“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” Sir Winston Churchill was the iterator of these clever, but troubling words. And so why share them?
It wasn’t that long ago that I, like so many others in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, stumbled over a most unfortunate “truth.” Let it be said that right now, we are in the awkward stage of “picking up.” We are also moving forward, but not forgetting what happened. We are pausing and considering what’s next. With this in mind, I humbly ask for you to bear with me while I offer what is most likely just one of very many efforts by parish pastors to help resolve the current “Thrivent issue” to the glory of our loving Savior.
I was sitting in the waiting room at a local hospital very early one morning anticipating the arrival of one of my parishioners who was to have surgery. I was only moments away from the privilege of administering the wonderful grace of God in the face of challenge. We would confess our sins, receive absolution, hear the Word of the Lord, pray, receive the Sacrament, and receive the comforting Benediction that all is well within the confines of Jesus’ loving forgiveness. This is how it is to be for Christians. Let me say that again – this is how it is to be for Christians.
I had arrived at the hospital about a half hour early. While I waited, smartphone in hand, I scrolled through various online news feeds, eventually happening upon one that shocked me to my innermost. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, the Christian – namely Lutheran – fraternal benefits organization so deeply trusted by many Lutherans and their congregations throughout the world had participated in an unthinkable affair: the extermination of Innocents. The article presented evidence that money had been given by Thrivent to Pro-Choice organizations through the Thrivent Choice Program (which allows Thrivent customers to designate charitable gifts to a list of recognized charities nominated by Thrivent chapters) and the Gift Multiplier program (which is a Thrivent employee benefit program that matches employee gifts to charitable organizations). The organizations supported were Planned Parenthood and NARAL.
“This cannot possibly be true!” I gasped. I read further, all the while feeling as though I had discovered that a dear friend had been diagnosed with cancer. In only moments, the dreadful news washed through the social media avenues, bringing sadness, disgust, and perplexity.
I was already well familiar with the efforts of Planned Parenthood. This cog in the cultural machine of unholy atrocities has openly communicated itself as one of the most trusted organizations in America for providing what they call “quality abortion services.” This alone was stabbing. But what about NARAL? I was unfamiliar with them. I did a little reading. I discovered NARAL to be an even grittier King Herod in its snuffing of the little ones. Originally gathered in the 1960s as “The National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws” NARAL later changed the meaning of its name to “The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.” One of the largest and most influential pro-choice political action groups in America, NARAL lobbies for extremely liberal access to abortion services. For example, in May of last year, Arizona congressman Trent Franks introduced a bill that would strongly prohibit abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy. Almost immediately, NARAL released public statements denouncing the effort as “anti-choice” and is even now lobbying heavily against such legislation on the premise that the decision to keep or abort a pregnancy, no matter the stage, is solely the choice of the mother.
As a pastor, it was a priority for me to be sure that the Christians in my parish knew what had happened. I had no choice. If I was silent for any reason, I was complicit. But I first wanted to contact Thrivent directly. I sent messages to Thrivent seeking first-source information. In the email discussions that followed, the offer was made to hold a public meeting in order to talk about what had happened and to allow for the people to ask questions of the Thrivent representatives. The willingness of Thrivent to participate in such a gathering (which if not handled correctly could get heated) assured me that nothing would be hidden and that a reasonable conversation would indeed be possible. Praise God for this! The meeting was set for the forthcoming Sunday. I immediately followed these discussions with separate phone calls to my Elder Chairman and my Congregation President to let each know what was transpiring and to seek their blessings upon the meeting. While the meeting seemed to be a good idea, in the end it was decided among us that perhaps it would in fact be better to first meet with the Thrivent representatives in private. I agreed and added that in the meantime I would go ahead and craft a letter to the whole congregation that would offer the details while encouraging humility and faith toward a Godly resolution. To gauge the spirit of the letter that was eventually sent, consider its concluding paragraph below:
I intend to keep my ears very close to the discussion and to make every effort to keep you informed. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I am your servant and will do what I can to help. Rest assured, I trust the discernment of our current Bishop, Reverend Harrison, and those who serve as assistants beside him. I am hopeful that very soon we will see a favorable resolution to the issue. In the meantime, while we wait, if you are a member of Thrivent, I humbly urge you as Reverend Harrison has urged: Contact Thrivent directly at 1-800-THRIVENT (1-800-847-4836) in order that you may express your concerns. Do so humbly and in love, because we know that “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). May God the Father, the + Son, and the Holy Spirit bless and keep you always.
No sooner than I hung up with the Congregation President and began to start formulating the epistle did my phone chime with an email message from Thrivent saying that the meeting would not be an option and that each representative would be speaking with his or her clients directly. The brevity of the message and its dry content made me wonder if Thrivent was attempting (as observed by Churchill) to “hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” I certainly expected some sort of damage control to take place, but to make a 180 degree turn on an attempt at open dialogue regarding the issue seemed peculiar. Is not Thrivent a Christian organization? Have we anything to fear? It would seem that in the end, the issue would be relatively easy to understand within the ranks of this Lutheran Christian organization. Certainly leadership would know this and seek to confess, be absolved, and as much as it depends on them, amend accordingly, yes?
I spent the next day or so crafting my letter while at the same time I again urged the Thrivent folks that a private meeting would suffice and that the public meeting need not occur just yet, if at all. I received no response. Eventually I simply imposed a date and a time, said I would be there waiting and urged their presence. I once again stated my concerns but also revealed that I had prepared a letter to be sent out to all 1,100 members of my congregation indicating what had happened. I noted that I would appreciate Thrivent’s review of the letter before it was sent. After this, I received two messages. The first was similar to the last: No one would attend the meeting (although a volunteer representative did). Thrivent would be contacting members individually. The second message came from someone much higher up in the organization asking to have a conversation by phone before the letter was sent. I spoke that next day. I sent the letter afterward.
To be fair, the conversation was a pleasant one. I felt as though I had been heard and that the genuine concerns of the Christian community were understood. To these things, there was a reassurance that all was being considered carefully, an investigation was taking place, and all would be sorted out very soon. Of course I pleaded that it shouldn’t take very long since in light of God’s Word, the solution was rather obvious. I did find it strange that this was affirmed only insofar as Thrivent serves a variety of faith-based organizations to which it must be sensitive to their interpretation of the Bible. The first of many future red flags went up.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I found myself in a field of red flags while involved in so many conversations surrounding the issue with so many different people that in one sense it has been very hard to remember all of it. What I can say is that in the direct conversations with Thrivent, it almost always felt as though we were speaking with similar words, and yet the sources and purpose of these words were clearly very different. The attempts were made to steer toward and hover around generic terms like “common purpose” and “stewardship” and “individual faith journeys,” but above all of this jip, when pushed to their extremes, there was never a willingness to acknowledge the objective truth, the norma normans of God’s Word that rests as the foundation of the title “Christian” and subjugates all of our terms, no matter how sloppily we may use them. A firm stance upon the Word of God as the canon of measure was avoided at all cost. Throughout these conversations, I came to the stark realization that no matter what the brochures may say, Thrivent was consciously unwilling to affirm itself as an organization that could be limited by the nomenclature “Christian,” or for that matter, “Lutheran” because it saw itself as neither. Naturally, I wondered if the LCMS leadership had discerned the same thing. I was talking to at least one of the same folks they were talking to. Were our leaders urging Thrivent based on the assumption that it actually considered itself a Christian organization? At this point, Thrivent had not yet spoken this to me precisely, but they soon would. I intended to continue chasing after what I already suspected.
As I said, over a short period of time, a lot was discussed, but I attempted to use each avenue to approach the topic of Biblical subscription. My course was to highlight for Thrivent in the most elementary sense that the majority of its members (no matter the denomination) most likely assume and trust it to be a Lutheran Christian organization. As such, it must recognize that to deliver (as Thrivent notes by its public statement) “a program that continues to support the priorities of our members and our common purpose”, it must first acknowledge that its vast array of “priorities” and its “common purpose” are built on its “common bond”, which is to say, its confession of Christianity (which it appeared to reaffirm by vote last summer). Christianity is built upon Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh. If this is all true, and Thrivent is a Lutheran Christian organization, then all of Thrivent’s efforts are naturally to be established on the objective truth of God’s Word. Additionally, if this is all true, then the solution to the dilemma is easily remedied. A contrite confession of sin should be given without fear, forgiveness would most certainly be received because God has promised it, and Thrivent would amend by realigning with its Christian identity and permanently banning support for all Pro-choice organizations and reinstating the 50+ Pro-life organizations that were suspended.
As most of you know, this did not happen. Both have been permanently suspended. Thrivent has made it clear that it will not stand on the Holy Scriptures and that it desires to be neutral.
I have heard from a great many brother pastors and laity who have already moved their assets or are planning to do so. Before the neutrality statement was even released, our Church Council had resolved to hold all funds received from Thrivent with the sincere hope that the controversy would be resolved in favor of the Biblical pro-life/pro-family stance encouraged by the Synod. This decision challenged us almost immediately in that our youth group had sought after matching funds from Thrivent and had just received a much needed matching grant to go toward various mission efforts. We decided to hold the funds and to instead take a special collection to help supplement the need. Now that Thrivent has established its official position of neutrality, the leadership in my congregation will need to act. I am confident that church leadership is in concert with one another and the funds we have in keep right now as well as any more that may be on their way will most likely be passed along to relative Pro-Life groups that saw their Thrivent dollars dry up that fateful day of suspension.
Now, to wrap up this thread, I mentioned before that Thrivent had not yet spoken unequivocally about their Lutheran Christian identity, but that eventually they did. I’ll leave you with the summary of my last phone conversation with leadership at Thrivent. This was a lengthy conversation that, while it was relatively cordial, it did get gritty. I recall one particular moment where I was compelled to say that the money was of no interest. Christians are not investing with Thrivent to get rich. They are investing with a Lutheran Christian organization within the Christian Church that serves to further the efforts of the Lord’s Gospel mandate. To this, I was simply told that Thrivent is not to be considered a part of the Church and in fact it is quite possible that in the near future the name “Lutheran” will be dropped from the company’s heading. I was not surprised by this because I was merely hearing what I had suspected all along. I posted as a status update on Facebook a brief summary of what was stated precisely because plenty of folks knew that I would be having the conversation and they were awaiting “shareable” details.
Do with the posting as you will.
Phone call happened today at 11:30 a.m. Spoke for an hour. Not sure what to say. In keeping with the Eighth Commandment, the summary for those awaiting one is this: Thrivent desires to be clear that it is not considering itself “Christian” or necessarily “Lutheran.” The common bond simply means that it may exist as an organization that walks beside churches but is not to be considered as a body bound by anything precisely relative to one “branch” of Christians alone. In their words, there are many varieties of “faith” and all may use Thrivent to further the efforts of that faith. “What if” scenarios are not always helpful or realistic, but at one point in the discussion, I couldn’t help myself. I offered the scenario assuming that if a neo-nazi group that considered itself “Christian,” even one subscribing to the three Ecumenical Creeds, decided to seek after Thrivent funds, would they be willing to walk beside them in fellowship and service? I was given a “We don’t think that would happen” with the clause that “it would ultimately fall into the hands of the local chapter.” You know what this means, don’t you? Yes, you do. If anything, this particular crisis has provided the clarity for LCMS Lutherans to discern and to know the transforming spirit of that to which they have been yoked by assumption for so many years. I am sad. But I will not mourn as one with no hope. I am a Christian. The door was left open by both parties for more dialogue when the time arises.
“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” Yes they do, Mr. Churchill, and sometimes that denial ends in catastrophe. In this case, although horribly unconscionable and irreversibly catastrophic, the murdered babies were the stumbling block of truth. I wonder if the dark and lamentable catastrophe is still lurking on the nearer horizon. I wonder if it is actually reversible. It needn’t be the demise of a longstanding fraternal benefits organization that was built upon the Christian faith and holds a distinguished record for furthering the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It needn’t be its last breath. It needn’t be the end of its age and the closing of its doors. This whole event could be as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). As I continue to pray for those in leadership at Thrivent (and for all of the workers), I also continue to humbly ask for them to consider…
This is the message we have heard from (Jesus) and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:5-9)
10 February A.D. 2014
Reverend Christopher I. Thoma
Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School