The LCMS Struggling to Agree on The LCACA
Worries over the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) going woke have been bubbling about since the publication of Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications (LCACA). Two or three laymen who have criticized LCACA have been either disciplined or excommunicated from the LCMS, and their stories have appeared on IM-1776 and in Tablet Magazine (among other places). None of these accounts tell the whole story. LCACA was the topic of interesting developments at the recent LCMS convention where critics of LCACA did not get the volume withdrawn, but they raised enough questions to dishonor the book.
Synod convention approved the production of a new edition of Luther’s Large Catechism in 2013 and 2016. LCACA was released in January 2023. The contemporary applications section set off a firestorm, first on Lutheran Twitter and then among vigilant pastors and laymen. The complaints, hardly insubstantial, fell under three categories: (1) lack of clarity; (2) accepting the woke Left’s framing of issues; and (3) authorship. Others have ably cataloged the complaints. There was smoke and fire among them.
LCMS Pres. Matthew Harrison suspended LCACA’s distribution on January 23, 2023, a day after the controversy exploded. He wanted to “evaluate the comments and critiques received and revisit our doctrinal review process.” On February 2, Pres. Harrison resumed distribution, claiming that he lacked authority to halt a publication after it passed doctrinal review. He also defended LCACA. Some things could have been “expressed more clearly,” he said, but “nothing in the volume” promotes “critical race theory (CRT), confusion of sexuality issues, or any theological position at odds with biblical and confessional Lutheranism.” He also condemned “unchristian attacks” on editors and contributors (coming from Lutheran Twitter), while welcoming “thoughtful critique and criticism” that will be considered moving forward. Critiquing ideas was in bounds, but attacks on persons were “unchristian.”
Less than a fortnight later, Pres. Harrison condemned “a few members of LCMS congregations” who were “propagating radical and unchristian ‘alt-right’ views via Twitter and social media” and causing “local disruption and consternation for their pastors, congregations and district presidents.” Others at Synod echoed this critique, including the librarian at Fort Wayne Seminary and members of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) that approved LCACA. Laymen like Ryan Turnipseed, who started the LCACA controversy on Twitter, and others were disciplined. Blowing a few pesky Twitter folks out of the water with the howitzer of the Synod sent a message. Why such young men could not be handled with quiet pastoral care has never been explained.
This is not where the story ends.
Other critics objected to LCACA within official Synod channels. Several people submitted overtures to CTCR to be considered as floor amendments at the 2023 Synod Convention. Overtures included at least four about LCACA, two commending its use; one calling for Synod to “cease and desist” publication; and one (submitted by faculty at both LCMS seminaries) calling for “Christian collegiality” in discussing the issues (see pages 304-306). The floor committee produced one resolution for the 2023 Convention (5-15A on p. 308) commending use of LCACA. Debate at the floor committee open hearing was so heated that the committee withdrew the resolution (presumably) for fear that a debate on LCACA on the convention floor would be divisive and embarrassing.
On the convention’s floor, a very liberal delegate supportive of LCACA nevertheless moved that the commendation motion nevertheless be considered. That motion failed, with 53.52% of delegates voting to keep the question from the floor. Someone from the floor made a substitute motion to separate LCACA into two volumes (Divorcing LAC from CA) the following day and that failed too (p. 340).
As a result of the vote, this official Synod production is neither commended nor rescinded. Pro-LCACA forces wanted the book commended and not condemned. Anti-LCACA forces wanted to have it rescinded but certainly not commended. Pro-LCACA forces entered the convention with the upper hand (so the speak), since only the motion commending the volume had an easy path to convention approval through the floor committee. But they were wary too. Anti-LCACA arguments in the committee hearings made it clear that the convention floor fight would be messy. The anti-LCACA forces proved strong enough to prevent LCACA from being commended, but not strong enough to have it rescinded.
Those who saw the LCACA as flawed may take solace. Running an orthodox church body of nearly 2 million in revolutionary times involves compromises. Pres. Harrison, they might think, threw young men to the wolves in an election year, when a convention of mostly boomers would be deciding the next LCMS president. Pres. Harrison, they hope, hears their criticisms, but was constrained to respect the aids and colleagues so central to accomplishing Synod’s mission. Pres. Harrison, according to this line of thinking, is, secretly, pretty happy with the convention outcome. LCACA—available, but not commended. As peasants used to say of the Russian Tsar during times of famine—“If the Tsar only knew.”
There is a less charitable construction. Those ruling Synod are beginning to have contempt for the people of LCMS, both pastors and parishioners. Pres. Harrison has only praised LCACA. The embrace of leftist framing is merely a “lack of clarity.” He and his institutions have ignored the issues of having authors from churches not in fellowship with LCMS. No one at Synod has ever really answered the serious objections that respectable pastors—and somewhere near a majority of Synod in convention—have made against the volume. And Synod’s leaders tarred some of those who raised criticisms with the brush of “alt-right” white nationalism.
There are also logs in the eyes of LCACA critics, to borrow a phrase. People get credibility on the based right for being apocalyptic about our situation on Twitter or black-pilled (as they say). You think you have seen the truth. No, the truth is much worse than even you know. You think the LCMS is conservative? You are naïve. Against this view, there is much good in the LCMS.
Indeed, contentions that the LCMS is going woke, derived from our current evidence, are overblown, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the LCMS’s theological direction. Things that were controversial like high liturgical worship are now settled practice. Pres. Harrison installed a conservative as president at the St. Louis seminary. Many pastors emerging from LCMS seminaries are quite conservative. Many LCMS pastors under forty—and a good many over—know what time it is.
He has other accomplishments. In 1989, LCMS authorized the use of licensed lay deacons, which recognized a need for non-pastors to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments when an ordained pastor is not available. This ended up being a quiet way to liberalize the ministry. By 2015, nearly 250 lay deacons were serving as de facto pastors in the synod. Pres. Harrison helped end this practice in policy—either requiring lay deacons to attend seminary or finding workarounds at the district level. He supported pastors and circuit leaders who would identify continuing abuses. The work of squeezing out this practice is ongoing.
The Synod is turning the page on missional-liturgical controversies of the 2000s, but this only means that Synod must reprepare for the next set of controversies—and the LCACA controversy shows that LCMS is doing just that. Eternal vigilance is the price for orthodoxy.
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