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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Surprise! Missouri Chose the Conservative

Yesterday, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod gave its president, Gerald Kieschnick, the boot after three consecutive three-year terms. His replacement is Matthew Harrison, whom in the next few days we expect some press coverage will identify as a "conservative" choice of the LCMS. Shocking, we realize.

We generally consider scare quotes appropriate in a situation like this: the "conservative." Because that word really doesn't have much use in religious circles. Viewed historically, for example, the Baptist movement is intensely radical, dedicated to the complete overthrow of everything that preceded it; and yet most Baptists in the US are called "conservative Christians," and embrace the title. Lutheranism, by its nature, is among the most conservative of the Reformation traditions; and yet that is rarely reflected in the press or even the pews. The word is often mere shorthand, used by lazy thinkers and writers who are conditioned by political, rather than ecclesiastical, discourse. (Consider, for example, the Christianity Today headline that tries desperately to link a church convention to the Tea Party movement -- soiling an otherwise quite good article.)

So, that said, what does Harrison's election mean for the LCMS? What was at stake, and what may be expected to change when he takes office in September? We don't have answers, but we mave hints.

First, let's be clear that this election was a sweep of massive proportions. Earlier this month, candidates were nominated, and Harrison's nominations were nearly double Kieschnick's, 1332 to 755. At the actual assembly, Harrison won 54% of the vote, and more than that, he won on the first ballot. This signals a decisive rejection of Kieschnick.

Second, there is a generational difference between the two men. Kieschnick is 67, Harrison is 48. This means that they were born at either end of the Baby Boom. Kieschnick is a Texan, Harrison is from Iowa, and this may be just as important. The accusations within the LCMS have been that Kieschnick has pursued a "mega-church," "church growth movement" style at the expense of traditional Lutheran worship and churchmanship, as well as unity with other Christians at the expense of doctrinal purity. The latter charge seems to be rooted in his support for Atlantic District president David Benke, who once prayed in the presence of unbelievers.

The result is that challenges to Kieschnick, during the past nine years, have come from the wing of the LCMS that sometimes calls itself "Confessional." This is an unfortunate choice of words, since Lutheranism is a confessional movement, and those who do not share its confession of faith fall naturally outside the movement. It would make things easier if they called themselves the "no praise bands" wing or the "no praying in ballparks" wing. But whatever.

Harrison has served most recently as the director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and also has an academic interest in Herman Sasse, an important midcentury theologian especially beloved of Missouri. A quick Google search turns up several websites promoting Harrison's candidacy, in a way that reminds us of somebody running for Congress, although with considerably more dignity.

A better sense, not necessarily of who the guy is but of who supports him most vigorously, can be found on the website of a group called "The Brothers of John the Steadfast," after the second Elector of Saxony to support Luther. The site's logo includes this unintentionally droll tag: "Defending and Promoting Confessional Lutheranism and its Media." A quick skim of the site reveals the usual stuff: news posts, some articles on how the liturgy has gone to heck, and so forth. A lot of it, like the bookstore, is "coming soon," meaning that they don't actually have anything. By far the best part of the site is a tab called "No Pietists Allowed." We heartily encourage readers to click and enjoy.

But we confess to a certain concern about, well, the treatment of the fairer sex. The site offers it mission:

[To bring] together Lutheran laymen to defend and promote the orthodox Christian faith which is taught in the Lutheran Confessions, provide financial support for Christian new media ..., and to support other endeavors selected by its membership that defend and promote the cause of confessional Lutheranism.

Nothing wrong here; this is also a pretty good description of ALPB's mission, which makes us wonder why the world needs two of them. And we wonder why, if the mission is to bring together laymen, the main force behind it seems to be a pastor, one Tim Rossow. Most of the contributors seem to be ordained, the notable exception being GetReligion's Mollie Hemingway.

We do note the exclusive-sounding use of "laymen." Perhaps the word is meant, as it often is, to include women. Like Mollie. The usage is old-fashioned, but we at the Egg like old-fashioned usages. Still, we note it because the after the mission statement comes a list of four "challenges":

  1. Raise funds for confessional Lutheran new-media like Issues, Etc.
  2. Help men support their local pastor in the cause of defending confessional Lutheranism.
  3. Support the historic liturgy as a means of conserving the truth of God's word.
  4. Encourage and equip husbands to be the spiritual head of their household and a strong voice of leadership in their local congregation.

Help men support their pastor? Um, do women get to help? We hope so, because try running a parish -- any parish -- without 'em. But by the time we get to number 4, about husbands being "a strong voice of leadership in their local congregation," it looks as though Steadfast Lutherans seeks to be a strong voice for what many in the LCMS consider a Biblically-mandated hierarchy, and which to the rest of us looks like an over-the-top level of misogyny. At their worst, these guys make Rome look like a Reimagining Conference.

By the way, the organization's website claims to have a women's auxiliary, named (predictably) for Katie Luther. But when you click the link -- "coming soon."

So, none of this tells us what's really going on in the LCMS, but it does help give a sense of what Harrison's supporters are hoping for. Some of the agenda we support wholeheartedly -- praise bands are the new folk masses, and never forget it. But other points -- screw Benke, keep the ladies in the kitchen -- seem problematic to us.

Having once in our life seen the hand-picked candidate of a protest group elected over a weak and embattled predecessor, we are apprehensive about all this. Harrison will need to show remarkable strength of character if he is to help reverse the decline of his synod, beginning with the ability to heal the wounds his election has caused. He will need to show immense creativity, and he will require the charismata not of personality but of the Holy Spirit. We wish him well.

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