by Matthew C. Harrison
The first step in being better than you are is to be who you are.
The LCMS is a large and complex organization, but congregations are the fundamental and divinely mandated building block of the Synod. The Church is Christians gathered about the rightly preached Word of God and properly administered sacraments. That’s why we have pastors. Christians bear witness to Christ wherever they live and work. Not much beyond that is mandated by the Bible. There are manifold viewpoints on many different issues and challenges the Church faces, and the Bible grants great freedom for congregations to respond to the needs and mission opportunities that confront them in their various contexts.
Together, however, we do have a strong and clear confession of the faith. Every church worker and congregation pledges to uphold and be subject to the truth of Holy Scripture as God’s divine and inerrant Word, and to confess the Lutheran Confessions as a true exposition of Holy Scripture.
The Synod went wobbly on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible from the late 1950s and into the 1970s. A whole host of issues began to be viewed by some as undecided and open questions — a six-day creation and the existence of Adam and Eve, prophesies of Christ in the Old Testament, the historical truth of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the nature of His resurrection, the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament, church fellowship, closed Communion, the church’s mission work and more. The more these views — quite “new” to the Synod and at odds with what had been confessed from the beginning (1847) — were spread about in the Synod, the more disruption, disagreement, antagonism and worst of all, political rancor, took hold. After the Synod re-asserted its confession (e.g., A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles), it was not but a decade before a new challenge arose in the so-called “church growth movement.” Beginning in the 1980s, debates swirled about contemporary worship, the liturgy, the role of the pastor, the role of the laity, etc. Then came a decision to allow men to serve as pastors long term, without actually being made pastors via call and ordination. That brought division and controversy, and as we have learned through the process of making these men pastors, many suffered from bad consciences having to serve as pastors without a call and ordination.
The first step in being better than you are is to be who you are. Every day that I wake up as Synod president, I resolve to do what’s right. When I was called to be head of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, I met with Dr. Barry to get his advice. (Little did I know that he would die just a few weeks later.) His advice to me was very simple: “Every day, walk across the road and pick up a stone and carry it to the other side. Pretty soon, you’ll notice that you’ve moved quite a pile.” He gave me that advice not 10 feet from where I’m writing right now. Folksy, but true.
The LCMS has plenty of warts and imperfections. That’s always true of the Church on this earth (see Paul’s letters to Galatia and Corinth). But she’s the best thing going. When I say we ought to be who we are, I’m not saying don’t innovate, think outside the box, try something new, take a risk for the sake of the Gospel mission. I’m saying, in all these things we cannot and must not lose our fundamental, biblical, confessional and (above all) Gospel bearings.
- Let’s be who we are. “The Son of man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
- Let’s be who we are. “All scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).
- Let’s be who we are. “By grace you are saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves. It is a gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
- Let’s be who we are. “Baptism now saves you!” (1 Peter 3:21).
- Let’s be who we are. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:22).
- Let’s be who we are. “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27).
- Let’s be who we are, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). We are the Lutheran Church, the church of Law and Gospel. We are the LCMS, whose first president wrote the greatest book ever on Law and Gospel!
- Let’s be who we are. As the 2016 convention (at 84 percent) and many others asserted, there is plenty of room for flexibility in worship, but we don’t ditch Confession and Absolution. We don’t ditch the readings. We don’t ditch the creed. We don’t ditch faithful Law and Gospel preaching. We don’t mess with the Lord’s Words of Institution. Doing so amounts to ditching the Gospel!
- Let’s be who we are. As Hermann Sasse pointed out, the LCMS is unique in both highly treasuring the office of pastor (“Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you,” Heb. 13:17) and having a faithful, active laity, deeply involved in the life and mission of the Church.
- Let’s be who we are. God treasures children, family and education. So do we.
- Let’s be who we are. Pastors are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1; see also Apology XXIV, 78–80). There is pastoral discretion in giving the Lord’s Supper, and we grant it, but simply placing a notice in the bulletin inviting non-LCMS people to the Sacrament without any contact with the pastor is not pastoral discretion. And by the way, the LCMS has a higher retention of members than churches practicing open communion. Let’s be who we say we are.
The office you have placed me in has many responsibilities. The one repeated most often in the LCMS Constitution and Bylaws is that of doing whatever the president can to uphold the public teaching, doctrine and practice of the LCMS. That includes, by the way, fervent desire to reach out with the Gospel. Until my last hour in this office, I will press toward this goal. God help us all. And He does.
— Pastor Matthew Harrison