A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 3 Part 1

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Chapter 3

Fellowship Becomes the Issue

“Gentlemen,” Edmund Reim told one of his seminary classes in the early 1950s, “the Boy Scouts will never break up the Synodical Conference.” Resolutions adopted at Wisconsin’s 1953 convention “hit the nail on the head” in their recognition of unionism as “the root of all the tensions which have arisen between the Missouri Synod and us.” Gerhard Press said in 1954, “Our most serious charge against the Military Chaplaincy has always been unionism.” Others thought it was not until the momentous synodical convention at Saginaw, Michigan, in 1955, “that our Synod began to see and discuss the problem as a whole in terms of the doctrine of fellowship and the sin of unionism. From then on the issue became clearer.”

Changes in Missouri’s teaching and practice of church fellowship evolved over several decades prior to 1961 and came in increments. Missouri officials frequently objected that their synod was not changing or that dissident viewpoints were being addressed. This chapter traces the course of those changes.

footnote: For example, the Northwestern Lutheran reported that even at the recessed convention of the Synodical Conference in May 1961 several of Missouri’s leaders insisted the Missouri position on fellowship “was that of Walther and the fathers” and “Missouri’s official position was still that of the Brief Statement.” end footnote

The Brief Statement

According to Frank S. Mead, there were once 150 Lutheran church bodies in the United States, but “since 1910 there has been an almost constant effort toward the unification of Lutheran Churches and agencies.” The Slovak Synod, formed in 1902, joined the Synodical Conference in 1911. The Norwegian Synod, the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, and the Hauge Synod negotiated the Madison Agreement, also known as the Opgjoer, in 1912, leading to their merger as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1917.

footnote: Theodore Graebner characterized the Opgjoer as “a unionistic document, inas-much as it gives both sides in the controversy on Conversion and Election an opportunity to say: ‘That is what we teach,’ yet without having in any point changed their former doctrinal stand.” end footnote

A segment of the Norwegian Synod rejected this merger, organized as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and joined the Synodical Conference in 1920. The Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska synods, already federated with the Wisconsin Synod, merged with Wisconsin into the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States in 1917.

footnote: Fredrich said the union occurred due to “a realization that the limited joint efforts [of the separate synods] in publication, worker training, and missions were proving so beneficial that they ought to be enlarged.” Though the date coincided with “a major Reformation anniversary stressing Lutheran roots and togetherness,” the merger that created the Joint Synod was more in the nature of “a cataclysmic event” that “would have happened anyway.” end footnote

The General Synod, General Council, and General Synod of the South united to become the United Lutheran Church in America in 1918, creating the largest body of Lutherans in the United States.

Merger was in the air in the Synodical Conference too. Between 1903 and 1906, five informal, unofficial free conferences were held among members of the Synodical Conference and the Iowa and Ohio synods, hoping to reverse the split over the doctrine of election in the 1880s.

footnote: According to Edward Busch, “The Predestinarian Controversy 100 Years Later,” Missouri insisted that participants attend the conferences as individuals, not as representatives of their church bodies, since the synod regarded it as improper for official representatives of church bodies to meet while still not in doctrinal agreement. end footnote

After the first meeting in Milwaukee in 1903, the Lutheran Witness reported that although “at times the speakers used strong language against their opponents,” on the final day “sentiment prevailed that good results had already been attained.” After the second meeting in Watertown, Wisconsin, optimism ran so high that the New York Independent described the conference as “a religious convention that promises to be the beginning of one of the greatest church union or federation projects in the history of American Protestantism.”

By the third meeting, however, in Detroit in 1904, the Witness admitted that “the lines seem to be rather sharply drawn,” with “the Synodical Conference on one side, and practically everybody else on the other,”

footnote: “Church News and Comment,” added: “A writer in the Lutheran World says that an organic union of anti-Missouri Lutherans would seem to be practicable, and thinks it would be a glorious thing. We have no objection to offer: if the various synods can stand it, we can. We want something a little more attractive than mere organic union, and there is no Synod which desires true unity more than Missouri.” end footnotee

and after the fourth meeting the Lutheran Standard acknowledged that “the delegates were seemingly as wide apart as before the conference began.” After the last conference, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1906, F. W. Stellhorn complained: “Of course no unity was attained. Whoever wants to get in harmony with Missouri must adopt the Missouri position, shifting as it may be.”

footnote: “J. F. W.,” in “Church News and Comments,” responded that if “such stuff” as was found in the Standard was “to come from our Ohio friends, no self-respecting man will lower himself to deal with them. Either these things must cease, or we cannot meet on common ground.” end footnote

One Synodical Conference observer remembered that free conference participants “all more or less spoke with one eye to the galleries.”

Pastors of the Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota synods worked to bring their church bodies together, beginning at a mixed pastoral conference in Sibley County, Minnesota, in May 1915. By 1917, the number of pastors from the four synods who sought union swelled to 545. The document they signed, “Zur Einigung” (“Toward Unity”), also known as the Sibley County Theses or, later, the St. Paul Theses, represented a truly grass-roots effort at achieving union. During these early discussions, synodical officials and theological professors were not allowed to speak “because it was felt that they would be too concerned with technicalities” as had happened at the 1903–1906 meetings. A close analysis of Zur Einigung reveals “problems and inconsistencies,” yet these meetings set in motion a decade-long effort to restore and enlarge the Synodical Conference.

footnote: John Buenger in a 1951 Confessional Lutheran article noted that the theses and antitheses of this document were introduced with the preamble, “From the very start the agreement was made to abstain in the discussions from everything historical,” thus guaranteeing that ensuing discussion would be limited, in Buenger’s words, “to that part of doctrine which was not in dispute.” Any member of the conference who referred to past statements that Missouri teachers had previously judged to be false “was ruled out as ‘historical.’” Buenger called the entire procedure “un-Lutheran” because “the real differences, as they existed at that time, were not touched at all.” Yet because “these men were sincere” and “acted in good faith,” and because their effort represented “the very first attempt at offering a basis for establishing fraternal relations with our opponents,” Buenger pronounced “Zur Einigung” to be “the most harmless of all union documents.” end footnote

Missouri’s 1917 convention praised the Sibley County effort as “laudable and worthy” and authorized a committee “to examine their union documents and offer appropriate advice.”Missouri’s 1920 convention declared itself ready to continue doctrinal discussions, and a newly appointed joint Intersynodical Committee, making some use of “Zur Einigung,” drafted theses on conversion in 1920, election in 1922, and other controverted doctrines such as the ministry, the Antichrist, chiliasm (millennialism), Sunday, and open questions, in 1925. This new document was called the Intersynodical Theses, or the Chicago Theses.

footnote: Edward Fredrich, explains the confusion in terminology regarding the name of this document: “‘Chicago Theses’ is the name generally used in Synodical Conference circles that were not involved in the post World War I discussions on Lutheran co-operation” that resulted in the formation of the American Lutheran Conference in 1930. This group “also produced a set of ‘Chicago Theses’ in 1919. Those for whom this 1919 document has significance understandably reserve the name ‘Chicago Theses’ for it and refer to the later [Synodical Conference] theses as ‘Intersynodical Theses.’ ” end footnote

According to one observer, every committee member from the participating synods was “convinced that in these theses the true and genuine doctrine was clearly and unambiguously presented and that all false doctrine was excluded.”

Missouri’s 1923 convention resolved to continue Intersynodical Committee discussions and appointed its own Examining Committee to report to its next convention. Theodore Graebner, a member of the Examining Committee from 1923 to 1926, fully subscribed to all the Intersynodical Theses’ statements and found no objections of a “material nature.” But, during those three years, opposition arose from other members of the Examining Committee, and Committee 17 at Missouri’s 1926 convention reported that “the Lutheran doctrine has not yet in all points received such expression as is clear, precise, adequate, and exclusive of error.”

In 1928, Missouri’s O. J. Buenger argued that all the old errors that had split the Synodical Conference in the 1880s still existed in the Iowa and Ohio synods, though in less obvious forms. Iowa subscribed to “a finer and more subtle form of a millennium” than the Augsburg Confession specifically rejected. Although it recognized the pope as the Antichrist now, Iowa would not rule out the possible appearance of another enemy of the church, more destructive than the pope, to fulfill the prophecy of 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 more literally than the papacy. The real “bone of contention” regarding the doctrine of Sunday, Buenger explained, was whether Iowa’s position—that Sunday constituted a New Testament Sabbath Day—would be granted equal rights “with the doctrine of Scripture and of the Lutheran Confessions” that there was no New Testament Sabbath Day. Iowa was willing to do so, but Missouri was not.

While the Holy Spirit can and ultimately does overcome people’s natural resistance to the gospel, according to Ohio and Iowa, the Spirit cannot overcome willful resistance. In other words, Buenger wrote, Ohioans and Iowans regarded conversion as “on one hand entirely a work of the divine grace to which man offers nothing but opposition, and on the other hand [as though] everything depends on the conduct of man over against the divine grace.” Though more subtle, “this is exactly the old doctrine of Ohio and Iowa in a new garb.”

In August 1928, the Intersynodical Theses were presented to the participating church bodies for acceptance. Missouri’s Inter-synodical Committee favored the theses and urged their adoption at Missouri’s 1929 convention in River Forest, Illinois, but the Examining Committee submitted a less enthusiastic report. “All chapters and a number of paragraphs are inadequate. At times they do not touch the point of controversy.” Much in the Intersynodical Theses was “not sufficiently simple to be understood by laymen.” The Examining Committee considered it “a hopeless undertaking to make these theses unobjectionable from the view of pure doctrine” and recommended the convention “disregard them as a failure.” The convention followed the Examining Committee’s recommendation and rejected the theses.

Theodore Graebner remarked years later that “in 1929 we muffed our chance to unite with them.” The Intersynodical Theses were in his view “perfectly sound” but “due to the spirit of distrust pervading our Synod, we failed to accept them.” John Behnken recalled that some of those men “who had worked painstakingly” to produce the theses were “rather deeply disappointed at the largely negative action taken” by the 1929 convention. Richard Koenig laid the blame on Franz Pieper, who showed little enthusiasm for the theses. “Given the Germanic tradition of almost unquestioning obedience to theological and administrative authority,” the synod’s action was not surprising.

John Buenger, by contrast, considered the Intersynodical Theses “a real danger for [the Missouri] synod” because “the representatives of the Synodical Conference were surprised and finally deceived by language on the part of Ohio-Iowa for which they were not prepared.” A “gentlemen’s agreement” that “all polemics should cease in the publications of the participating synods for the duration of the conference” had the result, in Buenger’s view, that Missouri Synod men were never allowed to give Ohio-Iowa doctrinal views due consideration. For this reason, the next generation of Missouri pastors and laymen “was and still is almost completely in the dark as to the doctrinal differences between this church body and the Synodical Conference.” To Buenger, the danger to Missouri was averted by Franz Pieper and others at Missouri’s 1929 convention.

Wisconsin’s convention, meeting later that summer, could do little more than declare its “willingness to continue this work with the other synods” so that “the result of ten years’ worth of work [may] be made the property of all.”But in 1930, Ohio, Iowa, and Buffalo formed the American Lutheran Church, and the Intersynodical Theses received no mention at Wisconsin’s 1931 convention.
Although “Zur Einigung” and the Intersynodical Theses did not unite all Midwestern Lutheran synods, the Wisconsin Synod “demonstrated a lively concern for Lutheran unity on the larger scale.” To view Wisconsin as “always and only introverted and isolationist” misreads that history.

Missouri’s 1929 convention approved a resolution calling for the formulation of a new set of theses presenting “the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.” Working for more than a year, a five-man committee headed by Franz Pieper produced a statement that appeared in German in May 1931 and was presented the next month in an English translation as A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod. In view of the significant role the Brief Statement has played in the Missouri Synod since its appearance, it is surprising that the original intent of the 1929 resolution was not to produce a comprehensive synodical doctrinal statement but only to draft a document addressing the controverted issues of the failed union attempts of the 1920s.

Regarding church fellowship, the Brief Statement said that since God “ordained that His Word only, without the admixture of human doctrine, be taught and believed in the Christian Church,” all Christians are “to discriminate between orthodox and heterodox church-bodies” and “to have church-fellowship only with orthodox church-bodies.” Citing Romans 16:17 as a command to separate from every heterodox church body, the Brief Statement repudiated unionism, which it defined as “church-fellowship with the adherents of false doctrine.” Fellowshipping with those who promote or tolerate false doctrine constitutes “disobedience to God’s command,” causing divisions in the church and exposing one to “the constant danger of losing the Word of God entirely.” The orthodoxy of a church is to be determined not only by its confessional statements but also “by the doctrine which is actually taught in its pulpits, in its theological seminaries, and in its publications.” Though granting that a church “does not forfeit its orthodox character through the casual intrusion of errors,” the Brief Statement insisted that a church body must combat and remove such errors through doctrinal discipline.

A copy of the Brief Statement was sent to every Missouri Synod pastor and was adopted with minor changes at Missouri’s 1932 convention. It was later reaffirmed at Missouri’s 1947 and 1959 conventions. In Thomas Kuster’s view, the Brief Statement was “the last major synodical document embodying the traditional fellowship principle,” the last to successfully combine Missouri’s twin concerns of adherence to all its doctrines and the desire to establish fellowship with other bodies.

End Chapter 3 Part 1