By Sara Bielby
MILWAUKEE (July 10, 2016) — “ ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail’ [Matt. 16:18]. That’s Jesus’ promise.” With these words, the recently re-elected president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, opened his report to the church body’s 66th Regular Convention on Sunday.
A total of 1,106 voting delegates were in attendance at the opening of the convention, which takes place July 9-14 at the Wisconsin Center.
Harrison pointed out that this great encouragement and promise made by Jesus to His Apostles was true then. It has been true since, as he recounted in vignettes throughout the history of a Church challenged by persecutions and hardships.
And it is true for us today. “It is true — the gates of hell shall not prevail — in the face of a U.S. Supreme Court and other courts and legislatures throughout the land detached from eternal truth.”
Harrison also mentioned the decline of Christianity in the West, and notably, recent tragedies, including shootings in Orlando and Dallas.
“It is true in the face of the most rapid moral, social and religious decline in the history of this nation,” Harrison said.
In such a time as this, Harrison points the church to Jesus and His words: “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail.” The convention’s theme — “Upon This Rock: Repent, Confess, Rejoice” — echoes these words of Jesus.
Recounting the promises of Jesus in the Gospels, Harrison asked the convention’s delegates, advisory members and guests if they believed these words, and they answered with a hearty “yes.” In response, the president exhorted: “Jesus was bold. The apostles were bold. Let’s go on the offensive. Let’s be bold!”
Harrison outlined work being done by the Synod to assist congregations and members to be bold. A new program, “Everyone His Witness,” will assist laypeople, who “have the mandate to proclaim Christ, wherever the Lord puts them.”
Studies and statistics addressing the decline in church membership also will be available to congregations.
“We want you to know the facts, consider your unique context and opportunities, and to act in a calculated way,” he said.
Blessings and challenges
Harrison heartily welcomed the large majority of first-time delegates, who will hear during the convention about the wide reach of the work of the Church domestically and also its international impact: “There is simply no other confessionally and biblically faithful Lutheran Church in the world with the capacity of the LCMS … we are known the world over for this fidelity. It is our sacred vocation to ‘strengthen the brethren.’ ”
Three challenges before the convention were highlighted by the president:
• The role of licensed lay deacons will be carefully considered, with the goal of “a path forward which both allows us to care for challenging situations, and … brings us back into conformity with the Bible and Lutheran Confessions.”
• Adjustments to ecclesiastical supervision will be sought to hold accountable those in authority. “Since we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, baptized into His body, confessing His name, ultimately it must be the Word of God that rules among us, not individuals,” Harrison said.
• Discussion of a bylaw will be undertaken regarding the Synod’s Board for International Mission as the only sending agency of rostered workers to foreign mission areas.
The larger challenge underlying these issues is the local autonomy which that has developed over time at the cost of unity within the Synod, according to Harrison.
In spite of wide latitude in doctrine and practice, those who serve in district capacities “are remarkably similar in their basic convictions about Christ and their love for the Church of Christ, and their concern for it,” noted Harrison. He offered various points of focus toward a solution:
• The Koinonia Project, an effort in response to the Task Force on Synodical Harmony established by a 2007 convention resolution, which involves discussion within smaller groups.
• Further discussion on theology and practice within the Council of Presidents.
• Visitation of districts with participation of regional vice-presidents.
• A proposed move from a three-year to a four-year Synod convention cycle to reduce political activity as well as cost.
• Greater unity and cooperation between LCMS seminaries.
• Concentration on the domestic and international mission of making Christ known to the lost.
In keeping with the convention’s theme, in the face of these challenges, President Harrison exhorted the church to Repent, Confess, Rejoice: “Let’s boldly confess our sins … Let’s boldly confess Christ and His teaching … Let’s boldly confess the praise and joy of the Lord, and do it loud enough that the nations may hear!”
Sara Bielby is a deaconess at University Lutheran Chapel, Ann Arbor, Mich., and at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Monroe, Mich.
Posted July 10, 2016 / Updated July 26, 2016
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