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People unified by grief often turn to God for answers, strength and comfort. But an interfaith vigil after the Dec. 14 massacre at a Connecticut elementary school has ensnared two Lutheran pastors with Fort Wayne ties in a national debate over a question that has become all too common:
When tragedy strikes, is it possible for Christian pastors to publicly comfort an increasingly diverse population without compromising the very faith on which that comfort depends?
“Lutheran pastor apologizes for praying in Newtown vigil,” screamed the provocative, if inaccurate. headline attached to one of the countless stories about what happened after the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church participated in the televised event two days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed the lives of 26 children and adults, including a young girl whose family had recently joined his congregation. The Rev. Rob Morris – who studied at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne in 2011 – read from Revelation and offered the Trinitarian benediction.
But an event intended for healing has instead sparked controversy in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the issues involved have implications that transcend the LCMS' 2.4 million membership.
With other orthodox churches, the LCMS takes Christ at his word that salvation is possible only through faith in him. The synod's constitution therefore prohibits pastors from participating in worship services that include clergy of other denominations or faiths to avoid giving the appearance that all doctrines and gods are created equal.
In theory, it's a perfectly reasonable position. But in the real word, it has for the second time in little more than a decade sparked a debate that can easily be caricatured as callous, stupid or worse: “Lutheran pastor apologizes for being a decent human being,” read the headline on an atheist website.
I don't know Rev. Morris, but I know LCMS President Matthew Harrison very well. He was my pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne from 1995 to 2001, and is a man of genuine faith and compassion.
As president, however, he is also responsible for enforcing the synod's constitution, interpretation of Scripture and internal harmony. He requested Morris' apology, and Morris did so for any offense he may have caused but not for having participated.
In a letter to the synod, Morris explained that he considered the event not a service “but an act of community chaplaincy. Chaplains are expected to give faithful witness under circumstances which are less than ecclesiastically perfect . . . (I wanted to offer) mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event.”
That theological line was blurred again Wednesday, as members of Shepherds United – a new interfaith group of clergy promoting life and other traditional causes – prayed outside Fort Wayne's abortion clinic.
The Rev. Peter Scaer, a professor at Concordia, was leading mostly other seminarians in prayer when I arrived, so I asked him about the ecumenical nature of Shepherds United. It's OK for different clergy to pray together, he explained, but participating in public worship causes problems both theological and practical. When non-Christian clergy are present, he said – as they were at Newtown -- a Christian pastor risks giving the wrong impression if he does not stress the supremacy of Christ and risks seeming impolite if he does.
But avoiding such situations isn't necessarily a perfect solution, either. Communities struck by a common tragedy require some degree of corporate healing, as the nation did after the Sept. 11 attacks. At that time, a Lutheran pastor's participation in a joint ceremony at Yankee Stadium evoked a similar debate within the LCMS.
Morris' strategy for avoiding the impression that he endorsed “false teaching” – a disclaimer at the start of the vigil – may not be the perfect solution. But churches that care about Scripture, people, their own reputation and the faith itself must be careful not to offend unnecessarily. As orthodox churches increasingly struggle against a host of social problems and movements incompatible with Scripture, they risk undermining their own message if they do not pick their battles carefully.
In a letter to the synod, Harrison said the synod had begun a review of its joint-worship ban even before the Newtown “debacle.” He also followed Morris' apology with one of his own for having added to the pain already felt by Morris and his congregation. “Please forgive me,” Harrison wrote.
It was a pastoral and timely appeal, given this week's start of Lent, the season of reflection and repentance. But what about next time?