By David L. Strand
ORLANDO, Fla. — Meetings of the Synod’s Council of Presidents (COP) typically are a blend of formal business and theological study of significant issues confronting these leaders in their work.
This rule held true — particularly on the “study” side of things — at the COP’s Nov. 13-15 sessions here, where the group convened under its current theme, “Ecclesiastical Leadership in a Post-Church Culture.”
Recent events and ongoing realities in U.S. political and social life — the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case, the contraceptive mandate in the nation’s health-care law, the scourge of abortion, the continuing assault on traditional marriage and the ascendancy of homosexual rights — naturally thrust this “post-church culture” theme to the forefront.
Ohio District President Rev. Terry Cripe began the meeting with a confessional study of the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. The church, he said, whether it wishes to be or not, “is involved in politics again,” as evidenced by the Synod’s recent “Free to Be Faithful” campaign aimed at raising awareness in the LCMS of threats to our religious liberties.
Citing Luther throughout his talk, Cripe explained how Christians operate in both the Kingdom of the Right (the invisible, spiritual kingdom of God and the Church) and the Left (the visible, natural and rational realm of the secular world), noting that God is in control and fully at work in each. The implications for Christians straddling the realms are several, Cripe noted:
- They have the right and duty to protest laws that do not protect all citizens.
- They have the parallel obligation to advocate for laws that defend and protect all.
- They do well to argue their positions from natural law — the moral law of God ingrained in every human heart and imprinted on every human conscience (Rom. 2:15) — or from enlightened self-interest in the public square.
- They should feel free to encourage Christian legislators by reminding them of scriptural teachings.
The Two-Kingdom Doctrine, Cripe concluded, is a “dichotomy we do well to preserve,” being careful “not to fall off one side or the other.”
Becket Fund analysis
Two staff members from the Becket Fund, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in religious-freedom cases, offered their insights on the issue of church-state relationships. The Becket Fund worked alongside LCMS legal counsel and others in bringing the Hosanna-Tabor case — which centered on an employment matter at an LCMS school in Michigan — to the Supreme Court in October 2011. In its ruling, the court voted 9-0 to uphold the “ministerial exception,” allowing churches the freedom to continue deciding who should qualify as “ministers” in their denominations.
“A healthy society allows [religious people and institutions] to act according to [their] consciences,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the fund. “Our Founding Fathers worked hard to get this into our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.” But this right “has become diluted in the United States.”
Arriaga cited examples of current “confusion” in America concerning the freedom of religious speech, mentioning a school in Washington State whose students don’t hunt for “Easter eggs” but rather for “spring spheres.” She described a fire-fighting team in Rhode Island that isn’t allowed to pray. And she referred to a judge in Virginia who will allow the posting of only six of the 10 commandments — those that don’t mention God.
Referring to a letter written from his jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., Arriaga reminded the COP of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence that “good law must be in harmony with moral law,” adding the irony that the King monument on the National Mall makes no mention of God or even the honorific title “Rev.” before King’s name.
“Religious leaders need to tell their people what’s going on,” she said. “If a 13-year-old girl gets abortion-causing drugs, the insurance company can’t tell her parents.” If a private photographer in New Mexico (a real-life example) refuses to photograph a same-sex wedding, she gets fined $6,000.
“And things are going to get 10 times worse in the next four years,” Arriaga warned. “The government wants to supersede religion; the state is becoming the church.”
Arriaga’s colleague, Diana Verm, said our country has gone from providing universal, fundamental support for religious liberty to framing it as a “partisan issue.” And when the government makes religion a partisan issue, “we have a problem.”
“You’re the ones on the front lines,” Verm told the COP. You need to tell your pastors to “preach the Gospel and teach about religious liberty.”
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, President Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer led a study on “Church and State in 1 Peter.” Meyer’s discussion intrigued the COP to the point of its asking him to stay longer for a Q-and-A session.
“We have to plunge ourselves into the problems of the world,” Meyer said. We always will need scholars and apologists, but we also need “more cross-cultural experiences for our seminary students.” America in 2050 still will be predominantly Christian, he predicted, “but it won’t look as much like us.”
Report of the president
LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison presented a three-part report to the COP.
Part 1 dealt with an overview of an upcoming Concordia Publishing House book, The Church & the Office of the Ministry by C.F.W. Walther, revised, edited and annotated by Harrison. In highlighting key points from the book’s theses, Harrison emphasized the importance of pastors staying focused on “strong Law and Gospel preaching.” Our pastors today, he said, “have to be on their A-game when people bring guests to church.”
Perhaps the Synod president’s most underscored point, one he took pains to make repeatedly, was that the pastoral office is one of service. He shared an anecdote from the night before, where he found himself in a conversation with a man from New Jersey — a man who had nothing to do with the various Lutheran meetings taking place before the annual Lutheran Church Extension Fund Fall Conference, which would begin later in the week.
This fellow, said Harrison, upon realizing he was talking to a Lutheran, said, “You Lutherans helped me clean up my house last week [in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy]. You people are the real deal.” There hardly could be a better, timelier example, said Harrison, of “the importance of combining the Gospel with rigorous acts of service.”
In Part 2 of his report, Harrison expressed satisfaction over the “peaceable and brotherly fashion” in which the Synod is dealing with constitutional challenges and infractions, particularly where such apply to international projects. He hailed the “fantastic” theological conference recently held in Atlanta, where leaders from confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide represented some 22 million Lutherans. Stoterau, who represented the COP at the conference along with Texas District President Rev. Kenneth M. Hennings, said it was “great to rub shoulders,” not just with the Lutheran participants, but also with what Harrison called “the growing cadre” of leaders beyond the Synod’s partners in the International Lutheran Council.
Turning to statistical realities, Harrison cited the sobering news that today the Synod is baptizing just 40 percent of the babies and others it baptized in 1980. Further, none of the Synod’s 35 districts grew in membership the past year. “We have a weight on our shoulders,” said Harrison. “But we’re here. The Lord has placed us here, and we’re going to do the best we can” to reverse these courses.
As is custom, the final part of Harrison’s report was held in executive session.
The Koinonia Project
Synod First Vice-President Rev. Dr. Herbert C. Mueller provided an update on the Koinonia Project, an effort to bring more harmony to controversial areas and relationships in the Synod. Despite encouraging signs of progress, Mueller said “this is a long-term initiative. It’s not going to be easy or quick. If it were, we’d be done already.” Even so, several district presidents spoke of feeling heartened by the progress they’ve seen in their regions. “I’m seeing greater camaraderie,” said one.
“We’re digging deeper into things where we know we have divergence. The men keep coming back to talk.”
The Office of Public Ministry
In another theological presentation (“Against the Functionalists”) on the Office of Public Ministry, Montana District President Rev. Terry Forke elicited a number of reactions similar to those heard during Harrison’s review of the Walther book. Bottom line: If there is going to be an Office of Public Ministry (and, of course, there is), then the men holding that office must carry out the functions of it. Merely occupying the office is not enough. The office and its functions are two sides of the same coin. And the highest calling of the office, its highest function, said Second Vice-President Rev. Dr. John C. Wohlrabe Jr., is servanthood.
Taking that servant’s role into the marketplaces and public squares of America, where the issues of today would have been unheard of not long ago; boldly proclaiming Law and Gospel as we always have and yet with a clear-eyed understanding of what is going on in our culture; teaching our people the importance of understanding and protecting their religious freedoms (taking their Christian citizenship seriously) while creatively reaching out, with their pastors, to untraditional sources of potential new Lutherans — these were the themes the COP carried away from Florida.
Before the meeting closed Nov. 15, COP Secretary and Eastern District President Rev. Dr. Chris C. Wicher reported that 258 LCMS congregations were calling sole pastors; 49, senior pastors; and 64, associate or assistant pastors, for a total of 371 congregations calling pastors.
The COP next meets Feb. 16-19 in St. Louis.
Posted Dec. 19, 2012