With the death of Dr John (Joe) Strelan, the church militant has lost a saint to the church triumphant. That is a source of immediate sorrow and of long-term joy: sorrow as his family and many friends grieve his loss, joy at the knowledge that a faithful servant now hears ‘Well done!’ from the Saviour whom he proclaimed throughout his long ministry.
In Dr Joe, God gave the church a special gift, a pastor, missionary, theologian, teacher, and writer who could communicate the gospel with rare clarity and teach the profound truths of the faith with rare simplicity. He had no time for theological pretension, for flashy words with little substance.
His sharp, incisive mind gave him the ability to articulate complex theological matters in clear, accessible language. Thus, he was the formulator and subsequent reviser of many statements of the LCA’s Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations.
He was at heart (and by training) a biblical scholar. His lectures in Christology, too, were anchored in scripture, not high-flying leaps into academic speculation. Whether teaching or preaching, his message was practical and down to earth, with a pastoral focus and delivered with conviction and the authority born of experience. His sermons more often than not were likewise simple, straightforward expositions of the text, but aimed to challenge and to make people think; they were never trite or boring.
Evidence of Dr Joe’s skills as a writer and interpreter of the scriptures abound in the pages the Lutheran Theological Journal. But his greatest and abiding legacy in this field will possibly be his commentary on the New Testament book of Revelation, ‘Where Earth Meets Heaven’. This is a rare piece of work: a textual commentary that one can read continuously and not merely consult for clarity on a particular passage.
Dr Joe had a pastoral heart but at the same time was not afraid to speak the truth, even when that meant going against popular opinion. Indeed, he had an acute sense of justice and fairness. That came out many times at faculty meetings. Dr Jeff Silcock recalls me saying when Dr Joe retired, something like, ‘Who now is going to take on the role of watchdog to see that we act in ways that are just and fair?’ If I may be permitted a personal comment, Dr Joe was the most valued support during my years as principal: he affirmed me and he criticised me, but without guile.
Leadership qualities came to the fore in his years as LCA Vice-President under Dr Lance Steicke. Those two triennia when Drs Lance and Joe led the church were memorable in that they saw the restoration of an old church practice, that a bishop always had a theologian at his side. Memorable is also Dr Joe’s leadership at general pastors conferences will be remembered by many; he presided with a firm yet gentle hand, always the colleague, not the boss.
Many will remember well an instance that illustrates the consummate skill with which Dr Joe discharged his role as a doctor (teacher) of the church. At a general convention in Melbourne, he presented three powerful Bible studies that left a deep impression on delegates. Dr Joe’s presentation was engaging yet profound. He worked the text like a good exegete but also, as a true pastor, allowed the gospel to shine forth in all its power. And in the final analysis, the greatest thing that can be said of any pastor, and the only thing that counts before God and the world, is that he was truly a servant of the gospel.
Rev Dr Vic Pfitzner served with Dr Strelan on the faculty of Luther Seminary and on the Commission of Theology and Inter-Church Relations.