A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 3 part 3

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Wisconsin and Lutheran Union

Included among the nine resolutions adopted by Missouri’s 1938 convention was 6c: “As far as the Missouri Synod is concerned, this whole matter must be submitted for approval to the other synods constituting the Synodical Conference.” The Wisconsin Synod, however, had shown little enthusiasm for the doctrinal positions of either of the other two large American Lutheran bodies.Its rejection of the Union Resolutions could safely have been predicted.

In 1932, the Northwestern Lutheran’s conference schedule announced pastoral essays to be presented explaining differences between the Synodical Conference and the American Lutheran Church and United Lutheran Church of America. Karl Plocher’s essay “Why can’t we have fellowship with the U.L.C. and A.L.C.?” was subsequently published in August and September issues of the Northwestern Lutheran. While they “may be saved in spite of their errors,” these other Lutherans were “erring brethren.” Joining such erring brothers in worship would “give testimony to the world that we are either agreed, or that the differences really make no difference.” The United Lutheran Church of America’s “official sanction of pulpit and altar fellowship with non-Lutherans,” their “‘educative’ policy and practice with lodge members in their congregations,” and “the sabbatarian, Calvinistic, and chiliastic tendencies” that ran “rather rampant” in that body made fellowship with them impossible.

Significantly closer to the doctrinal position of the Synodical Conference, the American Lutheran Church nonetheless joined in “cooperative union” with the Norwegian Lutheran and Free churches, the Augustana Synod, and the Danish Lutheran Church, all members of the American Lutheran Conference. By its membership in this conference, the American Lutheran Church became “more or less guilty of the un-Lutheran deeds of which we just accused the United Lutheran Church.” Since the American Lutheran Church joined with these bodies, and since these bodies were all but united with the United Lutheran Church of America, the Wisconsin Synod, if it were to declare itself in fellowship with the American Lutheran Church, would have “automatically been in fellowship with practically every other Lutheran body in the United States.” The Norwegian Lutheran Church in particular was still saddled with the compromising document the Opgjoer, which spoke unclearly regarding conversion.

Despite such stubborn disagreements, Plocher closed his essay on a surprisingly hopeful note:

I am still optimistic enough to hope and pray that the American Lutheran Church may yet some day be ONE in doctrine and practice. The obstacles even for an organic union are not insurmountable. . . .

And I believe that we of the Synodical Conference can be of great service towards this end, and that just by uncompromisingly standing for a confessional Lutheranism in faith and practice. And it should be our aim that we— remaining loyal to our God-given convictions— will in no way hamper or hinder the coming of the day when, if God wills it, there will be not a United Lutheran Church, and an American Lutheran Conference, and a Synodical Conference, but a United American Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.

Reporting in 1932 on the opening of a new United Lutheran Church of America church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Pastor John Brenner noted that the most observable feature of United Lutheran Church of America churches was “a strong tendency toward unionism—and indifferentism” combined with the willingness to “engage in all kinds of endeavors, political, social, and economic.” The Wisconsin Synod regarded such efforts as “foreign to the mission of the Church.” Being genuinely Lutheran meant rejecting all teachings that contradicted the Scriptures, and “as far as religious fellowship is concerned, to avoid those who teach and profess them.”

In 1933, the Northwestern Lutheran reprinted a long article by George Lillegard from the Norwegians’ Lutheran Sentinel, challenging the assumption that smaller churches, by not participating in merger movements, declined numerically and financially. Seminary professor August Zich cited with favor the comments of a layman in the Lutheran Herald that “we are not much interested in a great outward Lutheran unity.” Zich disagreed with the declaration of a correspondent covering a convention of the Lutheran Brotherhoods the following year, that “these men have become impatient with the overlapping and the waste—they call it sinful waste—in our Church.”

footnote: The Lutheran Herald described the Federation of Lutheran Brotherhoods as being composed of “some of the most outstanding laymen in the Lutheran Church in America” not belonging to the Synodical Conference. end footnote

Dismissing a call for union from St. Olaf College president L. W. Boe, Zich explained, “Pastors of the Synodical Conference do not yet interchange pulpits and partake of joint meetings with Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and other sectarian pastors,” though instances of these practices in other Lutheran bodies “are by no means rare.”

In 1935, Zich criticized the Lutheran Home Mission Council for urging the United Lutheran Church of America, American Lutheran Church, and Synodical Conference to cooperate in establishing mission congregations by publicizing their plans so that other Lutheran bodies could eliminate duplication of efforts and unfair competition by avoiding the area. Such an agreement would “by its very nature” imply “a recognition of orthodoxy among participating church bodies.” Zich responded:

The trouble is exactly this, that the aforementioned church bodies do not agree in doctrine and practice with the Synodical Conference. Altar and pulpit fellowship between these branches has not existed and cannot be obtained under present conditions. That being the case, how are these bodies with their conflicting views on matters of doctrine and practice to agree on methods and practices in Home Missions? Are they to agree not to enter or encroach upon another’s fields? On what basis? On the basis that there is no real principle difference between them, or that these differences are to be ignored, or to be ironed out? We frankly do not understand, but are still of the opinion that the Greeks bearing gifts should be well scrutinized.

While rebuking the American Lutheran Church and the United Lutheran Church of America, Wisconsin sided faithfully with its Synodical Conference partners, Missouri and the Norwegian Synod, accepting as their own the derision directed at Missouri. “Since we of the Wisconsin Synod are united with [Missourians],” said Professor Joh. P. Meyer, “not only externally as members of the Synodical Conference, but, by the grace of God, in the unity of confession and the unity of spirit, the opprobrium heaped on our brethren must be shared by us.”

Discussions initiated in 1935 between Missouri and the American Lutheran Church provoked an immediately unfavorable reaction from Wisconsin theologians. Although Synodical Conference members had negotiated with Ohio and Iowa on the Intersynodical Theses of the 1920s, Meyer noted a difference between those negotiations and the discussions of the 1930s:

To our way of looking at it, church fellowship will take care of itself once the unity of faith and confession is achieved; and to stress, even to mention, union as the aim to be achieved cannot but have detrimental repercussions. In this respect the present colloquies differ essentially from the discussions that preceded and led up to the “Chicago [Intersynodical] Theses.” Whenever during those meetings, either in official conference or in private conversations, the matter of church union was brought up it was in the form of a question: What will be the practical result if and when we come to an understanding concerning the controverted doctrines? And the answer invariably was: Those matters do not concern us, our sole aim must be to establish the Scripture truth in the doctrines before us and to present this truth in clear and unmistakable terms, as we believe it in our hearts and are willing to confess it before the church. With the emphasis shifted to church union it will become extremely difficult for the colloquists, so we fear, to retain an open mind.

The Wisconsin Synod did not always show great enthusiasm for the merging of church bodies, even when those bodies were agreed in doctrine. Adolf Hoenecke’s 1877 analogy, that just because two people love each other does not mean they have to get married, found agreement among Wisconsin writers in the 1920s and 1930s.

footnote: John Brenner, wrote that even where there is doctrinal unity “it will always remain a question whether the welfare of the Church is served better by a number of smaller organizations or by one larger one. A half dozen smaller synods working in the true harmony of faith and love may render more efficient services than one large body could,” and “three smaller colleges may profit the Church more than one large institution.” Brenner knew of cases where one minister served several small congregations, but “to attempt to coerce them to consolidate” would “not be rendering the Church a service.” end footnote

Wisconsin and the Union Resolutions

With Missouri’s acceptance of the 1938 Union Resolutions, the two synods entered a new and ultimately terminal stage of their relationship. Despite occasional personality conflicts, variances in the doctrine of church and ministry, and sporadic territorial disputes, the Missouri and Wisconsin synods had enjoyed a harmonious, productive relationship for 70 years. Not since 1868 had these sisters criticized each other in public or in print.

footnote: That was almost true. In addition to the remarkably blunt criticisms Pieper penned in his “Anniversary Reflections” and Koehler in his History of the Wisconsin Synod, see John P. Meyer’s review of Concordia’s Theological Monthly. See also Wisconsin criticisms of Missouri’s growing efforts in advertising, publicity, and innovative worship. end footnote

All that was about to change.

Wisconsin’s July 1938 Quartalschrift announced the appearance of the American Lutheran Church Declaration, and the next Quartalschrift issue reprinted the text of Missouri’s Union Resolutions, as reported in the Lutheran Witness. Meyer commented only that Missouri’s resolution contained “far-reaching consequences” that “cannot easily be overestimated.”

The Northwestern Lutheran noted in August 1938 that delegates to the American Lutheran Church’s eastern district convention voted in favor of pulpit and altar fellowship with both the Missouri Synod and the United Lutheran Church of America, and memorialized the full American Lutheran Church upcoming convention at Sandusky in October to act on their resolution. August Zich was silent about Missouri’s involvement but directed harsh criticism to one American Lutheran Church representative. “Rarely have we seen a more typical and sneering ridicule of the solemn duty of the Church to watch over its doctrine” from any church leader, no less “from one who is regarded as a shining light in Lutheran church circles.” This “spirit of unionism in Lutheran church circles” constituted “a betrayal of the Gospel as given us by Christ” and “received by our fathers.”

footnote: Zich criticized American Lutheran Church representative Oscar C. Mees, who was quoted as saying, “I am glad to see our Lutheran bodies stop waving the red flag of doctrinal bullfights about matters which try to explain God’s miraculous plan of salvation. Today, when the Church is faced with a growing force of atheism as well as agnosticism, totalitarianism and meager spirituality, the Lutheran Church, which has something to offer to help solve the world’s problems, needs to unite forces to meet the issues of the present hour.” end footnote

Later in 1938, noting that Lutheran merger efforts faced the danger that “differences in doctrine and practice are apt to be ignored,” Zich predicted that union between Missouri and the American Lutheran Church, “if it comes to pass,” was to be “achieved upon the safe grounds of strict agreement in doctrine.” Missouri and the American Lutheran Church needed to resist the temptation to glory in the “large figures” such a merger would produce. “Let us never forget that the strength of the Church consists not in its large numbers but in the faithful adherence to the Word of God in its members.”

footnote A resulting merger of Missouri and the American Lutheran Church at that time would have resulted in a church body of almost three million members. end footnote

Wisconsin seminary professor Max Lehninger presented a more thorough review in the April 1939 Quartalschrift, insisting that “nothing in the ‘Brief Statement’ may be adduced as countermanding a statement of the ‘Declaration,’” but that “everything in the ‘Brief Statement,’ on the other hand, must rather be so construed as to be in harmony with the ‘Declaration.’” There was a “weakness inherent in the issuing of two separate statements,” one by each party, to demonstrate confessional agreement. Such a procedure aroused suspicions that Missouri and the American Lutheran Church had found it impossible to arrive at “a confessional declaration to which both sides give hearty assent” and that “each side will be inclined to stress chiefly its own statement with its reservations and conditions, minimizing the importance of the other.”

Citing the American Lutheran Church statement that it was “neither necessary nor possible” to agree on nonfundamental doctrines, Lehninger replied that the Brief Statement did not regard the doctrines of church and ministry, Sunday, chiliasm, and the Antichrist as open questions. “We are not at liberty to bargain with anyone for toleration of teachings contrary to the doctrine which we have learned (Romans 16 and 17) and rejected by us on Biblical grounds.”

Drawing a distinction destined to assume major significance for Wisconsin over the next two decades, Lehninger concluded, “It is one thing to bear with an erring brother, but quite another to sanction false teaching by tolerating it in our midst.” In addition:

It is one thing to sever the bond of fellowship with a person that is within the fold, belongs to our congregation or our synod. Only after having exhausted all means of convincing the erring brother, only after all efforts have failed to bring him to the acknowledgment and confession of the truth will we finally, in obedience to our Lord, exclude him from our communion.

But it is quite another thing when we deal with the question of receiving an outsider, one with whom we are not now in fellowship, especially a minister or public teacher of the Word, or a whole congregation or synod, into the fellowship of faith. In this case, church-fellowship should not be established until a full agreement in and clear understanding of all points at issue has been reached, be they fundamental or non-fundamental, so long as they are Scriptural—there is no room for other doctrines and opinions in the Church.

An ad hoc committee appointed to report to Wisconsin’s 1939 convention charged that “the doctrinal basis established by the Missouri Synod and by the American Lutheran Church”— especially that Missouri’s Brief Statement was to be viewed “in the light of” the American Lutheran Church’s Declaration—was unacceptable. “No two statements should be issued as a basis for agreement,” but “a single, joint statement, covering the contested doctrines thetically and antithetically, and accepted by both parties to the controversy, is imperative.” Such a statement “must be made in clear and unequivocal terms which do not require laborious additional explanations.”

An extensive, incisive, occasionally sardonic appraisal of the American Lutheran Church Declaration by John P. Meyer appeared in the Quartalschrift in October 1939. Meyer emphasized four points:

1. Members of the church must all speak the same thing.
2. The speaking of the church is restricted to the Word of God.
3. Even a slight deviation from this norm is extremely dangerous.
4. Anyone who deviates in his teaching from the Word of God is a false prophet and must be avoided.

“Do they speak the same thing with us?” Meyer asked about the American Lutheran Church. “They do not even speak the same thing among themselves. They admit that within their own ranks there are differences of opinion concerning the church, concerning a preliminary resurrection of martyrs,” and other doctrines. Admittedly, full agreement in all nonfundamentals “has never been attained” in the church, due to human weakness and “the stubbornness of our Old Adam.” If the words “it is neither necessary nor possible to agree” in all nonfundamentals had been spoken “with blushing face, with a broken spirit and a contrite heart,” imploring forgiveness from a merciful God, they would be acceptable. But, said Meyer, the Declaration “does not read like a confession.”

Meyer also delineated a distinction that foreshadowed future Wisconsin debate: “While it would be a violation of brotherly love to treat weak brethren as though they were deliberate errorists, it would be a denial of the truth to deal with deliberate errorists as though they were weak brethren.”

In these initial reviews, Wisconsin theologians were careful to identify the American Lutheran Church as the offending party, and directed scant criticism at Missouri. Lehninger and Meyer both viewed the Sandusky resolutions as exceeding the agreement reached between the American Lutheran Church and Missouri in summer 1938.

footnote: Edmund Reim wrote that Wisconsin in 1939 “carefully refrained from condemning” its sister synod for involving itself in negotiations with the American Lutheran Church, but confined itself “to evaluating the factual result of the St. Louis Agreement,” suspecting that “to the American Lutheran Church the Agreement of 1938 did not mean what many a conservative Missourian had assumed in 1938.” Even when Wisconsin’s warnings grew more emphatic following Missouri’s 1941 convention, Reim said, “It was never Missouri’s original purpose which was criticized, but rather its failure to heed the danger signals that were multiplying on every hand.” end footnote

Meyer also observed that Missouri and the American Lutheran Church had operated with different instructions. Missouri representatives were told “to effect true unity,” while American Lutheran Church representatives were instructed “to establish pulpit and altar fellowship”—which, Meyer objected, “should not be made an end itself” because confession and fellowship, “in order to be true, must rest on a common faith.”

Yet Meyer revealed his disappointment with Missouri in the very same issue of the Quartalschrift, reviewing The Historic Lutheran Position on Non-Fundamentals by Theodore Graebner. “The purpose of this pamphlet is not hard to guess,” Meyer charged. “It is to justify certain resolutions adopted by the centennial convention of the Missouri Synod in 1938.” Meyer also offered delicate criticism of a November 1939 Lutheran Witness article favorable to the union discussions, as did Edmund Reim in a 1940 essay, “The Strength of Christian Unity”:

The Missouri Synod has come to its sister synods bearing an agreement negotiated between itself and a third church body. It has already given it substantial endorsement, is submitting it to us for our approval, and is now . . . trying to sell us on the agreement. . . . Now we have pointed out places “where error can hide,” not a vague, mysterious, undefined error, if you please, but the old familiar ones which in time past have played such an important part in the controversies. . . . Does not the burden of proof now clearly lie with those who have claimed that the agreement constitutes “a settlement of the doctrinal controversies”? We are waiting, open to conviction.

End Chapter 3 part 3