By Stephen Krueger
When I was a second year student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (’72-’73), I happened to catch a course offered by Dr. Oliver Harms, the then past president of the LCMS. The course was entitled, “Christian Churchmanship.”
The course was a treat, offered by that Texas, Christian gentleman who oversaw some of the most creative years of our church. “Ollie,” by his elegant, gentle and, yet, serious demeanor, taught the subject less by what he said than how he weekly presented himself to us. At least, that’s what always struck me about what he had to say, mixing civility with confession and a deep love for the church, institution though it is, with warts and all. According to Oliver Harms, one must respect the church, its traditions, its persons, in all things and pastors, especially young, idealistic ones, would serve that church far better by employing their listening skills and Christ-centered, loving and patient hearts than by treating the church to the shrill sounds of cultural criticism and youthful aspirations to change the world by tomorrow or else.
I remember how the class almost unanimously took exception to Ollie sharing his views about clergy being involved in the then maturing years of the Civil Rights struggle. We rolled our eyes when Harms voiced his concern about “our pastors” wearing clerical collars and marching, now in protest to the Viet Nam conflict. To Harms, such a thing did not respect the interior struggle of the Body of Christ over monumental social issues. To us, smitten by social activism, Harms was an old man from another time.
Looking back and far closer to Ollie’s years than I was over three decades ago, I realize now that Dr. Harms was bringing to the classroom a wisdom about Christian churchmanship which probably had not even occurred to young men who were still in the first quarter century of their lives. The craft of “Christian churchmanship” is an uncommon thing, hard to describe with words but something one recognizes when one sees it. In Harms’ course, I remember when one classmate took the teacher on about, “But how can we stand idly by when … ?” Dr. Harms gently took the critique, eyes beginning to mist over, and said, “Son, it is a matter of knowing when to love the church enough to be patient.”
To Harms, who came from the parish, the church was people, ever learning, ever growing and always on the adventure that is the pilgrimage of faith. Christian churchmanship is about understanding that and seeing more in people than they often see in themselves. Little did we know or understand at the time that Harms himself, ever loyal churchman that he was, had been steamrollered out of office by forces cut from a different cloth. In it all Dr. Harms would never complain. To me, Oliver Harms was the model of what a true Christian churchman is all about.
Recently, it is our opinion that the synod witnessed a refreshing reclamation of Christian churchmanship, the kind which the LCMS sorely needs right now. With the President’s office and the chair and vice-chair of the Council of Presidents, the chairperson of the Board of Directors and vice-chair, along with the Secretary of the synod, issued a joint statement in opposition to the noise of the threat of a legal suit. The cacophony comes from a group of malcontents at the results of the 2004 convention, claiming somehow that the President of the synod rigged the whole affair. We commend the elected leadership for putting aside differences and speaking with one voice on the matter. The statement rises to the occasion of genuine Christian churchmanship which has put the church itself, with all of its very human processes by which it struggles to make decisions, first. Nothing useful or God-pleasing is to be gained by having the synod or its President or its convention process dragged through the secular courts. Such a thing will only discredit us all in our witness before the world.
Prior to the statement, however, Christian churchmanship gave way to what has become an all-too-frequent theme in Missouri. The long-standing editor of The Lutheran Witness and Reporter, David Mahsman, was terminated by the Board for Communication Services. Five of that Board, its majority, are appointees by the synod’s Board of Directors. From what we can see and have heard, Pastor Mahsman was guilty of nothing more than doing his job faithfully and well. In a statement of concern over the strange firing, President Kieschnick communicated his deep concern to the church. We agree.
With a background in journalism, Pastor Mahsman had taken the approach that the church is best served by fairly and accurately reporting the news in an even-handed way, giving the church, especially in the Reporter, the opportunity to hear both sides of an issue and making up its own mind about conclusions to be drawn. A new policy statement by the Board for Communication Services appears decidedly uncomfortable with that approach. Board members must now “sign off” on articles before they are to see the light of print. Apparently, Pastor Mahsman did not fit into this new, managed scheme of control.
Christian churchmanship trusts and this act of eliminating David Mahsman is a breach of that trust. Christian churchmanship has faith that given the facts the whole people of God can arrive at decisions which reflect the Christ-like and Spirit-led heart of the entire church. Managed news simply does not operate out of the paradigm of such faith. Rather, it implies that people are not mature enough or sophisticated enough to handle a fair and even-handed presentation of the facts.
We remember Pastor Mahsman and his family in our prayers as they seek God’s will in their future and with our thanks to David for having done an exemplary job as editor. About the synod’s organs of communication, however, we have our grave doubts for the immediate future. Managed news by a few who are peddling a particular ideology is often called by another name. Propaganda. Propaganda is something which, in a free society, is not tolerated for very long. It is “news” which has lost credibility.
Needed: an uncommon Christian churchmanship. I trust from his sainted place in heaven, President Oliver Harms, a teacher I didn’t deserve, would agree.