Archive for February, 2013
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
January 31, 2013
To my brothers and sisters in Christ,
I begin with words of deepest thanks for all of the many outpourings of support we at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, CT, have received in the wake of the shootings on Dec. 14th. The trauma of that day is immeasurable and is continuing to be played out in our emotions and daily lives – individually, as a congregation, and within our community. And yet, as we celebrate at Epiphany, Christ’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. One of the ways Christ has given His light into this darkness has been through all of your support, and for that we are unspeakably grateful, both to Him and to you.
Many have expressed their thoughts of how difficult it must be to administer Christ’s grace and truth in such a situation, but I have a little different take. It is indeed an unspeakably difficult situation – emotions are raw, energy reserves are spent, fear and mistrust are far too easy, and all of us are faced with circumstances for which no amount of training or preparation could be sufficient. And yet, the only thing that makes ministering under these circumstances possible is Christ’s grace and truth. All else is a false hope, a hollow comfort. Thus, it was a gift of God, even within these dark and tear-filled times, to announce the certainty of Christ’s birth, our God-With-Us, not only 2000 years ago, but within each of us through our baptism. The certainty of Christ’s resurrection and our adoption into Him through His Word and Sacrament is the only possible message of hope and peace within these dark times, both in Newtown and around the world. Ministering is hard, but ministering Christ’s grace is a gift, no matter the circumstances.
With that in mind, some have expressed concern and in some cases public rebuke that my participation in the televised prayer vigil on Sunday night has hindered our ability to speak this Christian truth into a pluralistic culture. The fear is that by sharing the stage with false teachers, I have diminished the proclamation of the truth which is ours by grace through faith in Christ.
Firstly, my source of ultimate comfort as I reflect back on everything in the last six weeks – that event included – is that no sin, even my own sinful failures, can destroy the Church or the Gospel. Jesus taught us that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church which is built on the rock of true confession. And in one of my favorite hymns in the Lutheran Service Book, we powerfully proclaim that “Built on the rock the church shall stand / Even when steeples are falling.” We need not live in fear that Christ’s Gospel will be damaged, for even Satan cannot accomplish that.
Within that reality, though, we do have a God-given responsibility to be on our guard against all kinds of false teaching. Prior to the events of 12/14, I had already spent hours with my own congregation, catechizing them as to the differences between our Lutheran understanding of Scriptural teaching, the various other denominations’ teachings, and the teachings of false religions such as Islam or B’Hai. I had likewise spent time with my fellow clergy in Newtown clarifying the ways I can and cannot engage in events like joint clergy dialogues (which are good to engage in), joint caring efforts (only within limits), and joint worship (not possible). To my fellow brothers who are serving in the office of public ministry, I encourage you to do these same tasks in your churches and communities. It is not comfortable, but it is necessary. To my brothers and sisters who are laypeople in the church, I ask you to encourage and pray for your pastors as they do these difficult, but God-given tasks. Thus, to those who believe that I have endorsed false teaching, I assure you that was not my intent, and I give you my unreserved apologies. If any of you know church members or friends or family who are now confused because of my participation, believing that the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod fully endorses the doctrine of anyone else who was on that stage, please correct this confusion lovingly, and I will personally be happy to help in any way that I can. Feel free to pass on my apologies for having given that impression.
Many have asked for details as to who said what to whom prior to my participation in the service. After consultation with my supervisors and others, I made my own decision. Consensus could not be reached among those I consulted. Decisions had to be made in a very short window of time and the nature of the planned event was changing moment by moment. The planning was only completed late Saturday night and I was only made aware that the event would be televised a few hours before it began (and after the program listing my participation had already been released to the media).
But I believe this is a secondary concern. I took the action that I took. I and no one else. In the end, I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy. Chaplains are expected to give faithful witness under circumstances which are less than ecclesiastically perfect, even as their fellow chaplains may proclaim a different witness. Thus, with a disclaimer at the outset (which I requested) having stated that participation did not mean endorsement of the other religions represented, I said I was sharing “a final blessing of the hope which is ours through faith in Jesus Christ, using the words of St. John and St. Paul”, I then read from Revelation 21 and I prayed the Trinitarian benediction from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which we say as part of our Lutheran daily offices. I did not believe my participation to be an act of joint worship, but one of mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event. However, I recognize others in our church consider it to constitute joint worship and I understand why. I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far, and I request you charitably receive my apology. Those who have followed the news reports are aware that this event is not quite like anything that has happened before. This was not a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, or random bullets sprayed into a crowd. I believe (and I fervently pray) that my ministry will never involve a parallel situation to the one that faced my congregation and community that weekend. By their very nature, extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary decisions and I do not hold my decisions up as an example to be emulated under ordinary circumstances. I simply say to any pastor who finds themselves in a similar situation (and I pray that none will): you will have my unswerving prayerful support, and I encourage you to do all that you can to ensure that you faithfully proclaim the grace that is ours in Jesus Christ alone. Be sure the proclamation is faithful, and be sure that Christ’s grace is proclaimed.
For it is this grace which has made us His sons and daughters, it is this grace which assures us of our eternal rest in Him, and it is this grace which sustains me and the people of Christ the King here in Newtown. I thank you all again for your love, care, and compassion.
Your brother in Christ,
Pastor Rob Morris
Christ the King Lutheran Church