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Lutheran Church

Missouri Synod on Suicide

By James T. Clemons, Ph.D., and Melinda Moore from the forthcoming, The Suicide Funeral (Authorhouse, 2011)

The Synod does not have an official position regarding the eternal state of individuals who have committed suicide, though theologians of the Synod have commented from time to time on pastoral questions that often arise in such cases.

Since the spiritual condition of an individual upon death is known only to God, our theologians have proceeded cautiously in making judgments in this regard. LCMS pastor and author Otto E. Sohn, for example, has stated:

"Assuredly we would not wish to judge anyone who resorts to self-destruction. It is impossible for us to plumb the depths of gloom into which even Christian people may sink and irresponsibly lay unholy hands upon themselves. Perhaps the Lord will not hold them responsible, but we do not know." (What's the Answer, CPH, 1960, p. 144).

In one of his "Table Talks," Martin Luther himself commented: "I don't have the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil." Luther goes on, however, to express concern that this statement not be misunderstood or misused in a way that would downplay the danger and seriousness of this sin in the minds of people (Luther's Works, American Edition, Vol. 54, p. 29).

With regard to burial services for those who have committed suicide, here again the Synod has no "official position," but entrusts to its pastors the responsibility of making caring and responsible decisions after weighing all of the relevant factors in each individual circumstance. In the book Pastoral Theology (ed. by Norbert H. Mueller and George Kraus, CPH, 1990, p. 156), used at our Synod's seminaries, the following counsel is given:

Before consenting to officiate at the funeral of a suicide victim, the pastor will want to make a full inquiry– not so much for a reason to avoid the question of officiating as to find a reason (even if weak) to accept the opportunity. Especially important in such situations is the state of mind of the deceased and whether the deceased was aware of what he/she was doing. Other important factors that need to be evaluated by the pastor along with the congregation's elders are the following:

As in the previous discussion, the service benefits the living and is part of the congregation's witness. Death is especially difficult for the bereaved of the suicide of a loved one. Usually the family feels a tremendous burden of guilt that an excessively judgmental pastor only exacerbates by refusing to officiate. No one can determine with certainty the faith (or lack of it) in another person. People have been heard to say even at the funeral a church member, "If the pastor only knew . . ." On the other hand, when the deceased's ongoing life and the circumstances of his death manifest an absence of faith in Christ, the pastor cannot conduct a Christian burial service which offers the comfort of the hope of salvation for the one who has died. What and how much will the pastor say in his sermon? Would the pastor have to explain away or excuse his participation in the funeral? How clearly can he point to the incarnate Lord who invites all to cast their burdens upon him? Is the family asking/insisting that the service be conducted in the sanctuary, with everything that implies? The pastor, with the congregational elders, will need a mutually-drafted general policy, based on sound theological principles, to govern the funeral for a victim of suicide--a policy that still will have to be applied to each situation. As the pastor wrestles with any difficult case, he will find it especially helpful to consult with fellow pastors.

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