State Funerals and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

By Graham Glover

It was a sight to behold – an unparalleled display of the majesty of the church and the state. From the time the hearse pulled up to steps of the National Cathedral, until it departed for Joint Base Andrews, the funeral service for George H.W. Bush was truly magnificent.

For a few hours last Wednesday, millions of people across America and around the globe were transfixed to everything that encompassed the service for the 41st President of the United States. To my surprise, it affected me in ways I didn’t quite anticipate. Maybe it was my nostalgia for a different political era. Perhaps it was the eloquence of Jon Meacham, the statesmanship of Brian Mulroney, the humor or Alan Simpson, the raw emotion of Jim Baker, the grace of George W. Bush, or the hope of Rev. Russell Levenson. Or it could have been the perfectly liturgical way those of the Anglican tradition perform such rites. But this much is certain – the funeral for George H.W. Bush exemplified exactly why state funerals are so powerful.

If ever it was possible to simultaneously burst with national pride and rejoice in the eternal hope we have in Christ Jesus the Lord, this funeral offered the perfect illustration of how such a thing could occur. Powerful indeed.

Reflecting later that day on everything I witnessed and heard at President Bush’s funeral, I began to wonder what a clergyman of my denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), would have done if asked to be a part of such an event. Initially I thought, “not much”, since we in the LCMS are always conscious of our doctrinal purity, never wanting to be accused of participating in unionistic religious services. (And it is patently obvious that if an LCMS clergyman participated in an Episcopalian funeral with vested clergy from other denominations and faith traditions part of the “official party”, cries of unionism would have erupted immediately.) But then I thought, “why not”? Why wouldn’t we in the LCMS want to be part of a service that clearly and unabashedly shared the Gospel of Jesus? From the opening prayers to the selected readings – the hymns to the sermon, the entire service was centered around the proclamation of our mutual faith in Christ.

But unless there were only LCMS clergy participating, and said clergy had absolute control over everything that was included in the service, I’m left with the only answer to my question to be, “No.” No LCMS clergyman would ever be part of a state funeral like we witnessed last week – at least no LCMS clergyman who takes the teachings of our Synod seriously.

And this realization has left me in a theological funk.

Look, I know our Synod was born in a strong rebuke of unionism. I understand this heritage and would have gladly joined my Lutheran brothers in rebuking the Prussian Union of the mid-19th century. I also acknowledge that our Synod has some significant theological differences with the Episcopalian Church (the denomination that “hosted” President Bush’s funeral), one of which was vividly on display in the form of female clerics. This is why I’m sympathetic to the concern that the participation of an LCMS clergyman in such an event could give the false impression that we are in full theological agreement with the other clerics participating in the funeral.

But does this concern really matter? Does the slight chance that this impression may occur to some preclude an LCMS clergyman from participating in such an event? I’m no longer sure.

In light of the theological (and political) realities in which we live and given the powerful message of the Gospel that President Bush’s proclaimed to millions of Christians and non-Christians alike, I wonder how an LCMS clergyman could ever say anything but, “Yes” to such an opportunity.

And if “Yes” is the answer to that question, then it may be time for the LCMS to radically reconsider what unionism means for Lutherans living in 2018 America.

11 thoughts on “State Funerals and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

  1. The correct answer is “No”. No matter how much we, as confessional Lutherans, can appreciate how well done President Bush’s funeral was, we must not and can not start down the slippery slope of unionism. Today, it’s celebrating mass with women “priests”, tomorrow it’s doing so with a gay pastor. Next year, we’ll be singing Kumbaya with Planned Parenthood. You may well say, “No, we would never let it go that far”, but you would be wrong, for history shows us very well how this always plays out. You may well be able to stand firm in your own confessions, but you will confuse the laity, especially those not well versed in the confessions.

    “But does this concern really matter?” reminds me of “Did God really say…?”

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    1. Dan, a few thoughts to spur the conversation further:
      1) While in retrospect I think the funeral was “well done”, the question I’m posing is what does an LCMS clergyman say if asked to participate beforehand? Here, we have no idea how “well done” it will be.
      2) Assuming the Bush family asked an LCMS pastor to preach/assist with the service, do we absolutely say “no”? Is there no circumstance by which we might participate?
      3) I’m really sympathetic to your concern about a slippery slope, but is there no room for participation with other clergy in any type of service? Do we not have enough confidence in our own confessional fidelity to find some exceptions?
      4) How confusing do you really think an LCMS participation in such a service would be? In other words, would such participation really cause our members (or our potential members) to say: “The LCMS doesn’t take its doctrine seriously because it had one of its pastors preach a service where a female clergyperson happened to assist”?
      5) Where did God really say a pastor shouldn’t participate in a state funeral?

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      1. Pastor Glover, thank you for your response. Before I address your points, a little of my background may be helpful. I grew up in a confessional Lutheran congregation. Seventeen years ago we moved to a different city and transferred our membership to another LCMS congregation. At first, all seemed well. They had traditional and contemporary services. The contemporary was “barely” contemporary and, as I recall, nothing problematic with the theology. Over the next 15 years, the contemporary service evolved into a rock concert service, and the pastors convened church-wide Rick Warren and Randy Frazee “bible” studies. Friends there listen to heretical/heterodox teachers such as Joyce Meyer and participate in church-organized bible studies using clearly heterodox materials. They have no idea that divine worship is how God comes to us to serve us. Instead, it’s all about what *we* do in worship. Sermons have devolved into a weekly “glawspel” lessons. The straw that broke the camel’s back for us was when the administrative pastor shut down an ongoing study of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, led by a learned lay person, so that we could all participate in another Rick Warren study. This congregation has essentially turned into non-denom. If a visitor didn’t see “Lutheran” on the sign out front, they might never know it was a Lutheran church, especially if they attended the contemporary service. We eventually transferred to a truly confessional congregation in which we increased our commute time from 5 minutes to 30 minutes each way. What a breath of fresh air. And the key for me is this: We didn’t know what we were missing out on until we started attending our new congregation’s worship services. We were living the boiling frog fable. So, yes, this is my bias, if you will, and I am now fairly sensitive to heterodoxy and any attempts at unionism. On to your points:

        1) And that is part of the problem, isn’t it? If an LCMS pastor unconcerned with the unionism charge agrees to participate and it turns out to be an unholy mess, what then?
        2) You articulated in your article that, short of “absolute” control, that an LCMS pastor should decline to participate. I agree. My 2¢ is that the only “safe” participation is as someone sitting in the pews. It’s possible I’m not considering *all* the circumstances, but, basically, if you are functioning as an LCMS pastor and keeping your ordination vows, you probably want to avoid being involved in any situation where you don’t have an opportunity to rebuke false teaching, lest you (and, therefore, the LCMS) are unfairly lumped in with the heterodox/heretical teachers.
        3) To me, this is the wrong question concerning the slippery slope. It’s not a matter of your confidence or my confidence. The problem is you won’t know beforehand if another participant goes off the rails theologically and you won’t be in a position to correct anything. Someone watching and unfamiliar with our confessions may come away with very false impressions of our confessions. Even some in our LCMS congregations might be confused and welcome heterodox teaching into the congregation. (Refer to my experience above.)
        4) I am sad to say this, but I think there are many LCMS congregations that already don’t take doctrine seriously. How many congregations offer studies in our confessions? If our members barely know the small catechism, how will they ever be in a position to defend our confessions when they don’t even know them? In the case you presented here, I am absolutely certain that some in the LCMS would take that as a sign that female clergy is acceptable in the LCMS. I already know of some who are already at that point and their pastor won’t correct them.
        5) I reread the last statement in my original comment and now realize how harsh that was towards you, so I apologize for it. Of course, God never said that a pastor shouldn’t participate in a state funeral. The gist of what I was trying to convey is that I think it really *does* matter. Whereas you claim to be “no longer sure”, I wish to state plainly that I am certain that it matters.

        Brevity is not a virtue I possess, so I apologize for that. But I would like to finish by saying, “thank you” for your service to our country and to our service men and women. I have no idea how LCMS chaplains can even avoid conflicts with their vows and with what I understand the military requires of them. It did occur to me that your experience in this regards probably plays a part into your thoughts on the matters presented in your article.

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  2. Thanks for the honest reflection. Paul exercised Christian freedom to be all things to all people in order to save some. I fear many have exorcised Christian freedom to be one thing for our own people in order to save ourselves.

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    1. Tom, good insight.

      I don’t have THE answer on this subject. It’s certainly a “gray” issue and one where I think we can/should have a bit more freedom that we do to participate.

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  3. Graham, your commentary on the funeral service for former President George H.W. Bush afforded an excellent opportunity to open the discussion, and hear diverse views on this issue. The historical animosity against unionism is not unfounded. God warns His people repeatedly in scripture about the pitfalls of compromise, which invariably leads to unfaithfulness and theological erosion. As emotionally riveting as the funeral service was presented, and despite the beautiful choral hymns and references to Our Lord, the optics showed more unity than actually can exist between the churches. The Episcopal church reflects a progressive position on the word of God, and a most unbiblical stance on marriage and homosexuality as well. If my idea of ‘sharing” the Gospel truths with the secular world includes a rationale and false idea of marriage, presumably arguing for gay marriage, than how can my Gospel message be as the Lord taught it? Must the LCMS part with truth for the sake of an erroneous form of unity? No. It cannot. If the LCMS desires to be accepted by the progressive churches, it would have to go further, much further on social issues. If you notice, the progressive churches are stubborn. They will not suddenly become conservative overnight. They would never admit to their own errors, but they will demand that conservative reformed churches “get with it” and become more like them. That is the only kind of “unity”that would work with progressive churches. Join them or else! Otherwise, they will simply consider the LCMS a stuffy old renegade, not amenable to change. Truth must be upheld, and in these times, the LCMS must continue to stand alone. It is better than joining the union chorus and emptying the Synod of all its integrity.

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    1. John, always appreciate your insight on these issues.

      To be clear, I’m not calling for the LCMS to soften its stance on any theological issues (women’s ordination/gay marriage/etc.) Nor am i calling for/desiring the LCMS to be “accepted” by progressive churches. I’m simply asking is there a place for an LCMS pastor to assist (in whatever capacity) in a service like took place with President Bush’s funeral? Can we not maintain our theological integrity by doing so? I think we can…

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  4. Dan, thanks for your reply (and no concerns about brevity here…I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue!)

    I’m very sorry to hear the story surrounding your former parish. Sadly, I understand all too well what you described. Know that you are not alone here and that there are others (my family and I included) who drive longer distances on Sunday morning for the very reasons you describe. I too am sensitive to heterodoxy and unionism and hope that my OP didn’t suggest otherwise.

    1) What then is the tricky part…we never know. This is why the general answer is NOT to participate in these things. Perhaps I should have framed the question a bit different. That is, if we look at the funeral service as a state funeral (and not primarily a church service…even though it was in a church), would our analysis be different? I’m not calling for LCMS clergy start preaching in ECUSA parishes, but is there any room in a service like took place for George H.W. Bush?

    2) Could our “rebuke” of false teaching be accomplished by proclaiming an even more Christ-centered sermon? In other words, let’s assume the Bush family asked an LCMS pastor to preach the service. Everything else remains the same, but we have a dynamite Law-Gospel sermon preached by an orthodox LCMS pastor. Wow. What an opportunity! And one I’m not ready to summarily dismiss.

    3) You raise some very valid concerns here. Perhaps we (I?) would say “No” to such an invite for the reasons you note. I’m just wondering if there is a work-around.

    4) Point well taken. I would note though that a Roman cleric would not necessarily say “No” to such an invite. And I’d venture to say not many Roman Catholic parishioners would think a Roman priest preaching a sermon at this funeral service means that Rome now supports women’s ordination.

    5) (No need to apologize!) Yes, it matters…and I think this healthy dialogue demonstrates why.

    Thanks again for chiming in!

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  5. This was a good conversation between brothers in Christ. Graham, you made excellent points, as did the other contributors here. I suppose, just to add a word which supports part of your argument, we might remember that Jesus often sat and spoke with tax collectors, nefarious types, prostitutes, Samaritans, and others. He would have grabbed something to eat and sat beside an ostracized Jew during His earthly walk. And because Jesus mixed with people unconditionally, the Jewish leaders accused Him of being unclean, and a law-breaker. They often cited the Mosaic laws and legalistic precedence as the rationale for their animosity. So, how do we, as Lutherans from the LCMS, join in a ceremonial event or a state funeral, standing beside speakers who we feel, based on scripture, hold heretical viewpoints? The “optics” look to the secular world as if we are in agreement with them theologically, or at least tolerate one another’s differences. I do not have an answer. However, I thought about the arguments for and against participating by LCMS pastors. I think conscience should tell us that participating in a speaking role by an LCMS pastor would not be a good idea. It is an area we would need to explore.

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