By David Domsch
1 a obsolete : an act of stumbling b archaic : a cause or occasion of sin : stumbling block
2 something that outrages the moral or physical senses. (Merriam-Webster.com)
In recent weeks the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod tried to prevent a recurrence of the conflict that emerged when charges were brought against Rev. David Benke because of his participation in the Yankee-Stadium event after 9/11. President Harrison knew that some in our fellowship were likely to take offence at the actions of a young pastor in Newtown CT who participated in a community event following the tragedy there. Unfortunately, the actions Pres. Harrison took raise serious questions about his theology and competence. Rather than reducing the chance of conflict, his actions have again brought shame on the LCMS and reinforced the conviction of too many that the Gospel is not for them. For this, he should not be re-elected this summer.
The theological issues are important. The first revolves around the doctrine of offence. Paul clearly urges Christians to consider their actions to ensure they are not harming those who are new or weak in their faith. He also, however, (as did Luther) insisted that a Christian is obligated to stand up for freedom when it is challenged by those of a more Pharisaical bent who would impose human restrictions on that freedom. In this case, those the President expected to be offended were not those new and/or weak in the faith, but rather clergy supporters (primarily) who voted him into office – many of the same people who went after Dr. Benke in 2001. It is clear that those are the people who are giving offence to the whole church – but no action has been taken to reign in their incredibly offensive behavior. They get a free pass to spew hate on sites like Steadfast Lutherans. This massive misuse of the doctrine of offence should not exist at the highest levels of the LCMS.
A second – and perhaps even more important – theological issue is that the President’s actions clearly have become a stumbling block to those outside or new to the faith. Although the meaning and use of “stumbling block” may be archaic to Merriam-Webster, it has real meaning in the church and lies at the center of the offence caused by his actions. The “witness” given by his actions tells all that his supporters alone know the truth and are justified in denigrating all others – including those within this fellowship and all Christians not in this fellowship – for any divergence from what they consider acceptable. When the overwhelming majority of people outside the church already believe the church is too condemnatory and unwilling to respond to their real needs, this is the worst possible message to send. No one is interested in joining an organization that is so intellectually dishonest and self-centered that it condemns and demands an apology from a pastor who reaches out in love with the Gospel to help a community that is hurting. It is no surprise that the President’s actions have led to condemnation throughout the world and acute embarrassment to members of the LCMS. The President’s actions are a clear stumbling block to all who read of them.
A further point needs to be made about the role of a pastor. Yes, a pastor is supposed to preach the gospel faithfully – but that is only one part of his calling. He is also to be a shepherd – caring for and meeting the spiritual needs of the people he serves. He is not to “lord it over them” or demand adherence to his own understanding – but to encourage and help them grow in the faith. A pastor has a supervisor to help him in his work – in our church body it is the district president. In my view the pastor in Newtown was fulfilling his critical pastoral role of meeting the needs of his people in a time of tragedy. The LCMS President, however, chose to get directly involved by publicly disciplining this young pastor to deflect political pressure from coming at him by his own supporters. That is not his role or duty. Inserting himself into this role is a clear mark of a person who doesn’t understand his job – a mark of incompetence in any organization.
The issue of competence also has a couple of other facets. Prior to his election as president, Rev. Harrison led the LCMS World Relief and Human Care organization. While there, the fraction of contributed dollars that went directly to its stated mission declined precipitously. That organization compared very poorly with the performance of Lutheran World Relief, which is well respected and very efficient in making sure its donations are used effectively. It appears to this observer that much of the difference came down to the dollars that were spent by LCMS World Relief to fly its head around the world for publicity shots in preparation for the 2010 synodical elections. It worked – but such actions were certainly not a sign of competence to actually lead the LCMS.
Another facet is sheer inexperience in a highly visible position as leader of the Synod. This is not a position for on-the-job training. An experienced executive would have easily foreseen the embarrassment his actions would cause the church – and the offence he would be giving to all, both inside and outside the church. The church exists in a post-denominational environment, whether it chooses to believe that or not. Acting as if we can ignore the real needs of people because of our denominational exclusivity is a sure recipe for even more rapid decline. A president who would ignore those realities to mollify his strident and prickly political base is not competent to lead this organization.
The president has now asked forgiveness for his actions which have made the LCMS a laughing-stock around the world and given many who know little of the Gospel another reason to reject it, which is far worse. It is certainly incumbent on Christians to forgive – but that does not mean they should ignore the need to draw out consequences for such totally incompetent behavior – behavior that is the very definition of being a stumbling block for those of weak or non-existent faith.
President Harrison should not be re-elected this summer. He should be replaced by an individual who has the competence, theological strength and pastoral understanding to lead the LCMS.