Newtown ‘debacle’ reopens old wounds for Missouri Synod

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matthew harrison

The Rev. Matthew Harrison was elected July 13, 2010 as the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. RNS photo courtesy LCMS.

ST. LOUIS (RNS) A decision by the leader of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to censure a pastor for participating in a prayer service for victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre has reopened old wounds for an often politically divided denomination.

The Rev. Matthew Harrison asked the Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn., to apologize for participating in a public interfaith vigil with President Obama two days after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at the town’s elementary school.

Morris apologized and Harrison accepted, but the exchange sparked a media firestorm with charges that the 2.4 million-member denomination was intolerant, insensitive or both. On Sunday (Feb. 10), Harrison said he made a bad situation even worse.

“As president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle,” he said. “I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community.”

Now Harrison’s handling of the Newtown service is almost certain to be a factor as he seeks re-election in July when delegates gather in St. Louis for their triennial convention.

The Missouri Synod’s constitution prohibits members from taking part in worship services that blend the beliefs and practices of Lutherans with those of other faiths and Christian denominations.

In 2001, a similar moment threatened the administration of Harrison’s predecessor, the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, after he allowed a pastor, the Rev. David Benke, to take part in an interfaith prayer vigil at Yankee Stadium in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Conservative elements in the church called for Kieschnick’s removal, and Benke was eventually suspended in June 2002. Benke was later reinstated, but the episode dogged Kieschnick’s presidency. He lost re-election in 2010.

In a recent email newsletter, Kieschnick said “the overwhelming majority of people both in and beyond the LCMS who hear the request for apology and/or removal shake their heads in disgust and dismay.”

In 2004, the synod — under Kieschnick — issued guidelines for participating in public events, including the acknowledgment of “once-in-a-lifetime” situations which “can be evaluated only on a case-by-case basis.”

The LCMS constitution states that members must denounce “unionism” — mingling of Lutheran and other Christian theology or practice — and “syncretism,” the mingling of Christian and non-Christian theology or practice.

“I did not believe my participation to be an act of joint worship, but one of mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event,” Morris explained in his apology. “However, I recognize others in our church consider it to constitute joint worship and I understand why. I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far.”

The controversy over the Newtown vigil had flared on the Internet even before the Dec. 16 service as conservative voices within the synod began criticizing him online for planning to participate.

Perhaps the harshest critics were those affiliated with the Brothers of John the Steadfast, a group who identify themselves as confessional Lutherans who stress strict adherence to the Book of Concord, the 16th-century work that defined the central doctrines of Lutheranism.

Confessional Lutherans were also critical of Kieschnick for allowing Lutheran participation in the 9/11 event, and the Brothers of John the Steadfast are credited with helping Harrison oust Kieschnick three years ago.

Morris defended himself on the Steadfast Lutherans website, citing the disclaimer “that no clergy member present was endorsing the religions of others, or recanting any portion of their own beliefs, but only offering their love, care, and prayer for their families and communities.”

But the Rev. Timothy Rossow, a pastor from Naperville, Ill., and Steadfast Lutherans’ leader, compared the disclaimer to a man whose wife had caught him with a prostitute and who offered her an excuse that “it was OK because before we had sex we each claimed that this had no bearing on any other physical relation that we have, right or wrong, with any other person.”

Another pastor said that by participating in the service Morris had sinned. “There is no other way to say it,” he wrote.

One commenter said Morris’ participation in the service “does more harm to the souls of the survivors than any gunman could ever do.”

“Does anyone else agree that Pastor Morris’ action is more abominable than those committed by the gunman?” the commenter asked.

“Yes I do,” Rossow answered in a post that followed. “The gunman killed the body which lasts for 70 or 80 years. … False teaching and practice kills the soul which lives for eternity in heaven or hell.”

Rossow calls Harrison’s heavy hand in the Newtown situation a “come to Jesus moment” for the president, and many conservatives believe Harrison took a stand for Lutheran orthodoxy.

“In Matthew Harrison God has richly blessed our Church with a truly confessional theologian,” wrote one pastor on the Steadfast Lutherans site.

But some pastors and academics — most of whom did not want to speak publicly — reacted angrily to Harrison’s moves against the Connecticut pastor.

“I would hope that this latest action by Harrison would be sufficient to lead LCMS electors to remove him from the office of president and to replace him with someone who is wiser and more evangelical,” said the Rev. Matthew Becker, interim pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Michigan City, Ind.

The Rev. Scott Seidler, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Mo., sent a message to his congregation saying that “with thousands of other pastors and church leaders from across our denomination, I find President Harrison’s actions to be both outside the bounds of his denominational authority and inconsistent with the example of Jesus Christ himself.”

Seidler said that Lutherans “will not soon forget the heavy-handed reproof of a young pastor who interceded for the little children. It is quite possible Matt Harrison is a one-term president.”

(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

  • Carolyn Parry Tilford

    Harrison is a disgrace to any faith community and should be removed immediately. He lacks any compassion, feeling or any other attitrube of a Christian as we are supposed to be.
    My two great grandfathers came here from Germany and both helped establish Luteran churches, both Missouri Synod I might add. I am totally ashamed to be Missouri Lutheran at this point and if this is what LCMS stands for then it is time to rethink their so called “theology”. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Don Heller

    Please remember that the LCMS does not represent all Lutherans.

    Love has to rank ahead of the law.

    Grace and Peace!

  • An “Old Lutheran”

    Heller; “…does not represent all Lutherans”…who claim the name. Very true. The ELCA is more closely aligned with Zwingli, Calvin, Armenians, Wesley, etc.; evidenced by pulpit and alter indifference. A subject you would be well advised to explore. “Love” in the politically correct context can be promiscuous. The use of the term “Law” is an ambiguous term which means nothing apart from the two great inter-related doctrines of the Bible, Ie. Law, and Gospel, (There is a proper distinction). Unless of course you are living in the Hebrew Bible only, and then one must ask which; Civil dietary, ceremonial.

  • an “old Lutheran”

    “Rethink”? Possibly re-learn and understand.

  • Don Heller

    Old Lutheran, I think you have made my point quite well. Thanks for your help. I wish it were not so.

    Grace and Peace

  • An Old Lutheran

    Heller; And your point is——-Doctrinal indifference. In other words; Whatever you believe, teach, and confess really isn’t important, and “all roads lead to heaven”. This is the zeitgeist. It is popular and it is shallow. It is also very piestistic.
    Glad I could be of some help.

  • Don Heller

    Ok live by the law and your purity codes. The Pharisees and Saducees had that down to a T.
    “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”…. “Love The Lord your God… And your neighbor as yourself. Who is my neighbor?”
    Jesus did not choose the one who kept the law and purity codes “correctly”. He chose the unlovable, impure dog called a Samaritan who only kept the law of love as the righteous one of his parable.

    He had troubles with those law keepers who missed the law of love.

    There will be more in heaven than those whose theology is pure and right. We are saved by grace through faith… Not by passing a confirmation test. Whose theology and practice is without fault anyways?

    Yes I do believe that God’s grace is wide. We can discuss this in that city where the river flows from the throne… And there is no need for sun or moon. Unless we are saved by our theology, then there will be no need of that city…there will be no need of that light because God will be alone.

    Love is the fulfillment of the law.

    Grace and Peace! 🙂

  • An Old Lutheran

    Heller; It is clear that you have agressivly taken the foundational topic to another level of self righteousness. See your 8:01, and your first paragraph of your 8:48. On another related topic on this site, I have said that Harrison stumbled in the area of polity, (politically correct). The yeast of pietism in your tradition is clearly feeding your preixisting bias, and is nothing more than an opportunity for you to show it. Your emphasis of “The Law” reveals a lack of understanding of “The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel”. ” If one is to err, it is best to err on the side of the Gospel.”
    Re. your “Love is the fulfillment of the law”;superficially, that sounds good. So, is it your understanding that WE fulfill the law? A typical claim of Armeneism. (A related subject is decision theology). Our understanding is that The Christ fulfilled the Law, and it is He in me through faith that responds in the fulfillment through the Gospel, manifested in love.
    I do believe we are essentially on the same side in this discussion, but the aparent influence of post-reformation theology (pietism) has affected your ability to be objective. Indeed, subjectivity is the hallmark of most of the “isms” within pietism.
    Smilie face.

  • Don Heller

    Go in peace brother

  • An Old Lutheran

    And also with you.

  • Tamara Meinecke

    Thank you for your witness, Don Heller.

  • An Old Lutheran

    “And put the best construction on everything”?

  • Trey

    Jesus says the law can be summed up in this: Love the Lord thy God with all your heart and all your mind. This is a summary of the first, three commandments, which include the following: you should have no other gods before me and that one should not misuse the name of the Lord. Giving the impression that the Triune God is the same as false gods is violating the law of love. While we have all fallen short of God’s Law, it should not be vitiated (Matt. 5:17-19).

    I would also note that Rev. Seider forgets that it is the purview of the President of the MIssouri Synod to speak when a pastor publicly sins since he is the elected leader of Missouri Synod churches. Moreover, Seider needs to read the Bible, where Jesus rebukes Peter publicly on numerous occasions- get behind thee Satan! Also, Paul publicly rebuked Peter for acting contrary to the Gospel by making ceremony laws, moral laws.

    Jesus did not come to rationalize our sins, but rather to atone for them.

  • pmichaels

    What I like about this article is that it NAMES the bad guys… these “brothers of John the Steadfast.” They are like a cult within the Missouri Synod. Glad that someone is exposing them!
    What isn’t being said much right now, tho, is that the right wing cannot continue to LOVE Harrison the way they have AND be totally pleased with how he’s handled it. After all, HE has now apologized (see his blog)… and as far as the right wing is concerned, there’s nothing to apologize for. If anything, Harrison should be more “steadfast” in opposition to public outcry and go full speed ahead in persecuting not only this pastor, but also everyone else in the denomination that believes in him.
    After all, persecuting dissent is the MISSOURI WAY.

  • An Old Lutheran

    On such a public site such as this, I am reminded of 1 Cor. 6:1; “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to the law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” I am also reminded of the 8th commandment, (bearing false witness)(( with bias)). Are the entheusiasts so insecure that they must resort to the court of popular opinion, even to those outside the church? It would appear to be so.

  • pmichaels

    I’m very glad that this embarrassing episode _continues_ to get attention in the media. Thanks to social media etc., I’m sure the word is getting out to the lay people. A one-term-Harrison presidency would be a _start_ to fixing the problems in missouri.
    One thing that should be clarified: anytime the conservatives rag about “sharing a stage with a Jewish Rabbi, or the Baha’i religion,” they’re being very disingenuous. Any of the conservative mouth-pieces commenting here would be just as upset if the pastor in question had shared a stage with members of only other Christian denominations. All you Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians out there…. **YOU** are considered heterodox. Read the stuff they write about you on sites like Only _their brand_ of Lutheranism is the “orthodox” faith.

  • pmichaels

    Again… notice…. all you other Christians reading this are “outside the church.”
    This is standard conservative missouri synod doctrine.
    It’s good for you to know this.

  • An “Old Lutheran”

    A fine example of Machiavellianism. “The employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct”. (Feel free to look up” duplicity” for a refresher), “The end justifies the means”.

  • pmichaels

    For all of you Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and just plain evangelicals out there who want to read more about how HETERODOX you are–as judged by conservative Lutherans–feel free to visit and surf these sites.

    There are more, but you get the point. It’s not that they think you’re all going to hell. It just means it’s like an accident if you make it into heaven… what with all of the “false doctrine” you have. Whereas their brand of lutheranism is the TRUTH.
    In defense of most misouri synod lay people, THEY don’t think this, nor do many pastors in the denomination. But these organizations are currently in power through their man Matthew Harrison.

  • pmichaels

    Terminology 101:
    “enthusiasts” = today’s evangelicals and/or charismatics.
    “heterodox” = anyone who doesn’t believe the right-wingers brand of Lutheranism, including their own fellow missouri synod members.
    BTW, in case you’re not tracking on the whole heterodox thing, it means not so much that they think you’re all going to hell, only that IF you make it to heaven it will be inspite of all of that false doctrine you have. This is their brand of lutheranism. They ALONE are the orthodox ones. Thankfully not all missouri synod lay people and pastors are like that, but you are seeing it represented well here in the remarks made by some.

  • An old Lutheran

    pmichaels; Thank you for revealing yourself. I would recomend you study the Book of Concord.—-If—you are a LCMS Lutheran, it is included in the constitution of Synod, and each congregation. Read your constitution, and the Concordia, In addition specifically, the SD article 10. This may be new to you.
    Live long and grow in peace.

  • pmichaels

    Of course a bunch of noisy right wing radicals in a denomination is not that big of a deal (usually). I suppose every denomination has some. It’s just that in the missouri synod they managed to get their man elected leader. AND THAT’S the point to this whole sordid affair.

  • An Old Lutheran

    If the synod is so bad, and you disagree with the confessions contained in the constitutions, Why stay? You are free to go. No one can stop you. Even Keischnick was bound by the constitutions. I suggest following Osteen, Oprah, et al, or one that has even more potential for you, and that would be the Unitarian/ Universalists. Nothing there for you to be angry about. You could write your own menue. That bein said, I suspect that in time, you would have complaints there too.

  • pmichaels

    Heterodox heterodox heterodox.
    Folks just keep telling yourself that. That’s what these people say you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re saved or go to mass every Sunday. You are heterodox. Here’s an interesting exercise, why not email Matthew Harrison and ASK HIM if he agrees with the brothers of john the steadfast? Ask him if HE thinks you’re heterodox. You can email him at

  • pmichaels

    Better yet, maybe we could get Matthew Harrison to simply go on record with, say, the Religion News Service or some other worthy outlet of news and have him list all of the Heterodox Denominations.

  • An Old Lutheran

    If our friend here would do an indepth comparative theology study, he would discover every one of the denominations he names, plus others have their own specific set of beliefe/traditions. Many of which are in contradiction with the others in varying degrees. I need not name all of them, but they would be considered heterodox,/ errors, or contradictions in each of their own eyes. Ask a Catholic about open communion, a Baptist about infant baptism, a Methodist about “this represents” in communion, or double predestination in the Presbyterians that haven’t been influenced by Armeneist’s theology. Disagreements are abundant among all of them. Our friend’s rose colored glasses leads him to think it’s about one against all the others, when there is equal opportunity of disagreement. Universalism is his desire, and that is where he should go. That may please him——for a while.——or—— He could join PETA, and protest dog shows, or beef consumption.

  • pmichaels

    Heterodox, folks.
    Just keep telling yourself that.

  • An old Lutheran

    Yes, just don’t confuse him with the facts. It gets in the way of personal issues/hatred.

  • Robert Moehle

    John Wesley said, “Dost thou love God, and serve Him? It is enough! I extend thee the right hand of fellowship.” Ernest Angeley said, “Jesus can change your heart but stupid is forever.” Guess where I stand.

  • An Old Lutheran

    Let me guess where you stand; On the steps of a church which emphasizes “Deeds, not Creeds”. (Emphasis of works over what is believed). Sounds a Little like Jack Horner, when he pulled out a plumb: as he said “what a good boy am I”. Your quote of Ernest Angely reminds me of the “two who went up to the temple to pray”. Consider “the one, not so much as lifting his head said; “God be mercifull to me a sinner”. “I tell you, this man went his way justified”.

  • Sherri Strand

    Fact in 2001 the Missouri Synod condemded one of their own for praying with spiritual leaders from other faiths including Muslim, Christian and Jews and condeming the 9/11attacks
    Fact in 2012 the Missouri Synod condemded one of their own for prayingwith spiritual leaders from other faiths including Muslim, Christian and Jews after the slaughter of innocent children in Newtown CT .

    Ironic that cults like Missouri Synod get to enjoy this country’s religious freedoms (and tax exempt status) while preaching the message of intolerence .

    the number charges of racism and other lawsuits against “Missouri Synod” is a matter of public record . This is a dangerous CULT not a church

  • Sherri Strand

    Curious what the total compensation package Dr .Matthew C. Harrison and his wife get from LCMS housing and other perks and benifits ?

  • Alan ia lutheran

    someone said on here Love comes before law…. Well the Lcms confort dogs from N ILL brought much love and healing through confort dogs and prayer. seen on nation news many times. This type of mercy in action is whats needed in time of greif. not joint prayer with others who dont believe in the triune God.
    I stand with Harrison.

  • Don Heller


  • Samo

    I find it “sad” that the book of concord seems to have more authority than the holy bible….for SOME Lutherans.

    That’s too bad.

    Let’s not forget that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

  • cheesehead

    I left the missouri synod. I was raised in that version of lutheranism. When i wwent to parochial schools i liked it as a child. I amm thankfuul i went to the missouri synod. I got a good understanding of the the religion. However as the years dragged on i began to see how “corporate”, and how inhuman lack of empathy the missouri synod began to exhibit. I turned to another version of christianity on my own (not due to marriage). Ii am thankful i left. I think the missouri synod has no empathy towards others. The ministers tend to be arrogant and self righteous. Judgemental. Argumentative about stupid dogma (WELS has this issue too). I think the missouri synod tends to teach folks to judeg/condemn others of other faiths without understanding why people are of that belief. The misouri syndo doesnt tend to teach its members to not pick at the speck in their brothers eye without removing the log in their own first (quoting not exxxactly Jjesus of the new testament.). I thank God for opening my eyes to make the decision to leave such a cultlike damning religion as the missouri synod. God bless everyone!

  • Hampton

    @ Allan ia lutheran: So it’s ok to bring your dog to minister and pray with non-LCMS people but it’s NOT OK to bring yourself to pray with non-LCMS people? That’s crazy you compared it this way! Thank you to PMichaels and Don Heller for trying to bring the truth here.

  • Cheesehead

    Missouri Synod=the MISERY synod. It’s a SIN to be happy in the MISERY synod!

  • Old Catholic – Now LCMS

    Heterodox or not, I am a former catholic turned LCMS. These inter-christian flamesrs really disappoint me. While I and many in our local congregation disagree with some of these exclusionary tactics and many of us within the LCMS are working to rid the synod of this type of stuff (much will go with the older, leading members), please remember the Roman Catholic Church has its own set of these “rules” which are just as “exclusionary” and nasty. And in many cases in my estimation much more. This led to my leaving the Catholic faith.

    But that said, the main reason I joined the LCMS was because of many things “shared” with Catholicism. This particularly applies to social issues like abortion, homosexuality, infant baptism, etc. And I don’t feel any “fire and brimstone” either as the only message I have gotten at church is certainly “grace through faith” when “I truly listen”. While I always get Law, it is ALWAYS followed with gospel. ALWAYS. I personally felt more “fire and brimstone” when I was a Catholic. If you want to talk about works, I could go on.

    I would like to suggest that I do consider devout Catholics with the LCMS to be amongst the spiritual brothers and sisters who are practicing a faith closesest to what God wants. We would do well to work together esp given the common enemies we face esp secularism and fanatical Islam.

    LCMS rants like this don’t do anything except tear us apart.

  • Karen Sandstrom

    They also attacted a bishop who prayed in the Yankee Stadium prayer service following 911. Pray for those who.hate and discriminate in Jesus name. Pray that God protects you from them. They are very sad people. They only serve their own fear.

  • john hus

    i was brought up lutheran my dads side are czech and morvarians and slovak lutherans my mother is italian roman catholic and i have a hard time listening to these people bash my church because they are uptight and liberal and want the lcms to pray with non christians and hold hands and sing kumbuya it says in the bible most clearly that light and darkness do not mix thierfore why would a chirstian pray with a muslim or a buddist or a bahai or a hindu or a athiest or agnostic or anyone who do not believe in the same god as we pray to the same can be said with why would a non lutheran come to the lords table for commuion at a lcms church if they do not hold to the same doctrinal beliefs of the lutheran church even the roman catholics and eastern orthodox churches and many other protestant denominations hold to a closed commuion including many conservative reformed and presbyterian churches so why do we have to change our views to be politicaly correct for a bunch of liberal left wing chirstians

  • Augustinian

    “Unless we are saved by our theology…”
    Hate to break it to you, but MANY believe that, in Eternity, we shall appear before Our Lord–Who will immediately pepper us with a theology exam—and you’d better get a perfect score! The LCMS has done enormous good since its inception in the middle of the 19th century, but is also a diva-like brand of Lutheranism very adept at shooting itself in the foot. Sad.

  • Don Heller

    Sarcasm, wit and other forms of higher thinking humor are gifts from God to those who can use it to expose things to light!

    How we who are faith alone, grace alone , word alone also add a long list to what that means is incredible!