ALPB President Evaluates President Harrison’s Election, By Martin R. Noland

Moderates in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have not made much comment on the election of Matthew Harrison as President of the LCMS.  This is wise, since they did not expect his election and their political plans for the future would seem uncertain.

Yesterday while looking for something else, I found some commentary on the subject on the web here:

http://www.lutheranforum.org/articles/john-hannah/Change_of_Command/

The post is from September 2nd, 2010, so it is a bit dated by Internet standards, but I think worthy of a broader audience and discussion.

The author, the Rev. John Hannah, is the President of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (ALPB) and a pastor in the Bronx.  He brings distinguished service and experience as a career pastor and U.S. Army chaplain, finishing as a Colonel.  The ALPB publishes Lutheran Forum and Lutheran Forum Online. The ALPB also publishes Forum Letter, and also has published an occasional book or two.  It has been known for its advocacy for an “American” form of Lutheranism in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, thus its name.  I used to read Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter regularly, especially when Richard John Neuhaus was involved; these days much less.

The relevant section about Harrison’s election, in Hannah’s article, states this:

“Harrison’s election was a surprise to many, including his supporters. Several factors seemed to play in his victory. Harrison aggressively sought the position; a great deal of money went into literature supporting his candidacy. (It seems that Lutherans no longer care that their pastors and bishops imitate American political candidates.) The very vocal purity cult of the LCMS supported him. There seems to be a clear transference of attitudes and sympathies from the secular political scene (e.g., Tea Party).”

I think there may be some truth to each of these factors, thus my interest in this article by Hannah.  But I am not convinced that he has characterized these factors, or causes, correctly.  Here is my perspective on these factors, for what my opinion is worth:

FACTOR ONE:  “Harrison aggressively sought the position.”  Well, yes, he did let his name stand and he cooperated with those who wanted to nominate him.  If you don’t do that, you can’t get elected—it is as simple as that.

The talk I heard from the conservatives, after summer 2007, was simply “Who is in the best position in terms of experience, electability, and loyalty to the official [i.e., Constitution Article II & VI] theology of the LCMS”?   When the question was phrased that way, it gradually became obvious that Harrison was the man.  There wasn’t a big debate over that issue; and, to my knowledge, he did not push himself, as others have done in the past.

FACTOR TWO:  “A great deal of money went into literature supporting his candidacy.”  I was not a delegate, so I didn’t receive much of anything in the mail, and so have no basis to judge.  You could argue that Lutheran Forum and Lutheran Forum Online get a lot of East Coast money to promote causes that are favorable to moderates and significantly affect elections.  I know Jesus First campaigned significantly for their candidates and issues.  To characterize this factor correctly, you need to look at both sides, not just at the side that supported Harrison.

FACTOR THREE:  “It seems that Lutherans no longer care that their pastors and bishops imitate American political candidates.”  I don’t like the alternative, namely, that the “bishops” determine what is good for the synod by determining its president.  We don’t have “bishops” in the LCMS for good reason.  We are a people’s church in our polity; but a confession-normed church in our theology and religious practice.  Since we are a people’s church in that way, with elections, some type of sorting out of potential candidates and publicizing of their qualities and positions is going to be necessary.  As long as it is done in a fraternal and Christian way, I can’t see anything wrong with that.  But it is true that it is often not fraternal or Christian.

FACTOR FOUR:  “The very vocal purity cult of the LCMS supported him.”  This depends on whom Hannah considers to be a member of the “LCMS purity cult.”  The following excerpt from the same article might help us understand what he means:

“Division is a construct of a dysfunctional group that cannot accept that we are allowed diversity, within the boundaries of Scripture and Confessions. Those who believe that they alone hold positions of synodical purity do not have a constitutional right to demand that all others agree with them. Nor do they have a constitutional right to disrupt the synod. Presumably members of this group trust Harrison and he is therefore well positioned to convince them to desist. No greater gift could be given the synod than a resolution to this persistent nuisance.”

I completely agree with Hannah that “we are allowed diversity within the boundaries of Scripture and Confessions.”  That is what we sign on to when we become LCMS rostered workers or when congregations are accepted into LCMS membership.  Variety and diversity is something I approve of, as long as it is within those boundaries.

I do not see myself as “holding a position of synodical purity.”  Maybe others do.  I don’t even know what that means or if this refers to me.  I consider myself faithful to what I obligated myself to when became ordained, and I consider it my duty to uphold that.  I see faithfulness to our confessions, not as a matter of purity, but as a matter of church unity.  If we all agree to accept the Lutheran confessions, in all their parts without conditions attached, then there is much less opportunity for discord.  That has always been the LCMS way of doing things, as any respectable scholar knows (e.g., see Theodore Tappert in his Lutheran Confessional Theology in America 1840-1880 [New York: Oxford, 1972]).  Does Hannah disagree with that?  I don’t know and can’t tell.

FACTOR FIVE:  “There seems to be a clear transference of attitudes and sympathies from the secular political scene (e.g., Tea Party).”

As far as I can tell, the “Tea Party” was anti-elitist and populist.  As far as I can tell, the “Tea Party” in the Republican Party helped the G.O.P. recover the House, gain five seats in the Senate, and gave a majority to Republican Governors.  Time magazine said: “Sarah Palin, Senator Jim DeMint, and Representative Ron Paul . . . define themselves as lonely agents of change fighting impossibly large institutional powers” (TIME  Sept., 27, 2010, p. 29).

I do not remember President Harrison defining himself in that way, nor do I think those who supported him used that approach.  So that was not a factor that defined Harrison, but it may have defined President Kieschnick.

Did the President of Synod give preferential treatment to pastors of mega-churches, or did he treat all pastors and congregations equally?  Is the Council of Presidents seen by most pastors and people as a group that attempts to help, or is it seen as a group that attempts to dominate?  Have the officers in the LCMS used their powers to “get their own way,” or used their powers to serve the pastors and congregations of the synod in a fair and equitable way?  These are questions that could answer the matter of the “Tea Party” effect.  These are questions that synodical officers always need to keep in mind.

Thanks to Pastor Hannah for offering a thought-provoking article!  What do you think?

Pastor Dr. Martin R. Noland
Trinity Lutheran Church
Evansville, IN

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