When the Christian takes up his work, he does so in a Christian way; he does it after the manner of Christ. Our daily work is our sacrifice of praise, our faithful response to the free gift of salvation. Where men answer the call to shepherd, preach, and serve at the altar, they imitate and confess Christ. But our Lord models many other works as well. Where the people of God teach, wash, and tend the sick, they imitate and confess Christ. Where the people of God listen, obey, and bear burdens, they imitate and confess Christ. Where the people of God fish, plant, and build, they imitate and confess Christ.
You know what this is: the doctrine of vocation. You know it well because it is a particular insight of Luther himself, and one that was desperately needed in his time. The people of God clung to this Scriptural truth. They found comfort and joy in God’s assurance that their poor lives of labor pleased Him, whatever form that labor took.
The Legacy We Have Received
When the very great grandchildren of these people felt they could no longer remain where they were while remaining faithful to their Lord, they took this old understanding with them and brought it to the shores of America. They also traveled with an understanding of community that has been co-opted and corrupted in our own time. These Lutherans knew that it takes a Gemeinschaft to raise a Christian. Our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new church and understood that doing so meant erecting more than buildings with crosses on top.
As Lutherans spread across the United States following the migrations of the 19th century, their first priority was establishing churches led by well-trained pastors. Once congregations were secure, the next order of business was building schools. In fact, there are many examples where a school building was built prior to a church building. Our fathers and mothers in the faith insisted that their children be taught by people who were formally trained in Lutheran theology. This wasn’t normal American behavior. The only other Christians who had their own significant school system were Roman Catholics.
The Lutheran insistence on building their own education system in America seemed strange to the other Protestants of that time. But after more than a century of moral and religious decay (removal of prayer from government schools, the teaching of evolution, pushing homosexual and transgender propaganda) our Lutheran forefathers have been proved right many times over. Likewise, fraternal organizations were popular around the turn of the century. They came with a variety of goals and practices, not all of which were acceptable for Christians. Rather than trying to figure out which might be OK to join, Lutherans started their own.
Another problem the old Lutherans had was that in this America, anybody could say anything. It’s a great reason to move here, but it can make it hard to know which books to believe, or who shouldn’t be preaching on the radio in your living room. Lutheran publishing and broadcasting meant trustworthy reading and listening; a way to keep learning, and a check on false teaching and secular ideas that made their way into the Lutheran home.
Our fathers and mothers in the faith built all of this with that famous German planning and engineering: countless day schools and preschools, seminaries, colleges and universities, a publishing house, a broadcast (and now podcast) powerhouse, etc. This is our inheritance; this is the infrastructure of ministry and outreach for such a time as this. The six thousand congregations of our Synod have freely agreed to walk together for the purpose of helping each other. We share resources and strengths, connecting people with all that they need for this body and life, and maximizing the health and work of the body of Christ. And it’s more than the churches, schools, colleges, seminaries, books, and podcasts; it’s also the teachers who know their Bible and Catechism, the accountants who can tell you how to do your weird church worker taxes or make the most of your bequests to the church, the lawyers who understand the legal rights of Christians, the pastors who can actually answer your questions: we have all this because our forefathers in the faith cared about us thought we would need it, and they worked hard to put it in place for us.
What is a Synod?
But what exactly have they given us? What have we received? Let’s start by stating clearly what this work of their hands, the Synod, is not.
Our mothers and fathers did not build us a ship in a bottle. The Synod is not a beautiful, intricate keepsake for us to put on a shelf and never touch, so that we can all admire someone else’s legacy and accomplishments.
They did not build us a dollhouse, where we could play at being mommies with babies. They did not build us a model train so we could have fun pretending to be engineers and then go upstairs for a lunch someone else bought and made. Our fathers and mothers did not intend for us to have a playland that was safer and easier at the expense of being unreal.
They did not build us a monastery. Our parents’ concern with passing on the faith did not include checking out of public life. They understood that Christians have a duty to society that cannot be fulfilled in isolation from society. Besides, Lutherans can’t afford to spend all their time praying. Some people have to work. If you’ll look back up to the first paragraph, you’ll be reminded to rejoice in this gift.
My brothers, my sisters: our parents did not build us a ghetto. They loved us too much to raise walls around us that would eventually become our prison. Thank the Lord for this, as the world takes an ever greater interest in silencing the voice of truth, and cutting off those who blaspheme its gods of pride, lust, greed, and revenge.
In the past few years, many thinking Christians have found inspiration and hope in Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. Our forefathers beat him to the punch while avoiding the pitfalls of ghetto and monastery. What exactly did our fathers and mothers give us?
They gave us an oasis, where the people of God can refuel and rest so that they return to the work of evangelism and discipleship in the course of life, strong and refreshed.
They gave us a consulate, to help us navigate the world where we live as aliens. The Synod is a place where people who share a language can guide each other. There are Lutherans who understand things like money, the law, medicine, trades, travel, education, government, and other aspects of life that can be hard to figure out. It is really valuable when the person helping you through whatever it is you don’t know very well is a person who believes what you do.
They gave us a team. Remember when your school played Zion? Never beat ‘em once. And don’t even get me started on the guys from Blessed Savior! Then you go to public high school, and you hardly know anybody, but there are some kids from Zion in Biology. Suddenly you’re pretty glad to see them. When the only face you recognize in your Spanish class is from Blessed Savior, at least you’ve got someone to ask to be your conversation partner, and he’s just as relieved as you. Finally, a huge win: there are three people from your team in the same lunch. You might survive this (1 Kings 19:18).
Our fathers and mothers gave us a Synod. It’s not a thing you run into other places, which might be why we have a hard time understanding it. Our Savior has brought each of us to Himself. What He told his apostles is true of all of us. “You did not choose me, I chose you.” In bringing us to himself he has made us part of His body, the church, and that church is alive in its local congregations where his Word is proclaimed and his people are forgiven, baptized, absolved and communed. So far as the Synod is congregations in communion with each other, it is church: The Lutheran CHURCH Missouri Synod. A Synod is also a bunch of church people who have agreed to connect themselves to each other. No one in Synod has to be here. It is volunteer. That means, diagnostically, that our disagreements about things not governed by the Word of God mean less to us than the benefits of remaining together. Among these benefits are, plain and simple, the people themselves. We have decided to formally hold on to the people who love Whom we love, for the sake of the love of Him who gave His life for us sinners.
For Such a Time as This….
I don’t have to tell you that our culture grows more and more hostile to the Christian faith. You can see and feel it all around you. Every major denomination has faced declining participation and membership – the overall percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has plummeted in a generation. There are now as many people who say they have no religion as there are Evangelical Christians (23% of the population each, according to CNN). We are a minority in a hostile world.
The book of Esther is all about the Church’s life in a hostile culture. The Empire is against God’ people and a decree has been passed by the King for their destruction. But a faithful believer, Esther, has been raised up to the position of Queen. But what can she do? She is wavering and sends a note to her uncle, Mordecai, for advice. He tells her: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, ESV)
The world is hostile, but we will not keep silent; we will not freeze in fear. We will stand with each other. We will stand with Christ. By His grace we will stand and deliver the eternally relevant and life-changing Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins. Our forefathers have handed us a legacy for such a time as this.
The Synod’s work is expressed and embodied in this infrastructure of ministry. And like any infrastructure it gets repaired, rearranged, and reordered with the changing times. They have always changed, and we are seeing them change now. This can be difficult. It is difficult to witness, and difficult to know what decisions to make. There are many ways of approaching the day’s own trouble. We should look to our forefathers for inspiration and guidance.
Well, what did they do?
They made proactive, courageous and wrenching changes, like getting on a boat and leaving the old country forever; like removing 40 professors from a faculty when the Holy Word of God was at stake.
They made hard sacrifices, working for the modest compensation of teachers who bring the Lord into classrooms where little children may come to Him, instead of being turned against Him.
They refused to follow as Christians all around them became confused and unfaithful when asked, “Did God really say?”
This can only grow out of the conviction that Christ is the world’s Redeemer. That is the core of our infrastructure. The bonds of love that grow around this are fed on the visible Word, the Body and Blood of Christ. The work that grows out of that love looks different in every generation as the body moves through time and place. The time to break down and the time to build up are the same time: now. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven!
One more thing. We are not the only people lacerated and horrified by a vicious world. As threatened as we feel by those who hate the Law and hate the Gospel, we have an oasis, a consulate, a team, a Synod. And we have neighbors who are thirsty, lost, alone, shut out. People are looking for help. By the grace of God, we can offer it.
What is that help? It is making sure that Light pours out of our stained-glass windows for all who are desperate to be delivered out of darkness. It is submitting with joy to the gathering work of the Holy Spirit, who calls us to the very house of God. It is telling a friend who is waiting for a Savior, “Come and see.” It is trusting that God’s Word will not return void. It is laboring under that miraculous alloy of humility and fearlessness; the mettle of every repentant sinner who knows that his Redeemer lives.
It is knowing that what every sad, scared, anxious, angry, hungry, sick, shackled, bitter, toxic person needs is Jesus, and that there aren’t any tricks to making that introduction.
Friends, we have work to do. The Lord is our strength, and He has added unto us good friends, faithful neighbors and the like. If you are not sure how to begin, I suggest that you make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Then go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.
–Rev. Matthew C. Harrison is President of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. This essay was originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of the Issues, Etc. Journal. It is used here with permission.–