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.