A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 3 part 5

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A different fellowship history?

To Confessional Lutheran writers and readers, the 1938 Union Resolutions, and the American Lutheran’s support for them, revealed a changed understanding of the practice of prayer fellowship. Conservatives sought to demonstrate that their position – prayer fellowship based on full agreement in doctrine – was the position Walther, Pieper, Bente, and other Missouri fathers had championed since their synod was founded.

Union proponents, however, questioned whether this prerequisite accurately reflected the spirit of Missouri’s fathers, and whether the requirement was rooted in the right understanding of Scripture. An August 1940, American Lutheran editorialist described an incident that occurred at a recent intersynodical conference, demonstrating the growing misgivings of some in the synod regarding prayer fellowship:

A truly great theologian read an exegetical paper on some passages of Scripture which were frequently adduced against praying with pastors of another synod. He proved to the satisfaction of a number that the passages did not apply. At this point a brother, whose sincerity we doubt not for a moment, arose and made the plea that if all passages from Holy Writ are taken from under our feet, we have nothing left on which we base our position on prayer-fellowship. It may not have been intended to sound as it did, but it seemed to argue that we have a position to maintain and therefore we must not admit that certain passages from God’s Word do not say what they must say if we are to maintain our position. Hereupon the fathers of the Missouri Synod were quoted, some rather recent fathers, and soon the discussion developed into an argument whether they said what was claimed. Next the statement was made that as good Lutherans we must base our position on the Holy Scriptures, that Lutherans always go back to the Bible. It was suggested that, for the time being and in this connection, we forget what the fathers said and endeavor to see clearly what the Scriptures say, for only if the words of the fathers are based upon the Scriptures can they have any value for Lutherans, and it is the duty of each generation to try and test the statements of the fathers in the light of the Bible.

A November 1941 American Lutheran writer regarded prayer fellowship as “the greatest single source of misunderstanding.” Some Missouri-American Lutheran Church conferences were opened with prayer, others not. American Lutheran Church members took the refusal of prayer fellowship as “an unwarranted insult carrying the implication that they are not Christians or that they are not earnestly desirous of the guidance of God the Holy Ghost in such conferences.” Missouri “must be absolutely sure” that it was “scripturally (and not traditionally) right” before denying the American Lutheran Church “that great privilege.”

In February 1943, an American Lutheran editor argued that limiting prayer fellowship to those in complete doctrinal agreement was not, in fact, the practice of Missouri’s earliest fathers. “A constantly growing number of men in our Synod with a ripe Christian knowledge and experience” were concluding they could no longer agree with the position “that a prayer spoken with another Christian with whom they are not in complete doctrinal accord is wrong.” These men, “after careful and earnest study,” also were coming to reject the argument that standing alongside a heterodox Christian who spoke a prayer or benediction “justifiably raises the presumption that by doing so one approves of heterodoxy or readily compromises with error.”

The article noted the apparent inconsistency of Missouri’s early fathers before prayer fellowship had become a divisive issue. Pastors were never disciplined for praying with a dying member of a non-Lutheran denomination, nor was a Lutheran wife ever disciplined for joining in table prayers with her Presbyterian husband. Believing many had “drifted from the early position of the fathers of our Synod,” the author felt compelled “to reaffirm and make known the position of our fathers.”

Their documentation came in August 1943. At Missouri’s free conferences in the 1850s and on three occasions in the 1860s, Walther and other Missouri leaders prayed with Lutherans who had not professed agreement with Missouri on certain doctrinal issues. The 1856 conference at Columbus, Ohio, was opened “by the pastor of the church with hymn, prayer, and confession of the Apostolic Creed.” Conference minutes recorded that participants recognized their sad doctrinal divisions, acknowledged their “sacred duty to do whatever we can by the grace of God that the breach be healed,” and came together “to humble ourselves jointly before the Lord” and “implore Him jointly for forgiveness.” Subsequent sessions of the conference “were opened with hymn and prayer” and “closed with prayer and Benediction.”

Similar references to opening and closing with prayer, hymn, and benediction were recorded at the free conferences at Pittsburgh in 1857 and Cleveland in 1858. The American Lutheran author pointed out that “though the line of demarcation between the synods of the participating members” was clearly drawn, “joint prayer was thought perfectly proper and self-evident.” No one, including Walther, felt it necessary to justify or explain the prayer fellowship practiced there.

Representatives from 13 Lutheran synods attended the preliminary meeting for the formulation of the General Council in 1866, among them men from the Missouri and Norwegian synods, a pastor from Albany “afterwards prominent in the Wisconsin Synod,” and Wisconsin’s Wilhelm Streissguth. The convention was opened with divine worship and closed with the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” and “prayer upon the knees.”

After a bitter controversy with Walther extending more than a quarter century, Buffalo Synod founder J. A. A. Grabau formally excommunicated all two hundred Missouri Synod congregations. Yet after representatives of the two synods met in November 1866, Walther himself reported in Der Lutheraner that each of the six days of the colloquy session opened with a hymn, the reading of Scripture, and prayer. The participants never arrived at complete doctrinal agreement, yet Walther and his Missouri colleagues evidently joined the Buffalo Synod men in prayer.

At Milwaukee in 1867, representatives of the Missouri and Iowa synods met at Trinity Church. Despite their bitter past relationship, the synods opened their discussions with joint prayer. Trinity’s pastor Fredrick Lochner conducted an opening liturgical service the first afternoon, and following sessions were all opened with the reading of a portion of Psalm 119.

footnote: Although the American Lutheran cited no references for this incident, it is described in a letter, C. F. W. Walther to F. Lochner, October 15, 1867. end footnote

Comparing these incidents of joint prayer among disagreeing Lutherans of a century before, the American Lutheran article concluded:

After years of friendly discussion of the doctrines for- merly had in controversy, various Lutheran groups in the United States have arrived at what seems to be a common level, it seems that a return to the custom of the fathers, namely, to jointly ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance in and blessing upon intersynodical doctrinal discus- sions, especially upon such as have the avowed purpose of arriving at doctrinal unity, should not be construed as a departure from the faith or the practices of the Missouri Synod.

end footnote: Theodore Graebner also insisted in 1948 in “The Burden of Infallibility,” that the conferences had changed “so radically” that there was “no resemblance between the meetings of our decade and those of the first decade of the century.” In the past, Ohio and Iowa “met with us to disseminate and defend their errors,” but the ALC “meet to gain an understanding of our position and to accept whatever the Word of God demands.” end footnote

In a follow-up article the next month, American Lutheran editors called themselves “the last persons in the world to base their theological opinions on the writings of the ‘fathers’” or to appeal “to policies and practices once current in the Lutheran Church.” But they felt it necessary to examine and discuss what the synodical fathers had done in Missouri’s early history because the present generation was being told that incorporating prayer in such contexts was “something shockingly new and decidedly un-Lutheran,” and they were being branded “‘neo-Missourians’ who have strayed from the old paths” who were “now leading others into dangerously unionistic practices.”

Since 1905, the Bente explanation—that prayer with erring Christians constituted a public confession of being in full agreement with their errors—had been “dinned in [their] ears.”

footnote: Arthur C. Repp, said simply that “the Synod’s former stand on prayer fellowship” had been “born about 1905.” end footnote

In actually examining the fathers, however, proponents for union found Walther declaring that “he could conceive of nothing more God-pleasing than that Lutherans should meet ‘with a hearty invocation of God’ to iron out their differences.”

footnote: An American Lutheran editor remembered that at the 1906 free conference at Fort Wayne, not only had the sessions been opened without prayer; but Synodical Conference participants formally objected even to allowing a moment for silent prayer. When the conference ended after “vehement altercations, sharp judgments, and veiled evidences of bitterness,” an aged attender “told us with tears in his eyes” that this was not the way to build God’s kingdom. Perplexed at what appeared to be the evolution of a new, more legalistic spirit regarding fellowship, a young pastor in the 1920s asked one of the “theological luminaries” of his time why this change was occurring. He received the answer, “We have been quietly making a few corrections in the theology of the fathers.” end footnote

Joint prayer and prayer fellowship

The ALC’s Sandusky resolution to accept the Brief Statement “viewed in the light of our Declaration” aroused the suspicion of many in Missouri and throughout the Synodical Conference. Union opponents flooded Missouri’s 1941 Fort Wayne convention with 52 memorials addressing the union proposal.

Yet for union proponents, a breakthrough came at that very convention in a floor discussion of the Committee on Lutheran Church Union. Already in 1935, regarding the Brux case, the floor committee of Missouri’s Cleveland convention was unable to declare that prayer fellowship necessarily constituted church fellowship. One committee member granted that although prayer fellowship generally involved church fellowship, there may be cases “where the question whether common prayer means fellowship belongs in the field of casuistry.” Following the 1941 convention, Otto Geiseman remarked that “the understanding and viewpoint of a very large number” of Missouri pastors had “changed appreciably” regarding prayer fellowship.

footnote: Geiseman added, however, that “failure frankly to acknowledge” this change, coupled with “an effort on the part of some to put through a resolution which might even have made it appear to be sinful to open Intersynodical Conferences with prayer” constituted for him “the low point of the convention.” end footnote

Additionally, on January 20, 1941, in what was hailed as a historic first, President Behnken attended the first All-Lutheran Conference in Columbus, Ohio. Though issuing a statement repeating Missouri’s opposition to unionism and voicing hesitancy about his very attendance at that meeting, Behnken committed Missouri to “coordinating” its efforts with other Lutheran bodies for relief and refugee assistance in Europe. More significantly, he “participated in prayer for the first time with Lutherans of every stripe.” By attending and by praying with other participants, Behnken “helped bring the issue [of prayer fellowship] to a head.”

footnote: Busch’s entire sentence reads: “The president of the Missouri Synod had participated in prayer for the first time with Lutherans of every stripe, and no lightning from heaven had struck” (emphasis added). George Schick, in his report was careful to distinguish that Missouri would coordinate its efforts with other Lutherans but would not cooperate with them. To the Wisconsin Synod this appeared to be a distinction without a difference. Its Quartalschrift condemned the conference, questioned its participants’ motives, and criticized Behnken for joining in prayer and pledging Missouri’s participation. “All of which fills us with deep concern. Is the Missouri Synod, the staunch champion of confessional Lutheranism in the past, really veering in its course?” Theodore Graebner criticized Wisconsin’s objection: “Keeping those exposed to starvation supplied with food and clothing bears no relation to confessionalism. If the Priest and the Levite had assisted the Samaritan in his act of mercy, that would not have been ‘unionism.’ ” end footnote

A memorial to Missouri’s 1944 convention called for clarification of the Prayer Fellowship Resolution passed in 1941. In response, and because of growing uncertainty whether Missourians were permitted to pray at intersynodical meetings convened to discuss doctrinal differences, the 1944 convention formally differentiated between joint prayer and prayer fellowship:

Joint prayer at intersynodical conferences, asking God for His guidance and blessing upon the deliberations and discussions of His Word, does not militate against the resolution of the Fort Wayne Convention, provided that such prayer does not imply denial of truth or support of error. Local conditions will determine the advisability of such prayer. Above all, the conscience of a brother must not be violated nor offense be given.

This distinction, reaffirmed at Missouri conventions in 1947 and 1953, remained unpopular among many Missouri members and pastors. Memorials to Missouri’s 1950 convention regarded the distinction as false. Aiming to restore synodical unanimity, pastoral conferences were requested to restudy the matter “in order that the issues may be clarified and the term ‘prayer fellowship’ be more accurately defined.”

A Statement of the 44

Missouri pastors throughout the United States were surprised, upon opening their mail in late September 1945, to find an unsolicited proclamation deploring traditionalism and legalism that purportedly had overtaken their synod.

While the Statement of the 44 appeared without warning, the concerns that occasioned it had been simmering for almost two decades. The gathering of pastors and professors in Chicago to formulate the Statement was actually the fifth such “round table” meeting; groups met previously in 1926, 1937, 1940, and 1941. At the 1937 meeting, also in Chicago, Theodore Graebner warned that the more “these yokes” were hung upon Missouri pastors, “the more we shall produce a reaction of liberalism and radicalism.” He was “as much against the 105% Missourian” as “the 95% Missourian.” Where the Bible had not spoken a decisive word “there must be utter freedom of expression and action.” In 1941, Graebner charged that Missouri’s synodical and pastoral practice was “verging towards a legalism which to a sound Lutheran is just as objectionable as doctrinal laxity.” Missouri’s traditionalism “was placing human authority above that of the Word of God,” made fellowship dependent on “acceptance of every terminological detail in ecclesiastical dogma,” treated the New Testament “as a code of laws” instead of a “body of saving doctrine,” and “paid lip service to the Sola Scriptura” while “actually operating with synodical resolutions.” Such traditionalism “throttled theological discussion” and “discouraged exegetical research, since the body of interpretation was (not in theory but in practice) regarded as fixed.”

footnote While Graebner cited legalistic causes in his own synod, he also blamed “the morbid attitude of our Norwegian brethren” for “infiltrating” Missouri minds, particularly in the Minnesota District. Graebner also attributed some Synodical Conference woes to the “doctrinal hardening of the arteries in the theologians of Wisconsin.” end footnote

Otto Geiseman, E. J. Friedrich, and O. P. Kretzmann arranged this fifth roundtable meeting for September 6–7, 1945, in Chicago. Forty-nine copies of the invitation letter were mailed to select Missouri pastors and professors who shared common concerns about the synod’s alleged legalism and traditionalism, a group also characterized as having an “Eastern spirit.”

footnote: Hannah noted that an “inordinate number of New Yorkers” were included among the 44. Among them were Oswald Hoffmann, later to become a preacher on the Lutheran Radio Hour, and Karl Kretzmann and sons A. R. and O. P. Kretzmann. end footnote

Friedrich’s invitation remarked that in recent years “a strange and pernicious spirit, utterly at variance with the fundamental concepts of the Gospel and the genius of the Lutheran Church,” was lifting “its ugly head.” That spirit came from “a wrong approach to the Holy Scriptures,” manifesting itself in “barren, negative attitudes, unevangelical techniques . . . , unsympathetic legalistic principles, a self-complacent and separatistic narrowness, and an utter disregard for the fundamental law of Christian love.” If not confronted, Friedrich predicted that spiritual life would be “blighted,” the church’s organism “paralyzed,” and “ecclesiastical persecution will occur with increasing frequency. . . .

During the past year this alarming phenomenon in our synodical life has been the topic of many discussions. In every case the conviction prevailed that it is our sacred obligation to do everything within our power to preserve our precious evangelical Lutheran heritage. But invariably the question arose, What can be done?

The first step was “a meeting of kindred minds to study the situation.

Forty-two clergymen and one layman assembled to hear and respond to four essays. The roster of the 44 was “not an assemblage of ‘young Turks’ or fire-breathing dragons,” but “theological professors, editors of church periodicals, New Testament scholars, concerned pastors.” Another recalled them as “earnest and dedicated men” who loved their church and in discussions were “constantly harking back to the teachings of the founding fathers, both of the Lutheran Church in the sixteenth century and of the Missouri Synod.” They came not to express their convictions as an academic exercise but “to stimulate the Missouri Synod to
re-examine its theological heritage, to reinvigorate its evangelical spirit, and to exert a restraining force upon the legalistic tendencies” they witnessed in their synod.

Out of discussion of the essays grew a set of 12 affirmative statements, 9 of which were followed by statements deploring a synodical attitude or practice. Statements 5, 8, 9, and 11 touched on fellowship:

FIVE: We affirm our conviction that sound exegetical procedure is the basis for sound Lutheran theology.

We therefore deplore the fact that Romans 16:17, and 18 has been applied to all Christians who differ from us in certain points of doctrine. It is our conviction, based on sound exegetical and hermeneutical principles, that this text does not apply to the present situation in the Lutheran Church in America.
We furthermore deplore the misuse of First Thessalonians 5:22 in the translation “avoid every appearance of evil.” This text should be used only in its true meaning, “avoid evil in every form.”

EIGHT: We affirm our conviction that any two or more Christians may pray together to the Triune God in the name of Jesus Christ if the purpose for which they meet and pray is right according to the Word of God. This obviously includes meetings of groups called for the purpose of discussing doctrinal differences.

We therefore deplore the tendency to decide the question of prayer fellowship on any other basis beyond the clear words of Scripture.

NINE: We believe that the term “unionism” should be applied only to acts in which a clear and unmistakable denial of Scriptural truth or approval of error is involved.

We therefore deplore the tendency to apply this non- Biblical term to any and every contact between Christians of different denominations.

ELEVEN: We affirm our conviction that in keeping with the historic Lutheran tradition and in harmony with the Synodical resolution adopted in 1938 regarding Church fellowship, such fellowship is possible without complete agreement in details of doctrine and practice which have never been considered divisive in the Lutheran Church.

Those associated with A Statement considered it a memorable and important effort. An atmosphere of “fraternal good will and mutual understanding” prevailed at the meeting, which led to the production of a document demonstrating a “warm, evangelical spirit” and a “deep concern for the well-being” of their church and synod. One attendee said he had “never been as sure of anything” as of attaching his name to the document. Another participant hoped A Statement would result in “study, discussion, and self-examination” not only for Missouri but for “earnest Christians in other church bodies.”

But Behnken feared that A Statement “would spell trouble with a capital T.” It was mailed to all pastors of the Missouri Synod despite his and the synod’s vice presidents’ vigorous protests. Though he was assured that dissemination of A Statement would serve the synod’s welfare and “provide an antidote” to the “ultracritical approach” of the Confessional Lutheran and others, Behnken wondered:

Why, I have asked myself a hundred times, why did they not talk their differences over in a spirit of brotherly love? Both sides spoke glowingly of their love of truth and the need to speak the truth in love—why then did they not “speak to” rather than direct printed barrages “against” each other? As it was, a pro-and-anti-charged atmosphere quickly developed, and a rather bitter controversy resulted.

Negative reaction came swiftly. Illinois pastor A. T. Kretzmann was “distinctly shocked” that any group would take such “unbrotherly” action of labeling a “pernicious spirit” in the synod while failing “to reveal the identity of the men who supposedly have shown this anti-Christian spirit” or “to give proof so that these men might defend themselves.” Kretzmann could not remember a time when “men of such high standing in Synod have so utterly disregarded the law of Christian love in dealing with offenses allegedly committed by brethren in the faith.” Milwaukee pastor Martin Stransen urged A Statement’s signers “to repent, to withdraw from [their] unscriptural position,” and to return to the faith.

The Northern Illinois District, which included Concordia College, River Forest, and Chicago area congregations, powerfully opposed A Statement. District president Ernest T. Lams deplored “more than words can express” that Theodore Graebner had allied himself “with the Liberals.” Lams warned the signers that they could soon expect “an almighty reaction” and charged that they had “de facto severed their fellowship with the Synod.” A motion to the district’s pastoral conference calling for discipline of its four members who signed A Statement was eventually tabled by a vote of 55 to 35.

The faculty of Concordia Seminary, Springfield, Illinois, also responded, charging the signers of A Statement with approving selective fellowship, “which ignores the brethren in your own Synod,” and accepting prayer fellowship between bodies not agreed in doctrine. Springfield’s faculty directed its concluding paragraph chiefly against signers of A Statement from Concordia, St. Louis: “What a pity that leaders in our church are strengthening the laity and the young in our Synod in this trend instead of restraining them from following the ruinous inclination of their old Adam!”

A detailed objection to A Statement came from E. W. A. Koehler of Concordia College, River Forest. Koehler did not object “to calling attention to the ever-present danger of doing one or another of the things mentioned in the Statement” or “to making specific charges against any brother guilty of doing such things,” but he resented such charges being made “publicly and indiscriminately against an unnamed group of our pastors without proof and evidence.” Noting that point 5 of A Statement was virtually identical to Adolph Brux’s interpretation of Romans 16:17, Koehler offered extensive argumentation supporting Missouri’s traditional view that the passage excludes fellowship with all heterodox teachers. Regarding point 9, Koehler insisted, “We do not apply the word ‘unionism’ to any and every contact between Christians of different denominations,” nor did Missouri conservatives regard “everybody outside of our church who holds to erroneous doctrines to be a manifestly impenitent sinner.” When all efforts to convince an errorist fail, however, “we must part company and avoid him and reject him.”

In February 1946, President Behnken called a plenary meeting of Missouri’s district presidents and the 44. In preparation for this meeting, the 44 drafted 12 papers, 1 on each of A Statement’s theses, subsequently published as Speaking the Truth in Love. Only 2 of the 12 papers were presented, provoking lengthy and emotional debates. It was decided that the issues raised in A Statement be examined by a joint committee composed of ten of the signers and ten appointed by Behnken to represent “the other side.” The meetings of this “Ten and Ten” group did not reach a satisfactory solution, and Behnken later remarked, “If I had to do it over again, I would never accept such an assignment.”

Early in 1947, the signers agreed to “withdraw A Statement as a basis for further discussion.” In a letter to all Missouri Synod pastors on January 18, 1947, Behnken explained that withdrawal “shall not be interpreted as a retraction,” nor would it mean “the issues involved shall now be glossed over or ignored,” but that they would become the topics of study and prayer. Missouri pastors “were given some very excellent and meaty material” to study the issues of A Statement, which “should have sent them deeply into the Scriptures and evoked many a profitable discussion.”

The decision to withdraw A Statement pleased neither side. “As long as the ‘Statement’ stands,” Koehler wrote, “it will continue to be a barrier between the Signers and the rest of us,” an “iniquitous leaven” that would continue to work. A correspondent to the Lutheran Witness argued that A Statement “cannot be withdrawn as a basis for discussion.” Pastors who refused to speak out “would be as dumb dogs unable to bark.” By contrast, Coates thought the 44 made a “strategic mistake” by withdrawing A Statement. Although the content of the statement was not retracted, the signers emerged “unscathed, still members in good standing of the Missouri Synod.” Coates considered the entire effort “just a bit too Machiavellian.”

End Chapter 3 part 5