{LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison recently presented a paper, “Lutheran Diakonia Today,” at the International Conference on Confessional Lutheranism, held Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2012, in Peachtree City, Ga. His comments are found below. The Greek is transliterated.}

LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison presented to 120 confessional Lutheran church leaders, representing more than 20 million Lutherans around the globe.


After the 2010 convention, which found me in a new position and a number of individuals assembling in the staff to move forward, we were given a large challenge of restructuring The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and the President’s office had a large task to achieve in doing that. And in that process, Dr. Collver—we were thinking about the theological reasons and rationale for what the structure would look like in the Missouri Synod and what its work would look like, so far as we were given responsibility. And at one point, Al Collver brought a piece of . . . a crumpled piece of paper, like he had been carrying it around in his back pocket, with three circles on it, and the three Greek words—martyria (bear witness), diakonia (of mercy) and koinonia (fellowship, life together)—all intersecting in the middle on a cross. We had some contention for a little while. Jon Vieker, who is an assistant wanted to put leiturgia (liturgy) in there, but then we would have a quaternity and not a trinity and we cannot do that (laughter).

What we were interested in was getting to the basics about who we are as a church, and then with a conviction that we must understand first who we are before we figure out what we are supposed to be up to. So, these three stuck. I began running through the New Testament with my Schmoller’s Handkoncordance zum Griechischen Neuen Testament and just looking at the occurrences of martyria and the noun and verb forms of the other words and discovered just such richness. It was right from the earliest days: The apostles bear witness. “You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and to the utter ends of the earth.” The witness to the apostles was one of bearing witness to the truth, what they had seen with their own eyes. And so, right away our preaching is informed from the Book of Acts. You crucified the Lord of glory; God raised Him from the dead. That is the witness. We have seen it with our own eyes; now we tell it to you. “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, and times of refreshing will come.” That fundamental martyria, witness, is essential to the Church’s life. Without witness, we have no reason to exist. We bear witness to Christ.

We also have what we are going to talk about today, but we also have diakonia. We have titled this technical term diakonia, of mercy. Of course, it is more properly “service” in the New Testament and is used in a variety of ways, from the Office of the Ministry to Paul’s collection for Jerusalem. And we will talk some more about that. Believing that fundamentally in the New Testament, you see not only in the life of Christ, which is programmatic for what the Church is, but you see in the life of the Early Church right away from Acts 4, Acts 6 and right through Paul’s great collection for Jerusalem, you see the Church has an ordered life of mercy. It is an ordered diakonic life. This was key for me, because I think I had a very excellent seminary education at Fort Wayne in the eighties, extraordinary seminary education. However, I think as a reaction against what was believed to be a social gospel prior to that, and kind of the years of the Missouri Synod prior to the big challenges we had in the sixties and seventies, the idea that the Church should be involved in caring for people in need was somehow viewed as a liberal idea, and post-walkout Missouri didn’t want to have anything to do with anything liberal. The trouble is, I got out in the parish and in my first parish, a rural parish, I worked hard, visited people, was in the lives of people, did the best I could preaching and caring for people and catechizing, but something nagged at me. I was in an area with a lot of rural welfare, a lot of hurting families, a lot of alcoholism, a lot of young people addicted to alcohol and struggling with all that, a lot of marital problems, live-in situations. And I came away from that first parish after four or five years thinking, “You know, there was something missing.” Certainly not the Gospel. Certainly not the Sacraments. But yet, there was something missing.

Commission on Theology and Church Relations executive director the Rev. Joel Lehenbauer and LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison listen to presentations at the International Conference on Confessional Leadership.

Then the second parish was an inner city parish in Fort Wayne, Zion in Fort Wayne. Within a block and a half of the congregation, there were about 45 vacant, dilapidated buildings—commercial buildings and residential homes just rotting, empty and rotting. A lot of drug activity. And here in the center of that, you have this fabulous German Gothic sanctuary, a wonderful congregation. A large percentage of the church was African American. A number of other ethnic communities represented. I think, just out of practical necessity, our sights got turned to a building across the street from the church. A drug-infested building known for prostitution and other issues, and I, and the neighboring Roman Catholic priest, decided we would set our sights on knocking that blasted thing down.

And low and behold, it happened! And then we went after others. And after a time, we got hold of about 100 properties in the neighborhood, and we pulled together. It was the right moment, and a lot of good-minded citizens—Lutheran, Christian, non-Christian, great Catholics—and we were able to attack the whole neighborhood issue with vigor. There were a number of issues going on. A congregation in America is incorporated. That church was Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession Inc. (laughter)

And a corporation is a public citizen and I became convinced that you know, if in my neighborhood, everything is going to hell in a hand basket, I wouldn’t simply be quiet and allow that to happen. Matters of justice were involved, too, because for every dilapidated home next to a homeowner, they were robbed of virtually the entire value of their home. Unjust. All kinds of racial issues were swirling about. And so, I was dragged into this realm of diakonia with no real theological intent. It was after starting to think about those things, then being called to St. Louis to work with LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and Bernie Setter was early on in that board. Bernie, back there. And we came up with these theses: The board for its international work of human care, which is vast, had merely the thinnest rationale for Lutherans to be involved in any way in the lives of people with mercy. And so, I was convinced there had to be a much deeper theological rationale and I began looking at sort of the basics of the faith from the perspective of diakonia and mercy, and I just remember Bernie at those early board meetings just say, “Go, go! Let’s go!” And we worked on this together. It really changed my life in extraordinary ways. So we will share a few things here.

A little introduction: Love, care and concern for those in need. Diakonic mercy, or love, are actions motivated by the Gospel. When faith, that is, fides qua creditur, the faith by which we believe, apprehends the righteousness of Christ and His merits unto eternal life. The Gospel thus lays hold of, produces, love. Love seeks and serves the neighbor. Love for the neighbor, while an action mandated by the law of God, is a reflection of the very being of the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).

It is who God is. This love finds its source and motivation in the deep Gospel matrix and totality of the true faith—the fides qua creditur, the faith which is believed. Thus, diakonic love has its source in the Holy Trinity. The Son is begotten of the Father from eternity; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Such begetting and procession are trinitarian acts of love, expressing the communality of God. In these acts, the triune God from eternity and in time has found humankind as the object of divine love and mercy. So God acts. “For God so loved the world that He gave.” He sends. “Be ye merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” It is an ontological matter. It is about being exactly who we are insofar as we are connected with the Father.

L-R LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison; the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, LCMS director of Church Relations; the Rev. Jon Vieker, senior assistant to the president; and the Rev. Rod Zwonitzer, executive director of KFUO, reflect on a presentation during a break at the International Conference on Confessional Leadership.

James 3:17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy.” The wisdom from above.

And look at 1 John 3:16, for instance: “In this we have known the love”— definite article love (την αγαπην)— “that this one (οτι εκεινοσ)hoti ekeinos.” It’s almost Pauline language, in John. This one, for us, laid down His life, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Whoever has the βιον του κοσμου bion tou cosmou. Whoever has what it takes to sustain life.

“And behold, his brother, having a need, and closes his τα σπλαγχνα splagchna.” Of course, we translate that “heart,” but it is the great splagchna word of Jesus. Jesus had compassion. The blind man came to him, “Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy on me.” And Jesus healed him. When the crowds came to Jesus, he had compassion on them (εσπλαγχνισθη) esplagchnisthe. Visceral compassion cannot standby and do nothing.

If you close your splagchna, how can the love of God remain in him? You see “being” again. Children, let us love in not just word and tongue, but in deed and truth.

So, I would assert that you cannot deny diakonic love. You cannot turn away from your neighbor without rejecting the holy trinity. Diakonic love reflects the very being of God.

Second, diakonic love is born of the incarnation and humiliation of Christ. In Christ, the eternal God became man. Such identity occurred that Christ might have mercy upon His brothers (Hebrews 2). Christian service of the neighbor finds its source, motivation and example in Christ incarnate, in His redeeming, atoning love. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:5–9). Have this mind in yourselves: to empty yourselves for service.

It is my conviction that you cannot deny love, mercy and care for your neighbor without denying the incarnation. God would have all come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. I put this in here because so much of social ministry in America, particularly connected with Lutheran agencies, has over time often floated away from its first love. That’s because much of the money, almost all of the money, that is used for these institutions to continue is government money. With government money comes government restrictions on what you can say and not say and whom you can serve and not serve, et cetera. And it is very easy, especially in America. It used to be the case that all these institutions were led by theologically trained clergy. Now, virtually none of these institutions is led by theologically trained clergy. It is not impossible to remain evangelical and with one’s Lutheran compass, but it is extremely difficult.

“God would that all come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved” (1 Timothy 2). A biblically and confessionally faithful theology of mercy clearly confesses that The Father has decreed from eternity that whomever He would save, He would save through Christ, as Christ Himself says, “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). And again, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). That whole section is from the Solid Declaration, 1166. I wanted a double-whammy! Bible and Confession.

L-R The Rev. Gregory Williamson, LCMS Chief Mission Officer; Deaconess Cheryl Naumann, president of the Concordia Deaconess Conference; and LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison listen to the Rev. Jobst Schoene of the Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany.

The fundamental truth of the Bible, that there is no salvation outside of faith in Christ and His merits, animates the Church’s work for those in need. If this is not so, such work becomes merely secular and may be performed by any entity in society. And it may be quite valuable. It is kingdom of the left, valuable. And there are good reasons to bring about health and stability in society. But what is the Church’s forte in the intersection of mercy?

The Gospel gifts bring forgiveness and beget merciful living. Lives that have received mercy and grace cannot but be merciful toward the neighbor. Love. Thus, the merciful washing of Baptism, being buried therefore with Christ by Baptism into His death, produces merciful living. I began noticing that sacramental texts in the New Testament were often followed right away with parenetic text, or text about the importance of living and loving in one’s vocation toward one’s neighbor. So, Romans 7: “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ (aka Baptism), so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4).

In absolution, the merciful word of the Gospel begets merciful speaking and living. Just look at the parable of the unmerciful servant or steward. The master has compassion on him, (εσπλαγχνισθη) esplagchnisthe, and forgives his whole debt. And the man goes out right away, grabs his fellow servant by the neck and says, “Pay what you owe! Pay what you owe!” It can’t be.

In the Supper, Christ gives himself for us, that we might give ourselves to our neighbors. This koinonia of the body and blood of Christ, then quickly in 1 Corinthians 12, is described very directly in ethical terms. We are one body together. Paul says, I believe in Colossians. And if one member suffers, do not all suffer with it? This is said specifically in relationship to the Lord’s Supper. And Luther takes off on this at length, at least in 1519, on the sacrament. “Repentance ought to produce good fruits. The greatest possible generosity to the poor” (Apology 12: 174). Therefore, it is my contention that we cannot turn away from the needy, particularly in the church, but we cannot turn away from the needy without denying the very sacraments of Christ.

Christ’s mandate as an example of love for the whole person remains our supreme example for life in this world, and for care of the needy—body and soul. Christ’s Palestinian ministry combined proclamation of forgiveness and acts of mercy—care and healing. Just look at the first chapter of Mark, for instance. Mark 1:34 says, “And He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” And, of course, the demons knew who He was. And then verse 35, He gets up early in the morning, goes out, and He is by Himself to pray and they come upon Him again. Then Jesus says “Agomen (let’s go)! For this I came to preach.” Then, right away, while He is preaching in their synagogues, the whole of Galilee comes out to Him, He is casting out demons and there came to Him a leprous man, kneeling down and saying, “If you will it, I can be clean.” And then, splagchnisteis, having compassion on him, Jesus reaches out and touches him and says, “I will it. Be clean.”

L-R The Rev. Jobst Schone of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany, the Rev. Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium and the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison stop for a photo following the Reformation Day service held during the conference.

So, what do we see in the life of Jesus? He goes proclaiming and caring. And it is the case that virtually nobody who comes to Jesus with an empty hand goes away empty-handed. Sure, the rich young ruler goes away empty-handed, but nobody who comes to him goes away empty-handed. I used to think that when I preached these texts that had to do with bodies in trouble . . . I preached, for instance, on the friends letting the paralytic down through the roof, I preached on that text only about the forgiveness of sins. But, does it not mean something that Jesus not only forgives his sins, but He says, “Take up your mat and go”? He healed the man! Now, certainly Jesus is the Messiah. He’s breaking into time as the Messiah. The Kingdom of God has its advent. But is not the Church the continued presence of the Kingdom of God on this earth? And if it is, then we are the body of Christ and the speaking of the Gospel is part of what the body of Christ does and also the caring for people in need. It is absolutely essential to this body.

Christ likewise sent forth the apostles to proclaim the Good News and to heal (Luke 9). Christ mandated that His Gospel of forgiveness be preached to all, Matthew 28 and Mark 16, and that all nations be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Christ also left His church a feast of His body and blood under forgiveness, life and salvation. In describing the events of the Last Day, Christ noted the importance of mercy in the life of the Church. “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these My brethren, you have done it also unto Me” (Matt. 25:40). The Church has a corporate life of mercy.

There is absolute support in the New Testament for acts of mercy, love and kindness done by individuals within the realm of individual vocation, whether in family, church, community or home. Moreover, the Old and New Testaments clearly bear witness to a corporate life of mercy of the people of God. Indeed, “corporate” comes from “corpus,” that is, “body.” As in hoc est corpus meum. Through the body of Christ, incarnate and sacramental, Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 12, the body of Christ mystical is created. Thus, when one member of the body suffers, all suffer(1 Corinthians 12).

Acts 6, the creation of the protodiaconic office, and St. Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem clearly bear witness to the Church’s corporate life of mercy based on these theological foundations. Acts 6 occupies the Church. The Church has a specific need. The apostles say, “We don’t have time to respond to this need. Let’s set up a special order to take care of it.” The people choose the deacons, the apostles lay hands on the deacons for the task. It is ordered. It is intentional. It is specifically a corporate act to meet the need of the church. Both Leah and Walther and Gearhardt, by the way, all say that part and parcel of the apostolic witness is concern and care for the needy within the Church, and that specifically the apostles freely give this task because of the arrangements they had to deal with. They give this task to a diakonic office.

I had never read that in seminary. I had never seen it for some reason. Even though Dr. Walther in his pastoral theology says, “within the officium” within the official duties of the pastoral office is care for the poor, the needy, the weak and the orphan. And he uses specifically these passages: Acts 6, and also references to Paul’s great collection for Jerusalem. Paul in Acts 11 and 12, after persecution occurs, the Church is spread far and wide in the late forties, and they’re preaching in Antioch and what happens? Through the apostles’ preaching among the Jews, some who are non-Jews begin to believe. This changes everything because now all of a sudden you deal with all the laws of Moses, the purity laws. Must one become a Jew to become a Christian? As you know very well, what do they do? They immediately called to Jerusalem. Jerusalem sent Barnabas down to check it out. Barnabas says, “Yes, these are really Christians. They are former pagans, but they are Christians.” And then he says, “We need somebody to help us take care of this problem and understand it. We need an expert in the law. I will travel north and get a guy named Paul.” He goes up and gets Paul, brings him south. Paul says, “Yes, it’s true.” And then before they went back to Jerusalem, I am convinced it is Barnabas’ idea, but Barnabas says, “Okay, we’re not just going to go ask for koinonia from the apostles. We are going to take them some money, because they are suffering.” And I will give you a hint. If you come to the Missouri Synod with money, asking for fellowship, it will go much more quickly. Much, much more quickly.

The apostles accepted the diakonia, the koinonia it is called. The charis. The great collection, 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is called a charis, a grace. In it the greatest words of the New Testament are used to describe the collection for the poor: a grace, a diakonia, a leiturgia, a koinonia. And Paul occupies himself after that protocollection, and ends up on his third missionary journey, but he occupies himself for the better part of the decade collecting money for the poor in Jerusalem. As a demonstration, both of the eschaton, that is the collection coming from the Gentiles, and also the koinonia, the fellowship of the body.

So, Lutheran Confessions explicitly and repeatedly state that the work of diakonic love, alms, charity, works of love, is an assumed reality in the Church’s life. So the Confessions don’t go on at length about this. However, there are certain specific passages that are indicative. Like Smalcald Articles, articles 249. The Church can never be better governed and preserved than if we all live under one head: Christ. All the bishops should be equal in office, although they may be unequal in gifts. They should be diligently joined in unity of doctrine, faith, sacraments, prayer and operum caritatis, works of love.

The vocation of mercy is addressed in the Church at all levels according to the New Testament whether local, regional or international, and we participate in that. I will pass over that and make these available to you later.

Let me just make a couple of notes as we end. There is a multiplicity of diakonic vocations in the Church. And the Church, according to Lutheran tradition and the New Testament is free to create offices for specific need. There is one absolutely necessary office in the Church’s life and that is the Predigtamt, the Office of the Ministry. Beyond that, everything is for good order and for the bene esse, the well-being of the Church. We have created in the Missouri Synod, following a long historical precedent, the office of deaconess. And this office is, for us, a great blessing. You see deaconesses represented: Cheryl Naumann is here and Grace Rao was here. These women have received thorough seminary-level education. It is an opportunity for women to be trained at the same theological level as the men. And as we get more and more women serving in congregations in specific areas of need. Also it is our deep desire that women more and more become the founders and those who actually administer and run institutions of mercy. So much needed in our context.

“If we dare to combine a rigorous orthodoxy with rigorous care for those in need, that is a powerful, powerful combination for our day.” – LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison

For those of you who have ordained women or have struggled with the ordination of women, the office of deaconess is a wonderful opportunity to be faithful and yet give women every opportunity to study theology at the highest level and to participate in the life of the Church. And by the way, it is much easier just to have one of the women come up and tell why you shouldn’t have women pastors.

The Church’s work of mercy extends beyond its own borders. Much of the New Testament bears witness to the responsibility of Christians to love each other. However, just as the Gospel goes out, “fFor God so loved the world that He gave,” you are sent. The first verse, the first word of the first verse in the Ordination rite is, “Go, therefore unto all nations.” We go, as Church. We go out. We go to the highways and byways. We go to where people are hurting and are in need.

And finally, the Church cooperates with others in meeting human need. We have, in the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms, great freedom in what we call cooperation in externals. Without altar and public fellowship, nevertheless, we can join together with other Christians, other individuals of good will and go at issues that are common concern in responsible ways.

I would like to see us, for instance, come to a common agreement with conservative Anglicans or the Roman Catholics on a comprehensive, some sort of pastoral approach to live-in and marriage situations. It could be a way where we support one another very much, and we are not requiring altar and public fellowship. I am sure there is something we might do together. I have been increasingly disturbed about having to stand up and say “no” to homosexuality while knowing full well that the Missouri Synod has very little to offer those who struggle with same-sex attraction and their families. I would love to see us cooperate in the area of providing care, responsible care, to those who are challenged by same-sex attraction. There are many different areas where we can cooperate with other Christians of good will, and even beyond that, with non-Christians.

So, these are just a few thoughts that came over a number of years and ended up being some strong guiding principles and conviction. I think the danger of Confessional Lutheranism is that we concentrate on dogma, proclamation and administration of the Sacraments, which are the sine qua non of the Church’s existence. Nevertheless, if we do not love our neighbor, if we do not dare to get dirty, Luther says, “Jesus becomes incarnate in our flesh, and we take on the flesh of our neighbor when we serve our neighbor in love.” If we refuse to live an incarnate life, a life where we become incarnate in our neighbor in need, we render the Gospel a clanging cymbal, I am afraid. The powerful piece for us, I believe, is to combine, as so many of you know, even much, much better than the Missouri Synod—Madagascar for instance, India—many places you see it far better than in the Missouri Synod. If we dare to combine a rigorous orthodoxy with rigorous care for those in need, that is a powerful, powerful combination for our day.

Thank you.