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Missouri Synod set for fight over who should preach to Lutherans

Candidates for the Office of the Holy Ministry sing during a church service that is part of graduation ceremonies at Concordia Seminary on Friday, May 20, 2016. Photo by David Carson, courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

HAMEL, Ill. — Half a millennium since a Catholic priest named Martin Luther railed against Rome for being out of step with Jesus, sparking the Protestant Reformation, discord continues within the ranks of his devout followers over the role of Lutheran clergy and the laity.

“We are fighting a 500-year battle,” the Rev. Heath Curtis said last week at a conference at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Hamel, a tiny farming town in southern Illinois.

The words “Holy, Holy, Holy” were painted high on one side of the wall, the German translation on the other: “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig.”

This is the heart of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a conservative-leaning network of 6,000 churches whose roots are in northern Europe. Though the headquarters is in Kirkwood, more than 2 million members are spread across the country.

Like other mainline churches, the synod struggles to find new blood in the U.S. — both in the pews and at the pulpit. The decline helped motivate some men often in remote and inner-city areas, to bypass four years of seminary training to serve a congregation in need.

Lutheranism has always been built on a tension between ordained clergy and what is called the priesthood of the believer, or the laity, and over who can do what. While the pool of men — the church ordains only men — answering the call to enter seminary and serve as pastors has shrunk in recent decades, some want to enforce higher standards on ministers who aren’t ordained and strip away the so-called “Licensed Lay Deacon” credentials.

Since the synod made efforts in 1989 to officially allow trained deacons to serve as pastors in exceptional situations, the grass-roots practice of elevating a parishioner from within a congregation to ministry has exploded to include more than 500 people.

Gottesdienst, a journal on Lutheran worship, put on the recent conference in Hamel for traditionalists to plan how to curtail the practice, which some presenters attacked as a threat.

“I for one am not surprised by the entire lay ministry fiasco we have had to endure for nearly 30 years,” said the Rev. Burnell Eckardt, reading from a paper he prepared. “Confusion, division, and unrealistic expectations have ensued.”

That kind of fiery rhetoric is expected at the synod’s July convention in Milwaukee.

There, the licensed lay deacon issue is expected to be a contested topic called to the floor for debate with the synod’s current top leader joining the call for reform.

In a speech at the recent conference, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the synod, said the Lutheran church has “gone far beyond” the “controversial action” taken in 1989 at a convention in Wichita, Kan., that created the deacon program. He put his stamp of approval on a special task force that essentially seeks to strike and rebuild.

Among the recommendations, licensed deacons who preach and administer communion would apply to be examined by the synod and, in some cases, receive more theological training before being approved for ordination. Their new status would be “specific ministry pastor.”

The task force says districts also should explore other means to address pastoral challenges, such as “multipoint parishes, technological aids, and greater use of inactive pastors.”

“We believe that through the mild suggestions of the task force we shouldn’t have to close a single congregation,” Harrison said. “In fact, we want more people trained to assist their pastors in the appropriate way.”

Brutal facts

As president of the synod the past two terms, Harrison has publicly held a hard line against homosexuality and interfaith worship. He’s called on intensive theological training for clergy and expansion of international missions.

Writing recently about the “brutal facts” of the synod’s 40-year decline in membership, Harrison said 95 percent of the members are of European descent and they are not having nearly as many children.

“Society has changed,” Harrison wrote. “Marriage is delayed. Education comes first. Debt affects marriage and families. Delaying marriage and child rearing means far fewer children. Children are very expensive.”

Realizing the highest growth potential is abroad, the synod is in fellowship with more than 30 church bodies worldwide, particularly in Latin American and Africa. Harrison says Lutheranism “sputters and fails” anywhere clergy don’t have extensive seminary training. For that reason, he said, church leaders in Ethiopia and other areas have asked the Missouri synod for theological support.

“They know they need pastors against glory theology, against prosperity theology and against all kinds of charismatic nonsense going on in Africa,” Harrison said at the conference. “We cannot shirk seminary education. It is our crown jewel because it teaches our men what they need to know and give for the gospel.”

In the June 11-14 presidential election, Harrison faces the Rev. Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Seminary in Clayton, and the Rev. David Maier, leader of one of the synod’s largest 35 districts, Michigan.

“This issue is indeed troubling the church,” Meyer said in a Q&A released by the synod, referring to the Licensed Lay Deacon program.

But Maier, of Michigan, said deacons are “highly trained, educated and certified annually… I am thankful for their hard work, labor of love, allowing themselves to be used by God in surprising ways.”

An awesome responsibility

Lay deacon leaders are relatively uncommon in the Midwest. Farther out, synod districts like the Irvine, Calif.-based Pacific Southwest District depend heavily on licensed deacons, with 87 among the ranks.

The Rev. Larry Stoterau, president of the district, said he is supportive of the program and has “grave reservations” about suggested changes.

Under the task force recommendations, he said, those licensed deacons who don’t go on to be ordained will “lose recognition that they are doing meaningful ministry.”

He said licensed deacons often serve in urban churches in Southern California that can’t afford a full-time pastor, others at larger parishes in support of full-time pastors.

The Rev. John Juedes said he’s trained 35 deacons over the past 17 years in the San Bernardino, Calif., area and described it as a strong movement that is surprising people.

“God is behind this,” he said. “I have been able to see the deacons learn to minister and see their ministries multiply and bear good fruit. There is a controversy between those who see the benefit and those who don’t have much experience with it.”

One of his students was Willie Martin, 58, of Grace Lutheran Church in Banning, Calif. His regular job is in auto repair.

A former elder, Martin said he “felt it as God was leading” him to pursue more training. Licensed since 2004, he said he’s helped fill in as a preacher.

Citing Martin Luther’s standards, he said, God has given him the ability to preach in a manner that all people can understand.

“I cannot convey in words what an awesome blessing but what an awesome responsibility that is,” he said.

He said another licensed deacon he knows has long hair and tattoos. He doesn’t preach but fits in well with the biker crowd. He said their licenses are good for a year.

“If we mess up,” said Martin, “we don’t get our license renewed.”

Martin went down a different track than the class of 80 students who gathered Friday morning at Concordia Seminary in Clayton. They were graduating from a four-year program and about to become fully ordained pastors at churches throughout the country.

The Rev. James Voelz started his sermon telling them to expect “tough days ahead.” As the pastor put it, they were going out to serve in a culture where abortion is accepted and homosexuality is a condition that is glorified and given legal status.

“Within an increasingly hostile context, what are you to do?” he said, telling them to immerse themselves in scripture and Martin Luther’s writings.

One of the new graduates was Matt Gulseth, 31, who was headed to be an associate pastor in Clovis, Calif. He said everything he’d learned in seminary was in service of the Gospel.

He was aware of the licensed lay deacon issue on the table for convention and described it as a tough one.

“We are always trying to learn from our mistakes and blessings,” Gulseth said. “We are always refining, spending time figuring out how to do ministry in a new context.”

(Jesse Bogan writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

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  • And here, I thought it was only the liberal denominations that were losing membership– or so we keep being told. But then, there is this:

    “As president of the synod the past two terms, Harrison has publicly held a hard line against homosexuality and interfaith worship.” The whole “our tribe is better than your tribe.” nonsense. What could the hardline be, except to demonize, pathologize, criminalize, and sinnerize gay people– the only sinners that get the extra special loving treatment.?

    And this:

    “As the pastor put it, they were going out to serve in a culture where abortion is accepted and homosexuality is a condition that is glorified and given legal status.”

    Homosexuality is glorified? Where? Who? No one has been asking for glorification, unless my dictionary defines it as “Please stop hitting us with your club o’ righteousness.” And as for legal status, we’ve had that for centuries– criminalized, defined as not worthy of citizenship or participation in society, let alone having our families and children being treated decently by the law.

    Maybe the reason you’re losing membership in this country is the reason so many churches are: you make a statement like “homosexuality is a condition that is glorified” and expect to be applauded for it, rather than vilified for 1900 years of hatred disguised as sincere religious belief.

    Is it any wonder why most young people today, the very ones you are trying to attract, are NOT coming to your churches? Could it be that they would rather be friends with gay or trans people, than with YOU?

  • There have been a huge cultural change since the 1960’s in the US regarding attitudes of the role of women, traditions, family, work, further assimilation into the general culture (this synod has a very strong German- American base) and ecumenicalism. During this same period, the Missouri Synod as a whole has become more conservative and more bound to tradition then the larger society with the exception of some congregations. There are multiple issues at play besides a stance on homosexuality. Also, it is easy for a Lutheran to find an alternative congregation (liberal, conservative, moderate etc.) and still retain a Lutheran identity. This synod is similar to the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic or Baptist Churches. These churches have also lost significant portions of their European-American base. People like the “non-denominational” prosperity/nontraditional theology churches.

  • How is accepting gays as being human beings with equal rights “glorifying” homosexuality?

  • This is an exercise in irrelevancy. Having been born and raised in a LCMS church, I was genuinely converted to Christianity in 1980. I quit trusting in the LCMS FALSE GOSPEL based on infant baptism and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior. That resulted in repenting of my sins, which I, nor anyone else I knew growing up in the LCMS did.
    The LCMS’s total collapse is what is needed, and the people involved in this pseudo-Christian demomination need to repent and get saved!

  • The LCMS is far more Christian in its believes and outlook especially its support of the poor, education for the young and aid to the needy then many of the churches that think only adult baptism is important. The LCMS incorporates both the gospel and tradition. Waving hands in the air and shouting all about does not make you a better Christian. It is what you do all week in your deeds

  • Yet another True Christian (TM) waving his hands at a bunch of other True Christians (TM) and explaining how they aren’t True Christians (TM).

    Christians have far more to fear from other Christians than they have from all of the gay people in the entire world, all of the woman ministers in the world, and all of the people who think abortion is a private matter.

  • They cannot conceive that people don’t have to have feelings about it at all. Thus you must either Condemn or glorify.

  • Who should preach to Missouri Synod Lutherans? Women, LBTG folks, a few men.

    Several rightwing churches are losing numbers. There are at least a dozen Lutheran denominations, all righties except the ELCA. All are shrinking, but the “liberal” denomination, the ELCA, is the largest.

    Shrinking righties:
    Brethren, Apostolic, Adventists, Christian Reformed, Presbyterian Church in America, Reformed Presbyterian, Congregational Federation, Plymouth Brethren, Exclusive Brethren, Free Methodist, Southern Methodist, Missionary Alliance, Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, and on and on and on.

    Excluding women, LBTG and other folks who don’t meet rigid requirements (like having a penis and only using it with the opposite sex) does not equal church growth.

    Last, I don’t think Jesus said “Go and make big churches.”

  • There are decent LCMS churches. Those are usually the ones that ignore a large share of the denomination’s rules.

    One of the big black marks against the LCMS involves 9/11. A religious service was held after the attack with many different denominations joining in a show of Christian American unity. The LCMS pastor who participated was censured or received some other type of punishment for praying with non-LCMS clergy. What a black eye.

    LCMS churches that adhere rigidly to denominational demands urge members not to associate with non-LCMS people. They are not to attend special services like funerals, weddings and baptisms in other churches. LCMS clergy must not join any ministerial associations that work together for the good of the community.

    Many, if not most LCMS members and clergy ignore that nonsense and conduct themselves more as Jesus advocated.

  • I agree. St. Louis is a little off the rails. The fact congregations own and control their sanctuaries allow some flexibility. It is not a denomination that fits the typical American church. It is an ethnic and cultural religion that most are born into or marry into. It is not a church that is built on folks shopping for the hip new fun congregation that fits their particular socio economic outlook that is in fashion this week..

  • Growth at the expense of the clearly delineated precepts detailed by Jesus and His appointed apostles in the New Testament is not an option. I would rather see the Church shrink, than grow by unbiblical accommodation to sinful living, of whatever stripe.. Jesus taught, “Straight is the gate, and narrow the way, and few there be that find it.” (No pun intended)

  • The post-9/11 service at Yankee Stadium was actually an interfaith service, not just inter-Christian. The same issue arose again for LCMS after one of their ministers engaged in a similar service after the Sandy Hook kindergarten massacre. President Harrison reprimanded him — I guess this is what the article above is talking about when mentioning his “hard line against interfaith worship.”

  • Treating people decently and humanely is against the clearly delineated precepts detailed by Jesus and His appointed apostles in the New Testament?

    I guess some churches think so. Of course it implies that treating people badly is really central to their faith.

  • It is one thing to believe homosexuality is a sin.

    It’s quite another to treat gay people differently than you treat all other people, especially under color of law. It’s quite another thing as well to believe a bunch of stuff that simply isn’t true in order to justify your ill treatment of this particular class of winners. It’s quite another thing in addition when, like the catholic bishops of Malawi, you claim to love the sinner but hate the sin, and at the same time, recommend to your government that imprisonment on an Afrocan jail is an appropriate response to that sin.

    So what do you think?

  • Prison, I would agree is a wholly counterproductive response to the question at hand.

  • Decently and humanely is certainly in order, but in this context the distinction between what is legal in civil society, and what is required spiritually in the church are two different things. No one of my acquaintance practices personal hostility to gay individuals who are welcome as visitors within the church, but as homosexuality is defined as sin by Peter, James, Paul, and John in the New Testament, its active practice in not consistent with the doctrines of the faith. This is certainly a case where separation of church and state is appropriate.

  • Kinda misses the point. You are looking for exceptions and workarounds from treating people humanely and decently. So obviously such animus is of greater importance than the underlying concept of love thy neighbor.

    To act well towards others because you are forced to by civil laws and society speaks badly of the beliefs of one’s church. Malice being of such central importance that it must be protected as an article of faith. It’s a very negative view of Jesus’s teachings and does little to show Christianity in a socially redeeming light.

  • And what would be a productive response? Lies and demonization? Shunning? Judging? Ignoring logs in your own eyes? Legalized discrimination? Malice? Forced “treatment”? Lives of unhappiness and desperation and anonymous sex? Not treating others as you would like to be treated? People getting married to the opposite sex? Disadvantaged families and children?

  • Interesting. You say it would be a counter productive response.
    Not an Inhumane, vicious, wrong, or immoral response.

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