A Lutheran Pope?

Editor’s Note: In his recent “missive” to the “2013 convention delegates and other friends” President Harrison indicates that he has appointed a group to develop revisions to the current LCMS procedures for addressing dissent within the church body.  Because Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker was twice found not to be guilty of advocating false doctrine when he made his dissent public, whatever revisions are suggested will, no doubt, be more centralized and fall completely under the direct influence, if not total control, of the president of the synod. Official dissent will likely no longer be allowed in the LCMS.

For readers of Luther’s “Address to the Nobility of the German Nation” this will come as quite a shock. In that document, Luther challenged the idea that the Pope was the final interpreter of the Scripture. Instead, all Christians, the priests of God, have the power and responsibility to speak the Gospel and to judge the truthfulness of teaching. They exercise this power, often through pastors well acquainted with the original languages (Schwiebert, pp.470, 471). The present practice outlined in the LCMS Constitution and Bylaws (Constitution and Bylaws 2.14) certainly reflects Luther’s concern. This is why President Harrison’s call for amending this bylaw of the constitution is so alarming and could very well lead to the establishment of a Lutheran Pope.

This concern is well illustrated in the following reply by Dr. Becker.  It is worth underscoring that he was officially cleared of all charges against him by several different adjudicatory bodies and synodical officials. President Harrison’s accusation against Dr. Becker flies in the face of these official decisions and amounts to an unjust attack on Dr. Becker and his commitment to teach Scriptural and Confessional doctrine.

–Dr. Robert Schmidt


E.G. Schwiebert, Luther And His Times (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing Co. 1950).

Handbook, Constitution and Bylaws of the Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod, 2013.


A Brief Reply to Harrison’s Recent Attack

by Matthew L. Becker


Matthew Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, won’t let up. He continues to be on the attack, despite the fact that I have been expelled from the LCMS clergy roster and will be seeking to become rostered in the ELCA. Case in point is his recent “missive” to “2013 convention delegates and other friends” in which he writes:

A now formerly rostered LCMS clergyman for two decades openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture and the confession of the Synod on the inerrancy of the Bible, evolution, homosexuality, the ordination of women, church fellowship and more. I have appointed a group that includes Secretary of the Synod Rev. Dr. Ray Hartwig and others from both the Commission on Handbook and the Commission on Constitutional Matters to suggest revisions to our current system for dealing with such cases. Small but significant changes will correct the problems and help assure we never have another such situation. God help us. 

This is not at all about the occasional pastor or retired pastor who may have scruples about a certain public position of the Synod and isn’t on a mission to tell the world about it. It’s about drawing a clear line should a church worker aggressively and publicly reject the Synod’s clear biblical teaching on very significant matters.

Some interpret these comments as mere “saber rattling,” as “tossing a bone to his ultra-right base.” To me these words reveal a real effort on Harrison’s part to make sure that actual theological dialogue (at least about the matters he has named in his laundry list) is impossible in the synod. These issues are “off the table,” as Harrison has stated many times. Given the current climate in the synod–a climate that has been undergoing climate change (“global cooling”) for more than forty years–it is highly unlikely than anyone who makes a living in an official LCMS institution (e.g., a congregation, synodical agency, college, seminary, other institution, etc.) would ever dissent publicly from any synodical “position.” Such a dissenter would run the risk of losing his/her gainful employment. (Retired pastors are entitled to their “scruples,” but they dare not speak forth from a soapbox, online or otherwise… They will have crossed Harrison’s “clear line.”)

It is no secret that I have tried to foster dialogue about a few issues that Harrison wants off the table. Have I done so “aggressively”? Hardly. I tried to initiate actual dialogue through the publication of two essays, one on six-day creationism and the natural sciences (published a decade ago) and one on women’s ordination  (published sixteen years ago), but I got no takers. Instead, I was informed that formal charges of teaching false doctrine had been leveled against me. Harrison got elected, in part, because he promised to get rid of what he thought amounted to about “15%” of the LCMS clergy roster who disagree with “the synod’s position” on many of the topics in his laundry list (i.e., his articulation of what he believes the synod’s “position” to be on those matters).

It is also no secret that Harrison has supported those who filed formal charges against me. When I was attacked in this way, I felt the need to defend myself and the theological teachings I had set forth in those two essays. Although some have described what I have done over these past sixteen years as “baiting and swallowing my own hook, ” those are not the words I would use. The simple fact is, from my perspective, those who filed formal charges against my writings were insisting on theological positions that are unsupportable, that go against our confession of the doctrine of faith, that detract from the centrality of the gospel, and that put something else as the sine qua non in place of the one gospel. These two issues about which I have written and spoken are hardly settled issues in the synod today–despite what Harrison and others might assert.

Isn’t it interesting that two different synodical panels, comprised of several LCMS pastors from different parts of the country, concluded that what I had written in those two essays and the way that I had gone about defending what I had written (over against my accusers’ understandings of what is essential to the Christian faith) did not constitute advocacy of false doctrine?

“Openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture…”? No. I vehemently reject that slander. These words of Harrison tell us more about him than they do about anything I have written or spoken. His opinion–and that’s all this phrase of his represents–does not reflect the official exonerations I have received from several official LCMS entities over the past decade. These official judgments have been rendered by district presidents, a district board of directors, a review panel, a referral panel, an LCMS university board of regents, a university provost and president.

I was never found to have “openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Holy Scripture.”

Sure, I have been critical of some of the synod’s convention resolutions and statements (e.g., those that support creationism, that attack evolution, that reject women’s ordination), but my criticisms are themselves grounded in Holy Scripture and the evangelical pattern of doctrine that is exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions. I contend that Harrison’s own position marks the real departure from the Scriptural, evangelical teaching about faith, God the creator, the holy ministry, and Christian freedom. He is insisting on teaching that is just plain wrong–scripturally and confessionally. My argument from the Scriptures and the Confessions indicates why the synod’s defense of six-day creationism and its insistence on a male-only pastorate are not merely unconvincing theologically but are actually harmful to the synod’s mission in our western, scientifically-informed, egalitarian culture.

When I was formally and officially cleared of last year’s charge of teaching false doctrine (dealing with my openness toward women’s ordination), Harrison fumed, ranted, and threatened. Earlier this year he did so on his Facebook page. He also did so on the synod’s website. Leaving aside the question about the propriety of his actions in this regard, one may ask the following questions: About whom did he fume? Against whom did he rant? Whom did he threaten? Not me, at least not directly. His anger was directed against the referral panel and its decision. He later seemed to be publicly angry with the NW District President, who had his own reasons for not suspending me last year.

In my final telephone conversation with my now former DP (back in late June), he assured me that he felt he had no choice but to suspend me, given the pressures he had been receiving from Harrison and other synodical officials (e.g., convention resolutions against him). Throughout the past several years that these charges have surfaced and been dealt with, my former DP repeatedly assured me that he did not think I was guilty of advocating false doctrine. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that a majority of district presidents on the Synod’s Council of Presidents (the COP [an apropos acronym, no?]) would not renew my clergy rostership, given the charges that had been leveled against me (despite my being repeatedly exonerated), and that it was just a matter of time before the COP gave me the boot from the clergy roster, given Harrison’s influence over the majority on that Council.

It will not surprise me if Harrison’s efforts at “Gleichschaltung” (getting the synod to be in the same gear, goose-stepping together, no one out of line) will lead eventually to his own gears getting jammed.

The one, sufficient gospel opens up a better way of doing theology, a better way of being a “synod.” It creates the condition in which baptized people, grounded in Christ, who are equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, can draw upon those resources to address in an evangelical manner all the issues that appear on Harrison’s laundry list. Real dialogue is difficult, a bit messy, complicated. Gleichschaltung may work for a while, but as a long-term tactic, it has always failed.



Facebook Twitter Email

5 thoughts on “A Lutheran Pope?

  1. Even after having left the “one true faith” of the LCMS I am still saddened by it daily. I always feel like Harrison would be happiest if he could just sit around with the American Catholic Bishops and fume about “the state of the world”. I admire those who are staying the LCMS and speaking the truth to power. The power of God’s Grace was hammered into my head from the pulpit and in the classroom and I am forever grateful but my former brothers, without the help of my former sisters, have lost their way towards a puritanism that values Walther more than Luther and perhaps more than Jesus. But I am a layman, and I quit. So what do I know?

  2. Amazing that the Roman church has leadership which demonstrates compassion, care for the poor, concern for the future of the only planet we have, and the head(s) of the LCMS seek power, control, and censorship of thought, exploration, and sincere probings of the nature of our world and its truths. Sorry, but after nearly 50 years of ordination, I’m out of this loop and can no longer engage such stupidity and narcissism behind a collar. So sad.

  3. Rev. Eugene Brueggemann sent me the following note and asked that I post it here:

    The Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations has assumed some of the characteristics of a magisterium (an official entity that defines and defends authoritative church teaching), but not all of them. The CTCR can only commend their opinions to the Synod. The synodical convention then becomes the decisive body in ways which are directly contrary to the intention of the founding fathers of Missouri (cf. Art. VII and VIII.C. of the Constitution). According to Art. VII Synod’s resolutions are advisory to the congregations which compose the Synod, and Art. VIII.C. states that the word of God, not the Synod, shall decide disputed doctrinal questions. The Constitution reflects the experience of the Saxons after their flirtation with episcopacy under Martin Stephan. Walther’s theology made the congregation the essential church (legitimatizing their defection from the Saxon Church) and the laity’s reaction to Stephanism was to take absolute control away from the clergy.

    But the Constitution begs the question, Who decides what the Scriptures teach? The first answer is: The Lutheran Confessions. Since the Lutheran Confessions do not give specific answers to contemporary doctrinal questions, Walther and his immediate successors insisted that the Scriptures were clear enough to answer all questions. They used the lectern (the Seminary), the pulpit, and the press to persuade the congregations of the rightness of the Synod’s position in doctrinal controversies. The St. Louis Seminary faculty in the Walther-Pieper era was a de facto magisterium.

    In the mid-19th century there was a movement to combine the theoretical (St. Louis) and the practical seminary (Fort Wayne) in St. Louis, as it had been at the beginning. Advocates of this gave as one of their reasons that there should be only one seminary faculty, that is, one magisterium for the Synod. I believe they were right.

    The Seminary faculty as magisterium was an ad hoc system which broke down after Pieper. Among other things, the two seminary faculties began to disagree over doctrinal issues. The desire for conformity after the Scharlemann incident was channeled through the CTCR. The CTCR had a benign charter: to study and advise the Synod. Since New Orleans it has morphed into a kind of supreme doctrinal court. The actions of the New Orleans convention shredded the Constitution and ushered in a new era of coercive doctrinal control. Harrison has no constitutional authority to act like the head of a magisterium, but he has the Preus precedent of acting as if he has such authority. His appeal to CTCR documents and synodical resolutions as final authority has been backed most recently by CCM decisions. Electing a new and gospel-based president will make a difference only if he is part of or leader of a gospel-based renewal movement.

    Rev. Gene Brueggemann

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *