“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1–13, ESV)
The closing of the second Concordia University in the past few years should cause much reflection in the LCMS. There are many complex issues at play, and I offer my limited opinions which are informed theologically and with some organizational knowledge and experience as well.
Concordia, Portland for years had been at the center of conflict over the institution (by its administration) tolerating positions on sexuality that are against God’s Word (here is a recent post from us on it; one from convention; one on the club issue). The Scriptures lay out that God will not tolerate His people’s error forever. He is long-suffering, but He will act. Unfaithfulness cannot go unchecked, and here the Synod had an obligation to lovingly rebuke the error and apply greater discipline if met with further impenitence. While there were efforts at rebuke (including the regents attempt to remove clubs that tolerated and celebrated sin), apparently there was not greater discipline. At the very least we can say any rebuke was not received and acted upon by those in immediate authority over the University. The lesson – inactive ecclesiastical supervision or tolerance of false doctrine cannot stop God from eventually acting. We are not wiser than God and we should repent if we ever think so. Niceness, winsomeness, and so forth cannot do better than God’s Word of Law and Gospel.
The institution of the Synod (and the institutions of Synod) exist to serve the Church. If they fail to do that, or drift away from their first mission (their first love) they can no longer expect any blessing from God. God will not let us wander off and still pretend to be Church. Repentance (and the fruit of reformation of institutions) is the order of the day when we see this happen.
Error in doctrine brings disaster. While much churchly focus is given to the second table of the Law (Commandments 4-10) the first Table of the Law is also important. Luther says in his own commentary on Galatians that God is patient with errors in life (second table mostly) but that errors in doctrine (first table, especially the Second Commandment) required much stronger and faster response. This not only goes for institutional disaster, but also for individual disaster. False teaching allowed within the Church (and those organizations meant to serve the Church) only catechizes more souls to believe things contrary to God’s Word.
The example of the closing of another Concordia is a warning for all in the LCMS who have already compromised on doctrine with the world (repent) or those who suffer the temptations to compromise (remain steadfast, help each other out, support and encourage faithfulness). As institutions waffle and waiver and the threats that come to them from the outside increase, these temptations will only increase. Concordia, Portland tried to reach that compromise. It did not work to keep them open. It will not work for others either.
God does indeed bring temporal punishment. He chastises those He loves. He also is a jealous God who punishes sin (see the Close of the Commandments in the Catechism). In more recent history this is not a popular teaching. In the face of popularity, fad-driven theology, and contemporary times, the timeless liturgy teaches us better – we make this a part of our weekly confession of sins in the Divine Service:
O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them, and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You, of Your boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.
STUDENTS, STAFF, FACULTY, ADMINISTRATION
- First of all, we have people (students, faculty, staff) who are hurt by the closing and they deserve care and prayers. The encouragement is that God is faithful. He will provide for them all that they need to support this body and life. It’s encouraging to see the other Concordia Universities stepping forward to help (see the statement below by the Concordia Presidents). The hardships of these people ought to motivate efforts to provide better administration, stronger leadership, greater striving for faithfulness, and quicker address of errors. There are parties here who were just honestly going to school or doing their job without malice or sin. Concordia, Portland institutionally tolerated sin and that has hurt everyone.
- For those who sought to use their positions and influence to be activists for sin, this situation is your call to repent. God doesn’t tolerate sin. You cannot expect to promote sin without consequence, especially if you seek to destroy an institution meant to support the preaching and teaching of the pure Gospel. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. He takes sin seriously – seriously enough to shed His own blood in order that it may be forgiven. The Church, just like her head Christ, welcomes the penitent (humble).
- Prayers continue to be needed for those who are given to help navigate the eventual closing. President Ries, in particular, in just taking up the interim presidency has found a real challenge placed upon his lap. The regents of Concordia will also have to make decisions related to the final business of the university. Synod’s Board of Directors will no doubt have to handle much of this as well.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE LCMS
(These are merely opinions and questions from my incomplete knowledge of the inner workings of Synod – I offer them as thoughts for discussion)
- The Synod needs to start doing things differently. The closing of Concordia, Portland was a shock to most everyone who heard of it a few days ago. The Synod in convention just met 7 months ago in Tampa but we had no inkling of this financial situation being on the radar. Why was the highest decision making body of the Synod not used to help resolve this situation? What efforts are being made to learn from this and make changes to the Convention process?
- Is there a way to increase transparency on these matters? I am reminded of the frequent use of “executive session” in some places.
- Synod Conventions need to change. Right now, they seem to be set up to get through everything rather than deal substantively with any issues. The Floor Committee process can be used to remove any potential for contentious issues to be taken up. There is a lot of time set aside for all kinds of special presentations. A lot of things are “omnibussed” while we spend a lot of time passing “mom and apple pie” resolutions. Delegates grow weary of doing business and too often end debate far sooner than it probably should be ended. If the convention body is deemed incapable of debating issues, then we probably should not be meeting.
- It appears that Concordia, Portland was allowed to enter into institutional threatening contracts in very large sums of money without any Synodical oversight. Is this normal? Just what kind of contracts do our Concordias have and how would anyone in the LCMS know or even find out?
- The “woke” culture cannot be appeased. Every revolution eventually devours itself. On top of this, church bodies which have sought to be “woke” have experienced that people just lose interest. As a good friend says, “why go to church on Sunday to hear the same sermon you could listen to on MSNBC the night before?” Instead of trying so hard to read the tea leaves of our falling culture, we can zealously catechize and confess the faith boldly.
- Compromise with the world is not good for the Church. The example of the Old Testament teaches us this. There are numerous warnings also found in the New Testament on this. James 4:4 should become a memory verse recited often.
- The oversight of the Concordia Universities is confusing and needs some level of reformation. There are simply too many entities involved, which in this case will allow for all sorts of finger pointing. Ecclesiastical Supervision of Concordia falls to the University President, the District President of the district it is located in, the Regional Vice President of that region, and finally to the Synod President. On the administrative side there is the Concordia University System Board, a national board that has some level of oversight of the Concordias as a whole, then there are individual Boards of Regents for each Concordia, and some even have other boards that make decisions as well (Concordia Portland had a Foundation Board. The Synod’s Board of Directors also has to be involved in some matters of property, loans, etc. All of these various entities provide opportunity for miscommunication and confusion.
- A report and summary of how the situation at Portland unfolded and came to this abrupt end should be published for the whole synod. If there were indeed failures by various leaders or entities they need to be revealed in order that synod may learn. This could also provide suggested measures to correct process and so forth. Failures in leadership can often teach more than successes.
- Information should be sought out and reported to the whole Synod. What is the financial status of the Concordias? What kind of measures are being taken about contracts and loans at them? What plans are in place for the future longevity of each one? Last November, we know that Concordia, New York received permission from the Synod’s Board of Directors to receive a $7.5 million loan (see page 28). The same Concordia is on probation with its accrediting agency. Is there a better way that the synod could find out about things that could potentially be the first (or last) warning signs before something catastrophic happens than having to comb through 28 pages of Board of Directors minutes?
- Consolidation and cannibalization of the various institutions should be on the table. Given there are financial, organizational, and theological issues abounding in the Concordia System, maybe it’s time to consider taking the best of them and making something very strong rather than trying to sustain and support many different weakened institutions. This would also allow for a refocus upon the original purpose of the Concordias in relation to serving the Church.
- The Synod did a lot of work in demographics years ago (2014-2015 if I remember it right). The outlook is not good. What measures has Synod been taking to offset this both at the Concordias and also among the other institutions of the Synod? We need to get ahead further in our planning – we will either take control of the situation and set our path (prepare as much as we can for demographic, financial, and other cultural realities coming our way) or we will let the world do it for us. I can tell you which one will likely be better in the long run (the world doesn’t like us and its plan for us will not be good).
- Boards of Regents need to take a more active role in “ruling”. The Synod entrusts much to them.
- It seems odd to mention, but what is the plan for handling the downsizing of the institutions of the LCMS at Concordia Plans? The Synod’s health plan is a group plan and I would assume that the closing of a University takes a number of people out of that group. The smaller the group, the less stable the health plan.
- Leadership is needed. Without a strategy and plan for the coming years we will only continue to react to the situations that the world keeps dishing to us. This means leadership in regards to our doctrinal divisions, but it also means leadership in regards to all of these many and varied issues of governance and worldly wisdom. We can either take control of our household or we can let the world do it for us.
God is not mocked. What we sow we shall reap.
Here are some folks who could use prayers:
- Concordia Portland’s students, staff, faculty, administrators, and regents
- Synod’s Board of Directors
- Synod Leadership
- Concordia University System Board
- Concordia Presidents and other boards of regents
- Alumni of various Concordias, donors and other supporters
Here are some recent articles or stories out there on this:
Inside Higher Ed article on the closing, which has a lot of analysis of the data for finances and enrollment/graduation rates and speaks of the difficulty of the HotChalk contracts.
KGW8 article and video on the closing. This one includes much of the personal connections of one student.
The Oregonian article on a class action lawsuit against Concordia. This helps understand some of the personal struggle of students with the abrupt closure.