Walther Calls the Evangelical Lutheran Church the True Visible Church on Earth; Matt Harrison Calls it the “Best Thing Going” ““ Final Blog from the Walther Conference

This final Walther Conference blog is a little late but alas, my first priority is the congregation that has called me to bring them the Gospel. I made the four hour drive back from St. Louis to Naperville yesterday afternoon so that I could preach the first of our four weekend services Saturday night. After that there was also the matter of finishing up Bible class for Sunday morning. So after a nice Sunday afternoon “pastor’s nap” (the Bears game for me really was a sleeper), and attention to some chores around the house, I have time to wrap up my comments from St. Louis. Once again, thanks to all at the conference for your good wishes on the success of the Brothers of John the Steadfast. The last presentation was possibly the finest of the conference. It was delivered by the Rev. Matt Harrison.

In an attempt to capture both the failings and the promise of the LCMS at the dawn of a new millennium, Reverend Harrison concluded his presentation with a stirring proclamation that the LCMS is still “the best thing going.” There is no denying that in the last few years the LCMS has moved far away from the church that Walther and others founded 160 years ago. Harrison made that clear, but in a strong note of optimism for the future he also asserted that the listing good ship LCMS can be righted.

In 1866 C. F. W. Walther wrote a paper stating that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the true visible church of God on earth. That seems like a bold statement but that is how convinced Walther was that Evangelical Lutheranism, based on the Confessions, was true to God’s word. Rev. Harrison was not making the exact same point but one cannot help but see the similarity. Harrison was bold to judge in this age of tolerance and compromise that the LCMS may not be perfect but as denominations go “it is the best thing going” across the globe. He certainly knows Lutheranism around the world. He has spent the last several years criss-crossing the globe with the message of the cross and meeting Lutherans of every tribe and nation. It was refreshing to hear someone defend the traditional doctrine and practice of the LCMS in the face of all the bureaucratic efforts of recent years to remake the LCMS in the form of protestant America.

It is Harrison’s work as the Executive Director of LCMS world relief and human care that has taken him to every corner of the globe and has led him to the conclusion that the LCMS at its best, is a beacon of doctrinal strength for Lutherans around the world. I can personally attest to this. Our own congregation has entertained Lutheran leaders from Madagascar, Siberia, Kenya and Sudan and they all speak of the LCMS has a bulwark of strength for them as they try to battle the liberalizing tendencies of the Lutheran World Federation and other liberal Lutheran institutions. (Most of these contacts at Bethany Naperville have come to us through the fine work of the Lutheran Heritage Society or Dr. Tim Quill at the Fort Wayne Seminary.) The LCMS has a chance to make further headway in these locations and many others if we remain true to the confessions.

The LCMS has not been at its best recently as Harrison’s paper “It’s Time” declares. But as he states in that paper, with repentance from all corners of the synod and a recommitment to pure doctrine, this synod can shine again as it did in Walther’s day.

It was refreshing to see a bureaucrat who  is also a theologian. Harrison demonstrated his scholarship throughout the presentation with a deft treatment of Walther’s view of the unity of synod. He mixed into his presentation slides of his recent trip to Germany including pictures of the church where Walther was baptized and the barn where Walther did chores as a child.

Harrison not only criticized the church growth crowd for neglecting doctrine, he also criticized conservatives for neglecting missions for the sake of doctrine. It was a powerful line when he said “being doctrinal is being missional” and “being missional is being doctrinal.” Personally I would replace the ambiguous word “missional” with the phrase “doing missions” so that we do not get lost in the ambiguous, non-fleshed out world of concepts, as Dr. Nagel would say, but none the less, the point is still poignant.

Harrison’s presentation was well received by the group. It got the longest ovation from the conference-goers, some of them even standing as they applauded. Harrison was doctrinal, pastoral, missions-minded and demonstrated courageous leadership by holding out hope for the denomination that is the “best thing going.”

The Rev. Dr. Timothy A. Rossow

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Walther Calls the Evangelical Lutheran Church the True Visible Church on Earth; Matt Harrison Calls it the “Best Thing Going” ““ Final Blog from the Walther Conference — 12 Comments

  1. Dear Pr. Rossow;
    Rev. Harrison’s linkage of “missional” with “doctrinal” is an excellent example of how he would seek to restore our Synodical fellowship. Until we learn to talk with each other (as opposed to at, around or past each other), our chances of restoring unity are greatly imperiled.

    This comment could offend virtually all members of our Synod – or it could be construed as an olive branch of peace toward our relationship. Just as the phrase “missional” repulses most members of BJS – the phrase “doctrinal” seems to generate consternation with those of the “Ablaze!” movement in Synod.

    If our desire is to walk together as a Synod, we must learn to talk together as one. A return to the basics of who and why we “are” is necessary before we, as a Synod, can address the reality of what and how we will be. This is the direction I see Pr. Harrison leading us; the question remains: Will we follow this lead?

  2. Honestly, I don’t know what “doing missions” means either. This is where we really have lost the real meaning of the term “confessional.” The confessional CONFESSES, not just to itself, but to the Word. More “missions” would be done if more “confessionals” were confessionally oriented, if you get my drift.

    But Harrison is right: doctrine exists TO BE SPOKEN to the world.

  3. Dennis,

    I just want to make sure that you know that I agree with the point that Rev. Harrison is making. I am merely offering some advice on using a different form of the word “missional.”

    It is a subtle point but an important one. When we hear the word “missional” it is too easy to divorce it from the office of the ministry. “Misisonal” is corporate sounding and is too easily applied to any work that is somewhat related to the Gospel. As Pastor Wilken, Dr. Baue and others pointed out at the conference, mission work and evangelism is the work of the office of the ministry.

    When we use a more concrete term such as “missions” or “mission work” we are less prone to allow missions to be anything and everything. Words mean things and it is important for us to keep our language tight. Loose language is in great part the cause of the listing of the good ship LCMS these days.

    Again, let me reiterate, I agree with Rev. Harrison’s point that sound doctrine leads to mission work and mission work needs to be soundly doctrinal. I just think a tweaking of the word “missional” would be helpful to keep our language tight.

    Thanks for your comment. Let me know if this helps or not.

    Pastor Rossow

  4. Confused,

    Yes, “doing missions” is not that great either but it is at least one or two levels more concrete than “missional.”

    BTW – by “concrete” I meant tied to something real and Biblical such as the office of the ministry. “Mission” is a corporate word. “Pastor” is a biblical word.

    Pastor Rossow

  5. Rev. Harrison looks a lot like Teddy Roosevelt in that photo.
    (let no one among us claim he knew Teddy Roosevelt and Pastor Matt Harrison is no Teddy Roosevelt)
    Anyways: Charge!

  6. Pastor Rossow;
    I believe we are in complete agreement regarding terminology. I wished only to stress the importance of reaching out to all members of our Synod being mindful of the doctrinal “fuzziness” which has been the primary voice of our Synodical leadership for the past eight years.

    By God’s grace, beginning the “koinonia project” proposed by Pr. Harrison holds great hope for unity in our Synod. If this continues to a successful solution, we will not entertain such words as “missional” – our mission will be to do the work of Christ’s church as He has taught.

  7. Dennis,

    Good to hear it. Thanks for inviting us to imagine a day when goofy words like “misisonal” are not used anymore.

    Thanks for all your good work up there in Michigan. The Tooth Doctor and Mr. Townsend speak highly of you.

    Pastor Rossow

  8. Just for clarification, Dr. Walther and Rev. Harrison are talking about two different things. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is NOT the Missouri Synod corporation, and the Missouri Synod corporation is not congruent with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, although the Synod’s members (some probably more in name only) are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

    The Evangelical Lutheran Church is still the true visible church. A Lutheran is then left to discuss whether there are doctrines or practices promoted or tolerated by the Missouri Synod leadership that are not part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

  9. I found Harrison’s treatment of the Synod’s constant challenges in its first 100 years very poignant. Who said that a church without problems is probably not faithful. I know I read it somewhere recently. Scripture says that all who will live a godly life will suffer persecution. Trouble is our lot in this world. We are after all presently part of the church militant.

  10. The “best thing going” is a body with entrenched heterodoxy that confesses itself to be in fellowship with bodies that hold membership in the Lutheran World Federation (a self-defined communion) and, thus, by extension, with the ELCA? (As an LCMS member, you are free to commune in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland…and so is any member of ELCA, since they are an LWF body. Ditto the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. The LCMS is the “best thing going” in Finland, where an LCMSer can go and commune with a female ‘pastor’, but where the Confessional Lutheran Church in Finland [STLK] is simply ignored by the LCMS.) How strange.

    When it is reported that “he also criticized conservatives for neglecting missions for the sake of doctrine,” my inclination is to ask for documentation of that scurrilous charge. Sure, the liberals have made this accusation…but, tell me, “Who is funding the Confessional Lutheran Education Foundation and the Lutheran Heritage Foundation? Is it the liberals and church growthers? Who is funding Issues, Etc.? The ‘best thing going, LCMS’ or Confessional Lutherans?” Confessional Lutherans are mission-minded (by definition, as evidenced in Confused’s post, above). There is no reason to make a concession to the liberals in this fashion, because a concession that is based on falsehood is not really a concession, but seems like…pandering. ‘Diplomacy’ or ‘churchmanship’ or whatever you want to call it cannot be based on falsehood.

    The LCMS is the biggest thing going among the non-liberals, because there is a sizable number of Confessional Lutherans in the LCMS (maybe as high as 20% of the pastors)…but there are definitely more faithful bodies out there, both as concerns doctrinal unity and as concerns support of mission work at home and abroad. If ‘conservatives’ in the LCMS are at all being pulled away from mission support, it is not because of doctrine, but because of the repetitive super-involvement in ill-advised lawsuits and other political ‘solutions’ that steal time and resources…all while waiting for a ‘prince’ to come and ‘rescue the (beloved) synod’, even while depression and distrust continue to build in the LCMS because they realize (even if only ‘subconsciously’) that the body is still heterodox and that the ‘faithful’ are still in pulpit and altar fellowship with a majority that is UNfaithful.


  11. Concerning Comment #10 from EJG,

    Brothers of John the Steadfast,

    We need to take this comment very seriously. There is plenty that is wrong in the LCMS. A confessional synodical president can do much to address issues raised by EJG in comment #10 but in the end, it will take a stand by pastors and particularly laity to bring our synod back to the point that Rev. Harrison describes in “It’s Time.”

    There are more than a handful of pastors and churches that have left the LCMS because they will not stand for the errors mixed in with the truth in the LCMS and I personally admire them. They are truly courageous. Those of us who are within the LCMS must demonstrate the same courage only from within.

    BJS encourages groups like the Augustana Ministerium and others listed in comment #10 and we encourage you to do the same.

    No one said this was going to be easy, i.e. the mission of BJS – training Lutheran laymen in the truth of the Lutheran Confessions, upholding male headship, etc. When this work butts heads with the prevailing winds in the synod, it is particularly difficult and delicate.

    Pastor Rossow

  12. Dear Pastor Rossow, Please re-publish this great summary article, which also contains links to some awesome resources. Unfortunatelly, it looks like back in 2008, this article/post only got 280 views, and I believe the BJS community and its readership has increased tremendously since thn.

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