By Robert Schmidt
The election of Matt Harrison and his conservative comrades have left LCMS moderates concerned about the future of the Synod and their place in it. Conversations are resuming with the Wisconsin Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Opposition to gay marriage and clergy are put forward as defining issues for the church body. Dismissing Deborah, Hulda, Anna, Junia, and other women who have exercised authority and publicly spoken the word of God, the Synod has imported the “order of creation” to deny women the ministry of word and sacrament. What is a moderate to do?
The Bible is full of stories how God’s good servants are on the losing side of conflicts. Under threat of his life Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb in the wilderness, Discouraged he wonders of he is the only one left to care about God and God’s covenant with his people. Yes, 7000 are left but what are they against the royal house, the bureaucracy, and the army? Hoping to be impressed with the revelation of God’s mighty power, all Elijah gets is a still small voice.
Like Elijah, God’s good servants (moderates and conservatives) are a diminishing minority in the public sphere. Of course, like always, there are the sycophantic religious voices of support for the powers that be. Those, however, seeking economic justice for the poor, for immigrants, and for the victims of war are vastly outnumbered. On that level, concerned Christians in the prophetic tradition are just a remnant of those church folk that spoke out against the Viet Nam war, worked tirelessly to aid refugees, and celebrated the end of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. Moderates in the LCMS (and some conservatives) are part of that first remnant.
Lutherans in the LCMS are also part of an aging, shrinking denomination. Apart from a few successful congregations, the majority of LCMS parishes worry about their dwindling attendance on Sunday mornings and the difficulties in meeting their budgets. One hears echoes of the words of Amos, “Fallen, no more to rise is the virgin LCMS, forsaken on her land with no one to raise her up. For thus says the Lord God, ‘the parish that went forth a thousand shall have a hundred left and that which had a hundred will have ten left.” All that is left is just a remnant of what was once before. Moderates in Missouri are also part of that second remnant.
Even more significantly, LCMS moderates are increasingly also a spent force within their own church body. After rallying around the initial candidacy of Gerald Kieschnick, moderates felt let down when he moved to the right and failed to champion their issues. As a result, few worked hard for him in the last election and predictably he lost. Most of those educated under Piepkorn, Caemmerer, Krentz, the Dankers, and Franzmann, have now retired from the ministry. Wearied from the battles of the seventies and the discouraged about the results of the last election, many moderates are also retiring from the politics of the Synod. Moderates in the LCMS are also part of that third remnant.
Yet as a “remnant” many may find the key to their whole identity, their whole future, and their whole strategy for coping. In the Scriptures God’s remnants are created, kept, and sheltered by grace. Recounting Elijah’s depression after being excluded by the powers, and speaking of the Jews who had clung to the promises of God, Paul continues, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”(Rom. 11: 4-6)
What is a remnant to do? Threatened by destruction Isaiah tells Hezekiah, “The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward.” (2 Kings 19: 30) Sustained by grace the remnant, survives by going back to their roots. When there is little hope of rain, roots go deeper. For moderates in Missouri, it is back to the Gospel. Long falsely accused of Gospel reductionism, moderates in Missouri are really “Gospel Expansionists.” Thus, moderates go back to the Gospel to see how it might be expanded not reduced. The Gospel trumps the law every time in a welcoming communion table, fellowship with other Christians, celebrating the ministries of women, and a patient understanding and acceptance of gay brothers and sisters. Knowing who you are and what you stand for may not sound like much of a strategy but a strong identity has preserved remnants to survive over the millennia.
Together with sending roots deeper, a remnant also needs to blossom where it is. The words of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon are instructive for the moderates in Missouri, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7) Moderates still have much to offer to their congregations and to the Synod at large. We are enjoined to pray for our church body, and to use our gifts to help it survive and thrive in bleak times.
One of the best ways moderates can bloom is in finding ways and means of serving declining congregations. Inspired by the Mission Affirmations of the early sixties, moderates took the early lead in educating laity for significant ministries, including the Word and Sacrament ministries of licensed deacons. This has enabled hundreds of smaller parishes to enjoy a full congregational life despite limited resources. While licensed deacons are currently under attack from conservatives in the Synod, demanding a seminary-type education for them is not going provide the help needed by a growing number of parishes.
Jeremiah’s counsel was informed by the knowledge that the captivity would not last. Though seventy years seems like an eternity to those whose public ministry is nearly at its end, it is but a short period of time in the history of the church, and . . . it may not take that long. Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt show how fast power can shift. A remnant need not remain passive when significant events propel them to an ecclesiastical “Tahrir Square.” Speculation continues on whether it might have been Jews that opened the gates of Babylon to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. The remnant, created by grace, remains alert and prepared for the unexpected grace to break into our closed world. Will it come with protests, shifting loyalties, and/or new alliances?
Above all a remnant lives in hope, clinging to the promises of God. Here one thinks of Simeon in the temple, having waited his whole life through the corruption in the temple and the high priests who were more interested in their advantage than in the poor who, foot weary, brought their infants to be dedicated to God. Absolutely powerless, he waited and waited for that which could not be calculated or weighed politically. To Simeon, as part of the remnant, it was revealed that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And that is our hope as the years increase, that we might see the Lord’s Christ even in the workings of our church.