A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 2 Part 1

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The Gathering Storm

The glowing report of the 1932 Synodical Conference convention offers one of many indicators of the harmonious relationship that existed between the Missouri and Wisconsin synods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet Adolf Hoenecke’s remark that there was “something sectarian” about the Missouri Synod betrayed a difference in personality in the two bodies, which endured and perhaps even intensified in the early 20th century. Leigh Jordahl has commented that “far into the 20th century and as late as the 1930s Wisconsin did not quite live up to the orthodox ideals of Missouri.”

That same summer, when several Missouri Synod congregations petitioned their synod to initiate efforts to unite the synods of the Conference, one of the considerations they listed was that “such a union would end much of the rivalry and friction now existing in some localities between members of sister synods.” Wisconsin’s 1937 Proceedings, for example, noted that “every effort was made to settle the cases now pending between our Synod and the Synod of Missouri and to prevent trouble in the future,” following principles of what was referred to as the “Wausau Agreement.”

footnote: Respondent 29, who began his service as a pastor at about this time, also mentioned that the “Wausau Agreement” was in effect between the synods. The agreement necessitated that “if either the Wisconsin or Missouri Synod was in one place, the other Synod would keep out.” end footnote

The Proceedings then listed difficulties occurring in Portland and Oconomowoc, Wisconsin; at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; at New Ulm, Minnesota; and in the Nebraska District.

J. P. Koehler remarked that the failure of the Lainenbewegung two decades earlier “was probably just as well” because pursuing the matter further “might only have served to set off another doctrinal controversy, for which the tinder was already provided in the differences about the doctrines of the Church, the Ministry, and the Keys.”

Church and ministry

This tinder had been smoldering since the beginning of the century. A Missouri Synod member was excommunicated by his congregation in Cincinnati, apparently for choosing to withdraw his son from the congregation’s parochial school. District officials disavowed the congregation’s excommunication, and the congregation and its two pastors were suspended for a time from synodical membership. When the congregation and its pastors applied for admission to the Wisconsin Synod in 1903, Wisconsin became acquainted with the details of the case but refrained from taking sides. The case lingered for eight years. One pastor died; the other, together with the church council, was deposed by the congregation.

This and similar cases compelled the Wisconsin Synod not only to reconsider the exercise of church discipline but also to revisit more basic questions regarding the nature of the church and its ministry. Before the Cincinnati case, both synods seemed generally to have assumed that church meant the local gathering of believers in a congregation, and ministry referred to the congregation’s pastor. As the Cincinnati case was being discussed, an article written by Wisconsin pastor Adolf Toepel was published in the synod’s Quartalschrift in 1906. According to Koehler, Toepel followed “the traditional distinction” between “the local congregation and the synod, stating that the congregation is a matter of divine ordinance, while synodical organization is a matter of option.” Toepel did not realize that “the Savior employs the term ‘church’ differently from the Apostles [writing] later, who at one time use it to refer to the church as a whole, at another time to designate the local congregation.”

J. P. Koehler, August Pieper, and John Schaller “set aside traditional thinking and dogmatical formulations” to “take a fresh look at what the Scriptures say about church and ministry.” They found that “there was not as much said about local congregations and the pastoral office as was frequently assumed.” What was said “never specified a single form or type of either.”

footnote: This effort to de-emphasize dogmatic theology in favor of more exegetical and contextual study of Scripture has been called “The Wauwatosa Theology,” named for the location of the Wisconsin Synod’s seminary in a western suburb of Milwaukee from 1893 to 1929. Koehler came to the Wauwatosa seminary in 1900; Pieper, in 1902. Both worked there during the most productive years of their careers and wrote extensively in the synod’s new journal, the Theologische Quartalschrift. Both exercised significant influence on the Wisconsin ministerium for the next quarter century and beyond. end footnote

Pieper insisted in 1912 that Walther’s method of quoting the Lutheran Confessions and the church fathers left much room for misunderstanding both and suggested that Walther himself may not always have understood them rightly. Pieper then presented his revised view of the teaching of church and ministry: any gathering of believers, whether congregation or synod, constituted church and thus possessed the authority of the church. The office of preaching in a local congregation represented one form— but not the exclusive form—of the public ministry.

Koehler elaborated that present distinctions between local congregation and synod have “no place in the Lord’s discourse at Matthew 18” regarding excommunication—the issue at hand in Cincinnati. The additional distinction that the local congregation has as its purpose spiritual edification, while the synod is devoted to outward business “is a fallacy, notwithstanding what synodical constitutions and quotations from the fathers, early and later, may say.” Koehler did not object to the use of the term Ortsge-meinde [local congregation] “rightly understood” for “the congregation of believers at a given time and place concerned with a given matter,” as long as the term could also be applied to a synod. “To assume that, in keeping with Jewish synagogue organization, the Lord in Matthew 18 anticipated the founding of local congregations” (and that this, in distinction to the synod, was of divine ordinance) was, for Koehler, “poor exegesis, to say the least.”

In 1917, Pieper summarized Luther’s understanding of the teaching of church and ministry under six points:

1. There is one office in the church, the office of the spiritual priesthood. The public ministry is only another phase of this same priesthood.

2. This office, the command and authority to preach the gospel, is not an official rank which from the very beginning has been established by Christ for public dispensation, but rather it is the common possession of all Christians, who are reborn and ordained priests by God, yes, even so far as the use of practice is concerned.

3. The rights of the entire communion and the command to good order demand that within the congregation such functions of the ministry cannot be carried out by all at the same time without disorder and also such functions for which all Christians are not equally capable be relinquished and turned over to capable persons so that they may carry them out in the name of the congregation.

4. The Lord gives the church special gifts for the public administration of the ministry, that is, capable people, and it is only to such that this office should be entrusted.

5. Whoever is called to the public ministry by a congregation of spiritual priests in a Christian way is called by God, and the faithful administrator of the office of the ministry should be granted the honor prescribed by God.

6. Not only one species, the local pastorate, but the public ministry of the Word in general is a divine institution. It takes its specific forms according to circumstances.

This presentation by the Wauwatosa faculty was not easily embraced even within the Wisconsin Synod. Some, notably August Ernst, professor at the synod’s Northwestern College in Watertown, never accepted it.

footnote: Ernst authored 16 theses in disagreement with Koehler and August Pieper, entitled, Saetze ueber Synode, Kirchenzucht und Synodalzucht, gedruckt auf Beschluss der allgemeinen Pastoralconferenz der Synode von Wisconsin und den Gliedern derselben vorgelegt von August F. Ernst. “Each of these theses,” Koehler responded, “was implemented with more or less proof-texts from the Scriptures, the Confessions, Luther’s, Hoenecke’s, and Walther’s writings.”end footnote

“Strongest and longest opposition came from the Synodical Conference brethren in the Missouri Synod,” chiefly Franz Pieper. Disagreement between what were coming to be understood as the so-called Missouri and Wisconsin positions became most pronounced when the theses on church and ministry were drafted for the Intersynodical Theses in 1924. Among rank and file pastors in the two synods, however, little if any disagreement was noticeable.

The 1932 Thiensville Theses constituted another attempt to resolve church and ministry differences. Koehler, who took no part in drafting the theses, criticized them as “an inter-synodical modus vivendi, a compromise, whether intended or not, that leaves matters unclear and both sides free to put their own construction on them and to pursue the even tenor of their ways.”

Apparently other members of the Wisconsin faculty had not been entirely satisfied with the theses either. In October 1932, Pieper restated the Wisconsin position more vigorously, effectively nullifying whatever agreement the participants at Thiensville believed they had achieved. Missouri’s President Frederick Pfotenhauer called Pieper’s article “a crying shame” and lamented that “it will probably be necessary to negotiate with the Wisconsin Synod in Summer.”

When a member of the St. Louis faculty wrote to him about his statement, August Pieper answered in a six-page letter, defending Wisconsin’s “peculiar” views on church and ministry. Pieper noted that Missouri still stood by its original position “that only the so-called local congregation is ordained by God,” and that only in that form are its members “capable and called to be stewards of the treasures of the kingdom of heaven.” The church in any other form (for example, synod or the Synodical Conference) “is not connected with the stewardship of the Word but is purely a human assembly and institution and contains only human rights and human duties.” But, Pieper argued, as soon as Missouri made the local congregation “the only godly appointment” and “the only one called for the handling” of the gospel, “we will not go along with it!”

If we agreed with this we would have to cross out Matthew 18:20 and demolish the freedom of the congregation of the saints (der Heiligen). The church, that is, the congregation of the sanctified, has all the freedom and godly right to come together in any means or number as long as the law of love is not hurt.

The Church is nothing other than the congregation of saints. God gives us all the right to recognition and the right to speak.

W. F. Dorn, who received his training at St. Louis but served as a minister in the Wisconsin Synod, remembered the church and ministry debate as a “cause of discord” at many mixed pastoral conferences. “The heat generated by the papers presented at these conferences and the subsequent discussion of the papers was generally greater than the intensity of the light produced.” Discussion mostly focused “always fuzzily” on questions of practical application. “I know of no pastor whose position was altered as a result of these discussions,” Dorn recalled. At St. Louis, Theodore Graebner interrupted a class lecture to announce that he and a faculty committee had just returned from Thiensville, where they had met with a Wisconsin committee on this vexing question. “He reported, not without a modicum of smugness, that Wisconsin had seen the light and accepted Missouri’s position as the correct one.” Dorn later learned that Wisconsin faculty members had told their students that “Missouri had capitulated and was now in Wisconsin’s camp.”

The church and ministry disagreement persisted into the 1940s, though it was pushed into the background during World War II. The 1946 Synodical Conference convention appointed an eight-member Interim Committee to study “matters relating to the doctrine of the call, the ministry, and the Church, where there has been disagreement, with the aim of achieving complete agreement.” Two years later the committee presented majority and minority reports. The majority (including two of three Wisconsin members on the committee) concluded that “the congregation is the only divinely designated body or unit of the visible church,” but “synod is not a congregation” and “has and exercises only those rights and powers which are delegated to it by the constituent congregations.” Extending a call to ministers of the Word “is the obligation and sole right of the local congregation.” The minority (one dissenting Wisconsin pastor) insisted there were “marked differences” within the Synodical Conference over church and ministry. “No group of believers within the ‘visible church’ has been specifically and specially designated as ‘ekklesia, Matthew 18,’ with the sole right and privilege of all the functions of the Church, to the exclusion of all other gatherings.” Every believer “as a priest and member of the Una Sancta” may exercise all the functions of the church. The local congregation “cannot be taught as being the only form” of the church, established “of God by special divine institution.”

Yet the minority report insisted these were “not differences in doctrine as such” but “differences in application.” In 1952, recalling the Thiensville Theses, the Interim Committee feared that “a great deal of misunderstanding” had clouded the doctrine of church and ministry, “where unity of doctrine actually existed,” but there was no complete agreement within the Synodical Conference when these basic concepts were translated into the practical life of the church.

These differences appear not to have been regarded by either synod as divisive of church fellowship, and they arose between church bodies already in fellowship.30

footnote: In 1940 Theodore Graebner remarked that for 30 years Wisconsin Synod theologians had asserted that “no Scripture proof can be adduced for the distinction which declares the local congregation to exist by divine right while Synods exist only by human right,” nor could scriptural validation be provided “for the doctrine that the local ministry as we have it in our congregations is specifically a divinely instituted office.” Graebner asked, “Have we treated this heavily emphasized doctrine of the Wisconsin Synod as a divisive error?” The answer to his rhetorical question was clearly “No.” Graebner used this example in an attempt to demonstrate that the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods were wrong to insist that church bodies must “speak the same thing” on all other nonfundamental doctrines in order to have a sufficient basis for church union. In reply, Edmund Reim granted there were “marked differences of opinion” expressed regarding church and ministry, but maintained they were “due solely to a failure to understand the position of Wisconsin.” Reim believed there was “no difference in the doctrine” of church and ministry, but disagreement only on application. end footnote

Edward Fredrich has noted that “the dividing lines were by no means along strict synodical lines,” but “Missouri practiced what Wisconsin preached and Wisconsin practiced what Missouri preached.” Had no other disturbances arisen between the synods, discussions probably would have continued and the issue may have been fully resolved. As it was, however, leading theologians on both sides perpetuated and promulgated what came to be regarded as the Missouri position and Wisconsin position on church and ministry.

footnote: Edward C. Fredrich was “interested in and heartened by” the publication of A. C. Mueller’s The Ministry of the Lutheran Teacher. Mueller considered it “a misunderstanding of Walther’s theses on the ministry that the pastor is the one divinely instituted office or ministry and all other offices (teacher, professor, executive, writer) stem from it and are auxiliary to the pastorate.” Mueller concluded that “the teacher in our school, being in the parish ministry, is related to the pastor the way one elder is related to another.” end footnote

The gathering storm between the two synods gained greater impetus from 1932 to 1944, chiefly over the military chaplaincy and Scouting.

“We must limit ourselves to externals only”

According to Dale Griffin, the Missouri Synod provided chaplains for the armed forces throughout its history, particularly in times of war. During the Civil War, C. F. W. Walther announced in Der Lutheraner that “our dear brother, F. W. Richmann of Schaumburg, Cook County, Illinois, has accepted a call to serve an Ohio regiment.” His service clearly extended beyond Missouri Lutherans. Although the 58th Ohio Volunteer Regiment was composed mostly of German-speaking soldiers, Richmann reported that already on his second day he had to bury a soldier who died suddenly, “and I had to speak English, since the deceased was an American.” He added that he would soon have to conduct services regularly in both languages “since between three and four hundred men (out of a thousand) are unfamiliar with the German language.” Citing complaints “throughout the country that chaplains in the main were neglecting their duty in a terrible manner,” Walther hoped Richmann would “belong to the few who realize the responsibility of their position.”

Many young Lutheran men volunteered to serve in the Spanish–American war, and “since among the chaplains of these regiments there was none to whom the spiritual care of the Lutheran young men could be entrusted, the thought arose in our synodical circles to send a Lutheran preacher as a chaplain into the camps who would serve these soldiers with the Word and Sacraments.” The Wisconsin Synod’s 1898 convention resolved “with great enthusiasm” to send Pastor Frederick Eppling of Algoma, Wisconsin, who had previously expressed willingness to go. The convention also resolved that to support the costs of sending Eppling, “the officers of the Synod should also make provision” and recommended a special offering be gathered from the congregations. Neither Eppling nor the synod seem to have been opposed to accepting additional funds from the government. The synod’s resolution called for synodical financing “in case he would not receive any support from the state.” In his report to the synod, Eppling noted that after arriving in Madison, Wisconsin, “he had been granted free transportation from Governor Scofield to the South.” He conducted his first worship service on April 3, 1898, in Jacksonville, Florida, “in the tent of the Y. M. C. A.” Eppling also reported that, were it not for a change in circumstances regarding several regiments returning from Puerto Rico, he “would have been appointed [the third regiment’s] chaplain by the government” and would have continued his service to the soldiers “without any cost to the Synod.”

Despite these instances of past chaplaincy service, the Missouri and Wisconsin synods both officially opposed involvement in the government’s military chaplaincy program during World War I.

footnote: In a remark apparently intended to discount official Missouri opposition to the chaplaincy in World War I, Otto Geiseman remarked in 1949: “Both during the First as well as during the Second World War our church made strenuous efforts to provide as many chaplains as possible for the various branches of our national military service. These church-provided and governmentally-appointed chaplains ministered according to their respective abilities with the preaching of the Gospel not only to the members of our own churches, but to all of the men who belonged to the particular military ‘outfits’ to which they happened to be assigned.” Otto A. Geiseman, emphasis added. end footnote

When the Norwegian Synod’s J. A. Stub urged his synod to be “one and dissoluble behind our boys,” suggesting that Lutherans “can return to our doctrinal, racial, or synodical differences after the war if we must,” Lutheran Witness editor Theodore Graebner called Stub’s comments “cheap talk.” Graebner insisted there was “no emergency imaginable that could move Missouri to deviate from its principles.” If Scripture required separation from churches that teach false doctrine during peacetime, “then these same words of Scripture certainly forbid our cooperation in the distinctly religious sphere with these same bodies in time of war.” Graebner added, “We were glad to read in the Northwestern Lutheran a strong reply to Rev. Stub’s malapropos remarks.”

More troublesome were remarks in The Lutheran of the General Council, announcing that because of the war “doctrinal fences are down.”

For the first time in American history, Lutherans from all synods were marshaled together for the fulfillment of a common task. It was a cheering sight. Nationalistic walls and doctrinal fences were down for once, and it does not seem that anyone was specially injured by rubbing his elbow against another who happened to differ with him on some points not exactly defined in the Confessions.

Graebner called that assessment “simply not true.” The Synodical Conference had “not given up, either in confession or practice, one jot or tittle of [its] confessional convictions for the sake of aligning [its] work for army and navy with that of others.”

President Pfotenhauer “drew a line through” a proposed arrangement for external cooperation between the Missouri Synod and non-Synodical Conference Lutherans in the National Lutheran Commission, announcing “a stand of absolute isolationism as the only Christian one for the Missouri Synod to take.” Pfotenhauer appointed the Lutheran Church Board for Army and Navy to oversee the spiritual care of Synodical Conference Lutherans in the Armed Forces. The United States government had adopted a policy of dealing with all Protestants through the Federal Council of Churches and the YMCA. In late 1917, Pfotenhauer reminded the board that in any connections with the YMCA or other ecclesiastical agencies “we must limit ourselves to externals only.” If mixed service were demanded of Missouri pastors, “we may in no case join, even if we could then serve our boys very economically.” Pfotenhauer did not want Missouri’s soldiers coming back from the camps “spiritually infected.”

The Chicago-based Army and Navy Board resolved early in 1918 to sever all relations with the National Lutheran Commission, but Missouri’s New York Pastoral Conference adopted a contrary statement, urging cooperation with the National Lutheran Commission. “This war has shot more things to pieces than the Cathedral at Reims,” wrote one New York pastor. While the Chicago board protested, “We here in the East are working hand in hand with the National Lutheran Commission through our Eastern War Board.”

After several months the Chicago board reversed its position, and in spring 1918 the Synodical Conference agreed to cooperate with the National Lutheran Commission’s newly formed Commission for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Welfare, created by the Inner Mission Board of the General Synod, in the following five ways:

1. The Synodical Conference will cooperate with the National Commission in every way possible.
2. Pay their share of all general expenses.
3. Cooperate completely with this Commission or its representatives in dealing with the Government, camp and cantonment commandants, the Federal Council of Churches, the Y.M.C.A., etc.
4. Have their appointees as camp pastors sanctioned by the Commission.
5. But the Synodical Conference reserves the right to minister to the spiritual needs of men from their congregations through their own representatives wherever it is possible for them to do so.

In its report to Missouri’s 1920 convention, the Army and Navy Board acknowledged that the “greatest difficulty” in its work was caused by non-Synodical Conference Lutherans who sought to cooperate with the Army and Navy Board and deemed it unnecessary to duplicate the work of other denominations. The board “could not believe that the principles as laid down by the Word of God for times of peace could be any other for times of war.” The board offered to cooperate “along external lines, whenever and wherever this was expedient” to serve their own soldiers of the Synodical Conference.

Officially, Missouri’s Army and Navy Board took the same view the Wisconsin Synod’s Michigan District had taken two years earlier:

The “Lutheran Brotherhood” . . . and the “Lutheran Federation” . . . told us that if we Lutherans wanted to achieve these two things [erect barracks for worship and certify chaplains with the government], then we would have to stand before the government as a united Lutheran church, not as Missouri or Ohio, or Wisconsin or General Council. . . . Thus it appeared at the outset that we would be compelled to work outwardly with others, while at the same time also faithfully adhering to our doctrinal position. Very soon, however, it became apparent that it was not possible to maintain this separation of externals and doctrinal matters in joint practical work. For those people have a definite purpose in mind in this joint work. They want to erase the previously maintained boundaries and differences in doctrinal matters; they want to employ the prevailing circumstances to force a general union.

Despite earnest attempts to maintain these doctrinal boundaries, however, the minutes of the Army and Navy Board “document the Board’s struggles with [the] problem of relations with other Lutherans under the pressure of war” and give evidence of “an incipient break with Synodical tradition.” O. H. Pannkoke later observed that as members of opposition synods become acquainted, they see that “neither has horns or cloven hoofs; they become more friendly and respect each other, and so separatism becomes untenable.” During time of war “it was difficult for a Missouri Synod camp pastor to consider a camp pastor from another Lutheran Synod as a traitor to God. A few extremists did. Most did not.” Although Pfotenhauer sought to limit Missouri’s involvement to external matters, Pannkoke said that “experience has shown that in actual practice it is impossible to define the point where external cooperation ends and spiritual fellowship begins.” Such a distinction “may be made in logic,” but “it disappears in life.”

End Chapter 2 part 1