Do We Even Have Religious Leaders?

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has released an updated version of it’s statement on vaccine mandates. and once again it’s a tepid attempt at taking no position at all. At best, it is naïve and tone-deaf. At worst, it is a deliberate abandonment of their posts. In the middle lies pure cowardice. Read it and decide for yourself where “best construction” lies on such a scale.

There are plenty  of points one could take issue with it, but what I find most egregious is that our leadership insists on taking no position on matters of such dire importance to so many Lutherans under Synod’s care. It’s fair enough for Synod to avoid taking a position on vaccine efficacy or safety or on offering medical advice. What’s abhorrent is to avoid even taking a clear position in support of our consciences on the matter.

When religious exemptions are being offered in many jurisdictions, it is only natural that both we (and our employers) look to what our leadership says in support in obtaining one. President Harrison, on behalf of our Synod, neatly washes his hands of the matter and informs his flock that we’ll be fine on our own:

3. Can I obtain a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine?

Religious or personal belief exemptions are based on conscientious objection and do not require official support from the denomination. The absence of an official Synod stance does not impact your ability to seek an exemption. In fact, most requests for religious exemption must be for personal, deeply held religious convictions, and not for the position of a church body or church official. Please consult your employer, local lawmakers or public health officials for more information on how to proceed should the need arise.

“It is a matter of personal conscience, so exemptions require no statement from a religious organization,” he ignorantly proclaims. Meanwhile, my application form requires the name & signature of my religious leader and information on the organization he represents. And whether or not its explicitly on any given form, acquiring an exemption is not the foregone conclusion Synod naively assumes. Exemption requests can be rejected–often by HR functionaries whose criteria are entirely opaque. It’s hard to overstate the utility of a strong stance from church leadership in winning such a fight.

Naturally, we can’t all expect a signature from President Harrison–just from our congregations. But many of our congregations are likewise scared to offer such things because Synod has set an example of cowardice. They too look to our overseers for guidance, and then embrace the counsel that “no position” is the best position to have. When their members ask for support, many of them echo the position of their president: This is a personal decision. Go in peace and be warm and well fed, but don’t expect any help from us.

The irony, of course, is that it really is a personal decision. This is because God has appointed me–not my president, my company executives, or my neighbors–to judge whether or not the vaccines are appropriate for myself and my household. If President Harrison’s fine talk about how very personal this decision is proceeded from any real conviction or leadership, it would not studiously avoid taking a position. It would instead take the position of affirming the God-given authority from which our decisions proceed rather than trying to sell the duplicitous fiction that “no position” is actually an option. Our applications will either have the signatures of our religious leaders, or they will not. We will either have our leaders’ support or we will not. There is no middle ground for “no position” to occupy.

It’s easy to say “it’s a personal decision” in a way that clearly defends that person’s conscience. It’s easy for theologically literate Lutherans to root the authority for that decision in Holy Scripture and our Confessions.  But Synod has instead chosen to say “it’s a personal decision” in a way that means “you’re on your own.” It acknowledges that “it remains a matter of Christian freedom, which you must decide according to your individual conscience” but lends neither freedom nor conscience its support.

People try to carve out a space for neutrality because “no position” is comfortable. It’s safe and conflict-avoidant. It’s above the fray where the hems of their robes can stay pristine. If the boomers and retirees who populate so much of our leadership really think such a posture exists, it’s likely because they no longer have much skin in the game. They’ve already gotten the shots, and they don’t really have to worry about job stability anyway. Circumstance has given them the option of remaining unbloodied by the war being waged against their brothers and sisters, and so they assume the rest of us are likewise privileged with such an option.

Many of us are not. Some have already lost their livelihoods. Others are on countdown. Others hang on by corporate policy loopholes which could be closed at any time. We are being bloodied whether we want to be or not. We will not forget who abandoned us in our time of need. Neither will our Lord.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod exists precisely because conscience-bound men like Walther took a stand against the political and religious authorities of their day. Lutheranism exists because conscience-bound men like Luther stood against the political and religious authorities of their day. If there are no such men left among us today, then the “Religious Leader” line on our forms will need to remain blank. Not merely because our leaders refused to sign, but because in our heretofore unrecognized poverty, we don’t actually have religious leaders in the first place.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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11 Responses to Do We Even Have Religious Leaders?

  1. B. Gordon says:

    LCMS isn’t ELCA but there’s lots of progressive folks there including in leadership. I used to read a Lutheran author named Aaron D. Wolf and his stories made this abundantly clear. The laity is more liberal than e.g. the Nazarene Church which isn’t exactly uber-conservative. Did you ever consider e.g. WELS, ELS, etc? Are there fundamental differences which would prohibit you from jumping ship?

    • Matt says:

      I do like WELS–there are a few issues regarding the office of the ministry that I disagree with, but it’s very solid in most respects. But the main reason I don’t jump ship to another Lutheran denomination is that the LCMS is where God has put me. We need to fight for the institutions we’ve been given for as long as it makes sense to do so.

      I can conceive of a time when it becomes necessary to leave, but I believe there’s still value in fighting.

      • philip says:

        As a WELS layman, if you did leave I’d go ELS. The WELS doctrine of the ministry is pervasive in a number of questionable practices. The ELS while in fellowship with the WELS has attempted to bridge the positions of the WELS and LCMS, more or less successfully.

        • B. Gordon says:

          Which means you’d have to live in one of a few cities in Wisconsin since WELS doesn’t exist anywhere else.

          Could all of you elaborate on the differences on ministry between the synods.

      • B. Gordon says:

        Typo. ELS doesn’t exist anywhere else.

        • philip says:

          ELS is sparse but they do exist outside Wisconsin/Minnesota.

          WELS doctrine of church: Anything is church, including the entire synod. Synod President Rev. Schroeder is “pastor” to the entire synod. Synodical hierarchy can exercise the use of the keys.

          WELS doctrine of the ministry: Anyone is a pastor, curbed by the headship principle (1 COR 11:3). Laymen can (and do) consecrate the sacrament, lay women have as well (practice “suspended” but not repudiated because the ELS called us out on it). WELS seminary professors have opined there’s no reason a woman can’t be ordained so long as she only ministers to women.

          These are all fruits of the Wauwatosa Theology. The Cincinnati Case of 1899 lead to the doctrine of Church, and the principle of exegesis over dogmatics lead to the change in ministry, coupled with the death of Hoenecke who helped the WELS shed unionism and become orthodox and join the synodical conference. This is important – the WELS views deviated after joining the synodical conference.

          Related to ministry there is a difference in altar guild practices between WELS/ELS/LCMS. WELS holds that after communion you can mix consecrated wine with unconsecrated wine and dispose of the remaining host. ELS holds there is room for a respectful disposal. LCMS holds that it is Christs’ body and blood and should be fully consumed or set aside for the next service. The LCMS position aligns with historic position. (and yes individual practice(s) will vary by congregation – but these are the official stances). “The Case of the Lost Luther Reference” by Bjarne Teigen documents how this happened in American Lutheranism.

          Regarding differences with the ELS, Rolf Preus ( has an overview of the ministry debate in the ELS,

          This is my lay take on things. No synod is perfect, there is an argument to work where you’ve been planted, but I also look favorably on the argument of finding the most faithful local confessional Lutheran parish you can independent of synodical affiliation.

        • B. Gordon says:

          Thank you Philip. Just for informational purposes and not to be contentious, here are ELS numbers in 2010. Number of people “on the books.” My guess is a decade later there are fewer of them than this. These small Christian groups should be encouraging large families if nothing else for survival of their synod (and for higher reasons IMO). Yes, the church should grow through evangelism but “Be fruitful and multiply” as a blessing from God might help their synods to survive.

          1 Minnesota 6,054
          2 Wisconsin 4,633
          3 Michigan 1,551
          4 Washington 1,347
          5 Iowa 1,292
          6 Florida 1,060

          My background was Traditional, continuing Anglican. They have the same problem. A small number of parishes that average about ~50 people “on the books” (with fewer actually participating regularly) and almost all elderly people.

  2. Matthew Etzell says:

    And, sadly, it isn’t just US church “leaders” who are abdicating their duties.

  3. VDMA says:

    Thank you Matthew.

    For the commenters who imagine fleeing to another denomination every time another problem occurs, no thanks. The LCMS is the largest mainline denomination that won the Battle for the Bible because our forefathers didn’t flee. They fought. They stood their ground against the satanic Seminex traitors and drove them out. We will follow their example.

    • B. Gordon says:

      VDMA. I am not Lutheran so I am just curious. Fleeing a particular group is easiest for the “low” churches e.g. Baptists and most difficult for e.g. Catholics and Orthodox where it’s hard to retreat from what they see as legitimate authority in the form of national autocephalous churches or Rome. Lutheranism is very poorly understood by the general public IMO.

      Everyone here gave reasonable answers and I thank you for your time and efforts.

  4. VDMA says:


    I agree. In any event, you have to pick a hill to die on, and there are no perfect hills anyway. I’m 5th+ generation LCMS.

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