A Pastoral Response to President Harrison’s Statement on Recent Online Unchristian Teachings and Disturbing Ideologies

President Harrison recently made a public statement regarding the online behavior of certain individuals expressing “alt-right” ideologies. You may or may not know, but it is high election season in the LCMS. Nominations for president are coming to a close and elections are just around the corner (to be done online by every congregation) before this summer’s synodical convention in Milwaukee. Politics within the church can be just as brutal as those in the civil realm. Unfortunately, Harrison’s statement was not clear and seems crafted to fit into specific worldly categories, causing the national media to run with it.

Harrison, in his statement, mentions “a small number of online provocateurs” (laymen). Whether a few online trolls (those who purposely saying something controversial and one-sided to start an argument), riling up the politically liberal warrant an official presidential statement is a valid question. Is this a real concern? If you are not obsessed with the bowels of so-called “Lutheran twitter,” then you can safely ignore it. But Harrison expressly makes it a national news story.

The statement criticizes the “racist and supremacist ideologies” of persons online, one of whom was just excommunicated from an LCMS church in Knoxville, TN (Corey J. Mahler). The police were then called to prevent him from hearing the Word of God at their location. Mahler, before this, was exposed in an online article by an Antifa group (Machaira Action, which “exists to research and dismantle systems that enable fascism and white supremacy”) in which they said: “we reveal one person is trying to spread fascism in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Corey J. Mahler.” Now Mahler did make inflammatory statements, but the church does not need civil force or radical political groups to deal with things like this. The Word of God should be sufficient. The preaching of the truth combats all error.

Some overreacted with headlines going in the other direction, for example: “Woke LCMS President Works With Antifa To Dox And Excommunicate His Own Members For ‘Racism’.” That is not quite the whole picture either. The world is divided on these sorts of issues, but the church must be above them. But the statement of Harrison gives the impression of coming at the matter from just one side, so the worldly were quite pleased with it. No actual statements are detailed, just a list of topics: “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, its president, vice-presidents and all 35 district presidents, along with its ministerium and congregations, categorically reject the horrible and racist teachings of the so-called “alt-right” in toto (including white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide).” These are all different topics, and we cannot assume that they are equivalent. Some are political and historically-based, while about others the Bible does speak. Slavery, as a concrete civil institution, is not denounced by God, but is a nuanced topic biblically co-opted to explain the Christian’s new life: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17-18). God did put to death many in Sodom and Gomorrah explicitly for their sin, of which committing homosexual actions is expressly mentioned as deserving of death. We do not want to impugn God’s punishment or make it unjust today. What God, or a government, does as lawful action is quite different from what a citizen does in personal vengeance and hatred. But no distinctions are made by Harrison, just the mere mention of loaded phrases.

The statement by Harrison addresses unpopular political heresy in worldly terms, not the biblical. Is white supremacy a problem in the LCMS? It depends on who you ask and their political ideology, because these are not biblical terms. In fact, race itself, dealing with the things of the flesh, is not a relevant category before God for those made spiritual in Christ, though the world makes much of it (Gal. 3:28). That is where the confusion arises. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:9-11).

In a world where political bent matters most and families divide over ideology and particular candidates–we have a higher government. All ideology and authority in the world are under Christ, and His kingdom is above all civil government, divisive leaders, and skin colors. Earthly politics must not divide those who dwell in Christ and He in them. “Knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Eph. 6:9).

Making race to be the defining factor of humanity, such as those who perpetrate guilt according to shades of skin color over centuries haphazardly, are not only foolish and irrational, they deny the essence of Christianity. We only have to repent for our sin against God, not our forefathers or those who look like us. God does not see skin color or self-chosen identity or narrow racial labels as defining. Our identity is in Baptism, being cleansed of all guilt by the Lord’s resurrection from the dead.

The elevation or demoting of certain people, groups, or classes not according to faith and the confession of God’s Word is wrong. Faith in Jesus’s sacrifice alone saves—the rest, all that sinners do and say is condemned. Harrison’s statement highlighted just one side of the political spectrum, but not the other. He did not mention a single pastor who has promoted “white supremacy” (a solitary layman was singled out for short tweets), but there are LCMS pastors publicly behind the group Lutherans for Racial Justice, who are promoting a synodical presidential candidate who is not our current president. They have a website and public agenda to change the LCMS in “prioritizing the voices and work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).” But all teaching must be judged by God’s written word, no matter the speaker. To emphasize a person’s bare color as positive without regard to action, teaching, or faith is actually racist, in impartial terms. But the modern, radical anti-racist, thinks one group must be punished and lowered to raise another. Justice is not grace, but a fight for power in this cursed realm.

It is only fair to condemn all man-made ideas which supplant the truth of Christ, especially when the politically left ideas have observably infiltrated our synod. (Look up the still on-going case of Rev. Dr. Gregory Schulz, who was suspended from teaching for calling out the unchristian elevation of diversity, equity and inclusion at Concordia University Wisconsin). A leaked letter, supposedly from Harrison himself, was put online condemning the university leadership and supporting the critique of Dr. Schulz, but no public statement was made, so this side gets less weight.

God does not tell us in the Bible how to run churches–whether they should have a top-down governing structure or be congregational and independent in polity or something in between. We are free to choose. It certainly does not tell how to organize a government or what its laws should be. It acknowledges the fact of civil authority (Rom. 13) and that Christians should willingly submit to it for the sake of God, from whom all authority flows, but our ideas may differ in how it is carried out. The Bible does not promote any human idea as the proper way to interpret everything in the world—but it is itself the revelation of God’s truth. We are to think scripturally, not in worldly terms of ideology. We must condemn all man-made ideas when they assert themselves over God’s Word.

Those who say property is immoral (communists and radical socialists) or that those blessed with material wealth are evil and must feel bad, deny the Scriptures. Those who speak of guilt and justice, apart from the fear and love of God, know not of what they speak. Those are the things of the Lord Jesus, not mere tools to achieve political power or forge earthly utopias. Our spiritual kingdom is already established, as Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

In our godless world, the “isms” are elevated to religious status. They take over minds, so that the atheists are more religious than the church-goers, it seems. These ideas to explain all earthly facts become viruses that color every aspect of how the world is seen. They seek to replace God and His Word—to rule the mind completely, but not in love or freedom.

So we must be careful not to speak where God has not spoken. Our Lord does not endorse for us political candidates, worldly ideologies, constitutions, or political structures. At times we get the leaders we deserve and want, even when it is bad for us and will lead to temporal destruction (in the church and in the world). There can be no Christian nation (as the pejorative term “Christian nationalist” describes), since a government structure and its laws cannot repent or have faith. Individuals can do so, by the power of the Spirit, but not whole masses or earthly kingdoms. Repentance is personal, not social, racial, or collective. Each person must turn from his own sin when the Word of God is presented. We reside in God’s kingdom, to be revealed at the Last Day, by faith in God’s promises, above all human categories and earthly demarcations.

The world overreacts and then persecutes the radical reaction. In their eyes, if you are not Marxist, you must be “alt-right,” whatever that means. If one is against socialism, then he might be called “fascist”–the political labels allow no neutrality to those ruled by them. If you are not explicitly racist in promoting “people of color,” you must be secretly racist against them. If you say sodomy is not a God pleasing way to use the body and organize families, you are by definition homophobic–afraid of homosexuals. But fear of people is not the issue—it is fear of the God who made us and His Word we actually have. So we must not get caught up in human ways of looking at things. Christian doctrine is above all human politics and labels. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, has recently been labeled transphobic (having the fear of transgender persons) for saying that a female is a biologically defined creature, not subject to change by a mental decision. This is not radical, nor even Christian in itself (there is no forgiveness in upholding gender), but it is very dangerous to the world. They must see us as hating women, because we do not see male and female roles as completely interchangeable–the LCMS, after all, does not ordain women to be pastors. Without the option of murdering the unborn, radicals today see being against abortion as equivalent to condemning women to slavery as reproductive machines, though that is not biblical thinking about the blessing of new life and marriage. Radical ideology is all-encompassing, it does not allow for any shred of divine truth or Christ’s absolute rule.

The world divides along political categories. A political slant, however, is not the truth of God. Yet, we do not have to cancel people in the church or react with the equal and opposite “-ism.” We do not follow men or man-made ideas. We have a higher, divine truth from God Himself.

Scripture judges every man-made interpretation of this world, even when it comes from pastors and presidents of churches. We are not slaves of those who make and perpetrate human ideas; we are free in Christ to live under Him without fear of our sins or the whims of the powerful who demand our allegiance. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Rom. 14:4).

We are free in our conscience, by the Spirit, to serve, obey, and worship God. Only His Word deserves absolute obedience, which allows us to get above all limited, petty human categories, such as playing rich against poor or dividing all people into invented categories of race. We are all rich in Christ by forgiveness and there is only one people of God, called by the one Gospel.

In our climate to disagree with someone is often called “hate speech,” whereas the Scriptures define love according to God’s will in Christ, not just approving of what anyone says. The purveyors of social justice demand racial repentance, but they cannot offer the universal forgiveness of Christ, because they get the sin wrong. All sin is against God and His law. We should not make too much of world-bound ideologies. The truth is concrete in Jesus, who was holy for us.

The Law of God applies to every person, just as Christ died for the whole world. All those dividing by human category, on the right or left or in the middle, do not see Christ as the ruler of this world above all sinners. Only His judgment counts for eternity. That is why we must not limit ourselves to political labels and the “-isms” of sinners. The truth of Christ is too important and powerful.

We must be very careful in how we deal with the political descriptions of the world. Christ and eternal salvation are at stake, not merely improving a nation after the next election or winning a human argument. Politics and making this world perfect have taken the place of the worship of Christ, for many in our midst. Politics has become unloving and dividing on both sides of the spectrum. We must not think like the earthly-minded, but resist the temptation to fit Christ and His universal keys of Law and Gospel under human ideas. We have the privilege of speaking for Christ who rules over all. Our spiritual kingdom, under the true God, is already established and cannot fall—it is eternal. Amen.