For decades, it seems, bold problem solvers have been congratulating themselves for having the vision to change a controversial either-or situation into a both-and situation. But sometimes their solutions amount to nothing more than the clever gimmick of saying yes to mutually exclusive proposals¯mere nonsense dressed up as visionary thinking. So it is refreshing to read a book that goes against the grain and addresses an age-old either-or question, not with a meaningless and predictable both-and solution, but with a hearty neither-nor backed up by a well thought out, competing proposal.
That is what Rev. Matthew Harrisons new book Christ Have Mercy does with the issue of social action as it relates to the mission of the Church. Harrison, the executive director of Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod World Relief and Human Care, takes on both extremes that have developed as a result of social-gospel Christianity¯on one end to save the world, on the other to save only souls¯arguing that both views are wrong because they neglect the proper theological framework for discussing the mission of the Church. Harrison then seeks to outline this framework with genuinely confessional Lutheran theology.
Lets take a look at the arguments on both sides. There are some churches that would laud efforts to build water treatment plants in developing countries, while others would claim that clean water does not advance the kingdom of God at all. Opponents of social-gospel efforts view these endeavors as entirely of this world and therefore not, properly speaking, a mission of the Church. If every village had a water treatment facility, if AIDS were cured, if our carbon footprint were eliminated, if every hungry person were fed, we would still live in a world enslaved to sin and death which cannot redeem itself. So why not let secular authorities, private enterprise, and various non-church-related charities do their thing? Were about salvation, not sanitation, right? What matters is not what we die of or when, but the state of our souls before God.
On the other hand, its hard to read the gospels and all that Jesus and his followers had to say about wealth, sharing, and care for the sick and needy without getting the sense that somehow, in some way, social action for others benefit fits with the mission of the Church¯and not simply as a means of evangelizing. And it makes perfect sense to think that as the body of Christ has grown from a few followers into a global phenomenon, so the organized efforts of that body on behalf of the poor and sick have naturally taken on a more macro-level (and sometimes political) character of how to organize society in ways that reduce poverty and disease.
Christians who take this social-gospel approach¯that Christians are called to heal the world¯have been accused of regarding Christianity as an impediment to Christian behavior. The idea is that sharing the good news of eternal salvation is ecclesial imperialism, moral teachings are outdated and unnecessary, and orthodox theology is dead and dusty dogma that only causes enmity between people.
Obviously, very few people overtly hold to either of these extremes. But denominations as a whole, or at least their official leadership, can lean toward one side or the other. The two major Lutheran churches in America, for instance, lean in opposite directions, and by most accounts the divide widens every year.
In concert with mainline Protestantism, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leadership tends to view social action as the primary mission of the Church. Of course, nobody says that on the record, but on a pan-Lutheran online discussion group I moderate, I see countless complaints from ELCA clergy that those at the headquarters seem primarily concerned with the UN Millennium Development Goals for the Third World and less concerned about converting unbelievers or upholding doctrinal orthodoxy.
On the other hand, the more conservative LCMS headquarters promotes an initiative called Ablaze! that seeks to reach 100,000,000 people with the gospel by 2017. But complaints come in from the field that the synod is so obsessed with evangelism and sound doctrine that anything geared towards simply helping people gets viewed with suspicion if not dismissed as a false, social gospel. Accordingly, the LCMS generally treats human care as strictly an evangelism strategy¯giving people stuff is a way of getting them to listen to the gospel. Just giving people stuff without a message attached would serve no churchly purpose in their view, and working with other churches and agencies on such efforts would garble the accompanying message because of the doctrinal disagreements among the sponsors. Thus, where the LCMS does human care relief efforts, it tends to work alone.
Rev. Harrison recognizes this widening divide in approaches among Lutherans, and does not offer the standard theyre both right reply, but boldly claims both extreme approaches are wrong. A deeply orthodox Lutheran theologian, expert in the fathers of Lutheran orthodoxy such as Martin Chemnitz, and translator of Hermann Sasse and Johann Gerhard, Harrison has a passion for showing how the human care mission of the church need not be social gospel nor a mere strategy for promoting for the gospel, but is part and parcel of what it means to be the Church.
The book is arranged as a series of short reflections that could easily serve as Bible study material and includes study questions for each chapter, perfect for Christian book clubs or small group discussions. Taking the theme of mercy, the first three chapters address the Liturgy, the Trinity, and the Incarnation, which set the stage for a theology of human care that includes the importance of the creeds and the centrality of baptism and communion. Later chapters ponder the puzzles of theodicy and the meaning of suffering, and address several of the problems inherent in treating the soul but not the body or the body but not the soul.
The real key for Christians, claims Harrison, is that they have been set free to see the truth, which includes seeing people as people and in need of mercy in myriad ways. Only the Church, the body of those who know true God and true Man in Jesus Christ are capable of seeing human beings for what they (meaning we) truly and wholly are and treating them that way. Thus, the Church is uniquely qualified to offer real mercy to the whole person. It is the nature of Christ to have mercy, and the nature of the Church is to be the body of Christ in the world. The Church properly formed by Word and sacraments and equipped to see the truth cannot help but be merciful in every way.
Rev. Harrison admits his own position up front in the preface. I write as a convinced, convicted, and unapologetic clergyman of the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod. The public confession of the Lutheran church¯most fundamentally stated in the Book of Concord¯is my own, without equivocation. This, coupled with the authors sometimes pugnacious defense of the Lutheran position wherever it collides with other confessions on topics such as the sacraments, might turn off some readers. But every author speaks from somewhere; at least you dont have to guess about this one, or feel as though there is an unspoken bias in the presentation or a watered-down presentation too bland to offend. The central theme certainly applies outside the realm of Lutheranism and so should interest all Christians who wonder how social action fits into the larger scheme of Christianity. But non-Lutheran readers should expect a heavy dose of aggressive Lutheranism.
Harrisons full-hearted endorsement of the LCMS does not prevent him from making harsh judgments about his own church body. For example, in discussing the synods response to Hurricane Katrina, Harrison discusses past hopes for greater cooperation between the ELCA and the LCMS and how those hopes seem to be waning as the two churches drift further apart. He says, Those who disagree with the LCMS do so out of deep and principled conviction. We can only pray, Lord, forgive us our sins and grant us all repentance! It is time, and past time, for the LCMS to develop and reclaim her capacity to act in the realm of human care. The issue is not about refusing to cooperate ; rather, it is about the capacity and ability to cooperate. The LCMS has no one to blame but ourselves for our lack of capacity (people, funds, equipment) because we sent our money elsewhere. Clearly, Harrison is passionate on his subject and evangelically unafraid to step on toes.
Nevertheless, this book deserves the attention of informed members of the LCMS and will be of keen interest to any Christian involved in social action and human care and desiring to understand more fully the theological basis for such heavenly work in the dying world.
Peter A. Speckhard serves as Senior Pastor of Faith Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Christ Have Mercy by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison