apology. I ask you to accept it as well. If you are upset that such an otherwise fine young pastor offered his apology for something for which you do not believe he should have had to apologize, I would simply respond by stating that we have the apostolic injunction “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1b–3). To those who think his apology insufficient, I would encourage you, as the commandment enjoins us, to “put the best construction on everything,” and to accept with gratitude and forgiveness in Christ’s name the real apology given you. If you think the apology is insufficient, I would also assure you that I shall continue in private conversation with President Yeadon and Pastor Morris, seeking the will of Christ through the Scriptures and prayer (Rom. 12:9–13). And I, too, have much to learn.
We as a Synod have a challenge in front of us. The 2010 convention (Res. 8-30B) gave the President of Synod the task of leading a Synod-wide study of the meaning of Article VI of the Synod’s constitution, especially with respect to the words requiring every member of Synod to renounce “unionism and syncretism of every description.” Several significant aspects of this work are well underway. What do these words of our constitution mean? And whatever they mean, does the Bible teach it? Do we as a Synod still believe that joint worship with those with whom we are not in doctrinal agreement on the Gospel and all its articles (Formula of Concord, Epitome X 7) is something forbidden by the Scriptures? Just what constitutes “worship”? How do we as citizens express love and social unity with fellow citizens of good will (be they Christians or not), and support our communities in times of horrid duress, while trying not to violate our biblical commitments and convictions (Heb. 12:14)?
All these questions raise the issue of why the Missouri Synod came into existence, as well as the issue of what our purpose is into the future. I, for one, believe this constitutional article (VI) is vital to the future of our church body as a truly confessional fellowship, its members standing together with God-given courage, continuing to confess the full truth of the Gospel of Christ according to the inerrant Scriptures. In 1960, the American Lutheran Church placed in its constitution an article on the inerrancy of Scripture. History has shown that many of those in leadership and at the seminaries of that church body more than likely knew full well they no longer believed it. The devastating effect of the gradual loss of this foundational, biblical principle has become more and more evident in the positions taken in recent years by the ELCA.
The 2004 CTCR document with recommendations regarding “Civic Events” was a thoughtful attempt to deal with questions that challenged us but has, in my estimation, proven to be less than optimal and helpful. This means that we have more work to do. I would suggest that in order better to understand the Synod’s constitution on the matters of worship and fellowship, you begin by studying Dr. Walther’s The Church and the Office of the Ministry (CPH, 2012), particularly Thesis VIII on the church. The 2001 Convention of Synod (Res. 7-17A) resolved that this book represents the “definitive” “official” position of our church body on these matters. Dr. Walther points out the scriptural and confessional references key to the issues. The language used in the Bible, the Lutheran Confessions and in Luther is often intense about false teaching, and grates on our postmodern ears, but I urge you to remember that the Synod is no sect. We believe that salvation is found wherever there is faith in Jesus and His cross (Book of Concord, Preface), even as we must reject what is false.
In closing I must note that my interaction in this matter has been with and at the side of our New England District President, Pastor Timothy Yeadon, who is a great blessing to the church. And my conversations with Pastor Morris over the past weeks have been nothing but cordial and kind. I am looking forward to working together with him and others in the Synod to strive for greater unity and consensus among us, which by God’s gracious blessing, I believe is possible.
By the mercies of Christ, I earnestly request of any who are contemplating action against Pastor Morris in the Synod’s reconciliation system that you do not do so. He has apologized. I shall continue the conversation with him. He is certainly willing to continue to talk with me. Coming to greater consensus on the issues will not be aided by a legally defined bylaw process, dealing with a highly emotional case, with an outcome guaranteed to divide. I also strongly urge that we all continue to support Pastor Rob Morris, his wife and his young family, and his congregation (all of whom have suffered much in this) in prayer and love, especially in providing funding for Christ the King as it continues to care for victims. Their grief is deep and lasting and can be assuaged only in the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. You may send gifts to the LCMS: LCMS Disaster Response, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166–6861, and indicate “For Newtown.” Or click HERE to give online.
I am not Jesus. I’m not omniscient. I’m not infallible. I simply seek the best for the Synod that we may be about our chief task. I covet your prayers.
Pastor Matthew C. Harrison
President, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
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