Endless Discussion

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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:

He writes,

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.



9 thoughts on “Endless Discussion

  1. “I expect that he will be removed from my church body’s roster.”

    For what? Something for which Becker, other heretics, and the unrepentant congregations and renegade DPs, who support them, should have been kick out of the LCMS years ago?!?

    Our leaders in Congress, who swore to defend the Constitution, should have impeached and convicted Barry Soetoro years ago, and now their failure to do so joins them in that guilt and makes them just as deserving of being removed from office.

    The leaders in our Synod are coming to face with the same predicament.

  2. Rev. Winterstein, I am sorry. I should have quoted your complete sentence and made it clear that my comments were providing one reason why Becker is not likely to be removed from the LCMS roster (at least during this administration).

    You did state in your complete sentence that you “don’t have a lot of confidence in that [Becker being removed from the roster].”

  3. Tim,
    I was your academic adviser for four years at Concordia, Portland. You were my student in several classes. I know every course grade you ever received at Concordia, among other details of your life.

    Did you not learn anything positive from me during those years? Did my courses not teach you anything useful for your pastoral ministry? If not, I am sorry.

    Surely you do not teach and preach in your congregation that “those who have done good things will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil things into eternal fire.” If so, then I am grieved that apparently you learned nothing in my course on the theology of the Lutheran Confessions wherein we examined AC IV and Apol. IV.

    Yes, I do depart from those who mindlessly repeat the medieval notion that human beings enter into eternal life by doing good works and that those who do evil enter into eternal fire. Don’t you also depart from such teachings when you preach the gospel as it is defined in AC IV?

    (The Athanasian Creed as a whole is not outdated; I have never stated so. i teach and preach the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas that are given in that Creed. I am critical of those who mindlessly repeat certain statements in that Creed without any attention to the hermeneutical issues involved and who fail to see how the literal meaning of some of those statements contradicts the gospel. On occasion even Dr. Luther could be critical of words and phrases in the so-called ecumenical creeds. That critical spirit is partly what made him an evangelical theologian… The Creeds are not the Scriptures.)

    Surely you acknowledge that the Lutheran Confessions themselves teach (AC 28; Apol 28; FC X) that some biblical passages (e.g., about women’s veils, eating blood) have become outdated because the historical circumstances in which they were articulated have changed? Do you not acknowledge that other biblical passages have also become outdated because of changed circumstances (e.g., honoring the emperor, avoiding food offered to idols, slaves being obedient to their masters, etc.)? We must always strive to understand the spirit of a given biblical text and to be careful in distinguishing between abiding teaching and transitory application vis-a-vis historical circumstances.

    As far as I know Dr. Sasse never wrote a critical word in public about any of his former teachers. He certainly never attacked them in the way you have done here toward me–online, for all the world to read. (I think you are more of a modern American than might care to admit.)

    It is one thing to disagree with a fellow brother in Christ about whether or not the Scriptures truly prohibit women today from preaching and teaching the Word of God, administering the sacraments, and providing pastoral care; it is quite another to attack that brother publicly as “disingenuous,” “obtuse” (really, Tim?), “striking the bass notes of persecuted humility,” writing “convoluted” sentences, “obscuring the pertinent Scriptures,” “sneering” when quoting Scripture, Did Dr. Luther ever write this way toward his former theology professors?

    Tim, the vast majority of Lutheran churches around the world–not to mention the Episcopal and many other Protestant churches–have been convinced that the Scriptures do not clearly prohibit contemporary qualified women from serving in the pastoral office. If the Scriptures were as clear as you and others in the LCMS think they are on this question (bear in mind that both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches do not base their laws against women priests on the Scriptures, but on a narrow reading of church Tradition and that many Roman Catholic biblical scholars acknowledge the Scriptures are ambiguous on this question), then people within the LCMS would not be having this disagreement. It is instructive that your appeal is basically to LCMS tradition and to a selective stream of church tradition, whereas my argument is based on exegesis of Holy Scripture and to questions about the contemporary meaning of certain biblical “proof texts.”

    Obviously your post is proof positive that the decision of the Referral Panel in the recent charge against me is open to questioning and criticism. Have you noticed how many district conventions have passed resolutions about this one decision? The matter is most definitely not settled. That’s fine. My “for the record’ was meant to offer “the other side of the story.” I would think that as a member of the NW District you would show greater respect toward your District President (cf. The Fourth Commandment) and the Referral Panel he appointed, comprised of three randomly chosen circuit visitors from your (and my) district.

    We can disagree without being disagreeable. The synod allows for dissent. Every human decision within our church body is indeed open to questioning and potential criticism. (Do you really know all the facts of the case against me? I don’t think anyone but my accuser, our District President, and the Referral Panel does.)

    The synod allows for dissent against its resolutions. I am dissenting against the synod’s resolutions that discriminate against women, that argue that women are ontologically incapable of being equipped by the Holy Spirit to serve as pastors, that God has for all time and circumstances subordinated women to men and placed them via their creation in an inferior position vis-a-vis men in the world/church, that God restricts his pastoral gifts only to men and only calls men into the pastoral ministry. I think with time the LCMS position on this issue will be changed. At least i hope that is the case. (Or perhaps the synod itself will go by the wayside…)

    Thankfully, you are not the synod, just as I am not the synod. In the meantime, we have no other authorities except the the Word of God and “convincing,” to quote Walther.

    Over time I’m hopeful the synod will change its position on women pastors, just has it changed its earlier positions against women teachers, dces, women’s suffrage, and so on. I also hope it will change its position on six-day creationism. (The fact that you refer to the extinction of the dinosaurs, something that happened tens of millions of years ago, suggests that you might be open to this aspect of my dissent as well.)

    It grieves me to read your post here. i will pray for you.

    Dr. Becker

  4. Dr. Becker, thanks for your comments and your prayers. I certainly require the latter, and I admit that at times I was splenetic in my comments, perhaps unduly. As you say, we were rather familiar with each other at Concordia, Portland (though, some of those classes are nearly 15 years ago now.) I am neither Sasse nor Luther, but I will leave it for others to point out the times they disagreed publicly with their former professors. (Certainly, Sasse did not hold to Harnack’s view of history or his theological judgments, and he writes as much; e.g., see the latest volume of Letters to Lutheran Pastors.)

    First, I would make it clear that I never criticized my District President, or the decision of the three-person panel. I don’t know the details of the decision, and I did not comment on that. My only point was the seeming irony of holding up that decision as final, while repeatedly saying that the decisions of the LCMS in convention, etc., are not final.

    As to the Athanasian Creed, of course it (and everything else, including every passage of Scripture) requires interpretation. I am not privileged to the thoughts of any other person, so I don’t have any idea how many or which Christians mindlessly repeat the creeds or what you call “the medieval notion that human beings enter into eternal life by doing good works and that those who do evil enter into eternal fire.” The problem is, as you know, that the Athanasian Creed is simply confessing–nearly word for word–the words of Jesus in John 5:29. As you have pointed out elsewhere, Jesus’ words certainly do require interpretation within their context, but the burden of proof is on you to show that the author(s) of the Athanasian Creed are departing from Jesus’ words in their context. Unless you can show that, the only point you’ve made is that if AC/Apol. IV contradicts the Athanasian Creed, then it also contradicts Jesus’ words. If you cannot prove that the Athanasian Creed means something different from what Jesus says (and, as far as I know, the author[s] remain anonymous), then it befits us to take the Creed’s words in the same way we would take Jesus’ words. Perhaps you would give us your own interpretation of John 5:29.

    • Tim,

      We can disagree without being disagreeable. As far as I know, whenever Sasse publicly disagreed with some of his teachers, he never attacked their character or maligned their scholarship. Your accusations against me (e.g., of being “disingenuous” and “obtuse,” of “striking the bass notes of persecuted humility,” of writing “convoluted” sentences, of “obscuring the pertinent Scriptures,” of “sneering” when quoting Scripture) amount to a personal attack on my character.

      With respect to the Athanasian Creed:
      Please review my published comments here:

      According to the Gospel of John, there is only one good work, namely, to trust in Christ alone.

      The ending of the Athan. Creed is problematic since it unhinges the words of Christ in John 5-6 (where “done good” and “done evil” have distinct meanings, peculiar to John’s Gospel) and transfers them into a different context, where those same phrases can easily be understood in a way contrary to what they mean in John’s Gospel (e.g., facere quod in se). Identical propositional statements can have different and even contradictory meanings, depending on the context in which they occur. I find no indication in the the ending of the Athan. Creed that “having done good” is solely a matter of “believing in Christ alone.” Linking those two notions, it seems to me, requires some creative eisegesis.

      The Athan. Creed helps us with dogmatic understandings of God and Christ, as these were articulated in the sixth century, but it is not very helpful at setting forth the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The structure of sixth-century Gallic thought that is reflected in the Athan. Creed, at least with respect to the role of human works in the process of salvation, is radically different from the structure of thought in the AC, Apol., SD, and similar evangelical confessions that confess sola fide.

      Finally, one can quote many passages in the Scriptures, including words from our Lord, and yet fail to confess, teach, and proclaim evangelical doctrine. At the heart of our evangelical confession of doctrine is making a right and proper use of the distinction between law and gospel. We deny synergism and underscore that we receive salvation out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith alone (gratis propter Christum per fidem).

      Dr. Becker

  5. I hesitate to respond, in part because you seem unable to respond to the particular points I made without resorting to a pretense of taking the high road over your former student. (By the way, what were my grades? I can’t, for the life of me, remember myself.)

    I don’t believe I attacked your character. I attacked the points you were making. Yes, I was sarcastic, but I stand by what I said. Those words described how I read what you wrote. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

    I’ll let any other readers decide whether what I wrote describes what you wrote. I did think the sentence was obtuse and convoluted. Perhaps I’m the only one; perhaps not. I do think you’re being disingenuous toward those who disagree with you and your arguments. As to whether you obscure the relevant Scriptures: again, that’s a judgment call on my part, and others can decide if I am correct. Finally, I’ll reproduce the passage of which I’m thinking, and you tell me what you call the quotation marks around the words of Scripture in this paragraph:

    “Women are literally ‘inferior’ (Latin: ‘ranked and positioned under’), and thus their ‘natural and moral condition’ is to be ‘under’ the ‘headship’ of men, who are to ‘rule over’ them. According to this view, the creation of woman was an afterthought of God; she is subordinate to the man. She is the first to be tempted by Satan, the first to fall into sin. She is ‘the weaker sex.’ Moreover, women sin when they speak publicly in the church (‘it is shameful for a woman to speak in church’). They are perhaps more inclined toward pride than men (‘What! Did the word of God originate with you?’). They lack the intellectual gifts of men, a view that has been consistently defended by numerous Christian theologians up until modern times. They are to be silently submissive to their husbands/older men and have no authority over them. They will be saved, however, if they bear children.”

    In this single paragraph you both obscure the Scriptures (by aligning them with unbiblical words which are also in quotation marks; as well as associating that quote from 1 Corinthians 14:36 with only the women, rather than with the entire congregation), and you seem to devalue (even sneer) at the Scriptures which speak about women in the congregation. You continually put the worst construction on the arguments of your opponents, when you know full well that the way you describe their interpretations is not the only way that those passages are or can be understood.

    I find it amusing that in the same comment in which you say that I attacked your character and that you grieve for me, you insinuate that I have broken the Fourth Commandment (I never–even mildly–criticized the decision of the panel), and you link to comments in which you all but call Heath Curtis a blasphemer, an idolater, arrogant, and unfit for pastoral office; further, you compare those who are convinced that the Scriptures do indeed prohibit women from holding the Office of the Ministry (no less persuaded from and by the Scriptures than you are) to people who want to restore slavery. There should be some sort of Godwin’s rule for how quickly slavery gets brought into this discussion. You know, again, that there are arguments as to why slavery and prohibiting the ordination of women are completely different issues. Can’t we disagree without being disagreeable?

    So I stand by my comments; I believe they are the truth; and I see no reason why public comments should not be directed at public comments. You do not get to withhold from others what you take for yourself.

    If you’ll be at my (your) District Convention, I’d be glad to hash it out over a McMenamin’s beer.

    • Tim,
      I appreciate the clarification about your acceptance of the Referral Panel’s decision and that you were not being critical of our DP or the Referral Panel and its decision. I’m also glad to know that you did not intend to attack my character.

      According to LCMS bylaw, the Referral Panel’s decision has a finality that an LCMS convention resolution does not have. In the brief history of the LCMS, the synod has taken positions–often repeatedly so–that were later set aside and/or no longer followed (e.g., conditions for prayer fellowship, rejection of women’s suffrage, purchase of insurance, etc.). I am hopeful that over time the synod will indeed allow qualified women to serve as pastors.

      Since you think the sentence in question is “obtuse” and “convoluted,” let me simplify it for you: Some in the synod cannot envision that people who share the same confessional commitment could come to different conclusions about how the Scriptures and Confessions ought to be applied to matters on which the Scriptures and the Confessions are silent, ambiguous, or outdated.

      In our circles, “upotasso” (and related words) has been understood to mean that women are to be “subordinate to” (lit. “placed under, below, beneath,” at a lower point in a hierarchy, belonging to a lower order or rank, subject to or under the authority of a superior, hence “subservient” or “inferior”–“lower in station, rank, position, or place,” situated below) men.

      You need to read the preceding paragraph in my article to learn from where the phrase “natural and moral condition” originated. In my essay I make clear from where that phrase originates. The other words in quotation marks are all found in the Scriptures, in contexts that relate to women (e.g., Eve, the Corinthian prophets, etc.). The “you” in 1 Cor. 14.36 may indeed refer to the “women” referred to in v. 34, not necessarily to the whole congregation. It is likely an aside to the women who had been prophesying there.

      I am not sneering at the Scriptures, but merely pointing out that some apostolic teachings no longer are applicable to our time and circumstance.

      If I have not accurately described how the LCMS subordinates women to men in an “order of creation,” then please set the record straight. I think I have accurately described how the Scriptures have been used in the LCMS in order to restrict the office of pastor to men: women are to be subordinate to men, placed under the authority of men; Eve (the prototype of all women) was created after Adam; she and all women are the weaker sex, more susceptible to temptation, and thus women cannot teach or have authority over a man.

      I never applied any of those words to Pr. Curtis or any other specific pastor. I merely asked, “How can any evangelical preacher proclaim that any one specific person who has died is in hell? What arrogance! What idolatry! That is not ‘rude,’ that is blasphemy! What an uncaring, hard-hearted, mean-spirited mindset.”

      The NT commands to slaves/masters serve as one example of NT passages that no longer apply directly to our situation. I listed several others: commands/admonitions to honor the emperor, to refrain from food offered to idols, from eating blood, to have one’s hair a certain length, female head coverings.

      I will be leading a group of Valpo alumni on a tour of Northern Italy and Southern Germany during the days of this year’s NW District Convention, so I won’t be at the Convention. But I’ll take you up on your offer of beer, the next time I’m in your neck of the woods.

      You remain in my prayers.

      Dr. Becker

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