Reading Time: 3 minutes

Lutheran leaders apologize for Newtown controversy

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

A makeshift memorial for Sandy HooK Elementary school shooting victims somewhere in Newtown Connecticut, December 18, 2012, four days after the tragedy (Credit: Dave Barger via Flickr)

Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Connecticut, participated in a public interfaith vigil with President Obama two days after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Why did this fact generate controversy? Because his denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), states in its constitution that members must refuse “unionism,” mingling Lutheran and other Christian theology or practice, as well as “syncretism,” mingling Christian and non-Christian theology or practice.

When Rev. Morris’s participation in the interfaith service came to light, Rev. Matthew Harrison, the leader of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, asked him to apologize. He did so, stating that “I did not believe my participation to be an act of joint worship, but one of mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event. However, I recognize others in our church consider it to constitute joint worship and I understand why. I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far.”

Now Rev. Harrison has apologized for forcing Rev. Morris to apologize: “As president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle. I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community.” President Harrison’s behavior will likely be a factor when he seeks re-election this July.

This is not the first time the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has faced such a controversy. In 2001, Rev. David Benke took part in an interfaith prayer vigil at Yankee Stadium after the 9/11 attacks. He was suspended, then reinstated; the president of the denomination allowed his participation, but eventually lost re-election.

Here’s my question: when does cooperation go too far? Are there events in which Christians should not participate, lest their presence be interpreted as endorsement? On the other hand, does a rule such as the LCMS statute prevent Christians from engaging cultural issues or other Christians and religions in meaningful ways?

Jesus spoke publicly with an immoral Samaritan woman, shocking her and his disciples (John 4:1-42). He also ate with tax collectors and other “sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13). But Paul told us not to eat meat offered to pagan idols if doing so would cause others to “stumble” (1 Corinthians 10:27-32).

What should the Lutheran pastor in Newtown have done? How should his denomination have responded? What guidelines should Christians follow in engaging culture while preserving their witness? Please share your thoughts on our website.

Here was Paul’s conclusion: “I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:33). Whose good will you seek today?