(RNS) — Rev. Matthew Harrison defeated a three-term incumbent to become president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) on July 13, fueled by the support of his denomination’s more conservative wing.
Harrison, 48, will lead a 2.4-million member denomination with a drastically reduced structure, which he opposed. After almost 10 years as the denomination’s director of disaster response, he is scheduled to be installed as president on Sept. 11.
Harrison discussed what’s ahead for the LCMS and its relations with the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You defeated three-term president Gerald Kieschnick in one ballot. Why do you think you won?
A: The outgoing president has served the church with as much vigor as he possibly could. I think there’s also a desire in the church to move forward with changes.
Q: So your election is a sign that people wanted change?
A: Yes, I think people wanted change. I think there’s a longing for folks right now to emphasize the basics and, within a tumultuous and changing society, folks want to emphasize the best of the tradition and fundamental ideas that propel them in faith.
Q: The Missouri Synod is known as a conservative denomination, but some have said it or its leadership were not conservative enough. Do you agree?
A: I think the challenge we have to face internally is the proper approach to meeting culture and accommodating culture. Obviously we have to take a very ancient New Testament message and bring it into a fast-paced and ever-changing post-modern world. I think some thought the essence of Lutheranism was, at times, being compromised.
Q: Do you plan to take the church in a more conservative direction?
A: I am at once a rock-ribbed traditional Lutheran and at the same time believe fully that that very confession, that very conviction, drives us into the maelstrom of today’s post-modern life and particularly toward our neighbor.
Q: But will you take the LCMS in a more conservative direction?
A: I think we have been drifting, and so I will in good faith uphold the church’s confession.
Q: What might that look like?
A: We have a strong, orthodox, creedal Christianity. We believe that the fundamental teachings on social issues — sexuality and those kinds of things — have been determined already in the New Testament. I believe that we should be and we are going to continue to be uncompromising on the conviction of the truth of the Lutheran Confessions of Faith while at the same time generously recognizing that the church is far beyond our little Missouri Synod. The church exists wherever Jesus and his Word is.
Q: The ELCA and LCMS hold different positions on sexuality, but your denomination seems to still hope the ELCA will reconsider its votes last year supporting same-sex relationships. Why is that?
A: We’re all hoping against hope. We are nothing but sinners in the Missouri Synod. We’ve had enough internal [struggle] not to be haughty regarding the ELCA. The [ELCA’s] decision was a departure from Christianity and the New Testament. The way back is through repentance.
Q: Do you expect to continue relations with the ELCA on efforts focused on immigration, refugees, world relief and disaster assistance?
A: What I have said publicly [is] the status quo will not hold. I have also said publicly that I am not for summarily ending work with Lutheran World Relief, for instance. The discussion with the ELCA has to be about to what extent the pervasive and unbiblical culture of the ELCA permeates those organizations. … We’ll put out a report in a year and work from there.
Q: But you’re not ready to end any relationships immediately?
A: That’s right. The church has not given us the ability to do that, nor would I recommend it because there are millions of people who are served and assisted, and we believe in the ability to work with other Christians even though we may profoundly disagree.
Q: You were the executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care. With the restructuring adopted at the convention, were you left momentarily without a job?
A: Yes. It was a great and amazing irony that I essentially lost a job on Monday [July 12], and I had publicly spoken against the restructuring and did not ask for the new authority to be vested in the president. And the next day the delegates gave me a job and placed me into that very position.
Q: Now, what will you do with this position, apparently with power you didn’t want?
A: It’s all very humbling, frankly, and I think it is going to be enormously challenging to walk on the tightrope that is in front of us. The church expects us to act in a way that is more streamlined and effective. We’ll do the best we can there.
— Adelle M. Banks
© 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Posted July 23, 2010