Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Remember the classic old-timey movie villain, twirling his mustache while laughing "Nyah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa"? Did you know he's Lutheran?

Well, no, he's not, as far as I know. That's just kinda the way Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, comes off in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Right in the first two paragraphs, we get this:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently carried out what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial.
The Kirkwood-based church has 2.3 million members. The case pits two-term synod President Matthew Harrison — who is known for his bushy mustache and conservative views — against Matthew Becker, an outspoken pastor.

Hmmm. Maybe a little Grand Inquisitor there, too, judging by the "heresy trial" phrase.

Becker is a theology professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, a Lutheran school that isn't affiliated with LCMS. He has criticized the synod's teachings about creationism and women's ordination. In the latter, he even compared male-only ordination to slavery and racism, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Harrison also scolded another Lutheran pastor for his part in an interfaith vigil after the student shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a violation of the LCMS constitution, the newspaper adds.

But there's more. In a Facebook post -- which is linked in the newspaper story -- Harrison also accuses Becker of advocating homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible and communion with members of other faiths. Several panels investigated, then cleared Becker, the article says.

Finally, a district president in Montana "filed a charge against him for failing to maintain that Genesis represents a historical record. Soon after, Paul Linnemann, a district president in the northwest, asked Becker to resign," the Post-Dispatch says.

Let's pause to note a few things. First, despite Harrison's round criticism, the newspaper doesn't have him calling for Becker's excommunication, not even on the linked Facebook post. He does say in that post "that if my Synod does not change its inability to call such a person to repentance, and remove such a teacher where there is not repentance, then we are liars, and our confession is meaningless."

But the mechanics of the ouster fall short of a heresy trial, if Aaron D. Wolf is right. Wolf, associate editor of the Rockford Institute’s monthly journal Chronicles, says that Linnemann, as Becker's own district president, filed his own charges against Becker. Rather than appeal, Becker sought membership in the more diverse Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

And if Harrison prodded Linnemann to oust Becker, the Post-Dispatch doesn't establish that. Nor, for that matter, does any quoted source in the 1,000-word article use the terms "heresy" or "trial." Only the reporter, or one of her editors.

The paper adds some background on the LCMS schism of the 1970s, in which "more moderate" members -- i.e., liberals -- left and formed their own group, which eventually merged with ELCA. Yet the Post-Dispatch says Harrison's 2010 election "represented a conservative shift for the denomination." Which is it? Did LCMS go conservative a generation ago, or in 2010? Or was there something like "liberal creep" over the decades? No indication in this story.

There's more background further down: a rundown on Harrison's age, hometown, education, churches he pastored, and his work in disaster relief. It's brief, but it further makes the article look like an attempt to scrutinize Harrison rather than just tell the story of Becker's ouster.

Becker is not described physically in the article, as Harrison is; but he does get quoted, sounding like some prophet/martyr. "I happen to be right now the most infamous person in the synod," he says in one place.  "I feel like many people who are my opponents are making an idol out of the LCMS," he says in another.

The paper also cites an open letter from LCMS pastors and other members, who say they're "extremely offended by the actions of President Harrison."

Harrison wasn't interviewed for this article, but that's his fault -- the Post-Dispatch says he "could not be reached for comment." Always a bad move, in my view; it makes you look stuffy and your opponents engaging. But the newspaper could have given Linnemann a call. There's no indication that it tried.

Addendum: The writer says she called Linnemann twice to try for quotes. That’s good, and it should have been mentioned in the article, as was her effort to reach Harrison.

We do hear from a supporter of Becker's ouster, at the very end of the article. "It really doesn’t make sense for him to continue in our synod at this point," says Eric Andersen, associate editor of what the newspaper carefully pegs as a conservative Lutheran blog. "He doesn’t believe what we believe, so it’s best not to pretend."

Actually, no, that's not the end of the article. Following it comes yet another comment from Becker, that the church "is not defined by Harrison and his narrow party views."

You know, narrow views, as in conservative ones. Spouted by villains with mustaches.

CORRECTION: I erroneaously said that Matthew Harrison scolded Becker for his part in an interfaith vigil. Lilly A. Fowler, the writer of the article, tweeted that the scoldee was not Becker but another pastor who wasn't named in the story. I rechecked, and she's right. I've fixed the text, above.


Picture: "Villianc" by J.J. - Transferred from the English Wikipedia. Original file was licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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