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What Luther Says

Crediting Last Year's 'Controversy' For My Conversion

I would like to begin today's entry by making sure we're all on the same page before we proceed any further.

"Perhaps the best way to respond to a national tragedy -- or any kind of tragedy -- is with mourning, repentance, and faith."

-- Pastor Nathan Higgins

I'll never forget when I read those words a full year ago. As a classic "Non-Denominational-American-Evangelical" type, I was used to tragedies being the catalyst for Christian responses that were heavy on the Law and empty of the Gospel.

You know, the kind that always sought to explain "why" God had allowed the tragedy to occur? It was the kind of knee-jerk response I had grown accustomed to hearing (and relaying to others myself! Lord, please forgive me!), which was usually to only ever remind us of His divine judgment upon us sinners and especially upon this sinful nation.

Rarely, if ever, did such responses ever include a message of forgiveness and hope through repentance and faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of mankind.

So, naturally, this "knee-jerk" response to a national tragedy from a Lutheran Pastor caught my attention at the time. Regardless of where we end up at the end of our journey together today, I pray that we can all at least agree on that point of truth, especially as Bible-believing Christians. 

As a Christian (a recently converted Confessional Lutheran), I want to spend some time today highlighting a so-called "controversy" that you may or may not have heard about that erupted nationally regarding the LCMS following the tragedy in Newtown, CT a year ago back in December 2012 lasting through February 2013. 

By "controversy" I mean to say that there were those within the Body of Christ (and some within the LCMS Church) at the time who believed that certain subject matter is "controversial" and "off limits" during a time of national tragedy even though the subject matter is clearly Biblical. For them, I guess you could say that they preferred to worship at the "Altar of Political Correctness" (Galatians 1:10).

I remember finding this "controversy" quite odd at the time. I mean, if you can't faithfully confess the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of death and destruction, sheer hopelessness, or when the depravity of man, sin, and death are all on full display for the world to witness with its own eyes, then why even call yourself a Christian (or, in this case, a Pastor) in the first place?

Those were the questions on my mind when I came face-to-face with this so-called "controversy" and those connected to it who were faithful to God through their vocations made an impression upon me that I don't think I'll ever fully appreciate in this life.

I decided to revisit this delicate subject today since this week marks the 1-year anniversary of the Newtown, CT murders and, chances are, this subject will be top of mind for most people, especially those within our Synod who are of a Confessional stripe like me.

That being said, the other reason why I wanted to bring it up for prayerful reflection is due to the fact that I credit the apparent "controversy" for playing a key role in my conversion from being a Non-Denominational American Evangelical to becoming a Confessional Lutheran. 

To quote Rev. Matthew Harrison and LCMS President, "I most sincerely desire to avoid deep and public contention in the Synod. Our mission is too vital, our fellowship too fragile for a drawn out controversy." It is not my intention to reopen old wounds, but to merely commend my brothers in Christ for their faithfulness, and to perhaps encourage others to remain faithful in the future as well.

Where do we even begin though? My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, welcome to the prophesied last days (Acts 20:29; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 1:7-11; Matthew 7:15-20; Romans 16:17; Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; 1 Timothy 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 3; 2 Timothy 4; 2 Peter 2; Titus 2; Jude 1:1-25).

It's a shame, because we so often hear about the many failures of the Church and her leaders, but we barely hear about her many successes for His glory, His honor, and His praise. This is one of those situations where the latter is in full view, IMHO.

While I've only been a Christian for a little over a decade, and a practicing Lutheran for the last 2 years (the last year as a Confessional Lutheran), I can't recall a time in my young life when I have witnessed such grace, forgiveness, humility, and mercy on full public display (in other words, precisely what it means to be a Christian), particularly when it comes to the unpopular issue of church discipline.

What's the LCMS "controversy" that followed in the wake of the Newtown, CT tragedy?

An event occurred within days of the shootings, sponsored, as I understand, by the local clergy association. The event was variously called an “ecumenical service” or “vigil.” There were prayers, Scripture readings done by various clergy, including representatives from the Baha’i and Muslim faiths. Pastor Rob Morris was asked to provide the closing benediction to the event, and he did so as he describes in his letter of apology. Pastor Morris took specific and commendable steps to mitigate the impression that this was joint worship. He asked for an announcement before the event to make it clear that those participating did not endorse each other’s views. He read from Scripture when he spoke. Nevertheless, the presence of prayers and religious readings, as well as the fact that other clergy were vested for their participation, led me to conclude that this was in fact joint worship with other religions (as previously defined by the Synod). I could draw no conclusion other than that this was a step beyond the bounds of practice allowed by the Scriptures, our Lutheran Confessions, and the constitution of our Synod, which seeks to uphold both. There is sometimes a real tension between wanting to bear witness to Christ and at the same time avoiding situations which may give the impression that our differences with respect to who God is, who Jesus is, how he deals with us, and how we get to heaven, really don’t matter in the end. It was not Pastor Morris’s intention at all to give that impression. He does not believe that at all. In fact, he’s been very fastidious with his congregation on such matters, pointing to Jesus alone as Savior. I asked Pastor Morris to apologize for taking part in this service. I did this for several reasons:
1. I believe his participation violated the limits set by Scripture regarding joint worship, particularly with those who reject Jesus (Romans 16:17), and was thus a violation of Article VI of the LCMS Constitution.

Pastor Morris’s participation gave offense in the Synod, something we are to avoid, even if we are doing something we believe might be appropriate (1 Corinthians 8).

I most sincerely desire to avoid deep and public contention in the Synod. Our mission is too vital, our fellowship too fragile for a drawn out controversy.
To his credit, Pastor Morris has offered an apology to his brothers and sisters in the Synod. If we are to live this life with Christian conviction and zeal, willing to step forward at a very difficult moment and act, even to “sin boldly” as Luther once advised Melanchthon (AE 48:282), it is also incumbent upon us to recognize that in so acting we may exceed the bounds of Christian freedom and may well give offense. We must be prepared also to repent boldly, and apologize boldly. I’m a firm believer in “daring something” in Christ (Luther), and living and speaking for Christ with zeal, even on the edge. There will be times in this crazy world when, for what we believe are all the right reasons, we may step over the scriptural line. This life together in the Synod, under the sacred Scriptures, behooves us to be quick to ask for forgiveness, as well as to be quick to forgive in Christ’s name and to continue to love one another. While Pastor Morris explains that he does not believe he acted in joint worship, and took steps to avoid it, he does readily admit that his action was offensive, and he has no intention of repeating it. I accept his apology. I ask you to accept it as well. If you are upset that such an otherwise fine young pastor offered his apology for something for which you do not believe he should have had to apologize, I would simply respond by stating that we have the apostolic injunction “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1b–3). To those who think his apology insufficient, I would encourage you, as the commandment enjoins us, to “put the best construction on everything,” and to accept with gratitude and forgiveness in Christ’s name the real apology given you. If you think the apology is insufficient, I would also assure you that I shall continue in private conversation with President Yeadon and Pastor Morris, seeking the will of Christ through the Scriptures and prayer (Romans 12:9–13). And I, too, have much to learn.

-- Pastor Matthew C. Harrison
President, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS)


That's it in a nutshell.

Simply put, it has to do with "Unionism" and "Syncretism" to be exact.

Unionism is “taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession.” (Constitution, Article VI., Paragraph 2. b., LCMS 2010 Handbook, p.15). The emphasis is on “services and sacramental rites.” That means that a pastor saying a prayer at a Fourth of July rally to start the annual community parade is just fine but saying a prayer at Fourth of July community worship service is forbidden. We will say more about why it is forbidden below. Unionism is when a pastor does this with heterodox Christians (those who mix false teaching in with true teaching such as Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc.). Syncretism refers to the same only with pagans (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.).

-- Pastor Tim Rossow


Rather than offer a lengthy commentary of my own here, I would prefer to simply share with you those commentaries already written by my fellow LCMS brothers last year as events unfolded that will clearly demonstrate the only appropriate Biblical response in light of it.

In deferring to them, I will list each relevant piece in the order that they were published (so that you can read each point and counterpoint). In case you're wondering, the mass killings in Newtown, CT took place on Friday, December 14th, 2012.

DECEMBER 16TH: LCMS Pastor Scheduled To Participate In Interfaith Service Tonight

DECEMBER 17TH: Time For Some Advent Watching And Praying On Newtown Memorial Service (By Pr. Rossow)

DECEMBER 18TH: A Connecticut Shooting In Satan’s Court (By Pr. Charles St. Onge)

DECEMBER 20TH: Christmas And Children (By Pr. Karl Weber)

JANUARY 31ST: A Letter From Pastor Morris

FEBRUARY 2ND: Letter From LCMS President Harrison On Newtown, CT

FEBRUARY 2ND: Pastor Who Participated In Unionistic And Syncretistic Service At Newtown, Connecticut Apologizes (By Pr. Rossow)

FEBRUARY 3RD: The Two Kinds of People Who Cannot See The Error of Unionism And Syncretism (By Pr. Rossow)

FEBRUARY 7TH: LCMS Newtown Story Hits The National Media (By Pr. Charles Henrickson)

FEBRUARY 8TH: Kieschnick And Benke Comment On Newtown (By Pr. Charles Henrickson)

FEBRUARY 8TH: Responding To A Tragedy In Your Community In A Steadfast Way (By Pr. John Fraiser)

FEBRUARY 8TH: Great Stuff — Covering Opposition To Syncretism In A Syncretized World (By Norm Fisher)

FEBRUARY 9TH: Can You Feel The Love Tonight? (By Pr. Joshua Scheer)

FEBRUARY 9TH: Great Stuff Found On The Web – A Collection (By Norm Fisher)

FEBRUARY 9TH: A Statement of Unity And Pastoral Letters On The Newtown Tragedy (By Pr. Charles Henrickson)

FEBRUARY 10TH: Ice Cream And Apologetics (By Pr. Sam Schuldheisz)

FEBRUARY 11TH: President Harrison’s Video On The Newtown, Conn., Statement of Unity And Pastoral Letters (By Pr. Charles Henrickson)


FEBRUARY 13TH: Newtown 'Debacle' Reopens Old Wounds For Missouri Synod

FEBRUARY 13TH: Is The Missouri Synod An Isolationist, Sectarian, Or Legalistic Church-Body? (By Pr. Martin Noland)

FEBRUARY 14TH: Responding To National Tragedy (By Pr. Nathan Higgins)

FEBRUARY 15TH: Steadfast In The Pew: Public Prayers With Pagans (By Jim Pierce)

FEBRUARY 15TH: I Did Not Intend To Hurt Anyone (By Pr. Rossow)

FEBRUARY 21ST: President Harrison At His Best – A Lenten Video (By Pr. Rossow)

FEBRUARY 22ND: Great Stuff Found On The Web — A Word That Kills (Norm Fisher)

FEBRUARY 25TH: A Layman's Response To President Emeritus Kieschnick's Position On Newtown (By Pr. Rossow)

FEBRUARY 26TH: Commentary On "An Open Letter of Comfort From The LCMS Council of Presidents" (By Pr. Rossow)

FEBRUARY 28TH: Interesting Interview of Pastor Morris In The Newtown Bee (By Pr. Rossow)

In a day and age when political correctness reigns supreme, it's nice to see the LCMS leadership (and genuine men of God) acting faithfully regardless of the personal cost to themselves publicly let alone the condemnation from their own pews far removed from Newtown, CT as well as from the non-believing world.

One of the very first comments made on this issue still rings true today.

Our prayer is that the comfort of law and gospel be brought to those who are hurting, that wrong-doing be confessed, that our Lord would come quickly and bring us safely to Heaven, and that in the meantime we would uphold his pure Gospel for all to hear.


However, at the end of the day, Pastor Harrison was right to remind us of the reality of the serious situation here.

The language used in the Bible, the Lutheran Confessions, and in Luther is often intense about false teaching, and grates on our postmodern ears, but I urge you to remember that the Synod is no sect. We believe that salvation is found wherever there is faith in Jesus and His cross (Book of Concord, Preface), even as we must reject what is false. I am not Jesus. I’m not omniscient. I’m not infallible. I simply seek the best for the Synod that we may be about our chief task. I covet your prayers.

Like I said, I can't recall a time in my young Christian life when I have witnessed such grace, forgiveness, humility, and mercy on full public display (in other words, precisely what it means to be a Christian), particularly when it comes to the unpopular issue of church discipline.

For those of you who prefer an abridged version of this "controversy" without having to read through all the referenced links above, The Brothers of John The Steadfast (BJS) website had produced this video on the ecumenical memorial worship service that was at the heart of the debate in order to help people understand the depth of error in unionism and syncretism.


"If you do not commit to the fact that God’s word is true in every single phrase, word, jot and tittle, (inerrancy) then you will cave to the culture and which is nothing more than starting down a long 'slip and slide' that eventually leaves you with no truth at all."

-- Pastor Tim Rossow

I know that I've referenced quite a bit of content already, but I would like to close with this final reminder for us.

Of course, do not expect the coverage and commentary to understand or approve of what is going on. Even though, in my view, President Harrison’s letter is excellent, and his handling of the situation has been very balanced and pastoral–both evangelical and confessional–the media voices will not “get it.” To disapprove of interfaith services in our day is unpopular. It goes against American civil religion and political correctness. The prevailing notion in our culture is that “all roads lead to God,” and the spiritual smorgasbord that interfaith services offer falls right in line with that false belief. Even if a clergy participant is well-intentioned, and his portion of the service contains no false doctrine per se, the unavoidable effect is to support the “whatever works for you” overarching message. I encourage you to read President Harrison’s letter for a truly “fair and balanced” approach. And I encourage you to speak up, in a winsome way, on various forums, comment sections, social media sites, etc., as to why our church does not approve of our clergy participating in interfaith services. It is not out of arrogance or lack of pastoral concern, but rather, just the opposite. It is so that, in venues–not necessarily high-profile ones–in venues both public and private, we can offer a clear and unmixed message, and people can hear that true hope is found in Jesus Christ our Lord, the one and only Savior of all men everywhere, and in him alone.

-- Pastor Charles Henrickson


He was right, you know? I'm living proof of that.

As I began to follow this story for the next 2 months, I began to get a heavy dose of both Law and Gospel -- rightly divided -- as it applied to this situation and I had never heard that before!

Little by little, what began as a curiosity over a so-called "controversy" ended with me actually crediting last year's "controversy" for my conversion from Non-Denominational American Evangelicalism to becoming a Confessional Lutheran.

Finally, here's the final word from LCMS President Matthew Harrison.


May God continue to have mercy on His faithful under-shepherds as they seek to serve Him as a beacon of truth in a world of lies despite the unpopularity of such actions and words.

May we all remember the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Galatians 1:10 and pray for the Lord's grace to allow it to be our guide at all times.

To quote Rev. Harrison again, "I most sincerely desire to avoid deep and public contention in the Synod. Our mission is too vital, our fellowship too fragile for a drawn out controversy."

To reiterate, it is not my intention to reopen old wounds, but to merely commend my brothers in Christ for their faithfulness, and to perhaps encourage others to remain faithful in the future as well.

In a Lutheran Layman's terms, please pray for His Church, pray for bold, confessional, courageous Pastors to remain steadfast for God's glory, pray for each other, and pray for Newtown, CT.


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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