If the role of religion in America today is to teach the faithful to bend over and kiss the ring of postmodernity and beg for forgiveness for actually believing something, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod just failed spectacularly, flubbed its lines, and fell off the stage. I, for one, am elated.
Tuesday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed the grand faux pas with this somewhat ironic lede: “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod recently carried out what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial.”
My enthusiasm is, of course, mixed with sadness. The Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker (the hero/victim of the breathlessly Hawthornean Post-Dispatch piece) has agitated against the church’s plainly worded doctrinal statements, to which he was bound, for many years, and should have been removed from the LCMS’s clergy roster a long time ago. Though he teaches at Valparaiso University, which is not affiliated with the LCMS, he has managed to maintain his status on the clergy roster, despite several previously unsuccessful attempts to remove him. Tuesday’s news is therefore a victory for orthodoxy. Nonetheless it is tragic to witness a man persisting in promoting false and harmful doctrine, and tragic to see him face the consequences. And yes, the rich etymology of tragic traces back to the Greek tragos, which means “goat,” and yes, the sheep needed to be separated from this one.
Becker’s heresies stem from two fundamental intellectual commitments, which are related. One is a higher-critical view of Scripture, and the other is a rejection of natural law. These views result in a denial of the authoritative and unified witness of both the Church and creation. Christianity then becomes subject to the whims of the day, and the Church must consistently stick Her finger in the wind to determine whether Her teachings are acceptable in the light of popular morality and popular science.
So it predictably follows that Becker has been a promoter of women’s ordination, the ordination of homosexuals, and same-sex marriage. He also denies that the Bible is accurate when it plainly says things that make liberals uncomfortable.
One of those things is the teaching, central to Christianity, that God made the world in six evening-and-morning days, and rested on the seventh. Following our Lord’s own example, Lutherans have always taken the creation account of Moses at face value. “For,” says Luther in his Lectures on Genesis, “as [Moses] is not instructing us concerning allegorical creatures and an allegorical world, but concerning essential creatures and a world visible and apprehensive by the senses, he calls, as we say in our trite proverb, ‘a post, a post.’” Luther here is following the tradition of Ss. Basil and Ambrose, who place great emphasis on the miraculous nature of God’s creative work through His Word, as He speaks new realities into existence ex nihilo. These sacred actions run contrary to fallen human reason and experience. Accounts of these sacred actions cause Bill Maher and Stephen Hawking to snicker and postmodern theologians to use words like “mythopoetic.”
Lutherans place great emphasis on this aspect of biblical theology. It undergirds the central doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, in which, according to Saint Paul, God through His Word “quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”
The Missouri Synod, together with other smaller conservative synods, has upheld these doctrines, consistently affirming them in confessional documents and public statements. Yet Becker has fought for years to maintain his status on the LCMS clergy roster, playing the martyr and enjoying support from his liberal colleagues in the ELCA. He has cultivated the kind of prestige that is only possible among those who have reinterpreted Christianity as an antinomian religion of peace with no sword. In place of the Lutheran conviction that the Law shatters us to prepare us for the Gospel, he has embraced a Zeitgeist theology which insists that the Gospel shatters the Law. Thus, the Church’s public condemnation of sins that are widely embraced by degraded American society, including gross violations of the natural law, is ridiculed as a kind of puritanical special pleading: Everybody sins, so why mention those in particular?
At the same time, Becker, following the trajectory of moral relativism, insists that these transgressions are not really sins at all, because the “Gospel” frees us all to “set aside apostolic commands if they have become outdated and are no longer applicable in one’s cultural setting.”
The Post-Dispatch paints a picture of an overweening, mustachioed Synodical President (“Matthew Harrison—who is known for his bushy mustache and conservative views . . . ”) on a witch hunt, with a handful of his minions (“certain members of the church”) surrounding Becker, the noble defender of free thought (“He believes stifling discussion weakens the church”), torches and pitchforks raised.
The reality is that Becker’s supporters are in the minority, and he has remained rostered for far too many years on account of the complexity of the LCMS bureaucracy and the bewildering patience of those who have abided by its procedural strictures to the letter. Last January, after the penultimate attempt to remove Becker failed, a frustrated President Harrison (who, incidentally, does not have the power to remove an heretical pastor from office, but does possess the authority to remove a District President who, say, refuses to remove a heretic in his district from the pastoral office) denounced Becker on Facebook, indicating his conviction that, “if my Synod does not change its inability to call such a person to repentance, and remove such a teacher where there is not repentance, then we are liars, and our confession is meaningless. I do not want to belong to such a synod, much less lead it.”
A mere Facebook post was enough to send Becker's supporters into paroxysmal rage.
But it was Montana District President the Rev. Terry Forke who took the necessary step of charging Becker with false doctrine, and backed it up by supporting a resolution against Becker (passed by delegates) at the Montana District’s recent convention. Following the convention, Becker was finally asked by his own District President (Paul Linnemann) to resign. Becker nobly refused (“I thought such a decision would lend credence to the accusations of my accusers in the Synod, namely, that I have indeed acted improperly and taught falsely"), and DP Linnemann responded by filing his own charges and requesting Becker’s expulsion from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Becker refused to appeal, and is now heading for his true home among the tattooed priestesses on the clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (sic) in America.
Not exactly a “heresy trial.” But it is a triumph, nonetheless.
Liberal onlookers will never understand or accept the public and decisive condemnation of heresy, because they hate Christian doctrine with the zeal of a fundamentalist. It is not enough for them to mock the Bible and its teachings; they cannot fathom the continued existence of a millennia-old religion that, when pressed, refuses to embrace everything it has always opposed. They clutch their pearls and express surprised horror whenever a conservative church body like the Missouri Synod expels someone for repeatedly and openly violating its clearly stated beliefs.
If this Rainbow Summer has taught us anything, it is that the liberals are winning in the public square. But they can never win in our churches, so long as faithful clergy and laity stand up to them boldly, decisively—and swiftly, before damage is done.
Meanwhile, I’d like to thank the Post-Dispatch for reporting on this little bit of inside baseball. It’s far from an embarrassing exposé. If anything, it says that Christianity is taken seriously in the LCMS.