Hermann Sasse was frequently prescient, and since his words so often apply to multiple generations, it’s not surprising that he continues (rightly so) to be read. One particular passage continues to apply to the Church in general, and to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in particular:
Not every question can be settled by means of a friendly discussion. It is necessary to remember that in an age which has a superstitious belief in dialogue as the infallible means of settling everything. There are questions raised by the devil to destroy the church of Christ. To achieve this, he may use as his mouthpiece not only ambitious professors of theology, his favorite tools, but also simple, pious souls. Why women cannot be ordained is one of these questions. [“Ordination of Women?” The Lonely Way, II:402]
To which question Sasse spends the rest of the essay giving (or rather confessing) the answer.
Matthew Becker (someone who continually touts his position as a professor of theology) is one of those who holds to continual dialogue as the proper means of (un)settling every question. I am not commenting on this because I expect that he will be removed from my church body’s roster; I don’t have a lot of confidence in that, even though he teaches several things contrary to what has been the Synod’s unchanged position throughout its history. On the other hand, I happen to think that Becker’s particular brand of reductionistic Lutheran theology is either going the way of the dinosaur, or is going to be folded into the amorphous blob of modern, Protestant theology (which, as it turns out, are usually the same thing). But his latest public comments (in one of the few friendly online places left to him in the LCMS) are so disingenuous and pedantic, and their irony is so palpable as nearly to require exhibition. Not only that, but he manages to strike both the high notes of triumphalism, as well as the bass notes of persecuted humility (which was probably predictable, since the LCMS has failed for twenty years to find anything officially objectionable in his public teaching–which does make one wonder whether any pastor could ever be defrocked for false teaching in the LCMS, at least as long as he was able to take refuge in academic freedom and at the same time sufficiently obscure the pertinent Scriptures).
Becker’s contention is not that he doesn’t teach or advocate contrary to the position of the LCMS (and, it should be admitted, to the nearly unanimous understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout time and space); his position is that the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions do not speak clearly on the issue and, therefore, he is justified in continuing to “ask questions” and pursue the “theological task” with respect to the Missouri Synod’s position. I’m not going to spend time responding to his claims about what the Scriptures do and do not say about who should serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry. There has been more than enough discussion of those points, even if Becker does not find them compelling. (Or maybe he hasn’t read them, since he seems to think that no one has ever taken up the issues which he is so nobly–even Luther-like–raising?)
But two points stand out:
It is clear to me that the pastor who leveled the original accusation, [LCMS] President Harrison, and others who think as they do, cannot envision that individuals who share the same corporate confessional commitment, as given in Article II of the Synod’s Constitution, could come to different conclusions about how the explicit teaching of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions ought to be applied to practical matters about which the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions are silent, ambiguous, or outdated.
Out of this obtuse and convoluted sentence, the point (I think) is clear: Becker thinks that he is simply advocating one of many possible conclusions about certain controverted or unclear passages of Scripture. However, the position of his opponents, as I see it, is not only that they come to a conclusion different from Becker’s, but that they start with a different presumption about which Scriptures are clear. In other words, the disagreement is not only in the conclusion but in the presuppositions.
More interesting in a Lutheran church that takes for granted the ongoing and living confessional status of the Book of Concord (which has never meant repristination but, instead, confessing anew the positions taken by the Confessors), is that Becker seems to think that (1) the ordination of women is only a “practical matter” (belied by his later insistence that ordaining women is practically an article on which the Church stands or falls, since to deny women the pastoral office essentially falsifies any real confession of baptism and justification); and (2), that, at least on his favorite issues, the Scriptures and Confessions are partly “outdated.”
[As an aside, one of those issues, as Becker has repeatedly stated, is the Athanasian Creed, which is included in the Book of Concord to which every LCMS pastor gives an unqualified subscription, and about which the Confessions themselves state: “We mean that doctrine, which, having been derived from the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures, is contained in the three ancient Creeds, in the Augsburg Confession, presented in the year 1530 to the Emperor Charles V, of excellent memory, then in the Apology, which was added to this, in the Smalcald Articles, and lastly in both the Catechisms of that excellent man, Dr. Luther. Therefore we also have determined not to depart even a finger’s breadth either from the subjects themselves, or from the phrases which are found in them, but, the Spirit of the Lord aiding us, to persevere constantly, with the greatest harmony, in this godly agreement, and we intend to examine all controversies according to this true norm and declaration of the pure doctrine” (“Preface to the Christian Book of Concord,” 23, emphasis added). Becker should make it clear that he departs from the “great harmony” and “godly agreement” of the actual Confessors.]
Becker’s position on the Scriptures and Confessions is simply a remnant of old liberal theology, and it constantly reveals itself in recent history to be a non-starter. Becker’s statement “for the record” does reveal that he considers portions of 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians to be those outdated Scriptures, indicated by his sneer quotes around their words. The word “outdated” means the Zeitgeist determines the authoritative portions of the Scriptures, and since that spirit is notoriously fickle, it must mean that there can be, finally, no Scripture which is not subject to the epithet “outdated.” Will Dr. Becker tell the Church which Scriptures she may still consider to be up to date and authoritative for faith and life, and on what basis? Whether Becker would agree or not, which of his arguments for the outdatedness of the proscriptions of women speaking publicly in the services of the Lord’s House cannot be applied mutatis mutandis to the bodily resurrection of Jesus (to consider another outdated notion)? And if parts of the Lutheran Confessions are outdated, it would be nice to know which parts, beyond the Athanasian Creed, Becker’s theology has transcended.
The second point, which is highly (though apparently, to Becker, unconsciously) ironic, is his account of the most recent proceedings against him for false teaching (there have been at least three formal accusations of which I am aware):
The NW District President, Rev. Paul Linnemann, who has the sole responsibility for my ecclesiastical supervision, investigated this matter carefully and engaged me in extended discussion. We also met with members of the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations. Eventually, President Linnemann formed a referral panel to investigate and act upon the accusation against me, something he can do according to LCMS bylaw. The purpose of this Panel was to examine the accusation, my public writings on the ordination of women, and written statements from both my accuser and me. The three members of the Referral Panel, each a circuit visitor in the NW District, were chosen by blind draw. To this day, I do not know who they are. I learned later that they met in the fall of 2014 and, for whatever reason, determined not to initiate formal proceedings to expel me from the Synod. According to the Synod’s bylaws, the decision of the Referral Panel was final. It terminated the matter. I was informed of this decision on the day before Thanksgiving 2014. Also informed were the pastor who had brought the charge, the President of the Synod, and the English District President.
Note: “According to the Synod’s bylaws, the decision of the Referral Panel was final. It terminated the matter.” The only conclusion even an impartial observer can draw is that this particular bylaw of the Synod, along with the decision of an anonymous Referral Panel, are final and absolute but the question of women serving as pastors, even with a long history of serious exegetical and systematic work supporting the teaching of the Missouri Synod, is not. But even stranger, this decision by a three-member panel is more absolute in Becker’s mind than repeated and unflinching confession by Synod conventions and the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the LCMS of what the Scriptures teach (not to mention the work of so many doctors and professors of theology throughout history and across communions). Becker seems to think that this decision of the Three is infallible with respect to his position on the roster of ordained pastors, but any other decision of the Synod, even if made by the hundreds of people–pastors and lay–who attend Synod conventions, is open to continual and endless discussion. I concede that the decisions of conventions or commissions can never, for good or ill, be made binding on congregations of the Missouri Synod. That’s why nearly every resolution must gum congregations to death with passive words like “Resolved: that congregations be encouraged…” Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see why Becker wants this particular bylaw and this particular panel decision to be final and to terminate all discussion, while every other decision with which he disagrees must remain open for discussion.
The only charitable conclusion is that Becker, like his compatriots in other Lutheran church bodies around the world, will not take no for an answer. No matter how many times the Synod says that we will not ordain women to the pastoral office, that is only a temporary state of affairs. But if an anonymous panel decides that Becker should not be removed from office, that decision is self-evidently final and the termination of the matter. Why can’t his opponents take no for an answer? He is obviously a faithful son of the Church, much like Martin Luther (did I mention that Blessed Martin, like Becker, was a university professor of theology, bravely holding the line against ecclesiastical tyranny and heresy hunting?), and now, since this decision became final once and for all, he has been vindicated in his pursuit of the Truth. Here he stands. So help us God.