I started writing an article last week. When I got finished, I didn’t like at all. It sounded like a gigantic LCMS pat on the back. But I’m posting it here anyway, just so that the two hours of writing aren’t totally wasted. So there’s that.
When LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 16, 2012, some likened his tone and mustache to that of Theodore Roosevelt. Others called him dramatic. He “thundered,” they said. He was “intense.”
They were right. Harrison left the committee members with no doubt as to where the LCMS stood on religious freedoms, denouncing the Jan. 20 U.S. Health and Human Services ruling that required religious, non-profit organizations (such as the LCMS) cover contraceptives and abortifacients in their health-insurance plans. “Religious people determine what violates their consciences,” he said, “not the federal government.”
Speaking in the midst of a hearing that would overrun media outlets in the ensuing days, he refused to mince words. “I will stand personally for . . . the rights of every single person. I will give my sons . . . up to fight for this country and sacrifice everything I have for the sake of guaranteeing the rights of every single citizen in this country,” he told Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.). “We fought for a free conscience in this country, and we won’t give it up without a fight.”
It was a battle the Church was willing to fight. In the two weeks leading up to the Committee hearing, Harrison released two statements opposing the insurance mandate, saying, “We will pray for and support our government where we can, but our consciences and lives belong to God.”
After that, his road to Washington was short and fast. Alerted only two days in advance to the possibility of testifying before the committee, Harrison scratched his prepared statement the morning of the hearing. With the help of Prof. John Pless, who teaches theological ethics at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, he drafted his statement in the early morning hours of the day he testified. Within minutes of the close of the hearing, he headed to the airport, determined to arrive at the LCMS Southern Illinois District convention in time to preach at its opening worship service that evening.
In the days that followed, Harrison’s picture appeared on Saturday Night Live, Meet the Press, and in cartoons. Critics from Los Angeles to New York lambasted the committee for choosing the all-male panel of which he was a part. Journalists in major newspapers across the country quoted his words. Social media posts labeled his statement this century’s “Here I Stand” moment. Within three days of the hearing, over 30,000 people had watched his statement on YouTube. Less than a week later, the LCMS Council of Presidents voted unanimously in favor of his work on behalf of the church in Washington, D.C.
But if we are honest with ourselves, if we call a thing what it is, Harrison’s appearance before the committee has nothing to do with him. It even has, in a sense, nothing to do with the rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion about which he spoke so passionately.
Instead, it has everything to do with Christ, with a Synod founded on God’s Word, with utilizing God’s good gifts on behalf of the world. Harrison’s opportunity to take part in a discussion in Washington, D.C.—to make a defense of Americans’ First Amendment rights, to assert a decidedly pro-life stand in the public square, to speak the very Word of God on a platform of an unprecedented level–stems from being a part of a church body, of a Synod, of the Christian Church as a whole.
Why a Synod?
“A synod . . . must above all else be formed so that the gifts that are distributed to the various servants of Christ may be best utilized for the benefit of all,” wrote C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the LCMS. “And here again the number one priority must be the promotion of a better understanding of God’s Word” (p. 298).
There is a cost to promoting that Word of God, to bearing witness to Christ, to defending the Gospel, to speaking on behalf of truth in the public square. But it is a cost born by each person who calls himself a member of the LCMS. It is the cost of what it means to be a Christian, of working together in service to Christ, of accomplishing more, reaching farther and touching more lives with the Gospel than any one person could alone. It is the cost of being guided by the Word of God. It is the cost of being Lutheran.
Without God’s Word, there would be no Synod. And without a Synod, there would have been no “dramatic,” “intense” testimony to the truths of Scripture before a committee and world not completely open to hearing it.
Without a Synod, there would be no money for President Harrison’s travel to the nation’s capital, no staff to share the story with the church’s members or the media, no seminary professors to provide him with ethical counsel. When it came to Lutherans, there would have been silence.
What the Word of God Accomplishes
This is why we do what we do as Synod. We respond to the threats of the world, the temptations of the devil, the enticement of our own flesh. We speak on behalf of the unborn, protect the elderly, give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. We train our young, teach our youth, encourage our adults. We form our theologians, support our partners, send our pastors. We care for the suffering, show mercy to the hurting, comfort the despondent. We act on behalf of our congregations, go where they cannot go, speak in platforms where they have no voice. We speak out for religious liberty, fight for freedom of conscience, defend the distinction of church and state.
But we do not fight, work and pray in a vacuum. In our speaking, caring, and defending, we are at all times and in all places bearing witness to Christ, to His goodness, to His love for unworthy sinners.
But “It is not the synod itself that accomplishes these blessings,” said Walther. “It is the Word of God, which we teach. And even that, in itself, would not accomplish anything if God did not add His blessing” (p. 291).
Without God’s Word, we would be powerless to work together, powerless to leverage the marvelous gifts of God together in unity, powerless to accomplish more in Christ’s name. Instead, we work together because we cannot help but testify to Christ and to His grace. We work together, because He has already fought our battles for us. We work together, because He has won.
“A praiseworthy church union has great value and can accomplish much for the Lord, especially in dangerous times such as the present, when the devil is trying to stir up false doctrine and other kinds of trouble,” wrote a pastor in the late 15th century (Hamburg Ministerium, p. 290).
These are dangerous times. They are costly, worrisome, demanding. But they are also profound, exciting and filled with opportunity. As Synod, we are bound to God’s Word, bound to His life-giving Sacraments, bound together as the Body of Christ. And in that Word, there is great joy.